One of the areas where there are serious reservations in the minds of some people about the Qur'anic teachings is the question of the extent of freedom an individual enjoys in being guided towards the right path or in being misguided away from it. It is alleged that the Qur'an informs the reader that Allah Almighty allows religious guidance to some people and prevents others from getting it on the basis of His own sole discretion. As a consequence of this perception, many people find it sufficiently convincing to stay away from making personal efforts to achieve progress towards the acquiring and strengthening of faith, because they contend that since they have no role to play in either accepting faith or in rejecting it, why then should they involve themselves in worrying about it at all.
Another aspect of the same misconception is presented thus: It is mentioned in the Qur'anthat there are some people whose hearts are sealed, thus being rendered unworthy of comprehension of the true message such that they are condemned to become deaf, dumb and blind with regard to its teachings. Consequently, they are unlikely to make any progress towards acknowledging the truth. If that was the case, so goes the argument, then why should people with such disabilities be blamed for not doing something they were incapable of doing any way given their natural abilities or lack of them. It amounts to blaming them for no fault of theirs.
Such misunderstandings prevail because for a large number of readers an important aspect of the Qur'anic teachings remains improperly understood. The Qur'an mentions the details of a definite law of guidance which, according to the Book, is uniformly applicable to all people. Allah Almighty implements the law with meticulous precision to all individuals without any discrimination whatsoever.
What exactly is the law? The Qur'an has mentioned the outlines of the law very concisely in one of the earliest revealed surahs thus:
Yet he who spends on others and is righteous and affirms goodness, We shall ease the way of fortune for him. But he who does not spend and is unconcerned and rejects goodness, for him We shall ease the way of adversity. (2: 5-10)
These verses show that in matters pertaining to guidance, man is being treated in one of the two ways. Either the way of guidance is being eased for him or misguidance is being made easier for him. The Qur'an has used the expressions of taysir (task made easier) and imhal (temporary relief allowed) respectively for the treatment meted out to the two categories of individuals.
According to the details available in the Qur'an on the nature of the law, each individual who has been put through the test of this worldly life has been provided with adequate abilities to distinguish right from wrong, truth from untruth. However, since this worldly part of man's life was meant to be only a trial in God Almighty's plan to decide as to who from amongst the human beings are going to be found deserving the privilege of entry into paradise and who are not, evil and untruth were allowed to be shrouded under tempting, attractive appearances. Thus, to tell a lie in many worldly situations accompanies some immediate material gains, while to tell a truth, it requires the truthful to make sacrifices in doing so. However, those who are declining to follow the right behaviour for worldly gains have been provided with enough abilities to know from within their souls that what they are doing is in fact hideous. Therefore, an individual's act of lying, for example, may bring some immediate worldly benefits for him on the one hand, but would also be accompanied by a feeling of guilt in his conscience on the other. This voice of the conscience continues to condemn if the individual continues to defy its verdicts, although each subsequent stroke of conscience-pricking if ignored is likely to be less pronounced than the earlier ones. In other words, the facility of self-correction from within is not available to individuals unconditionally and endlessly. If the voice of the conscience is valued by the individual through his positive responses to its calls, it grows in strength. If it is ignored, it gets weaker until such time that it finally disappears into extinction.
Likewise, if an individual demonstrates his willingness to respond to the calls of his conscience, no matter what the consequences, and as a result even when he commits a crime against its verdict, he earnestly regrets and corrects himself, this inner facility not only survives but grows from strength to strength. For such people the path of truth and righteousness is not only familiar but extremely pleasing. Thus, whenever the ultimate truth in the form of the message of a prophet of Alla^h approaches them, they find no hesitation in recognizing and acknowledging it. They, in fact, find it so familiar that they do not notice any variance between their inner conscience and the contents of the message. Accordingly, the message appears to them most convincing and appealing.
Thus when Allah's message is presented before individuals, their responses are in direct correlation with the state of their conscience. There are some who give an immediately positive response. Such are the people who had preserved the sanctity of their conscience by always respecting the truth and nobility. Since they were always accustomed to acknowledging and respecting the truth, when the clearest manifestation of truth is presented to them, it is no wonder that they unhesitatingly incline towards it. It is an inviolable law which is enforced through subtle manipulations in the human feelings ultimately affecting the behavioural pattern of individuals. The application of the positive aspect of the law in an individual not only helps him in realizing the veracity of the truth, it furthermore leads him to the higher levels of achievement of it. Thus their life in this world is a spiritual journey made easier (taysir) enabling them to be taken from the darkness of relative untruth towards the ever-brightening light of truth.
