The associationism of the common people is one thing, and the associationism of the elect is something else. The associationism of the common people is the greater associationism and the associationism of the elect the lesser associationism.
4:48 Surely God does not forgive that anything be associated with Him, but less than that He forgives for whomsoever He wills.
The greater associationism is that they should say that the tremendous Enactor, the eternal Artisan, has an associate and partner, or they should consider Him to have an equal and peer, or they should make Him similar to something of creation. Whenever someone says this, he is not a worshiper of God, for he has called upon an idol. In reality, he has been held back from the religion of guidance. The right belief and pure religion is that you consider the God of the world’s folk and Creator of all to be pure of and incomparable with a spouse, child, and partner. He did not give birth, nor did anyone give birth to Him. He is free of a new arrival, change, and birth, hallowed beyond defect, incapacity, and need, pure in attribute, fitting in artisanry, sweet in speech, and complete in love. He is pure of fault in attributes, pure of blunder in deeds, pure of negligence in speech, and pure of doubt in love. He is a God who is outside of imagination, and no one knows how He is. He is worthy of Godhood, knower of God-work, separate from faults, without peer in Essence and attributes. Whoever believes this has been released from the greater associationism and has joined with the root of faith.
As for the lesser associationism, it is of two sorts and belongs to two groups. For the faithful, it is eye-service and letting go of self-purification in deeds. For the recognizers, it is paying regard to deeds and seeking deliverance thereby. Its trace in the faithful is to decrease their faith, to bring fissures into their certainty, and to close down the door of clarity. Muṣṭafā said, “I am very frightened of the ancient associationism for my community.” He was asked what ancient associationism was, and he said, “That someone does good deeds along with eye-service in the deeds.”
Shaddād ibn Aws said, “I saw God’s Messenger weeping. I asked him why he was weeping and he said, ‘I fear that my community will bring forth associationism. Not that they will worship idols, or worship the sun and moon, but that they will worship with eye-service, thus making people God’s partner in their deeds.’”
Also, God says, “Of the associates, I am the least in need of associationism. If someone does a deed in which he associates another with Me, I am quit of it, and it belongs to the one who is associated.” He is saying: “Whenever someone does a deed and takes someone as My partner in that deed, I have less need than all the partners, so I will give the deed to the partner.”
The commander of the Faithful ʿAlī saw a man with his head turned down, meaning “I am pious.” He said, “O chevalier! Bring this crick in your neck into your heart, for God looks at the heart.” He also said, “On the Day of Resurrection, it will be said to hypocritical Qur’an-reciters, ‘Are you not the ones to whom the goods of the world were sold more cheaply? Are you not the ones at the doors of whose houses people stood? Are you not the ones whom they greeted first? This belongs to the recompense of your deeds that We have conveyed to you. Today nothing rightfully due remains for you.’”
This is why some of the great ones of the religion did not accept the benevolence of friends during distress and poverty. Thus several days passed during which Sufyān Thawrī had no food in his house. On the last day, a man brought him two money bags and said, “You know that my father was your friend and was scrupulous in livelihood. This is the inheritance that he left, and I know that it is lawful and has no place for suspicion. Why do you not accept this and make me happy?”
Sufyān said, “May God reward you for your beautiful aspiration, but I will not accept it, for my friendship with your father was for the sake of God. I do not consider it permissible to receive compensation for it.” This indeed is the degree of the scrupulous and the path of the pious. Higher than this is the degree of the recognizers. In their case, the smaller associationism is that, after self-purification in obedience and truthfulness in deeds, if their eyes fall on their pure deeds, or if seeking a reward for them occurs to their minds, or if they see their own salvation in those deeds, they count this as associationism in the road of the religion and they repent of it.