Muslims plead to be guided to the straight path at least seventeen times a day due to the obligation of reciting surat al-Fatiha (Qur’an 1) in salah (the 5 daily prayers). How many of us have reflected on the nature of this guidance and the path that we are supposed to be upon?
‘Guide us’ (Ihdina)
In Arabic the word hidaya doesn’t simply mean guidance, it means to guide gently. The word for gift (hadiyya) in Arabic also comes from the same root letters as the word for guidance (hidaya). Religious guidance is the greatest gift that a person can possess. It is also something that we do not control or own, but rather it is bestowed upon us in an act of infinite mercy and grace by Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He).
Notice how it is in the plural—not ‘guide me’ but ‘guide us.’ This instils in us a sense of brotherhood by making this request on behalf of fellow Muslims, especially as we stand in prayer as a group.
Types of hidaya (guidance) mentioned in the Qur’an
There are four types of hidaya mentioned in the Qur’an.1
- General hidaya that is given to all creation. This type of guidance and knowledge is given by Allah (swt) to all created things. By this guidance, animals, plants and even inanimate objects fulfil the purpose for which they were created. This also includes the general intellect, wits, and inherent intuitive knowledge given to all responsible beings regardless of their faith. This is referred to in the following verse:
He said, “Our Lord is He who gave each thing its form and then guided [it].” (Qur’an 20:50)
- Hidaya that is in the form of explanation and education by way of defining the two paths of good and evil. It is when someone guides you by explaining that which is good and warns you from that which is evil according to Islam. This is the type of hidaya referred to in this verse:
And indeed, [O Muhammad], you guide to a straight path. (Qur’an 42:52)
- Hidaya that is tawfiq (a specific type of divine guidance) and inspiration (ilham) from Allah (swt) to be guided to the truth of iman (faith), islam (submission), etc. The following verses refer to this type.
“…Thus does Allah leave astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. (Qur’an 74:31)
No disaster strikes except by permission of Allah. And whoever believes in Allah – He will guide his heart. And Allah is Knowing of all things. (Qur’an 64:11)
- Hidaya that is in the next life, by which one shall be guided to Paradise.
And We will have removed whatever is within their breasts of resentment, [while] flowing beneath them are rivers. And they will say, “Praise to Allah, who has guided us to this; (Quran 7:43)
Each one of the above types of hidaya has a sequential connection and relationship. Without the first level of guidance you will not have the capacity to attain the second and without the second you cannot attain the third and fourth levels.
We have absolutely no power to guide anyone using any of the above types of guidance except for the second type of hidaya that is explanation and education. This type of guidance is what is referred to in the following verses.
And indeed, [O Muhammad], you guide to a straight path. (Qur’an 42:52)
You are only a warner, and for every people is a guide. (Qur’an 13:7)
The remaining types of guidance, particularly the third type of guidance which is tawfiq from Allah (swt) to have iman, are what are referred to in the following verse of the Qur’an, again addressing the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him):
Indeed, [O Muhammad], you do not guide whom you like, but Allah guides whom He wills. And He is most knowing of the [rightly] guided. (Qur’an 28:56)
In other words even the Prophets, much less others, cannot guide whom they choose to become believers in the sense of actually putting faith in a person’s heart. They can only guide in terms of explanation, exhortation, clarification and instruction regarding the truth.
The first lesson here is that we should seek guidance in every matter with Allah (swt) first and foremost before turning to others. Secondly it should humble those of us who are inviting or ‘guiding’ others to Islam to acknowledge and internalize the fact that we have no real power over this matter, and that true guidance is the sole dominion of Allah (swt), the ‘turner of the hearts.’ However on the other hand, that should not make us despair of the work we do, for which our reward is with Allah (swt). But rather it should increase our confidence in inviting others knowing that the result is not dependent on ‘my da`wah’ or speech, which is full of weakness and defects, but is in the hands of Allah (swt) who can instantly change the hearts of the most wicked and tyrannical into the most pure and righteous.
The Ten Levels of Guidance
A Muslim may question why he or she has to ask for guidance at least seventeen times a day whilst they have already been guided to Islam. Scholars have explained that it is because firstly we ask for constancy (thabat) on guidance and secondly because there are so many levels and aspects of guidance that we are in need of in every detail of our daily lives that it becomes imperative to seek it.
The following will help to clarify. For example there are a further ten levels of guidance that need to be attained for one to be truly guided.2 Therefore one should bear in mind when asking for guidance that one is asking Allah (swt) to:
- Be granted guidance of knowledge and clarity, in order for one to know and reach the truth.
