The whole religion of Islam (beliefs, Sharia, and acts of worship) aims at achieving humans’ total submission to the divine will and injunctions so as to enjoy their life in this world and the Hereafter.
Thus, Islam uprooted all forms of paganism and idol-worship providing every rational proof for their falsehood and leaving no room for an excuse. The Islamic rites of worship include physical performances which are required from Muslims as manifestations of their obedience and submission to their Lord. This is the essence of these rites and therefore, they can never be compared with the rites and ceremonies of idol-worship.
Addressing this issue in more detail, Sheikh Muhammad Salih al Munajjid, a prominent Saudi scholar, said:
First of all, it is essential to define the essence of the message to which Islamic Sharia calls, and how it differs from the idolatry of Jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic ignorance). Then, we will be able to understand whether Tawaf around the Ka`bah is a manifestation of idolatry or of tawheed (belief in the oneness of Allah) and Islam.
If we refer to the Book of Almighty Allah, we will see that the essence of the Islamic religion is submission to the commands of Allah and taking Him as our only Lord and God, and rejecting all others who are wrongfully worshipped.
Almighty Allah says: (But no, by your Lord, they cannot become true believers , until they your arbitrationu (O Muhammad) in all disputes between them, and find in themselves no resistance against your decisions, and accept (them) with full submission.) (An-Nisaa’ 4:65)
(And whosoever submits his face (himself) to Allah, while he excels in doing good, then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold. And to Allah return all matters for decision) (Luqman 31:22)
(And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith (Islamic Monotheism) to your Lord and submit to Him (in Islam) before the torment comes upon you, (and) then you will not be helped.) (Az-Zumar 39:54)
Idol-worship, however, means submitting to something other than Almighty Allah, and seeking nearness to something other than Him, be it a rock, an idol or a saint, as a weak and humble slave filled with hope and fear. In Islam, these things can only be for Almighty Allah.
Almighty Allah says: (They (Jews and Christians) took their rabbis and their monks to be their lords besides Allah (by obeying them in things which they made lawful or unlawful according to their own desires without being ordered by Allah), and (they also took as their Lord) Messiah, son of Maryam (Mary), while they (Jews and Christians) were commanded [in the Torah and the Gospel] to worship none but One God — none has the right to be worshipped but He. Praise and glory be to Him (far above is He) from having the partners they associate (with Him)) (At-Tawbah 9:31)
(It will be said): This is because, when Allah Alone was invoked (in worship) you disbelieved, but when partners were joined to Him, you believed! So the judgment is only with Allah, the Most High, the Most Great!) (Ghafir 40:12)
Once this is established, we will be able to differentiate between the Muslim who affirms the Oneness of Allah and the idolatrous mushrik, in matters which may appear outwardly to be similar. For example:
The Muslim who affirms the Oneness of Allah loves the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him); venerates him, respects him, sacrifices himself and his wealth to support him and obeys his commands, and all that is obedience to the command of Almighty Allah in the verse: (So those who believe in him (Muhammad), honor him, help him, and follow the light (the Qur’an) which has been sent down with him, it is they who will be successful) (Al-A`raf 7:157).
As for the idolatrous mushrik, you see him coming to the grave of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), asking him to meet his needs and seeking his aid to relieve his worries, and calling upon him with utter humility, regarding him as something divine. He may believe that in his hand are the stores of the heavens and the earth, and that al-Lawh al-Mahfuz (the Heavenly preserved Writ) is part of his knowledge, and other things that are said or believed by those who are ignorant. In this case the mushrik is not following the command of Almighty Allah and he is not submitting himself to Him; rather, he is submitting to something other than Allah and obeying Satan in that.
Another example: The Muslim who affirms the Oneness of Allah obeys the commands of Almighty Allah in submission to His greatness. If He were to command him to prostrate to a human being, or to venerate a human being or a rock, then he would obey that as an act of worship to Almighty Allah and in submission to His command and wisdom, as the angels did when Allah commanded them to prostrate to Adam (peace be upon him), and they prostrated.
The idolatrous mushrik prostrates to a human being or a rock out of respect for the person or rock itself, and in submission to the power to benefit or harm that he imagines they possess; turning to them with hope and fear and humility. In doing so he is not paying any attention to the command of Allah, or to His rulings; rather, he is directing his submission and worship to something other than Almighty Allah on the basis of his own whims and desires.
Hence, Shaikh al-Islam bn Taymiyyah (may Allah have mercy on him) said: As for submission, devotion of the heart and acknowledgement of divinity and Lordship, these can only be directed towards Allah alone, and if directed towards anyone or anything else they are utterly false. Prostration is connected to the commands of Allah, because Allah has commanded us to prostrate to Him, and if He had commanded us to prostrate to any of His creation other than Him, we would have prostrated to that one in obedience to Allah if He wanted us to venerate the one to whom we were prostrating. As He has not commanded us to prostrate, then we should not do it at all. The prostration of the angels to Adam was an act of worship to Allah, obedience to Him and a means of drawing closer to Him, and it was a way of honoring and respecting Adam. And, the prostration of Yusuf’s brothers to him was a greeting. (Majmoo’ al-Fataawa (4/360, 361)
Thus, we may differentiate between many cases in which actions may appear outwardly to be similar, but in fact one is Islam, tawheed and faith, while the other is shirk, kufr and idolatry.
The Muslim who affirms the Oneness of Allah obeys the command of Allah in all matters, great and small. When he hears the words of Allah (and circumambulate the Ancient House (the Ka‘bah at Makkah))(Al-Hajj 22:29), he cannot help but obey them, so he circumambulates the sacred House out of love for Allah and in obedience to Him, hoping for mercy from Allah and fearing His punishment. And, he does not go beyond what he has been commanded to do of Tawaf, so he does not touch the stones of this House or think that it can bring benefit or cause harm.
The idolatrous mushrik is the one who circumambulates rocks or shrines, venerating them, hoping that they will relieve his distress and answer his prayers, weeping out of fear of them, beseeching them, and seeking to draw closer to them by means of different acts of worship such as prostration, sacrifices, circumambulation and supplication. In doing so he is not obeying the command of Allah or the laws of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him); rather, he is obeying his own whims and desires and Satan.
So, there is a great and clear difference between the actions of those who believe in tawheed and Islam, and the manifestations of idolatry and shirk. The one who does not pay attention to this difference will become confused, and will no longer be able to differentiate between kufr and faith.