Fatimah Ahmadshah

This article comprises the following sections: i. Definitions; ii. Usage; iii. Those Who Have Gone Astray; iv. Those Who Lead Others Astray; v. Causes of Going Astray; vi. Leading Astray as Ascribed to Allah Most High; vii. The Punishment of Those Gone Astray; viii. Bibliography

Definitions and Usage

Ḍalāl/ḍalāla (“to go astray”) is derived from the root ḍ-l-l, which primarily signifies absence or concealment; for example, ḍalla al-māʾ fī-l-laban (“the water strayed into the milk”) means it disappeared into it. Similarly, ḍalla al-kāfir (“the disbeliever went astray”) signifies his failure to attain the truth, and ḍalla al-nāsī (“the one who forgot strayed”) implies he had a lapse in memory (Azharī, Tahdhīb, sub ḍ-l-l).

Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004) defines ḍalāl as the loss of something, or its leaving its rightful place; therefore, ḍalla al-shayʾ (“the thing went astray”) would mean that it was lost, and similarly ḍalla fulān ʿan al-ṭarīq (“so-and-so strayed from the road”) means he lost his way. One who is astray is called ḍāll. Iḍlāl and taḍlīl, however, mean to lead another astray, and one who does this is muḍill (Maqayīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān).

Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/1108) defines ḍalāl as any deviance from the right course, intentional or unintentional, great or small. The term thus applies to any kind of mistake, and is attributable to prophets as well as disbelievers. The Qurʾān says of the Prophet Muḥammad, blessings and peace be upon him, And He found you ḍāll and guided you (Q 93:7), “ḍāll” here being interpreted as “unaware of the concerns of prophethood”—something altogether distinct from the error ascribed to disbelievers (see Infallibility of Prophets) (Mufradāt).

Ḍalāl and other derivatives of the triliteral root occur in the Qurʾān 191 times, often as opposed to hudā (right guidance). Similarly, iḍlāl (to misguide) is opposed to hidāya (to guide) (e.g., Q 34:24; 35:8) (see Guidance and Misguidance). Iḍlāl can also mean the attribution of ḍalāl to someone (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān), as in the verse And Allah will never lead a people astray (yuḍilla) after He has guided them until He has made clear to them what they should avoid. Verily Allah is the All-Knower of all things (Q 9:115). This is interpreted as referring to those believers who prayed for the forgiveness of dead disbelievers before knowing of its prohibition, and who feared punishment for having done so. Thus Allah made it clear to them that He does not deem anyone astray except in the case of knowing and willful disobedience (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Rāzī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ).

The term ḍalāl in the Qurʾān most often refers to deviance from faith in Allah Almighty, as in the verse and he who exchanges belief (īmān) for disbelief (kufrhas verily strayed from the right way (Q 2:108). Other meanings of ḍalāl, as given by al-Dāmaghānī (d. 478/1085) and Ibn al-Jawzī (508-597/1114-1200), include temptation, loss, misery, and ruin (respectively, al-Wujūh wal-naẓāʾir and Nuzhat al-aʿyun). Among other Qurʾānic meanings of ḍalāl are:

  • invalidation: Those who disbelieve and hinder from the way of Allah, He will render their deeds vain (Q 47:1). Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 527/1132) explains that their actions will be wasted, there being no one to accept or recompense them for their deeds (Kashshāf; for more on such economic language in the Qurʾān, see Buying and Selling);
  • to forget, as in the verse which explains why two women rather than one are required to take the place of one man as witnesses: so that if one of them goes astray, the other can remind her (Q 2:282), meaning if one forgets her testimony (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr);
  • to err, as the People of the Garden (Aṣḥāb al-Janna) (q.v.) exclaimed when they did not recognize it destroyed before them: Verily, we have gone astray (Q 68:26), meaning they had taken the wrong path and were lost (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr);
  • ignorance or unawareness, as Prophet Mūsā, peace be upon him, said about killing a man: I did it then, when I was of those who were astray (Q 26:20), meaning he was unaware that his stroke would lead to the man’s death (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Rāzī, Tafsīr). Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) and Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373), however, interpret ḍalāl here as referring temporally to his pre-prophethood ignorance regarding revelation (see their Tafsīrs).

