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Which One is the Straight Path?


QA forum member has asked: Asalaam'Alaikum wa rumatullah wa barakatu,

I am a Muslim convert for 3 years now and I have a question. Now, I am not one who follows religion blindly. I was raised a Baptist Christian and had many questions that went unanswered. After five years of studying almost every different religion imaginable, Islam is the one that made the most sense, answered the questions that puzzled me before, and just made me feel at peace with myself. I truly believe it is God's complete religion. What I am having a problem with is this. I have read many Islamic books, articles, magazines and web pages. Most of them have different ideas as to what the "straight path" is. I have visited different Masjids and different Imams give different answers as well. I know that people from different regions have different customs that have been incorporated into the religion, but that is not what I want. I want to practice the religion exactly as the Prophet (SAW) handed it down. Pure Islam is what I seek. My intention is not to offend, but I feel that because the religion is divided into so many different sects, each sect has altered it in some way. Which path am I to follow? Sunni? Shia? Sufi?...? What about the different sects inside these sects? With the divisions, different things have been incorporated to justify the different branches and ideas. Sometimes I feel lost because I don't know which way to go. Which road is the "straight path"? Please don't say that I have to find this "path" on my own. I have prayed about it so much. I get answers like "all roads lead to the same destination" but that can't be it either because if it were true, then ANY religion that believes in God will make it to paradise, so why associate yourself with any one religion? Just believe and that should be enough; no prayers necessary, good deeds, or anything; just faith alone. I just want to make sure that I learn and teach my son what is correct and what is not.


ABismillaahir Rahmaanir Raheem
Alhamdulillaahi Rabbil'aalameen, wassalaatu wassalaamu 'alaa sayyidil mursaleen

We are told that Islam is the Deen of Allaah. It is the straight path that leads to Allaah’s pleasure, success in the Hereafter and admission into the Paradise. However, when new Muslims or young Muslims want to practice Islam and to follow the straight path, they encounter such a variety of opinions, practices, approaches and sects that they become bewildered, lost and confused as to which way to go, which opinion to follow and which is the ‘straight path’.

In an effort to get out of this quandary, some people take extremist approaches. One extremist approach is to accept all traditions, customs and rites practiced by any people claiming to be Muslims, without challenging even unacceptable practices. Their motto is “all roads lead to the same destination”. The other side excludes from their Islam everything “old” including the traditions of the Prophet ŝall-Allaahu 'alayhi wa sallam. Unfortunately, both of these approaches end up regarding anything a Muslims says or does as “Islamic”. Both approaches are extremely dangerous because they defeat the essence and purpose for which Islam was prescribed and which make Islam the ‘straight path’.

As well, even many of those who want to be in the middle and understand that we must practice only the pure Islam as revealed by Allaah and practiced by His messenger, are confused by Salafi’s, Sufi’s and Shia’s claims, not being able to discern as to whose path is ‘straight.’

This article describes what is Islam’s straight path, how the differences of opinion arise and how I personally sort out this confusion created by sectarianism.

The Destination

As a general rule, before we can identify a straight path, we need to know the starting point and the destination. Once we have a clear concept of where we are and where we need to go, a straight path to that destination becomes easier to determine.

In our case, the starting point is our life on this earth. When we reflect on the reality of the creation and operation of the universe around us, our own life and the systems that sustain our life, we are overwhelmed by the power, the majesty, the grace and the mercy of our Lord who is sustaining all the systems on which our life depends. We also realize that He must have created us and the universe for a purpose and that He must hold us accountable if we fulfill that purpose or not. Appreciating the kindness of our Lord, we praise Him and want to fulfill the goals for which He has sent us to this earth. Realizing that we have been created to serve Him like slaves, we commit to be such slaves and seek His help in fulfilling that goal. We submit to Him so that we succeed in pleasing Him with our servitude and consequently being admitted into Paradise. For this purpose, we want to spend our time in the activities He approves, to acquire the qualities He likes and to establish the kind of society He wants.

As this is not an easy task, we realize that we need all the help we can get from our Lord not only in identifying the best way to reach that goal – “the straight path” -- but also in continuously staying on course, in protecting us from the fatigue and disillusionment and in saving us from getting lost.