But for those who have been consistently ignoring the truth in its different manifestations, they do not get the privilege of welcoming the message of Allah, the highest level of truth. It is as if when a student fails at a lower grade examination, he cannot be expected to make it to success at a higher one. They are not only deprived of acknowledging the truth, but are furthermore allowed to plunge into the ever-deepening darkness of ignorance (imhal).
However, it seems that not every one belongs to the category of people who possess the highest level of nobility of heart. There are many others who despite having duly respected verdicts of their conscience on many occasions, do show a tendency of going on the wrong side as well to fall into the trap of doing acts that were not acceptable to the conscience. Thus their inner souls are not as unmistakably clean as of those belonging to the first category. At the time when they are confronted with the message of truth, they are not as immediately clear about its veracity as is the case of those belonging to the first category. They might, therefore, hesitate, to begin with, in accepting it, even to the extent of apparently denying it. However, on later reconsideration, they realize that their earlier decision was incorrect. Thus they too ultimately get the privilege of acknowledging and valuing the truth. The Qur'an says:
And there are others who have confessed their faults. They mixed good works with others that are evil. It may be that Allah will turn to them with compassion. Surely Allah is Most Forgiving, Merciful.(9:102)
As for those who have lost the true sifting ability of their souls as a consequence of their persistent wrong behaviour, since their inner realisation has perished, they do not find themselves able to appreciate the purity of the message that comes from Allah. The Qur'an mentions the description of a group of such people belonging to the tribe of Quraysh thus:
So comply not with the wishes of those who reject (the Truth). They wish that you should compromise so that they may also compromise. Do not pay heed to any mean swearer, backbiter, one who goes about slandering, forbidder of good, transgressor, sinful, crude, and above all mean and infamous. Only because he possesses riches and children. When Our signs are recited before him, he says 'Tales of the ancient'. (68:8-15)
On another occasion it is mentioned thus:
Ah the woe that day for those who deny, who call the day of judgement a lie! None denies it but the wicked, the transgressor. When Our revelations are recited before him, he says: 'Fables of long ago.' No. In fact what they have been doing has rusted their hearts." (83:10-14)
Even if people belonging to this category apparently accept the truth, it is only for worldly benefits and not for genuine consideration of acknowledging the voice of the truth. The Qur'an says:
When the hypocrites come to you, they say: 'We confirm that you are the messenger of Allah.' Allah indeed knows you are His messenger. Allah bears witness that hypocrites are indeed liars. They have made their oaths a shield, thus they obstruct others from the way of Allah. It is certainly evil what they do. That is because they came to believe, and then disbelieved, so their hearts were sealed and now they do not understand. (63:1-3)
Those who deny the message of the prophets, they still get the opportunity from God to consider accepting it for a while. On persistent denial, however, the inner conscience begins to lose its God-given ability and when their intransigence goes beyond a certain divinely established limit, the inner damage is rendered irreparable. It is an inflexible aspect of the law of guidance in the case of such people that, as the Qur'an informs us, Allah seals their hearts, their ears and their eyes such that they do not get any further opportunity from Him of acknowledging the truth. All attempts to bring them close to faith fail, because the inner ability that could enable them to acquire it has disappeared for ever. As a consequence the Qur'an informs us that Allah has:
... raised a barrier in front of them and a barrier behind them, and have covered them over so that they are not able to see (the truth). Whether you warn them or do not warn them, it is all the same; they will not believe. (36:9-10)
Such people are described by the Qur'an as worse than beasts (7:179, 25:44, and 8:22) since they have allowed themselves to remain deaf, dumb and blind to the ultimate truth despite being blessed with such faculties which, if they were properly used, could have lead them to appreciating it.
Although the above explanation clarifies the law of guidance to some extent, there is one question that still remains un-addressed: Even if one concedes that the above clarification is valid, why is it then that the Qur'an mentions that it is only Allah Who guides and it is only He Who misguides? Could not an explanation in lines similar to what has been mentioned above be offered to eliminate all reasons of misunderstanding for the reader?
