Surah al-Fatiha: The Meaning behind the Beginning of the Beginning
by Habib Siddiqui, Ph. D.
The interpretation of the Qur’an is not an easy task for anyone. In interpreting the Qur’an one is restricted from imposing one’s views and ideas. Therefore, what I have to say is based on possibility, not certainty. And even there rather than presenting my probable interpretation, I shall try to present you with views held by the ulema. Having said that, I begin with the invocation Aa-oozu billahi minash-shaytanir razim (meaning: I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Satan), Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem (meaning: In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful).
The Surat al-Fatiha is the beginning chapter of the Qur’an, and is therefore called Fatihatul Kitab or the Opening of the Book. This Surat is also called Sab’a al-mathani or the Seven Oft-repeated verses (Qur’an: 14:87). Because of its importance and inclusive connotation, it is also called the Umm-ul-Qur’an or the Core or heart of the Qur’an. Truly, the rest of the Qur’an is but a detailed commentary of this Surat. Its importance can be understood from the ahadith, compiled by the Imams Bukhari and Muslim. that no one’s individual prayer is complete without reciting this Surat.
It is, therefore, worthwhile to discuss the essential objectives of the Qur’an. According to Mowlana Abul Kalam Azad, one of the great scholars of Islam, these are fourfold: 1) The Qur’an aims to present the attributes of God in proper perspective, for, it is in his approach to these that man has often blundered. 2) It lays emphasis on the principle of causation in life so as to suggest that, even as in nature, every cause has its effect in the domain of human life, both individual and collective. 3) It aims to inculcate in man a belief in the life hereafter, by pointing out that man’s life does not end with his earthly existence, but that there is a life to follow, where one has to account for his life on earth and where the effect of past deeds become manifest by either rewarded with paradise or punished with hell. 4) It points the way to righteous or good life. All these objectives are summed up in the Surat al-Fatiha.
Although this Surat is nothing more than a simple invocation, it reveals in every word of it the very purposes that underlie the Din or the way of life preached by the Qur’an. Mowlana Azad thinks that the major mistake that man has made in his approach to the concept of God (Allah) is that he has often regarded God as the God of terror and not of love. In the very first phrase of this Surat - Alhamdu lillah (meaning: All praise truly belongs to Allah) - that age-old deviation from the truth is corrected, since praise can only be of a being who is Good, Merciful, Just and Beautiful. And then by calling God - Rabbil ‘Alameen (meaning: the Sustainer and Cherisher of the worlds) - the Surat puts an end to all notions of exclusive privilege for any community. Then by calling God as - Malik-i-Yawmid-deen (meaning: Master on the Day of Recompense) - the Surat emphasizes that requital is but the natural reaction to one’s own action, and this is because God is Just. Justice in the terminology of the Qur’an is not a negation of mercy, but rather mercy in itself. In the sentence: Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’een (meaning: Thee alone we worship and Thee alone we seek for help) - any notion about multiplicity of God, i.e., anything associated with shirk is totally rejected in favor of true monotheism. Next in the sentence - Ihdinas-sirat al-Mustaqim (meaning: Guide us to the Straight Path) - the right guidance or the Straight Path is clearly distinguished from anything that is not straight. The Straight Path is described as Sirat al-lazina aan ‘amta ‘alayhim (meaning: The path of those to whom You have been gracious) - the path followed by those on whom God, as a result of their actions, bestowed favors, namely, the prophets, the martyrs, the truth-seekers and the righteous. This is a clear pointer to success as against the failure marked by those, who are depicted as: Ghayril maghdoob-e ‘alayhim walad-dual-leen (meaning: Not the path of those who have earned Your anger, nor of those who have gone astray) - who took the path of ruination and failure by their disobedience of God’s command and went astray. That is the gist or essence of the Surat.
Let me now try to provide a more elaborate understanding of the beginning (i.e., Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem) of this opening Surat (i.e., al-Fatiha) of the Qur’an.
1. In the name of Allah, who is Rahman and Raheem.
There is some argument whether this above phrase is part of the Surat or a pointer signifying the beginning of a new Surat, like all other Surahs excepting Surat al-Bara’at (or at-Tauba). Imam Tabari (R: Rahmatullah alayh) considers the phrase to be separate from the verses within the Surat. There is no doubt that the phrase, wherever it appears, is syntactically connected to the verses that follow it. As such, the only Surat, i.e., in at-Tauba, where it does not appear at the beginning is solely due to the fact that it contains stern commandments against the idolaters.
