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A Ramadan Quran Journal: A MuslimMatters Series – [Juz 1] Reflections On The Opening Chapter

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This Ramadan, MuslimMatters reached out to our regular (and not-so-regular) crew of writers asking them to share their reflections on various ayahs/surahs of the Quran, ideally with a focus on a specific juz – those that may have impacted them in some specific way or have influenced how they approach both life and deen. While some contributors are well-versed in at least part of the Quranic Sciences, not all necessarily are, but reflect on their choices as a way of illustrating that our Holy Book is approachable from various human perspectives.

Introducing, A Ramadan Quran Journal: A MuslimMatters Series

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Reflections on the Opening Chapter 

by Dawud Omar 

 

In the Name of God—ar-Raḥmān, ar-Raḥīm1This statement is referred to as the Basmala. Scholars differ as to whether the Basmala is the first verse of Surah al-Fātiḥah. However, because I want to keep my discussion brief, I have decided not to include it in my reflections. I mention it here since it is part of Islamic etiquettes to always begin our actions by mentioning the Name of God.

This semester, I was given the opportunity to teach a course on Islamic philosophy. Before teaching the course, I wanted to give my students—some of whom were Muslims, some of whom were people of other faiths or no faith—an idea of what Islam is. The question ‘What is Islam’ is an interesting one, especially since it has been a point of contention in academic circles. For me, I decided one of the best ways to explain Islam was to defer to the Qurʾān. For Muslims, we believe the Qurʾān is the inerrant Word of God and the last and final revelation for all of mankind. Hence, I believe it best encapsulates the essence of Islam, and by extension Islamic philosophy. 

Obviously, the entire Qurʾān would be too great a task for an introduction, and so I decided to simply go over Surah al-Fātiḥah—the opening chapter of the Qurʾān. This is the first chapter of the Qurʾān, and according to many scholars, among the first chapters of the Qurʾān to be revealed. This chapter, although short (it only consists of seven verses), is quite significant since Muslims are required to recite it at least seventeen times a day throughout their daily prayers. According to some scholars, the opening chapter is essentially a summary of the entire Qurʾān which is why it is referred to as the ‘Mother of the Qurʾān.’ Each verse in the opening chapter represents a major theme in the Qurʾān. Hence, this chapter can serve as a great starting point and a powerful exposition to help elucidate the essence of the Qurʾān, or in other words, the Qurʾānic philosophy. 

In this article, I will share some of the reflections covered in my course in hopes that it will inspire us—Muslims and even non-Muslims alike—to further explore the Qurʾān. The Qurʾān is an infinite source of wisdom as God says: “If all the trees on the earth were pens and all the seas, with seven more seas besides [were ink], still the Words of God would not be exhausted. Indeed God is Almighty, All Wise.” Hence, the enormous depth of the Qurʾān demands that we give2Qurʾān 31:27  much attention to every verse and contemplate its meaning. This is not something we should read casually, but rather conscientiously. For the Qurʾān demands contemplation. It demands reflection. As God says, “Do they not reflect on the Qurʾān? Or are there locks upon their hearts?”3Qurʾān 47:24 What you will read here is simply the result of my poorest attempts to reflect upon the 3 meanings of the Qurʾān, with the crucial disclaimer that I am not an expert and so I defer to the religious scholars. 

Praise Be To God, Lord Of All Worlds, 

This is the opening verse which sets the tone for the rest of the Qurʾān. This verse beautifully encapsulates the Qurʾānic worldview and captures one of its main points. 

The first part of this verse expresses absolute gratitude. This attitude of gratitude depicts the normative state of a Muslim. A Muslim is essentially defined as a person who is grateful. No matter what it is we are going through, our constant state of mind is that we are always grateful to God. Suppose I am having a difficult time at work, struggling with my classes, fighting with my family, or stricken with a terrible illness. The Qurʾānic mindset of gratitude automatically transforms those problems into blessings. It allows me to appreciate the fact that I at least have a job when so many people are unemployed, that I am able to take classes when so many lack the opportunity to do so, and that I still have my family when so many have lost people that they love and that even with my illness, I appreciate how things could have easily been worse. The fact is, no matter what, there are always so many reasons to be grateful. In fact, “If you tried to count God’s blessings, you would never be able to enumerate them.”4Qurʾān 16:18

This first part of the verse suggests a very important lesson, which is that gratitude is not based on having abundance. But rather based on recognizing the abundance that God has already given you.

Here the Qurʾān begins by giving us the proper perspective. Even if we are having an especially difficult time finding something to be grateful for, we can at least be grateful that God is Lord of All Worlds. 

