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Divine Tests and Allah’s Will in Human Guidance

By: Hojjat al-Islam Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani

Divine Tests
Question: If Allah (awj) is omniscient, why does He need to test mankind?

Brief Answer
As implied by the question, because Allah (awj) is omniscient, the purpose of His tests is not to unveil something hitherto unknown. Rather, the Qur`an and ahadith suggest that these tests serve two purposes. First, they comprise a Divine precedent (sunnah ilahiyyah[129]) that is in turn based on another Divine precedent that can be termed “universal guidance.” In particular, Allah (awj) wishes that mankind, by obeying the divine law (shari’ah) and struggling through the various circumstances that he encounters in life, will blossom from potentiality to actuality, and will thereby attain the level of perfection that has been intended for him. One of the terms that is used for such tests in Islamic literature is fitnah (in this sense this term denotes a “crucible”). Fitnah literally refers to the process of smelting by which gold is purified. In one hadith it is said that people are tested the way gold is tested. The mettle of man is gold ore that is purified in the crucible of Divine tests and guidance. It should be kept in mind though, that in the course of such tests, just as good qualities reach their perfection in the believers, bad qualities also develop to the utmost in disbelievers.
The second purpose that these tests serve is to awaken man from his sleep of heedlessness. The Qur`an explains that one of the purposes of tragedy and disaster is to test man and thereby jar him from his stupor of heedlessness. In a way, tragedy in man’s life serves the same purpose as the ridges that are embossed on some modern motorways and highways that are meant to wake drivers during the monotony of highway driving so they do not fall asleep at the wheel.
There are, in reality, two types of Divine will at play here. One is called the existential will (al-iradah al-takwiniyyah) and the other is called the legislative will (al-iradah al-tashri’iyyah). Allah’s (awj) existential will is that through Divine tests, both believers and disbelievers be able to actualize their good and bad potentials. On the other hand, his legislative will is that only good potentials be actualized.

