Does God decide whom He guides?

Q2;142 God guides whoever wants to be guided

Traditional Understanding

The foolish among the people will say, “What has turned them away from their qiblah, which they used to face?” Say, “To Allah belongs the east and the west. He guides whom He wills to a straight path.”

Quran 2:142 – Sahih International Translation

The traditional belief is that God decides whom He guides according to His will, and because He is all powerful and merciful, will guide those who call themselves Muslims to the straight path. Is this consistent with the other verses in the Qur’an?

Qur’anic Understanding

The traditional belief is not supported by the Qur’an — and not consistent with other verses which predicate the free will of believers to choose God’s guidance or otherwise. As we know, the Qur’an explains itself from various angles, so in choosing a translation we need to check what the other verses of the Qur’an say.

For example, the following verses are taken from the Sahih International translation:

  • And say, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” (18:29)
  • And those who disbelieved say, “Why has a sign not been sent down to him from his Lord?” Say, [O Muhammad], “Indeed, Allah leaves astray whom He wills and guides to Himself whoever turns back to Him (13:27)
  • Indeed, this is a reminder, so whoever wills may take to his Lord a way (73:19)
  • Indeed, this is a reminder, so he who wills may take to his Lord a way (76:29)
  • It is not except a reminder to the world (81:27) For whoever wills among you to take a right course (81:28)

It is quite obvious that God is telling us in the Qur’an that it is our responsibility to choose to be guided. So it is not consistent with the Qur’an itself when parts of it are translated to mean God chooses whom to guide and whom not to guide. Especially when these contradictions come from the very same translation.

As Dr Safi Kaskas notes in his (contemporary traditional) translation –

Foolish people will say, “What turned them away from their former prayer direction?” Say, “East and West belong to God. He guides whoever wants to be guided to a straight path.” (2:142)

We chose to understand the Arabic يَهْدِي مَنْ يَشَا yahdi man Yasha’ in this manner: accepting guidance has to be a fee choice made by each one of us. After this free choice is made, God then will make the path towards Him easy for those who choose Him. The verse however, can be understood as God will guide towards Him whom He chooses. This will create a contradiction in our understanding of punishment for those who were not chosen at the Day of Judgement. Because if God picks and chooses those He wants, why would He then punish those He did not choose. Still, we understand that God has said in different verses of the Qur’an that no choice is made by anyone except with God’s approval.

Footnote to verse 2:142, The Qur’an A Contemporary Understanding (p 16)

Note that God’s guidance is for whoever wants to be guided – not only people who call themselves “Muslim”!

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