Al-Shinqīṭī (d. 1393/1973) notes that all of the above definitions can be understood through three primary categories. The first is to be unaware of the reality of something. In this category he includes the previous example of Mūsā, peace be upon him, as well as the verse My Lord neither strays nor does He forget (Q 20:52), meaning He does not err (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). The second category, which is most prevalent in the Qurʾān, is that of deviance from belief to disbelief, for example: Say: “O people of the Book, exceed not the limits in your religion, trespassing beyond the truth, and do not follow the vain desires of people who went astray afore and who misled many, and strayed from the right path” (Q 5:77). The third use of ḍalāl implies absence and decline, as in the oft-repeated phrase and what they invented will have strayed from them (wa-ḍalla ʿanhum mā kānū yaftarūn) (Q 6:24; 7:53; 10:30; 11:21; 16:87; 28:75), meaning that the invented deities whose intercession the disbelievers anticipate will bring them no benefit on the Day of Judgment (Ālūsī, Rūḥ). Similarly, in the verse, And they say: “When we are astray in the earth, shall we indeed be created anew?” Nay, but they are disbelievers in the meeting with their Lord (Q 32:10), when we are astray in the earth means “when our corpses have decayed into dust” (Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 18:104; 26:20).

Al-Shinqīṭī also mentions a fourth possible sense of ḍalāl: love. The sons of Prophet Yaʿqūb, peace be upon him, retorted to him when he said he sensed his son Yūsuf: “By Allah! Certainly, you are in your old ḍalāl (Q 12:95). This can be interpreted to mean that he was reminded of his love of old for Yūsuf, peace be upon him (Shinqīṭī, Aḍwāʾ, sub Q 18:104). However, many commentators hold ḍalāl here to signify error, meaning that the sons of Yaʿqūb thought their father was wrong because he smelled the fragrance of Yūsuf while they believed he was dead (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr; Ibn Āshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:95).

Those Who Have Gone Astray

The Qurʾān has attributed being astray (ḍalāl), being far astray (al-ḍalāl al-baʿīd), or manifest error (al-ḍalāl al-mubīn) to the following:


The Qurʾān is definitive: and whosoever disbelieves in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, has verily strayed far away (Q 4:136). Among disbelievers, those who associate other deities with Allah—that is, the polytheists—are those most commonly described in the Qurʾān as having strayed into error. The Children of Isrāʾīl  were so described in the case of their worshipping the image of a calf(Q 20:85-93). Similarly Ibrāhīm, peace be upon him, asked his father (see Āzar): “Do you take idols as gods? Surely, I see you and your people in manifest error (Q 6:74). Error (ḍalāl) also characterizes the time before one’s encounter with revelation: It is He Who sent among the unlettered a Messenger from among themselves, reciting to them His verses, purifying them, and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they had hitherto been in manifest error (Q 62:2). Al-Ālūsī (d. 1270/1854) comments that this verse refers primarily to the Arabs’ polytheism (Rūḥ).

The Qurʾān further imputes ḍalāl to transgressors (al-ẓālimīn), those astray in error (al-ghāwīn), and guilty perpetrators (al-mujrimīn), terms which according to some commentators also refer to idolaters (mushrikīn) (cf. Ṭabarī and Rāzī, Tafsīrs sub Q 31:11; and Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 19:38 and 54:47). The ghāwūn, those straying in error, will regret their ḍalāl on the Day of Resurrection: “By Allah! We were truly in manifest error (ḍalāl), when we held you (various idols and the hosts of Iblīs equal with the Lord of the worlds” (Q 26:97-98).

According to al-Rāzī, Q 14:2-3 describes disbelievers of the utmost degree of error: those who are astray and lead others astray. The former characterizes those who prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter; the latter, those who hinder others from the path of Allah and seek crookedness therein (Tafsīr, sub Q 14:3). The idolaters and other disbelievers, according to the Qurʾān, are not only more astray than others: And who is more astray than one who calls not upon Allah but upon those who will not answer him until the Day of Resurrection and are heedless of their call? (Q 46:5); they are worse (aḍall) even than cattle, which at least respond to their cowherd, whereas those choosing to disbelieve set up partners with their Lord (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 7:179 and 25:44).