To say God is Lord of All Worlds basically means that He is the Master of All Worlds. We could also say that He is the Owner, Maintainer, Caregiver, or Nurturer. This is something to be grateful for since it allows us to let go of things we have no control over. Sometimes we tend to worry about our future or stress over things that are beyond our control. This verse highlights the futility of worrying about those things and reassures us that God is in full control of our affairs. Everything, no matter how big or small or seemingly insignificant, is determined by God. “He has power over all things.”5 Qurʾān 67:1

To say God is Lord does not mean that He is merely the Lord of a particular elite group, but rather, the Lord of all peoples, nations, communities, and all things in existence. This includes all realities and even all possible worlds. In other words, there does not exist a possible world where God is not the Lord and Master of all things. God is the Lord and Master of even fictitious worlds. This is because nothing can exist, even in imagination, without God the Most Glorified, the Most High. 

To say God is the Master of all implies that we are all His slaves and that we belong to Him. This is the relationship between God and human beings and is one of the most important themes of the entire Qurʾān. However, due to the problematic connotations associated with the notion of slavery, I would describe the relationship to be more like that between a pregnant mother and her child (and to God belongs the best example). When a child is in the womb of its mother it is completely nurtured, maintained, and sustained by the mother. Its entire world exists inside of the mother’s womb. It is weak, helpless, and completely dependent on its mother. This analogy  best describes our dependence on God and how He sustains and provides for us. This point is also supported by the next verse. 

Ar-Raḥmān, Ar-Raḥīm, 

Quran journal - surah fatiha

Surah Fatiha (PC: MD Shairaf [unsplash])

Throughout the entire Qurʾān, God conveys to us His many names and attributes. “He is God, other than Whom there is no god, the Sovereign, the Holy, Peace, the Faithful, the Protector, the Mighty, the Compeller, the Proud… He is God, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. He is the Mighty, the Wise.”6Qurʾān 59:24 Even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, He is similarly referred to as the Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnibenevolent, the First, the Last, and so on. These are among the many names and attributes of God. 

However, what’s most peculiar about Ar-Raḥmān, Ar-Raḥīm is that among all of the other names God has, these are the names He chooses to introduce Himself to us. Moreover, God does not only introduce these names but reinforces them with emphasis. If we take the basmalah7In the Name of God—ar-Raḥmān, ar-Raḥīm as the first verse of this chapter, we can see that the names are repeated for greater emphasis. Even if we do not take the basmalah as the first verse, we can still see that this verse emphasizes His name simply by isolating them. This verse is exclusively devoted to the expression of these particular names. 

This is all to say that it is worth pondering on what these names mean. For those who may not know, it would be interesting to hear what you would guess. What name or attribute comes to mind when you think about God? For those who already have an idea of the meaning may translate these names to ‘Most Gracious, Most Merciful.’ 

This is understandable since the names are a derivative of the Arabic word for mercy. However, Ar-Raḥmān, Ar-Raḥīm also contains huge elements of love and compassion. You could try to translate the names to mean loving or compassionate, but the names also contain huge elements of mercy that may be devoid of the notion of compassion. This is one of the reasons why, whenever discussing this verse, as opposed to simply translating these names, it may be better to provide an explanation. 

Master Of The Day Of Judgment. 

Given the benevolence of the last verse, the following question may arise: if it is the case that God is Most Merciful, Most Compassionate, so much so that He chose to emphasize those particular names among all others, then why is there so much evil in the world? Why does God allow so much pain and suffering to be inflicted, particularly on those who acknowledge and accept God? 

This is one of the most well-known philosophical questions of all time and is referred to as the problem of evil. Interestingly, this verse can be understood as a direct response to the problem. 

The problem of evil seems to hold two false assumptions that are absent from the Qurʾān. First, it holds that this life is either all that there is or it is of utmost value. Whereas in reality, this life is worth little to nothing. It is insignificant and ultimately ephemeral. The Qurʾān holds that after we die we will be resurrected in the afterlife. The afterlife is eternal, everlasting, and ultimately real. “The worldly life is nothing but an illusionary enjoyment.”8Qurʾān 3:185

This raises a very important point about the purpose of life. In the Qurʾān, God says, it is He “who created death and life in order to test which of you is best in deeds.”9Qurʾān 67:2 Hence, the purpose of this life is to test us on our moral actions. Interestingly, contrary to how we would usually say ‘life and death,’ God mentions death before life. Some scholars believe this is meant to signify the fact that our real lives begin only after death. God says, “Did you think that We created you without purpose, and that you would not be brought back to Us?”10Qurʾān 23:115

The problem of evil also falsely assumes an ultimate reality without absolute justice. However, this assumption is contradicted by this verse. The ultimate reality is the afterlife, and there we will find absolute justice. This verse represents a fundamental aspect of the Qurʾān and the Islamic faith, which is the Day of Judgment. The Day of Judgment represents a period of time, well after death, where all human beings will be resurrected and forced to take responsibility for the things they have done and how they lived their lives. 