Detailed Answer
Divine tests are not designed to unveil something hitherto unknown, since Allah (awj) is omniscient and needs no such unveiling. Rather, they comprise a Divine precedent, that is based on a second Divine precedent called “universal guidance.” By universal guidance, we mean Allah’s (awj) guidance of all creation (whether they be conscious or not), as it relates to man.
To clarify, we must first describe the three types of Divine guidance:
1. One type of guidance is intended only for the most pious people and has been negated from other groups in the following verses of the Qur`an:
“Allah does not guide the wrongdoing ones,”
“Allah does not guide the corrupt ones.”
The converse of this kind of guidance is misguidance.
2. Another type of guidance known as “legislative guidance” entails showing someone the path. This kind of guidance addresses both believers and disbelievers, but does not benefit inanimate beings. Examples of this kind of guidance are in the following verses: “We showed him the path while he is either grateful or ungrateful[130],” and “As for (the people of) Thamud, we guided them, but they preferred blindness to guidance.”[131]
3. The third kind of guidance is universal both in terms of the beings who are guided and the resulting guidance and is also called existential guidance. This is the guidance referred to in the following verse:
“Our Sustainer is He who gave everything its existence, and then guided it.”[132]
This verse implies that Allah’s (awj) universal guidance includes all creation, whether conscious or inanimate. In another verse, the Qur`an states,
“who created and proportioned; who determined and guided.”[133]
Here, the verb “to determine” (taqdir) entails the facilitation of the appropriate means of a given thing so that it is “guided” to fulfil the purpose for which it was created.
All of creation - whether conscious or inanimate - attains its intended purpose through this third type of existential guidance. However man, who is more than just a physical being living in this material world, requires more than the existential guidance afforded to all creation. He can only attain perfection by choosing his path according to his free will. For this reason, Allah must on the one hand, provide a set of positive and negative commands entailed in the shari’ah (divine law) so that man can choose to either obey or disobey. On the other hand, Allah (awj) must create “problems” at the individual and societal levels (some of which are caused by human choice and some of which are caused by natural means such as natural disasters) so that man can choose a course of action with respect to these problems. By choosing a course of action with respect to divine law and the aforementioned problems, man actualizes the potential that is hidden within himself, and either proves himself to be worthy of eternal felicity or chastisement. It is for this reason that both the divine law and human tragedy are referred to in Islamic literature by the terms “trial,” “tribulation,” and “test.”
To put it simply, Allah (awj) is like a scientist examining each individual human being. The parameters on which his experiments are based are the shari’ah and human tragedy. Through these two variables, a person’s station with respect to the level of perfection that was intended for him is determined.[134]
To recapitulate, Divine tests are based on the Divine precedent called universal guidance. Through these tests every person comes to know which abode he will enter: the abode of reward or the abode of chastisement. The Qur`an describes the purpose of these tests in this way: “…so that Allah may purify those who have faith and that He may eradicate the faithless.”[135]
In the course of repeated tests, the superficial faith and deceitful good qualities of the faithless and the hypocrites are extirpated. Another meaning of the “eradication of the faithless” is mentioned in the verse that says, “the (final) outcome will be in favour of the fear of Allah”[136] and in the verse that reads,
“My righteous servants shall inherit the earth.”[137]
We can recap the positive effects of divine tests in the following two points:
1. They serve to actualize hidden potentials. Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (Ú) says: “It is in extreme circumstances that a man’s true mettle shows itself.”[138] It is narrated from Imam ‘Ali b. Musa al-Rida (Ú) that “People are tested as gold is tested, and they are purified as gold is purified.”[139] The word fitnah refers to the process of smelting gold ore. Gold ore is melted so that its impurities float to the surface and are removed. Likewise the essence of man is like gold that Allah (awj) wishes to purify. Meanwhile, the presence of animal-like qualities such as anger and lust pose a major obstacle to his purification. It is for this reason that Divine tests are considered a means for the perfection of mankind.
In the military, soldiers are required to perform strenuous activities to build their strength. Likewise, Divine tests are meant to strengthen man’s inner self. Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (Ú) says, “Although Allah knows man better than he knows himself, (He tests him) in order to make manifest those actions by which he earns his reward or punishment.”[140]
2. They also serve to awaken man from his sleep of heedlessness. Allah (awj) tests man both through tragedy and hardship and by showering him with an abundance of blessings such as power, health, and wealth. Often these blessing deceive a person so much that they threaten to lead to his downfall. Allah (awj) sends tragedy his way, in order to jar him from his stupor so that he can once again discern right from wrong, and so that he remembers that all existence and blessings issue from Allah (awj), whom one should never forget and against whom one should never sin.
Many verses in the Qur`an speak of this aspect of Divine tests[141]. These verses generally use the terms tadhakkur (to remind), tadarru` (to show humility), and ruju’ (to return to the path). These concepts link together in the following way: to return to the path that leads to Allah (awj) one must first be reminded of Allah (awj); he must then humble himself before Allah (awj); only then can he truly return to Allah (awj) and better himself. Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (Ú) refers to this Qur`anic truth in the following way: “When Allah’s servants commit a sin, He tests them with hardship until they repent and cease committing sins and heed Allah’s admonishment.”[142]
If what we have said so far is true, then one might wonder why Allah’s (awj) prophets (Ú), Imams (Ú), and saints are tested? The answer to this question is found in a narration of Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (Ú) where he says: “The divine test is a form of discipline for the wrongdoer, a test for the believer, a means to increase one’s station for the prophets, and a means of ennoblement for the saints of Allah.”[143]
[129]A Divine precedent is a Divine action that is not bound to any specific time, place or people. Rather it is a sort of law the Allah (awj) has issued for Himself in such a way that from the beginning of time into eternity, He always acts according to this law. For example, one of the Divine precedents can be stated like this: “If a people rejects Divine guidance and kills Allah’s (awj) prophets and it becomes apparent that there is no hope that even one person from among them will submit himself to Allah (awj), they must be destroyed.”
[130] Surat al-Insan (76), Verse 3:
[131] Surat al-Fussilat (41), Verse 17:
[132] Surat Taha (20), Verse 50:
[133] Surat al-A’la (87), Verse 2-3:
[134] Surat al-Kahf (18), Verse 7:
Also refer to: Surat al-Insan (76), Verse 2, Surat al-Anbiya’ (21), Verse 35, Surat Ali-’Imran (3), Verse 154, Surat al-Fajr (89), Verse 6, Surat al-Taghabun (64), Verse 15, Surat Muhammad (47), Verse 4
[135]Surat Ali-’Imran (3), Verse 141:
[136] Surat Taha (20), Verse 132:
[137]Surat al-Anbiya’ (21), Verse 105:
[138]Nahj al-Balaghah, Short Saying 217:
Ýöí ÊóÞóáõÈöø ÇáÃóÍúæóÇáö Úöáúãõ ÌóæóÇåöÑö ÇáÑöøÌóÇáö.
[139]al-Kafi, vol. 1 pg. 370:
[140]Nahj al-Balaghah, Short Saying 93:
[141]Surat al-A’raf (7), Verse 94, Surat al-Rum (30), Verse 41, Surat al-Sajdah (32), Verse 21, Surat al-A’raf (7), Verses 30-168, Surat al-Tawbah (9), Verse 126
[142]Nahj al- Balaghah, Sermon 143:
[143]Bihar al-Anwar, vol. 4, pg. 235, no. 54:

