The word ‘Ibadah’ or ‘ubudiyyah’ in Arabic includes two things. If I translate them as one of those two things, it’s incomplete because English is limited as opposed to classical Arabic.
Classical Arabic combines many concepts at the same time, so if we just look at a partial meaning of the concept, there’s confusion left in the mind. The two terms that comprehensively cover all aspects of ‘Ibadah’ or ‘Ubudiyyah’ are two things: worship and slavery.
“I do not worship what you worship.” (Quran 109)
So Prophet Muhammad doesn’t just mean, “I will not worship”, but also, “I will not be enslaved to, I will not become a slave of.”
Worship and Slavery
Very briefly I’ll remind you of the difference between worship and slavery. When Maghrib prayer comes up, we worship Allah, when Isha comes up, we worship Allah; but in between the prayers, we are slaves of Allah.
When you’re sleeping you are not worshipping, but you are still a slave. When you wake up, when you’re driving to work… Even if you’re not reciting Quran or you’re not doing an act of worship, but you are still a slave.
In other words, worship is specific acts. The act of fasting, the act of praying, the act of making Hajj, the act of reciting Quran, the act of giving Sadaqah… These are acts of worship. But a slave is a slave all the time – whether he does those acts or not.
This concept is very powerful. It means we are to live according to how Allah wants us to live, not just in Jummuah during the Khutbah, and when the Salah is going on, we are enslaved to Allah in between the prayers too.
“Be guardians of your prayers, and of the midmost prayer, and stand up with devotion to Allah.” (2:238)
Some commentaries say it’s between the prayers to be connected to Allah too.
You know what happens a lot of times? People worship Allah, but they still don’t act like His slave. Somebody owns a liquor store! He comes to the prayer for five times, he worships Allah, but he’s clearly not acting like a slave. He is not obeying Allah.
And sometimes because we have these partial English definitions, we think to ourselves, ‘At least I worship Him, so my job is done.’
No! You worshipped him, but you are still not a slave of Allah. Worship is one part, slavery is the other – Ibadah includes both.
Now the Arabs, they had two problems:
1- They refused to worship Allah.
2- They refused to be Allah’s slaves.
When they refuse to bow down only to Allah and get rid of all the idols, that’s a problem of worship. But when they refuse to give the orphan, when they refuse to not kill the baby girls, when they refuse to not feed the poor, when they refuse to not give justice, when they refuse to kill without having right to do so, when they abuse the slave… They’re refusing to act like Allah’s slaves.
Being Allah’s slave includes you worship Him and you act like a slave. Two things. So the verse means:
I will not be enslaved to and I will not worship what you have been worshipping.
Now we have to understand, in this verse, the messenger is being told to talk about what they worship and what they are slaves of. They are worshippers of idols (false gods), and they are slaves of their own desires.
And the messenger says, “I refuse to worship your idols, and I refuse to be enslaved to my own desires.”
The disbelievers say, he’s been rejecting our religion for a decade, let’s give him a compromise. They said, “we’re willing to accept your religion for a year and you accept our religion the next year!”
Prophet Muhammad said, “don’t have your hopes up. I refuse to be enslaved to whatever you worship and you are enslaved to.