These are the sentiments that are expressed in Soorah Fatiĥah that we recite and reflect upon many times a day. It reminds us in a very concise manner our destination, the path and the dangers in our way.

In return, to help us reach our desired destination, Allaah being so kind and merciful clearly identifies the straight path in the Qur-aan as well as gives us vivid descriptions of that destination. He also sent His messenger to teach us the Qur-aan and to serve as the model of living by it.

Accordingly, the ultimate destination we want to reach is that we depart from this world such that Allaah is pleased with us, redeems us from punishment and admits us into the eternal bliss of Paradise.

The Straight Path

The straight path, also the only way, to that destination is to live by the Deen of Islam -- the Islamic way of life.

Islam is the Deen of every creation of Allaah subĥaanahu wa ta‘aalaa (SWT). Being from the Creator Himself, it ensures the best operation, optimal results, balance and sustainability. Other creations are pre-programmed in Islam (usually called the laws of nature), but human beings have been given freedom in their social life to choose if they want to live by Islam ordained by the Creator or to live by other rules.

Consistent with all laws of Allaah for other creations, Islam for human beings is also designed to bring out the best of humanity, if followed purely and properly. It is designed to make an individual the best a human being can be, and a society the best a human society can be. Hence, Islam’s goal for individuals is that they should excel in their morals, ethics, conduct, behaviour and dealings. This is attained through the continuous process of Tazkiyah -- purification from bad ideas, thoughts, attitudes, habits and weaknesses and growth in good ideas, thoughts, attitudes, habits and strengths.

Islam’s goal for the Muslim community is to create a well-organized, disciplined, structured and cohesive society that establishes justice, fairness, peace, security, dignity, equality and respect for everyone; and is characterized by a loving, caring, sharing, gracious and kind environment. This is attained through the establishment of Deen as a complete system of life in all segments of societal life.

These are the two rails of the straight path that must be treaded simultaneously to remain on course.

The four wheels that take us on the journey are given in the Soorah Al-‘Asr: Eemaan (faith), Good Deeds, promoting Ĥaqq (truth and rights) and promoting Ŝabr (perseverance and consistency).
  1. Eemaan is the foundation on which the edifice of Islam is built. A person has Eemaan if his or her heart and mind both sincerely believe in:
    • Allaah as the only Lord and that He is One, Unique and Infinite in all His Attributes as well as shape, form and image.
    • Muhammad as the final prophet and final messenger of Allaah on whom ended a long series of righteous prophets and messengers from Allaah. Implications of this belief include that he must be obeyed as the messenger of Allaah unconditionally, and that his Sunnah and his model of practicing Islam must be regarded the only true model of Islam until the Day of Judgment.
    • The accountability of everyone to Allaah SWT individually, without any help being available from anyone else in this regard. Unquestioned obedience to any leader, scholar, sheikh or ‘aarif will not be a valid excuse for any un-Islamic actions.
    • The Holy Qur-aan as the last, complete and all-inclusive guidance from Allaah that also contains and preserves whatever was truly revealed by Allaah as Deen of Islam to the previous prophets and messengers.
    • The Angels as functionaries who do exactly what Allaah commands them.

    When this faith takes solid footings in the heart, mind and soul of a person, it shows in a believer’s attitude in the following manner:
    The person becomes Allaah-centred, thinking about Him throughout the day (Dzikr) and striving to do the things that will please Him and avoiding everything that will be disliked by Him (Taqwa). His intentions for all of his actions become purely for Allaah and he becomes sincere in his dealings and behaviour (Ikhlaas and Naseehah). He is liberated from all other worries and fears and becomes fully reliant on Allaah in terms of doing his best and leaving the results to Allaah (Tawakkul). He also formally joins the community of believers in a structured and organized manner (Jamaa‘ah).

    This showing of faith in attitude and behaviour is called “Shahaadah” – the witness of faith and the first pillar of Islam. This is the foundation for the development of Islamic personality and good behaviour.

