Which 'path' is 'straight'?
Now, to come to the meaning of the 'straight path', it is the path which has no turns and twists. The term signifies the particular way of Faith which equally avoids the two extremes of excess and deficiency. One who follows the straight path would, in matters of doctrine and practice both, neither go beyond the limits nor fall short of them.
The last two verses of the Surah Al-Fatihah define and identify that 'straight path', something man has been prompted to pray for immediately earlier. The verse says: (The path of those on whom You have bestowed Your grace). As to who these people are, another verse of the Holy Qur'an gives us details in the following words:
“Those whom Allah has blessed, namely, the prophets, the Siddiqin, the Shuhada', and the righteous.” (4:69)
These are the four categories of those who find favour with Allah. Among them all, the prophets are the greatest. The Siddiqin (the constantly true) are those who acquire spiritual perfection, and thus -- attain the highest rank among the followers of a prophet. In common parlance, they are called Men of Allah, or saints.' The Shuhada (martyrs) are those who sacrifice even their lives for the sake of their faith (or, who bear witness to the truth, as the word admits of both meanings). The righteous (the Salihin) are those who follow the Shariah completely, not only in the matter of obligations (Wajibat) but also with regard to commendable (mustahabb) actions. In everyday language they are called the pious or the virtuous or the good.
This verse, then, determines the straight path in a positive manner, identifying it with the path followed by men of these four categories. The next verse, by a process of elimination, does the same in a negative manner by saying
“Not of those who have incurred your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.”
Those who have incurred Allah's wrath are the people, who inspite of being quite familiar with the commandments of Allah willfully go against them out of a calculated perversity or in the service of their desires, or, in other words, who are deficient in obeying divine injunctions. This, for example, was the general condition of the Jews who were ready to sacrifice their religion for the sake of a petty worldly gain, and used to insult and sometimes even to kill their prophets.
As for (those who go astray), they are the people who, out of ignorance or lack of thought, go beyond the limits appointed by Allah, and indulge in excess and exaggeration in religious matters. This, for example, has generally been the error of the Christians who exceeded the limits in their reverence for a prophet and turned him into a god. On the one hand, there is the rebelliousness of the Jews who not only refused to listen to the prophets of Allah but went on to kill them; on the other hand, there is the excessive zeal of the Christians who deified a prophet.
Thus, the essential meaning of the verse is that, in praying for the straight path, we do not ask for the path of those who are the slaves of their desires, perverse in thought and action, and deficient in performing their religious obligations, nor the path of those who are ignorant or unmindful or misled, and indulge in excess and exaggeration in religious matters, but wish for a path between these two extremes, which inclines neither towards excess nor towards deficiency, and which is as free of the promptings of desires as of doubts and confusions and of erroneous beliefs.
In short, the prayer for the straight path is the essence of the Surah Al-Fatihah. Since knowing and following the straight path is the real knowledge and the real achievement in this mortal world, a mistake in picking it up right takes peoples and nations to ruins; otherwise, there are even non-Muslims who claim to be seeking God and undertake stupendous labours to attain this end. The Holy Quran has, therefore, defined the straight path so explicitly from a positive as well as eliminative point of view.
The Key to the Straight Path
But, before we proceed, there is another problem to be considered, the answer to which would open the door to a new and more comprehensive understanding. It would seem that in order to define the straight path it should have been sufficient to call it 'the path of the Prophet (peace be upon him) or 'the path of the Qur'an', which should also have been more succinct and more explicit, for the whole of the Holy Qur'an is really an explanation of the straight path, and the teachings of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him), an elaboration. But, setting aside the succinct and explicit form of expression, the Holy Qur'an has taken up two verses of this short Surah for defining and delimiting the straight path positively and negatively, and has thus indicated that if one wishes to follow the straight path, one should seek such and such men 'those on whom Allah has bestowed His grace...', and adopt their way. Here, the Holy Quran does not ask us to follow the 'path of the Qur'an', for a book alone is not sufficient for the grooming of man; nor does it ask us to follow 'the path of the prophet', for the Holy Prophet was not to be in this world for ever, and no other prophet was to come after him. So, in enumerating those whose teaching and example can help us attain the straight path, the Holy Quran has, besides the prophets (peace be upon him), included those too, who will always be found living amongst us till the last day of the world -- namely, the Siddiqin, the Shuhada, and the righteous.
