Commentary on the ‘Opening of the Book’ (al-Fátiha)
from The Swelling Sea: An Exegesis of the Qur’an by Pure Light
by sheikh Ahmad al – Alawi
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds
The Compassionate, the Merciful
King of the Day ofJudgement
You we worship, and from You we seek help
Guide us upon the straight path
The path of those upon whom is Your grace, not of those upon whom is wrath,nor those who are astray
Concerning the question of whether the bismillah is a verse of the Fatiha, or a verse of every Sura, or not a verse in any Sura save for Surat al-Naml ,there are different interpretations and it is better not to make a definitive pronouncement on the matter, and to recite it at the start of every Fatiha in the prayer to be on the safe side.
Note: The words In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful occur midway through Surat al-Naml (Q.27-3o), quoting the letter from Solomon to the Queen of Sheba. Since the formula is in the middle of the Chapter and part of its narrative rather than a prefix at the beginning, there is no dispute as to its being part of the Qurán. Whether the bismillah formulas prefixing every Chapter of the Qur’án except the Surat al-Tawba are actual verses of those Chapters, or additions to them meant to introduce them, is a subject of debate among Muslim scholars.
The meaning of Fatihat al-Kitáb is ‘the Opening of the Book’ and not ‘an opening of the Book’; in reality the Book is ‘of’ the Fátiha, because it [the Fatiha] contains all its teachings.
Yet if we say that it is an ‘opening’ or `mother’ (umm) for it (The Fátiha is traditionally known as `umm al-kitáb’ – mother of the Book), this means that it is separate from it just as the mother is separate from her child; this explains why this name was not written in some of the manuscripts of the Companions (That is, included as a title for the Chapter when the oral Qur’án was written down by the Companions) .
It is beyond the reach of the average intellect to understand how it can be both outside it and inside it.
- ALLEGORICAL : The Essence of the Maker (Dhát al-Bari) is both distinct from the cosmos and present in it: distinct with respect to transcendence (tanzih) and present with respect to immanente (qayyumiyya). Neither of these must be viewed in isolation, because to affirm only the former would be to suggest separation, and to affirm only the latter would be to suggest connection; both are impossible, because in reality there is nothing to be separated from Him or connected to Him. Do not be deluded by the appearance of shadows, for to imagine something does not give it independent existence. Things are only multiplied or added to like by like, and there is nothing like the Real.
The wisdom in the Fatiha’s position at the beginring of the Book is that it speaks of mercy from God for the reader, and offers a teaching and instruction on the proper way to offer the gratitude one owes, making one fit to have a connection to Him, which is a favour for which no thanks could be enough.
The individual human being could never have deduced this for himself, no matter how long he reflected on the matter, for he could never determine what the proper expression of praise should be, or the proper way to recite the Book and stand before God seeking nearness to Him.
Thus the Fátiha came from God to provide us with all this, and God makes it pass through the lips of all those who recite the Book; whether they intend it or not, they offer a measure of gratitude, for the first thing God causes to pass their lips is the dedication of all forms of praise to Him [al-hamdu li’Lláh], and then an acknowledgement of His Lordship which is exclusively His in all theworlds ( Rabb al-‘alamin], as the wording entails.
And since the subject of a lord might acknowledge his lordship without having any inclination towards or affection for him, He then draws them nigh and inspires their affection by telling them that this Lord whose subjects they are is the Compassionate (al-Rabmán), the Merciful (al-Rabim), so that the servant-lord relationship will be one of desire, not fear.
Then, after they become sure of His grace and are happily settled between these two Names, He fears lest they be so immersed in His mercies that they forget their duties of worship, and so He moves them on to the station of justice, first attracting them with Beauty and then warning them with Majesty, so that they are given further strength and stability by His words King of the Day of Judgement [Maliki yawm al-din].
