Sheikh Salman al-Oadah
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"Guide us to the Straight Path." [Sûrah al-Fâtihah: 6]
The scholars of the Qur'ân have made various comments about the meaning of the verse "Guide us to the Straight Path."

`Alî b. `Abî Tâlib and Ubayy b. Ka`b explained it to be a request to be made firm and constant on the Straight Path. Ibn `Abbâs said it was a request to be shown the way to the Straight Path or to be inspired to follow it. This covers all the different aspects of guidance that we mentioned in the previous article.

The scholars also disagreed in how they expressed the meaning of the "Straight Path". Some said it refers to the Qur'ân. Others, like Ibn Mas`ûd, al-Hasan, and Abû `Aliyah, said it refers to Islam. It is related that Ibn `Abbâs described it as "the path to Paradise".

All of these descriptions are true. Ibn Taymiyah says: "All the commentators of the Qur'ân describe the Straight Path with some of its characteristics… Some of them describe the Straight path as Allah's Book or the act of following Allah's Book. Others say it is the religion of Islam. There are those who say it is the Sunnah and the community that follows the Sunnah. Some describe it as the path of worship or the path of placing one's love, fear, and hope in Allah and obedience to his commands and prohibitions. Others say that it is following the Qur'ân and Sunnah or obedience to Allah. The Straight Path is a name that embraces many characteristics."

From this we should be able to see that this verse encompasses many meanings. For the remainder of our discussion, we will explore this verse's five overall meanings and their relevance to the issue of constancy and renewal.

The first meaning:

The first meaning that the verse conveys is our request to be made firm and constant on the Straight Path with all that the Straight path implies. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "The hearts of all human beings are between two fingers of the Merciful as if they are one heart. He moves them as He pleases." [Sahîh Muslim] This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to ask in his supplications: "O mover of our hearts, move our hearts towards obeying You. O turner of our hearts! Turn our hearts towards Your religion."

Anas asked the Prophet (peace be upon him): "O Messenger of Allah! We believe in you and in what you have brought. Then do you still fear for us?"

The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: "Yes. Our hearts are between two of Allah's fingers. He moves them as He pleases."

The Straight Path that we need to remain constant upon is the religion of Islam, so we must never desire any other religion. It is the Qur'ân, so we must never desire another Book. It is our faith, so we must never fall into unbelief. It is the Sunnah, so we should never fall into innovation.

The essential factors upon which we need constancy are the five pillars of Islam, the six pillars of faith, our ethical principles, and the basics of what is lawful and prohibited that are clearly expressed in the Qur'ân and Sunnah and that are matters of consensus among the Muslims since the earliest days. A believer asks his Lord day and night in all of his prayers for constancy in these matters, since there is no room for doubt. He prays to his Lord to remain firm and unshaken in his conviction until the day that he meets Him, since he knows that many people are in fact shaken in their faith from time to time.

The most precious thing that a Muslim possesses that ensures his welfare in this life and his success in the Hereafter is his faith.

The second meaning:

The second meaning that the verse conveys is our request to attain an increase in guidance. Allah says: "Allah increases the guidance of those who are guided." A person does not receive full guidance all at once. Even the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not receive the revelation at once. The revelation came gradually until it ultimately reached its completion. The Prophet (peace be upon him) continued to worship Allah and grow in his certainty and devotion until the time of his death. Allah says to him in the Qur'ân: "Worship your Lord until that which is certain (death) approaches you." The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: 'Though my heart gets preoccupied, still I seek of Allah's forgiveness 100 times a day." [Sahîh Muslim]

It is the duty of a person to seek to increase in guidance. One aspect of this increase is contentment and tranquility in the heart. Abraham (peace be upon him) said: "My lord! Show me how you restore the dead to life." Allah said to him: "Do you not believe?" He said: "Yes, but I merely wish to settle my heart."

An increase in knowledge about matters of faith and matters of conduct is an increase in guidance. Allah says: "Whenever a chapter is revealed, some of them say: 'Which of you has had his faith increased by it?' Those who believe, their faith is increased and they rejoice. As for those in whose hearts is a disease, it will add foulness to their foulness and they will die in a state of unbelief." We can see in this verse that when a believer hears a new verse of the Qur'ân, he believes in it and it increases his faith whereas a hypocrite when he hears it, it increases his hypocrisy. Likewise, in the Qur'ân, Allah commands his Prophet (peace be upon him) to say: "O my Lord! Increase me in knowledge."

