By Naqib Shifa
The Post-Modern era consists of copious ethical discord due to its declining religiosity and lack of distinction between morality and immorality. Moreover, the rapid and time-eroding lifestyle that is propelled by incessant consumerism and affluence is -in large part- a stark hindrance toward religious growth and development. The symptoms of this religious stagnation include: rising rates in depression, domestic violence, and vain attempts to counteract spiritual emptiness through the likes of television and human-induced social therapy disciplines. Although this particular discourse can be continued through discussing the macroscopic religious degradation in Americaand the holistic solution Islam has to offer, the aim of this piece will be geared toward enhancing one aspect of the Muslim’s daily worship; that is, building a bit more appreciation of Surah Al-Fatihah. By no means, is this piece a tafsir or scholarly exposition; rather, they are recollections of insight gained about this surah from Qur’an classes.
Approximately 20 percent of the global Muslim population are Arabs. This means that 80 percent of the 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide are not native to the language of the Qur’an, Arabic. Thus there must be a concerted effort to acquaint oneself whether to the level of Arabic fluency or at least translation familiarity of the ayat that one recites in prayer. Statistically speaking, if one performs all the prayers in one day, including the 12 rak’ahs of sunnah, that would equate to 29 rak’ahs (i.e. 29 recitations of Al-Fatihah in one day). If that number were multiplied by 20 years that would be approximately 200,000 recitations of Al-Fatihah in one’s lifetime thus far. The thought of not taking an effort to familiarize oneself with the meaning of the surah is disheartening. As a side note- subhan’Allah despite the numerous recitations per day the human heart still enjoys the recitation of the surah in every prayer. Imagine any other vocal composition (song or otherwise) being recited 29 times per day and over 200,000 times in a lifetime. That would drive someone into hysteria. Nevertheless, with Al-Fatihah, one is enthralled and spiritually awed at every recital. Indeed, Divine speech has that yearning affect on the human heart. Returning back to the urgency of knowing the meaning of Al-Fatihah- when Allah mentions seeking help through patience and prayer in the Qur’an (2:45) He says that the task is a difficult one except for the khashi’een. The translation of khashi’een is difficult to encompass in one or two words; however, the meaning can be: humbly submissive, intently concentrated (in prayer etc), deeply aware of the presence of Allah, etc. This ayah deciphers between the physical submission of Islamic rituals and the higher level of enlightenment through spiritual attentiveness in the rituals. Thus Allah (swt) explicates that the essence of worship lies in the consciousness of the heart and mind in the observance of the act. This ayah reinforces the imperative of becoming familiar with and building adoration for the religion in order to truly taste its sweetness and progress beyond the mechanics.
Perhaps the greatest science in Islamic studies is tafsir (exegesis) of the Qur’an. Most certainly the credentials needed for such a discipline are extensive. However for this particular case, the accessibility of gaining insight into the tafsir of Al-Fatihah is quite convenient. The solitary focus in the tafsir of Al-Fatihah that will be focused on is the hadith that Ibn Kathir mentions about the response of Allah to His servant when this surah is recited. As a prelude, imagine during the midst of an important phone call a person becomes busy with an immediate task. Suddenly, during the course of attending to the task, the person realizes that for the last 60 seconds, he or she was being asked a question from the person on the other line. That incident would create an overwhelming feeling of remorse and shame. The interesting segway is that throughout the recitation of Al-Fatihah, Allah responds back to His servant, yet most people are heedless about this honor from Allah.
Abu Hurayra (ra) said that the Prophet (saws) said
Allah (swt) said, “I have divided the prayer (Al-Fatihah) into two halves between Myself and My servant, and My servant shall have what he asks for.’
When he says “Al-hamdu Lillahi rabb Al-Alameen,” Allah says, “My servant has praised Me.”
When he says “Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem,” Allah says, “My servant has glorified Me.”
When he says “Maliki yaum Ad-Deen,” Allah says “My servant has related all matters to Me.”
