THE OPENING CHAPTER (surah) takes the form of a short prayer, and serves as a précis or summary of the Holy Qur’an. It has other names, such as umm al-kitab – the ‘mother’ or ‘essence’ of the Book; al-shifa’ – ‘the healing’; and also al-sab‘ al-mathani – ‘the seven oft-repeated [verses]’. Revealed very early on in Makkah, the entire chapter, vv.1-7, makes-up a sort of confessional prayer. More than that, it shows us, in principle, God’s nature and the relationship God wishes humanity to have with Him.
The Fatihah may be seen to have three parts: the first part discloses something of Allah’s essential nature; the middle part concerns the relationship between God and humanity; while the last deals with the various states of human beings, both in their righteous and rebellious forms. Such is its significance, that the Prophet ﷺ once said to a companion of his: ‘I shall teach you the greatest chapter of the Qur’an before you exit the mosque.’ On leaving the mosque, the person asked what that chapter was. The Prophet ﷺ replied: ‘It is [the opening chapter]: All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, that are the Seven Oft-Repeated [Verses] and the Glorious Qur’an given to me.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.4720]
From the outset, the Qur’an establishes a link between worshiping God and knowing Him. The first half of the ‘Opening Chapter’ of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, states:
.الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ. الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ. مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ. إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The All-Merciful, the Compassionate. Master of the Day of Judgement. You alone we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. [Q.1:1-4]
The first three verses teach us who God is, so that hearts may love, hope, fear and be in awe of Him. Only then does God ask us to declare our singular devotion and worship of Him. It is as if the Qur’an is saying: ‘You cannot worship whom you don’t know.’
Thus in the first verse, Allah describes Himself as rabb – ‘Lord’. In the Quranic language, rabb is Master, Protector, Caretaker, Provider. And just as water descends from above as blessings and rises again to the skies as steam or vapour, so to the sending down of divine blessings and gifts; they are transformed into declarations of loving thanks and praise that ascend to the Lord of the Worlds. Reflecting on Allah’s care and kindness to us, as rabb; as Lord, then, nurtures an abiding sense of love for Allah in our hearts.
Allah then reveals that He, by His very nature, is al-rahman – the All-Merciful, and by dint of His divine act is al-rahim – the Compassionate. It has been said that al-rahman is like the blue sky: serene, vast and full of light; a canopy of protective care over us and over all things. The divine name, al-rahim is like warm rays, so to speak, touching, bathing and invigorating lives, places and events with this life-giving mercy. Those who flee from this joyous warmth, and opt to cover themselves from the light, choose to live in conditions of icy darkness. Knowing Allah is al-rahman, al-rahim, invites optimism; it instils hope (raja’) in Allah’s impulse to forgive, pardon, pity, overlook and, ultimately, to accept what little we offer Him as needy, fragile and imperfect creatures.
The Prophet ﷺ and his Companions once saw a woman frantically searching for a person among the warn-out and wounded. She then found a babe, her baby. She picked it up, huddled it to her chest and gave it to feed. On seeing this, the Prophet asked if such a woman could ever throw her baby into a fire or harms way? They all resoundingly replied, no; she could never do that; her maternal instincts of mercy would never permit it! The Prophet ﷺ went on to tell them: ‘Allah is more merciful to His creation than that mother is to her child.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5653]
The final name of Allah that we encounter in this surah is: Malik – Master, King, Owner of all. It is Allah as Master, as King of Judgement Day, who stands at the end of every path. All things come finally to Him to be judged, recompensed and given their final place for the beliefs that defined who they are, the deeds that defined what they stood for and the sins that stand in their way. To know Allah as Malik, therefore, is to be wary, as well as apprehensive. It is a reason for hearts to be filled with a certain sense of fear (khawf) as well as trepidation concerning the final reckoning and one’s ultimate fate.
The Prophet ﷺ once visited a young boy on his death bed, and asked him how he was. The boy replied: ‘O Messenger of Allah, I am between hoping in Allah and fearing for my sins.’ To which the Prophet ﷺ replied: ‘The like of these two qualities never unite in the heart of a servant except that Allah grants him what he hopes for and protects him from what he fears.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.983]
Only after being made aware of these four names of Allah which, in turn, instil in hearts a sense of love, fear and hope in Allah, are we led to stating: You alone do we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. In other words, the order to worship God comes after hearts have become familiar with Him – that He may truly and sincerely be the object of their reverence, worship and loving submission.
The surah concludes by teaching us to give voice to the universal hope, by asking to be guided to the Straight Path; the path of Allah’s people, and to help steer clear of the paths of misguidance and perdition:
اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ. صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ. غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ
Guide us to the Straight Path; the path of those whom You have favoured; not of those who incur wrath, nor of those who are astray. [Q.1:5-7]
The Straight Path is the straightest path for us in our context and condition, that leads to God’s good pleasure (rida). And just as He has guided us to the Straight Path of Islam, we ask that He keep guiding us in the Straight Path. This is the Path of those whom You have favoured; said in another verse to be the path of the Prophets, the saints, the martyrs and the righteous. They are the best of company. [Q.4:69]
Those who incur God’s anger are those who oppose God’s prophets, even after knowing the truthfulness of their call. As for those who are astray, they are those who, though well intended, are unenlightened by any true glimmer of authentic revelation or revealed law. Often, the first group is said to be those who know revealed truths, yet still oppose them: the latter, those who concoct their own ways to worship God, without revealed guidance. To the extent one imbibes the traits of this or that group, is the degree to which one incurs wrath or has strayed. Hence the need to continuously ask God for guidance.
Spiritual masters teach us that: When we recite: In the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Compassionate, that we must understand the affair is entirely with God, and that we can only accomplish good through His grace alone. When we say: All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds, we must realise that praise of Him involves both extolling Him for His utter beauty and perfection, as well as thanking Him for his bounties and blessings. When we recite: The All-Merciful, the Compassionate, we must recall in our heart just how much He has showered us with worldly bounties and spiritual openings, and that His care for us must nurture immense hope in us. By contrast, the heart, when it recites: Master of the Day of Judgement, must have a sense of fear and awe of God, which spurs us on to make amends for sins unrepented. We must renew our sincerity when we recite: You alone we worship; and renew our neediness and sheer dependency upon God, when we recite: and Your help alone do we seek.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.