Allah’s Will in Human Guidance
Question: Considering the verse of the Qur`an in Surah 32, verse 13 which reads, “Had We wished We would have given every soul its guidance,” - can it not be concluded that Allah (awj) has not desired the guidance of all humanity? If Allah (awj) had desired the guidance of all humanity He would have willed such, but obviously He has not. Why?

Brief Answer
Allah (awj) has willed the guidance of all His creatures. For, after taking all the [relevant] Qur`anic verses into consideration, the following points can be deduced:
1. Divine guidance is divided into existential (takwini) and legislative (tashri’i) guidance. Existential guidance is the all-encompassing guidance that embraces the entire creation. Allah (awj) has put all creatures in motion by ingraining in their nature their inclination for seeking perfection and reaching their ultimate goal. The legislative guidance, which is more specific, is exclusive to the bearers of intellect and thought and pertains to religious issues, such as rightful doctrines and the Divine oughts and ought-nots. The prophets and their infallible successors serve as the conduit for this latter guidance. It is this guidance that is an extra favour bestowed upon mankind, and hence they enjoy both types of guidance.
2. There are many verses in the Qur`an which confirm the free will of the human being, such as, “Indeed We have guided him to the way, be he grateful or ungrateful.” This ability to choose is a measure of existential guidance from Allah (awj), for the human being cannot himself be the source of his free will as it would entail the problem of circularity or infinite regress.
3. The entire creation is founded on a framework of causality, and the Divine norm (sunnat Allah) requires that all affairs be guided through the causal matrix. In this vein, He has provided the means of guidance for all human beings, by which they can attain the ultimate goal of their existence. So although the human being has been blessed by existential guidance, at the same time he is a free being and can choose to take the path of Divine guidance—thereby preparing in himself the grounds for further guidance—or he could choose to take the opposite direction, which leads to disbelief and oppression. What the verse in question intends is that if Allah (awj) had wished, He could have created the human being without free will. But Allah (awj) chose to mould the human being as a volitional creature by the means of His existential and legislative guidance so that he would be responsible for his actions and distinguish truth from falsehood. It is in line with the same Divine norm that if the human being embarks on the path of oppression and disbelief, consequently he would be deprived of Divine guidance. But on the other hand, by choosing to follow the path of truth, the human being earns the blessing of further guidance.

