Part 1. The Basmallah
Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Praise be to Allah.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, a familiar phrase among Muslims that perhaps may have lost its significance among many Muslims, and of which the non-Muslims may be unaware there is a significance to, beyond mindlessly repeated ritual and tradition. What exactly is the significance behind the phrase and its terminological usage in the language of the Qur’an, specifically the word-phrase bismillah? It is of course familiarly accepted that the term carries the English meaning “In the Name of Allah”. Yet the significance of it goes beyond this, as it is a spiritual concept and not some empty religious concept, useless beyond the doctrine, dogma, tradition, and ritual of Islam. I would like to start a series explaining every Islamic concept as it appears in the Qur’an, insha’Allah, explaining the language of the Qur’an and it’s importance for understanding Islam and Islamic concepts. This series, though primarily for non-Muslims, should serve as a reminder for us Muslims as well.
Translation is something that some non-Muslims, especially those with an Islamophobic bent, seem to take a very nonchalant or even antagonist approach and attitude to. Many have chaffed at the idea that Islam must be apprehended through its primary literary source, which is the Qur’an, a book revealed and written in Arabic. It should be undeniable however that things are indeed lost in translation. But to take this idea further, two things must be borne in mind: There are some things in one language that do not translate into another language and, as far as the Qur’an is concerned, the Arabic language found therein is particular to it, such that one must understand the semiotics of the Qur’an as well as the Arabic language itself. What is semiotics? Semiotics has been defined as a philosophical approach to language signs and symbols, seeking an understanding of their function in language, that includes syntactics, semantics, and pragmatics. Necessary for an approach to understanding are other disciplines as well, including but not limited to, lexicography, lexicology, linguistics, history of language usage, phonetics, grammar and others. And of course the scholarly concept that contextual considerations are paramount is accepted; context meaning historical as well as inter-textual context.
The lazy, perhaps Islamophobic mind, will protest in retort “If the Qur’an cannot possibly be understood except but in Arabic, then Islam cannot be considered a universal religion”. In other words Islam becomes unreasonably difficult to apprehend and not of Divine origin if the whole world must learn Arabic in order to comprehend the Qur’an and by extension, Islam. Making claims about the necessity of learning “classical Arabic” is seen somewhat as an intellectual cop-out, resorted to whenever a non-Muslim proffers an explanation of Islam, Islamic concepts, or the Qur’an that is deemed “uncomfortable”. Seems reasonable, beyond the suggestion of insidiousness on the part of Muslims, except that it must be understood that Islam is a discursive tradition and not a textual, legalistic, ritualistic religion. No one can learn Islam by picking up a book, any book, even if the book is the Qur’an itself, and the Qur’an reminds us that although it is a Complete Book(kitab), it is also a Reminder to be Recited. So for those who are prone to step outside of the tradition of Islam and discount and reject Muslim explanations out of hand, it becomes necessary to become an expert in Arabic, among other things Islam-related. So, as condescending and infuriating as it may sound, although it is not necessary to speak Arabic fluently in order to understand Islam and the Qur’an, or to be a Muslim, if one wants to reject the transmitted knowledge of tradition and learn Islam from other than Muslims, the alluded to expertise becomes a requirement.
I will begin this series from the beginning, meaning I will discuss each Islamic concept as it first appears in the Qur’an in order to place it in the broader framework of a discussion of the language of the Qur’an. In previous articles I have discussed things such as how words such as ‘islam” carry different meanings if one discounts the nuances of the Arabic language. As alluded to in the previous paragraph I will incorporate a discussion of translation and its significance for understanding Islamic concepts, specifically things that are lost in translation, throughout this series. The first word in the Qur’an is bismillah, so we will begin with an extended discussion of topics related solely to this word, it’s translation, and its significance for a contextual discussion on language usage in the Qur’an. As previously stated one must not only have a knowledge of Arabic, but the Arabic of the Qur’an, sometimes called Classical Arabic.
