Shirk is to direct the names, attributes or functions of Allah (swt) towards anyone or anything other than Him. It is completely wrong to translate or understand shirk to mean “idol worship”, as a person does not necessarily need to worship an idol to become a Mushrik (a disbeliever who associates partners with Allah). Likewise, it is also wrong to say that shirk only means to attribute a son or friend to Allah; this is partly correct but not completely.
As just explained, shirk is to associate someone or something with Allah (swt). For example, Allah is al-Hakam (the Only Legislator); anyone who takes this exclusive name of Allah (swt) and attributes it to someone other than Him is committing shirk, and will hence become a Mushrik (disbeliever).Likewise, Allah is al-Khaaliq (the Only Creator). Any person who attributes this name to someone other than Allah (i.e. by believing that so-and-so also has the power of creation), will become a Mushrik.
This proves the fact that you do not need to believe that Jesus is the son of God (na’oodhubillah) or bow down to an idol to become a Kaafir. You can also become Kaafir just by sitting in one place and doubting Allah or believing that man has the right to make laws.
The type of shirk that most people commit nowadays is Shirk ul-Uloohiyyah. Tawheed ul-Uloohiyyah is the absolute right of Allah (swt) to be worshipped, elevated, obeyed, and for all ritual acts to be offered for His sake alone. All ritual acts should not be offered to anybody but Allah, such as Salaah, Du’aa (supplication), at-Tahaakum (arbitration), slaughtering and fasting etc.
Therefore, for a person to commit Shirk ul-Uloohiyyah it does not mean that he disbelieves in Allah (i.e. in His existence). Rather it occurs when a person offers ritual acts to Allah and/or somebody else. For example, a person obeys Allah and the British kufr law, or prays to Allah and Krishna etc. This type of Tawheed (Uloohiyyah) requires the believer to exclusively worship Allah and offer none of his ritual acts to anyone other than Him. Allah (swt) says:
“O you who believe (Muslims)! Do not take the Jews and the Christians (the non-Muslims) as Awliyaa’ (friends, allies, supporters etc.)…” (EMQ al-Maa‘idah, 5:51)
This verse is an example of Tawheed ul-Uloohiyyah as Allah (swt) forbids us to take the disbelievers as Awliyaa’ (friends, supporters, allies etc.). In other words, it is a verse commanding obedience to Him, and to not ally with the disbelievers. Anybody who obeys Allah and something or somebody else is committing Shirk ul-Uloohiyyah (or Shirk ut-Taa’ah – shirk of obedience).
Tawheed ur-Ruboobiyyah on the other hand, is to believe in the Lordship of Allah. This means that you believe in all His names and attributes, such as He is the Creator, the Provider, and the Most-Gracious etc. Verses in the Qur’aan that speak about the Lordship, attributes or functions of Allah (swt) are verses of Tawheed ur-Ruboobiyyah. Hence, those who commit Shirk ur-Ruboobiyyah are people who do not believe in or accept Allah’s Lordship, names and attributes.
However, even the Kuffaar usually believe in Allah, that He is the Creator, the Provider and the Judge etc. Allah (swt) says:
“And if you ask them: ‘Who has created the heavens and the earth?’ They will certainly say: ‘Allah.’” (EMQ Luqmaan, 31:25)
If the Mushrikeen believed in Allah and His Ruboobiyyah, why were they still deemed Mushrikeen? It was because they did not offer their ritual acts and obedience exclusively to Allah (i.e. they lacked Tawheed ul-Uloohiyyah). Therefore, most people become Mushrik by committing Shirk ul-Uloohiyyah. Allah (swt) says in His Book:
“All praise belongs to Allah, Lord of the mankind.” (EMQ al-Faatihah, 1:1)
This verse is an example of Tawheed ur-Ruboobiyyah as Allah speaks about His attribute of being ar-Rabb (the Lord).
To conclude, it is vital for us to understand that shirk is not only just to say: “Jesus is the son of God”. Rather it also involves directing any of Allah’s attributes, names or functions to anyone or anything other than Him. Examples or manifestations of shirk are: Joining the parliament (as it involved legislating, which is an exclusive function of Allah), following your desires (obeying and worshipping yourself), arbitrating (to solve a dispute) to anybody other than Almighty Allah, and so on.