This transcript is based on the audio recordings of Late Dr. Israr Ahmad (Rahimahullah) and paraphrased for clarity.
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ (1)
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ (2) الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ (3) مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ (4) إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ (5) اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ (6) صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا الضَّالِّينَ (7)
Translation of the Meaning of Surat al-Fatiha
“In the Name of Allah; Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds; Most Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment. You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help. Guide us to the straight path; the path of those You have blessed; not of those who have earned Your anger, nor of those who have gone astray.” (al-Fatiha, 1:1-7)
A Few Preliminary Points about Surat al-Fatiha
First Surah of the Qur’an
This is the first complete surah of the Qur’an in terms of the order of revelation and sequence of compilation. There was no complete surah revealed before this surah. There were parts of other surahs revealed earlier than Surat al-Fatiha, The first revelation comprised of the first five verses of Surat al-‘Alaq (Surah # 96). The second revelation consisted of the first seven verses of Surat al-Qalam (Surah # 68). The third revelation contained the first seven or ten verses Surat al-Muzzammil (Surah # 73). The fourth revelation included the first seven verses of Surat al- Muddassir (Surah # 74).
Multiple Names of the Surah
Just as there are numerous names for the Qur’an, likewise Surat al-Fatiha is known by many names. There are as many as twenty five names attributed to this surah by the famous mufasssir Jalaal-ud-Deen al-Suyuti. It is most popularly called or identified as Surat al-Fatiha. Al-Fatiha is derived from the root letters Fa-Ta-Ha (ف ت ح). Fataha-Yuftahu means to open something. Miftah is the key with which a lock is opened. The Qur’an opens with this surah. Perhaps that is why the surah has been named as Fatihat ul-Kitab (The Opening of the Book).
Since this surah provides the basis of the philosophy (falsafa) and wisdom (hikmah) of the Qur’an, it is known by three other names: Umm ul-Qur’an (mother or essence of the Qur’an), Umm ul-Kitab (mother or essence of the Book), and Asas ul-Qur’an (foundation of the Qur’an). Being an essential and integral part of our prayer (salah), the surah has some other names such as as-Salah (the prayer), al-Hamd (the praise), ash-Shukr (the gratefulness), al-Munajaat (the invocation), as-Suaal (the asking). This is a surah which we offer in our prayers, and in which we praise Allah, thank Him, ask Him to guide us, and invoke His blessings upon us; hence these names.
In ayah 87 of Surat al-Hijr, this surah is also referred to as saba’ min al-masani (the seven oft-repeated) and al-Qur’an al-Azeem (the Great Qur’an).
وَلَقَدْ آَتَيْنَاكَ سَبْعًا مِنَ الْمَثَانِي وَالْقُرْآَنَ الْعَظِيمَ
We have given you the Seven Oft-repeated and the Magnificent Qur´an (al-Hijr, 15:87).
This implies that this surah which contains seven verses which are repeated in every prayer is an explication of the whole Qur’an. There are other names of this surah such as ash-Shifa’ (the cure); ar-Ruqya (the remedy), al-Kaafiyah (the sufficient), and others. When something has multiple names, it shows the importance of that thing.
Virtues and Significance of the Surah
There are numerous ahadith which narrate the virtues and importance of this surah. Abdullah ibn Abbas (RA) narrates that while Jibril (AS) was with the Messenger of Allah, he heard a noise from above. Jibril (AS) lifted his sight to the sky and said, “This is a door in the heaven being opened, and it has never be opened before. An angel descended from that door, and came to the Prophet (SAW) and said, “Receive the glad tidings of two lights that you have been given; which no other Prophet before you was given—the opening of the Book and the last three verses of Surat al-Baqarah. You will not read a letter from them but will gain benefit.”
The Prophet (SAW) is reported to have said, “By Him in Whose Hand is my soul! Allah has never revealed in the Torah, Injeel, Zabur or the Furqan a surah like it. It is the seven oft-repeated verses (saba’ min al-masani) that I was given.” Furqan is another name for the Qur’an and means something that distinguishes between Haq and Batil; i.e., between truth and falsehood. According to another hadith reported by Abu Hurairah (RA), the Prophet (SAW) said, "I swear by Allah who is the Master of my life, neither the Torah, nor the Injeel, nor the Psalms of David have anything to compare with the opening surah of the Qur’an, and no other surah of the Qur'an itself can compare with it." These ahadith highlight the importance this surah occupies in the entire Qur’an, rather in all Divine Revelations from the earliest of times.
Surat al-Fatiha is an essential and integral part of our prayers. It has been narrated by Ubada bin as-Samit (RA) that the Messenger of Allah (SAW) said, "Whoever does not recite al-Fatiha in his prayer, his prayer is invalid." In another narration, Abu Hurairah (RA) said that the Prophet (SAW) said, “Whoever performs any prayer in which he did not read Umm ul-Qur’an (Surat al-Fatihah), his prayer is incomplete.”
In a Hadith Qudsi, Allah (SWT) says, “I have divided the prayer between Me and My slave into two halves, and I give him what he asks for. When my slave says, "All the praises and thanks are to Allah, the Lord of all that exists," Allah Almighty says, "My slave has praised me." When he says, "Most Gracious, Most Merciful," Allah Almighty says, "My slave has extolled me." When he says, "The Only Owner of the Day of Judgment," Allah Almighty says, "My slave has glorified me." Then when he says, "You alone we worship and You alone we ask for help," Allah Almighty says, "This is between Me and My slave, and for My slave is what he asks." And then when he says, "Guide us to the straight path; the path of those on whom You have bestowed Your grace, not of those who earned Your anger, nor of those who have gone astray," Allah Almighty says, "This is for My slave, and he will get what he has asked for.”
