The origin and root of shirk (polytheism) is because of the veneration of pious men. That is established by several authentic narrations. Why is it that you say otherwise?
The narrations that are often alluded to when making this argument are a) not authentic, and b) not derived from revelation (waḥy). The weight of overall evidence does not support the proposition you make. Neither does this assertion consider the body of evidence as a whole, namely the authentic narrations and verses in the Qur’ān.
To begin, there are two narrations which are cited as being ‘foundational evidence’ to try and argue that the origin of polytheism (shirk) – within pre-Islamic Arabia or elsewhere – is because of the veneration of pious men. The first is recorded in Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhāri:
حدثنا مسلم بن إبراهیم حدثنا أبو الاٴشهب حدثنا أبو الجوزاء عن ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما في قوله اللات والعزی ڪان اللات رجلا یلت سویق الحاج
Muslim ibn Ibrāhim narrated to us Abu’l-Ashab narrated to us Abu’l Jawza narrated to us from Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him) – regarding His Statement about the Lāt and the ‘Uzza – Lāt was originally a man who used to mix (prepare) Saweeq for the pilgrims.
Without dwelling upon the isnād and the fact that it can reasonably be argued that it is not actually properly connected to Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him), a number of fundamental points can be established just from the actual text of the narrative itself. First and foremost, it is not connected to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Ibn ‘Abbās is not reporting a statement or a saying from the final messenger. Therefore it cannot be said that it is revelation or that it should be taken as such. Secondly, the text of the reported narrative is in direct conflict with another narration, this time fully connected and reported in Bukhāri. For the sake of brevity, only the relevant portion of the narration is cited due to its considerable length:
حدثني عبد الله بن محمد حدثنا عبد الرزاق أخبرنا معمر قال أخبرني الزهري قال أخبرني عروة بن الزبیر عن المسور بن مخرمة ومروان یصدق ڪل واحد منهما حدیث صاحبه قالا…فقال عروة عند ذلڪ أي محمد أرأیت إن استأصلت أمر قومڪ هل سمعت بأحد من العرب اجتاح أهله قبلڪ وإن تڪن الاٴخری فإني والله لاٴری وجوها وإني لاٴری أوشابا من الناس خلیقا أن یفروا ویدعوڪ فقال له أبو بڪر الصدیق امصص ببظر اللات أنحن نفر عنه وندعه فقال من ذا قالوا أبو بڪر قال أما والذي نفسي بیده لولا ید ڪانت لڪ عندي لم أجزڪ بها لاٴجبتڪ.
Abdallah ibn Muḥammad narrated to me Abdar-Razzāq narrated to us Ma’mar reported to us he said az-Zuhri reported to me he said ‘Urwa bin az-Zubayr reported to me from Marwarn and al-Miswar ibn Makhrama whose narrations attest one another, they said….
….Then ‘Urwa said: O Muḥammad! Won’t you feel any scruple in extirpating your relations? Have you ever heard of anyone amongst the Arabs extirpating his relatives before you? On the other hand, if the reverse should happen, (nobody will aid you, for) by Allah, I do not see (with you) dignified people, but people from various tribes who would run away leaving you alone. Hearing that, Abu Bakr said – Suck al-Lāt’s clitoris, do you say we would run and leave the Prophet (peace be upon him) alone? ‘Urwa said: Who is that man? They said – He is Abu Bakr. ‘Urwa said to Abu Bakr – By Him in Whose Hands my life is, were it not for the favour which you did to me and which I did not compensate, I would retort on you.
If al–Lāt was supposed to be a man who prepared Saweeq for pilgrims in antiquity, why did Abu Bakr say to U’rwa to ‘suck al-Lāt’s clitoris’? More significantly, Abu Bakr has said this in the presence of the Qurayshi emissaries and what would appear to be many other companions and none other than the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself. Yet there is no mention, either in this narrative or any other, where Abu Bakr was rebuked, a) for what he said or b) its accuracy. Surely given the high political stakes during these negotiations, Abu Bakr would have been ridiculed by the Quraysh and the other tribes for referring to al–Lāt as female and not as a man.
