Straightness & Curvature

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020


Show us the straightway [sirat mustaqim]. (Fatiha:6) Say: “Verily, my Lord has guided me to a way that is straight [sirat mustaqim]—a religion of right—the path (trod) by Abraham the true in faith, and he (certainly) joined not gods with God.” (An’am:161)

Verily, this is my way, leading straight [sirati mustaqiman]: follow it; follow not (other) paths, they will scatter you about from His (great) path: thus, does He command you, that you may be righteous. (An’am:153).  And We guided them to the straightway [al-sirat al-mustaqim]. (saffat118)

We find in these verses the concept of ‘straightness’ in the form of the adjective mustaqim. Both noun and adjective are derived from the Arabic root q-w-m which  The concept of ‘straightness’ is derived from the root meaning of intasaba and means ‘to put something right that has strayed’, and the Qur’anic notion of Islam as the ‘correct or true religion’ ( al-din al-qayyim) is also defined by the second meaning of ‘azm (strength) ;hence the notion of ‘straight’ also connotes the meaning of ‘strong and mighty’ (qawi). This double meaning of ‘putting straight’ and ‘being strong’, which already indicates the dialectical nature of ‘straightness’ and ‘curvature”—the true strength of the Islamic religion—can be found in the following verses: [Al-rijal] are the protectors and maintainers [qawwamun] of [ al-nisa”] (Nisa”:34) God! There is no god but He, the living, the self-subsisting [al-qayyum], eternal… (Baqara:255).


As for the term ‘curvature’, this occurs in the Book primarily in the form of the noun hanif (singular.) or hunafa” (plural.), referring

  1. a) to those who are ‘true in their faith’ and
  2. b) to the religion the faithful adhere to. We hear from the Book: Being true in faith to God [hunafa” li-llah], and never assigning partners to Him… (hajj:31).

Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to God, does good, and follows the way of Abraham the true in faith [hanifan]? For God did take Abraham for a friend. (Al-Nisa”:125) … also other verses in (Rum:30) and (Bayyina:5).

However, etymologically the noun hanif is derived from the Arabic root h-n-f which means ‘to drift’ or ‘to bend’ and almost always implies an aspect of incorrectness or distortion. If, for example, someone walks with a twisted ankle or a crippled foot or is bowlegged one would use adjectives derived from h-n-f (e.g., ahnaf) in order to indicate a foot distortion. Furthermore, related root words such as kh-n-f or j-n-f, which only differ from h-n-f by a different first radical, connote similar kinds of distortion or deviation, for example, khanafa, is to speak with a nasal twang, while janafa indicates a distorted sense of justice or unbalanced judgement.

In our reading of Surat An’am, verse 79, the quality of being ‘curved’ or ‘bent’ (hanif ) is a natural quality as it is intrinsic to human nature in the material, objective world. The verse reads as follows: Lo! I have turned my face toward Him who created [fatara] the heavens and the earth, as one by nature [hanifan], and I am not of the idolaters. (An’am:79)

The term hanif occurs here in the form of a hal-accusative, hanifan, and designates the state or quality of the act to which the previous subclause refers, that is, to God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. This implies that nature has been created in a nonlinear fashion, and that all things in the universe, from the smallest electrons to the biggest galaxies, move in curves. And since there is no natural ‘straightness’ in God’s creation, human beings, in their innate natural disposition are also characterized by curvature and a lack of straightness.

But in their ‘curvedness’ they are in total harmony with the material, objective reality around them as this is marked by the same law of natural nonlinearity. If the entire universe is characterized by curvature, nonlinear movement, and change, straightness will be necessary in order to implement some sort of equilibrium and constancy. Human beings need Allah as their guide to show them the ‘straight path’ because of this necessity for controlling and restraining their natural inclination to constant permutations.

Essentially, humans do not need God’s guidance to follow their hanifiyya disposition— they instinctively ‘bend towards’ non-linearity and change— hence, no verse in the Book tells man how to seek curvature. Instead, we hear ‘this is the natural disposition (fitrat Allah) God instilled in humankind—there is no altering God’s creation—and this is the right religion…’ (Rum:30) and, thus, we hear instead ‘show us the straightway (Fatiha:6), not ‘show us curvature’.

Even if straightness is provided by God and curvature is a feature of human nature, this does not mean that God’s aim is to entirely replace curvature by straightness. This would destroy the disposition He created for humankind. It does mean that curvature and straightness stand together in a dialectical relationship whereby stability and change are intrinsically intertwined.

This dialectical opposition between curvature and straightness allows for a limitless number of movements which human legislation can take so that Islamic law remains adaptable to all times and places until the coming of the Last Hour. It means that God’s provision of straightness allows humankind to know the utmost limits of human behavior which humankind is not allowed to transgress. But within these extreme limits, as stated in the umm al-kitab, human beings are allowed to move freely and adjust their legislation according to the needs and circumstances of their times. The following examples will help us to understand how intrinsic and natural the concept of upper and lower limits is for all of us in our daily life:

  1. People live in locations in this earth which are defined by an average altitude between two extremes,

Only a tiny minority dare to occupy the extreme regions of this earth (example, mountaineers and adventurers), while the majority prefer to live in the middle between the outermost limits.

  1. Daylight varies throughout the year according to season and time of the year. In some places for example, the longest day of the year is fourteen hours and twenty-six minutes, while the shortest day is only nine hours and fifty minutes long. The other days of the year are in between these two extremes.
  1. The human eye can only see colors that are visible within the spectrum of light. It cannot recognize the colors that are above violet or below red.
  2. The human ear can only hear vibrations of sounds that are between the range of twenty to twenty-thousand Hertz. Body temperature, heart rate, frequency of breathing through inhaling and exhaling, the movement of our limbs, and such—all these functions naturally between two extremes, and if these limits were transgressed, the body would cease to function properly.
  1. The amount of blood sugar in our veins varies between 70 and 120 mg. Any amount in between the limits is normal, even if it is exactly either 70 or 120 mg.
  2. In order to prevent dehydration the human body needs a minimum amount of liquid per day, but there is no strict upper limit for this.
  1. The minimum requirement for organic life is the existence of water and oxygen.

These examples are sufficient to demonstrate how nature and society function between upper and lower limits, adherence to which is vital for the preservation of life.

The first person in the history of Islam who recognized the significance of the hanifiyya disposition of change and nonlinearity was Abraham. He, followed by other prophets and messengers after him, came to believe that nothing in nature and society should be forced to become fixed and stable, since this would mean turning something into ‘straightness’, a quality that only God alone can possess. To pretend ‘straightness’ for something that is naturally ‘curved’ is to violate Allah’s unity and commit shirk Allah. That is why in verse 161 of Surat An’am the tauhid of Abraham’s faith is contrasted to the shirk of the unbelievers: Say: “Verily, my Lord has guided me to a way that is straight [sirat mustaqim]—a religion of right—the path (trod) by Abraham, the true in faith [hanif an], and he (certainly) joined not gods with God.” (An’am:161).

In light of this verse, we say that Abraham’s faith consisted of his belief in the hanifiyya disposition of nature (curvature and change) and in the existence of Allah’s straightness in the form of limits between which the ‘curved progression of nature’ occurs. It was because of this belief and Abraham’s insistence on the unity of Allah’s sovereignty (al-rububiyya) that the Book told us to see him as a role model to follow: Abraham was truly an example: devoutly obedient to God and true in faith… (Nahl:120).