God is Master of the Day of Judgment, meaning He will be in full control and will hold everyone accountable. Those who did good, or were victims of oppression, will be compensated. Those who committed injustice, or were themselves the oppressors, will be punished severely. The final destination for those who were good in this life will be eternal Paradise, whereas those who were evil will be the Hellfire. 

The justice of this world is inferior. So many people throughout history have faced injustices. People either face injustice on a small scale (i.e. being victims of abuse) or a large scale (i.e. being victims of genocide). The sad reality about this world is that those who commit injustice can get away with it. However, on the Day of Judgment, no one will be able to escape. “On that Day every person will flee from their own siblings, and [even] their mother and father, and [even] their spouse and children. For then everyone will have enough concern of their own.”11Qurʾān 34:34-37  This Day will be a period of real accountability. This Day will be a period of perfect and absolute justice. 

You (alone) We Worship And You (alone) We Ask For Help. 

After acknowledging the ultimate reality of God, that He is Lord of All Worlds, Most Merciful, and Master of the Day of Resurrection, we turn to Him with utmost humility, in full submission. This is the very essence of Islam. Islam is peace acquired through submission to God alone. 

As mentioned previously, God has absolute control over everything. “You cannot will [to do so] unless God wills.”12Qurʾān 76:30 Yet, simultaneously God bestows on us the incredible gift of free will. A Muslim is essentially defined as one who freely chooses to submit his will to God. It is only by submitting our will to God alone that we become truly free. Whether we want to accept it or not, “everyone in the heavens and the earth submits to Him, willingly or unwillingly.”13Qurʾān 3:83 It’s inescapable. By submitting our will, we liberate ourselves from all the restraints of this world. There are many things in this world that inescapably preoccupy our thoughts and determine our actions. However, submitting our will to God means putting God at the center. It is to say that our life is not determined by our career, our desire for power, our fear of death, and so on. Rather, it is to say that our life is determined by God alone. It is making God the ultimate end of our desires and our actions. It is to say “surely my prayer, my sacrifice, my life, and my death are all for God, Lord of all Worlds.”14Qurʾān 6:162

This form of enslavement is unique and unlike any other form of enslavement. When you enslave yourself to other things you are confined to those things. However, when you enslave yourself to God, you are confined to God—the Master of all Worlds, thus making you unconfined to anything. Unlike all other forms of enslavement which are to the benefit of the master, enslaving ourselves to God is purely to the benefit of ourselves. 

This is the point of human existence. The Quran makes it emphatically clear that our ultimate existential purpose is to worship God. For God says, “I did not create jinn and humans except to worship me.”15Qurʾān 51:56 By worshiping God, we are fulfilling our ultimate purpose. 

Notice this verse shifts from describing God to addressing God in the second person, thus departing from the previous verses. This reflects our coming into communication with God. One of the ways Muslims worship God is through the performance of five daily prayers. This allows Muslims to be conscious of God throughout the day. To also connect with God and come close to God. It is one of the greatest forms of worship. 

Beyond our daily prayers, Muslims may also supplicate to God. Supplication to others may be a sign of weakness, but supplication to God is a profound act of worship. In the Qurʾān, God tells Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) When My servants ask you about Me: I am truly near. I respond to one’s prayer when they call upon Me. So let them respond to Me [with obedience] and believe in Me, so that they may be [rightly] guided.”16Qurʾān 2:186 This also highlights the unique Master/slave relationship where God (the Master) presents Himself to His slave and attends to the needs of His slaves. 

Guide Us Upon The Straight Path, 

This is one of the most philosophically intriguing verses in the entire chapter. 

Quran - right pathOne way to think about its significance would be to think about what you would wish for if you could only have one wish. Would it be all the money in the world? Well, why wish for money when you could have all the power? Of course, money and power are things that pertain to the pleasures of this life. What about the pleasures of the afterlife? Perhaps the greatest thing we could ask for is Paradise. But then I am reminded of Rabia al-Basri’s poem where she says, “If I adore You out of fear of Hell, burn me in Hell! If I adore you out of desire for Paradise, lock me out of Paradise. But if I adore you for Yourself alone, do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.” Why would anyone want to be that filthy person who found their way into paradise, when they could be pure and worthy of paradise? Hence, perhaps the best wish we could ever wish for is to be good. 