A name is a sign by which anything to which it is ascribed can be known or distinguished from others. The names of God, ninety-nine of which are mentioned in the Qur’an, are similarly signs of His Sacred Essence by which we know Him. The Essence Itself is, however, beyond anyone’s comprehension, and is known only to God Himself. Even when we say that we know the names, we actually understand them at certain levels, but comprehension at other levels is reserved for the more enlightened ones amongst God’s slaves. The name Allah is the fullest and most complete manifestation of God Almighty that embraces all other manifestations, including those of Rahman and Raheem. It is a comprehensive name and manifestation. To put it in a different way we say that the name Allah is a manifestation of God, and the names Rahman and Raheem are, in turn, manifestations of that manifestation of God. Shaykh Ibn al-Arabi (R) says, “Allah is the greatest name of God. It is to this name that the Prophet [Muhammad (S: Sallal-lahu alayhi wa sal-lam)] referred when he said, ‘I have been given comprehensive speech [Jawami al-Kalim] and I was sent to complete the excellence of morals.’ ” Imam Tabari (R) quotes from Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA: Radiullah anh) who said, “He (Allah) is the One Whom everything takes as its God, Whom all creatures worship.” He further says that God educated His Prophet Muhammad (S) teaching him to preface his actions with the mention of His Most Beautiful Names (al-Asma al-Husna: Qur?an: 7:180), and commanded him to attribute them to Him before any important matter.
It is interesting to notice that prior to the revelation of the Qur’an, the Arabs used to invoke God by this name - Allah, and that it was never used in the sense of an attribute. Even in the Semitic languages, e.g., Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Chaldean, and Himyarite, words similar to Allah can be found, e.g., Eloh, Eloha, Elaha, etc. Allah is a term which is free of gender, unlike the terms like God, Bhagavan, Ishwar. What could be a better term than Allah which captures the sum total of all the qualities attributed to Him?
The attributes Rahman and Raheem, according to Imam Tabari (R), are derived from the verb ‘rahma’ (meaning: to have mercy, to be compassionate). Despite their common root, however, they denote two separate aspects of divine mercy. Tabari (R) quotes Al-Arzami (R) who said that Al-Rahman denotes mercy to all creatures [Muslims and non-Muslims, worshippers and sinners alike]; Al-Raheem denotes mercy to the believers only. Abu Said al-Khudri (RA) narrated that Muhammad (S) said: “Eesa (AS: Alayhis Salam), the son of Maryam, said: ‘Al-Rahman is the Merciful in the next world as well as in this world; Al-Raheem is the Merciful in the next world.’” Referring to Imam al-Ghazzali (R) , Professor Hamid Algar of the University of California, Berkeley, understands the attribute Al-Raheem as that kind of divine mercy which is manifested through the sending of revelation and guidance and the granting of salvation in the hereafter; only those who believe in religion or deen of Allah and follow it benefit from this manifestation.
According to Mowlana Azad, the purpose of the Qur’an in bringing to mind the two aspects together is to emphasize the all-embracing character of the Rahmat of Allah: “And My Rahma encompasses everything in the universe” (Qur’an: 7:156). Likewise, Imam Khomeini says that Allah has attached these two names unto Himself in order that through them we may know His Essence and that they have primacy over His attributes of anger and revenge. In this regard, a well-known hadith may be referred: “My Compassion outstrips My Anger.” (Bukhari, Muslim)
Whatever perfection or beauty that there is in life or in nature is only a stamp of that divine Rahmat. To an uninitiated mind, nature or the universe may seem too chaotic. But look again. When you do so, you will realize that despite such apparent randomness or chaos, there is some harmony or order that is continuously at play. There is balance in the disposition of each object. There is balance in the growth and development of everything leading to beauty and perfection. The entire universe looks like an exhibition hall of beauty working deliberately for proportion and balance in every particle of it. But why should there be any balance or harmony in the nature of the universe, and not the other way round? While philosophy fails to offer any satisfactory answer to this vital question, the Qur’an shows that it is merely due to the fact that the Creator of the universe is Himself the God of Rahmat, and that this attribute of His seeks expression through beauty, harmony and perfection.
There is nothing in the universe without a cause and that everything in it possesses a particular quality of its own, and these qualities fulfill certain specific needs of our life. The blessings of nature, however, follow a law of their own which are of universal and simultaneous application to everything that exists. It is this very law which demands that such blessings be carefully and unselfishly shared for the common good of all.
