by Zafar Bangash
Surah al-Fatihah, as the name suggests, is the opening surah of the enlightening Qur’an. It is reported to be the first complete surah revealed to the noble Messenger (SAW) and hence it has been recited by Muslims from the earliest days of Islam.1 Every Muslim subsumes himself into the entreaties of this surah at least 17 times a day — once in each rak‘ah of the five daily salahs performed from early morning through to the beginning hours of night. If the sunnah and nafilah salahs were included as well, then it is recited many times more. This explains why it is also referred to as Surah al-Salah (the surah of communion).2 Allah (SWT) Himself refers to this fact in the noble Book,
And, indeed, We have bestowed upon you seven of the oft-repeated [ayat], and [have, thus, laid open before you] this sublime Qur’an… (15:87).
Like many surahs in the Qur’an, this surah is also known by alternative names, all signifying its important role in centralizing Allah (SWT) in a Muslim’s social self (consciousness), which redeems a set of important devotional activities by anchoring the taqwa gained therein to a transformational momentum directed at harmonizing the activities of man on earth with imperatives of social justice. One of these other names is Surah al-Hamd (the surah assigning praise to Allah (SWT) alone). Additional designations characterize it as the surah of healing — al-Shifa’— as well as the surah of protection — al-Waqiyah. As its numerous names indicate, Muslims are encouraged to rely on this surah both in times of distress (when patient perseverance and fortitude are necessary) as well as happiness (when gratitude is obligatory to refocus man’s attention on the providence of his ultimate Sustainer). But the most commonly used names for this surah are al-Fatihah (the opening or introductory surah of the Qur’an) and al-Hamd. As an expression of praise and gratitude to Allah (SWT), the Creator and Sustainer, this surah represents the very heart and soul of the impeccable Qur’an.
Attached likewise to Surah al-Fatihah are the well known appellations: Umm al-Qur’an (the essence of the Qur’an) and Umm al-Kitab (the precursor of the Book).3 The word umm in the Arabic language denotes inclusiveness or something all-encompassing, as well as a lexical aggregate that is composed of origin, essence, birth, beginning, gist, basis, and foundation. In its most basic nominal form, umm means mother and thus in employing some linguistic license to expand this domain, the meaning of umm in the context of surah al-Fatihah suggests that it is the essence of the noble Book. The surah concentrates within its ambit the content of the entire Qur’an. Al-Fatihah is essentially composed in the form of a du‘a’ (supplication) made by the conforming subject to his Sustainer, in response to which Allah (SWT) revealed the noble Qur’an to guide humanity in its otherwise wayward and capricious journey through this world. Without such guidance and the loving care of the Creator, man would be completely lost. Indeed today, he is. Witness the behavior of those that have abandoned divine guidance and insist on the absolute independence and supremacy of the human intellect, burdening humanity with such demonic notions as colonialism, racism, imperialism, Zionism, Nazism, capitalism, communism, and humanism — all of which have wrought havoc in the world and still continue to do so. With divine guidance as a reference point for human behavior, as opposed to the program of those who have fleetingly acquired temporal power, human beings are saved from these ravages of their own self-destructive impulses.
The surah begins by praising Allah (SWT) and invoking two of His most beautiful names — al-Rahman and al-Rahim, the Mercy-Giving and the Merciful. From the initiation of revelation to man, Allah (SWT) has praised Himself with the words, “All praise is due to Allah [alone], the Sustainer of all the worlds” (1:2). He then taught this manner of praise to His servants so that they too may add their voices to His eternal voice of praise. The manner of praise also includes the attribute of Allah (SWT) as “…Sustainer of all the worlds.”
Allah(SWT) is not in need for man to praise Him; in fact, He requires nothing from any of His creation. He is sufficient unto Himself, “Hence, whoever strives hard [in Allah’s cause] does so only for his own good: for, verily, Allah does not stand in need of anything from all creation!” (29:6). On the contrary, it is man who needs to praise and glorify Allah (SWT). Why? Simply put, because man is prone to arrogance, “But, verily, man can become grossly tyrannical when he believes himself to be self-sufficient [that is, he feels he is not in need of Allah’s guidance]” (96:6–7). Arrogance and self pride is the foundational and indispensable characteristic of kufr, and it is such a pervasively burdensome and captivating aspect of human nature, that its running potential to take over and subvert human nature must be constantly curtailed. This is why man is counseled to give himself this reminder at least 17 times a day: Allah (SWT) is the only One who is self-sufficient; man is the one who needs, and Allah is the One who provides. Man’s sincere praise of Allah (SWT) humbles and disciplines the arrogant tendency within.
