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A Prayer for Guidance

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“The goal of religion is confident living. Confident living reaches its pinnacle in minds completely freed from doubt. Awareness of the presence of conflicting views causes doubt.”
–         Archie J. Bahm, The World’s Living Religions, 1964, p. 354
In the history of mankind the first recorded prayer that Allah taught Adam and Eve is related to repentance and forgiveness. The first prayer is encoded in this way: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you do not forgive us and do not have mercy on us, we shall surely be among the losers”. (7:23) When Adam and Eve prayed thus they were forgiven, (2:37) elevated as vicegerents of God on earth, (2:30), (20:22) and their children were rewarded and exalted above many other categories of creation by Allah. (17:70) No stigma of the Original Sin attached to them. This incident underpins the fact that when Allah traces a prayer, it is a guarantee that when we utter that prayer, it will invariably be answered and many more benefits will accrue. Adam and Eve were spiritually rehabilitated and divine grace was restored to them. Allah bestowed guidance upon Adam. (20:122)
In the holy Qur’ān, the last scripture, the first prayer Allah teaches His worshippers, who listen to His call and believe in Him, (2:186) relates to guidance. It is a 3-word prayer. Ihdinas Siratal Mustaqeem.
This verse is translated thus: “Show us the straight way”. ( Allama Yousuf Ali) “Show us the straight path”. (Pickthall) “Direct us to the straight way”.(Maulana Maududi) “Tell us the path straight”. (Allama Shabbir Ahmed Usmani) “Guide us along the straight path”. (Dr Ebrahim Kazim) “Keep us steadfast on the straight way”. (Maulana Abdurrahman Keelani)
What is the import of this prayer? Maulana Maududi elucidates, “In every walk of life, keep us constantly moving on the royal road which is absolutely right, and in which there is no risk of wrong evaluation, perverted activity, and awful consequences, and which provides a forum to secure genuine prosperity and rectitude.” This is a plea a submissive reader makes to his Lord God before commencing the study of the Qur’ān. What he proposes to say is this: “O Lord, lead us, and indicate to us what exactly the truth is in the labyrinth of hypothetical theories, what the infallible ethical system is in the midst of contending ethical systems, and which is the clear and uncluttered highway of right belief and right action in the criss-cross of life’s pathways.”
This is a prayer without an apostrophe like Rabbana / our Lord, because the preceding verse has initiated the direct address to God: it is you alone we worship and serve and it is your aid alone that we seek. And the most significant aid that we are privileged to seek is the aid of guidance – the art of living under the direct supervision of the One – Most Powerful and Wise – who is the Eternal Source of Life.
The focus on guidance is highlighted by treasuring it within three folds – the fold of hamd (thankful praise to Allah), the fold of ibadah (dedication to Allah) and the fold of isti’anah (seeking help/ declaration of dependence and trust). As the Qur’ān is a manual of divine guidance, it should be approached with a mind which is characterised by and imbued with these four attributes, and with the unassailable consciousness that guidance for confident living should not be sought from any other source than God, who alone can escort us gently and affectionately to the divinely ordained destination. A Muslim seeks from the Qur’ān the guidelines for the Total Quality Management (TQM) of his personal life and of his social ethos. (17:9)
Muslims seek guidance from God because He is the Creator of life and death, and because He is the Owner of the Day of Judgment who will evaluate our lives and the after-effects of this evaluation will be open-ended. The quality of our lives should not leave much to be desired. Muslims seek guidance from God because He has been the Eternal Guide par excellence. He guided Adam, (20:122); He guided Abraham, (6:77;26:78); He guided Noah, (6:84) He guided Moses and Aaron. (37:118;40:53) He guided Jesus. (6:85). A list of Prophets, divided under four categories and who were descendants of Prophet Abraham (unto him be peace) and whom Allah guided is given in verses 84- 86 of the chapter 6 of the Qur’ān. In fact, Allah guided all Prophets sent by Him to different nations of the world.
By seeking guidance from Allah, Muslims seek to follow in the footsteps of all Prophets inclusive of Moses and Jesus so that there remains no need for conversion to any other religion. The guidance given by Allah is an expression of His mercy and it never becomes irrelevant or obsolete in spite of the epoch- making changes like the Industrial Revolution, the manufacture of the Atom Bomb, and the Globalisation, in the history of mankind.    
This prayer for guidance is offered not by a misguided person but by a person who is already guided. This prayer comes after the declaration iyyaka n’abudu – It is you alone (O Lord of the worlds,) that we worship and serve. This declaration is a proof of being rightly guided in the light of these Qur’ānic verses, “Worship and serve Me alone: this is the straight way.” (36:61) Jesus says, “Surely, Allah is my Lord and your Lord; so worship and serve Him only. This is the straight way.” (3:51) “I created the jinn and humans for nothing else but that they may worship and serve Me.” (51:56)
Why does a guided person seek guidance? One has to realise the connection between guidance and human heart? “And whosoever has faith in Allah, Allah directs his heart along the right path.” (64:11)The human heart is vulnerable to doubts and temptations and weaknesses and hence the need for sustained guidance. Another prayer elucidates the need for guidance felt by a guided person, “Our Lord! Do not let our hearts swerve towards crookedness after You have guided us to the Right Way, and bestow upon us Your mercy for You are the Munificent Giver.”(3:8)
Apostasy looms large on the horizon of faith. In Jesus’ life-time it reared its ugly head. “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (St.John, 6:66; St. Matt. 24:10, 11) A follower of Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be to him) who endured the sufferings of migration for the sake of Islam became a Christian on reaching Abyssinia. Therefore, constant seeking of guidance is a spiritual requirement to benefit from what Jesus describes as “the way of righteousness”. (St. Matthew, 21:32) The distortion of the original faith in the form of innovation and exaggeration (4:171) is another evil that has to be guarded against.    