Dialogue with Allah (SWT)
As understood from this Hadith Qudsi, the recitation of this surah is a dialogue with Allah. The salah offers an opportunity to be in the presence of Allah; to have an audience with Him. The philosopher-poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal remarked in one of his lectures on the ‘meaning of prayers’ that during salah, the finite ego (of the ‘abd) comes face to face with the infinite ego (of Allah). In Surat Ta Ha, Allah when conversing with Musa (AS) says,
إِنَّنِي أَنَا اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا أَنَا فَاعْبُدْنِي وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ لِذِكْرِي
“I am God; there is no god but Me. So worship Me and keep up the prayer so that you remember Me” (Ta Ha, 20:14).
If the words of this surah emerge not merely from one’s tongue, but from the depth of one’s heart, then one can actually feel Allah responding to one’s invocations. This is the zenith of prayer, as if it were the ascension (Mi’raj) of the believer where he or she is having a face to face dialogue with Allah. In a hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, "As-Salatu Mi’raj ul-Mu’min." "The salah is the ascension of the believer."
Our prayers, therefore, should not be offered only by way of soulless and superficial rituals devoid of any spirituality, but with the depth of conviction (yaqeen) in the omnipotence and omnipresence of Allah (SWT). This, as explained in the well-known Hadith Jibril is the degree of Ihsan, which is "that you should worship Allah as though you could see Him, for though you cannot see Him yet He sees you."
This surah gives a special instruction to those who begin the recitation or the study of the Qur'an. They should approach this book with a mind cleansed of all their previous thoughts and opinions, seeking nothing but the Truth and the right path, praying to Allah for being guided in the right path. The surah begins with the praise of Him before whom the request is to be submitted, and ends with the request for guidance. The whole of the Qur'an is the answer to this request. The answer begins with the words:
الم () ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ()
"Alif Lam Meem. This is the Book; there is no doubt in it. It is a guide for those who are mindful of Allah”, which is an indication that the guidance man had prayed for has been provided in this Book.
The Basmala or Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim
Basmala (Arabic: بسملة) is an Arabic noun used as a collective name for the whole of the phrase Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim, which is translated as "In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful." It appears at the beginning of every surah except Surat al-Taubah (Surah # 9). It also appears once within the text in ayah 30 of Surat al-Naml.
إِنَّهُ مِن سُلَيْمَانَ وَإِنَّهُ بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
“It is from Solomon, and it says, In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful (an-Naml, 27:30).
There is a difference of opinion among scholars as to whether Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim is an integral part of Surat al-Fatihah and all other surahs or not. According to Imam Abu Hanifa, it is not an integral part of any surah, except Surat al-Naml; rather it is in itself an independent ayah of the Qur'an which has been revealed for being placed at the beginning of every surah in order to separate and distinguish one surah from another. The other opinion is that Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim is a part of Surat al-Fatihah. However, there is consensus of majority of the scholars from early generations that Surat al-Fatihah contains seven verses. Those who consider صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا الضَّالِّينَ as one ayah consider Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim to be the first ayah of the surah, and those who consider this as two separate verses, i.e., صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ as one ayah, and غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا الضَّالِّينَ as another ayah do not consider Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim to be an ayah and an integral part of Surat al-Fatihah.
The merits of Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim
It was a custom in the Age of Ignorance (Jahiliyyah) before the advent of Islam that people began everything they did with the names of their idols or gods. It was to eradicate this practice that the first ayah of the Qur'an which Jibril (AS) brought down to the Prophet (SAW) commanded him to begin the Qur'an with the name of Allah.
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ
“Recite: In the name of your Lord, who created” (al-Alaq, 96:1)
Al-Suyuti says that besides the Qur'an, all the other divine books too begin with Bismillah. Certain other scholars are of the opinion that Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim is peculiar to the Qur'an and to the followers of Muhammad (SAW). The two views can be brought into agreement with each other if we 'say that all the divine books share the common trait of beginning with the name of Allah, but the words Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim are peculiar to the Qur’an, as is evident from certain ahadith which report that in order to begin with the name of Allah anything he undertook, the Prophet (SAW) used to say the Bismika Allahumma, but when the ayah Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim was revealed, he adopted these words. Since then this practice was established through the verbal command of the Prophet (SAW) or through his act or tacit approval.
One of the many practices taught by Islam is that its followers should begin their activities in the name of Allah. This principle, if consciously followed, will necessarily yield good results. One will be able to restrain oneself from evil, since the habit of pronouncing the name of Allah is bound to make one think when one is about to commit an evil act, as to how such an act can be reconciled with the uttering of Allah’s name. Also, when a man begins something by pronouncing Allah’s name, he will enjoy Allah’s help and guidance. Allah will bless his efforts and protect him from the whispering and temptations of Satan, for whenever man turns to Allah, Allah turns to him as well.