- For the capacity to be guided
- Make one desirous of guidance
- Make one act upon the guidance
- Make one remain steadfast on guidance
- Remove all barriers and obstructions that impede guidance
- Be granted a distinctive and detailed level of guidance on the path itself and its stations
- Be granted sight of one’s ultimate goal along the path, to be alerted to it so that one can perceive it on the journey, catching sight of it without being blocked from seeing it.
- Make one aware of one’s own destitution and desperate need for guidance (from Allah) over and above all other necessities.
- Make one see the two misguided paths that veer off from the path of guidance; firstly the path of the people of wrath—those who intentionally, out of rebellion, turned away from following the truth; secondly the path of the people of misguidance—those who turned away out of ignorance and misguidance. One then sees the straight path upon which are all the prophets and messengers along with their followers from the truthful (siddiqeen), the martyrs and the righteous.
We are instructed by Allah (swt) to ask for guidance to the straight path (al-sirat al-mustaqim). What then is the nature of this path?
Description of the Straight Path (al-sirat al-mustaqim)
In the language of the Arabs a path (sirat) needs to possess five qualities for it to be called a sirat. ((Ibid)) The path needs to be:
- Easy to travel upon
- A familiar well-trodden path
- Wide and spacious
- Lead one to the desired destination
Since the path that we are asking guidance to is Islam itself, notice and reflect on how these qualities apply to Islam. Islam is straight in that it is a correct and firmly established way, pure and protected from any crookedness or deviation from the truth. Allah (swt) describes those who want to block people on the path of Allah (swt): “…Who averted [people] from the way of Allah and sought to make it [seem] deviant while they were, concerning the Hereafter, disbelievers.” (Qur’an 7:45)
Islam is also easy as Allah (swt) has said, “Allah intends for you ease, and does not want to make things difficult for you,” (Qur’an 2:185); and as the Prophet ﷺ said, “The deen (Islam/religion) is easy…” [Bukhari]. Allah (swt) does not burden a soul beyond its capacity. There will be challenges, temptations and difficulties in living as a Muslim but they are things that we ultimately have the capacity to bear. Everything in shari`ah (Islamic law) benefits us or wards off harm for us in this world and/or the next.
Islam, which is submission to the commands of Allah (swt), is also a familiar and well-trodden path, the path of all the Prophets and their followers. As Allah (swt) says,
“And whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger – those will be with the ones upon whom Allah has bestowed favour of the prophets, the steadfast affirmers of truth, the martyrs and the righteous. And excellent are those as companions.” (Qur’an 4:69)
The final, universal revelation of Islam is wide and spacious and accommodates all, regardless of colour, race or social status. It is us with our parochial attitudes that restrict the vastness of this path to our favourite ‘saved’ group, tariqa, shaykh or a specific allegiance that excludes others that Islam hasn’t excluded. Ibn Majah records that the Prophet ﷺ said, “I have left you on a (wide, spacious) clear (white) path, its night is like its day whoever deviates from this after me will be destroyed….”
And indeed the path of Islam leads to the desired destination, which is Allah’s pleasure gained by obeying Him. Allah (swt) says:
“So those who believe in Allah and hold fast to Him – He will admit them to mercy from Himself and bounty and guide them to Himself on a straight path.( Quran 4:175)
You will also notice that the word al-sirat (path) in the surah (chapter) has the definite article al. The definite article is close to the meaning of ‘the’ which renders it ‘the straight path’ in English and has several possible meanings in Arabic. Here it is said that it denotes something definite which is in the mind as well as in reality. For example when students waiting for their teacher to arrive say ‘the teacher is late.’ The teacher they are referring to is known amongst them and in their minds they know exactly who they are referring to. In that sense, grammatically, ‘the teacher’ is a definite noun phrase and not an indefinite one. They wouldn’t say a teacher is late in this case.
Similarly, in this case, it is a specific and definite known path that we are seeking guidance to. It is the path that Allah (swt) has ordained for the people that He has favoured, the path that leads to His pleasure and His paradise, which is in fact His deen—besides which nothing is acceptable to Him. It is said that it is also the path that we intuitively know in the deepest core of our hearts that must exist because as human beings we already affirmed when we were created that Allah is our Rabb (Lord).
All praise is to Allah (swt) who has gently guided us to the straight path, described to us with crystal clarity its features, and guided us to pray for it every day of our lives. Alhamdulillah (all praise and thanks is due to God)!