But what makes a person good? We may say something like always doing the right thing. But how can you do the right thing if you do not know what is right? So we may say a good person knows what is good and acts upon it by doing the right thing. This is reasonable and is consistent with the Quran, where God praises “those who believe and do good deeds—they are the best of [all] beings.”17Qurʾān 98:7 But how can you know what is good? This leads us to a broader epistemological question: how can you know anything? 

You may say that your reason guides you towards what is good. However, isn’t it true that human reason often leads people to draw various erroneous conclusions? Similarly, one might cite scripture as a source of guidance. Yet, it seems scripture can also be misinterpreted or manipulated to justify corrupt agendas. The scariest thing about being wrong is navigating this world under the assumption that you are right. And yet, the greatest irony is how we acknowledge this, but still believe we are right. Hence, the best thing a person could ever ask for is guidance. 

But hold on a second, I thought Islam was supposed to be the true religion. I thought Muslims were already on the right path. Why would Muslims need to ask God for guidance? This is because, without God, there is no way for us to access truth, let alone remain upon it. “And whoever God leaves astray – for him there is no guide and whoever God guides, none can lead astray.” 18Qurʾān 39:36-37 This verse is the purest expression of epistemic humility, recognizing and admitting our complete dependence on God’s guidance. Whether we realize it or not, we are susceptible to all sorts of cognitive biases and logical fallacies. God’s guidance is our only means of attaining true knowledge, discerning information accurately, or acting appropriately. Even one of the greatest philosophers in the West recognized “[t]he truth is… that God only is wise; and by his answer, he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing.” 

The Path Of Those You Have Blessed, 

This verse helps to introduce one of the most fundamental aspects of the Islamic faith and a major recurring theme in the Qurʾān: Prophethood. 

The Quran teaches us that God did not leave people to try and figure things out for themselves without any assistance. God says, “And We would never punish [a people] until We have sent a Messenger.”19Qurʾān 17:15 In the Qurʾān, God mentions how He has sent down guidance in the form of divine scriptures, with messengers to explain and clarify the message. 

The Prophets and Messengers in Islam serve as the leading examples of how to properly worship God. They serve as moral exemplars and are mentioned explicitly in the Qurʾān: “And We blessed him [i.e. Abraham] Isaac and Jacob. We guided them all as We previously guided Noah and those among his descendants: David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron. This is how We reward the doers of good. Likewise, [We guided] Zachariah, John, Jesus, and Elias, who were all of the righteous. [We also guided] Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah, and Lot. We favored each one of them over other people, and also some of their forefathers, their descendants, and their brothers. We chose them and guided them to the Straight Path.”20Qurʾān 6:84-87 All Prophets and Messengers in Islam are recognized as being among the most righteous people to ever walk the earth. 

The most righteous of all is Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). He is considered “the Messenger of God and the seal [i.e. last] of the prophets.”21Qurʾān 33:40 He is the best example for all human beings to emulate and as God says “of a great moral character.”22Qurʾān 68:4 When his wife, Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her), was asked about his character she said he was the Qurʾān. In other words, he was the best embodiment of the Qurʾān. Thus, any Muslim who seeks God and loves to be closer to Him will follow Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). This is not simply a recommendation but a requirement: “O you who believe, obey God and obey the Messenger, and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to God and the Messenger, if you should believe in God and the Last Day. That is the best and fairest resolution.”23 Qurʾān 4:59

One final thing to note about those whom God has blessed. This group includes many of whom are mentioned in the Qurʾān and many of whom are not. God tells us, “We already sent Messengers before you. We have told you the stories of some of them, while others We have not.” This is one of the great mysteries of our religion. Although we may not know definitively who these Prophets and messengers were, we can find examples of figures in history who stood out in their communities by calling for monotheism. God says “We surely sent a messenger to every community, saying, ‘Worship God and avoid false gods.’” This is significant as it illustrates the mercy and universality of the Islamic message. 

Not Of Those Who Incur Wrath, Nor Of Those Who Are Astray. 

This verse is incredibly powerful and perhaps the most unsettling. It is a verse of condemnation and rejection. Contrary to some popular versions of religious pluralism which holds that all paths 

are equally valid, this verse directs us to the fact that there are possible wrong paths. Interestingly, this verse combined with the previous verse suggests that there are more wrong paths than there are right paths. 