At its core, arrogance is a crime of comparison. One of the major mechanisms of human learning is comparison and contrast: black versus white, short versus tall, more versus less, strong versus weak, etc. The worst kind of comparison is that which attaches a value judgement to one of two equivalent possibilities, for instance, white is better than black. Consider what Allah (SWT) says, Answered [Iblis], “I am better than he: You have created me out of fire [energy], whereas him You have created out of clay [matter]” (38:76).
And so [the man] had fruit in abundance. And [one day] he said to his friend, bandying words with him, “More wealth have I than you, and mightier am I as regards [the number and power of my] followers!” And having [thus] sinned against himself, he entered his garden, saying, “I do not think that this will ever perish! And neither do I think that the Last Hour will ever come. But even if [it should come, and] I am brought before my Sustainer, I will surely find something even better than this as [my last] resort!” (18:34–36).
And so man becomes arrogant and prideful when he gives himself undeserved credit for circumstances and related outcomes he had no control over; he becomes arrogant when he feels he has power over other human beings. On the other hand, Allah (SWT) is not prone to arrogance because he has no rival, no competitor, no equal, and no comparable. Nothing and no one can be compared to Him and He cannot be dominated; He is unique and unlike any of His creation, and thus He does not need to be humbled. Man is the one who is partial, and it is Allah (SWT) who provides completeness; man is the one who has limitations, and it is Allah (SWT) who opens up infinity for him; man is the one who learns and it is Allah (SWT) who provides knowledge and wisdom; man is the trustee and Allah (SWT) is the Owner. And this is why all praise is due unto Him.
The relationship between human arrogance and divine praiseworthiness is brought out emphatically in the last ayah of surah al-Fatihah, where the path of those who are blessed by Allah (SWT) is made distinct from that of those who have been condemned and have gone astray,
The way of those on whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not of those who have been condemned [by You], nor of those who go astray! (1:7).
Previous mufassirs of these ayat indicate that the condemned are those people of previous scripture who considered themselves to be God’s elect or chosen, regardless of their moral character; and that the astray are those scripturalists who declare that God has a son. In both instances, these people of previous scripture have arrogated to themselves a foothold on the divine platform, from which they issue commands to the rest of humanity that they claim are endorsed by God. However, Allah (SWT) shares command authority with no one, and the position of incomparability belongs to Him alone. The people of the final scripture are to bear this deviant history in mind, and to that end, they are to give themselves this daily reinforcement, so as not to have the kind of pride that raises them to a “partnership” position with Allah (SWT). The straight path is for those who rationally yield to the notion that they need Allah’s (SWT) guidance and then comply with His authority, command, and counsel in the form of the Qur’an and the example of His final Messenger (SAW). The surah then repeats the two most oft-repeated names of Allah (SWT) — al-Rahman and al-Rahim— thus emphasizing His eternal mercy, care, and compassion encompassing all creation. Allah (SWT) begins the Qur’an by emphasizing His qualities of mercy. Allah (SWT) gives mercy; human beings can only express it. Allah (SWT) has made the expression of mercy a part of the human character, provided that it is not crushed by the weight of man’s arrogance and self-pride. At the same time, Allah (SWT) is also just, and were it not for His mercy, no human would be able to escape the accountability for his errant behavior and the subsequent cleansing punishment of the hell fire. In this divine approach, there is a lesson for man: mercy tempers justice. To this end, Allah (SWT) sent all His Prophets (a) to help man establish a social ambiance of justice founded upon a bedrock of mercy, or in other words, to soften the hard edge of justice with mercy,
Indeed, [even aforetime] did We send forth Our apostles with all evidence of [this] truth; and through them We bestowed revelation from on high, and [thus gave you] a balance [wherewith to weigh right and wrong], so that men would manage [their affairs] with mechanisms of institutional justice… (57:25).
And [thus, O Prophet], We have sent you as [an evidence of Our] mercy toward all the worlds (21:107).
And if We so willed, We could indeed take away whatever We have revealed unto you, and in that [state of need] you would find none to plead in your behalf before Us. [You are spared] only by your Sustainer’s mercy: behold, His favor toward you is great indeed! (17:86–87).
And Allah ordained this [Qur’an] only as a glad tiding for you, so that your hearts should thereby be set at rest, since no help can come from any save Allah — the Almighty, the Truly Wise (3:126).
