Note: The Qur’an can be divided into thirty equal parts. One part takes only twenty-four reading minutes, and the whole Book requires 12 reading hours. There are 114 chapters, and 6,236 Arabic verses (Abu ‘Amr Al-Dani in his book Al-Bayan), containing 77,439 Arabic words (reported by Al-Fadl bin Shadhan) made up of 371,180 Arabic letters (Abdullah b. Kathir reporting Mujahid, although there are different accounts). By contrast the King James Version of the Christian Bible (OT and NT) has 783,137 words and 3,566,480 letters. Muslims believe the Quran in Arabic is the actual Word of God given to Muhammad through a series of revelations from 610-632 C.E. and not written down as a “book” until after Muhammad died.

Given the general ignorance in American society of Islam, especially the theology based on the teachings in the Quran, it is important to go back to the beginning, the essence, the opening, the words that are by definition significant to all Muslims. This eloquent key is the opening (fatiha) of the text, a set of verses as repeated by Muslims daily as the Lord’s Prayer is by Christians.

“In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”

For the Muslim all things begin in the name of God, Allah in Arabic. The prophet Muhammad urged his followers to say this phrase at the start of any activity, such as the beginning of a meal, the start of a trip, or even a lecture. The essence of God’s name, literally the first two words in the Quran, is summed up by the 99 beautiful names (asma’ al-husna) which define the various attributes of God. Yet of all these attributes, the two most structurally significant are the two recited here. God is rahman (Compassionate) and God is rahim (Merciful). The first refers to God’s all-embracing beneficence, what God gives to humanity out of love and affection despite human foibles; the second refers to the divine mercy that flows after the appropriate human submission, effort and prayer. To recite this phrase is to remind yourself that God has mercy, no matter how bad you are or how good you appear to be in others’ eyes. This reminds us that the ultimate message of the Quran is moral; as a revelation it’s like a deep personal letter written from a concerned parent to a child. Unlike the Torah or Christian Bible as a whole, this book does not yield a stringent legal code, nor does it create a sacred history of the world, nor does it record in boring meticulousness the genealogical links that justify past and future prophets. It is quite simply a message to get with it from a God whose main attribute is mercy.

1. Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds
2. The Compassionate, the Merciful

If there is a phrase in Arabic as frequently used as the bismillah (in the name of God) it is no doubt the hamdillah (praise, literally “thanks” be to God). Since God is perfect, God alone has the right to receive praise from humanity. God deserves this verbal praise because this mercy comes of his own volition; it was not forced, it was freely given. We are also reminded in these opening words that God rules; he is the Lord (rabb) of the worlds that be. The word rabb in Arabic has a number of related connotations, including master or lord, chief, determiner, provider, sustainer, rewarder, and perfector. These worlds, perhaps better rendered straightforwardly as the universe, encompass the material and the immaterial, of flesh-and-blood and of spirits, of those who are well guided and those who are misguided. Whatever is, God is the ultimate master of it. While a non-believer might read this as a base for fatalism, a Muslim sees it differently as a fundamental reason for hope. God’s will will be done, but this hardly frees the believer from doing his or her part, particularly when no one can speak definitively as to what God’s will is in a given matter. The literal meaning of “Islam”, after all, is submission.

3. Master of the Day of Judgment

The term malik is that which is used in Arabic for the master of a slave, the owner of property, and the king or sole ruler. For the Muslim, God is the ultimate master of all things. He is not just a judge dispensing justice; God renders reward and punishment (the implication of judgment day) because He alone is the authentic source for such judgment. Who else has this kind of authority, but the one who creates everything and sustains everything? We are reminded quite literally as well that Islam preaches a final judgment, one beyond the grave, a future resurrection of the dead — an idea hardly unique to this revelation. But the Muslim is consoled by the realization that no matter how bad things are (and in many Muslim countries, things are pretty bad right now), God will be the ultimate judge.

4. You alone we worship, and to you alone we pray for help

Muhammad was the messenger of a strict monotheism: there could be only one all-knowing, all-powerful God — Allah in Arabic. Not surprisingly Muslims find the Christian notion of trinity — that God could be divided into three divine persons — as heresy. It is one of those interesting ironies of history that some of the major arguments used by medieval Christian scholars for the oneness of God are borrowed from Islamic theology. For example, analysis of the work of the Baghdadi scholar Ibn `Aqil (died 1119 AD) shows the direct influence of medieval Muslim methods of disputation on the “scholastic method” of St. Aquinas.

Like the other kindred monotheisms, the God of Islam is a jealous God. Islam does not tolerate any sort of worship we might define as “pagan.” Jews and Christians, as well as Mazdeans from Iran — the so-called “people of the book” — were allowed to continue their religions because Muhammad preached that they worshipped the same God, although, given the new revelation of the Quran, in error. A jealous but merciful God could accept an inept believer, but not a non-believer. Hence, Muslims are rather uncomfortable with any worldview which admits the possibility that no God exists. The issue of this kind of doubt, which is the hallmark of secularism in the West, has not arisen to a recognizable form in Islamic tradition.

One of the central forms of worship in Islam is prayer, not the pray-when-you-have-a-need variety but rather a discipline of five daily prayers (even if these appear to inconvenience the worshipper), communal Friday prayers, and a variety of directed prayers for ritual occasions. For the Western observer, it is perhaps the physical exercise of prayer which most sets Muslims apart. They not only submit in spirit, but also prostrate their bodies in unison as a daily public demonstration of their faith. It is no surprise then that televised sound bites on Islam invariably show a scene of such prayer — a none too subtle semiotic message that Muslims worship blindly in a mass submission as opposed to the rigid individualism of Western religious expression in a secularized framework. What is not seen — because it cannot be properly shown in the media — is that most Muslim prayer and indeed most recitations of the fatiha occur in private, the individual alone approaching his God.

5 Guide us to the straight path.
6. The path of those whom you have favoured
7. Not of those who have incurred your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray.

To reach God the Muslim must find the right path, as shown to the prophet Muhammad and revealed through the revelation in the Quran. In the spiritual journey metaphor as mentioned in the Christian Gospel of St. Matthew the road to destruction is broad and entered through a wide gate, while the way to eternal life is contrasted as narrow and less used. The implication in this Christian reading is that most people seek the main street, where the crowds go, a not surprising travel itinerary for a religion which starts with original sin. In Islam, by contrast, sin is not the same black mark on Adam’s progeny. For the Muslim, the straight path is the clearly marked trail, without detours and confusing curves, the road which is known to go to a certain destination. The start of this straight path is, as the commentator Ibn Kathir notes, the Quran itself. The path is the truth. The goal is to get to and stay on the right path and not be led astray through the willful intent of others nor by accident. The wiles of the Devil notwithstanding, this goal is not outside human reach. God certainly helps believers help themselves, but believers are not clones manipulated by the divine spirit. There is a clearly marked road to follow.

Daniel Martin Varisco

[Tabsir Redux is a reposting of earlier posts on the blog, since memories are fickle and some things deserve a second viewing. This post was originally made March 13, 2008]