Lecture 23 in the Ramadaan series:
UNPACKING THE MOST INTRIGUING QUESTIONS IN THE QURAN
Sunday 17 May 2020 (24th Night of Ramadaan 1441)
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
This is another interesting topic in the Holy Quran we are all familiar with. We will unpack questions such as what the Sirat-al-Mustaqeem in the Holy Quran is and who does it refer to, since this term Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is repeated in the Holy Book of Almighty Allah (SWT).
It is present in Surah Fatiha, which we recite at least twice in every Salaah. Verse 6 of Surah Fatiha refers:
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
Guide us to the right path.
Translators of the Holy Quran have translated this term Sirat-al-Mustaqeem to mean “the straight path”. Naturally, this term requires further explanation. Before we speak about the Sirat-al-Mustaqeem, I would like to draw your attention to one very important fact regarding human beings (Insan). Insan is a type of existence which is always in a state of evolution. It is not stagnant.
HUMAN BEINGS CONSTANTLY EVOLVE TOWARDS ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)
Human beings look different today versus tomorrow, and even more so after 10 years, and a lot more different after 50 years. Other natural existence like mountains or animals or trees show evolution, albeit very, very slow in comparison to human beings, and their evolution is only limited to certain aspects.
Humanity on the other hand is always progressing, even in its individuality. It is not frozen or stationary. Almighty Allah (SWT) refers to this attribute of human beings in numerous verses of the Holy Quran. Verse 6 of Surah Inshiqaaq (chapter 84 of the Holy Quran) is a very well-known verse in this regard:
يَا أَيُّهَا الْإِنْسَانُ إِنَّكَ كَادِحٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ كَدْحًا فَمُلَاقِيهِ
O man! Surely you must strive (to attain) to your Lord, a hard striving until you meet Him.
It does not matter whether you are going the right or wrong way, whether you believe in Him or not, whether you want Him or not, whether you are seeking His pleasure or not. That is immaterial, but the reality is that we are moving towards Him, and we will meet Him. This is the understanding we draw from the above verse.
Another verse with a similar message is the end of verse 53 of Surah Shura (chapter 42 of the Holy Quran):
أَلَا إِلَى اللَّهِ تَصِيرُ الْأُمُورُ
Now surely to Allah do all affairs eventually come.
Similarly, we find the same message in verse 42 of Surah Najm (chapter 53 of the Holy Quran):
وَأَنَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكَ الْمُنْتَهَىٰ
And that to your Lord is the goal.
So, the Quranic position is that our natural progression is towards Almighty Allah (SWT), whether we like it or not. That said, we also read in verses 7 – 11 of Surah Inshiqaaq (chapter 84 of the Holy Quran) that there are two types of people on this journey and they will have different results of their action in this world. However, they are still moving towards their Lord (SWT).
SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM IS ONE STRAIGHT PATH TO ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)
Human life is an expedition, and you need a route to travel. Naturally, there are plenty of routes one can take to move towards a particular destination. However, there is only one main highway to take you to your destination in this movement of life towards Almighty Allah (SWT), and that is called Sirat-al-Mustaqeem.
In Arabic, the word “Sirat” means path/route, and “Mustaqeem” is derived from “Istiqamah” which means straight. This means it is not leaning towards left or right. This is a highway without any detours or twists and turns. The combination of these two words indicate the fastest route to your destination ie. Siratal Mustaqeem.
“Ih dinas-siratal mustaqeem” means we are asking Almighty Allah (SWT) to guide us to the straight path, the main highway which goes towards Him the fastest, without any left/right turns, with the guaranteed destination being Allah (SWT).
This main highway to our final destination of Almighty Allah (SWT), known as the Sirat al-Mustaqeem, is referred to in the Holy Quran plenty times, probably close to 40 times, although we tend to focus more often than not on the reference in Surah Fatiha.
SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM EXPLAINED THROUGH QURANIC PHILOSOPHY REFUTES PLURALISM
What we understand from the Quranic logic to be really important is that this Sirat al-Mustaqeem (straight path) in the only highway to Almighty Allah (SWT). We read this at the beginning of verse 19 of Surah aal-Imraan (chapter 3 of the Holy Quran):
إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ الْإِسْلَامُ ۗ
Surely the (true) religion with Allah is Islam.
There are no multiple paths. Now, the critical point is that whenever Almighty Allah (SWT) has spoken about Sirat al-Mustaqeem (straight path) in the Holy Quran, it is always with the singular reference. In other words, there are no two straight paths!