The extremes to which those who received past revelation have gone is once again an example. There are those amongst them who let the Kingdom get away by forgetting about justice in their zeal for love and compassion; and there are those who, in their drive for categorical justice, proliferated a set of laws without love. A fine line exists between the expression of mercy and the execution of justice. Allah (SWT) helps us navigate the way: social justice imperatives are to be integrated into the institutional mechanisms of human societal management, while adjudication of individual transgressions of these social parameters are to begin with mercy. After describing man’s role in issuing praise and Allah’s (SWT) in delivering mercy, the surah moves on to proclaim Allah’s (SWT) absolute control or dominion over His creation.
With completion of the manner of praise taught to His servant by Allah (SWT) Himself, the surah then moves on to the supplication phase in which man earnestly seeks Allah’s (SWT) guidance and direction. In a hadith qudsi,4 it has been narrated that Allah (SWT) says, I have divided the salah between Me and My servant. My servant shall have what he prays for. When the servant says, “All praise is due to Allah [alone], the Sustainer of all the worlds,” Allah says, “My servant has praised Me.” When the servant says, “The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful,” Allah says, “My servant has magnified Me.” When the servant says, “Lord of the Day of Judgment,” Allah says, “My servant has glorified Me… This is my portion and to him belongs what remains.”5
In response to the plea of His creatures for guidance, Allah (SWT) revealed the Qur’an as their guide from the beginning to the end of life on earth. surah al-Fatihah not only plays the role of opening the door to the glorious Qur’an but it also acts as a surah of healing and comfort. It is recited in all times and situations. Given its importance in the context of beginning our approach to the Qur’an, Muslim scholars have written books expounding its meanings. In this booklet, we present Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi’s understanding and explanation of surah al-Fatihah, which is the opening chapter of his monumental tafsir, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture.6 Because this surah is a pivotal part of a Muslim’s daily life, it was felt that a separate booklet containing the explanation of surah al-Fatihah would help Muslims easily access its meanings, thereby enabling them to engage the Qur’an at a much deeper level.
Imam al-‘Asi provides unique insights into the deeper layers of meanings contained in the ayat of this sublime final Scripture. While no scholar can claim that he has provided every possible explanation of the Qur’an, Imam al-‘Asi approaches the divine Book from a perspective that relates the ayat more closely to our contemporary unsettled times, with a particular emphasis on how the accumulation of wealth affects the exercise of power. In this sense, he creates a sense of engagement and urgency in understanding the majestic Qur’an. He also helps us understand the linkages between historical events, when the Qur’an was gradually being revealed to the Messenger of Allah (SAW) over a 23-year period, and what is happening today. Between us and the Muhammadi implementation of Allah’s (SWT) final revelation, there may be a distance of several centuries — indeed more than 14 centuries — but the lessons of the Qur’an are eternal, since it comes from the eternal divine source, and applicable at all times and in all situations. It is our hope and sincere desire that this booklet will enable the seekers of truth and guidance to find solace in its words. We also hope that this will enable Muslims, indeed all seekers of truth and justice, to engage the noble Book in a more profound way. If this humble effort provides comfort and solace to those reading it, as well as the motivation to go out there and do something, then we feel our efforts have been rewarded.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
1 Ramadan 1432 AH (8-1-2011 CE)
1. Abu al-A'la Mawdudi, Tafheem ul-Qur’an, Volume 1. (Lahore, Pakistan: Idara Tarjumanul Qur’an, 1981), p. 42.
2. communion – the literal meaning of the word is the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially when the exchange is on a mental or spiritual level. If the special meaning of the word, referring to the Roman Catholic Holy Communion, is put aside, then the English word communion comes closer to the Arabic word salah than the word prayer, which is more akin to the Arabic word, du‘a’.
3. Dr. Wahbah al-Zuhayli, Al-Tafsir al-Munir fi al-‘Aqidah wa al-Shari‘ah wa al-Manhaj, Volume 3. (Beirut, Lebanon: Dar al-Fikr al-Mu‘assir, 1411 AH), pp. 53–55.
4. hadith qudsi – meanings revealed to the Prophet (SAW) by Allah (SWT), expressed in the Prophet’s own words (SAW); as opposed to the Qur’an, in which meanings revealed to the Prophet (SAW) by Allah (SWT) are expressed in Allah’s (SWT) own words.
5. Narrated by Abu Hurayrah and recorded by Imams Muslim, Malik, Abu Dawud, Ibn Majah, al-Nisa’i, and al-Tirmidhi.
6. Muhammad al-‘Asi, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture. (Toronto, Canada: Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought, 2011). Five volumes of this tafsir have been published as of Ramadan, 1432 AH (8-2011 CE); ensuing volumes will be produced on a regular basis over the next few years, insha’ Allah.