Detailed Answer
Before answering the question, it is necessary to mention some preparatory points.
1. It would be helpful to reflect on the entire verse in question: “Had We wished We would have given every soul its guidance, but My word became due [against the defiant]:
‘Surely I will fill hell with all the [guilty] jinn and humans.’”[144]
2. The definition of hidayah: It signifies enlightening and showing the way, out of kindness and goodwill.
3. The Qur`aan recognizes two general types of Divine guidance: existential (takwini) and legislative (tashri’i). The existential is that all-inclusive guidance that benefits the entire creation. Allah (awj) guides all creatures to their ultimate perfection and goal by means of that which He has imparted in their nature. In this regard the Qur`an explains, “He said
‘Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation and then guided it”[145].
This point is reiterated in the following verse:
“[He] who created and proportioned, [He] who determined and guided.”[146]
The legislative guidance, which is the one specific to the bearers of intellect and thought, pertains to religious matters such as the true doctrines and the Divine law. This guidance has been delivered to humankind through the channels of Divine prophets and their infallible successors. Allah (awj) says,
“A part [of mankind] He has guided and a part has deserved [to be consigned to] error”[147];
“and Allah guides whomever He wishes to a straight path.”[148]
As these verses allude to a limited guidance, it can be inferred that the guidance in question is the legislative. Nevertheless, this guidance in the context of the human community is an all-inclusive one [meant for all human beings].
4. The human being, as a creation of Allah (awj) who is subservient to Him, is the only creature moulded a free being. There are numerous verses in the Qur`an that emphasize the volitional nature of the human being, such as:
“And say, ‘[This is] the truth from your Lord: let anyone who wishes believe it, and let anyone who wishes disbelieve it.”[149]
In addition:
“Indeed We have guided him to the way, be he grateful or ungrateful.”[150]
Hence it is the individual himself who is responsible for what he does.
This freewill is part and parcel of human existence and is by no means separable from it. Thus the human being is predestined in possessing freewill. There is no human being who could decide not to be free. From this it can be deduced that the source of human volition cannot be the human being himself, for then we would have the problem of circularity or infinite regress. But in the context of his deeds and actions, he is free by nature, and this is one instance of that existential guidance.
5. The existential system is founded on the system of causality. The Divine norm (sunnat Allah) has established that all events come about by means of their natural causes. The same norm applies to the question of guidance in which case He provides the means of guidance so that truth would be clear for those who seek it and so that they could attain the ultimate goal by recognizing those means.
Based on the aforementioned points and according to the explicit connotations of various verses of the Qur`an, the existential guidance encompasses all creatures. In addition, the human being has been blessed by the Divine legislative guidance as well. Due to the fact that freewill has been existentially inscribed in his nature, he has the option of following the exclusive Divine guidance, thereby preparing the grounds for further elevation. But he could also choose to abandon the way of truth, plunging into disbelief and darkness. The verse in question indicates that had Allah (awj) wished, He could have created the human being without freewill. But He chose to favour humankind by both the existential and the legislative guidance, by which He could hold the human being accountable for his actions, and by which He intended to distinguish truth from falsehood.

It has been clarified that understanding the verse in question to mean that God does not wish the guidance of all human beings is a misconception. Rather, the contrary holds true. For He has wished the guidance not only of all human beings but of all creatures. The difference lies in that Allah (awj) has ordained by His Divine norm that if the human being decided to walk on to the path of disbelief and oppression, he would be naturally deprived of Divine guidance. But if he chose to traverse the path of truth, he would be blessed by that Divine guidance.
“As for those who strive in Us, We shall surely guide them in Our ways, and Allah is indeed with the virtuous.”[151]
[144]Surat al-Sajdah (32), Verse 13:
[145] Surat Taha (20), Verse 50:
[146] Surat al-A’la (87), Verses 2-3:
[147]Surat al-A’raf (7), Verse 30:
[148]Surat al-Baqarah (2), Verse 213:
[149] Surat al-Kahf (18), Verse 29:
[150]Surat al-Insan (76), Verse 3:
[151] Surat al-’Ankabut (29), Verse 69:

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