The path of salvation is unique, not multiple. Similarly, in numerous places in the Holy Quran where Almighty Allah (SWT) has spoken about Sirat al-Mustaqeem (straight path), He has related this Sirat to Himself. We learn this from the last part of verse 56 of Surah Hud (chapter 11 of the Holy Quran):
إِنَّ رَبِّي عَلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ
Verily, it is my Lord that is on a straight Path.
Now, when you connect this path to Almighty Allah (SWT), then naturally, it can only be singular. We should therefore understand that from the Quranic perspective, not every highway takes us to the destination.
This pluralist approach which promotes the notion that it does not matter which route you follow because there are many routes to God (SWT) is inconsistent with the Quranic perspective. It may appear that those routes have similarities, but to say that there are various avenues of reaching to your destination is not what is explained in the Holy Quran, because Sirat al-Mustaqeem refers to the singular path to Almighty Allah (SWT).
WHY DOES THE QURAN COMMAND RESPECT TO THE OTHERS IF THERE IS ONLY ONE TRUE PATH TO HIM?
As noted earlier, there are circa 40 verses in the Holy Quran referring to Sirat al-Mustaqeem, and almost all of them insist on the unity of this path and rejecting multiplicity of paths to Almighty Allah (SWT). An example is verse 161 of Surah An’aam (chapter 6 of the Holy Quran):
قُلْ إِنَّنِي هَدَانِي رَبِّي إِلَىٰ صِرَاطٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ دِينًا قِيَمًا مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۚ وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Say: Surely, (as for) me, my Lord has guided me to the right path; (to) a most right religion, the faith of Ibrahim the upright one, and he was not of the polytheists.
This should therefore not be misunderstood with the verses which discuss the different faith traditions which the Holy Quran acknowledges. To be clear, acknowledging is different to regarding them as a path of salvation too. What we are saying here is that the path of salvation can only be one. We will dedicate one discussion in this series to how the Holy Quran looks at other faith traditions.
In this context, it is crucial to understand that even if the Holy Quran acknowledges them and speaks about solidarity and respect towards them and also speaks about some of their followers to be receiving salvation, it does not mean that the straight path has multiple avenues. We believe that the straight path can only be one.
The logic of the Holy Quran is that I respect your choice, but I do not agree that we will both reach the ultimate destination of Almighty Allah (SWT) through different routes, as this would be a contradiction in the Quranic philosophy.
The rational principle in philosophy and logic applies here. If there are two highways and both lead towards the same destination, then why will we prefer the one route over the other? This will be giving preference for something over something else without reason, while of course, you prefer to follow the path of Islam. If this is the case, then why do you follow?
If there is no difference or preference for this path over the other path, then why would one choose to follow the path of Islam to start with? This would be a contradiction of our own conviction. So, if you follow a particular faith, then it means that you believe this is the path of truth and salvation. That said, if someone chooses to go another way, then you respect his/her choice, and give the person the benefit of the doubt.
SABEEL – MANY PATHS LEADING TO THE MAIN HIGHWAY OF SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM
Very interesting is the fact the Holy Quran also uses another term to describe the “path”. Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is one term to describe the journey to Almighty Allah (SWT) and another term used for this journey is “Sabeel”. An example is the reference to “fi sabeelillah”.
Now, there are plenty examples in the Holy Quran where Sabeel is used in the plural form ie. multiplicity (subul). The leading commentators of the Holy Quran of the 20th century, such as Allama Tabataba’i and Ayatollah Mutahhari explain that Subul refers to the side roads (byways) and these byways can be multiple, but finally they would meet on the main highway.
You can therefore have many byways / side roads, but the main highway is only one, as these byways and side roads will finally merge into the main highway.
Now, if we want to implement this thinking in our discussion here, it means that it is possible that we may differ in the details of this path and evolution towards Almighty Allah (SWT). We can have a variety of approaches and this multiplicity is not harmful. It is very much acceptable, because finally, these differences in details will conclude at the same main highway.
So, the path referred to in Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is only one path, but there are different routes to get to this one path. This is where diversity of understanding and approaches in details is acceptable, as long as they all take you to the principle, singular straight path referred to by Sirat-al-Mustaqeem.