Explanation of Surat al-Fatiha
After reciting Bismillahir-Rahmanir Rahim, the surah begins with الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ (Alhamdu lillahi Rabbil ‘Aalameen). Alhamdu lillahi (الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ) in itself is a complete sentence, meaning that the praise (hamd) is for Allah. The alif-laam (ال) preceding the word hamd is a definite article making the noun following it into a proper noun. The (ال) also gives the meaning of ‘all.’ Hence الْحَمْدُ would mean all kinds of praise. The word hamd is usually translated as praise. However, this is an incomplete translation of the word. The proper word for praise in Arabic is sana. However, when praise (sana) is coupled with gratitude (shukr), the two words jointly convey the meaning of hamd. Numerous invocations and supplications made by the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) start with the word hamd. For example, the supplication when waking up from sleep is:
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي أَحْيَانَا بَعْدَ مَا أَمَاتَنَا وَإِلَيْهِ النُّشُورُ
"All praise and thanks be to Allah, who gave us life after having taken it from us and to Him will we be raised and returned." Sleep here has been likened to a form of death. The supplication after relieving oneself after attending nature's call is:
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي أَذْهَبَ عَنِّي الْأَذَى وَعَافَانِي
“All praise and thanks be to Allah, who removed the difficulty from me and gave me relief.” After eating and drinking, one praises and thanks Allah in the following words:
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي أَطْعَمَنَا وَسَقَانَا وَجَعَلَنَا مِنَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ
“All praise and thanks be to Allah who fed us and quenched our thirst and made us Muslims.”
Ibrahim (AS) made the hamd of Allah on being blessed with sons like Ismail (AS) and Ishaq (AS) in his old age. He said,
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي وَهَبَ لِي عَلَى الْكِبَرِ إِسْمَاعِيلَ وَإِسْحَاقَ إِنَّ رَبِّي لَسَمِيعُ الدُّعَاءِ
“Praise and thanks be to Allah who has bestowed upon me, despite my old age, Ismail and Ishaq. Surely my Lord is the hearer of prayer” (Ibrahim, 14:39).
It is learnt through a Prophetic tradition that on the Day of Judgment, when the entire humanity would be standing before their Lord in the field of Hashr, the Prophet (SAW) as representative of the entire humanity would be holding the banner of hamd, praising and thanking Allah.
The expressionالْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ negates all forms of shirk. From whatever source any good comes—material or spiritual; its ultimate source is Allah. The sun gives warmth and light; water quenches thirst, but it is Allah who has created them and endowed them with qualities that enable them to perform their functions. Therefore, it is the Creator and Sustainer who should be praised and thanked rather than the creation.
Who or what is Allah? It is the proper noun in Arabic, applied to the Almighty and Supreme Being. This name cannot be given to anyone except Allah alone. That is why this word has neither a plural nor a dual, for Allah is One and has no associate. Allah is the name of that Ultimate Reality which encompasses in itself all the attributes of perfection. He is the creator and sustainer, unique, peerless, and transcendent. Some say that the word Allah it not derived from any other word. Others say that it is derived from the root word aliha made up of alif-laam-haa, meaning to adore, worship, or deify anyone or anything. Ilah is any deity or an object of worship, and the word Allah itself is made up of Al + ilah (The God), and denotes the only one and unique God besides whom there is no other deity or god. The Islamic concept and understanding of Allah is unlike the polytheistic religions where there is a whole hierarchy of gods and goddesses, with one Supreme God above them. Referring to the acknowledgment of the polytheists (mushrikin) about Allah being the Creator, Allah says,
وَلَئِنْ سَأَلْتَهُمْ مَنْ خَلَقَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ وَسَخَّرَ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ لَيَقُولُنَّ اللَّهُ فَأَنَّى يُؤْفَكُونَ
“If you ask them who it is that has created the heavens and the earth and subjugated the sun and the moon, they will say Allah. How then are they turned away?” (al-‘A’nkabut, 29:61).
The translation of la ilaha illallah “There is no god but God” is incorrect. The correct translation should be “There is no god but Allah.” This is because the word god is subject to variations of gender, number, qualities, and states; hence the terms: god, gods, goddess, goddesses, godling (a minor god), god the father, god the mother, god the son, god the holy spirit, god of light, god of darkness, sun-god, moon-god, and so on.
One of the Hebrew names for Allah is Eel. And the Hebrew word for slave is Isr. Israel; the name by which Yaqub (AS) is known means the ‘slave of Allah’ in Hebrew or ‘Abdullah’ in Arabic. It is
largely agreed upon that there are three levels of the concept of the Being of Allah (SWT). Firstly, that He is the only one to be worshipped and obeyed, and the only one to whom one should implore for one’s needs. Secondly, that He is transcendent and beyond any figment of imagination and comprehension. Thirdly, that He is worthy of one’s utmost love and adoration.
In the expression لِلَّهِ (lillahi), the preposition (harf jarr)لِ preceding the exalted name of Allah carries two meanings—one of istihqaq (right) and the other of tamleek (ownership). All praises and thanks are Allah’s right and they belong to Him. Rabbil ‘Aalameen (رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ) means “He is the Lord (Rabb) of all the worlds.” Rabb primarily means owner. Rabb ul-Mal is one who owns wealth. Rabb ul-Dar is one who owns a house. Rabb also means sustainer. One who owns something also tries to sustain it. Allah is the owner and sustainer of all the worlds (‘Aalameen). In fact, the concept of Allah being the Rabb comes before the concept of His being the Khaliq or Creator. The first revealed ayah of the Qur’an says,
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ
“Read! In the name of your Lord, who created. He created man from a clot.” (al-‘Alaq, 96:1).
