The Qur’an presents human history as a perennial struggle between two opposing choices: to resist or to surrender oneself to God. It is in this conflict that the scripture immerses itself and the reader; it could be said to be the very crux of its calling. This choice must be completely voluntary, for the Qur’an demands, “Let there be no compulsion in religion – the right way is henceforth clearly distinct from error” (2:256). The crucial point is not that one should come to know and worship God, but that one should freely choose to know and worship God. Thus we find the repeated declaration that God could have made all mankind rightly guided, but it was in His purposes to do otherwise.
Had He willed He could indeed have guided all of you. (6:149)
Do not believers know that, had God willed, He could have guided all mankind? (13:31)
And if We had so willed, We could have given every soul its guidance. (32:13)
Had God willed He could have made you all one community. But that He may try you by that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God you will all return, and He will inform you of that where in you differ. (5:48)
The Qur’an categorically affirms that God is not diminished or threatened by our choices, yet they carry grave consequences for the individual, as the primary beneficiary of a good deed and the primary casualty of an evil act is the doer.
Enlightenment has come from your God; he who sees does so to his own good, he who is blind is so to his own hurt. (6:104)
Indeed they will have squandered their own selves, and all their false imagery will have forsaken them. (7:53)
And they did no harm against Us, but [only] against their own selves did they sin. (7:160)
And so it was not God who wronged them, it was they who wronged themselves. (9:70)
And whosoever is guided, is only (guided) to his own gain, and if any stray, say: “I am only a warner.” (27:92)
And if any strive, they do so for their own selves: For God is free of all need from creation. (29:6)
We have revealed to you the book with the truth for mankind. He who lets himself be guided does so to this own good; he who goes astray does so to his own hurt. (39:41) (Also see (10:108; 17:15; 27:92).)
These statements are hardly easy on the reader. At first glance they seem to indicate a detachment from and indifference to man’s situation. Philosophically, such a stance may be consistent with God’s transcendence, but only at the expense of attempting at any possible relationship with God. Yet such an interpretation would be inappropriately severe. The Qur’anic God is anything but impartial to mankind’s condition. He sends prophets, answers prayers (2:186; 3:195), and intervenes in and manipulates the human drama, as in the Battle of Badr (3:13; 8:5-19; 8:42-48). All is under His authority, and nothing takes place without His allowing it (4:78-79).
The Qur’an’s “most beautiful names” of God imply an intense involvement in the human venture. These names, such as The Merciful, The Compassionate, The Forgiving, The Giving, The Loving, The Creator, etc. reveal a God that creates men and women in order to relate to them on an intensely personal level, on a level higher than with the other creatures known to mankind, not out of a psychological or emotional need but because this is the very essence of His nature. Therefore, we find that the relationship between the sincere believer and God is characterized consistently as a bond of love. God love the good-doers (2:195; 3:134; 3:148; 5:13; 5:93), the repentant (2:222), those that purify themselves (2:222; 9:108), the God-conscious (3:76; 9:4; 9:7), the patient (3:146), those that put their trust in Him (3:159), the just (5:42; 49:9; 60:8), and those who fight in His cause (61:4). And they, in turn, love God.
Yet there are men who takes others besides God as equal (with God), loving them as they should love God. But those who believe love God more ardently. (2:165)
Say: “If you love God, follow me, and God will love you, and forgive you your faults; for God is The Forgiving, The Merciful.” (3:31)
O you who believe! If any from among you turn back from his faith, then God will assuredly bring a people He loves and who love Him. (5:54)
On the other hand, tyrants, aggressors, the corrupt ones, the guilty, rejecters of faith, evil-doers, the arrogant ones, transgressors, the prodigal, the treacherous, and the unjust will not experience this relationship of love (2:190; 2:205; 2:276; 3:32; 3:57; 3:140; 4:36; 4:107; 5:64; 5:87; 6:141; 7:31; 7:55; 8:58; 16:23; 22:38; 28:76; 28:77; 30:45; 31:18; 42:40; 57:23).