When he says, “Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’een,” Allah says “This is between Me and My servant, and My servant shall acquire what he sought.”
When he [completes the surah], Allah says “This is for My servant, and My servant shall acquire what he asked for.”
This hadith is recorded in Muslim. This teaching of the Prophet (saws) introduces substantial intimacy with the surah. It is said that after hearing this hadith, one of the pious predecessors would notably cease his recitation between the ayat because of his etiquette in receiving the response from Allah. Truly has Allah honored His servants by responding to each and everyone when they recite this surah to Him.
In the journey of studying the marvels of Surah Al-Fatihah, the very first word -after the basamalah– is truly awe inspiring. The word is Al-hamd. In Arabic a commonly used word for expressing veneration and gratefulness is shukr. In a typical social interaction, when a person favors another the response is generally shukran. Therefore, shukr primarily denotes an assertion of gratefulness contingent upon a favor. Hamd on the other hand, carries a different meaning from shukr. Although the word means praise and that encompasses admiration and commendation like shukr, the scope of the word is exceedingly more expansive than shukr. This is why Allah (Glory be to Him) did not begin the surah by saying Ash-Shukru Lillah but rather said Al-hamdu Lillah. The scope of hamd begins by shattering the confines of the frame of reference. Meaning, the word shukr usually comes with a stipulation of an act of kindness being done toward a person. This stipulation constricts the declaration of commendation to Allah. When it comes to Allah, He has bestowed on His creation so many favors and blessings, that they cannot be enumerated (14:34). Gratitude toward Allah is not only restricted to what the human mind can recall; thus, Allah uses a word (hamd) which encompasses the frames of references but also goes beyond that. It includes circumstances outside of memory such as when Allah was nurturing the human during embryonic stages and it includes future circumstances too because the word is not limited to time. Thus the word that Allah uses in reference to reverence and gratitude toward Him is one that transcends the limitations of human cognizance. Interestingly, the word even transcends human contingency because the word Al-hamd asserts praise to Allah irrespective of human affirmation.
A common word used in Islamic activism and Muslim families is the word tarbiyyah. This word refers to the upbringing of a child; that is, the training, care, and nurture that one implements. The word Rabb has similar implications to this concept of tarbiyyah and that is precisely the word that Allah uses when He states another title of His after praising Himself. The word Rabb means: cherisher, sustainer, caretaker etc. This is the relationship that Allah describes Himself by so early in the surah. Allah did not use a formal and masterful title of His like Al-‘Aziz. Rather He used a word that denotes a vast array of intimate connotations to His servants. An interesting observance is that many of the du’as of the Prophets in the Qur’an invoke this title of Allah. Perhaps it is because of the affectionate and intimate implications of this word. Thus Allah says that He is the Rabb of all the worlds (al-Alameen); that indeed it is He who implements all of that word’s denotations and connotations to His servants. It was Allah, the Rabb of all the worlds, who was attending to the intricate developments in embryology (22:5) and the subsequent growth from infancy to toddler stages etc. Therefore this title of Allah instills feelings of rendering thanks and the beautiful reality is that feeling was already attended to by the all-encompassing declaration of praise to Allah at the beginning of the ayah.
