God, I exalt your beautiful names. I beseech you to bless the Prophet Muhammad, the upholder of the brightest station, the companion of the one who went near you to an arm’s length or even more. I beseech you, O our Lord, to purify and separate us from the threatening evil thoughts, bless us of the interminable treasure of your dhikr.
This is the tafsīr of the verse bismillāh. This is the first component of the main part of the book Niẓām al-Qur’ān. It follows the short introductions (comprising the principles of interpretation and the related issues), which I have appended with it as helpful discussions to the tafsīr. I have dealt separately with the commentary of the great verse because I have leant that:
1. This verse covers great points of knowledge
2. God has made it the crown of all the sūrahsin the Book (except Sūrah 9)
3. Commenting on it at every occasion would cause repetition.
4. If I deal with it in Sūrah al-Fātiḥah and leave it at other places, it would mean that I prefer its occurrence here over others without solid ground.
Whether bismillāh forms part of Sūrah Fātiḥah or all the sūrahs is a disputed question among the scholars. I believe the truth perhaps lies with those who do not consider it to have different roles in different sūrahs. To them its status in all instances of its occurrence is the same no matter whether one considers it the part of the sūrahs themselves or simply an independent opening formula. Thus, it should be considered a principle statement before every sūrah. Had it not been part of the Qur’ān, we would have dealt with it separately like the other premises since I have, as a general rule, dealt with the principles first. They stand apart from the main work. We can refer to them as need during our discussions. This way we can avoid not only dealing with the same issue repeatedly but also unnecessary break in the flow of discussion.
This verse is reported to have been used, as far as its meanings are concerned, since ancient times. The Prophet Solomon started his letter to the Queen of Sheba with the words: “This is from Solomon and this starts with the name of God, the Compassionate, the ever-Merciful.” The Zoroastrian Avestae also contains a similar statement. However, this book is not considered genuine and all the scholars acknowledge its lack of authenticity. Not all Zoroastrians believe in it.
Though many verses of similar meaning were sent by God before the Qur’ān was revealed, the Qur’ān still possesses its most cogent delivery and expression, as we shall see in the explanation of the sūrah.
I believe that the verse forms part of Sūrah Fātiḥah and is an opening to all the other sūrahs of the Qur’ān. The basis of my view is the following. The security in which revelation of the Qur’ān took place is important to consider. The sūrah was revealed and secured just like the rest of the Qur’ān. I also refer to the fact that the theme expressed by the verse is appropriate for the beginning of a discourse. The explanation of the verse that I am going to offer will also prove my view. In addition, many ḥadīths indicate that it is an actual verse of Sūrah Fātiḥah and thus it is an integral part of the sūrah.
The letter ب (ba) of bismi, in this placement, expresses grandeur (‘aẓmah), blessing (barkah), and authority (sanad). The whole verse is not an informative statement (khabar). It rather functions as an invocation like the phrase al-ḥamdu lillāh (all gratitude is due to God alone) as you shall soon discover.
First of all, God Almighty commanded the Prophet thus: “Read in the name of your Lord who created.” (96:1) God made the ṣalāh (the ritual prayer) the foundation of the religion. He made His name the foundation of the ṣalāh as is clear from the following verses: “And he remembered the name of God and offered the ṣalāh” (87:15) and “so remember the name of your Lord and offer prayer to him with full devotion (tabattal ilayhi).” (73:8)
The expression tabattal ilayhi in the second verse above means “offer prayer to Him” as shall be explained in the light of the context of the verse. A name of a thing or person connects us to the person/thing it signifies. Thus remembering God’s name is remembering God Himself. Remembering God is the foundation of ṣalāh. Therefore remembering God, which is the essence of ṣalāh, has been preserved even when it is not possible for the believer to offer the ṣalāh in actual ritual form. God has commanded the believers to offer the prayer in its original form as soon they come out of the difficult situation. This proves that it is the original ritual form that is required. The Almighty says: “If you are in danger, offer your prayers on foot or while riding as may be possible for you; but when you are safe, remember God (ie. offer your prayers) in the manner that He has taught you and in which you did not used to know (ie. the original form of the ṣalāh),” (2:239) God issued a similar warning to Moses in the first encounter. He said: “Verily, I am Allāh; there is no god but Me, so worship me alone and observe Prayer for my remembrance,” (20:14). At another place, God says: “As for those who hold fast by the book and establish regular prayer […],” (7:170)
Just as God made the isti‘ādhaha refuge from onslaught of Satan, he has also made His name a shield from the danger of forgetfulness which, too, is a weapon of Satan. This has been alluded to in the statement that follows a command of God to exalt His name: “We shall recite to you and you shall not forget,”(87:6)
A man finds the name of God a source of satisfaction for the heart. It beautifully suits the beginning of the Qur’ān. God says: “Verily in the remembrance of Allāh do hearts find satisfaction,” (13:28). Thus, it should be noted that remembering the name of Allāh is the foundation of the religion. It is this theme that was revealed first. The Prophet (sws) was commanded to remember the name of Allāh (refer to the first five verses of Sūrah al-‘Alaq).