Allah’s attribute of being the Rabb or Lord is mentioned before saying that He created man. Ayah 21 of Surat al-Baqarah says,
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اعْبُدُوا رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُمْ وَالَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
“O people! Worship your Rabb (Lord), who created you and those before you, so that you may become mindful (of Him)” (al-Baqarah, 2:21).
Here also we see that Allah is mentioned first as Rabb (the Sustainer) and then as the One who created, although sequentially, creation should come before sustenance. This reversal of order is not without a reason or basis. The Qur’an, which is the Speech of Allah (Kalamullah), cannot be devoid of wisdom (hikmah). If the development of human mind were to be traced, it will be observed that the first impression that every child has in this world is of need. The mind of the child, as soon as it is born registers a sense of need. The child needs to be fed and to be protected. His sustenance, therefore, becomes his primary need. It is only when he is matured that he starts to think about the phenomenon of the Creator and the creation. The care and protection of the parents for him is the first impression that the child gets. Hence, thankfulness for the parents is the first manifestation of shukr in a human child. Therefore, Rububiyyah of the Rabb comes first followed by His attribute of being the Khaliq or the Creator.
What is الْعَالَمِينَ (al-‘Aalameen)? It is the plural ofالْعَالَم (al-‘Aalam), the usual translation of which is ‘the world’. The verbal root ‘Alima from the root letters (م ل ع) means “to know.” ‘Ilm means knowledge or learning. ‘Alam refers to a sign, token, mark, or flag besides some other meanings. From the same root is derived the word ‘Alaamah which means a sign through which something can be recognized. The entire creation—the ‘Aalam (the universe; the cosmos) is an ‘Alaamah or a sign through which the Creator is recognized. ‘Aalameen refers to the different types of ‘Aalam such as ‘Aalam al-wujood (this world; this life), ‘Aalam al-Akhirah (the realm or dimension of the hereafter), Aalam al-Haiwan (the animal kingdom), ‘Aalam al-Nabaat (the vegetable kingdom), ‘Aalam al-Ma’adin (the mineral kingdom), ‘Aalam al-Khalq, ‘Aalam al-Amr, ‘Aalam ad-Duniya, ‘Aalam al-Barzakh, ‘Aalam al-Ins, ‘Aalam al-Jin, ‘Aalam al-Arwah, and the list is endless. We don’t even know how many worlds there are.
Therefore, everything in this universe is a sign of Allah. We have to remember, recognize and know Him through His signs. Allah being Rabbil ‘Aalameen (رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ) means that He is the Lord of the worlds. This is basically the beginning of the argument that proves the existence of Allah through recognizing Him through His signs and attributes.
Seen in the light of this short phrase, 'Lord of the worlds', the universe reveals itself to be an incredibly complex, yet perfectly integrated order. From the heavens to the earth, from the planets and the stars to the particles of dust, everything is bound in a chain of being, and is performing the function assigned to it by Divine Wisdom. Man cannot obtain a little morsel of food unless a thousand forces of the sky and the earth work together to produce it. The universal order is there for man to contemplate, and to realize that, if Allah has put millions of His creatures in the service of man, man in his turn cannot be worthless or purposeless or meaningless. The Qur’an is very explicit and very insistent in reminding us that the universe is not absurd:
وَمَا خَلَقْنَا السَّمَاءَ وَالْأَرْضَ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا بَاطِلًا ذَٰلِكَ ظَنُّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا
“It was not without purpose that We created the heavens and the earth and everything in between. That may be what the disbelievers assume. “ (Saad, 38:37)
The next ayah الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ is an expression that has been difficult to translate by most translators. It has been variously translated as ‘the all compassionate; the all merciful,’ ‘the beneficent; the merciful;’ and ‘the most gracious; the most merciful.’ The two words الرَّحْمَنِ (al-Rahman) and الرَّحِيم (al-Rahim) are both attributes for Allah. The roots of both these names of Allah (SWT) are made up of the same root letters (ح م ر) conveying a sense of mercy and compassion. The difference betweenالرَّحْمَنِ (al-Rahman) and الرَّحِيم (al-Rahim) can be appreciated by looking at the word pattern formation they follow. The term Rahman follows the pattern of fa’lan denoting the intensity of some condition. For example, a state of extreme anger is expressed through the word غَضْبَان (ghadhban).
وَلَمَّا رَجَعَ مُوسَىٰ إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِ غَضْبَانَ أَسِفًا
“And when Moses returned to his people, angry and grieved” (al-A’raf, 7:150).
On the same pattern, ‘atshan means extremely thirsty and jau’an means extremely hungry. The word Rahman indicates the meaning of excessiveness and vastness of the attribute of mercy. No one else is more merciful than Allah. He shows mercy to everyone; to every creature; even to those who do not believe in Him. The word Rahim is on the pattern of fa’eel that conveys a sense of permanence and continuity; something which will have its special manifestations in the Hereafter. It refers to those special favors of Allah with which He blesses His virtuous servants. Their efforts are fully rewarded only in the Hereafter.
The attributes of Rahman and Rahim are mentioned without the conjunction و ) waw) between them. This means that these attributes like other attributes of Allah are present in His person simultaneously. The closest appropriate translation ofالرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ would be ‘the most compassionate, ‘the ever compassionate.’ This will give the exact sense and difference between the two words.