For the purpose of indicating the manner in which one can find the straight path, the Holy Qur'an has thus referred not to a book but to certain men. According to a hadith, when the Holy Prophet informed his Companions that, like earlier communities, his 'Ummah' too would be divided into seventy or seventy-two sects, and that only one among them would be on the right path, they wanted to know as to which group it would be. The answer he gave also leads on to certain men of Allah, for he said: “That which follows my way and the way of my Companions”. All this comes to mean that written books or oral traditions alone cannot teach, train and discipline man; for this, one has to be with knowing men, and learning from them. In yet other words, the real teacher and groomer of man has to be another man; a book cannot take that place all by itself. How curtly this was pointed out by Akbar, the famous Urdu poet-humorist, who said:
کورس تو لفظ ہی سکھاتے ہیں
آدمی، آدمی بناتے ہیں
which, in English, comes close to saying: "Courses teach words. But, men train men." This truth holds good even for spheres of everyday life.
No one has ever become a doctor, or an engineer, or even a cook or a tailor merely by reading a book. Similarly, studying the Holy Qur'an and the Hadith on one's own cannot by itself be sufficient for the moral-spiritual education and training of a man; such a study must be carried on under the guidance of a specialist or a genuine scholar before it can be useful. It is common observation that many people today, though otherwise educated, cherish the erroneous notion that one can acquire a masterly knowledge of the Holy Qur'an and Hadith merely by reading a translation or at best a commentary. But the error of such an enterprise is self-evident. Had a book in itself been sufficient for the guidance of men, there was no need for the prophets to be sent. But, Allah in sending us His Book, has also sent His Prophet to serve as a teacher and guide. In defining the straight path too, He has also enumerated those of His servants who find special favor with Him -- all of which argues that, in trying to understand the Book of Allah and to act upon it, one cannot solely rely on one's own study and judgment, but must turn to someone who knows.
Two things are necessary for the physical and spiritual well-being and success of man -- the Book of Allah which contains guidance for every sphere of human life, and the Men of Allah who help in making this guidance effective. The way to profit from the Men of Allah is to assess them according to the well-known principles of the Book of Allah. Those who do not conform to these principles should just not be regarded as Men of Allah. But, when one has found Men of Allah, in the real sense, one should seek their guidance in order to understand the meaning of the Book of Allah and act upon it.
Why the Schism?
As to the sectarian differences on this point, we may remark that there are two kinds of deviations in this respect. Some people elected to follow the Book of Allah alone, ignored the Men of Allah totally and gave no value to their teachings and explanations. Conversely, others adopted the Men of Allah as the only criterion of truth and became indifferent to the Book of Allah. Both these ways lead to fatal error.
Injunctions and related considerations
To recapitulate, the Surah Al-Fatihah begins with the praise of Allah. Then comes an affirmation on the part of man that he worships Allah alone, and turns to him alone in the hour of need. That is, so to say, the oath of allegiance man offers to his Lord and Master. Finally, there is a prayer which covers all possible human needs and goals. Beside these, there are some related secondary considerations also which arise from the Surah. These are as follows:
The proper way of Praying to Allah
Through this particular mode of expression and through its structure, the Surah teaches man how to pray and how to make a request to Allah. The proper method is that one should begin by fulfilling one's obligation to praise Allah. Then, one should offer the pledge of complete allegiance to Allah to the effect that one does not regard anyone except Allah as being worthy of adoration and worship, nor does one look upon anyone except Allah as having the real power to give help in one's distress or need. Finally, one should pray for what one wishes to have. And there is every hope that a prayer made in this manner will be granted. (see Ahkam al-Jassaas). The Surah also suggests that, in praying to Allah, one should pray for something so comprehensive that it includes in essence all possible human goals, for example, pray for being guided in the straight path, because if one can and does follow the straight path in everything that concerns this world or the other, one's material life or spiritual, one need not be afraid of stumbling or of being hurt.