The phrase bismillāh is an expression of the recognition of God’s favors. It also acknowledges that all power belongs to God alone. It is as though we acknowledge that God’s blessings granted to us were not an entitlement. We have been granted this because of the blessings of Allāh’s attributes, al-raḥīm (compassionate) and al-raḥmān (ever-merciful). This theme can be seen in many verses of the Torah. This phrase also contains the theme of an important confession: that one does not possess any power except for what God has granted him. Hence God’s command to the Prophet (sws) in the earliest revelation was to remember His name. We know that God’s name was the first thing revealed to Moses on the occasion when he received the tablets on Mount Ṭūr. It has been stated in Exodus:
And the Lord came down in the cloud. He took His place there beside him. He announced the name Jehovah. Then the Lord passed in front of him and called aloud, “Jehovah”, the Lord, the Compassionate and Ever-Merciful, Patient, Loyal, True, maintaining constancy to thousands, forgiving inequity, rebellion, and sin, and not sweeping the guilty clean away, one who punishes sons and grandsons to the third and fourth generation for the inequity of their fathers! Moses made haste, prostrated himself on the ground and prayed. (Exodus 34:5-7)
I have only presented these facts in order to help you appreciate the high status of the verse bismillāh and also its position in ṣalāh. The Holy Qur’ān has also explained it while discussing the circumstances of Moses when it says:
The above discussion guides you to the correct interpretation of Sūrah al-‘Alaq and sabbiḥ isma rabbik. Both these sūrahs have identical contents in common with the book of Moses. I shall deal with this issue under my commentary on these two sūrahs. The discussion on Sūrah Fātiḥah also contains more relevant material as you shall find. So this (bismi, in the name of) expresses barakah (blessing) and ‘aẓmah (grandeur).
The authority signified by the phrase bismi explains another aspect of the fundamental Qur’ānic themes. The book is an epitome of brief allusions. The divine words “bismillāh al-raḥmān al-raḥīm” indicate that this discourse was revealed from none other than God. This is a fulfillment of the promise contained in the fifth book revealed to Moses:
I will raise up for them a prophet like you, one of their own race, and I will put my words into his mouth. He shall convey all my commands to them, and if anyone does not listen to the words which he will speak in my name I will hold him into account. (Deuteronomy 18:18-9)
This promise was fulfilled. Those who did not believe in the Prophet (sws) who had brought this promised discourse were held accountable by God. The rejecters of the last revelation were punished. They had no right to reject the Book of Muḥammad since the first revelation he received perfectly fulfilled this prophecy. The first revelation to the Prophet Muḥammad (sws) read, “Read in the name of your Lord who created.”(96:1) Then the Almighty supplemented it (this signification of the expression bismi) by two of His attributes, al-raḥmān and al-raḥīm.
The Jews had lost this beautiful name of God. Consequently their Lord manifested His harsher attributes on them. He put the Messenger sent to them in the guise of hardness and fear corresponding to the hardness of their hearts. He issued them strict commandments as a result of their rebellious attitude. This has been attested in the following verse of Sūrah An‘ām:
Unto the Jews we forbade every animal with claws, and we forbade them the fat of the oxen and the sheep save that upon the backs or the entrails, or that which is mixed with the bone. Thus we recompensed them for their rebellion. (6:146)
This is acknowledged by the Jewish philosopher Spinoza. He says:
We say that their Lord was angry with them. Not from the day they established their city, as the Prophet Jeremiah says, but from the day He gave them His commandments. This is attested by the Prophet Ezekiel: “I imposed on them statutes that were not pleasant statutes, and laws which they did not follow.” (Ezekiel, 25:20)
This issue has been discussed in detail in the commentary on Sūrah An‘ām.