Rahman is the exclusive attribute of Allah and the word is employed only when one is referring to Him. It is not permissible to qualify any created being as Rahman, for there cannot possibly be anyone else, other than Allah, whose mercy should be all-embracing and all-inclusive. Just like the word 'Allah', there is no dual or plural for the word Rahman, because these words are in their signification exclusive to the One and Absolute Being. The signification of the word Raheem, on the contrary, does not contain anything which it should be impossible to find in a created being, for a man may be perfectly merciful in his dealings with another man. So, the word Raheem may justifiably be employed in the case of a human being -- as the Qur’an itself has used the word in speaking of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW)
لَقَدْ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مِّنْ أَنفُسِكُمْ عَزِيزٌ عَلَيْهِ مَا عَنِتُّمْ حَرِيصٌ عَلَيْكُم بِالْمُؤْمِنِينَ رَءُوفٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“A Messenger has come to you from among yourselves. Your suffering distresses him: he is deeply concerned for you and full of kindness and mercy towards the believers” (at-Taubah, 9:128).
The next ayah مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ means (He) is the owner, the master, and the sole authority of the Day of Judgment. What is Deen? Daana / Yadeenu means to obey or to subdue. The Prophet (SAW) said, “Intelligent is the one who subdued his nafs (self, i.e., evil desires and inclinations of the lower self) and performed (good pious) actions for the life hereafter and mindless (stupid) is the one who subdued his nafs to pleasures, greed, and (evil and vain) desires and thought that Allah is with him.” In some traditions it says: “This mindless person hopes for Allah’s forgiveness.”
Deen has a law that should be obeyed. It is for this reason that the Shari’ah is an integral part of our Deen. In a Muslim society, Shari’ah becomes the law of the land. In Surat Yusuf, we have
إِلَّا أَن يَشَاءَ اللَّهُ مَا كَانَ لِيَأْخُذَ أَخَاهُ فِي دِينِ الْمَلِكِ
“He could not have detained his brother under the King’s law, unless Allah so willed” (Yusuf, 12:76).
The king referred to in this ayah was the sovereign having sole authority, and thus the whole system in that country was under him. Deen, therefore, becomes synonymous with whole system of life that is governed by a law. And with law, there is definitely a concept of reward. One who abides by law gets rewarded, and one who breaks the law, gets punished. Deen, therefore, also means the reward or punishment one would get for one’s deeds. Allah being the owner and master (مَالِك) of the Day of Judgment means that nobody will be able to compel Him to change His verdict on that Day. At another place in the Qur'an, there is a proclamation that says,
لِمَنِ الْمُلْكُ الْيَوْمَ لِلَّهِ الْوَاحِدِ الْقَهَّارِ
“To whom shall the kingdom belong that Day? It shall belong to Allah, the One, the All Powerful” (Ghafir, 40:16).
Actually, sovereignty belonged to Allah (SWT), here on earth also, but there is a veil before peoples’ eyes. For them, it is the king or the nation or the people who are the sovereign. They are in deception. It is on the Day of Judgment that they will begin to see the reality.
لَقَدْ كُنْتَ فِي غَفْلَةٍ مِنْ هَذَا فَكَشَفْنَا عَنْكَ غِطَاءَكَ فَبَصَرُكَ الْيَوْمَ حَدِيدٌ
“You were heedless of this, but now We have removed your veil, so your sight today is sharp” (Qaf, 50:22).
The next ayah إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُmeans ‘You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help.’ نَعْبُدُ and نَسْتَعِين are from the category of verbs that are called al-fa’l al-Mudhari’ which carry the meanings of both the present and future tenses. Therefore, a more correct meaning of the ayah would be ‘You alone we worship (and You alone we shall continue to worship), and to You alone we turn for help (and to You alone we shall continue to turn for help).’ The wordإِيَّا is a restrictive word (hasr - حصر) and means only or alone. There is a world of difference in saying ‘we do your ‘ibadah,’ and ‘we do your ‘ibadah only.’ What is ‘ibadah? The usual translation of this word done by most translators is ‘worship.’ The word worship does not convey the actual meaning of ‘ibadah, as understood in Islam. ‘Ibadah in Islam is a very profound term. It is derived from the word ‘abd. An ‘abd means a slave. The duty of a slave is to obey his master. The slave has to do what his master asks him to do. The children of Israel were the slaves of the Pharaoh. What did the Pharaoh and his followers say when Musa (AS) and Harun (AS) called them to the path of Allah?
فَقَالُوا أَنُؤْمِنُ لِبَشَرَيْنِ مِثْلِنَا وَقَوْمُهُمَا لَنَا عَابِدُونَ
“They said, Shall we believe in two human beings like ourselves, while their people are our slaves?” (al-Mu’minun, 23:47).
Here, the word عَابِدُونَ (slaves) derived from the word ‘ibadah is exclusively for slavery without any notion of worship. The Bani Israel never worshiped Pharaoh.
Reducing and limiting the concept of ‘ibadah to mean only ritual worship or modes of worship is one of the biggest perversions of the concept of ‘ibadah. When we speak about making ‘ibadah to Allah, then the word ‘ibadah means and includes both worship and obedience. This concept of ‘ibadah disappeared during our centuries of decline and decay. While we worshipped Allah through prayers, fasting, alms giving, and pilgrimage, yet we did not remain obedient to Him. Rather we were obedient to our colonial masters—the British, the French, the Italians, the Dutch, and the Portuguese.
