By Ziauddin Sardar
January 21, 2008
This path is not as simple as it seems - it reveals itself differently in different circumstances
In al-Fatiha we pray for God's guidance. In particular, we pray to be guided towards the "straight path", a way that will lead to success in this world and salvation in the hereafter. Basically, we are asking God to illuminate both, the truth itself and the way to the truth.
But truth, as we all know, is not always easy to delineate. Islam itself is sometimes described as the "straight path". Like truth, Islam can be complex too; and open to a number of diverse interpretations. The "straight path" can thus be defined in a number of different ways.
Traditionalist Muslim scholars see the "straight path" as a straight line, the shortest distance between two points. Some Shia Muslims argue that it refers to Ali, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam. Sufis, or Muslim mystics, see it as gnosis. The great 12th century Andalusian Sufi Ibn Arabi reflects his own philosophy of "unity of being" in his commentary on al-Fatiha. The straight path is thus not as straight and simple as it seems.
There is a sense in which any road we follow can be called a straight path, simply because we know, no matter how many twists and turns or intersections with other roads, eventually, if we follow its confines and just keep going we will inevitably arrive at our destination.
It is quite easy for this common understanding to become, in religious terms, the equivalent of just keep on doing what people have always done. Follow in the footsteps of tradition, do what custom authorises, that's what the straight path has always been so why should you argue or question? But I am less and less convinced this can be the appropriate way to understand the straight path.
We all know that if you pick up a map or a street plan it is possible to devise numerous routes to get to the same destination. And, while we travel each one of them would appear to us to be going straight to our objective.
So what exactly is this path and where are we hoping to arrive? Our final destination is the Hereafter, where all our deeds will be examined and judged. What we need is advice on how to arrive in the best condition. Therefore, the guidance has to be qualitative information, advice on how to travel rather than on where to go. We can have no doubt where we are going - we all die.
The Qur'an is full of metaphors and allusions to travel and movement. Sharia, the term used for Islamic law, derives from a word signifying "the way to a watering hole". In the desert, water holes must be found among shifting sands and changing and often hazardous weather conditions. And to survive one has to keep on finding water holes along the route.
So, for me, the "straight path" is a navigational tool, a set of criteria to assess where we actually are and where we ought to be going in the course of life's journey. It functions like a lighthouse that guides vessels at sea, illuminates hazardous areas, and highlights safe passages. What is 'straight' in the 'straight path' is the manner of travel and not the road you see in front of you.
The Qur'an is the navigational tool for the mindful travellers, who "walk on earth in humbleness, pass their nights preparing themselves to make a rightful submission and take a rightful stand, spend their wealth on others, and are neither extravagant not stingy" [25:63-68]. They are "proactively steadfast, truthful in word and action, ever submitting to the Commandments, keeping their wealth open for the society, and seeking protection early against any forthcoming challenge from the bottom of their hearts" [3:15-17]. En route, they "turn away from evil and indecency" [12:24]; and establish prayer, fast during the month of Ramadan, pay Zakat (what is due to the poor), and go, at least once in their life, for a pilgrimage to Mecca. (These are generally known as the Four Pillars of Islam.)
The Qur'an is God's guidance on how to live. Its moral references are a set of principles which help you reorient yourself and get back on the right track. Why do we need this advice? Because each human being is free to choose. We have free will and the potential to do good. But human beings are weak, we have the capacity to be evil, "to spread corruption and shed blood" (2:30) and who, looking at the evidence of human history could disagree! So we need to keep questioning our behaviour, reasoning about our choices to make necessary course adjustments to ensure we are on the straight path. Only this will enable us to avoid the path of those who have "gone astray".
The "straight path" is, as Surah 90 tells us, a "steep path". It is a path of "toil and trial", full of hazards and challenges: our constant struggles with moral, material, social, cultural and political complexities of an ever and rapidly changing society. In which case the problem is how to locate the straight path among all the multiple choices presented to us. The path, as a conceptual tool, is a means of choosing between good, better or best, bad, worse or worst ways of living. And the choices are not just personal and individual. The straight path includes obligations and responsibilities to everyone around us and the world on which we live. So we have to be active and contribute to making society better for all, Muslim and non-Muslim, for on that too we will be judged.
So, let me stand against all those who say the "straight path" is simple and self-evident. I say it is not fixed; it changes with changing circumstances and reveals itself differently in different circumstances. It has to be constantly discovered and rediscovered. And, most definitely, following the straight path does not mean having a single answer.
The Fatiha ends by reminding us we are neither the first nor the last people to have wrestled with how to live a good life. The Qur'an situates itself in history, among the successive generations of God's creation who have all faced the same dilemma. Whether we look to the past or think about our future we need qualitative assessments that help us make more informed, better choices in the place we now are. The best possible choices according to prevailing circumstances made on a regular basis - in essence, returning to the watering hole, will take us forward to the straight path.
What Does The 'Straight Path' Mean?
The idea of the spiritual life as a journey is important in Christianity. How is this image used in Islam?
January 21, 2008
Zia, these verses (al-Fatiha 6-7) sent a bit of a shiver down my spine. I'm afraid the idea of a straight path reminded me of those Victorian prints which illustrated how the way to hell is wide and broad and crowded and the way to heaven is narrow and crooked.
Common to both Christianity and Islam is the image of the path, and the spiritual life as a journey. These are very important ideas in Christianity and I wondered whether you can explain more on how this image is used in Islam. For example, it's interesting that the path referred to here is "Straight", with a capital letter! The image in Christianity is "strait is the gate" as the French writer Andre Gide titled one of his novels. The implication is that it's hard to follow the Christian path and the gate is narrow, but the Qur'an seems to be using the image differently; can you explain? Finally, can you expand on what stops human beings following the path? In Christianity, the explanation is that fallen human nature makes it hard for us to find and follow the narrow path. Does Islam have a belief about the Fall and original sin? What explanation is there in Islam for why all human beings aren't jogging happily along the Straight Path?