If you ponder over this issue you will realize that such a religion cannot be universal. The al-raḥmān (the Compassionate God) does not leave His servants in hardship and difficulties. He has given us the following glad tidings contained in Sūrah A‘rāf addressed to Moses: “I smite with My punishment whom I will, and My mercy embraces all things, therefore, I shall ordain it (my mercy) for those who fear (God) and pay the zakāh, and those who believe in Our signs – those who follow the Messenger, the ummī (the unlettered) Prophet, whom they find described in the Torah and the Gospel that are with them.” (7:156)
The same theme has been repeated in Sūrah Banī Isrā’īl: “It may be that your Lord will have mercy on you. If you returned We shall turn.” (17:8)
Thus we see that they deserved the punishment, for they worshipped the calf while their Lord had just turned to them mercifully. They seemed like a woman who betrayed her husband on the first night of their marriage. Their Lord postponed His mercy for them till the call of a new prophet. At the advent of this new prophet, the Lord revealed His attribute of mercy. The one referred to here is indeed the Prophet of Islam. This is because he manifests the promised attributes of mercy. The Almighty says: “And we have sent you only as a mercy to the worlds,” (21:107); and also “[He is] full of concern for you, for the believers he is full of pity [and] merciful,” (9:128). Similarly, the Companions of the Prophet have been given the following epithet: “[Those with him are] hard on the disbelievers and merciful among themselves,” (48:29).
Meaning of Allāh (Name of God): the Greatest Sign of the True Religion of God
The article al (alif and lām) in this place gives the meaning of specificness (ta‘rīf). None except the only true God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and all living creatures, can be called by this name. This meaning of the word was well known and established among the Arabs of the pre-Islamic era. In spite of professing polytheistic beliefs, they never considered any of their deities as equal to God in status. They acknowledged that God alone was the creator of the heavens and the earth. They worshipped other deities whom they held as intermediaries between humans and God. They believed that their deities would intercede with God for them. This has been attested to by God in the Holy Qur’ān. The Almighty says: “They say: ‘these are our intercessors with God,’” (10:18); and “We worship them only that they may bring us near unto Allāh,” (39:3); and yet again, “And if you asked them who created the heavens and the earth, and who pressed into service the sun and the moon, they would respond: ‘Allāh’. Whence do then they deviate? Allāh grants abundantly whom he will of His servants, and straitens it for whom He will. Allāh is aware of all things. And if you asked them who causes water to come down from the sky, and with it revives the earth after it is dead? They verily would say: ‘Allāh’. Say: ‘Praise be to Allāh!’ But most of them do not understand.” (29:61-3)
Some Christian scholars believe that the word Allāh is derived from the Hebrew word īl which occurs in many Hebrew compound names like isrā’īl (servant of God), ismā‘īl (God heard), ‘amānawīl (God is with us). These scholars believe that this word īl is a derivation of the word ba‘l. The word ba‘l, they believe, is one of the names once given to the sun. This is clearly a wrong assumption. This view is held only by those who contest faith in prophecy and subscribe to the view that the religion of the Hebrew people developed from the idolaters.
The correct view in this regard is that, in the Hebrew language, the roots of words were originally composed of three letters, one of which was generally dropped from the three letters of the stem. On the basis of this linguistic reality, the Hebrew linguists reach the correct view regarding a Hebrew word in light of its usage in the Arabic; for the latter is the most perfect Semitic language. It is nearer to or is actually the original source of these languages, as the scholars of the Semitic languages have come to hold. Some Christian orientalists also recognize this fact. The Torah has retained the middle letter of this word. We see that the Torah starts with the word Elohim and the word frequently occurs in the book.
