Importance of Surah al-Fatiha

By Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

November 11th being the birth anniversary of Maulan Azad, present a chapter from his monumental work, Tarjuman-ul-Quran

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The Surat-ul-Fatiha is the first chapter of the Quran and is for that reason styled Fatihatul Kitab or the opening of the book. Because of its intrinsic value, it has been assigned a place of honour in the Quran and allowed to appear on the very first page of it. Indeed, the Quran endorses its importance in the following terms:

“O Prophet! It is a fact that We have given thee seven oft-repeated verses and the great Quran.” (14:87)

It has been established by Hadith and Athar that the reference here is to this chapter; for, it not only consists of seven verses but is repeatedly recited in daily worship. It is also called Sab’a al-mathani, (the Oft-repeated Seven). The same sources give it further names — ’Umm-ul-Quran (the Core of the Quran), Al-Kafia (the Sufficient), Al-Kanz (the Treasure House) and Asasul-Quran (the Basis of the Quran), each emphasizing a particular aspect of its importance.

Maulana Azad by MF Hussain

In Arabic, the term ’Umm applies to concepts and objects which, in one form or another, bear inclusive connotation, or by virtue of which, assume the role of genitives. It is why the central part of the human head is called ’Umm-ul-Raas, because it is the seat of the brains. The flag of an army is called ‘Umm, because the army gathers round it. Mecca was known as ’Umm-ul-Qura, for, consequent upon the location of the Kaba therein and the association therewith of the institution of Hajj, it had grown into a place of assemblage for the people of Arabia. So, to style this chapter as ‘Umm-ul-Quran is to acknowledge that in this tense comprehensiveness, it concentrates within its ambit the thought content of the entire Quran, and that, on that account, it rightly deserves the place of honour among its chapters.

Looking into the character of the contents of this chapter, it becomes apparent that the rest of the Quran is but a detailed commentary of the concentrated substance that it contains, or that it gives out in an epitomized form the fundamental objectives of the Faith so elaborately expatiated upon in the rest of the Quran. If a person were to read nothing but this form out of the Quran and grasp its meaning, he could understand all the essentials of the Faith which form the subject of detailed exposition by the Quran. Further, when it is borne in mind that the form given to this chapter is one of invocation and that it is to be an integral part of a Muslim’s daily prayer, not only the importance of the chapter is reinforced, but the fact emphasized that a deep purpose underlay the provision of a concentrated version of the Quran clenched to the full form of it. The purpose clearly was to make available to every one an easily intelligible brief version of the Quran such as might freely be recited in his daily prayers. It was intended to bring to mind every day the substance of his beliefs, or his spiritual ideology, as well as, his programme of righteous living. Hence, a knowledge of the contents of this chapter is regarded as indispensable to a Muslim. According to Bukhari and Muslims, the Islamic form of prayer is incomplete without a recitation of it.

Before we proceed further, the question may bas well be posed: What are the essential objectives of the Quran, and in what manner are they reflected in this chapter since it has to function as epitome of it? These may be briefly be stated. In the first place, the Quran aims to present the attributes of God in proper perspective, for, it is in his approach to them that man often blundered. In the second place, it lays emphasis on the principle of causation in life so as to suggest that, even as in nature, every cause has its effect in the domain of human life, both individual and collective; so much so, that a good action produces a good result and an evil action an evil result. In the third place it aims to inculcate in man a belief in the life hereafter, by pointing out that man’s life does not end with his earthly existence, but that there is a life to follow, where one has to account for his life on earth and where the effect of past deeds become manifest, as a matter of course. And lastly, it points the way to righteous or good life.

These objectives are all summed up in the Surat-ul-Fatiha. The chapter, be it noted, consists of just a few words easily counted. But they are so aptly chosen that they seem invested with striking significance. They are so simple in form. There is nothing complicated about them; nor do they confuse. The fact is that whatever is true to life is always easily comprehended. Look at nature. Nowhere does it appear elusive. Elusiveness is produced by artificiality. All that is true and real will necessarily be plain and attractive, so attractive that when it appears before you, you do not feel any strangeness about it. Indeed, you accept it without hesitation.