The sense of beauty is so much ingrained in us that we often forget how difficult it would have been if we were to live in a world without beauteous objects. One of the greatest frailties of human beings is in their inappreciativeness of the value of a gift or blessing until it is withdrawn from them. The universe is full of beauteous objects, comforting to our eyes and senses. This very abundance has made us insensitive to their value in life. The Qur’an repeatedly tries to draw our attention to this very notion: “And He giveth you of all ye seek of Him, and if ye would the bounty of Allah, ye cannot reckon it. Lo! man is verily a wrong-doer, an ingrate.” (Qur’an 14:34)
Everything in nature is beautiful, because it is continuously at work to clear weeds and preserve that which deserves survival, a process more commonly known as the natural selection or the survival of the fittest. The Qur’anic emphasis is, however, not on the physical aspects of things, but on one’s usefulness to life in general. It points out that only that continues to thrive which has some usefulness about it. This is so because the divine attribute of Rahmat lets live only that which is good and useful to life.
Beauty demands a gradual process of change, not something which happens suddenly or through dramatic metamorphosis. The life of a thing evolves slowly and steadily from its birth through the stages of its development, and then almost as slowly and as steadily to its final stage of death. This is the process of evolution which is present in nature. The process of gradualness, in its application to human life, is to help man pause and reflect at every stage and adjust himself with the laws inherent within him. The provision for this opportunity for rectification is a Rahmat from Allah.
There is trial or affliction in life. Without such difficulties or struggles, life would have been too monotonous. It is through facing boldly and courageously these trials that happiness emerges, and this is the Rahmat of Allah. It is this Rahmat which produces pleasure in pain. In like manner, one has to pass through the life cycle of childhood, manhood, and old age, that is, from the stage when one is being cared for to one who takes care of others to again the stage of being cared for by others, respectively. In Bahr al-Fava’id, it is mentioned that once the Caliph Harun al-Rashid complained about death. Then one of the sages of his time reminded him that had it not been for the death of his parents or grandparents, he would never have sat in the throne. Just for a moment ponder over a world without death, where the aging process, however, does not cease. Has not Allah shown His Rahmat to us through death? Indeed, in this world life without death would have been too painful for anyone to endure.
In every stage of life, however, there is new sensation, new experience and trials. Even the economic inequalities prevailing in a society are a form of trials, and contribute to the zest of life.
Allah has created everything, plants and animals, in pairs. The Qur’an states that through such an arrangement love is infused and peace of mind attained. In a well-known hadith it is related that Allah has kept ninety nine percent of Rahmat unto Himself and the rest bestowed to all the creation through which they love each other, show compassion and respect to each other.
Even in Divine Unity lies His Rahmat. The Qur’an alludes to this fact when it urges human beings to ponder over a universe with multiple gods, each with its reign of authority, thus leading to a universe of chaos and misery.
Allah is Rahmanur Raheem for He has created and set all things in right perspective, Who has fixed their courses and guided them Who has perfected all things.
Prophets were sent for the guidance of humanity. And that is a form of Divine Benevolence. The Qur’an even calls the Prophet of Islam as a Rahmat or mercy unto the universe. (Qur’an 21:107)
Allah is Rahmanur Raheem for He does not hasten punishment, but provides ample of opportunities for their introspection, repentance, improvement, or rectification. Just as in individual life, a similar opportunity is provided in the life of nations (Qur’an 7:34, 15:4-5, 6:131-2). Truly, our Lord is forgiving and full of mercy. Were He to chastise men for what they earn, He would hasten on the doom for them. One celebrated hadith on this matter reports that Allah is more merciful to His creation than a mother is to her child. The Qur’an epitomizes Allah’s mercy by announcing: “Say! O My slaves who have transgressed to your own hurt, despair not of Allah’s mercy, who forgives all sins. Lo! He is the Forgiving, the Raheem. Turn unto Him repentant, and surrender unto Him, before there comes unto you the doom, when you cannot be helped.” (39:53-4)
The concept of Rahmat is so important in Islam that one cannot divorce one’s spiritual life from one’s physical life. It rather regards the former as an integral part of the latter. Since the entire framework of nature is permeated with Rahmat, it follows that the law governing the inner life of man should also be regarded as Rahmat. One celebrated hadith is: one who does not show compassion for others will not be shown compassion by Allah.
The Qur’an repeatedly shows that the bond subsisting between God and His creation, especially mankind, is one of love, and not one of hatred or conflict. Note that Islamic humanism is, therefore, antithesis of Greek humanism, the fountainhead of today’s intellectual currents, i.e., western liberalism, secularism, Marxism and existentialism. Since the relationship between man and God is one of love, it is quite natural to see why in Islam the highest form of devotion is loving something for the sake of God only. For surely, “Those who believe are stauncher in their love of Allah.” (Qur’an 2:165) The concept of Risalat also becomes a corollary to this notion of love, for the Qur’an says: “Say (O Muhammad to mankind): If you love Allah, follow me, Allah will love you, and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Qur’an 3:31) Consequently, how can one claim to love Allah when he/she rejects His messenger - Muhammad Ahmad al-Mustafa (S), whom He sent with guidance? How can one claim to love Allah when he/she rejects the message of the uncorrupted, last testament - the Qur’an, which He revealed? Such is pure hypocrisy!