It is important to note that a slave of someone does not obey his master out of love. Even though, we obeyed our colonial masters, we did not do so out of love for them. However, an ‘abd of Allah worships and obeys his Lord (Rabb) Allah, out of intense love, gratitude, and devotion. The very purpose of creation is that we do the ‘ibadah of Allah (SWT).
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ
“I have only created Jinns and men, that they may serve Me” (al-Dhariyat, 51:56).
The hamd (praise and thanks) of Allah takes one to loving Allah, and once we understand that Allah is the Lord of the worlds; the most compassionate; the most merciful; the master of the Day of Judgment, then our total obedience with a deep sense of love, gratitude and devotion is to be for Him alone. Our love for Allah should become greater than any other person or thing. That is the criterion or one’s faith (iman). One can peep into one’s heart to find if this is so or not. True believers, according to the Qur’an, love Allah intensely. Ayah 165 of Surat al-Baqarah says,
وَالَّذِينَ آمَنُوا أَشَدُّ حُبًّا لِّلَّهِ
“But those who have iman love Allah most.” (al-Baqarah, 2:165).
Many classical scholars of Islam have expounded the term ‘ibadah. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah said, “Al-'Ibadah is obedience to Allah by following that which He ordered upon the tongues of His Messengers." He also said, "Al-'Ibadah is a comprehensive term covering everything that Allah loves and is pleased with—whether saying, or actions, outward and inward." Imam al-Qurtubi said, "The root of 'ibadah is humility and submissiveness. The various duties that have been prescribed upon the people are called 'ibadaat (acts of worship), since what is required is that these acts of worship must be done with humility and submissiveness to Allah (SWT)." Imam Ibn Kathir said, "And 'ibadah is obedience to Allah by acting upon what He commands, and abandoning what He forbids; and this is the reality and essence of Islam. And the meaning of Islam is istislam (submission and surrender) to Allah (SWT), along with the utmost compliance, humility, and submissiveness to Him."
With the revival of our Deen observable in the Islamic world, the concept of ‘ibadah has once again started to be understood as total obedience to Allah in all aspects of human life—personal, collective, social, economical, and political. However, obedience to Allah should not be merely mechanical or merely for political ends. It should be with full of love of Allah. Obedience is only the body of ‘ibadah while love of Allah is the spirit (ruh) of ‘ibadah.
It should begin to be clear now thatإِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ incorporates four sentences taken together: (1) Worshiping Allah with intense love for Him in the present, (2) Worshiping Allah with intense love for Him in the future, (3) Total obedience to Allah in the present, and (4) Total obedience to Allah in the future.
The enormity of the covenant made with Allah should make one tremble, because by and large, we have become the slaves of our desires, and of our societies. Being cognizant of the difficulties in fulfilling the covenant, the ‘abd implores Allah for His help. That is why the expression إِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ meaning ‘You alone we turn for help’ follows the expression إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ meaning ‘You alone we worship and obey.’ It is reported that the Prophet (SAW) used to recite the following supplication after every salah.
اللهمّ أعِنّى عَلى ذِكْرِكَ وَشُكْرِكَ وحُسْنِ عِبادَتِك
“O Allah, help me remember You, to be grateful to You and to do your ‘ibadah in an excellent manner."
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ meaning “You alone we worship, and to You alone we turn for help” is the most important and central ayah of Surat al-Fatiha. It is an agreement or covenant between the ‘abd and His Rabb. All prophets and messengers of Allah made the same call to their people,
يَا قَوْمِ اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَٰهٍ غَيْرُهُ
“O my people worship Allah; you have no other god but Him” (al-A’raf, 7:85).
Being the representatives of Allah on earth, they told their people to worship God and to follow them.
اعْبُدُوا اللَّهَ وَاتَّقُوهُ وَأَطِيعُونِ
“Worship Allah, have taqwa of Him and obey me” (Nuh, 71:3).
It is to be understood that there are two aspects of tawhid—the theoretical or philosophical and the practical. The theoretical tawhid has to do with one’s aquida or dogma and the practical tawhid has to do with one’s ‘ibadah (worshipping/servitude). إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ gives us the practical aspect of tawhid. It is a fact of life that we obey others than Allah also. For example, we obey our parents; we obey our elders; we obey our teachers, and we obey the call of our nafs by fulfilling its permissible rights. The point to note is that obedience to anyone or anything should not entail disobedience to Allah; otherwise one would be guilty of having committed shirk. According to a hadith,
لا طاعة المخلوق في معصية الخالق
“There is no obedience to any created thing if it entails disobedience to the Creator.”
The Qur’an explains this phenomenon when it says,
أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ
“Have you seen him who takes his whims and desires to be his god?” (al-Jathiyah, 45:23).
This means that if one were to follow the lust and base desires of one’s nafs that were against Islamic law and morals, one would be making one’s nafs the object of worship. A person deliberately earning through unlawful (haram) means against all dictates of the Shari’ah would be said to be obeying his nafs and not Allah. That is why in a hadith related by Bukhari the Prophet (SAW) said, “Accursed is the slave of the Dinar (Abd ul-Dinar) and the slave of the Dirham (Abd ul-Dirham).” This means that such people have become slaves of wealth rather than slaves of Allah. Absolute obedience and love are only to Allah. They were ordered only to worship and obey Allah.