Allāh, as the name of God, in fact is one of the prominent themes of the true religion of God which the Arabs had inherited and preserved. The Jews and the Christians, however, lost this name. This is why in their literature and language there is no specific name for the Almighty Allāh. They use the word Allāh for beings other than God. In their literature it stands for a leader of a people. The word has been used in this sense in the Psalms:
God (Allāh) takes his stand in the party of God (Allāh). He delivers judgment among the gods. How long will you judge unjustly and show favour to the wicked? (Psalms, 82:1-2)
The word they have rendered as Allāh is Elohim in the original text. In Hebrew it is used both as a singular as well as a plural noun. They added the particle ‘aym’ to a word to signify plurality as well as reverence. So the divine statement: “in the party of Allāh” originally means “in the party of gods”. This is clear from the sentence at the end of this paragraph. Putting a second sentence similar to the one preceding it is a common Hebrew style. Thus the meaning of the verse would be as follows: Allāh Almighty stands in the party of judges. In the centre of the party He passes judgment. How long then will you judge unjustly and show favour to the wicked?
The Holy Qur’ān frequently removes misunderstandings of the Jews and the Christians. It has also clarified this meaning of the word. The Almighty says: “Do you not see that God knows what the heavens and the earth contain? If three men secretly converse, He is their fourth; if five, He is their sixth; whether fewer or more, wherever they be, He is with them. Then, on the Day of Judgment, He will inform them of their deeds. God knows everything.” (58:7)
You can observe how the Jewish and the Christian scholars have failed to differentiate between God and ordinary human judges (while treating the above mentioned verses of the Psalms). They used the same word for both the entities. A similar kind of error has been committed by these scholars in their understanding of Exodus:
And he (Aaron) will do all the speaking to the people for you, he will be the mouthpiece, and you will be the god (ilāh) for him. (Exodus, 4:16)
A similar example is found in Exodus:
The Lord said to Moses, “See now, I have made you like a god (ilāh) for Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your representative.” (Exodus, 7:1)
The implication is that “I have made you the leader. Aaron shall be your representative to him. He shall talk to him on your behalf”. Another similar example is found in Genesis:
So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him there till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not throw Jacob, he struck him in the hollow of his thigh, so that Jacob’s hip was dislocated as they wrestled. The man said, “Let me go, for day is breaking”, but Jacob replied, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said to Jacob, “What is your name?”, and he answered, “Jacob”. The man said, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel because you strove with God (Allāh) and with men, and prevailed.” Jacob said, “Tell me, I pray, your name.” He replied, “Why do you ask my name?”, but he gave him his blessing there. Jacob called the place, Fanī’īl (Peniel), “because”, he said, “I have seen God (Allāh) face to face and my life is spared.” (Genesis, 33:25-30)
This is a strange and enigmatic story. The Jewish scholars have not found a way to explain its absurdities. All the problems have resulted from their use of the word “Allāh” and “īl” where they should have used the words “jabbār” (mighty/giant) and “ifrīt” (afreet/fiend). We see that they do not attach an extraordinary status to the name of Allāh. They use it as a synonym for the words leader, head, mighty and powerful. They use it to signify a powerful and mighty entity. They have used another word, Yahweh, specifically for the Almighty Allāh. They are, however, not clear on the correct root and pronunciation of the word. This makes it impossible for them to pronounce it. Exodus reads:
Then God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the Lord, I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as God who has power over everything. But I did not let myself be known to them by my name Jehovah.” (Exodus, 6:2-3)
The Jews, therefore, attached great reverence to this name since it was the name by which the Almighty introduced himself to Moses to the exclusion of other prophets. They consider it the most magnificent of all names of the Almighty. They supposed that it was not proper for them to pronounce this name of God. However, the leader of the tribe could utter this name once a year. It was not allowable for the commoner to pronounce this name. They also removed the vowel sounds of this word. This is why the true pronunciation was lost to them. Whenever they reached a place where this name was mentioned, they would leave it unuttered because of the ignorance of its correct pronunciation. They adopted a deviation in this regard. They would instead utter the word “اودنيم”. This is a point of great warning. They have not only lost the book of God, but also the name of the Almighty Allāh. This closed for them the way to invite others to what they themselves lost. Thus, the following saying of the Almighty Allāh is fully applicable to them: “When they went astray, God led their very hearts astray.” (61:5)
. The formula “I seek refuge of God from the accursed Satan.”
. The discussion has been left unfinished. Perhaps the author intended to refer to the following verse of Sūrah Ṭāhā: “I am Allāh, There is no god Allāh save me. So serve me and offer ṣalāh for my remembrance.” (20:14)
. The discussion here has been left unattended.
. The author has not provided full reference to the text of Spinoza he quoted. Perhaps he has some Arabic commentary before him. (Translator)
. For detail consult the work of the author Mufradat al-Qur’ān.