Praising Allah is Man's Natural Demand
The first verse of the Surah teaches man to praise Allah. We praise someone either for a quality inherent in him or for a favor received from him. But the verse mentions neither. The implication is that the blessings of Allah are limitless. The Holy Qur'in says: “If you try to count the blessings of Allah, you will never be able to number them” (14:34 and 16:18). Leaving aside other things, if man only considers his own being, he would find that it is a microcosm -- in itself which contains in analogical form everything contained in the macrocosm, his body offers a parallel to the earth, the hair on it to the ' vegetation, his bones to the hills, his veins flowing with blood to the springs underground.
Man, again, is composed of two parts, spirit and body, of which the spirit is obviously superior in value, while the body is subservient to it. In this inferior part alone, there are thousands of anatomical and biological wonders. There are supposed to be more than three hundred joints, but Allah has made each of them so strong that during the sixty or seventy years of an average man's life they are in perpetual motion and yet do not need repairs. Of this Allah himself has reminded us:
“It is We Who created them, and it is We Who endowed their joints with strength” (76:28)
Or, take the example of the eye. One may spend a life-time and yet not fully know the manifestations of divine wisdom present in it. Or, take a single movement of the eye, and see how many blessings of Allah are involved in its functioning. Before the eye can see, internally it requires physical energy which in its turn is provided by food, air, water etc. And externally it requires the light of the sun which in its turn depends on a thousand other factors. That is to say, all the forces of the universe join together to make it possible for the eye to see even once. Now, try to calculate how many times does the eye see in a day, in .a year, in a man's life-time. Similarly, the functions of the ears, the tongue, the hands and the feet, each brings into action the forces of the whole universe.
This is a kind of blessing which is equally available to every living man, be he a king or a beggar. In fact, all the greatest blessings of Allah are the common property of every living creature -- for example, air, water, light, the sun, the moon, the stars, in fact, everything that exists in the heavens and the earth, or between them, offers its benefits to all without distinction
Then there are special blessings which divine wisdom has chosen to distribute unequally among men, some getting more and others less. This category includes wealth, honor, health, peace, knowledge and other acquisitions. Although the general blessings are obviously much more important and essential for human life than the special blessings, yet man in his naiveté takes them for granted and never realizes what great gifts they are in spite of being common.
Now, human nature itself requires that in recognition of the innumerable blessings that keep descending on him at every moment of his life, man should, as far as he can, praise and continue to praise his Benefactor. It is to indicate this basic need of human nature that the Holy Qur'an employs the word 'Al-hamd' (Praise) as the first word of the very first Surah. Thus, the praise of Allah has been accorded a very high rank among the acts of worship. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has said that when, on receiving some kind of a blessing from Allah, His servant says “Praise belongs to Allah”, it is like giving something better in return for what he has taken (Qurtubi, from Ibn Majah, as narrated by Anas). According to another hadith if a man, on receiving all possible blessings of the world, says: “Al-hamdulillih”, his act is superior to all those blessings. Commenting on this hadith and citing certain scholars, al-Qurtubi says, the ability to repeat the phrase 'Al-hamdulillih' with one's tongue is in itself a blessing of Allah. According to another authentic hadith, saying this phrase fills half the scale on the side of good deeds in the Balance. As to what praising Allah should actually mean, Shaqiq ibn Ibraham explains that when one receives some gift from Allah, one should first of all recognize the Benefactor, then be content with what He has given, and finally never disobey Him as long as one has some strength left in the body, which again is a gift from Allah. (See Qurtubi)
The second element in the phrase is Lillah, which is composed of the preposition Lam (Arabic equivalent of the letter L) and the noun 'Allah'. This preposition means 'for' and is used for particularization, showing the exclusive possession of a thing or quality. So, the phrase implies that not only is it the duty ,of man to praise Allah, but in reality all praise belongs exclusively to Him, and no one else in the universe is worthy of it. At the same time, and by way of a further blessing, Allah has, for the purpose of teaching man how to behave with his fellow beings, commanded him to thank those too through whom the gifts of Allah come to him, for one who does not see the need of thanking his human benefactor would not thank Allah too.