The Qurʾān warns us about falling into two broad groups: those who incur wrath and those who are astray. According to some scholars, an example of the former is found in the Jews and an example of the latter is found in the Christians. This is consistent with the entire Qurʾān since it addresses the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) and clarifies where they deviated from the Straight Path. The main contention against the Jews is that although they possessed knowledge of the truth, they failed to act appropriately. The main contention against the Christians is that they excelled in sincere actions but lacked knowledge. Hence, these two paths may represent two extremes: knowledge devoid of action and action devoid of knowledge. 

These two paths may also represent two spiritual diseases that hinder a person from accepting God: arrogance and ignorance. Some examples, in the Qurʾān, of those who were arrogant include Satan (the Devil) and the Pharaoh. Their arrogance blinded them from accepting the truth, even though they knew it, and ultimately led them to reject God. Some examples of ignorance include those who speak about God without knowledge. Some scholars say this is among the greatest sins since it may lead a person to commit a lie about God. This not only allows a person to deviate from the Straight Path, but it allows him to misguide others. What is most unsettling about this verse is that it is unspecified, and unlike the prior verse which referred to people in the past tense, this refers to people in the present tense. Hence, this verse warns us that any one of us could be at risk of becoming among those who deviate. May God protect us. 

The last point to understand about Islam, which is articulated in the Qurʾān and beautifully illustrated in the structure of this entire chapter, is that Islam is a religion of balance. Some philosophers hold that virtue is the middle between two extremes. Islam is that middle path. It is the right balance between knowledge and action, the heart and the mind, the body and the soul, strength and kindness, faith and skepticism, fear and hope, concern with this life, and concern with the afterlife. This balance is demonstrated through the chapter’s composition itself. It begins by providing knowledge about God and then ends with us taking action. Although knowledge comes before action, action is followed up immediately. 

In the end, I hope this reflection was in some way beneficial. For more information, I have provided a few references below. These were all sources that I used for this reflection. I pray that God allows us to reap the benefits of this Ramadan. I pray that God allows us to build a deeper relationship with the Quran. I also pray that God increases us in taqwā (reverence) and imān (i.e. faith). Anything good that was mentioned here is from God, and anything bad or incorrect is due to my shortcomings and the Devil. 

 

References: 

 – Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qurʾan: A New Translation. Oxford University Press, 2008. Baghawi, Tabari, The Spiritual Cure. Al-Hidaayah Publishing, 2006. 

 – Gülen, M. Fethullah, The Opening Al-Fatiha: Commentary on The First Chapter of the Qur’an. Tughra Books, 1997. 

 – Khan, Nouman Ali, Randhawa, Sharif, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Publications, 2016. 

 – Khattab, Mustafa, trans. The Clear Qurʾan: A Thematic English Translation of the Message of the Final Revelation. Book of Signs Foundation, Lombard, IL, 2016. 

 – Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Caner Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary. HaperOne, 2017. 

 – Nefeily, Salah Ed-Din A., Highlights on The Meaning of Al-Fatiha: the Opening Chapter of the Muslim’ Glorious Book, Al-Qur’an. Dar An-Nashr Liljami’at, Egypt, 2005. 

 – Qutb, Sayyid. translated by Adil Salahi and A. Shamis. In the Shade of the Qur’an: Fi Zilal al Qur’an. Islamic Foundation, 2015. 

 – Razi, Fakir al-Din, translated by Sohaib Saeed, The Great Exegesis: Al-Tafsir al-Kabir: The Fatiha. The Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought & The Islamic Texts Society, 2018. 

 – Saheeh International, trans. The Qur’an: English Meanings. Al-Muntada Al-Islami, 2004. 

 – Suleiman, Omar and Kamdar, Ismail. Qur’an 30 for 30: Thematic Tafsir: Based on Seasons 1-4. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, 2024.

 

Related:

Conversing with Allah: Reflecting On Surah al-Fatihah For Khushoo In Salah

Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Fatihah

 

 

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Alhamdulillah, we're at over 850 supporters. Help us get to 900 supporters this month. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Dawud teaches various courses in philosophy at Howard University and Marymount University, as well as other colleges. He received his BA in Philosophy, with a minor in Linguistics, and his MA in Philosophy from George Mason University. His primary areas of interest include ethics, metaethics, and political philosophy. He also has a deep interest in Islamic studies and spends his time researching and delivering lectures on the side.

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