Commentary on the Bismillah
from The Swelling Sea: An Exegesis of the Qur’án by Pure Light
by SHAYKH AHMAD AL-`ALAWI
Bism ‘Lláh al-Rahmán al-Rahim
In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
That the Mighty Book begins, when read and when written, with the bismillah inspires in us a sense of God’s kindness to His creaturen, despite how they turn away from Him.
For whenever one reads or recites the book, moving one’s eye over the page or moving one’s tongue in the recitation, one is connected to In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and thus one invokes the Name (al-Ism)( Allah) and draws blessing from it without even being aware of this, whether one intends it or not, whether one likes it or not.
Had we not been commanded to write it down, intentions would have varied, and heedlessness would have come to bear, and even those of strong faith would have forgotten it; and hypocrites would have affected to forget it. Yet since the bismillah is prescribed for both the writing and recita-tion of the Qur’án, this possibility has been nullified.
As for the prescription that the bismillah be invoked before every action of importance, its effect is to nullify any special distinction that would be otherwise afforded to tyrants, so that no overwhelming power is attributed to one person over another.
Non-Islamic communities, both of the ancients and the moderns, used to seek blessing by invoking the names of their kings and rulers; for example, one of them might invoke the name of the king or ruler before drinking, especially if he were in his presence.
Now since Islam preaches human equality and affirms that superiority over others can only be attained by mindfulness of reverence to God ( Allusion to verse Q.49.13: …the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the one most mindful of Him), the Lawgiver commanded that no name be invoked before significant actions but the Name of God.
The only exception being such actions as the Law forbids; for the Name of God could not possibly be a support for them. The wisdom of this is that since the Almighty has not permitted the action, He is saying, as it were, ‘I have not made this lawful for you, nor given you leave to do it, which means that you have made it lawful for yourself: do it, then, in your own name, not in Mine.’ A law is attributed to the one who makes it.
Now the letter ب ba’ of the bismillah (meaning in) implies connection, and it is itself connected (directly) to God (‘Llah); the word ‘Name” (Ism) does not separate them, since it is identical with the Named according to the Sufis as well as most of the Ash’aris.
Note: When the bismillah اسم الله, is written in Arabic, the letter ba’ ‘in’, is directly connected to the word ism, ‘Name’. ب س م ل What the Shaykh al-Alawi is saying is that since the Name (Ism) is identical with the Named, i.e. God Himself Ism does not really separate the letter bá’ from the Divine Name Allah. الله
Thus the beginning is in God (bi’llah): from Him all begins and to Him all returns.
- JURIDICAL : Four rulings can be deduced from the basmala:
Firstly, all who write or recite the Qur’án must begin with the bismillah; this is inferred from that fact that the Almighty Himself begins the Book with it.
Secondly, we understand from this that God wishes us to praise Him for His Beauty more so that His Majesty ; this is inferred from how He begins with the two Holy Names ‘the Compassionate’ (al-Rahmán) and ‘the Merciful’ (al-Rahim), describing His Essence (Dhát) thereby.
Thirdly, we learn that there is a difference between the two Names, though they are derived from a single Quality (They are both derived from rahma); for otherwise, to list both ‘the Compassionate’ and ‘the Merciful’ would be nothing but repetition.
Fourthly, we learn that the Name is identical with the Named; otherwise, it would not be proper to seek aid in it rather than its object, God (Allah).
- ALLEGORICAL : The way the letter ba’ is fastened to the Divine Name(Ism al-Jalála, the ‘Name of Majesty’ ), though it is not part of it, inspires in us a consciousness of how everything in existence, with all its different realities and divergent paths, is fastened to God.
Do not imagine that it touches Him—for in His transcendence, our Lord is not touched by any contingent thing, and such could not occur without the contingent thing vanishing altogether because of its lack of permanence in the presence of Him who is Eternal—rather, we mean that it is connected to Him and given being through Him: it subsists through God; not through itself. Its being is borrowed from that of its Being-Giver (mujid), as it has been said:
That which has no being in and of itself Could not be at all, were it not that He is.