Self-praise is not permitted
It is not permissible for a created being such as man to praise himself. The Holy Qur'an says:
“Do not pretend to be pure; He knows best who is really God-fearing” (53:32). That is to say, a man can be praised only if he fears Allah, but Allah alone knows to what degree a particular man possesses this quality, known as Taqwa. As for Allah praising Himself, the reason is that man is not capable of praising the glory and greatness of Allah in a befitting manner. Not to speak of others, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has exclaimed: “I cannot properly praise You!” Therefore, Allah Himself has taught man the mode of praising Him
Rabb is the exclusive attribute of Allah
The Arabic word 'Rabb' (Lord) is applied to a person who not only possesses a certain thing, but is also fully capable of and responsible for nurturing it properly. Obviously, no one can act as 'Rabb' with regard to the whole universe except Allah. So, the word, used in an absolute sense, is exclusive to Allah, and it is not permissible to address or describe anyone other than Allah as 'Rabb. A hadith in the Sahih of Muslim explicitly forbids a slave or servant to call his master a 'Rabb'. The word may, however, be employed in the case of a man too in a relative sense -- that is, in relation to a particular thing, for example, 'rabb al-dar' (master of the house) etc. (Qurtubi).
Seeking help from Allah
According to the great commentator and Companion 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas, the verse 'You alone we worship, and from You alone we seek help' means that one worships Allah alone and no one else, and that one turns for help to Allah alone and to no one else. (Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Jarir)
It has been reported from certain great scholars and saints of the earliest centuries of Islam that the Surah al-Fatihah is the secret (i.e., the gist) of the entire Holy Qur'an, and this verse is the secret of the whole Surah, for the first sentence of the verse is a declaration of one's being free from Shirk, or from all desire to associate anyone with Allah, and the second sentence is an expression of one's being exempt from all wish to trust in one's own power and will. Such an affirmation would naturally lead to putting oneself in the hands of Allah in all concerns. The Holy Quran again and again commands us to do 'Worship Him, and put your trust in Him'. (11: 123); 'Say He is the All-Merciful. We believe in Him, and we put all our trust in Him' (67:29); 'He is the Lord of the East and the West; there is no god but He; so take Him for a guardian' (73:9). All these verses come to mean simply this -- a true Muslim should, in anything that he undertakes, rely neither on his own faculties nor on the help of a fellow creature, but should entrust himself completely to Allah, for He alone is All-Powerful, and He alone is the absolute helper.
Two doctrinal points emerge from this discussion. Firstly, it is totally forbidden to worship anyone except Allah, and associating anyone else with Him in worship is a deadly and unforgiveable sin. As we have already explained, 'Ibadah (worship) signifies an utmost humility and willing self-abasement before someone out of the deepest love and veneration. If one behaves in this manner in relation to any created being, it is called shirk (association) in Islamic terminology. It basically follows from this definition of "worship" that "association" does not merely consist in attributing divine power to figures made out of stone or metal as idolators usually do; but obeying or loving or venerating someone to the degree which is reserved for Allah is also an "obvious association" (al-shirk al-Jalii). In recounting how the Jews and the Christians indulge in shirk (association), the Holy Qur'an says: 'They have taken their religious scholars and their monks as lords apart from Allah'. (9:31)
The Companion Abi Ibn Hatim, who was a Christian before accepting Islam, asked the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) with reference to this verse as to why the Holy Quran should blame the Christians for having taken their religious scholars as lords when they were never guilty of worshipping them. