Does Allah ever misguide people?

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 1 September 2023

“Or do they say: He has forged it? No, it is the Truth from your Lord that you may warn a people to whom no warner has come before you that they may be guided.”  ch. 32, v. 3

اَمۡ یَقُوۡلُوۡنَ افۡتَرٰىہُ ۚ بَلۡ ہُوَ الۡحَقُّ مِنۡ رَّبِّکَ لِتُنۡذِرَ قَوۡمًا مَّاۤ اَتٰہُمۡ مِّنۡ نَّذِیۡرٍ مِّنۡ قَبۡلِکَ لَعَلَّہُمۡ یَہۡتَدُوۡنَ ﴿۳

“They follow only conjecture and what (their) souls desire. And certainly the guidance has come to them from their Lord.” — ch. 53, v. 23

اِنۡ یَّتَّبِعُوۡنَ اِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَ مَا تَہۡوَی الۡاَنۡفُسُ ۚ وَ لَقَدۡ جَآءَہُمۡ مِّنۡ رَّبِّہِمُ الۡہُدٰی ﴿ؕ۲۳

In both the verses that I have read above, it is stated in connection with the unbelievers to whom the Holy Prophet was preaching that the revelation which came to him was for the purpose of guiding them. In another verse it says that the Quran came to them so that they would not present an excuse or a complaint that revelation from God had only come to other nations, such as the Jews and Christians, but not to them, and this was why they were not guided to the right path. Removing their excuse, the Quran says to them: “So indeed clear proof has come to you from your Lord, and guidance and mercy. Who is then more unjust than he who rejects Allah’s messages and turns away from them?” (6:157) Further, the Quran told them that the idols or other gods whom they worshipped could not guide them to the truth, but that: “Allah guides to the Truth. Is He then Who guides to the Truth more worthy to be followed, or he who cannot find the way unless he is guided?” (10:35)

So it is quite clear that Allah guides human beings and this was the reason He sent the Quran, which came among a nation who had never received revelation from God before. On the other hand, there are verses in the Quran containing words which are often translated in this kind of way: “Allah misguides whom He wills and guides whom He wills.” Many translations here have “Allah leads astray”, “Allah leads into error”, and “Allah misleads” whom He wants to. (See 14:4, 16:93, 35:8 and 74:31; also 6:39.)

Maulana Muhammad Ali has discussed at length the words of the Quran that have made many translators translate them as Allah misguiding or misleading people. He has explained them briefly in his footnotes in his translation of the Quran. In his book ‘The Religion of Islam’ he has included a detailed treatment of this point in the chapter on Taqdīr or Pre-destination. He has a sub-heading there: God does not lead astray. The Arabic words under discussion are: یُّضِلُّ مَنۡ یَّشَآءُ وَ یَہۡدِیۡ مَنۡ یَّشَآءُ  Yuḍillu man yashā’u wa yahdī man yashā’u. The word yuḍillu is the one translated often as He leads astray or misguides, and man yashā’u means ‘whoever He pleases or wills or wants’. The word yahdī means He guides, which is also followed by: ‘whoever He pleases or wills or wants’.

The first point Maulana Muhammad Ali makes is that, in the list of names of God that Muslims are familiar with, one of His names is al-Hādī, the Guide, which is related to the word here, yahdī. But there is no name of God related to yuḍillu, which would be al-Muḍill, meaning the one who misguides. Many of the names of God in that list are based on some act of God mentioned in the Quran, so if misguiding had been considered as an act attributable to God then al-Muḍill would be in that list.

Then the Maulana explains that yuḍillu has two kinds of meanings. In one of these two kinds, it does not mean that you actively led someone astray or misled someone. What it means is either that he went away from you or that you judged or determined that he had gone astray or been misled. Let me give a simple example. If you ask someone for the way to somewhere, he might do one of three things. He might show you the way. In that case he is guiding you. He might be a nasty person and deliberately direct you to the wrong way just to harm you. In that case he is mislead­ing you. But thirdly, he might decide not to help you, but not to mislead you either. He just leaves as you are. He may have good reason for this. For example, he might know from your past behaviour that you don’t follow anyone’s advice after asking for it. So he realises that you won’t benefit from his directions. It is this meaning which applies here: leaving someone in their error. Hence Maulana Muhammad Ali has translated such wording as: “Allah leaves in error whom He pleases, and He guides whom He pleases.” Several other translators of the Quran into English employ similar wording such as “Allah leaves them straying” or “Allah allows them to go astray”.