The way the ba’ of the bismillah is lengthened where otherwise it is not, is because it is connected to the Name, and the one who is connected to the Named—and is thus one of God’s Folk—is worthy of being raised above the other members of his kind. As for the lengthened bá”s standing in for the elided letter alif of the word ism, it symbolises the representationi of God by he who possesses the Muhammadan inheritance: 0 David, We have made you a vicegerent on earth [Q.38- 26]; Whoso obeys the Messenger has obeyed God [Q.4- 8 0] .
Note: In the bismillah, the first downward stroke of the letter ba’ is often lengthened, particularly in North African orthography, so that it is as tall as a letter alif, because it serves the function of representing both the letter bei’ and the alif of the word ism, ‘Name.’ See Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint, p. 156.
We have translated the word niyába as both ‘standing in’ and ‘representation‘. The Shaykh is saying that the letter ba’ is lengthened to represent the alif in the same way that a prophet or saint is God’s intermediary and His representative .
As for the position of the bismillah at the head and summit of the Book, it symbolises how God is raised above His Throne; and since this `rising’ (istiwa ) does not mean, as ordinary people think, that He is `contained’ by the Throne, but rather that He is present in every element of existence, the bismillah is placed at the head of every Chapter of the Qur’án (Sura), whether short or long: And He is with you, wherever you are [Q.57-.4]. (In fact it is placed at the head of all Chapters but one, the exception being Surat al-Tawba – Chapter9)
Traditions affirm that everything in the Book is encapsulated in the words ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’ ; this symbolises how all things are contained in the Being of their Being-Giver; that is, that everything in them branches from what is in Him: Nor is there anything but with Us are the treasuries thereof [Q.15.21]. That the Divine Name (Allah] comes before the other Beautiful Names symbolises the precedence of the Essence, and how the Names and Qualities are contained in Its treasury.
(Note:The Beautiful Names (al-Asma’ al-Husná) are the Names of God, referred to as such in the verse: God’s are the most Beautiful Names, so call on Him by them (Q.7-180)and traditionally said to number ninety-nine based on a famous hadith, although the exact identity of the ninety-nine is not agreed upon and several lists exist. )
The first of the Names to be proclaimed thereafter is The Compassionate (al-Rabmán): ask any informed of Him! [Q.25-59]; because of this, it among all Names is given in the bismillah to describe Him. Were it not that it was the first Name to be manifested, it would not have been assigned the position of `rising'(istiwa’): The Compassionate, raised upon the Throne [Q.20- 5].
Because of this `rising’, this Name has precedence over all other Names, both those of Majesty and those of Beauty. This is alluded to in those sacred hadith’ which affirm that mercy has precedence over wrath. The rising of the Compassionate over all beings is what allows the unbeliever to receive divine favours, and what allowed Satan to rebel.
As for His Name ‘the Merciful’ (al-Rabim), it is the last of the revelations (In the sense that it is the last word of the bismillah, which here symbolises the whole of the Qur’án), and its effect is hidden within the actions of created beings. This is alluded to in the hadiths, ‘The merciful are shown mercy by God,’ and, ‘To fail to thank people is to fail to thank God.’ The presence of His mercy in them means that they merit thanks; and all thanks is due to God.
Now the ba’ of the bismillah requires a verb to give it context (That is, it requires us to say ‘I begin in the Name of God’, or the like), and this verb is here elided.
This symbolises how a Quality (ija) requires a context to make its manifestation necessary; and this context is provided by the Act of the Essence, but it is elided; which is to say that it is only supposed (muqaddar), but has no being of its own independent from its Being-Giver.
This is the difference between the two kinds of being. As to whether it comes before or after the Quality, this depends on the perspective of the given spiritual wayfarer.
He who is immersed in the divine Magnificence will not see it at all, nor will he describe it either with being or nonbeing, never mind see it as coming before or after.