And since He causes them to speak of the Quality of Justice, and the inevitability of the Day Judgement, their natures demand that they then be allowed recourse to an impenetrable fortress; thus He taught them to say, You we worship, and from You we seek help [Iyyáka ndbudu wa-Iyyáka nasta’in].
The first half of the verse establishes justice, and the second effects grace; and since the first half cannot exist on its own because it usually requires supports, and the second half is extremely difficult to attain and is usually a matter of a prayer of the tongue which requires focus, He taught them how to ask for guidance to that straight way by saying, Guide us upon the straight path [ihdiná al-sirát al-mustqim].
Now since the individual might forge for himself his own path, the Almighty qualified this by saying, The path of those upon whom is Your grace, not of those upon whom is wrath, nor those who are astray [sirát al-ladhina an’amta ‘alayhim ,ghayri al-maghdubi ‘alayhirn wa-lá ‘d-dálin]. This makes it clear that the path sought in the Sura is that of those who hold to the Sunna and the Community (ahl al-sunna wal-jamda).
In His perfect kindness, God does not prefix the Fatihá with the word `Say,’ as He usually does when prompting speech from us, as in Say: God is One [Q.112-1), or Say: Praise be to God [Q.27-59] in ether places in the Qur’án. All this is so that the servant is truly the one offering the praise, saying `Praise be to God‘ as he stands before Him in prayer or recites the Book; and this would not be the case were it to have begun with `Say: Praise be to God.’
- ALLEGORICAL: Part of worship is servitude, and the Laws of God contain secrets which are beyond the reach, not only of normal sight, but of inner sight as well; it is these secrets which make it possible for one to stand before God even if one is affecting a state which is not truly his, and deny it to another even if he is engaged in outward worship. Were it not that prayer has a goal, and that the way has a destination, God would not make the servant ask, as he prays, to be guided to the straight path ( That is, were prayer its own goal, it would not make sense to ask to be guided to the straight path while praying, since one would already be on it).We understand from this that the acts of the body are not the goal; since otherwise, this would be a request for something already obtained.
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds [Q.I.2]
EXEGETICAL: Praise (hamd) means to acknowledge beauty and goodness as they deserve to be acknowledged. The definite article al– that is prefixed to hamd implies universality (The Arabic literally says ‘the praise’ (al-hamd), meaning ‘all praise’, or `praise’ as a class), and the preposition `to’ (li) before ‘God‘ implies rightful ownership;
thus the meaning is that praise, as it is, and whichever tongue speaks it, all ultimately goes back to God, whether the speaker is aware of this or not. He is the Object of every tongue’s praise, and every heart’s worship; for, since all beauty is borrowed from His Beauty, all praise is praise of Him: To God prostrate all who are in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly ( Q.13-15).
Thus it is said,” Whenever they praise, and whatever they praise, they praise naught but Him; and whenever they worship, and whatever they worship, they worship naught but Him.’ Moreover, the Divine Name [Allah] is the given name of the Essence, unto which all praises are due; and therefore all praise belongs to it alone among the Names, since no one Name of a Quality deserves all manners of praises as the Name of the Essence deserves them.
As for the Name ‘Lord’ (Rabb), it is more fitting to be mentioned in connection to ‘the worlds‘ than any other, which is why they are ascribed to it here. He undertakes to preserve and sustain the worlds however many there are, and however far they stretch; and the kindness of this Name [Rabb], and His sustenance of all that exists, is manifested in that He is concerned with His individual servant, almost to the point where it seems that He has no other servant but him; yet the servant is heedless of Him and disobedient to Him, almost to the point where it seems that he has several lords. Were he to reflect on how the Lord has sustained him from the point where he left his father’s loins for his mother’s womb, and then became a morsel of flesh, and then developed until finally he was a being possessed of hearing and sight, he would proclaim Blessed be God, the Fairest of creators! [Q.23-14].