This is what we understand from verse 153 of Surah An’aam (chapter 6 of the Holy Quran), where we are warned not to follow multiple paths which will separate us from the principle straight path:
وَأَنَّ هَٰذَا صِرَاطِي مُسْتَقِيمًا فَاتَّبِعُوهُ ۖ وَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا السُّبُلَ فَتَفَرَّقَ بِكُمْ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ وَصَّاكُمْ بِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
And (know) that this is My path, the right one therefore follow it, and follow not (other) ways, for they will lead you away from His way; this He has enjoined you with that you may guard (against evil).
Now, we understand from this discussion that the path of salvation is only one, and that is what we are asking from Almighty Allah (SWT) to guide us towards.
WHAT IS SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM IN SUBSTANCE?
Commentators of the Holy Quran have gone to great lengths to explain to us what Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is. Some of them explain that the Holy Quran is the Sirat-al-Mustaqeem, while others explain that it is the religion of Islam. Then there are also those commentators who say that Sirat-al-Mustaqeem refers to the Sharia (Islamic law).
Then there are also those who have interpreted Sirat-al-Mustaqeem to refer to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA). Then there are Hadith reported from the Ahlul Bait (a.s) which says that Sirat-al-Mustaqeem refers to Wilayah! So, this interpretation would mean that “Ih dinas-siratal mustaqeem” refers to us asking Almighty Allah (SWT) to guide us to the path of Imamat and Wilayah.
This topic of Imamat in the Holy Quran has been discussed quite extensively across 4 lectures preceding this one, where we explained the path of Imamat and Wilayah being the path of salvation.
Now, if you study these different interpretations provided for Sirat-al-Mustaqeem, you will realize that they are all correct. Some commentators of the Holy Quran have given the definition of Sirat al-Mustaqeem, which is that straight path without detours and deviation. This straight path is the shortest, quickest guaranteed route to take towards your perfection, being Almighty Allah (SWT).
Some scholars have then explained examples of the straight path to mean Islam, Quran, Sharia, Rasulullah (SAWA) or Imamat, because they are the exemplars of this straight path, but in its authenticity, Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is the shortest, quickest guaranteed route to take towards Almighty Allah (SWT).
HOW DOES THE QURAN DEFINE SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM?
What is really important to understand is how does the Holy Quran itself defines Sirat-al-Mustaqeem. Interestingly, Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is defined by Almighty Allah (SWT) differently, in the various verses of the Holy Quran.
However, the most common reference is from Surah Fatiha, which we are commanded to recite twice in every Salaah, at least 5 times a day.
This is where Almighty Allah (SWT) has not defined Sirat-al-Mustaqeem with a very philosophical or intellection definition in Surah Fatiha. Rather, Sirat-al-Mustaqeem is defined in Surah Fatiha with the help of examples.
Verse 6 of Surah Fatiha refers:
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
Keep us on the right path.
The right path referred to here is explained in verse 7:
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا الضَّالِّينَ
The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.
With this verse 7 of Surah Fatiha, Almighty Allah (SWT) is explaining very beautifully and in a deeply thought-provoking manner, that there are 3 highways in this world:
Siratalladheena an’amta alayhim: The path of those who have received the favours of Almighty Allah (SWT);
Ghayril magh dhobi alayhim: The path of those who are the subject of the anger of Almighty Allah (SWT);
Dhaalleen: The path of those who are lost.
OUR CULTURE OF EXPLAINING IDEAS THROUGH THE EXEMPLARY PERSONALITIES OF THE AHLUL BAIT (A.S)
The first point to try and understand is why does the Holy Quran use examples to describe Sirat-al-Mustaqeem instead of giving a theoretical definition?
We followers of Ahlul Bait (a.s) are often questioned about why we make such a big deal about personalities who are dear to us, such as our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and his purified household, such that we celebrate their joy and mourn their moments of sadness. The question levelled against us is why can we never just speak about principles, instead of being stuck in explaining these principles through these noble personalities?
The first point of clarification is that we are not simply stuck in personalities, as we do focus a great deal of attention on ideas, to the point where we present ideas from the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) which are unmatched. There are no ideas equivalent to those from the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), with its rich culture and rational and intellectual supremacy.
The second point of response is that the reason why we dedicate so much focus on the personalities of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) is because this is the method of the Holy Quran, which is both Tawalla and Tabarra. This means that you must be connected to the right people if you want to know what the right path is!
