The paradox of choice
God leads whosoever He wills astray,
and shows whoever He wills the way.
In a different translation of this verse we can read: “God leaves whoever He wills to stray, and guides whoever He wills.” A small linguistic difference with a rather strong implication. Is it God that leads people astray or does He allow people to go astray when they choose to do so?
In this matter, we cannot see this verse separated from a similar verse in Surah Al Baqara: “He causes some to err this way and some He guides; yet He turns away none but those who transgress, who having sealed it, break God's covenant.” (2:26-27)
The Qur'an therefore tells us that God indeed leads people to stray, but only those who had already taken a step in the wrong direction. As if God lets everyone choose a path – good or bad – and then pushes them further on it.
It might sound strange to some that a compassionate God would push people further on a wrong path. But when we houldn't regard such words as a psychological characterization of God. They try to convey a deeper reality. So what these verses imply is that, unlike the physically blind, the spiritually blind choose to be blind. Their eyes can only be opened when they bump against their own stubbornness and egocentrism. That is to say, those who do injustices often refuse to acknowledge their injustice until the results of their actions, one way or another, hit them back in the face. So when God both 'leaves and leads people to stray' it is because at the one hand it's a choice but on the other hand there is simply no escape from the laws of God. When someone jumps down a tower, he will fall even though he’d like to float upwards. In the same way the soul is pulled towards suffering when one defies the divine laws of love and justice.
Yet, in the end, does it really matter whether we can understand this paradox of choice? Above all these verses remind us of something The Qur’an often repeats: eventually God is in charge and not our ego.
What Christians can learn
Christians have a tendency to emphasise the free will of people. Not only faith is seen as a choice, but also all our actions are seen as choices. I, myself, surely also believe in the basic premise that a God, who is love, would leave choice to those He loves. Hence sentences like “God made Pharaoh stubborn”, whether found in the Torah or in the Qur’an, feel a bit uneasy to me. But, one time, when I had been thinking over the question of free choice and the extend of our personal capacities, I stumbled upon this anecdote of two scholars discussing exactly this question: Ibn Abbad stood up, plucked a flower and said: “so you mean to say that I didn’t pluck this flower?” Al-Baqillani answered: “If you truly plucked it, then perhaps you can also put it back.”
This beautiful paradox should make us all reflect.
Questions for Muslims
In many Muslim communities group-belonging is a very strong theme and as a result different sorts of ostracism can be found. Whether it be among Muslim migrant minorities or in Muslim countries, one can often hear of the social problems people face when they wish to marry people of different faiths, when they choose a profession that is not supported by their parents, when they hold different believes than the majority, and so on. In certain countries one could even argue that the deep rooted sense of group-belonging goes back to or is still a part of tribal structures. Yet doesn’t the example of the prophet and his companions show that Islam is exactly meant to transcend any such tribal or other socially separating structures?
When we consider such issues, another interpretation of the words of Ibrahim 14:4 can shed a different light. For is God leads everyone, both those who stray and those who walk the straight path, we should realize that we don’t have much control over people in any case. Who are we to go against God’s will?
Sure enough, no one should be allowed to do injustices to others, but when people are just being ‘different’ or when they do things that are simply a bit counter intuitive to the expectancies of the community, why should anyone take offence therein? If God is behind it, there is nothing much we can do about it anyway. And if God can allow people to stray, shouldn't we? Even more so, I’m sure that if some more people are allowed to stray, it will often become clear that, in fact, they weren’t really straying. For often it is not the choices of others which are wrong, but rather our own narrow views on what is wrong or right.