According to most commentators, Q 2:16 refers specifically to the hypocrites (see Hypocrisy and Hypocrites): These are they who have purchased error (al-ḍālāla) for guidance, so their commerce gave no profit nor were they guided (Ālūsī, Rūḥ). Al-Baydāwī (d. 691/1291) explains that the original meaning of purchasing (al-shirāʾ) is to pay a price in return for a tangible commodity, but its broadened sense indicates an aversion to one thing born out of desire for another. Thus, the recurring economic metaphor of a profitless bargain emphasizes how the misguided prefer error to guidance, even when the latter is well within their reach (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:16). Ibn Kathīr, also preferring the generalized meaning of purchase, similarly applies this verse to the apostates among the hypocrites (Q 63:3), who substituted their belief (īmān) for disbelief (kufr) (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:16).

People of the Book

Verily, those who disbelieve and prevent [others] from the path of Allah have indeed strayed far away (Q 4:167). Many commentators link this verse to the Jews of Madina, who disbelieved in the Prophet Muḥammad, peace and blessings be upon him, and among other things would claim, in order to prevent others from accepting Islam, that he and his message were not foretold in their scriptures (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr; Ālūsī, Ruḥ). Abū al-Suʿūd (d. 952/1545) comments that the description “straying far away” (ḍalālan baʿīdā) indicates that those who are themselves astray and seek the same for others have travelled so far down the path of error that their return becomes unlikely (Irshād). The Jews, in particular, are also said to have been those censured in the verses Q 4:44 (Have you not seen those who were given a portion of the Book? They purchase error (al-ḍālāla), and desire that you go astray from the right path) and Q 2:174-175. According to some commentators, certain Jews bribed their scholars to be prejudiced against the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, and did so in order to receive incentives and fortify their leadership (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:175; Zajjāj, Maʿānī, sub Q 4:44). Moreover, Q 5:12 speaks of the covenant Allah took from the Children of Isrāʾīl, after which He warned: But whoever of you disbelieve after this have indeed strayed from the right path. The subsequent verse notes that they broke their covenant and therefore deserved to be cursed and that their hearts became hardened.

The final verses of the opening sura describe the path of salvation in contradistinction to other paths: Guide us to the straight way: the way of those upon whom You have bestowed Your grace, not of those who earned Your anger, nor of those who went astray (al-ḍāllīn) (Q 1:6-7). Many commentators hold that these two latter epithets refer to particular historical communities (see People of the Book) as well as conveying a more general warning, and note the hadith: “The Jews are the ones who earned His anger and the Christians are those astray” (Tirmidhī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, fātiḥat al-Kitāb; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 1:7). 

Those Who Lead Others Astray

Among those described in the Qurʾān as being astray are those who, in addition to being astray themselves, try as well to lead others into error. The archetype for such an individual is none other than Satan (shayṭān), whom Allah cursed, for he vowed: “Verily, I will take an appointed portion of Your servants, and surely I will mislead them, and surely I will arouse in them false desires…” (Q 4:118-119). Satan is therefore described in the Qurʾān as humanity’s openly misleading enemy (Q 28:15).