  2. While the Shahaadah of faith becomes the foundation for good behaviour, the other four pillars of Islam (Ŝalaah, Zakaah, Ŝowm and Ĥajj) provide the structure around which the Islamic personality is built and the pleasure of Allaah is attained. They also act as the practical and active forms of Dzikr (remembrance) of Allaah through which Taqwa and Eemaan are further nourished, strengthened and reinforced respectively. But most importantly, they (the pillars) also provide the structure for the establishment of political, social and economic system of Islam for the community of the Believers (Jamaa‘ah). The pillars of Islam are not mere rituals like the rites of other religions but are tools for personal Tazkiyah and provide the framework for the development of the community (Jamaa‘ah). The pillars cannot be called “established” or “practised” unless their collective role for the political and financial system is also fully implemented in the form of an Islamic society based on Ŝalaah and Zakaah.

    Within the structure provided by the pillars, attainment of excellence is aided by six values that govern Islamic behaviour: practice of justice, grace, charity; and avoidance of indecent, bad and transgressive behaviour; as the Holy Qur-aan declares:
    Verily, Allaah commands ‘Adl (fairness, equity, justice) Ihsaan (excellence in servitude to Allaah, benevolence towards people, graciousness in dealings) and giving to those close to you, while He forbids Fahshaa (lewdness, indecency, licentiousness, immorality), Munkar (bad actions, undesirable activities, generally unaccepted behaviour, not fulfilling one’s obligations), and Baghy (rebellion, transgressing limits, exploiting or violating others’ rights, Abuse of authority or freedom). He admonishes you so that you heed the advice. An-Naĥl 16:90

    These values (further explained and detailed in Banee Israaeel 17:22-39) are the determinants of all Islamic injunctions and teachings and must govern the individual and collective (community) behaviour. Practised faithfully, they lead to personal and government excellence.

    Hence, the good deeds are all those actions that are conducted in accordance with the teachings of the Qur-aan and Sunnah within the framework provided by the pillars of Islam and values dictated by An-Naĥl 16:90.

  3. Promoting Ĥaqq – working to develop an environment where Ĥaqq is cherished. The love for the faith and good actions makes the person promote them in the society to see them appreciated, practised and respected everywhere.

  4. Promoting Ŝabr – promoting, encouraging and nourishing steadfastness, constancy, consistency and perseverance in living by faith, practising good deeds and promoting the right behaviour. Staying constantly and consistently on the abovementioned path is not easy without Ŝabr and an environment that promotes Ŝabr.

    Promoting Ĥaqq and Ŝabr are also called Jihaad which represents continuous efforts and hard work undertaken to stay on course on the straight path of Islam -- striving to attain, establish and maintain personal excellence and an ideal Islamic society.

This is the Deen of Islam – the straight path in brief. The Prophet ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam was asked to invite people of the Book towards this common Deen in the following words:
Say: Come, I will recite to you what your Lord has forbidden to you: That you do not ascribe anything as a partner with Him; be extremely nice to parents; do not kill your children because of poverty, we provide sustenance for you and for them; do not go near immoralities, whether open or hidden; and do not take a life that Allaah has sanctified except under a legal right; this Allaah commands you so that you attain wisdom. Also, do not approach an orphan’s assets except in the best manner, until he fully matures; measure and weigh accurately and fairly, We do not trouble anyone beyond his capacity; Be just when you say something, even if it concerns people close to you; and fulfil Allaah’s covenant; this He enjoins you so that you are mindful. And verily this is my straight path, so follow it. Do not follow variant paths lest you are separated from His way. This He ordains for you so that you can be righteous. Al-An‘aam 6:151-153

To practise this Deen, many detailed teachings, rules and regulations are needed. Those rules and regulation are called Sharee‘ah.

Deen and Sharee‘ah

Deen

Deen is the paradigm, the principle, the outlook and the approach that sets the attitude, the goals, the direction and destination for the life and activities of Muslims. The essence of Deen of Islam is the belief in Allaah SWT as the only one and unique Creator, Lord and Master who must be obeyed, submitted to and surrendered to in every aspect of one’s life throughout one’s life. It is like a constitution under which an Islamic society is formed and it requires:
  • Making a personal commitment of exclusive, complete submission and unconditional obedience without any reservations to Allaah and His messenger (Qur-aan and Sunnah) in all aspect of life throughout one’s life.
  • Fulfilling all pillars of Islam and living by the guiding values of Deen: A lifestyle that bears witness to all articles of faith, Ŝalaah, Zakaah, Ŝowm and Ĥajj and is compliant with the values and principles enunciated by the Qur-aan.
  • Dedicating one’s life for a life-long struggle for Allaah’s sake to implement, establish and maintain Deen as a complete and dominant system of life.