As for the `worlds’ (`alamin), this is an expression for all things other than God. That it is given in the plural here implies that God possesses an infinite number of worlds. The Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘God Almighty has eighteen thousand worlds, all like this world of yours.‘ Abu Sacid al-Khudri (a Companion of the Prophet) narrated, `God has forty thousand worlds; this lower world, from East to West, is one of them‘ (Shabrakhiti narrated this). Ka’bal-Al -Ahbár ( an early convert to Islam) said, ‘No one but God knows how many worlds there are.‘ This suggests that the numbers given in the aforementioned traditions are only meant to show how high the number is, rather than to state it definitively.
Those who say that this planet Earth is the only world have no reason for saying so other than their lack of attentiveness to the vastness of God’s dominion. Were any man to simply look around him, he would realise that he is ignorant of far more than he knows; and were he to observe closely any small planet, he would find there creatures of God.
Simply to reflect on the minuteness of a germ is enough to realise this. Ghazáli (may God be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) went to see his Companions one day, and found them deep in thought. He asked them why they were not speaking, and they said, ‘We are meditating upon the creation of God Almighty.‘ He answered, ‘Indeed, that is what you should do: meditate upon His creation, but do not meditate upon Him; for beyond this sunset is a white land, whose light is its whiteness and its whiteness is its light. The sun passes over it in the course of forty [of our] days, and upon it are creatures of God Almighty who have never disobeyed Him, even for the blinking of an eye.”
“0 Messenger of God,’ they said, ‘does Satan not afflict them?’ He answered, `They know not that Satan was even created.‘ ‘Are they sons of Adam?,’ they asked. He answered, `They know not that Adam was even created.‘
Ibn `Abbás (may God be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘God has a white land, over which the sun passes in the course of thirty days of our world. It is filled with creatures of God who do not know that God is disobeyed on earth, nor that God created Adam and the Devil.’ Ghazáli mentions all this in Jawáhir al-Quran.
In summary, to say that this planet is the only world is nothing but an attempt to usurp God’s authority, and is a statement completely devoid of knowledge. I compiled a book on this subject and entitled it Miftah al -suhud fi mazahir al-wujud ( ” The Key of Witnessing: on the Phenomena of Existence‘); consult it, for the wonders of the age are contained within it.
The Compassionate, the Merciful [Q.1.3]
They are two Names, the former universal and the latter restricted. We say that the former is universal in that it encompasses every kind of favour: every favour which is perceived instinctively, and which the individual attributes to himself, is actually an effect of the Compassionate; and all that is subtle and imperceptible is an effect of the Merciful. We say that the latter is restricted in that it it belongs to Him alone and cannot be acquired by another, save for those through whom He works it, `The merciful are shown mercy by God.’
- SPIRITUAL: The word Rahim has an intensiveness to it that Rabmán does not; for He [al-Rahim] is all the more tender with particulars, and all the more pitying of the state of servanthood (`ubudiyya). He sends His emanations of mercy as they are required. The spirit of mercy is kind to the elderly, and compassionate to the young; it is adorned with humility, and available to all who seek it; it gives water to the thirsty, consoles the grief-stricken, feeds the hungry, leads the blind, comforts the estranged, visits the sick. Were you to see it, you would feel pity for it. This is especially true at the furthest end of manifestation at the final moment of birth, bringing out the newborn from the womb.
King of the Day of Judgement [Q.I.4]
- EXEGETICAL: That is, the Day of Requital (yawm al-jazá) wherein each soul will be given that which it has earned. Were it not that He mentions this sentence right after the Compassionate, the Merciful, we would not have sought refuge in
You we worship, and from You we seek help [Q.I.5]
- ALLEGORICAL: His words You we worship and from You we seek help inspire in us a consciousness of the necessary link between the Law and the Truth. The first half of the verse is the Law and the second is the Truth; the first affirms an element of acquisition, and the second negates it; the first is closer to the common perception and the second is more preferable to the elite; this is because the first entails acting for God, while the second entails acting by God. The first is the act of the pious (abrar), because they act for the sake of God; the second is the act of those-brought-nigh (mugarrabun), because they subsist in God. The goal of the first is to seek reward, while the second is its own reward; this is because the first is concerned with fulfilling religious obligations, whilst the second is concerned with the fruits of gnosis. The first half is strenuous effort; the second, witnessing. One endures the pains of his worship; the other enjoys the delights of his vision. Unto each do We extend, these and those, from your Lord’s bounty [Q. 17-20] .