Similarly, you must be immune from misguided people, which consists of two categories. They are the leaders of misguidance and their students who deliberately misguide. The second category in this regard are those masses who are unfortunately lost. They are not leaders of misguidance, but rather, they are the cannon fodder who have no direction and abused by the leaders of misguidance. They do not seek direction. They simply carry on with their life of blissful ignorance! These people are the “Dhaalleen” referred to earlier.
This means that if you are searching for the Sirat-al-Mustaqeem, you should not be looking for this direction from the masses or the leaders of misguidance. We learn from the Holy Quran that the Ma’rifat of Sirat-al-Mustaqeem depends on the Ma’rifat of those people who are blessed and receiving their favours from Almighty Allah (SWT).
Who are those receiving blessings and favours from Almighty Allah (SWT) and who are those who are the subject of anger of Almighty Allah (SWT)? This is very crucial when we speak about personalities, as they are the best guides. Also, important to note is that those personalities are not idols.
Instead, they are our link in Hidayat (guidance). Again, I am connected this to the subject of Imamat we discussed over 4 lectures leading up to this.
Almighty Allah (SWT) is explaining a system in verses 6 and 7 of Surah Fatiha. If you want to be on the “Sirat al-Mustaqeem”, then you need to follow “an’amta alayhim”!
WHY DO WE ASK TO BE ON SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM IF WE ARE ALREADY MUSLIM?
I already mentioned that the guidance of Almighty Allah (SWT) comes through that link, which is the Imam, as they receive the special favours from Almighty Allah (SWT). As we discussed in the last lecture on Imamat, the infallible Imam can take us all the way to our destination. Hence, if we want to find the Sirat al-Mustaqeem, we need to board their ship to achieve salvation! Similarly, if we avoid this ship, then we are lost and would drown.
Imam Ali (a.s) says so beautifully that the right and left are misguiding, while the middle road is the rightly guided!
One question I would like to address here is that why do we repeat verse 6 of Surah Fatiha so many times every day?
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
Keep us on the right path.
Surely if we are praying then we are already on the right path? So, are we asking for something which we already have? How can this be? There are 2 points of reflection here, the first being straightforward, while the second is deeper.
Let me present this question a bit differently. We are guided ie. already Muslim. So, if we are already Muslim, then why should we ask Almighty Allah (SWT) to “keep us on the right path”? Secondly, what about the divine Prophets (a.s), Imams (a.s), and the Auliya? If we are not properly on the right path, then surely, they are on the right path and clearly on the highway towards Almighty Allah (SWT)? So then, why are they also repeatedly saying:
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
Keep us on the right path.
Imam Ali (a.s) explains that the meaning of this verse which we utter repeatedly every day is not to simply guide us to the right path. He explains that the meaning is to keep us on the right path. Being on the right path is one issue but remaining on the right path continuously is another challenge. So, our daily request through this verse is one of sustainability!
Let us compare this to a lamp which provides light. It will provide light for as long as it is continuously connected to the power supply. This light will not be there if this linkage breaks for even a fraction of a second. Similarly, our evolution and movement towards Almighty Allah (SWT) continuously requires the support of Almighty Allah (SWT). We will be lost if He leaves us for even a fraction of a second.
So, when we utter this verse repeatedly, we are imploring Almighty Allah (SWT) to sustain us on the path of Truth.
IHDINAS SIRAT-AL-MUSTAQEEM IS THE JOURNEY TO ULTIMATE PERFECTION OF ALMIGHTY ALLAH (SWT)
The second angle which is very interesting is connected to the point made earlier on, and that is we are always in a process of evolution. We are always progressing higher and higher. So, it does not mean that our progression has stopped once we are on the right path. Not at all, as the journey of evolution continues.
On this basis, when we say “Ih dinas-siratal mustaqeem” we are asking Almighty Allah (SWT) to keep guiding us on the right path throughout this journey of progressing towards perfection. As pointed out at the beginning of this discussion, the reference to the right path is not a frozen reality.
The right path has different levels for which we need to keep climbing the ladder of “Sirat-al-Mustaqeem” to attain. People like us are probably at the bottom rung of this ladder! But those who are on the very high steps of this ladder also keep climbing to even higher levels on this “Sirat-al-Mustaqeem”. Hence, “Ih dinas-siratal mustaqeem” means that we are asking Almighty Allah (SWT) to keep us climbing this ladder on the journey towards Him.
May Almighty Allah (SWT) enlighten us with the help of people of this divine path, with connection and commitment to the leaders of this path, to evolve, strive and progress towards His absolute perfection, Insha Allah.
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