There are Muslim and non-Muslim scholars who view God in the Qur’an as virtually indifferent to humanity, establishing the cosmos with fixed laws of cause and effect in all spheres (physical, psychological, spiritual, etc.), and then setting it to run subject to them. Others have seen Him as so completely involved in and in control of creation that all is totally determined, even our choices. Many believe that shades of both viewpoints are present and that they may be irreconcilable. The latter is perhaps closest to the truth, although the irreconcilability is not necessary. Certainly, the Qur’an maintains God’s absolute sway over all creation, which He ceaselessly and continuously sustains, maintains and influences. Nothing exists or takes place without His permission. Yet He empowers us with the ability to make choices. In fact, He frequently leads us to such critical choices. In particular, He allows and enables us to make decisions that are detrimental to ourselves and others:
Say: “All things are from God.” But what has come to these people, that they fail to understand a single fact? Whatever good befalls you is from God, but whatever evil befalls you, is from yourself. (4:78-79).
The assertion here is that our ability to experience true benefit or harm comes from God, but to do real injury to ourselves, in an ultimate and spiritual sense, depends on our actions and decisions, which God has empowered us to make.
As noted above, our acts and choices in no way threaten God and it is the individual who gains or loses by them. However, on the collective level, the Qur’an shows that God intents to produce through this earthly experience persons that share a bond of love with Him. While any individual may or may not pursue this, the Qur’an acknowledges that there will definitely be people who will, and their development is apparently very objective of man’s earthly life (15:39-43; 17:64-65).
Our vision is still quite blurry, but it seems somehow a little clearer than when we started, although we still have far to go. Questions persist about the need for this earthly life as well as the roles of human choice, intelligence, and suffering in the creation of individuals. It also feels as if we are slipping into the difficult topic of predestination. We will reserve that subject for the end of this chapter, for it will take us too far afield at this stage. However, we need to discuss one more Qur’anic statement that relates to divine and human will, because it is very often misunderstood and has a strong bearing on the theme of human choice.
The Qur’an frequently states that God “allows to stray whom He will, and guides whom He will” (2:26; 4:88; 4:143; 6:39; 7:178; 7:186; 13:27; 14:4; 16:93; 35:8; 39:23; 39:36 40:33; 74:31). This phrase is typically rendered in most English interpretations as “God misleads whom He will, and guides whom He will.” Grammatically, both renderings are possible, because the verb “adalla” could be used in either sense. It could mean either “to let someone or something stray unguided,” or equally, “to let someone or something lose his/its way.” Ignaz Goldziher, the famous Orientalist and scholar of Arabic, strongly argues in favor of the first rendition. He writes:
Such statements do not mean that God directly leads the latter into error. The decisive verb (adalla) is not, in this context, to be understood as “lead astray,” but rather as “allow to go astray,” that is, not to care about someone, not to show him the way out of his predicament. “We let them (nadharuhum) stray in disobedience” (6:110). We must imagine a solitary traveler in the desert: that image stands behind the Qur’an’s manner of speaking about guidance and error. The traveler wanders, drifts in limitless space, on the watch for his true destination and goal. Such a traveler is man on the journey of life.
His observation is given further support by the fact that almost all of the statements in the Qur’an of this nature are immediately preceded or followed by other that assert that God guides or refuses to guide someone according to his/her choices and predisposition. We find that “God does not guide the unjust ones,” “God does not guide the transgressors,” and God guides aright those who “listen,” are “sincere,” and are “God-conscious” (2:26, 258, 264; 3:86; 5:16, 51, 67, 108; 6:88, 144; 9:19, 21, 37, 80, 109; 12:52; 13:27; 16:37,107; 28:50; 39:3; 40:28; 42:13; 46:10; 47:8; 61:7; 62:5; 63:6). Thus we find that “when they went crooked, God bent their hearts crooked” (61:5). This demonstrates that receiving or not receiving guidance is affected by sincerity, disposition and willingness; it recalls the saying of Muhammad: “When you approach God by an arm’s length, He approaches you by two and if you come to Him walking, He comes to you running.” Therefore, the phrase “God allows to stray whom He wills” illuminates what we have already concluded: while God, according to the Qur’an, could guide all mankind uniformly, He has other purposes and hence does not. Instead, He has created man with a unique and profound ability to make moral decisions and He monitors, influences, and guides each individual’s moral and spiritual development in accordance with them.