أَمَرَ أَلَّا تَعْبُدُوا إِلَّا إِيَّاهُ
“And He orders you to worship none but Him” (Yusuf, 12:40).
Allay says the sovereignty belongs to Him alone.
إِنِ الْحُكْمُ إِلَّا لِلَّهِ
“Sovereignty belongs to Allah alone” (Yusuf, 12:40).
There is no one who is partner with Him in His kingdom.
وَقُلِ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي لَمْ يَتَّخِذْ وَلَدًا وَلَمْ يَكُن لَّهُ شَرِيكٌ فِي الْمُلْكِ
“And say: ´Praise be to Allah Who has had no son and Who has no partner in His Kingdom” (al-Isra’, 17:111).
The biggest manifestation of shirk today is the concept of human sovereignty or sovereignty of the people. This is in stark contravention to the divine injunction,
وَلَا يُشْرِكُ فِي حُكْمِهِ أَحَدًا
“And He does not share His authority with anyone" (al-Kahf, 18:26).
Through their disobedience and flagrant violation of divine laws, people have become oblivious of the fact that supreme greatness is only for Allah. We are reminded in Surat al-Hashr,
هُوَ اللَّهُ الَّذِي لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْمَلِكُ الْقُدُّوسُ السَّلَامُ الْمُؤْمِنُ الْمُهَيْمِنُ الْعَزِيزُ الْجَبَّارُ الْمُتَكَبِّرُ
“He is Allah; there is no god but Him. He is the King, the Most Pure, the Perfect Peace, the Trustworthy, the Granter of security, the Almighty, the Supreme Authority, the Supremely Great” (al-Hashr, 59:23).
There is shirk committed when one implores or beseeches someone (for one’s need) other than Allah, even though man was told to call on Allah alone.
فَلَا تَدْعُوا مَعَ اللَّهِ أَحَدًا
“Do not call on anyone else besides Allah” (al-Jinn, 72:18).
The last part of Surat al-Fatiha says,
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ () صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلا الضَّالِّينَ ()
Guide us to the straight path; the path of those You have blessed; not of those who have incurred Your anger, nor of those who have gone astray.” (al-Fatiha, 1:7).
The expression اهْدِنَا (guide us) is derived from hidayah, a profound term which implies guiding, leading, and accompanying someone till the final destination. This is why the people of paradise while entering paradise would be chanting,
الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ الَّذِي هَدَانَا لِهَٰذَا وَمَا كُنَّا لِنَهْتَدِيَ لَوْلَا أَنْ هَدَانَا اللَّهُ
“Praise be to Allah who has guided us to this! We would not have been guided, had Allah not guided us” (al-A’raf, 7:43).
We beseech Allah to guide us in all walks of life to a way which is absolutely true; a way which provides us with a properly-based outlook and sound principles of behavior, a way which will prevent our yielding to false doctrines and adopting unsound principles of conduct, a way that will lead us to our true salvation and happiness. This is man's prayer to Allah as he begins the study of the Qur'an. It is, in short, to illuminate the truth which he often tends to lose in a web of philosophical speculations. He prays to Allah to guide him and lead him to the path that is clear and straight in terms of sound belief and right conduct.
The people who are supplicating Allah to lead them to the straight path are the ones who have already achieved a certain level of guidance in their lives. By uttering the earlier part of Surat al-Fatiha, they have already manifested their faith (iman) in Allah and the hereafter. They have already acknowledged Allah as the Lord of the worlds; as one who is most compassionate and most merciful; and as one who is the Master of the Day of Judgment. But, if they are already guided, why is it that they are still seeking guidance from Allah? Actually, they are seeking a continuous practical guidance lest they take any wrong turns in their lives, for any reason whatsoever.
Stages of Guidance
There are two stages of guidance; the theoretical and the practical. The theoretical or philosophical guidance leads to the correct worldview—one’s correct perception about oneself, about the Creator and the creation, about the human beings; whether they are a higher form of animal or something else, about the universe, about life after death, about knowledge of good and evil, and other similar questions. This is the first stage of guidance. This guidance is available in the basic instincts of a human being if he follows his unpolluted and unimpaired human nature. A hadith tells us,
كُلِّ مَوْلُودٍ يُولَدُ عَلَى الْفِطْرَةِ
“Every child is born on the fitrah”
The intuitive knowledge of distinguishing between good and evil is embedded in the human nature. We have is Surat al-Shams,
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا () فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا
“And by the soul and how He formed it; and enlightened it with what is wrong and right for it!” (al-Shams, 91:7-8).
The theoretical or philosophical guidance is followed by the practical guidance at the individual and the collective levels. According to a hadith, on being asked about al-Birr (i.e., piety or righteousness), the Prophet (SAW) said, “Ask your heart regarding it. Piety is that which contents the soul and comforts the heart and sin is that which causes doubts and perturbs the heart, even if people pronounce it lawful and give you a verdict (fatwa), time and again allowing what you feel uneasy about. Another hadith says that piety entails good conduct, and sin is that which causes discomfort (or pinches) within your soul and which you dislike that people should come to know of it.
