Updated: May 17, 2020
There was once a man who was kind and compassionate, generous and considerate. He was a loving husband, a doting father, and a good neighbour. He was honest in his business dealings, fair-minded in his decisions, and always conscious of the plight of the less fortunate, which he constantly sought to improve. By most standards, he lived a full and satisfying life, filled with blessings made all the sweeter by his own good deeds.
And yet, every year, the man would retreat from the world, hike up a mountain, sit in a cave by himself, and contemplate on the meaning of life and of creation, seeking that which was above all else. Then one day, as he sat in that cave, meditating and seeking, he was blessed, gifted with vision, the ability to see things as they really are, the capacity to grasp the Truth.
This moment in time marks an important beginning for Muslims around the world, a beginning that we commemorate this week. For Muslims, it was in this moment that our faith, the faith of Islam, began. In this moment, Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) was transformed, and he became a messenger, a mercy to the worlds and a bringer of good tidings.
But as much as we tend to think of this moment as a beginning, it is in many ways a continuation, particularly of guidance. It represents an ongoing fulfillment of the promise inherent in Allah’s name, al-Hadi, the Guide, which is today’s snowflake.
As far as Muslims are concerned, the general consensus is that the Prophet’s experience of Tanzil, the descending of Allah's guidance on humanity did not occur just once. Rather, it had been occurring since the beginning of human history, with Allah providing guidance and messages to various people across history and geography. The Qur’an itself testifies to this perspective in a variety of verses. There are a wide range of interpretations about the meaning and purpose of this repeated guidance, but I have found myself more interested in another question lately - what are we being guided to?
The most oft-recited sura of the Qur’an is Sura al-Fatiha, the Opening. It’s the first chapter of the Qur’an, and it has been said that the entirety of the Qur’an is contained within its 7 verses. And among the supplications that are made in this chapter is the plea: Ihdinā ṣ-ṣirāṭa al-mustaqīm - guide us to as-sirat al-mustaqim.
Sirat al-mustaqim is one of those concepts that many of us take for granted as Muslims - the idea that Allah sets a path out for us to follow and that, in following that path, we are assured salvation. But I would argue that the message that we are presented with in sura al-Fatiha is actually a much more complicated one.
First of all, what is meant by mustaqim? When I was growing up, I always understood it to mean the Right Path – capitalized in just that way, meaning that it was the one clear and, by implication, the one correct way. And I know this was the case for many Muslims. But all it really says, according to almost all the translations, is the straight path, which is a pretty board concept.
And then, at the very end of the sura, we have an elaboration of what that straight path is. We say “sirat al-ladhina ana’mta a’layhim; gharil-maghdhubi a’layhim wa lad-dhaleen.” When I was growing up, the translation I was taught for this last part of the sura was “the path of those upon whom you have bestowed favours; not of those cursed ones, and nor of those who have gone astray.”
To be honest, I always hated that translation, and it made me hate saying the verse itself for a long time, because it didn’t make sense to me. How do we make sense of ‘cursed ones’ in light of where the sura begins, with Allah ar-Rahman, who tells us elsewhere in the Qur’an ‘rahmati wasiat kulla shay” – my Rahma encompasses everything. In light of this declaration, and of the Rahman and Rahim we invoke in the basmala (which I’ve written about before), the ‘cursed ones’ seems like a contradiction.
And because this phrase bothered me so much, I did what I always do when I face difficulties with my faith - I went looking for answers.
The word maghdhub literally translates as anger. So another, more literal, way to understand the phrase is ‘not of those who have anger upon them’. Interestingly, the sentence doesn’t tell us that it’s Allah’s anger, just that those who are not on this particular path have anger upon them. And we are told that they are adh-dhaleen, which can mean not just ‘to go astray’, but also ‘to wander’. Understood in this light, our questions change somewhat. Whose anger is upon them? Why are they wandering? And here, we must turn to the beginning of the sura for our answers.
If we begin with the premise that Allah is ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim, and that Allah’s Rahma is a constant presence, encompassing everything, then it is not possible for us to exist outside of that Rahma. But we can, and often do, lose sight of it. We are all, in fact, al-ladhina ana’mta a’layhim, those to whom Allah is giving; but sometimes, life gets in the way. Things get hard and we lose track of that Rahma and of the straight path that Allah guides us along.
But it is important to remember that, as Tolkein says, “not all who wander are lost.” Because the truth is, we are all, at some point, adh-dhaleen. We are human. We make mistakes. We forget. We have bad days. And so we wander. And that’s okay. We take other, less straight, paths on which we learn other lessons. But that does not mean that we are irredeemable or that we are barred from the straight path forever. Because Allah’s Rahma is never withdrawn, because Allah’s love for us is so deep and so encompassing, because the promise of Allah’s guidance is ongoing, we can always make our way back to sirat-al-mustaqim. In fact, it is Allah who supplies us with the very supplication in which we ask for our way back, in the sura we recite so often.
So when we find ourselves being al-maghdoobi and adh-dhaleen, angry and wandering, what might we do to get ourselves back to the straight path? The beauty of guidance is that it is intended to allow us to perform tawba. In Muslim communities, we tend to use this word to mean repenting and asking Allah for forgiveness. But etymologically and literally, it means to turn back, to return. It is the conscious awareness that we want to be on the straightest path possible and so we do our best to make our way back to it, even when we know that the very fact that we are human means we won’t always be on that path.
But the notion of tawba also points to a much more important idea, which I fundamentally believe is at the heart of the guidance we are given. It is the answer to the why - why does Allah keep sending these messages? Why did the Prophet experience this moment of clarity? What are we being guided to?
In Muslim traditions, when someone dies, we often say inna lilahi wa inna illayhi raji’un. When I was young, I was told that this meant that we come from Allah and so we return to Allah, which made sense. But later on, I learned that it can actually mean we belong to Allah, and so we eventually make our way back to the place where we belong. This translation, for me, was much more fitting, because it explains the inexplicable ache that compelled the Prophet to sit in that cave over 1400 years ago.
That sense that something was missing, that desire for something more, compelled him to go back, day after day, year after year. And perhaps the Prophet knew that longing all the better because home was a complicated thing for him – after all, the Prophet was an orphan. His childhood was characterized by loss, and in many ways, he lived his life on the margins, part of the society in which he lived, but never fully.
Sometimes, those of us who haven’t had a home are all the more prone to homesickness, a desire to belong somewhere, to belong to someone. Our world today is not so different than the Prophet’s in that way. We seem to have a crisis of belonging, with people the world over searching desperately for a place to belong – living lives of loneliness and isolation, or losing their lives because they can no longer bear feeling like round pegs in a world built of square holes. And there are entire industries that have sprouted up to help people resolve this issue – self-help books and podcasts, ashrams and retreats, juice cleanses and diet pills – all meant to help us dull the ache. And that’s more true now than ever, as we confront the silence and solitude that this pandemic has brought on.
But what if that ache, that yearning, that sense that we don’t fit in, isn’t about this world at all? What if it’s actually because we’re just homesick? Homesickness can’t be cured with potions and pills and podcasts. There’s only one thing that fixes that kind of ache – home. Glimpses of that homecoming were at the heart of the revelation that came to the Prophet and that is why we speak of sirat al-mustaqim. It is Allah al-Hadi guiding us gently back to the place where we most belong, to our real home. It is our small but potent reminder of the real journey we are on, and a call for us to return.
And so this is my prayer for us all, in these important final days of Ramadan: inna lilahi wa inna illayhi raji’un. May you be guided back to your source, may your longing be eased, and may Allah’s light fill your heart, so you can find your way home.