The metaphors that the Qur’an uses for shirk (idolatry) will often stand out for me, so that after I read a sura, the one verse that mentions idolatry stays hanging in my mind. This was my experience with reading Surat al-Ra’d (The Thunder): the verse there reads:
To Him is the call of truth; and those upon whom they call, apart from Him, answer them nothing, but it is as a man who stretches out his hands to water that it may reach his mouth, and it reaches it not. The prayer of the unbelievers goes only astray. (Verse 14, Arberry translation)
It has happened to me again with Surat al-Hajj (The Pilgrimage). This is the verse:
Whoever associates anything with God—it is as though he has fallen from the sky, and is snatched by the birds, or is swept away by the wind to a distant abyss. (Verse 31, Itani translation)
My first hypothesis about this kind of verse, is that it referred to an utter lack of consequence: an inability to make any difference to anything, because of hoping for the wrong things—things that in themselves are illusions. Let us say, for example, an image of domestic bliss in Better Homes and Gardens. The person working towards such a goal, at the end of their life, would find nothing, because what they worked for does not exist in the way they imagined. In that sense, their hard work is seen to have amounted to nothing. (I think of Surat Ibrahim here: “The likeness of those who disbelieve in their Lord: their works are as ashes, whereon the wind blows strong upon a tempestuous day; they have no power over that they have earned – that is the far error!” (Verse 18, Arberry translation)).
Surat al-Hajj presents me with another metaphor that I like, that of the earth joyfully breaking into green. Verse 5 makes an explicit link to resurrection: such breaking forth into green is a proof that God can resurrect our bodies. But the idea of green breaking out is repeated again in verse 63, so that the idea of green “hangs over” the whole sura. Perhaps the metaphors of green and of shirk are related?
What is arresting about the green verses is their joy: to make an argument for resurrection, there is no need to describe the green as “joyous” (Verse 5, Arberry translation).
Therefore my second hypothesis about shirk: it is the opposite of joy. Perhaps falling in the sky or into an abyss (verse 31) represents a disconnection from everything.
A strong connection to everything would be something like this: you are happy that the grass can grow again, because the force that runs through the grass is something that runs through you too. To grow again, or to have hope, is to realize that underneath the rubble of false hopes, is a simple and honest breath of God. Something given to you, that you are not responsible for creating, but that comes again and again by itself, like the grass after rain.