An Ayah on Guidance

Image Cover of the Quran

Surah 28 mostly tells the story of Moses
By ~crystalina~ (Flickr)
[CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

MuslimPro’s verse of the day from the Qur’an was Surah 28, Al-Qasas, (The Story or The Narrative) 56. This is how it reads in Pickthall’s translation:

Lo! thou (O Muhammad) guidest not whom thou lovest, but Allah guideth whom He will. And He is Best Aware of those who walk aright.

It struck me that there could be an ambiguity in that text, because it could mean something like “there are people you love whom you are not able to guide,” or it could mean “the people you are guiding are not people you love.” The Companions of the Prophet seem mostly to have been people the Prophet was fond of and close to, but in light of what I know about churches and communities in general, that second reading didn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Here are the fruits of a little more research:

Cleary translates 28:56 this way:

You will not be able
to guide everyone you love,
but God guides whomever God will.
And God knows better
who is receptive to guidance.

Cleary’s translation (Starlatch Press, 2004) has no critical apparatus.

The Study Quran gives this:

Surely thou dost not guide whomsoever thou lovest, but God guides whomsoever He will. And He knows best those who are rightly guided.

The Study Quran (Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Caner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, Mohammed Rustom eds, San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015) has, I think it’s accurate to say, more critical apparatus than primary text. They report that the verse was revealed in connection with the death of the Prophet’s uncle Abu Talib, who may or may not (depending on whether one holds with Sunni or Shiite tradition) have affirmed the oneness of God and the status of the Prophet before he died. They also note that it may speak more generally to the experience of others; other readers have cited the experiences of other prophets like Adam, Noah, and Abraham.

The ambiguity seems to be resolved in favor of “you can’t always get the people you love to follow your guidance.” As a parent, it is a little too easy to relate.

In the course of tracking this down, it became clear that there is an even deeper ambiguity in the second sentence, one that relates to the “communication problem” that has been on my mind recently. If God “is Best Aware of those who walk aright,” or “knows better who is receptive to guidance” or “knows best those who are rightly guided,” does this tell us something like “given the roster of human beings, God can tell you which ones have been, are now, or are going to be, rightly guided”? Or does it tell us something more like “of the population of human beings, the ones God knows best, the ones of whom God is most aware, are the ones who are actively participating in this relationship of right guidance”? That first reading has some traditional support; for instance, it would resonate with the essence of Augustine’s account of predestination, which is based on God’s omniscience. But the second reading would be consistent with a lot of practical religious thinking, the idea that people become more visible or more accessible to God, and certainly more familiar with God, through (rightly guided) practice, which changes them (“God knows the way of the righteous,” for instance).

That’s skirting the disturbing question of whomsoever God wills to guide in the first place, which doesn’t seem ambiguous at all . . .

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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