Leaders and elders of nations mentioned as misguiding their followers include Pharaoh (see Firʿawn) who ordered his people to disbelieve in Allah and His prophets: And Pharaoh led his people astray, and he did not guide them (Q 20:79). The Qurʾān states that on the Day of Resurrection the disbelievers will wish they had obeyed Allah Almighty and His prophets, And they will say: “Our Lord, verily, we obeyed our chiefs and our great ones, and they misled us from the right path” (Q 33:67). Ibn Kathīr comments that the “chiefs” were their noblemen and leaders, while the “great ones” were their scholars (Tafsīr). Among those who misguide others are sinful and wicked companions. Al-Sāmirī (“The Samaritan”) is an example from among the Children of Isrāʾīl, as Allah said to Mūsā, peace be upon him: Verily We have tested your people in your absence, and al-Sāmirī has led them astray (Q 20:85): he produced for them the shape of a calf that seemed to bellow, and called them to worship it (Ālūsī, Rūḥ). In the verse And they set up rivals to Allah, to mislead [others] from His path (Q 14:30), the Qurʾān draws attention to the fact that some of the people of Makka, instead of thanking Allah for His blessings, disbelieved in Him and His Prophet, and used their disbelief to lead others astray (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 14:28 and 30). Others, like al-Naḍr b. al-Ḥārith and Ubayy b. Khalaf, would enter into debates about subjects they knew nothing about, such as resurrection, in hopes of misleading those around them: And among men there is he who disputes about Allah, without knowledge or guidance, or a Book giving light, turning away in pride to lead [others] astray from the path of Allah… (Q 22:8-9). Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. ca.542/1147) states that this verse refers both to the aforementioned and to all those who follow in their footsteps (Muḥarrar; Rāzī, Tafsīr).

Others who misguide include a faction from the People of the Book, as is clear from this verse: A party of the People of the Book wish to lead you astray. But they shall not lead astray anyone except themselves, and they perceive not (Q 3:69).

Symptoms and Signs

Most accounts in the Qurʾān of people going astray are accompanied by a description of its conditions, thus serving as a deterrent and a warning. Some of these conditions and reasons are as follows:

Setting up Partners with Allah Almighty

As the Children of Isrāʾīl did with the calf (Q 20:92) and the Arabs did with their idols (Q 6:74, 62:2). Allah declares, and whoever associates anyone with Allah has indeed gone far astray (Q 4:116); and He calls besides Allah unto that which can neither harm nor profit him. That is straying far away (Q 22:12). Commentators say the latter verse was revealed concerning groups of Arabs who accepted Islam but lacked strong conviction: they were superficially content with their religion until their circumstances declined, upon which they would pessimistically blame, and consequently forsake, Islam (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Rāzī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 22:12).

Disbelieving in the Prophet or Disputing his Message

The Qurʾān states categorically: And whosoever does not respond to Allah’s caller cannot escape [anywhere] on earth, and there will be no helpers for him besides Allah. Those are in manifest error (Q 46:32). It also declares: Verily, those who conceal what Allah has sent down of the Book and purchase a small gain therewith…those are they who have purchased error at the price of guidance, and torment at the price of forgiveness (Q 2:174-175). As mentioned before, al-Ṭabarī suggests that this verse concerns those learned Jews who accepted bribes to withhold the foreknowledge of the Prophet given in the Torah, and who as a result were deemed to be astray (Tafsīr). Among the disbelieving Arabs were al-Walīd b. al-Mughīra and his associates, who tauntingly called the Prophet a poet, insane, or bewitched (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 17:48). About these individuals Allah says: See what they liken unto you. So they have gone astray and cannot find the way (Q 17:48; 25:9). According to al-Ṭabarī and al-Rāzī, the verse Those who will be gathered to Hell on their faces, such will be in an evil state and most astray from the path (Q 25:34) refers to the disputing disbelievers mentioned in an earlier verse as having rhetorically asked (in their rejection of the Prophet), “Why is the Qurʾān not revealed to him all at once?” (Q 25:32) (Tafsīrs, sub Q 25:34). A parallel example is those who dispute concerning the Hour, who are similarly described as far astray (cf. Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 42:18).

Many commentators hold that the verse Say: “Tell me, if it is from Allah, and you disbelieve in it, who is further astray than one who is in extreme dissension?” (Q 41:52) refers to the Qurʾān itself, making the rejection of its revelation one of the means of going astray (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr; Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 41:52).

Disbelieving After Believing

Those who disbelieved after having believed and then increased in their disbelief, their repentance will never be accepted; and those it is who are astray (Q 3:90). The unaccepted repentance which is mentioned here is that of one who dies in such a state of disbelief (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). It thus becomes an instance of rhetorical emphasis—of course the repentance of such a one can never be accepted, given that it did not occur before the disbeliever’s death (see Apostasy).

