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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part3: The Opening - My Explanation



By Ziauddin Sardar


To Muslims this is known as 'the Mother of the book' because it sums up the essence of all the teachings of the Qur'an


January 14, 2008


The Fatiha is the first chapter of the Qur'an, "the Opening". Prayer is, as a friend of mine rather beautifully describes it, "remembrance of God's word within us", and the most remembered of God's words are the Fatiha because it's recited a number of times in each of the five daily prayers offered by Muslims. In addition to these prayer times, Fatiha may be said on any number of occasions, or privately in any variety of circumstances. To Muslims it is known as "the Mother of the book" not because it's first or most remembered, but because it sums up the essence of all the teachings of the Qur'an.

There is a lovely Jewish saying: "From your mouth to God's ear." All Muslims would accept this as an explanation of prayer as supplication; it is what we'd call doa. But our understanding of the purpose and meaning of prayer actually puts things the other way round: from God's mouth - that is the words of the Qur'an - to our consciousness. The content of the Fatiha explains why.

So, Madeleine, (See her comment below) from the very beginning, you have to approach Islam and Muslim thought in its own terms. Comparing and contrasting, asking "why isn't the answer to a familiar Christian conundrum mentioned?" won't help and usually hinders. In these blogs I explore how and what Islam says of itself and, as a consequence, how Muslims reason and react. Appreciating the common values and shared themes of different religions really should come later, after an open and honest encounter with how a faith explains itself.

The Fatiha begins: "In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate." The phrase has entered the everyday language of Muslims. It states two essential points: God is author of the Qur'an, its words are God's self-revelation to humanity, explaining his nature as well as how we humans came to be, how we should live and what will become of us. And then, what God most wants us to know and understand of his nature: mercy and compassion.

Allah, the Islamic term for God, who speaks through the Qur'an, is infinite and unique; as it says elsewhere, "no vision can grasp Him" (6:103). We cannot conceive of God by thinking in human terms. Though I say "his", in fact Allah is beyond gender. The limitations of human languages and ways of thinking, especially in translation from Arabic, lead to the use of "he", it could just as easily be "she". And in the Qur'an, Allah speaks sometimes in the first person singular ("I"), sometimes in the first person plural ("we"), and sometimes in the third person singular ("he").

We come to know God through what God tells us of his nature and attributes. Rahman and Rahim, the most frequently referred-to attributes of mercy and compassion, come from the same root word. Rahman has feminine connotations. It has the meaning of a womb as well as kinship, relationship, loving-kindness, mercy and nourishing-tenderness. God is overflowing with love and mercy from which all creation comes and in which all creation shares no matter who or what we are: believers or not, Muslims or followers of other faiths, or of no faith, good or bad. God makes no distinctions; and is ever ready to forgive!

Rahim has an active connotation: this is the beneficence that has to be earned through good deeds, the reward based on judgment of how we lived. The good and bad may benefit equally from the fact that God is Rahman; but the fact he is also Rahim means his future beneficence is a function of his justice. Unjust deeds, such as tyranny or undue exploitation of natural resources, have consequences both in future time on earth and in the hereafter.

Religion begins by appreciating the awe and wonder of the infinite and its consequence is a sense of humility and veneration. But how can we, the finite, appropriately praise and honour the infinite? Answer: in the words of the infinite himself. This whole Surah is God teaching humanity how to praise him.

God is the "Lord of the worlds". Some scholars translate the word for "worlds" - alamin - as Universe. I prefer the common translation "worlds" because it emphasises the plurality of creation. God's creation comes in different forms - not just the conventional Muslim division of humans, angels and jinn, but also different races, cultures, religions and worldviews. This emphasis on plurality, that human diversity is an intentional and purposeful part of God's creation, is central to the message of the Qur'an.

Different peoples think and do things differently. But all will have to account for their conduct on the Day of Judgment, when God will not be concealed, and it will be evident to all that God is absolute master of all things. There will be a day when all different worlds will return to their source, the forgiving and just Lord, to receive their individual share of reward and punishment. In life and death we rely on God's mercy: the secure handhold that never breaks (2:256). We can never presume to know the result of God's merciful judgment yet, equally, we should never despair of his mercy and forgiveness.

If what we repeat most frequently of God's nature is mercy and compassion, surely these are the qualities we should try hardest to emulate in all aspects of our lives, from relations with other people to the world in which we live. Yet, when I look around the Muslim world, I find mercy and compassion conspicuous by their absence. Clearly just repeating the words of prayer is no substitute for listening to them and thinking about their meaning.




How Should I Read The Opening?

While some of this feels familiar I find it quite impenetrable, so am calling on Zia's help

January 14, 2008

Al-Fatiha is the entire contents of the Qur'an, summarised in a few verses. But I find it pretty impenetrable, so you'll have help me Zia. I'm intrigued that mercy is mentioned no less than four times in the first three verses and that the notes on my translation say that the Arabic for "giver" ("Rahim") is a powerful concept about how it is inherent to God's nature to give mercy. But there's a nagging question, which is given that God is so far beyond us, how can we know what is inherent in his/her nature? I suppose it's that age-old question of how can we know God.

I have to confess that I find the emphasis on mercy hard to square with the reference to God as master of the Day of Judgment. Doesn't this combination of mercy and judgment set up the believer for a kind of fearful anxiousness, a need to placate God? Some of this feels very familiar - a reminder of the common root of the three monotheistic faiths: there is a call to praise God and worship him. Do we get explanations later as to how you do either?

A few more thoughts: is there more than one world? What's the cosmology here? And is there any significance to be read into the opening words, "In the name ...” What's in a name?