Worship is mentioned before the seeking of help due to the perspective of the masses, which is to view the action before its outcome; the perspective of the elite, on the other hand, is to view it [i.e. worship] afterward, since they are so absorbed in beholding the outcome that they do not see the action. The former seek the help of acts of worship to reach Him, while the latter seek help from Him to perform acts of worship, as [for them] He is the one who acts and there is no other.
The wording of the verse brings the pronouns of the Object and subjects of worship together, which is effected by delaying the verb: You we worship. (In the Arabic, `You we‘ is one word: Iyyáka). This serves to inspire in the worshipper a consciousness of how close he is to God in principle, whatever he may have felt his position in relation to God was prior to the acts of worship coming into being.
Worship, then, is not the means by which proximity is attained; this is why the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘None of you shall enter Paradise by his works.‘ This means that the worshipper exists before the worship. Hence gnosis comes before worship; it is gnosis that makes worship necessary, and not the other way round.
Concerning the shift from the third to the second person; that is, from Praise be to God to You we worship, this teaches the aspirant how his journey will end, taking him from absence from God to presence with Him, until all intermediaries are removed and it becomes a direct discourse between the two parties: You we worship, and from You we seek help, and no other.
- SPIRITUAL: The ‘we’ of” You we worship is annihilated in that of from You we seek help, so that when the worship is limited to the seeking of help, there remain the seeking of help and the Helper; what, then, becomes of the worship and the worshipper? If you are possessed of true certainty, you will see that his [i.e. the worshipper’s] innermost secret heart (sirr) worships Him, while his reality (Haqiqa) beholds Him. He who [only] says You we worship does not know God, and he who [only] says from You we seek help does not worship.(The Shaykh says in his Hikam (Aphorisms): Whoso knows God does not worship Him; only his innermost secret heart worships Him.‘ (see Shaykh al-Alawi’ss Diwán, p. 143, Beirut: Dar al-Kutub 2006).
Guide us upon the straight path [Q.I.6]
- EXEGETICAL: Guidance is of several kinds. The word expresses a faculty that acts in man and in other animals as well, alerting each to the presence of benefits and harms, according to aptitude. In the case of man, it has two halves: the lower half pertains to the animal realrn, the higher half to the angelic realm; and the latter is what is intended here. In addition, human guidance is of [a further] two types: there are those whom God guides, and there are those whom He increases in guidance. The one whose breast God expands for surrender to Him [Q.38-22], by placing him on the straight path that leads to Paradise, has been guided; as for the one whom He increases in guidance, he is the one to whom He alludes by saying God guides to His light whom He will [Q.24-35].
The straight path alludes to a prophetic law and a heavenly way, from the perspective of practical worship. From the perspective of intellectual (or we might say doctrinal) worship, it alludes to a middle way between two extremes, those of negligence and excess.
Thus it is the most difficult thing to perceive, and cannot be traversed alone, even by someone with great spiritual aptitude. Many stand upon it, but few traverse it, and even fewer reach the destination.
- SPIRITUAL: I asked one who is a reference [in such matters -that is, a spiritual master or gnostic saint. ] about ‘the path of the intellect’ (sirát al-‘uqul), and he answered, ‘It is a fine line and a narrow path, difficult to traverse, full of obstacles; it passes between companionship and isolation at its onset, between divine incomparability (tanzih) and analogy (tashbih) in its middle, and between freedom (hurriyya) and obligation (taklif)1 at its end. To incline to either side is damaging, and to combine the two is impossible—save for the one who has two wings, and can embody two in one.’ I said, ‘How difficult it is to attain this!’ and regretted ever asking. (Taklif is a legal term for the religious obligations applicable to all adult Muslims. Thus, according to the above quotation, the end of the ‘path of intellect’ is a balance between legal obligation and spiritual freedom).