Breaking the Covenant with Allah

This is mentioned concerning the Children of Isrāʾīl, with whom Allah made a covenant: And Allah said: “I am with you if you perform prayer, give alms, and believe in My Messengers; honor and assist them, and lend a good loan to Allah. Verily, I will expiate your sins and admit you to gardens under which rivers flow. But whoever among you disbelieves after this has indeed strayed from the right path.” Then because of their breach of their covenant We cursed them and made their hearts grow hard. They change words from their places, and have abandoned much of the Message that was sent to them (Q 5:12-13). Al-Rāzī explains that they violated their covenant by disbelieving in and killing their prophets (cf. Q 4:155) and/or withholding information about the coming prophet (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:13).

Inventing Lies About Allah

Lost indeed are they who killed their children foolishly, without knowledge, and forbade that which Allah provided for them, inventing a lie against Allah. They have indeed gone astray and not been guided (Q 6:140). The Arabs in the Age of Ignorance (see Jāhiliyya) would commit female infanticide and manipulate sumptuary laws, and therefore merited such a description. Furthermore, the reiteration of “they were not guided” after the description of “astray” signifies that these people remained thus without attaining guidance thereafter (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Rāzī, Tafsīr).

Animosity Towards the Way of Allah

And woe to the disbelievers from a severe torment. Those who prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter, and prevent [others] from the path of Allah, and seek crookedness therein, they are far astray (Q 14:2-3). The disbelievers’ animosity towards the path of Allah expressed itself in their attempts to prevent others from following it, confusing them about it, and disparaging it (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 14:3).

Following Devils

A group He has guided and a group deserved to be in error; surely they took the devils as helpers instead of Allah, and think that they are guided (Q 7:30). Taking devils as helpers, that is, following their orders instead of Allah’s without distinguishing between truth and falsehood, is what led these people astray (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Likewise see Q 16:36: And We have sent among every nation a messenger [proclaiming]: “Worship Allah and avoid the ṭāghūt.” Then there were some of them whom Allah guided and there were some of them who deserved to be in error. So travel through the earth and see what was the end of the deniers. Al-Qurṭubī defined ṭāghūt as any object of worship besides Allah Almighty, for instance Satan, sorcerers, and idols, and anyone who calls others to error (Tafsīr). Al-Ṭabarī comments that those who were guided followed the messengers and were saved from Allah’s punishment, while those who went astray by disbelieving in the prophets and following false deities deserved His wrath and destruction, the signs of which still remain on earth as a warning (Tafsīr).

Blind Following of Predecessors

Those who are astray and will be punished on the Day of Judgment (Q 37:62-68) are also described as those who found their fathers on the wrong path, then hastened in their footsteps (Q 37:69-70). Ibn Kathīr explains this as referring to those who blindly followed the religious traditions of their ancestors without themselves ascertaining their validity (Tafsīr, sub 37:69-70). The Prophet Ibrāhīm, peace be upon him, expressed the same about his people When he said to his father and his people: “What are these images, to which you are devoted?” They replied, “We found our fathers worshipping them.” He said: “Indeed, you and your fathers have been in manifest error” (Q 21:52-54). Both were considered to be plainly astray: the forefathers for following their own desires, and their successors for following them blindly (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 21:54).

Following One’s Own Desires

The Qurʾān relates Allah’s order to the Prophet Dāwūd, peace be upon him: O Dāwūd, verily We have placed you as a vicegerent on the earth, so judge between men in truth and follow not your desires, for it will mislead you from the Path of Allah (Q 38:26), meaning “Do not prefer, in your judgments, your opposing desires over the truth” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). It further asks, rhetorically, And who is more astray than one who follows his own lusts, without guidance from Allah? Verily, Allah guides not a wrongdoing people (Q 28:50). The injustice done to oneself by following one’s own desires also involves abandoning the guiding signs of God—leaving oneself to wander away from the Path of Allah, astray (Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 28:50).