The love of God, beside accepting or obeying His commandments, should also include one’s service to His creature. This is repeatedly mentioned in the Qur’an: “But righteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets; and gives his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observes Salat and pays the Zakat” (Qur’an 2:177). A celebrated hadith qudsi expresses this theme very impressively: Allah says: “O son of Adam, I fell ill and you visited Me not.” He will say: “O Lord, how should I visit You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” He (Allah) will say: “Did you not know that My servant so and so had fallen ill and you visited him not? Did you not know that had you visited him you would have found Me with him? O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not.” He will say: “O Lord, how should I feed You when You are the Lord of the worlds?” He (Allah) will say: “Did you not know that My servant so and so asked you for food and you fed him not? Did you not know that had you fed him you would surely have found (the reward of doing so) with Me? O son of Adam, I asked you to give Me to drink and you gave Me not to drink.” He will say: “O Lord, how should I give You to drink when You are the Lord of the worlds?” He (Allah) will say: “My servant so and so asked you to give him to drink and you gave him not to drink. Had you given him to drink you would have surely found that with Me?”
The Prophet of Islam - Muhammad (S) himself epitomized the concept of Rahmat through his insurmountable devotion to Allah and genuine love of His creation. Islam preaches that what truly separates mankind from animal kind is humanity, which is nothing but a reflection of the attributes of Allah. It is by displaying such humanity that man becomes Allah’s khalifa (vicegerent) on earth.
In the midst of such a profound notion of Rahmat, one should not however be confused with the idea that the Qur’an demands man to love his enemies. No, such would be a misreading. What the Qur’an says is that it is good for us to forgive our enemies, for when one learns to forgive his enemies, his mind will be cleared from all traces of hate and anger, and become blissful. This is eloquently expressed in the Qur’an: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel the evil deed with one which is better, then lo! he, between whom and thee there was enmity, shall be as though he was a bosom friend. But none is granted it save those who are steadfast, and none is granted it save the owner of great happiness.” (Qur’an 41:34-35)
Retaliation is not all discouraged though, especially when it is done in the interest of common good for the security of the society, for law and order. If such retaliation or punishment were not inflicted on the wrongdoers, the social fabric would collapse making it impossible for any decent human being to live peacefully in society. But even then there is the overriding notion that it is better to endure and forgive. The law of retaliation is, likewise, very humane in that one should not overdo it: “If you punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith you were inflicted. But if you endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient.” (Qur’an 16:126)
One may argue that, in this matter, the message of Jesus (Eesa), as contained in the Gospels: “I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” - is much more humane. Well, he is partially right. Partially, because the merit of any teaching is judged on the basis of its practicality. There is no denying of the fact that Christians themselves have failed to live up to this very standard which Jesus set for his genuine followers. As a matter of fact, when it comes to retaliation, the Christian-display of savagery has no parallel in the annals of human history. Just the two great wars of the western civilization in the 20th century (1914-8, 1939-45), and their indiscriminate use of Napalm bombs, cluster bombs, Atom Bombs on unarmed civilians is a testament to this very fact. America’s indiscriminate bombing of the Iraqi civilian sites, including its use of laser-guided bombs and missiles to the fleeing Iraqi troops during the recent Gulf War is a sufficient proof of Christian savagery. (To this list of horror, one may also add the Genocides against unarmed Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya by Serbian and Russian Orthodox Christians, respectively.) One may, therefore, surmise that Jesus’s teaching for loving one’s enemy, if taken literally, has fallen into deaf ears and is totally impracticable. And even diehard Christians admits this fact.
