In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
The monumental achievement of Prophet Abraham (Ibrāhīm) was his transcendence above the observable world to the Unseen by reflecting on the hidden laws of the creation. His example has been the corner stone of the proper understanding of monotheism ever since.
Those hidden laws that Allah enabled him to see are referred to as the Malakūt. We are also able to infer their existence by investigating the consistent patterns in creation. Malakūt, linguistically, means that which is owned but not clearly visible; the universe beyond our field of vision. That which is visibly owned, on the other hand, is called Mulk.
As Allah said:
وَكَذَٰلِكَ نُرِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ
Thus did We show Abraham the realm of the heavens and the earth that he would be among those certain in faith.
Surat al-An’am 6:75
The use of reason, guided by Abraham’s universal values in Islam, is the only sure path to salvation for humanity. Nevertheless, another word is used to describe the path that ought to peak our curiosity. Allah refers to Abraham as ḥanīfan, which linguistically means titling or diverting.
ثُمَّ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَيْكَ أَنِ اتَّبِعْ مِلَّةَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Then We revealed to you to follow the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth, for he was not among the idolaters.
Surat al-Nahl 16:123
The path of Abraham is usually called the “straight path,” implying that it is the only one, truly upright way to follow. What type of diversion is Allah speaking of?
To answer this question, we must investigate human nature as initially created.
The default of humanity
The origin of the human race is in a set of contradictions that have come to embody what it means to be human. These contradictions, left on their own without guidance, would bring inevitable ruin to the humankind and everything it touches.
This was the accurate observation of the angles when Adam was first created. They were far more concerned about bloodshed and destruction than they were about idolatry and unbelief.
As Allah said:
وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً ۖ قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
And mention when your Lord said to the angels: Verily, I will make upon the earth a successor. They said: Will you place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare your praise and sanctify you? Allah said: Verily, I know that which you do not know.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:30
In declaring the creation of humanity, Allah refers to his “making” (jā’il) Adam upon the earth, which implies that the process involved a transformation of one form to another. Allah responded to the angels further by instilling within Adam the ability to reason through language:
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
And he taught Adam the names of all things. Then He showed them to the angels and said: Tell me of the names of these, if you are truthful.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:31
This sequence shows us that the very base default of humanity is what the angels saw at first. The diversion away from corruption only occurs when reason can direct our opposing internal forces – love and anger, fear and hope – upon monotheism’s straight path.
When the angels saw the final form of humanity, they acknowledged their inability to fully see the transformation Allah had planned:
قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ
They said: Glory be to you, for we have no knowledge but what you have taught us. Verily, you alone are the Knowing, the Wise.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:32
Reason, guided by values and wisdom from revelation, is how humanity can be elevated to a form properly named the successor (khalīfah), or deputy, of Allah. Like the laws of physics, Islam’s moral values are themselves universally true natural laws, recognized by reason and affirmed by revelation. These values form the background environment in which we live – justice, compassion, truth – and we see them assert themselves throughout history again and again in every culture and religion.
The path of Abraham is the direct implementation of this transformation process. Abraham used his reason to explore the laws of nature and, finding consistent patterns in the creation, logically inferred an even deeper level of universality leading towards the discovery of Allah in the Unseen. Having accepted this truth simply from observing nature, he sought out the divine guidance he knew must exist:
وَقَالَ إِنِّي ذَاهِبٌ إِلَىٰ رَبِّي سَيَهْدِينِ
He said: Verily, I am going to my Lord and he will guide me.
Surat al-Saffat 37:99
Thus, Abraham was diverting away from the human soul’s lower and unguided instincts, away from the idolatrous society that had succumbed to such instincts.
Stages of guidance
There is a sequence of events that occurs in the guidance of any human being. The main stages of this sequence are demonstrated in the spiritual journey of Abraham. Every human who wants to be guided must follow the same path.
First, a person must approach the existential reality with a pure heart, sincerely searching for the truth. This is the most important element in the equation, because the heart is the core of the human being and everything else good must radiate outward from a pure heart.
As Allah said:
إِذْ جَاءَ رَبَّهُ بِقَلْبٍ سَلِيمٍ
When he came to his Lord with a pure heart.
Surat al-Saffat 37:84
Second, a person must explore the existential reality with sound reason, to sift the falsehood from the truth:
أَئِفْكًا آلِهَةً دُونَ اللَّهِ تُرِيدُونَ
Is it falsehood as a god besides Allah you desire?
Surat al-Saffat 37:86
Abraham famously provoked his people to use their reason when he secretly smashed all of their idols except for the biggest. When he was confronted later on, he claimed the biggest idol had done the smashing. Of course, they said, the biggest idol could do no such thing. They were dumbfounded.
Finally, a person must accept ultimate allegiance to Allah alone and not anything else, neither country nor heritage nor even family. For instance, Allah calls us to uphold the universal value of justice even at the expense of our own selves. Having integrity for the truth and its values is what makes a person truly righteous. Our loyalty is first and foremost to the divine truth, not to any person or group or any created being.
One can ascertain this final stage from the story of Abraham’s son. Allah commanded him to sacrifice his son, for reasons he did not understand. It was a test of his faith, his complete spiritual detachment from any worldly blessings, including his own heritage. The loss of his son would mean the end of his lineage, so the command to sacrifice his son was a test of his loyalty to Allah over the most beloved things to him world. When Abraham and his son surrendered themselves to Allah’s command, they were rewarded with the strengthening of their lineage with another son, two great prophets Isaac and Ishmael who would carry the message of Abraham to the Jews and the Arabs, respectively. The symbolic detachment from heritage would also allow the message of true monotheism, which is neither specifically Jewish nor Arab, to be renewed again and again.
This last element is perhaps the most difficult of all the stages, for it is here that the believers often come into conflict with the wider society. Any group, a nation or a party or a sect, might be formed for a noble cause in the beginning, but if the foundation is no based on the truth, it will not be long until it devolves into pure tribalism.
One symptom of this faulty allegiance is the phenomena of Muslims identifying as primarily something else besides a “Muslim,” one who surrenders to Allah:
مَا كَانَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ يَهُودِيًّا وَلَا نَصْرَانِيًّا وَلَٰكِن كَانَ حَنِيفًا مُّسْلِمًا وَمَا كَانَ مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ
Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth, a Muslim, and he was not among the idolaters.
Surat Ali Imran 3:67
This is the name Allah has chosen for the believers, those who submit their will to Allah. It conveys a certain moral quality that is not associated to any particular heritage or specific revelation, as all of the prophets and all righteous teachers were Muslims in this sense.
Today, many Muslims have given their allegiance to religious sub-identities – Sufi, Salafi, etc. – or national sub-identities that seem to take precedence over the wider allegiance to Islam and the global Muslim community. This manifests itself in sectarianism, nationalism, and racism. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with taking on a number of sub-identities; we all have multiple aspects of our individual composite identity. The trouble occurs when something other than “Muslim” becomes a Muslim’s primary identity above all else.
The straight path towards Allah, in a sense, is one of diversion from the norm. The default behaviour of humans, without guidance, is bloodshed and destruction. To turn away from this path, we must emulate the example of Abraham. If we do so, we will never go astray. We begin by sincerely and earnestly seeking the truth with a pure heart, then use our God-given reason to reflect upon the patterns of creation. Finally, once the truth is discovered, we must follow it wherever it leads us.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.