At the collective level, man commits mistake by not following the divine guidance that lays down the just social, political, and economic systems that are beneficial to humanity. Divine guidance embodies principles of fair play and justice so that there is no repression and no exploitation. Freedom is granted but within the rules and boundaries of divine parameters. In his farewell speech on the plains of Arafah, among many other gems of advice that he gave to the Muslims, the Prophet (SAW) particularly stressed the equality of all human beings by saying, “All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor a black any superiority over white – except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.”
Throughout human history, the moral and ethical values had reached their peak in the personalities of different prophets and messengers of Allah. However, it was during the life of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that Islam was declared to be the only way of life (deen) that had been perfected and that was acceptable to Allah.
الْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِي وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ الْإِسْلَامَ دِينًا
" Today I have perfected your deen for you and completed My blessing upon you and I am pleased with Islam as a deen for you" (al-Ma’idah, 5:3).
Who are the people on the straight path?
Surat al-Fatiha qualifies the straight path in two ways: the positive and the negative. It is the way which has always been followed by those who have been blessed by Allah. It should not be of those who had incurred the anger of Allah nor of those who had gone astray. The recipients of Allah’s blessings are not those who appear, briefly, to enjoy worldly prosperity and success. Very often, these people are among those whom Allah has condemned because they have lost sight of the true path of salvation and happiness. This negative explanation makes it quite clear that in'am denotes all those real favors and blessings which one receives in reward for righteous conduct through Allah’s approval and pleasure, rather than those apparent and fleeting favors which the Pharaohs, Nimrods and Qaruns used to receive in the past, and which are enjoyed even today by people who are notorious for oppression, evil and corruption.
Who are the people who have been blessed by Allah? The answer to this is given in ayah 69 of Surat al-Nisa’.
وَمَن يُطِعِ اللَّهَ وَالرَّسُولَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ مَعَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِم مِّنَ النَّبِيِّينَ وَالصِّدِّيقِينَ وَالشُّهَدَاءِ وَالصَّالِحِينَ وَحَسُنَ أُولَٰئِكَ رَفِيقًا
“Whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger will be among those He has blessed: the messengers, the truthful, the witnesses, and the righteous. What excellent companions these are!” (al-Nisa’, 4:69).
The highest among these ranks is that of the prophets. They enjoy the support of divine power. They are like someone who is seeing something from a close range. Therefore, Allah Almighty puts a question to the disbelievers when they denied the Prophet’s teachings.
أَفَتُمَارُونَهُ عَلَىٰ مَا يَرَىٰ
“Do you dispute with him about what he saw?” (an-Najm, 53:12)
The station of prophethood is something which can never be acquired by effort and struggle, but there is something one still gets to have and that is the company of the prophets. Siddiqeen are those whose devotion to truth has reached a very high level. They are always upright and straightforward in their dealings. They support nothing but right and justice and do so with sincerity. They oppose whatever is contrary to truth, and do not waver in their opposition to falsehood. Shuhada’ are those who attest to the truth of their faith with their lives. They lay down their lives fighting for Allah. Through their sacrifice, they confirm that their confession of faith is backed by a deep genuine conviction of its truth, and that they value it above their own life. Saliheen are those whose belief and thinking, motives and intentions, words and deeds are based on righteousness. In short, the life of a person who is salih is oriented to righteousness. These are the four categories of people upon whom Allah bestowed His grace.
The other or negative side of looking at the qualification of the straight path is that it should not be the path of those who had incurred the anger of Allah or those who had gone astray. The misguided or wrongdoers fall into two categories: those who are well aware of the right path but will deliberately and willfully avoid it because of their bad motives and intentions, whatever they be. This is an enormous crime in the eyes of Allah. The second category is of those who are mistaken about the truth and have gone astray despite their sincerity. There is a consensus among the exegetes of the Qur’an (mufassirun) that the prototype of those who had incurred Allah’s wrath are the Jews. They had rejected the divine laws and created their own laws. The archetype of those who had gone astray are the Christians. While having sincere intentions, they have deviated from the right path. Some of them had monasticism and asceticism thrust upon themselves. They also adopted the false doctrine of trinity out of ignorance.
The ayah in question, however, is absolutely generic. Anyone who follows the path of the Jews and the Christians will meet the same fate as theirs. Perhaps in contemporary times, when we look at the state of the ummah, we may consider ourselves as among those who have incurred Allah's wrath. We have the preserved message and yet we do not take heed of it. May Allah guide us on the right path.
To conclude, it may be said that this surah is a prayer which Allah has taught to all those who want to make a study of His Book. It has been placed at the very beginning of the Book to teach this lesson to the reader: if you sincerely want to benefit from the Qur’an, you should offer this prayer to the Lord of the universe.
This preface is meant to create a strong desire in the heart of the reader to seek guidance from the Lord of the universe, who alone can grant it. Thus al-Fatiha indirectly teaches us that the best thing for a man is to pray for guidance to the straight path, to study the Qur’an with the mental attitude of a seeker after truth and to recognize the fact that the Lord of the universe is the source of all knowledge. He should therefore begin the study of the Qur’an with a prayer to Him for guidance.
From this theme, it becomes clear that the real relation between al-Fatiha and the Qur’an is not that of an introduction to a book but that of a prayer and its answer. Al-Fatiha is the prayer from the servant and the Qur’an is the answer from the Master to his prayer. The servant prays to Allah to show him guidance and the Master places the whole of the Qur’an before him in answer to his prayer, as if to say, “This is the guidance you begged from Me.”