In response to the above question, the context of the verses where such statements appear ought to be considered. For instance, Allah Almighty states:
Indeed it is not you [O Prophet!] who can guide whom you desire; instead, it is Allah who guides whom He wills. And He knows those who are (worthy of being) guided. (28:56)
The basic message in this and all similar verses is to clarify that it is not the Prophet (sws) or his companions who have the final decision-making authority to lead people to true guidance. Instead, it is only Allah Almighty Who decides whom to allow to be guided and whom not to. The ending part of the passage is significant. It clarifies that it is Allah Who knows as to who is worthy of being guided and who is not. Therefore, the correct decision of guiding or misguiding can be taken only by Him. He knows, for instance, people who are valuing His message befittingly and, therefore, are qualifying to be eligible for guidance. He also knows, on the contrary, those who are arrogantly ignoring the message and, therefore, are not deserving to be given the privilege of accepting it. No one else has the level of information except He to take that vital decision pertaining to all human beings. He is thus the sole decision maker in this regard to the exclusion of all others. However, it goes without mentioning that whenever the All-Wise Allah takes decisions, they are always based upon all His attributes including the attributes of Knowledge, Wisdom, Mercy and Justice.
A mention of a few important Qur'anic passages relevant to this theme alongside their brief explanation would help clarify still further the details of the law.
In al-Baqarah, the Qur'an says:
There is no compulsion in religion. Distinct is the way of guidance from error. He who turns away from the forces of evil and believes in Allah has grasped a firm handhold which will never break. Allah hears all and knows everything. Allah becomes the Protecting Friend of those who (want to) believe. He brings them out of darkness (of ignorance) into light (of truth). As for those who (want to) disbelieve, forces of evil are allowed to become their patrons. Such are rightful owners of fire. They will abide therein. (2:256-7)
The passage begins by clarifying that as for guidance to Allah's message, He has decided that in this worldly life it is going to be strictly a matter of an individual's choice. Allah has decided not to force it upon any one. The right path having been made completely distinct from the wrong one, it is now upon the individual to decide which way to go. If he decides to adopt the path leading to faith -- for which he will have to turn "away from the forces of evil"--, Allah would assume the role of his protecting friend, guiding him through the dangers of darkness of ignorance ultimately towards the safety of the of the truth. Those who, despite having enough reasons to acknowledge the message of Allah as true, choose the wrong path, they will be allowed to wander in the darkness of ignorance.
The procedure adopted to enforce the latter aspect of the law has been further clarified in another Qur'anic passage thus:
And he who draws away from the remembrance of the Beneficent, We shall attach to him a devil as companion. And they indeed obstruct them from the right path, though they think they are rightly guided; until when he will come before Us, he will say (to his companion) 'Could it be that there be a distance of the East and West between me and you -- an evil companion.' (43:36-8)
The passage clarifies that it is an individual's own decision of staying away from Allah's message (remembrance) that initiates the process of his misguidance, which ultimately leads to his destruction. Had he valued the message of Allah, he would have been treated differently in accordance with that aspect of the law of guidance which is for the treatment of those who are destined to be guided. An important aspect of the law clarified in the passage pertains to the manner the behaviour of the misguided is affected. It states that those about whom misguidance is the divine verdict, they are allowed to be obstructed by Satan from going to the right path. In other words, since they voluntarily choose to tread the path of staying away from Allah's remembrance, Satan is allowed to take them away towards the path of misguidance. All this while they remain under the false impression that what they are doing is perfectly good. The delusion continues till the appointed time of contact with their Creator arrives. It is only then that they would realize that the life they had led in the company of Satan was in fact thoroughly misdirected. That realization, however, would be too late.
A third important passage in the Qur'an that clarifies the law appears in Surah al-'Araf. The passage can be translated thus:
Relate to them the plight of the man whom We gave Our signs, but he passed them by, so that Satan came after him, and he went astray. We could have exalted him through them if We pleased, but he loved the world more and followed his lust. His likeness is like that of a dog who hangs out his tongue if you drive him away, and still hangs it out if you leave him alone. Such is the case of the people who deny Our signs. Narrate this story to them, they may haply reflect. (7:175-6)
This passage mentions the example of an individual who got a tremendous opportunity to gain spiritual development -- which is indeed true for all humans who get the chance of living in this world -- but he lost it by choosing to prefer material gains over spiritual considerations. Had he accepted the challenge and stayed away from those temptations, he would have been raised to great heights of spirituality. However, since he preferred misguidance over guidance, he was allowed by God Almighty to continue to scale down the steep fall of spiritual degeneration that eventually took him to such abysmally low point of spiritual ignorance that he came to be described as similar to a dog who hangs out his tongue in both cases, whether you scorn him or you leave him. Likewise, in the case of this man it is equally futile whether you call him to faith or you don't, his response would be the same, since he has caused his God-given ability to sift right from wrong to disappear.