Whoever subscribes to this Deen, in principle, belongs to the Islamic society. This Deen of Islam has been the only Deen acceptable to Allaah and has been exactly the same throughout the history of all the prophets and messengers from Adam to Muhammad. No difference of opinion or deviation in matters of Deen is, or has been ever acceptable. Whoever denies, disbelieves or deviates from this Deen, does not belong to the Muslim community. Any disagreement or deviation from Deen is unacceptable to Allaah SWT, angers Him and invites His punishment. This is the message conveyed in the following verse:
He has ordained the same Deen for you (O Muslims) as that was enjoined on Nooh, and that has been revealed to you (O Muhammad) and that was enjoined on Ibraaheem, Moosa, and Eesa: Namely, implement (establish and maintain) the Deen and do not be divided therein. Shoora 42:13

The examples of those who disbelieve in the essence of Deen, hence divide themselves away from Islam, are the people such as those who:
  • Do not accept, as a matter of principle, the rule of Allaah on every aspect of their life;
  • Do not witness the truth of the faith as prescribed by the Qur-aan; for example: Practise Shirk; regard Qur-aanic injunction as outdated or inappropriate for our times;
  • Do not accept Muhammad as the last prophet; deny Sunnah as a source of Islamic law; or,
  • Doubt the existence of Hell and Jannah.

These are examples of the violation of the first pillar of Islam – Shahaadah, some other examples are:
  • Deny any of the pillars of Islam as an obligation;
  • Propagate an opinion or theory that is clearly in contrast with the fundamentals of Deen.

These types of disbeliefs, if left unchecked, destroy the very fibre that knits our Islamic society together. Cooperating with the bearer of these ideas or tolerating them is like demolishing our own foundations. That is what corrupted the Deen after the death of previous prophets. Thus, any differences in the matters of Deen among Islam, Judaism and Christianity are only there because those people who claim to follow Moses and Jesus changed the original teachings: corrupting beliefs, abandoning some core practices and inventing others. Let us just take, as an example, some practices that have been abandoned. There are enough indications in the Bible that Moses and Jesus used to perform ritual washing, worship and fasting as Muslims currently do; but the Jews and Christians have abandoned these practices.{footnote}For detailed references, please read “Muslims at Prayer” by Ahmed Deedat and “The Basis of Muslim Beliefs” by Gary Miller.

{/footnote}

Sharee‘ah

Sharee‘ah is the body of the rules and regulations that a believer in the Deen of Islam has to follow. It is similar to the statutes and the regulations stipulated by a political entity within the jurisdiction allowed by its constitution. It comprises the rules revealed by Allaah and/or instituted by His prophets and messengers relating to the obligations under the Deen. Unlike Deen, some rules of Sharee‘ah can be different from messenger to messenger. Thus after mentioning the Towraat (Torah), the Injeel (Gospel) and the Qur-aan, Allaah SWT says:
For each of you (messengers), we have prescribed a Sharee‘ah (law) and a method. Al-Maaidah 5:48

There has been an evolution in the Sharee‘ah of various messengers in keeping with the evolution of human society. For example, at the time of Adam, there was a need to allow marrying brothers and sisters. When the human society was grown big enough and the exceptional need was not there, Allaah SWT disallowed it through subsequent prophets. This process of changing the rules of Sharee‘ah according to the needs of the society continued until the human society was mature enough that a final edition of Sharee‘ah could be given through Muhammad Ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam – the last prophet.

Similarly, some strict rules were imposed on Banee Israaeel to punish them for their intransigence and to check their ongoing transgression. Those burdens were removed through ‘Eesa ‘alayhissalaam and MuĤammad ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. The Sharee‘ah given to the Prophet Muhammad is the final and most complete Sharee‘ah that represents the perfect model for humanity until the end of the world.

Even within our Ummah, while there can be no difference of opinion in the principles of Deen, different people may have honest, genuine difference of opinion in the matters of Sharee‘ah.