It is also wrong to think that the words “Allah leaves in error whom He pleases, and He guides whom He pleases” mean that Allah does this for no reason, just because he wants to, and it has nothing to do with what these two groups of people themselves do. The Quran clarifies elsewhere that it is what people do which determines whether Allah leaves them in error or guides them. It says:

“And He leaves in error by it only the transgressors, who break the covenant of Allah after its confirmation and cut apart what Allah has ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the land” (2:26).

These are people who commit misdeeds and disregard the rights of others. This is what is meant by cutting apart what Allah has ordered to be joined. Breaking “the covenant of Allah after its confirmation” means that while Allah has put goodness into the heart and nature of every human being, they go against that good human nature. In another verse the Quran says: “Allah leaves the wrongdoers in error” (14:27). Because of their wrongful actions, Allah deprives them of His guidance. At yet another place we have: “Thus does Allah leave him in error who exceeds all bounds, a doubter” (40:34). “A doubter” here means someone who has unreasonable doubts against the teachings of God. There are also repeated statements in the Quran that “Allah does not guide the unjust people” (2:258, 3:86, etc.). Similarly, it is stated that: “Allah does not guide him who is a liar, ungrateful” (39:3).

The same rule applies to being guided. A person has to do something in order to be guided to the right path. The Quran says that Allah “guides to Himself those who turn (to Him)” (13:27, 42:13). Again it says: “And those who strive hard for Us, We shall certainly guide them in Our ways. And Allah is surely with the doers of good” (29:69).

There are some verses in Sūrah Sīn which help to resolve the question: Does Allah ever misguide or mislead people and lead them on the wrong path? Allah will say to the guilty people on the Day of Judgment: “Did I not direct you, O children of Adam, not to serve the devil? Surely, he is your open enemy. And that you serve Me. This is the right way. And certainly he led astray numerous people from among you. Could you not then understand?” (36:60–62). The words “Did I not direct you?”,  اَلَمۡ اَعۡہَدۡ اِلَیۡکُمۡ (a lam a‘had ilai-kum) can also be translated as: “Did I not make a pact with you?”, “Did I not commit you”, not to serve or worship the devil, and to serve or worship Me.

Who, then, broke that pact and commitment: Was it Allah or was it man? If Allah misguides, misleads, or leads astray any human being, then He has violated His own pact with man, and after telling man that the devil is man’s open enemy, Allah led man to follow the path of the devil. Then it is clearly stated here, using the same word for leading astray that we have been discussing above, that it was the devil who “led astray numerous people from among you” away from the right path of Allah. Furthermore, it asks them the question: “Could you not then understand?”, that is to say, why did you not use your sense and reason to see that you and all these other people were being led to the wrong path?

The Quran also tells us that on the Day of Judgment sinners will themselves say to Allah they were misguided into following the wrong path by the people before them or by their leaders or by their friends or by the devil. Never will they say that they were misguided by Allah, because they know that He did not mislead them. For example, it says that the wrongdoers will express regret on the Day of Judgment and say: “If only I had taken a way with the Messenger (i.e., followed his path)! … If only I had not taken such-and-such one for a friend! Certainly he led me astray from the Reminder after it had come to me. And the devil ever deserts man” (25:27–29). They will also swear, as the Quran says: “By Allah! We were certainly in mani­fest error, … And none but the guilty led us astray” (26:97–99).

So to sum up, Allah sent guidance to guide people. By their own misdeeds they close the door of guidance on them. To be guided they have to make some effort. Allah wants them to be guided, and He addresses humanity as follows in the Quran: “If you are ungrateful, then surely Allah is above need of you. And He does not like ungratefulness in His servants. And if you are grateful, He likes it for you” (39:7). Here the word translated as “ungrateful” is kufr, which is why some translators have translated it in this kind of way: “If you disbelieve, then surely Allah does not need you. He does not like disbelief from His servants. If you are grateful (i.e., accept his guidance), He likes it for you”.