Forgetting the Day of Resurrection

Verily, those who wander astray from the Path of Allah [shall] have a severe torment, because they forgot the Day of Reckoning (Q 38:26); they forsook the path of Allah either through their preoccupation with sins or by denying that day altogether as if to forget it (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr; al-Biqāʿī, Naẓm al-durar). Al-Rāzī comments that forgetting the Day was in fact the main reason for their straying in the first place, for had they remained conscious of their oncoming great reckoning they would not have neglected to prepare for it (Tafsīr).

Despairing of the Mercy of Allah

And who despairs of the Mercy of his Lord except those who are astray? (Q 15:56). Al-Rāzī remarks that despairing of Allah’s Mercy occurs when one is ignorant of, or closes oneself off from, Allah’s ever-merciful nature, His knowledge of His servants’ need for Him, and His freedom from miserliness, need, and ignorance. Blindness in these matters, al-Rāzī declares, is ḍalāl (Tafsīr). Hopelessness of this kind is considered ḍalāl because it is also an act of disbelief (cf. Q 12:87). Al-Ālūsī explains that if despair entails denial of Allah’s abundant mercy, that constitutes disbelief, whereas to suppose that one’s sins are too abundant to be forgiven is a major sin (Rūḥ, sub Q 15:56).

Leading Astray as Ascribed to Allah Most High

The concept of Allah guiding human beings and leading them astray relates to the issue of Divine Decree (qaḍāʾ)(also see Ability; Acquisition; Deeds; Will, Want, and Volition) in relation to the actions of creatures (afʿāl al-ʿibād)). The creed of Sunni orthodoxy in this regard, as expounded for instance by Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1327), is that Allah Almighty has eternal knowledge of all that was and all that will be, including the actions of His creatures, and has recorded everyone’s fate in the Preserved Tablet (al-lawḥ al-maḥfūẓ)(Q 57:22). Allah’s will is always executed; what He wills takes place and what He does not will does not take place, and everything happens by the will of Allah, and Allah does what He wills (Q 14:27). Allah’s ability is All-Encompassing, for Allah is Able to do all things (Q 3:29). Allah the Exalted has also commanded His slaves to obey Him and has forbidden disobedience. These slaves have abilities and intentions, and are the real doers of their actions by virtue of their own choices, which is why it is fair and just that they should be recompensed for their deeds. Therefore, attributing deeds to the slaves of Allah, as the ones who executed them, does not contradict imputing the same to Allah, as the One Who created and originated them. For if Allah created His slaves along with their abilities and the intentions by which they carried out their actions, then He is considered to be the Creator of their actions as well (al-Ashʿarī, al-Ibāna p. 163, 225-239; Ibn Qayyim, Shifāʾ al-ʿalīl; Ibn Abī al-ʿIzz, Sharḥ al-ʿAqīda al-Ṭaḥāwiyya p. 102-103, 223-224; Harrās, Sharḥ al-ʿAqīda al-Wāsiṭiyya p. 220-229).

Similarly, Allah Almighty has prior knowledge of those who are guided and those who are astray (Q 6:117; 16:125; 53:30; 68:7). And although He has ordered His creation to remain on the right path, and sent messengers to guide them, He does not force them to choose or deviate from that path. And had your Lord willed, all those on earth would have believed. So will you, then, compel mankind until they become believers [under duress]? (Q 10:99). Al-Bayḍāwī commented that the Prophet, peace be upon him, was eager to make his people believe, whereupon this verse was revealed (Tafsīr). The mandate of the Prophet was therefore limited to conveying the message of his Lord; he was not to invest himself in the consequences of his mission, because people cannot be compelled to believe (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Nasafī, Tafsīr).