Now, think it over. What plainer view cab be taken of human devotion to God and all that it implies than what is presented in this chapter? Here are but seven brief phrases, each of not more than five words, every word crystal clear and impressive. God is here invoked in His attributes, the manifestations of which man beholds day and day out, however much he may, through indifference, neglect to reflect over them. Here you have man’s admission of his absolute dependence on God, his acknowledgement of the divine kindness shown to him, his earnest yearning to be saved from the pitfalls of life and to be led along the straight path. Nothing is abstruse here! Since we repeat this Surah so frequently and have grown so familiar with it, it may look as if it is but a commonplace concept of religion. But this very commonplace concept, till it emerged before man, was by no means commonplace or easy to grasp. So it is with everything real. So long as it does not come into sight, it looks as if there is nothing more difficult to perceive. When it is brought to view, what is there so clear and plain?

Whenever a revelation from the divine has come, it has not brought to the knowledge of man anything strikingly novel; for, in respect of devotion to God, there is nothing novel to impart. The function of revelation has been simply to interpret, on the basis of knowledge and conviction, the inherent urges of man. And this what the Surat-ul-Fatiha does. It expresses the instinctive urges of man so artfully and with such ease that he is impelled to affirm that every line of this chapter, nay every word of it, is but the compulsive voice of his own heart and mind.
Think it over again. Although by the very nature of it, this chapter is not more than a simple invocation, it reveals in every word of it, and in every turn of expression, one or other of the great purposes which underlie the Deen or the way of life sponsored by the Quran.

The great mistake that man has made in this approach to the concept of God is that he has very often regarded God as the God, not of love, but of terror. The very first word of the chapter sets right this age-long deviation from truth. It begins with hamd or the praise of God. It is a term signifying the most beautiful form of praise! ‘Praise beautiful’ is possible only of a being who truly is beautiful and good. The term cannot therefore sustain the concept of terror. The being which is Mahmud or worthy of ‘the praise beautiful’ will never inspire terror.

The hamd or praise over, the Surah draws attention to the all-encompassing providence of God, His mercy, and His justice; and thus gives a comprehensive picture of divine attributes which operate to provide man with all that he needs to sustain and develop the humanity in him and prevent him from going down in the scale of life.

And then, by calling God Rabbul-Alamin, the Lord of all creation or of all forms of life, the Surah desires him to acknowledge the universal character of divine concern for every individual, group, community, country, and every form of existence. The concept puts an end to all notions of exclusiveness which had hitherto prevailed among mankind assigning divine blessings and favours to one’s own community.

The Surah then refers to God as Malik-e-Yaumiddeen, or Master of the Day of Recompense. The word Deen here postulates a law of recompense. It emphasizes that requital is but the natural reaction to one’s own action and is its inevitable result. It is not fair therefore to assert that God deals out punishment to any one out of revenge or in anger, for, the word Deen in this context simply means recompense or requital or what follows as a natural sequence.

The significance of Maliki-i-Yaumiddeen in this that alongside of the attributes of grace and beauty, those of ‘power’ and ‘pressure’ are also at work in the universe, and this is not because of any sense of anger or revenge in its creator, but because He is just, and because of His wisdom has assigned to each object a particular quality productive or a particular result. Justice, according to the Quran, is not a negation of mercy. It is mercy itself.

Moreover, the form of prayer suggested in the Surah is not, ‘We serve Thee’, but is specifically worded, ‘Thee alone do we serve, and from Thee alone do we ask for help’. This manner of expression fulfils the primary condition of belief in the unity of God, and disallows room for every form of ‘shirk’ or associating with God anything beside Him.

Lastly, the path of goodness is styled ‘Sirat-al-Mustaqim’ or the Straight Path. There could be no better or more appropriate term than this to designate it, for, no one will fail to distinguish between a straight road and a road which is not straight, or disdain to choose the first. And then to enable him to known what a straight road is like, a clear pointer is furnished such as man can easily perceive for himself, and this, not in the form of any abstract idea, but in the form of a concrete reality, namely, the road followed by those on whom God has, as a result of their actions, bestowed favours. For, whatever the country or nation one may be long to, man has always found two ways lying clear before him. One is that of those who have lived successful lives, the other of failures. That is thus so obvious needs only to be hinted at, and that is exactly what is done here. This was the reason why the prayer form was adopted to stress the point. Had it taken the form of a regular catechism or of a specific command, the effect would have been lost. The prayer form helps to voice the inward condition of one who in sincerity invokes God. It clenches devotion thought intent on seeking a spontaneous expression.

From English translation of The Tarjuman-al-Quran by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad translated by Syed Abdul Latif.