The above-stated description of the divine law of guidance may get challenged by a critic who could present an argument from the Qur'anic verse wherein it is mentioned about the Qur'an that it is "a guidance to the Godfearing." (2:2) That apparently suggests that guidance of the Qur'an is meant only for those who already believe. In other words, in order for an individual to be properly guided by theQur'an, he has first got to be a believer. If that understanding were true, how could the law described above be true as well, for while the afore-mentioned law suggests a completely objective procedure that is adopted to decide the spiritual success or failure of the individual, this verse is apparently suggesting that the entire process is so thoroughly predestined that an individual has no role to play in it. To answer this query, I am borrowing the response of Dr. Mustansir Mir who answered a similar question in somewhat the following lines:
In the verse referred to, the original Arabic word used for the "Godfearing" literally translates: people who have "taqwa". What is taqwa? Literally again, it means cautiousness, wariness. In religious parlance, it means the care which a man exercises in warding off evil and avoiding the sinful path. As a term in the Qur'an it has been used in two senses: 1) a quality of mind which is the cause of faith and 2) a quality of mind which is the product of faith. For want of better expressions, we shall call these two types pre-faith taqwa and post-faith taqwa. While post-faithtaqwa denotes an attitude of "being wary" of what God has forbidden or warned against, pre-faithtaqwa, being non-religious in nature, simply implies a certain carefulness of disposition, a certain watchfulness of manner, a seriousness of approach which qualifies a man to receive the Qur'an and become a believer.
Now in the verse under discussion, the Qur'an is speaking of the first type of taqwa, the pre-faith taqwa. It is saying that it intends to guide all, but only those will be able to draw benefit from it who possess a certain basic goodness of the mind and heart, who are 'mindful' in their thought and conduct, who 'care' and are not the flippant type. In terms of analogy, just as a radio station transmits its programmes for all and yet only those may listen whose wireless sets are in order, similarly the Qur'an offers to guide all and yet only those will benefit from it who have the basic goodness of their nature intact. One is reminded of Christ's remark he used to make on finishing his address to people: "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." Christ's address was given to all and yet it was actually given to those who had "ears". The Qur'an is saying much the same thing.
It can be objected that the attributes which the Qur'an enumerates of the "Godfearing" in the verse immediately following 2:2 clearly indicate that the taqwa the Qur'an is speaking of, at least in the present case, is post-faith and not pre-faith. For do we not read:
Who believe in the unseen, and establish worship, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them. And who believe in that which is revealed unto thee (Muhammad) and that which was revealed before thee, and are certain of the Hereafter. (2:3-4)
The answer is that in verse 2:2 the Qur'an speaks of pre-faith taqwa but in the verse which follows, it is speaking of the post-faith taqwa. That is to say, it first tells us about the qualification for receiving the Qur'an and then apprises us of the results of that reception.
This shift from one sense of taqwa to another is both subtle and important. The subtlety consists in the almost imperceptible shift which takes place in the meaning of taqwa, the importance in the suggestion that the first type of taqwa, that is, the pre-faith taqwa, should logically lead to the second type, that is, the post-faith taqwa. Imagine yourself first equating knowledge with virtue and telling one of your friends that Mr. So-and-so is a knowledgeable person; you would naturally expect your friend to conclude by himself that Mr. So-and-so is a virtuous man also. Likewise the Qur'an first identifies pre-faith taqwa with post-faith taqwa in the sense that it visualizes the former as inevitably leading (of course through the agency of belief in the religion of God) to the latter, and then tells you that (pre-faith) taqwa is required to make use of this book, expecting you to infer for yourself that this taqwa must manifest itself in practice. Once you have derived this conclusion, it spells out for you the exact form in which that taqwa must manifest itself.