Dealing with Differences in Religious Matters

Difference of opinions is a natural phenomenon among intelligent, thinking people. It is the handling of differences of opinions that makes or breaks a community. In Islamic practices, valid differences may happen in the following two situations:
  • In matters of details of Islamic practices, the Prophet ŝall-Allaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam may have demonstrated flexibility and variety of valid options by
  • doing some things differently at different times.
  • The differences may also arise in extrapolating rules from a certain set of verses of the Qur-aan and/or Sunnah of the Prophet in applying those to new circumstances that may be encountered.

These are the differences that we find among various schools of Fiqh or among Fiqh schools and Salafis/Ahlul-Ĥadeeth.

For differences of opinion in these matters of Sharee‘ah, as long as each person is earnestly trying to implement the intent of the Qur-aan and Sunnah and has valid pertinent evidence to form the opinion, difference of opinions is not only acceptable but also desirable. This kind of difference of opinion indicates independent thinking among Muslims, encourages reflection instead of blind following and self-corrects the wrong ideas that may have crept into the practices of the Islamic community over time. It keeps Islamic teachings dynamic, pure and relevant to the believer's life. That is why such differences have been regarded as Raĥmah (mercy). This kind of difference of opinion or practices must be respected and celebrated.

For the first kind of differences, we should show the same flexibility and adopt the variety of practices as adopted by the Prophet. For the second kind of differences, we should weigh the arguments of the different opinions and practise what seems to be closer to the essence of the Deen. It is a great mercy of Allaah, that He will reward everyone for their efforts to fulfill the objectives of Deen according to their sincerity and purity of intentions, even if their practices differed in some details.

Other differences are caused by some groups of Muslims not maintaining the balance among various parts of the Deen. For example, both personal purification and establishment of a society of Islamic excellence are equally important requirements of Deen. Some groups tend to concentrate on one to the detriment of the other. Likewise, many Muslims may concentrate on ritual aspect of the Pillars, overlooking their roles in the personal purification as well as the establishment of the Islamic society. Others may just talk about being kind and generous while disregarding the Pillars altogether. These difference need to be addressed by bringing back the balance and moderation of Islam in practising all part of the Deen with equal attention and care.

Unfortunately, the problems happen when people take these differences to heart and start thinking in sectarian terms instead of looking from Deen’s paradigm. Many confusion and sectarian problems are actually caused by not differentiating between Deen and Sharee‘ah.

Why the Distinction?

Although Sharee‘ah is the natural corollary and the day-to-day practical side of the Deen, the distinction is necessary to adopt a moderate, balanced and correct attitude and understanding towards matters of Deen and Sharee‘ah.

Properly understanding this distinction helps us avoid extremist, unbalanced tendencies towards differences of opinion in Islamic matters. For example, one kind of extremists are those who create sects on the basis of just minor difference in matters of Sharee‘ah. They are intolerant of even a slightly different opinion or practice. They are responsible for the majority of infighting, discord and friction among Muslims.

Then there are the extremists who comfortably swallow even the violations of the essence of Deen. They harbour, support, applaud and honour even those who attack the very basic tenets of Islam. In essence, they aid in the demolishing of the Deen.

What to do then?

The moderate, balanced approach is that:
  • We must clearly understand the Deen of Islam which constitutes the straight path, which has been always the Deen of Allaah and which has been briefly described above.{footnote}The Deen and its components have been described in detail, fully supported by the Qur-aan and Ĥadeeth, in my forthcoming book on Islam.{/footnote}
  • We must not compromise on the matters of Deen and we must maintain a healthy balance among all components of the Deen;
  • We should respect and accept the differences of opinion and practices in Sharee‘ah, while trying our best on personal level to remain in compliance with the Qur-aan and Sunnah, and not accepting anything or practising anything that is not clearly supported by the Qur-aan and Sunnah.

If we do the above, regardless of which sect we happen to belong to, we will automatically move towards the balanced way of Islam and remain on its ‘straight path’; and we will be among the slaves of Allaah with whom He is pleased and to whom He will grant admission into His Jannah.

Wassalaamu Alaykum

Ayub Hamid
October 14, 2003

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