Nevertheless, the Qurʾān does in several instances ascribe iḍlāl (leading-astray) to Allah Almighty—for example: And We sent not any Messenger except with the language of his people, so that he might make [the message] clear for them. Then Allah misleads whom He wills and guides whom He wills. And He is the Almighty, the All-Wise (Q 14:4). According to al-Rāzī, to lead one astray from religion literally means to distort one’s religion (that is, in his eyes) and call him to abandon it. This type of iḍlāl has been attributed to Satan (Q 28:15; 4:119) and Pharaoh (Q 20:79), and by scholarly consensus is not intended when speaking of Allah Almighty, since He has vowed to punish those who disbelieve (Q 3:56; 9:3; 10:4; 14:7). Therefore, al-Rāzī declares, statements such as “Allah leads one astray” must be interpreted otherwise (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:26). Various interpretations have been advanced for such verses. Commentators have understood It is only Your trial by which You lead astray whom You will, and guide whom You will (Q 7:155) as meaning that it was His trial that led people to choose either to follow or not to follow right guidance (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Rāzī, Tafsīr). This is similar to the verse according to which Ibrāhīm, peace be upon him, called O my Lord, they have indeed led astray many among mankind (Q 14:36), wherein idols are metaphorically described as leading mankind astray because they were the objects of worship by which the disbelievers fell in error (Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Rāzī, Tafsīr). In many instances, al-Ṭabarī explains this misguidance as abandonment (khidhlān) and deprivation of success (tawfīq) (q.v.). An example is his comment on the verse And had Allah willed, He could have made you one nation, but He sends astray whom He wills and guides whom He wills. And you shall certainly be asked of what you used to do (Q 16:93): “Allah assists the believers in having faith and obeying Him, whereas He abandons the disbelievers to their disbelief by denying them His assistance and letting them be as they choose—that is, to be astray” (Tafsīr, sub Q 16:93). The Prophet, peace be upon him, once stated: “Everyone is facilitated to do that which he was created to do. So whoever belongs to the company of the blessed will have good deeds made easier for him, and whoever belongs to the doomed will have evil acts made easier for him.” He then recited: As for him who gives, and fears Allah, and affirms good, We shall make easy for him the path of ease. And he who is miserly and considers himself above need, and denies good, We shall make easy for him the path of adversity (Q 92:5-10) (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, fa-sanuyassiruhu lil-ʿusrā; Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-ādamī).

A different understanding of God leading astray is that Allah increases the deviation of those already astray, as in the end of this verse: Verily, Allah is not ashamed to set forth a parable of a mosquito or anything above that. As for those who believe, they know that it is the Truth from their Lord; but as for those who disbelieve, they say: “What did Allah intend by this parable?” Thereby He misleads many, and thereby He guides many; and He misleads thereby only those who are rebellious (Q 2:26). Ibn Kathīr suggests that Allah compounded the hypocrites’ error because they arrogantly disbelieved in what they undoubtedly knew was a parable (q.v.) from their Lord (Tafsīr).

Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī proposes that where leading-astray is ascribed to Allah Almighty, it could mean that when humans stray they are adjudged by Allah as being astray (ḍāll) in this world, thus reaping the fruits of deviance in the next world. The other possibility he offers is that it could refer to the natural tendency to embrace and cling to the way that one is accustomed to, regardless of whether it is right or wrong. Since this habitual nature has been created in humans by Allah and is one cause or condition of error in those who stray, it can be ascribed to Allah, the Creator. This, al-Rāghib says, is why when leading-astray is attributed to Allah it only refers to disbelievers, for Allah proclaims about the believers And Allah will never lead a people astray after He has guided them (Q 9:115); whereas of the former group He declares: thus Allah leads astray the disbelievers (Q 40:74) and Allah will lead astray the wrongdoers; and Allah does what He wills (Q 14:27) (Mufradāt, sub ḍ-l-l).

Al-Nasafī (d. 701/1301), Abū al-Suʿūd, and al-Ālūsī also emphasize this second possibility, writing that Allah Almighty gives human beings the ability to choose the wrong path. Thus iḍlāl applies to humans insofar as they are the ones who go astray and commit sins, and it applies to Allah, the Exalted, insofar as He is the One Who created human beings and actions (see, respectively, Tafsir; Irshād; Rūḥ, sub Q 2:26; 6:39; 30:29; 47:31).

