5. Understanding the first sura: Al-Fatiha, the key to the Qur’an1
Let us see why this first sura, The Opening, containing only seven verses is the key to the Qur’an. The first verse is usually translated as:
(1:1) In the name of Allah, the Beneficent (Rahman), the Merciful (Raheem).
It begins with the name of Allah, Who is One and Unique. Here we cannot use God for Allah, as the word God means different things to different faiths (see chapter 2 for the Qur’anic use of the word Allah). In the above verse Allah is followed by two principal attributes: Rahman and Raheem. The word RahmanA5 in Arabic implies giver of benefits which are freely given such as air, water, energy from the sun in the form of heat and light without which sustenance is impossible; and the word RaheemA5 implies the bestower of mercy or benefits which can only be acquired by hard work and good deeds. Simply praying for Allah’s mercy will not give these benefits.
The translation of the second verse is as follows:
(1:2) Praise (hamd) be to Allah, the Sustainer (Rabb) of the whole universe (alamin).
The word Hamd means ‘absolute praise’ and ‘absolute feeling of amazement’, all directed towards Allah. Praise usually involves spontaneous appreciation of something which can be perceived through our senses. As far as Allah is concerned we can only appreciate the feeling of hamd by reflecting on the marvels of His Creation. The word rabb cannot be translated as Lord as this word does not convey the full concept. It should be translated as the Nourisher and the Sustainer. Thus the real translation should be:
“Absolute praise, absolute feeling of amazement all directed towards Allah, who is the Nourisher and Sustainer of the entire Universe.”
(1:3) The Beneficent (Rahman), the Merciful (Raheem).
The third verse is a repetition of part of the first verse, reminding us once again, of the glorification of the two very important attributes of Allah. In fact it is one of the characteristics of the Qur’an to repeat and reinforce our understanding so that we do not forget.
The usual translation of the fourth verse is: (please see also the corresponding explanation below)
(1:4) Lord (Malek) of the Day of Judgement (Youmed-deen).
Malek, ‘the Sovereign’, ‘the Authority’, ‘the One Who is in control of all things’, and Youmed-deen, ‘the age of the Deen’, ‘that age in which no power or individual will be able to oppress another human being’.
The fifth verse is translated as:
(1:5) Thee alone we obey; Thee alone we ask for help. “Only You we obey and are subservient to You, and it is only You we return for help”.
Obedience to Allah in reality means compliance with the laws contained in the Qur’an. It also implies that no one can intercede with Allah on our behalf, as it is to Him alone that we turn for help. When one utters this Ayat, he or she promises Allah that he or she will obey only Allah and ask for help from Him alone — no ‘pir’ or ‘faqir’ (see chapter 9) is to be invoked after this commitment to Allah. After this commitment asking for help from others than Allah becomes Shirk (i.e. associating partners with Allah) which is strictly forbidden in Islam.
The sixth verse is as follows:
(1:6) Guide us on the straight path
The ‘straight path’ (sira-tul-musta-qeem) is given in the Qur’an but treading on the right path or following Allah’s guidance will require our own effort, as well as Allah’s help and blessing.
The last verse is usually translated as:
(1:7) The path of those Thou hast favoured; not (the path) of those who earn Thy anger, nor of those who go astray.
We are anxious that at the end of the journey we should find favour with Allah. We earnestly hope that the path we tread should prove to be the path trodden by those on whom He hast bestowed His favours, those who have not incurred His displeasure, and those who have not gone astray.
This sura forms the principal part of our prayer as it contains all the main components of prayer, i.e. to praise and thank Allah and to plead for His Mercy. For this reason the sura is also recited on many other occasions, as our supplication to the Almighty.
It is important to remember that this sura gives a number of key words like Allah, rabb, rahman, raheem, deen etc. the implications of which need to be clearly understood individually as well as in the context of the verses themselves. The sura Fatiha is taken as the key to the Qur’an which opens up the whole of Allah’s Deen and guidance in the rest of the Book. We must study this Book carefully and with an open mind. We must not be biased by our own opinion or by what others say. We must concentrate on what Allah has to say, and we will find that the Book will reveal itself to us as Allah Himself has promised. Like all worthwhile tasks it will be a slow process, but we can win by patience and perseverance; and of course with Allah’s help — as the first sura signifies most accurately.
- Tafseer Al-Qur’an Bil Qur’an (Explanation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an): Lecture by Syed Mustafa Ali. Section based on the introductory part of the lecture.