In the fourth ayah of the surah Allah declares his mastery over the Day of Judgement. An interesting subtlety and profundity is in the word Malik. The Qur’an has 10 different qira’at (styles of recitation). In the common recitation (hafs) the word is pronounced Maalik, meaning, owner. However in another qira’ah (warsh), the word is Malik which means King. Thus with the usage of just one word (and two reciting styles) Allah encompasses both components to mastership. Ownership does not necessarily imply competence or authoritative governance over an entity. In contrast, kingship does not necessarily imply having exclusive right to something. However through the stunning phenomenon of the qira’at, the one word indicates Allah’s exclusive right over all of creation on the Day of Judgment (ownership) and also the competence and authoritative legislation over the affairs of that day (kingship). This ayah infuses fear of Allah; however, the beautiful balance is that in the third ayah Allah describes Himself with two of His most prominent names and attributes: Ar-Rahman (The Entirely Merciful) Ar-Raheem (The Especially Merciful). The following ayah is a transitional ayah between the two main parts of the surah as the aforementioned hadith of the Prophet (saws) delineated. This ayah is one of the most concise -yet comprehensive- and emphatic about tawheed and the relationship between creation and Allah (Glory be to Him). The literary characteristics of the ayah add to the assertiveness of the ayah. The ayah begins with iyyaka na’budu “you do we worship” and this along with the preceding ayahs teaches about the etiquette of making du’a; that is, to give Allah His right first before asking. The latter half of the ayah begins with the second half of the surah, which is regarding the matters of the creation. The literary beauty lies in the word iyyaka. This form of communicating “to you” is in the grammatical absolute form. Meaning, grammatically it is impossible to add anything to the sentence. If the syntax had come in the form of na’buduka it would have also communicated “you do we worship”; however, literarily it would have been possible to add an ‘and’ to it and add nouns of worship. To the contrary, Allah used the word iyyaka which means “to you [and only you]” and this forms distinguishes Islam’s stand on monotheism and purifies it from the convoluted teachings of monotheism of other faiths (such as Christianity). Moreover Allah uses this grammatical absolute word for nasta’een, which is “to seek help.” This teaches that when the servant seeks assistance, that act is directed to Allah and only Allah. Additionally, these verbs along with the invocation ihdina “guide us,” in the following verse, demonstrate an important element in the etiquette of du’a. This etiquette is found in the consistency of the usage of the letter nun, which denotes plurality. The entire du’a in Al-Fatihah is in the plural, which stresses the importance of making du’a for more people than just the self. This teaching is replete throughout the Qur’an and sunnah. For example in the tashahud when the Prophet (saws) was given salam in the presence of Allah, the Prophet responded in the plural to encompass his ummah in that blessed salutation which illustrated his immense selflessness.
The narrative mode in surah Al-Fatihah is truly a marvel. The first three ayat -besides the basmalah– are spoken in the third person. This narrative mode is generally characterized by formality and solemness. Accordingly, when Allah describes Himself to His servants in the first three ayahs (after the basmalah), it is indeed encompassed by formality and honor. The Prophet (saws) says in a hadith (paraphrased) that Allah says if a servant of His comes to Him walking, He will come to the servant at speed. Thus, if one strives to come closer to Allah, He will come to him faster than the servant would ever expect. Subhan’Allah this is even exemplified through the narrative mode of Surah Al-Fatihah. After one reads the first three ayat which are about Allah, His Lordship, His attributes, and mastery over the Day of Judgment, they have cognitively come closer to Allah; hence, the fourth ayah is spoken in the second person narrative “you.” The second person narrative implies direct communication between two entities, thereby, emphasizing more intimacy. The narration figuratively takes the reciter from recognizing their Lord to putting them right in front of Him and speaking to Him directly; that is, in the second person. The narration does not read “He do we worship” which implies distance and emotional aloofness. Rather the narration is personal, “You [alone] do we worship.” The beautiful narrative mode continues as it transitions from the second person to the first person in the next ayah as it says ihdina “guide us.” As such, the surah becomes increasingly intimate as it progresses.
The ocean of beauty in Surah Al-Fatihah is endless. Despite how much study one puts forth into the Qur’an, they are merely scratching the surface. The study of this surah consists of vast dimensions that can never be exhausted. However the journey only necessitates a person to choose to embark upon it (i.e. to take some initiative to study it). Allah will increase guidance for those that seek it (47:17). The beautiful aspect about this path of guidance is that it is a vertical one. In ayah 6 of Al-Fatihah, Allah uses the word mustaqeem which comes from qama which means “to stand”. Thus the path of guidance is one of spiritual elevation and a rise in status. May Allah help us keep our intentions pure. Please forgive and correct my mistakes and our final cry is that Allah praise is due to Allah.
The writer would like to thank Shaykh Ayub Saleh and Shaykh Nouman Ali Khan for their wonderful classes.