Is the above message of Jesus, if it was truly retained in those words, really impracticable or repugnant to human nature? As Muslims, who believe in the prophethood of Eesa (AS), we have difficulty with that view. Then how should we understand the message? To answer this, Mowlana Azad opines, “The trouble with the message of Christ lies in the failure of his followers to understand its significance. Christ appeared during a period of history when the Jewish morality had reached its lowest ebb, and when purity of life had given way to outward ritual passing for devotion to God… The cry of the hour was the emergence of a warner and a messenger of love laying stress on the purity of heart. And this warner and messenger appeared in the person of Christ, who stressed the importance of the inner life as against the outward, and tried to revive for man the forgotten but eternal message of humanity and love. The inspired utterance of Christ has a natural figurative charm about it… By interpreting everything too literally, they [Trinitarians] have missed him. Wherever Christ has said, “Love your enemies,” his meaning was certainly not that one should grow into a devoted lover of his enemies. On the other hand, his plain meaning was that instead of exciting in oneself the feeling of anger, hatred or revenge, one should develop in him the feeling of pity and forgiveness. In a society where one hated his own kith and kin, the appeal, :love your enemy”, was indeed an appeal for giving up hatred. That is the style of Christ. Take another of his well-known expression: “Turn the other cheek also.” Surely, Christ never meant that you should literally do so. His clear meaning was that one should develop the feeling of forgiveness or forbearance. To take the literal sense of every figurative expression is not the way of the cultured mind. Should we do so, the entire corpus of inspired or revealed literature will straightway turn into a jumbled mass of incoherent utterance. There is no doubt that religion and law have prescribed punishment for wrongdoing. For the safety of society this is necessary. But the thought of ‘punishment’ is entertained or tolerated for the simple reason that a lesser evil should operate as a preventive of a greater evil. That is the object of punishment from a purely religious standpoint. It is a measure of correction….. The purpose of Christ was to inculcate in man the feeling of love, and certainly not to lay down a law against the punishment of crime. His aim was to let man rest his action on love, and take to punishment or retaliation only in the last resort and only as a corrective. The followers of the law of Moses had rendered the law into an instrument of punishment only. Christ tried to bring home to them that the law was not meant to deal punishment, but to point the way to salvation, and that the way to salvation was the way of love and mercy.”
From the foregoing discussion, it is, thus, clear that Islamic message on punishment or retaliation is not any different than Christ’s message. And why should it be different, when we believe that the message of all the prophets has been one and the same - Islam? Only the style employed in expression and the occasion for the utterance varies. Christ stressed the need for purification of the heart, and did neither bring any new law nor wanted to replace the old one, for the law of Moses was there. The Qur’an, however, presents ethics and law simultaneously. First, it calls upon man to inculcate forgiveness as a sign of his piety and righteousness. Second, it keeps the door of retaliation open in unavoidable circumstances. Third, it lays down the rule for retaliation in that no excess should be committed, for such would be injustice. (See, Qur’an 42:40-43). In Islam, justice is mercy (Rahmat) itself, and cannot be isolated from it.
Commenting on the Surat al-Zumar, Imam Jafar as-Sadiq (R) observed that in the Qur’an, Allah addresses even the worst sinners as “My slaves”, which is equivalent to the form when a father calls his son as “O my son.” Whenever a child is called by his parents, he/she runs to them without entertaining any fear; for they feel certain that the parent could never be cruel to them. Through the use of such expressions, the Qur’an shows that Allah is infinitely Merciful to men, and that His Mercy overshadows His Wrath.
We are also reminded about Allah’s infinite mercy through a celebrated hadith. Anas bin Malik (RA) narrated that Muhammad (S) said, “Allah the Exalted has said: ‘O Son of Adam! Certainly I shall continue to pardon thee so long as thou supplicate Me and hope (for My forgiveness), whatever may be thy faults and sins, I do not care. O Son of Adam, even if thy sins pile up as high as the sky, and thou ask for My forgiveness, I would forgive you. O Son of Adam, if thou comest to Me with an earthful of defaults and meetest Me, not associating anything with Me, I would come to thee with an earthful of forgiveness.’” [Hadith Qudsi, Tirmizi] It is in keeping with this notion of Rahma from Allah that our noble Prophet Muhammad (S) said, ?Let no one of you die except expecting for the best from Allah, the Almighty and the Exalted.? [Muslim: narrated by Jabir bin Abdullah (RA)]
This is also the theme behind the poem:
Do not despair, O hapless sinner,
For, when the sun’s rays come forth,
They fall not only on the king’s palace,
But also on the beggar’s nook.
- Sharafuddin Maneri (R) [Maktubat-i Sadi]
In closing, let me say that the opening verse of the Qur?an carries in its words wisdom so deep that man cannot actually reach those depths. So, what I have discussed above is like scratching the surface. It is intended to instill some interest in reading the Tafsir of the Qur?an so that we can all become better human beings.
Nearly thirteen centuries ago, one of the greatest scholars/saints of Islam, Hassan al-Basri (RA) was asked: “What is Islam, and who are the Muslims?” He answered: “Islam is in the books, and Muslims are in the tomb.” [Tadhkirat al-Auliya] Just reflect for a moment on his remark. Has the condition of Muslims improved since then? I don?t think so.
May Allah have mercy upon us all. Amin.
[A Speech Delivered in Philadelphia, 1994]