Thirdly and perhaps most compelling, is the fact that the narrative in Bukhāri regarding al–Lāt is at odds with a large number of Qur’ānic verses. No one in the history of Islam has claimed that a narrative such as this can outweigh or override explicit verses in the holy Qur’ān. Explicit mention of al–Lāt is made in the Qur’ān in Surah Najm (verses 19/22), where Allah has said:
أَفَرَأَيْتُمُ اللَّاتَ وَالْعُزَّىٰ، وَمَنَاةَ الثَّالِثَةَ الْأُخْرَىٰ، أَلَكُمُ الذَّكَرُ وَلَهُ الْأُنثَىٰ، تِلْكَ إِذًا قِسْمَةٌ ضِيزَىٰ
Have you then considered al-Lāt and al-‘Uzza, and Manat, the third, the last? What! For you the males and for him the females; indeed this is an unjust division!
Again, if the narrative regarding al–Lāt is correct and it is a man, why is Allah referring to it as well as al-‘Uzza and Manat as being female? It is not necessary to set out here that the pagan Arabs would bury their female daughters alive as they preferred sons. The verse challenges them implicitly on this, since they are attributing these imagined ‘female’ deities to Allah. Other Qur’ānic verses provide further clarification as to the ‘gender’ of these idols which are mentioned as well as the specific belief that the pagan Arabs had about them. In the same Surah (verses 26/27) we read:
وَكَم مِّن مَّلَكٍ فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ لَا تُغْنِي شَفَاعَتُهُمْ شَيْئًا إِلَّا مِن بَعْدِ أَن يَأْذَنَ اللَّهُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ وَيَرْضَىٰ، إِنَّ الَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْآخِرَةِ لَيُسَمُّونَ الْمَلَائِكَةَ تَسْمِيَةَ الْأُنثَىٰ
And how many an angel is there in the heavens whose intercession does not avail at all except after Allah has given permission to whom He pleases and chooses. Most surely they who do not believe in the hereafter name the angels with female names.
In the verses set out below (6: 100/101), the wider context of this belief which the pagan Arabs had can be better understood. These verses should be read in context with the verses mentioned thus far:
وَجَعَلُوا لِلَّهِ شُرَكَاءَ الْجِنَّ وَخَلَقَهُمْ وَخَرَقُوا لَهُ بَنِينَ وَبَنَاتٍ بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَىٰ عَمَّا يَصِفُونَ، بَدِيعُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لَهُ وَلَدٌ وَلَمْ تَكُن لَّهُ صَاحِبَةٌ وَخَلَقَ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
And they make the jinn associates with Allah, while He created them, and they falsely attribute to Him sons and daughters without knowledge; glory be to Him, and highly exalted is He above what they ascribe (to Him). Wonderful Originator of the heavens and the earth! How could He have a son when He has no consort, and He (Himself) created everything, and He is the Knower of all things?
وَيَجْعَلُونَ لِلَّهِ الْبَنَاتِ سُبْحَانَهُ وَلَهُم مَّا يَشْتَهُونَ، وَإِذَا بُشِّرَ أَحَدُهُم بِالْأُنثَىٰ ظَلَّ وَجْهُهُ مُسْوَدًّا وَهُوَ كَظِيمٌ
And they ascribe daughters to Allah, glory be to Him; and for themselves (they would have) what they desire. And when a daughter is announced to one of them his face becomes black and he is full of wrath [16: 57/58]
ذَٰلِكَ مِمَّا أَوْحَىٰ إِلَيْكَ رَبُّكَ مِنَ الْحِكْمَةِ وَلَا تَجْعَلْ مَعَ اللَّهِ إِلَٰهًا آخَرَ فَتُلْقَىٰ فِي جَهَنَّمَ مَلُومًا مَّدْحُورًا، أَفَأَصْفَاكُمْ رَبُّكُم بِالْبَنِينَ وَاتَّخَذَ مِنَ الْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنَاثًا إِنَّكُمْ لَتَقُولُونَ قَوْلًا عَظِيمًا