A guided person continues to seek guidance as there is this promise of Allah. “As for those who were led to the guidance, Allah increases them in their guidance, and bestows on them their Piety and Restraint (from evil)”. (47:17) The bonanza of “Taqwa” is secured through this prayer. The relationship between guidance and fear of God is stressed in this verse “The Qur’ān is Guidance for the God- fearing”. (2:2)
A guided person seeks guidance to remain steadfast in righteousness because Jesus has said, “He who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (St. Matthew, 24:13; St. Mark, 13:13) According to the Qur’ān Abraham and Jacob advised their respective children, “Remain in submission (to Allah) till death.”(2:132) Muslims are advised, “Believers; Fear Allah as He should be feared, and see that you do not die save in the condition of total surrender to God.”(3:102) The religious version of this condition is Islam.
Ihdina – Guide us. This prayer not for one’s own self alone but for all is an antidote to selfishness, and mirrors goodwill and compassion for all. This also implies a respect for life in whose conduct divine guidance is needed and put into practice. One who prays like this cannot make a mockery of guidance by not allowing people in various ways to follow it. Instead, one who has received the gift of guidance will be eager to share it with others.
The prayer adds, Sirathal Mustaqeem to Ihdina. There is an inalienable connection between a “way” and “guidance”, as is evident from this verse: (God) has made in it pathways for you in order that you may find guidance.(43:10) The presence of a path is a direction of mobility and it enables a traveller to reach his destination.
Siratal Mustaqeem is more or less a technical term, with a specific meaning. “Allah guides whomsoever He wills onto a straight way.” (2:213) A synonym that Prophet Abraham uses for this phrase is Siratan Savyya (19:43) which is a line dividing an object into two equal parts. All the Abbreviated Letters found at the commencement of several Surahs are found individually in Surah Fatiha, and in the Siratal Mustaqeem, all the letters of Sirat and Qaf of Mustaqeem are used as Abbreviated Letters and this underscores the importance of this phrase. If Sabeel had been used instead of Sirat, the relationship between Surah Fatiha and the Abbreviated Letters would have become defective.
The path is defined as straight. Huston Smith has a beautiful comment on the only adjective used in this Surah. “Why the straight path? One meaning is obvious; a straight path is undevious, neither crooked nor corrupt. The phrase contains another meaning, however, which speaks to something distinctive in Islam. The straight path is one that is straightforward, direct and explicit. Compared with other religions, Islam spells out the way of life it proposes; it pinpoints it, nailing it down through explicit injunctions. The consequence is a definiteness about this religion that gives it a flavour all its own. A Muslim knows where he stands.” (The Religions of Man, p. 217)
The Bible says, “He (God) will be our guide even unto death.” (Psalms, 48:14) The Qur’ān teaches us to seek guidance from God. To make this guidance well-defined and specific the phrase Siratal Mustaqeem is used. Allah associates Himself with this Sirat. “Surely, my Lord is on the Straight Path.”(11:56) Prophet Muhammad is associated with this Sirat. “Surely, you are on the Straight Path.”(43:43, 36:4) “Surely, you are directing people to the Straight Path.”(42:52) When God’s guidance and Siratal Mustaqeem are interlinked, then it follows that all Prophets sent by Allah were associated with this Sirat.
The straightness of the path is to stress the fact that the path unfailingly leads straight to God. “Indeed this (Qur’ān) is nothing but a Good Counsel; so let him who so wishes take a way leading to his Lord.”(73:19. 76:29) The rectilinear nature of the passage enables the traveller to look straight and stay straight.
Allah taught Adam and Eve a prayer and answered it. He has taught us a prayer for guidance. Has this prayer been answered? In keeping with Allah’s promise, “Pray to me, and I will answer your (prayer)”, (40:60) this prayer has been answered too. Imam Baqaa’ee points out that the rest of the Qur’ān is the response to the prayer. “Guide us” is connected to “This is the book of Allah, there is no doubt in it; it is guidance for the pious.”(2:2) Vide Tahqeeqate Islami, October- December 2007, p. 42, Archie J. Bahm says, “The proper goal of religion is to eliminate doubt.” (The World’s Living Religions, p. 19)
In keeping with His practice of sending Books for guidance He has sent the Qur’ān for the same purpose. Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be to him) is informed: He has revealed this Book to you setting forth the Truth and confirming the earlier Books, and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel before that for the guidance of mankind; and He has also revealed the Criterion (to distinguish the truth from falsehood).(3:34)
The Qur’ān, the Criterion is the scripture of ultimate guidance from God because it is the latest, the last, the complete, the most comprehensive, the most well-preserved Book. The divinity of the book is reinforced by the historicity of Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s blessings and peace be to him) through whom the Qur’ān was revealed. All aspects of his life as Allah’s Messenger are documented in a manner which is our pride and historians’ envy. The Qur’ān was the key to his spectacular success and is the key to our salvation.

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