Knowledge is not to be sought as an academic exercise. It is sought as a matter of faith. The earliest Muslims used to seek knowledge even when they were terminally ill. When Ahmad b. Hanbal was on his deathbed, he began to moan from the severity of the pain that he was suffering. Some of those who were with him said: "The moan is recorded" (i.e. it is recorded that the person is not patient in his affliction). Upon hearing this, Ahmad stopped moaning.

The third meaning:

The third meaning that the verse conveys is our request to arrive at the right answer for matters wherein opinions differ and wherein people have different levels of understanding. Among the supplications that the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to offer in his night prayer was the following: "O Allah! Lord of Gabriel, Michael, and Ariel! Creator of the heavens and the Earth! Knower of the Unseen and the manifest! You judge between your servants in what they disagreed about. Guide me, with your permission, to the truth in matters where people differ. Truly You guide whom You please to a Straight Path." [Sahîh Muslim, Musnad Ahmad, among others]

This supplication covers the first aspect of guidance, that of steadfastness and constancy, but it encompasses more than that. It is a request for guidance in matters that are problematic. Scholars offer this supplication quite often when faced with a question about which they are uncertain or one in which there is a lot of disagreement.

This form of guidance is in fact guidance to constancy, but it a type of constancy that does not always manifest itself with a constant, unchanging appearance. It is constancy in approach and methodology. It is the constancy of seeking guidance and remaining firm on the principles of Islam in all circumstances. It is the constancy of always seeking the truth. This is why we can say that one of the greatest constant principles in Islam is the principle of juristic discretion (ijtihâd), though ijtihâd is the force of change and renewal in Islamic Law. If a jurist uses his juristic discretion in a matter and is correct, he receives a double reward. If he does so and is mistaken, he receives a single reward.

The fourth meaning

The fourth meaning that the verse "Guide us to the Straight Path" conveys is that of seeking guidance to the devotion and worship that should be exhibited in every circumstance. A healthy person has devotions to perform using his strength and energy to please Allah. A sick person has other devotions in the way of patience, fortitude, acceptance, and supplication. A wealthy person gives in charity and offers thanks to his Lord. A poor person worships his Lord by being reconciled to his state and by being pleased with what his Lord has apportioned to him without harboring any envy against those to whom Allah has given more.

There are devotions to be offered from our strength as individuals, communities, nations, and a global Muslim community. With such strength, we must defend and protect the Muslims and prevent vice and wrongdoing. There are devotions that we are responsible for when we are weak, including patience, nurturing hope, and thinking about how to better our state for Allah's sake.

There are different responsibilities in times of weakness than there are in times of strength. It is the duty of the Muslims to think and to plan, to assess and mobilize the little strength that they have, and to shrug off the weakness that plagues them. They must work for the future generations who will come after them, even if they cannot realize any benefits for themselves.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: "Every worshipper goes through a period of intense fervor and that period then comes to an end." He observed some people going to enormous lengths in their worship of Allah and said: "That is the most intense and enthusiastic expression of Islam. Every period of such fervor has its period of time that is followed by a milder period. If that milder period is one of moderation, correctness, and balance, then this is quite good. If that period is a period of sin, then it leads to destruction. [Musnad Ahmad]

Here the Prophet (peace be upon him) is telling us that every time and circumstance has its expression of worship that suits it. Therefore, a believer must ask his Lord to guide him to the manner of devotion that best suits his circumstances. This same guidance is needed by the Muslims as a community and as a nation. Ibn Taymiyah writes:
Every worshipper is forced constantly to supplicate and ask for guidance to the Straight Path. There is neither salvation from damnation nor any felicity except through this guidance. Whoever fails to attain it will be either among those upon whom is Allah's wrath or among those who are astray. This guidance is only from Allah. Whomever Allah guides is rightly guided and whomever Allah leaves to stray will never find anyone to guide him. The Straight Path is to always, at every time, do what you are commanded at that particular time with both your knowledge and your works and to abstain from what you are forbidden. You continue to do this until your firm desire is to do what is right and you truly detest doing what is wrong.
Ibn Taymiyah here explains to us that guidance at every moment is according to the needs of the moment. We consequently need renewed guidance every day, every hour, and every moment of our lives. He also explains just how necessary this guidance is for us.

When we ask to be guided, we are seeking guidance to understand our every situation and circumstance so we may realize how to properly worship Allah at all times and under all conditions. We can never hope to know this except by the grace of Allah.

This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave the following advice to Mu`âdh b. Jabal when he sent him to Yemen: "You are going to a people from among the people of the scripture, so the first thing towards which you should call them is to testify that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah. If they obey you in this, then teach them that Allah has made compulsory upon them five prayers. Then if they obey you in this, teach them that there is charity to be taken from their wealthy people and given to their poor people...