As for he who has attained the level of sensitivity (shu ‘ur), he will ‘suppose it to come after, because he sees the Almighty before he sees His Act, and sees in God evidence of it.
As for the ordinary wayfarer, he will see the Act before he sees He who acts, and the former will guide him to the latter. What a difference there is between one who sees Him as evidence, and one who sees other things as evidence for Him!
- SPIRITUAL: The short vowel kasra on the letter ba resembles the first person genitive pronoun as it is pronounced in certain dialects. (That is, the first syllable bi in bismillah resembles the compound bi, meaning ‘in me’ or `through me’).
In this is hidden a secret expression: `Through me (bi) is all that is, and through me is all that will be.’ This [me] indicates the active quality the Sufis call ‘the handful of light.‘ (Referring to a Sufi tradition, sometimes thought to be a hadith, which states that creation began with a handful of God’s own Light).
It says—by means of the ba’ attached to the Supreme Name—to the Eternal Presence and the Hidden Treasure, `Through me (bi) is the Name of God; You have manifested me just as I manifested You; just as You raised me, I raised You; just as You made me known, I made You known.’
Speaking from its state, it says,
If not for You, we would not be; and if not for us, You would not be ;
You are, and we are, and the truth cannot be known.
To You we ascribe all glory and wealth;
To us we ascribe poverty, yet poverty there is none.
(The Shaykh is saying that the ba’ represents the intermediary between God and creation, and that without this intermediary God would not be known, and thus `would not be’ in a metaphorical sense since His existence would be a secret. In the language of Ibn `ArabI, this is expressed by the ilah/ma’luh relationship: in order that He be ilah (`divine‘) in the full sense of the word, a ma’luh or `divine thrall’ ( a “slave”, “servant’, or “captive ”who recognized his own poverty), is required to recognise Him. See William Chittick, The Sufi Path of Knowledge, p. 6o)
Note: In The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, William C. Chittick explains: “ Since the Essence is unknowable, no one can conceive of Its opposite; no relationship at all can be envisaged. But the Divinity demands relationships. From this principle arises Ibn aljArabi’s well-known doctrine of the ma’luh or “divine thrall.” The word is a past participle derived from the same root as ‘ilah, “god.”
Literally it means that which is “godded over,” or the object in respect of which a god is a god. It is nearly synonymous with marbub, “vassal,” the past participle from the same root as rabb, “lord.” The Divine Essence cannot be understood by the rational faculty, since there is nothing “other” ( siwa) than It. But the Divinity and the Lordship (al-rububiyya) can be understood by this faculty, since the “others” in relation to them are the divine thrall and the vassal. (II 257.28) We have already seen the Shaykh employing past participles derived from various divine attributes in a number of passages. For example, he has asked how there can be someone powerful without an object of power (maqdur), or a knower without an object of knowledge (malum). In respect of God, he says, the same principle is involved. When we speak of the names, they are relationships, or better, “correlations” (idáfa); each name demands two correlative terms (mutadaif), the name itsclf and the object to which it is connected (ta’álluq). The name Allah is not outside of this principle, only the Essence, since It is not a correlative term, but the Entity Itself. As soon as we say that It is related to something, we are talking about the “level” of the Essence, not the Essence in Itself.
– See also Message of Maulana Sheikh Nazim al Haqqani for our Times: “Be Rabbani”
So the All-Powerful has power through the objects of His power, and the All-Seeing has sight through the objects of His sight, and so on.
Now since the Acts manifest the Names and Qualities but not the Essence, the ba’ is connected to the Name (bism) and not directly to the Named (Allah), which ensures that we understand it is the Name that it manifests.
As for the Essence, It is the reason for this pronoun on the ba’ being concealed. For He is Outwardly Manifest in His Essence as long as His Act is not taken into consideration;
when the Act is taken into consideration, however, we say that He is Inwardly Hidden in His Essence and Outwardly Manifest in His Qualities.