- EXEGESIS : The purpose of this sentence is to define the aforementioned path; the same path is described here by means of those upon it, and a warning is issued against inclining to either side of it, wherein are those upon whom is wrath, and those who are astray. Now those who stray from the path have a better chance of returning to it than those who incur wrath; this can be inferred from the fact that those who are astray are not those upon whom is wrath; rather, they are in the wilderness, until God takes them by the hand. Those upon whom is wrath are they who know full well what the path is, but decline to traverse it, and who know full well what the truth is but refuse to follow it. Do you not see that He attributes the straying to them, but the wrath to Himself? Those who incur God’s wrath are in far greater peril than those who stray from His path—and we seek His refuge from them both!
- JURIDICAL: From His words Praise be to God up to nor those who are astray, twelve rulings can be deduced:
Firstly, we learn that there is no swifter way to earn God’s goodly acceptance than to acknowledge His favours. He indicated this by placing the invocation of praise at the very start of the Book.
Secondly, we learn that God acknowledges His servant’s status as a subject of His lordship, even if the servant does not recognise this lordship; thus He says Lord of the worlds, thereby making all the inhabitants of the world equal in this subject-Lord relationship.
Thirdly, we learn that there are worlds beyond count, since He refers to them in the plural.
Fourthly, we learn that the divine Beauty has precedence over the divine Majesty, since the Names ‘the Compassionate’ and ‘the Merciful’ are mentioned before any other Names.
Fifthly, we learn from His word King of the Day ofJudgement that on the Day of Requital, God will manifest only with the Quality ofJustice, not with either Beauty alone or Majesty alone.
Sixthly, we learn from His words You we worship and from You we seek help that Islam has two halves, one pertaining to Law and the other to Truth.
Seventhly, we learn from His placing You we worship before from You we seek help that the aspirant usually does not attain to the Truth until he has first expended his effort in fulfilling his obligations.
Eighthly, we learn from His use of the plural pronoun ‘we’ in we worship that it is preferred to offer the five daily prayers in congregation, since the context is one of humility, where it would not be fitting for an individual to magnify himself by saying ‘we’.
Ninthly, we learn from His words You we worship and from You we seek help that prayer is a time of intimate discourse, when we address God directly.
Tenthly, we learn that the most important thing to ask of God is guidance to the straight path.
Eleventhly, we learn that God wants us to raise our aspirations by asking Him for the highest stations, not the lowest. We can infer this from His words The path of those upon whom is Your grace, since this clearly includes the prophets, the most sincere, the martyrs and the righteous. (Allusion to Qur’ánic verse 4-.69: Whoever obeys God and the messenger, they are with those to whom God has shown favour, of the prophets and the most sincere and the martyrs and the righteous.
Twelfthly, we learn that those upon whom there is wrath are lower than those who are astray, which is why they are mentioned first.
- ALLEGORICAL: God’s command that we ask Him for the path of those who are given grace, namely the prophets, the most sincere, the martyrs and righteous, provides encouragement and motivation for seeking the highest stations. It also affirms that the stations of the spiritual elite are still accessible, and were not only the province of those who lived in ages past; as long as this Sura can still be recited, it is still possible to request the path of those who are given grace, and to traverse it to its destination. The prophethood of the Prophet is no longer possible to attain, but his sainthood (wilaya) may still be inherited.
(The Shaykh here gives a commentary on the word Amin (`Amen’,let it be so’), which is usually pronounced after the Fátihá).