We can see in this that only when they respond to one teaching are they to be presented with the next. People as well as whole societies need to be called to the truth gradually. Likewise, different people are to be approached in different ways. Some people are best approached from the angle of personal development. Others are more disposed to detailed academic discourses about Islamic Law and the meanings of the Qur'ân. Others are more concerned about politics and current affairs Still others are best approached through action. All of this must take into consideration the level of faith, knowledge, and readiness of those being addressed.

Allah says:"And We did not send any Messenger except with the language of his own people to make matters clear to them."

The way of talking to different people varies depending on their level of understanding. They way we would address the people of a complex and highly developed civilization is going to be different than the way we would address the people of a simple and primitive society. Calling people to Islam in Europe places on us different demands and challenges than those we face when calling people to Islam in Africa or Asia.

The norms and idiosyncrasies of different societies pose even greater challenges. Each society has its own ideas, problems, and concerns and each must be addressed accordingly.

The fifth meaning

The fifth meaning that the verse "Guide us to the Straight Path" conveys is that of being guided from what is already good and wholesome to what is even better. Allah says: "Those who listen to the word and follow the best of it" and says: "Follow the best of what has come down to you from your Lord." In some aspects of Islamic Law, we are presented with choices. For instance, we have choices in how to expiate for our mistakes. In liability law, the injured party has a choice to take the blood money that is our right, but he has the better option of pardon.

There are many good works that we can engage in where other works are even better. Our private worship is something most excellent but its benefit stops with ourselves. However, if we take some of this time to teach others or call them to Islam, we will still be engaging in an act of worship, but one that is far better, since it benefits a greater number of people. This is why Mâlik and al-Zuhrî said: "Seeking knowledge is better than voluntary worship as long as the one doing so has correct intentions." This is only because knowledge benefits everyone, whereas private devotions general benefit only those engaged in them.

This applies to societies and nations just as much as it applies to individuals. One nation may be inspired by Allah to engage in some good enterprise of particular benefit to itself. Another nation may be inspired to engage in something else of greater and more universal benefit. When such inspiration comes, it is important to act upon it and not waste the opportunity. Moreover, what might be best in one circumstance might not be best in another.

The sixth meaning

When we ask to be guided to the Straight Path, we ask to be shown what may not always be apparent to others. For example, when a scholar of hadîth researches long and hard on the transmission of a hadîth, he may achieve absolute certainty that the Prophet (peace be upon him) made a certain statement, so much so that he is willing to swear by it. This level of certainty might not be achieved by someone else, not even by another scholar. This scholar has attained guidance in this matter, but it is of such a specific nature that he cannot require others to share in his certainty.

These are the forms of guidance that we ask for when we offer our prayers.

Reasons for renewal

Finally, we might ask ourselves: What are the reasons for such renewal and diversity that requires us to perpetually seek renewed guidance? There are actually many reasons for this.

1. There is the renewal that comes from taking a new look at juristic decisions as a result of discarding bigotry, vested interests, and blind following. This requires objectivity and the ability to accept criticism and correction. Our opinions , in this way, can change for the better and our understandings and our actions can become more correct.

2. There is the renewal mandated by changing circumstances. Each situation and each environment has its own demands. A person engaged in Islamic work is like a merchant who displays his wares in the market. The difference is that the goods he has to offer are not the goods of this world but are far more precious. The merchant cannot be arbitrary in the way he sets prices, decides on what goods to present and how to present them, nor can he choose who his customers are going to be. If he really wants to sell his wares, he will have to adapt his approach to the changing demands of the market and use whatever strategies he must as long as they are in accordance with Islamic Law.

When we look at the behavior of nations, we see that their policies, allegiances, and legislations change in response to changing circumstances. Even the greatest nations and empires that desire world domination alter their policies and change their allegiances in response to the changing world in which they exist.

3. Experience provides us with greater knowledge and expertise. A person can only acquire such experience after long years immersed in patient work and astute observation.

`Ali b. Abî Tâlib was once asked: "Did Allah's Messenger give anything to you – his household – that was especially for you?"

He replied: "No, and by Him who brings forth the produce from the Earth and created the human soul, nothing was given me except understanding that a person is given about Allah's book."

People are at different levels of knowledge and understanding. This applies to their understanding of Allah's Book as well as to the contingencies of the world.

The state of the Muslim world today is definitely not the best it can be. It is far from the ideals of Islamic Law. Reform is needed and must be carried out according to the dictates of the Islamic teachings brought to us by Allah's Messenger.