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in his turn asked him if it was not a fact that their scholars had declared many things as forbidden although Allah had permitted men to eat them, and that conversely they had declared as permissible what had been forbidden, and that the Christians obeyed their scholars in both the respects. Adi admitted that it was so. Therefore, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) remarked that this was exactly how they 'worshipped' their scholars. This goes to prove that Allah alone has the right to establish what is permissible and what is forbidden. If one associates somebody else with Allah in this respect and, in spite of being familiar with the divine injunctions regarding what is permissible (halal) and what is forbidden (haram), goes against them, believing that someone other than Allah too can demand obedience in these matters, one is virtually worshipping him and being guilty of the sin of association (shirk). But, in order to guard against a possible misunderstanding, we may remark that this verse of the Holy Quran, which condemns the worship of religious scholars, does in no way apply to the generality of Muslims who, not being qualified to understand the Holy Quran and the Sunnah by themselves or to deduce the injunctions of the Shariah from them, naturally depend on an Imam, a Mujttihid, a Mufti or a religious scholar and follow his instructions in these matters. In fact, such Muslims are only acting in accordance with the Holy Qur'an and the Sunnah, and obeying divine commandments. For the Holy Quran itself says:
“Ask the men of knowledge, if you yourselves do not know.” (16:43)
Another thing which comes under the category of association (shirk) is to make votive offerings to someone other than Allah; so does praying to someone else in time of need or distress, for, according to a Tradition (Hadith), praying is also an act of worship. Similarly, adopting such practices as are in general considered to be the signs or symbols of association also constitute the same sin. For example, the Companion Adi Ibn Hatim, relates that when he embraced Islam and presented himself before the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) with a cross hanging round his neck, the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) asked him to remove this idol. Although at this time the cross did not have the kind of signification for Adi which it has for Christians, yet he was asked to shun a symbol of 'association' externally as well. Among the symbols of 'association' are included practices like bowing (ruku') or prostrating (sajdah) oneself before anyone except Allah, or going round a person or thing in the prescribed manner of the tawaf (circumambulation) of the Ka'bah. Avoiding all such symbols of 'association' is a necessary part of the pledge of fidelity to Allah made in the phrase: 'You alone we worship'.
Seeking Allah's Help Directly and Indirectly
'The other doctrinal point we mentioned is that one must turn to Allah alone for help and to no one else. This requires some clarification.
There is a kind of help which every man does seek from other men. The physical aspect of the universal order being what it is, it has to be so, and not otherwise. A tailor or tinker, a carpenter or a blacksmith, each is serving others, and everyone is obliged to seek his help. Seeking help of this kind neither is nor can be forbidden by any religion, for it is part and parcel of the network of physical means provided to men by Allah. In the sphere of non-physical means too, it is quite permissible for one to seek the help of a prophet or a saint by asking him to pray to Allah in one's behalf, or to mention, while praying directly to Allah, the name of a prophet or a saint by way of a medium (wasilah) for drawing divine mercy upon oneself. Explicit Traditions (ahadith) and implicit indications of the Holy Quran fully justify this practice, and it would be wrong to condemn it as being forbidden or to include it among the various forms of association (shirk).
Now, what sort of supplication for help is it which can be addressed exclusively to Allah and to no one else? And, when does one fall into the sin of shirk (association) in asking someone other than Allah for help? In reply to the second question, we may say that in this context the sin of shirk or association arises in two forms. Firstly, one becomes guilty of association, if one seeks the help of an angel or prophet or saint or any creature believing him to be omnipotent like Allah. It is such an obvious heresy that even idolaters and associators in general consider it as such, for even they do not look upon their idols and gods as being omnipotent like Allah. The second is the form adopted by idolaters and associators. They admit that God alone is Omnipotent, but also believe that He has delegated a part of His power to an angel or a prophet or a saint or to a smaller god who exercises a full and independent authority in that area, and to whom one may pray for help in matters within his jurisdiction. This is the supplication which the Holy Qur'an forbids, and against which it warns us in the phrase “to YOU alone we pray for help”.