- EXEGETICAL: ‘Amen’ is a noun performing the function of a verb; it means ‘Answer!’ The Messenger of God (may God bless him and grant him peace) said, ‘Gabriel taught me to say Amen when I finish reciting the Opening of the Book, and said it is the equivalent of reciting the entire Book.‘ Wá’il b. Hajar (a Companion of the Prophet)- (may God be pleased with him) reported that whenever the Prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) recited Nor those who are astray, he would say Amen with a loud voice. All are agreed that it is not actually part of the Qur’án, which means that to say it after the Fátihá is a Sunna action. There is a difference of opinion about whether the imam in prayer should say it out loud; but it seems to us that he should, since the above hadith stipulates that it was said out loud.
- ALLEGORICAL COMMENTARY ON THE SURA AS A WHOLE:
That the Fatiha begins with the Holy Name and ends with Nor those who are astray is a sign for those who would behold it. The Supreme Name (al-Ism al- A’zam) comes at its head to symbolise how He is at the summit of all the realities it contains, both those pertaining to the Real and those pertaining to creation.
From this most complete manifestation, there is then a hierarchical descent through the levels of the outward and the inward, until the Real is completely hidden at the furthermost point of those upon whom is wrath and those who are astray, where He is scarcely known at all, and where sight does not overtake Him [Q.6-103] .
A tradition states that the Fátiha is split between the servant and his Lord. The servant’s share is the lower half; for just as lordship implies outward manifestation, servitude implies inward seclusion.
His Names are given in the upper half as signs of outward manifestation: God (Allah), Lord (Rabb), the Compassionate (al-Rahmán), the Merciful (al-Rahïm), the King (al-Malik); these five are all outwardly apparent.
Then in the lower half, He speaks of Himself again five times, each of them indirect and hidden: there is the second person pronoun in You we worship, and again in from You we seek help; then the elided subject pronoun of Guide us; then the second person pronoun in Your grace; and finally the implicit pronoun in upon whom is [Your] wrath. These are five of His Names, all of them indirect and hidden, in contrast to the five which are outwardly apparent; so there is consonance and balance. Thus it is clear that He is the Outwardly Manifest in all that is outward, and the Inwardly Hidden in all that is hidden; and in all cases, He is God: He it is who is God in Heaven and God on earth [Q.43-.84].
Know also that the Essence is directly followed in the descending hierarchy by the Quality of Lordship, which is why the Name `Lord’ is given directly after the Name of the Essence. Then comes the Quality of Compassion, because of its connection with the `rising’: The Compassionate, raised upon the Throne [Q.20-5]; since when the `worlds’ are mentioned, this `rising’ becomes relevant. Then comes the Quality of Mercy for all who are `risen’ upon, thus proclaiming their equality; and then comes Kingship, to judge between them when they differ. Now when the Lordship reaches this point in the hierarchical descent, namely that of judgement between the servants, the inevitable consequence is that the station of servitude attaches to it and says, You we worship, and from You we seek help.
Once this recourse has been made in the right way, He speaks of Himself indirectly, since the context is now that of inwardness, although the pronoun which indicates Him is mentioned first: You we worship, and from You we seek help. He then hides Himself even further, so that the pronoun which indicates Him is delayed: Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom is Your grace. He disappears completely in those upon whom is wrath, where there is no pronoun at all, but only an implicit understanding that the wrath is His. Finally, He absents Himself entirely from nor those who are astray; though in reality they are objects, He makes them subjects. This is the absolute limit of disappearance; yet for the folk of true clarity, it is really pure manifestation.
SPIRITUAL: [This perspective] does not see the first word of the Fátihá, `praise’, as separate from what follows it; it sees that the Fátiha itself, and all that is in it, belongs to God; otherwise we could not say `Praise be to God‘, since one of the names of the Fátiha is `Praise‘, and this belongs to God.
(One of the traditional names of the Fátiha is al-Hamd, `Praise’; the Shaykh therefore reasons that since the Sura begins `Praise be to God,’ it is itself dedicated to God by these words, and so on in an infinite circle).