The Qurʾān describes those whom Allah has “sent astray” as being in ruin: and whomsoever He sends astray, those are the losers (Q 7:178), and whomever Allah sends astray, for him there is no guide (Q 13:33; 39:23, 39:36, 40:33) or guiding friend (Q 18:17). The verse and he whom Allah sends astray, you will not find for him a way (Q 4:143) means that no one will even be able to find a path to the truth for him, let alone guide him along that path (Abū al-Suʿūd, Irshād). Not even the Prophet, peace be upon him, was able to guide those who chose the wrong path, as the Qurʾān states: Nor can you guide the blind from their straying; you can make to hear only those who believe in Our revelations so that they surrender [to Him] (Q 30:53). 

The Punishment of Those Gone Astray

The Qurʾān describes the eschatological requital for going astray and leading others astray: a state of misery on the Day of Resurrection, when those who strayed will admit to having been in error, saying By Allah, we were certainly in manifest error (Q 26:97). In vain will they long for the opportunity to unmake their choices: Now we have no intercessors, nor a close friend. If we only had a chance to return, we would truly be among the believers (Q 26:100-102). The Qurʾān relates their belated confession: “Were not My revelations recited to you, whereupon you would deny them?” They will say: “Our Lord, our wretchedness overcame us, and we were erring people. Our Lord, bring us out of this. If ever we returned [to evil], then surely we would be unjust.” He will say: “Remain in it with ignominy! And speak not to Me!” (Q 23:105-108).

The misguided will also, while approaching their torment, enter into disputes with those whom they claim led them astray. His companion will say: “Our Lord, I did not push him to transgression, but he was himself in error far astray.” Allah will say: “Dispute not before Me! I had already in advance sent you warning” (Q 50:27-28). When the erring enter hell, moreover, they will think of those who caused them to go astray, and will vengefully ask Allah: Our Lord, show us those among the jinn and men who led us astray, that we may crush them under our feet so that they become the lowest (Q 41:29) (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar).

Among the torments in store for those who went astray are a tree springing from the heart of Hell, called Zaqqūm, the shoots of whose fruit-stalks resemble the heads of devils. They will eat and fill their bellies with this tree, then drink boiling water on top of it, much like diseased camels that cannot quench their thirst. Then they will return to the flaming fire (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 37:62-68; 56:51-56). Another verse says: The Day they will be dragged upon their faces into the Fire [they will be told]: “Taste the touch of Hell!” (Q 54:48). According to Ibn Kathīr, their doubt in this world led them to Hell, while their straying error brought them torment (Tafsīr).

The recompense of those who lead others astray is heightened: they will be disgraced in this world and destined for Hell in the next, where a painful and humiliating torture awaits them. Allah said: And they set up rivals to Allah, to mislead from His path. Say: “Enjoy! But surely, your destination is the Fire” (Q 14:30), and about one who disputes to misguide people, He said For him there is disgrace in the worldly life, and on the Day of Resurrection We shall make him taste the torment of burning Fire (Q 22:9). Of those who purchase idle talk to mislead people, He said for such there will be humiliating torment (Q 31:6). The punishment of those who lead others astray will be twofold: And when they are asked “What is it that your Lord has sent down?” they say: “Tales of the ancients.” Let them bear their own burdens in full on the Day of Resurrection, and also the burdens of those whom they misled without knowledge (Q 16:24-25). The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “For him who called [people] to righteousness, there shall be a reward like the rewards of those who adhered to it, without their [own] rewards being diminished in any respect. And he who called [people] to error shall have to carry [the burden of] its sin, like those who committed it, without their [own] sins being diminished in any respect” (Muslim, ʿIlm, man sanna sunnatan ḥasanatan aw sayyiʾatan).

The Qurʾān often reiterates that those who go astray harm only themselves: So whosoever is guided is guided for the good of his own self; and whosoever goes astray does so to his own loss (Q 10:108; 17:15); and one is left with this admonition: O you who believe, take care of your own selves. No harm can come to you from those who err if you are rightly guided. The return of you all is to Allah; then He will inform you about that which you used to do (Q 5:105). 


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See also

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