قُل لَّوْ كَانَ مَعَهُ آلِهَةٌ كَمَا يَقُولُونَ إِذًا لَّابْتَغَوْا إِلَىٰ ذِي الْعَرْشِ سَبِيلًا
This is of what your Lord has revealed to you of wisdom, and do not associate any other god with Allah lest you should be thrown into hell, blamed, cast away. What! Has then your Lord preferred to give you sons, and (for Himself) taken daughters from among the angels? Most surely you utter a grievous saying. Say: If there were with Him gods as they say, then certainly they would have been able to seek a way to the Lord of power. [17: 39/40, 42]
فَاسْتَفْتِهِمْ أَلِرَبِّكَ الْبَنَاتُ وَلَهُمُ الْبَنُونَ، أَمْ خَلَقْنَا الْمَلَائِكَةَ إِنَاثًا وَهُمْ شَاهِدُونَ، أَلَا إِنَّهُم مِّنْ إِفْكِهِمْ لَيَقُولُونَ، وَلَدَ اللَّهُ وَإِنَّهُمْ لَكَاذِبُونَ، أَصْطَفَى الْبَنَاتِ عَلَى الْبَنِينَ، مَا لَكُمْ كَيْفَ تَحْكُمُونَ، أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ، أَمْ لَكُمْ سُلْطَانٌ مُّبِينٌ
Then ask them whether your Lord has daughters and they have sons; Or did We create the angels females while they were witnesses? Now surely it is of their own lie that they say: Allah has begotten; and most surely they are liars. Has He chosen daughters in preference to sons? What is the matter with you, how is it that you judge? And they assert a relationship between Him and the jinn; and certainly the jinn do know that they shall surely be brought up. Glory be to Allah (for freedom) from what they describe [37: 149/156]
إِن يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَّا إِنَاثًا وَإِن يَدْعُونَ إِلَّا شَيْطَانًا مَّرِيدًا
They do not call besides Him on anything but idols, and they do not call on anything but a rebellious Shayṭān. [4: 117]
Without even marshalling the other extensive evidences from archaeology, pre-history and the civilisations of Iraq, Syria and Egypt, we can have full certainty in what Allah has set out in these verses about the beliefs of the pagan Arabs and the reality of these idols. The second narration, also cited in Bukhāri, is alleged to specifically show the relationship between the veneration of pious men and idolatry.
حدثنا إبراهیم بن موسی أخبرنا هشام عن ابن جریج وقال عطاء عن ابن عباس رضي الله عنهما صارت الاٴوثان التي ڪانت في قوم نوح في العرب بعد أما ود ڪانت لڪلب بدومة الجندل وأما سواع ڪانت لهذیل وأما یغوث فڪانت لمراد ثم لبني غطیف بالجوف عند سبإ وأما یعوق فڪانت لهمدان وأما نسر فڪانت لحمیر لاۤل ذي الڪلاع أسماء رجال صالحین من قوم نوح فلما هلڪوا أوحی الشیطان إلی قومهم أن انصبوا إلی مجالسهم التي ڪانوا یجلسون أنصابا وسموها بأسماٸهم ففعلوا فلم تعبد حتی إذا هلڪ أولٔڪ وتنسخ العلم عبدت
Ibrāhim ibn Musa narrated to us Hishām reported to us from Ibn Jurayj and he said ‘Aṭā from Ibn ‘Abbās (may Allah be pleased with him): All the idols which were worshipped by the people of Nuḥ (Noah) were worshipped by the Arabs later on. As for the idol Wadd, it was worshipped by the tribe of Kalb at Daumat-al Jandal; Suwā’ was the idol of (the tribe of) Murad and then by Ban, Ghuṭaif at Al-Jurf near Saba; Ya’ooq was the idol of Hamdān, and Nasr was the idol of Ḥimyr, the branch of Dhi-al-Kala.’ The names (of the idols) formerly belonged to some pious men of the people of Nuḥ and when they died Shayṭān inspired their people to prepare and place idols at the places where they used to sit, and to call those idols by their names. The people did so, but the idols were not worshipped till those people (who initiated them) had died and the origin of the idols had become obscure, whereupon people began worshipping them.
