“Guide us to the straight path; the path of those whom you have favored, not the path of those who have earned your displeasure or those who have gone astray.” (Qu’ran, 1:6-7)
Why do we have to repeat that prayer so much every day? How do we know if that prayer is being answered? Should we just assume that we are guided and we are guaranteed a place in Heaven? Why are we guided and others are not?
The Holy Qu’ran has all the answers of life that we are looking for, and these are some of the questions that all people ask at some point in life. It is imperative that we all have a thorough understanding and thus be readily able to answer them. Unfortunately, many Muslims have a quite distorted view of the meanings of verses which state that God subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) guides whom He wills and “misguides” whom He wills. This misunderstanding stagnates the faith and practice of many Muslims since it can move them away from God (swt).
So the literal meaning is that He chooses to guide some and “misguide” others from Himself. If so, then why?
First, we must realize that it is unacceptable to define God (swt) according to one of His many descriptions without relating all of them together as many interconnect and overlap. Let us take a look at the other descriptions of Him—The Just, The Wise, The All-Aware, The Knower of what is in the depths of the hearts. He guides who deserves His guidance. He guides those whose hearts incline to Him. If we look at what the Qur’an says:
“[...] Whoever has faith in God, then He guides their heart. God’s Omniscience encompasses everything.” (64:11)
“He guides to Himself whoever turns to Him.” (13:27)
“God will increase in guidance and piety [to] those who strive to attain it.” (47:17)
According to the previous verses, if one changes his/her inclination inside the heart then not only will the seal/veil be lifted, but guidance will soak into the heart and become quite natural to the person. This is evident in so many reverts.
We find the same causal relationship to God “misguiding” people in the following verse:
“Indeed those who have disbelieved… (Consequently) God has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing and there is a veil drawn over their sight…” (2:6-7)
“When they deviated, then God caused their hearts to deviate. God does not guide the deviant rebels.” (61:5)
Perhaps the best depiction of the reason God guides a person is in Sura Al-layl:
“As for the selfless pious one who has affirmed the bliss of the Hereafter, then We will facilitate their path to Heaven. On the other hand, the greedy self-sufficing one who doesn’t affirm the bliss of the Hereafter, then We will facilitate their path to Hell.” (Qur’an 92:5-10)
The parable of divine guidance is like a school that chose to expel one student or make another skip a grade or get a scholarship. Yes, the school does that and has full authority to do so, but it is based on what the student has done. Similar is the system of either promoting or firing in a business!
Many people incorrectly believe that God has made us like puppets. We have even heard Imams say that God chose us to be believers as if He made us believers and others disbelievers and as if we have not done anything to earn it. The verses that talk about Him choosing Prophets and others are surely related to something He knows of them that makes them qualified. He is the only one who knows what is in our hearts and who is truly pious.
“Indeed the best among you to God are those who are most pious. Indeed God is Omniscient and All-Aware.” (Qur’an 49:13)
At the end of the day, the Qur’an shows how we make our own choices:
“So whoever wishes, let him believe and whoever wishes let him disbelieve…” (18:29)
But some people take issue with God’s Omniscience and how He knows our future actions and final abode in the Hereafter. In philosophizing our faith let us be careful; let us not forget the overarching principle of full faith in things beyond our perception which are clear in scripture. There are obviously things beyond our perception, and Ayat al-Kursi is clear:
“…People do not encompass of His knowledge except what He wills…”
It is like seeing our reflection in a mirror. The mirror captures it all; the good and the bad, but it does not cause us to look a certain way. The same goes for God’s knowledge. He knows all about us, but our reflection is our own doing. Remember God is also The First and The Last who is not existing in nor is He (Glory be to Him) governed by time! Never forget that He is Greater than anything you can imagine or fathom.
He has guided all of creation to what is best for it:
“Moses said to Pharaoh, Our Lord is the One who created everything and guided it.” (Qur’an 20:50)
This is the innate instinct of all creation in how it is made into its own distinguishable reality with certain intrinsic functions and inclinations that support its existence. It is why your brain, heart and digestive system are programmed to do such complex systematic organized function. It is why a baby knows to look for its mother’s breast. In fact, among life forms, humans rely least on instinct as they get older. Throw a 6-year-old cat or dog in the water, and it swims to safety!
(If you haven’t seen it and are interested in a huge faith boost, then watch Disney’s documentary “Wings of Life”.)
Non-human life forms are instinctually in submission to the will of God, and thus their very existence glorifies His Perfection. This is their purpose and it gives them a state of peace in fulfilling that daily innately inspired program.
In contrast, we were blessed and tested with conscious, morally aware, intelligent reasoning and creativity. Going back to swimming, some are scared to learn while others achieve amazing skill in diving/swimming techniques as good as and better than the best dolphins and seals.
To achieve conscious peace as individuals and as a society, we must embrace the guidance of revelation by choice and effort. The purpose of our life for us is to use our creative intelligence to make choices that lead to divinely guided action.
God is The Guide who shows us guidance, but for us we must choose:
“By the soul and He who created it, then inspired it to know that which is harmful to it and that which will protect it. Surely the one who purifies and nurtures their soul has succeeded (aflaha) while the one who corrupts it has failed (khab).” (Qu’ran 91:7-10)
The word here used to refer to the success of the one who nurtured their soul is rooted in the meaning of cultivating crops. It is like the relationship between the farmer (fallah) and growing his crops. It is all there; soil, seeds, water and sunlight. But it has to be done right and proportioned properly. The farmer has been given the ability to figure it out, and the harder he works at it, the better the crops he will grow. If he learns from those who have worked at it, it will be much easier! Still, at the end of the day, it is Divine providence since He gave the materials and made the system.
On the other hand, the word used to refer to failure is the same root that refers to a miscarriage, which means there was either an infection, a lack of proper nutrients or the wrong environment for that fetus for it to grow and thrive in life.
Guidance is about a give and take relationship with God. The more you put into faith the more you get out of it! When we seek and follow it, praying for His help in understanding, then he supports us and facilitates our preservation and growth in it. On the other hand, if we are heedless, not very concerned about our soul, then as a result, He will misguide us. This is why the Prophet so often supplicated:
يا مقلِّبَ القلوبِ ثبِّت قلبي على دينِكَ أو اللَّهمَّ مُصرِّفَ القلوبِ صرِّف قلوبَنا على طاعتِكَ
“Dear Controller of the hearts, stabilize our hearts upon Your religion and move our hearts to Your obedience.” (Tirmidhi 3522 , Muslim 2654)
When we incline toward arrogance and believe ourselves to be “the chosen” without continuous effort from ourselves, then we lose it and go astray. It is a lifelong struggle. In fact, it is the purpose of life. No action can be righteous unless it is purely for the sake of God and in accordance with a proper understanding of guidance in our scripture.
“He is the One who created death and life and all in between for the purpose of testing us to seek perfection in our choices of action.” (Qur’an 67:2)