There is a simple reason for misunderstanding in this regard. Allah appoints many angels to perform quite a large number of functions even in the physical order of the universe; or, He makes many things happen through the prophets which are beyond the powers of man and which are called miracles (mu'jizat), as also other incredible wonders through the saints which are called karamat. The appearance may easily lead a careless observer to ignore the reality, and to conclude from what he has seen that the angels or the prophets or the saints could not have worked such wonders if Allah had not given them the necessary power and authority. This faulty argument which is no more than an illusion gives birth to the belief that the prophets or the saints enjoy absolute power and authority in their own degree. It is not so. Miracles and wonders are the direct acts of Allah, but they are manifested through prophets and saints so that people may recognize their spiritual station -- prophets and saints themselves have no powers to make such things happen. This fact is borne out by so many verses of the Holy Qur'an. For example, the verse: 'When you threw, it was not you that threw, but Allah threw' (8:17) refers to a miracle of the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) in which he threw a handful of pebbles at an army of his enemies, and Allah willed it so that they smote the eyes of the whole army. The Holy Qur'an attributes the act of throwing pebbles, not to the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) but to Allah Himself, which clearly shows that a miracle is manifested through a prophet (peace be upon him), but is in reality an act of Allah Himself. Similarly, when the people of Nuh, or Noah (peace be upon him) demanded that, in order to establish his authenticity as a prophet, he should bring down on them the punishment and wrath of Allah, he replied: 'Allah will certainly bring it down to you, if He so will;' (11:33), in other words, he declared that he himself could not bring down divine punishment on them by way of a miracle. Another verse of the Holy Qur'an reports what a group of prophets said to their people in reply to a similar demand: 'We cannot give you proof, except by Allah's will’ (14:11). This again was an admission that it was not in their power to produce a miracle, for all power rests in the hands of Allah. In short, it is not at all possible for a prophet or a saint to show a miracle whenever he likes and whatsoever he likes. The disbelievers used to demand specific miracles from the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) and from the earlier prophets (peace be upon them) but Allah manifested only those which He Himself pleased, and not others. The Holy Quran presents many such instances.
An ordinary example will make the discussion clear. In your room, you receive light from a lamp and air from a fan, but the lamp and the fan do not possess in themselves an absolute power to give you light and air, but need the electric current which they receive from the power house, and without which they cannot function. Giving you light and air is, in actual fact, not the work of the lamp and the fan, but of the electric current which comes from the power house. Similarly, saints, prophets and angels, all depend on Allah in everything they do; it is Allah's power and will which makes things happen, though it manifests itself through prophets and saints as the electric current manifests itself through fans and lamps.
This example would also show that although prophets and saints have no power to make these things happen or come to be, yet their presence is not altogether irrelevant to what happens, you cannot have light and air in your room without there being a lamp and a fan. Likewise, you cannot have miracles or wonders without there being a prophet or a saint. There is, of course, a certain difference between the two situations. In spite of all the wirings and fittings being intact, you cannot have light without a lamp, nor air without a fan. But, in the case of miracles, Allah has the power, if He so wills, to manifest them even without the medium of prophets and saints. The usual way of Allah has, however, been that miracles are not manifested without the medium of prophets and saints; otherwise miracles would not serve the purpose for which they are intended.
To conclude, one must have firm faith in the doctrine that everything that happens is made to happen by the power and will of Allah, but it is also necessary to recognize the need for prophets and saints, and to admit their importance. Without such an admission, one would succeed neither in obeying divine commandments in the real sense nor in attaining Allah's pleasure exactly like the man who, being ignorant of the worth of lamps and fans, disregards them, and remains deprived of light and air.
The problems we have discussed above perplex many a mind. But the answer is essentially simple. Taking prophets and saints as a medium (wasilah) for drawing divine mercy upon oneself is neither absolutely permissible nor absolutely forbidden. There is a condition attached to it. If one does so, believing a prophet or a saint to be all-powerful, it becomes an act of shirk (association) and is hence forbidden. But if one takes a prophet or a saint to be no more than a medium or a means, it is permissible. But one finds that in this matter people generally adopt either of the two extreme positions, outright rejection of wasilah or exaggerated veneration. The truth, however, lies between the two
6. Success in this world and in the Hereafter As we have said before, the prayer which the Holy Qur'an has chosen to recommend to everyone, in every situation and for everything one does, is the prayer for being guided in the straight path. Just as success in the Hereafter depends on taking the straight path which leads one to Paradise, in the same way, if you come to think about it, success in all worldly concerns too depends on keeping to the straight path -- that is, on using the means and methods which habitually lead to the attainment of one's goal. Conversely, a little reflection will reveal that failure is always due to having strayed from the straight path. In view of the need for the straight path in worldly and other worldly concerns both, this is the prayer which should constantly be on the lips and in the heart of a true Muslim -- never as an empty verbal exercise, but with a sincere intention and with the meaning of the words fully present in the mind. With Allah's help, the commentary on Surah Al-Fatihah ends here.