There are many points of contention in relation to the narrative. Firstly, as with the previous one in relation to al-Lāt, it is not Prophetic; Ibn ‘Abbās does not say that the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said this. Consequently, it cannot be taken or viewed as being revelation. This is very important given that it is purporting to show something from pre-history, which cannot be established by a narrative chain of transmission. Secondly, there is dispute in relation to the identity of ‘Aṭā in the isnād. Some have contended this is ‘Aṭā ibn Abi Ra’bah, who is a well-known narrator from Ibn ‘Abbās and is trustworthy. We would argue that it is not this ‘Aṭā who is reporting, but rather, ‘Aṭā al-Khurāsāni. Narrations where ‘Aṭā al-Khurasāni reports from Ibn A’bbās are not regarded as being sound as there is an issue as to whether this ‘Aṭā actually met and / or took narrations from Ibn ‘Abbās in relation to Tafsir. Although it is quite a lengthy and detailed discussion, suffice is it to present a single narrative as cited in the Tafsir of Abdar-Razzāq, which identifies the ‘Aṭā as being ‘Aṭā al-Khurāsāni:
ثم أضاف عبد الرزاق بعد ذلك فوراً: [عَنِ ابْنِ جُرَيْجٍ، عَنْ عَطَاءٍ الْخُرَاسَانِيِّ، عَنِ ابْنِ عَبَّاسٍ، مِثْلَهُ إِلَّا أَنَّهُ قَالَ: «صَارَتِ الْأَوْثَانُ الَّتِي كَانَتْ فِي قَوْمِ نُوحٍ فِي الْعَرَبِ» ثُمَّ ذَكَرَ مِثْلَ حَدِيثِ قَتَادَةَ
When comparing the narration of the idols at the time of Nuḥ (peace be upon him) with the Qur’ānic text, again there is a striking disparity. The narration says:
أسماء رجال صالحین من قوم نوح فلما هلڪوا أوحی الشیطان إلی قومهم أن انصبوا إلی مجالسهم التي ڪانوا یجلسون أنصابا وسموها بأسماٸهم ففعلوا فلم تعبد حتی إذا هلڪ أولٔڪ وتنسخ العلم عبدت
The names (of the idols) formerly belonged to some pious men of the people of Nuḥ and when they died Shayṭān inspired their people to prepare and place idols at the places where they used to sit, and to call those idols by their names. The people did so, but the idols were not worshipped till those people (who initiated them) had died and the origin of the idols had become obscure, whereupon people began worshipping them.
But this is not what the text of the Qur’ān has. Rather, it shows that the idols that are mentioned are already in existence at the time of Nuḥ (peace be upon him) and are regarded as deities. Only a short excerpt is presented here for brevity [71: 1/2, 5/7, 23], but it is instructive to read the entire Surah:
إِنَّا أَرْسَلْنَا نُوحًا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ أَنْ أَنذِرْ قَوْمَكَ مِن قَبْلِ أَن يَأْتِيَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ، قَالَ يَا قَوْمِ إِنِّي لَكُمْ نَذِيرٌ مُّبِينٌ
Surely We sent Nuḥ to his people, saying: Warn your people before there come upon them a painful chastisement. He said: O my people! Surely I am a plain warner to you
قَالَ رَبِّ إِنِّي دَعَوْتُ قَوْمِي لَيْلًا وَنَهَارًا، فَلَمْ يَزِدْهُمْ دُعَائِي إِلَّا فِرَارًا، وَإِنِّي كُلَّمَا دَعَوْتُهُمْ لِتَغْفِرَ لَهُمْ جَعَلُوا أَصَابِعَهُمْ فِي آذَانِهِمْ وَاسْتَغْشَوْا ثِيَابَهُمْ وَأَصَرُّوا وَاسْتَكْبَرُوا اسْتِكْبَارًا
وَقَالُوا لَا تَذَرُنَّ آلِهَتَكُمْ وَلَا تَذَرُنَّ وَدًّا وَلَا سُوَاعًا وَلَا يَغُوثَ وَيَعُوقَ وَنَسْرًا
He said: O my Lord! Surely I have called my people by night and by day! But my call has only made them flee the more. And whenever I have called them that you may forgive them, they put their fingers in their ears, cover themselves with their garments, and persist and are puffed up with pride. And they say: By no means leave your gods, nor leave Wadd, nor Suwa; nor Yaghus, and Yauq and Nasr.
And all success is with Allah and unto him is the highest attainment.