Irfan Ahmad Khan, Ph.D received his doctorate in Philosophy from the University of Illinois and has taught Western and Islamic Philosophy at various US institutions. His book "Reflections on the Qur'an - Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah and Al-Baqara" was published by the Islamic Foundation of the UK in 2005. He provides an interesting reflection on Sura 1:6-7:
"15. RELIGION AS A PATH
It is very important to note that the Qur'an repeatedly speaks of religion as a path. Life itself is a journey. In asking for the straight path we are asking Him for light which shows us the right path leading us straight to Him. As we will see, the next surah opens with the words "Here is the Book", i.e. here is the guidance which you were seeking. Thus the Qur'an is the answer of our prayer for guidance. The question may still arise that the book has already come, then what sense does our repeating the prayer, "Guide us to the straight path", make now? Again, we should not forget that life is a journey, and religion is a path. Living the Book is a striving - a journey which an individual continues throughout his life, and the believing community continues it till the Last Day. While we continue the task of understanding and living the Book we need Divine Help all the time. Through the last twenty-three years of his life's journey, the Prophet himself was living the Book under Divine Guidance. His twenty-three years' effort is also a journey on the straight path which he continued with his Companions in a step-by-step process.. Sunnah (the way, the tradition) of the Prophet was a journey which was carried out in concrete life situations. And the journey still continues. In very different life situations we have to continue the task of understanding and living the Book. Though in a sense we are moving forward, the early part of this journey remains before us as a Model. While we read the Book for our guidance we also keep before our eyes how the Book was lived by the Prophet, and, under his directions, by his Companions. The Prophet was leading the journey under Divine Supervision, and we are required to keep his model before our eyes.
16. WHERE DO WE BELONG? IDENTITY WITH ALL VIRTUOUS PEOPLE OF THE PAST
This is why we say "guide us along the path of those who received Your favours and blessings." These are the people who walked on the straight path, worshipping only One God, seeking His help at every step. God guided them at every stage of their journey, helped them to a better understanding of Religion, in living a more pious life, and helped them in carrying out their mission. And, in the Hereafter too they will receive God's Special Mercies.
(Please have a look at note no. 3 where we briefly explained God's Rahimiyah. Also try to find out from the Qur'an how God blessed His faithful servants.)
It is important to note that by making this prayer we are identifying ourselves with all good and pious people of the past. Through this du'a' we are expressing our belonging to all the faithful servants of God. In the beginning we were thanking God for being so kind to the human world. At that place we were expressing our belonging to the whole human family or even the totality of 'ibad. But now we observe that some members of the family went off the track. They barred themselves from the special Mercy of God since they failed to correct themselves in spite of His guidance and warnings. Therefore, we express our separation from them. Our true forefathers are the good people of the past and we want to walk on their path.
17. Of course, the real punishment will follow in the Hereafter. But some people were punished by God even in this life. The Qur'an again and again tells us the stories of such people, so that we learn from their history. See, for example 7:59-167; 10:71-92; 11:25-102.
While we are making du'a' that we do not have the same fate, it is also required that we try to understand why they deserved God's Wrath, and then seriously try not to be like them.
These were the people who deviated from the straight path. Instead they of following the way of God's messengers and having God alone as their Lord, they had based their life, in one way of the other, on lordship of Man over Man. They did not correct themselves in spite of God's repeated warnings.
18. But it is also important to note that before the punishment of God comes, God reminds His servants. In fact, God gives the unjust people a fixed period of time (which as a general rule is known only to Him) to correct themselves. The Wrath of God does not come before its appointed time.
Therefore if some peoples were not punished in this life it is not a sure sign of their being correct. Some people may act as rebels, and still prosper in this life, because the time of their being punished has not yet come.
Reference is to groups and not only to individual persons - who had Divine Blessings or Divine Wrath, or who were misguided. We, with all the righteous people of the past and present, dissociate ourselves from all the groups of wrongdoers. We will study their detailed stories as we proceed further. The Qur'an discusses the rise and fall some civilizations. It explains how victory and support of God came to the supporters of the prophets, and how ultimately the unjust were punished.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF UNDERSTANDING THE SURAH AS A WHOLE
Read the surah over and over again, and try to understand it as a systematic discourse. Ask yourself: what is being said and how is it organized?
If you are well versed in classical Arabic you are in a better position to understand the surah. If you do not know Arabic, you can try to compensate for this deficiency by making a comparative study of different translations. In our literal translation, we have tried to help build the readers' relationship with each word.
Remember the greatest help in understanding the Qur'an comes from the Qur'an itself. One part of the Qur'an explains another part. Those who keep reading the Qur'an are in a more advantageous position to understand it.
We have elaborated some points related to the understanding of the surah. These emerge from our own study of the Qur'an. These notes as well as other available commentaries may be helpful. But we would suggest, apply your own mind to the Qur'anic text before you seek the help of others. Mufassirs (the commentators) are our teachers. Teachers help better when you do your homework - trying to develop your own relationship with the Text, understanding it with your own mind. Remember, your focus should remain the Text, which the commentator is also trying to make us understand through his explanations. Do not get lost in his/her explanations. What is most important, try to understand the surah as a whole - as a systematic discourse in Divine Words.
AN OVERALL LOOK AT SURAH AL-FATIHAH
We have two formulations of essentially the same insight of the inner structure of the surah.
The first ayah is bismillah. We start reading the Book with the name of our Lord, "God, the Compassionate, the Merciful". It is the introduction. The main body of the surah is made up of three parts:
A. The first part presents God's servants thanking and praising the Lord of the Worlds.
The consciousness of God's blessings which we experience everywhere, and the way He has been taking care of humankind, fills our hearts with gratitude and we say what the surah states from ayat 2-4. Our Lord is compassionate to all, but for those who try to do good deeds and seek His Forgiveness He has His Special Mercies.
This reminds us of the Day when His faithful servants will receive His Special Mercies. The Day of Judgement also reminds us of His Justice, and His Punishment of those who do not repent and do not ask for His forgiveness.
B. (This brings us to the middle of the surah, i.e. ayah 5.) At this point His 'ibad revive their covenant with Him.
We promise Him that we worship Him only, and we will seek His Help alone, and we actually worship Him and pray to Him that He helps us in fulfilling our covenant.
C. We pray to Him that He guides us along His Straight Path, the way he Guided those who received His favours, and saves us from being misguided, so that we do not deserve His Wrath." (2006, pp. 48-52).
~ Excerpted from "Reflections on the Qur'an - Understanding Surahs Al-Fatihah and Al-Baqara" by Irfan Ahmad Khan, Ph.D