The normal translation of the particle ba does not carry the same sense in Arabic as it does in English or many other languages. Translated as “in” which carries the meaning “on account of” or “because” in English, something is lost in translation as the Arabic signification of “by”, “through” or more exactly “with the assistance of ” is obscured. A more exact phrasal English equivalent of “bismillah” would be “with the assistance of Allah” or even the prayerful “I seek the assistance of Allah”, with the retention of the literal, plain sense connotation of “in the name of Allah”. Like many Quranic words, whose usage in the Qur’an often has dual or even multiple meanings, bismillah has a dual meaning. And example is the word dahaha, a word describing the Earth that carries the dual meaning of “flat”/ “spread out” and “egg-shaped”. The significance of this should not be lost, as all devout Muslims begin every important affair with this term, and every surah of the Qur’an, except one, begins with the formula “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim”. Muslims understand that this significance extends to an understanding of the arrangement of the Qur’an as well.
Al-Fatihah was not the first surah revealed to Prophet Muhammd( saws), although one of the earliest Meccan revelations. A hujja, or proof, of the Divine origin of the Qur’an can be found in the final arrangement of the Qur’an, believed to have been finalized by the Prophet(as), not of his own accord, but as a result of Divine Guidance. Reading this very first surah can help the non-Muslim understand the importance of finding a basmallah at the beginning of not only most of the surahs, and in the middle of a passage of the Qur’an, making the number of its appearance 114 times, but also at the beginning of the Qur’an itself. This understanding is lost when we hear or read of historians who tell us that the Qur’an was finally compiled in a book by the third Khalifah Uthman ibn al Affan(ra), years after the death of the Prophet(as), suggesting somehow that its present arrangement wasn’t finalized by the Prophet(as) himself. So, as the Fatiha is considered the quintessence of the Qur’an, encapsulating the whole of the Qur’an in a nutshell, in an almost mystical way, the basmallah is the quintessence of the Fatihah, itself a prayer. So in addition to the entire Qur’an being used liturgically and ritualistically in prayers through recitation, the fatihah was revealed specifically as a prayer, whose essence is to be found in a simple phrase that encapsulates its essence.
The significance of the basmallah cannot be minimized as it often is through translation. To gain somewhat of an understanding of this significance one should understand the significance of the Fatihah. The Fatihah is known as the Opening and is called by many other names that describe its importance in Islam. It is referred to as the Seven Oft-Repeated Verses, since these seven, essential for prayer, are constantly repeated by every practicing Muslim in salah. The Holy Prophet(saws) said in an authentic hadith:
No prayer is complete without the recitation of Fatihat al-Kitab[Bukhari 10:95]
So it is called the Opening of the Book. Because of this it is also referred to as Surat al Salat, the Chapter of Prayer and the Surat al -Du’a, the Chapter of Supplication, as it really is more of a prayer than anything else, as explained above. It is also known as the Umm al-Kitab(not to be confused with the Book as it is in Heaven), the Mother or Basis of the Book, because it encapsulates the entire Qur’an and serves as its fitting introduction. So the head of the head of the Book, the basmallah, reminds Muslims that every action should not be taken without seeking support from the Mighty One. We have in the utterance of a formula a constant practical expression of Faith in Allah.
Usage in the Qur’an
We have already seen how the basmillah is found at the beginning of almost every surah in the Qur’an. But there is no other mention among the scholars of it’s usage in the Qur’an besides this introductory use. This has to do with the fact that it occurs in the Qur’an in only one other place besides the head of every chapter except one. In Surah 27:30 we read:
It is from Solomon, and it is in the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful:[ Qur’an 27:30]
The significance of this is that something done in the name of Allah has all the more importance because of it. And the formula Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim at the beginning of the Qur’an is a proclamation, in the clearest terms, from its Author, of its Divine Origin. As for the one verse where the Basmallah is not found, we find the opinion of the most respected scholars is that this is in one sense because Surah at-Tauba(Repentance) or Surah al-Bara’at(The Immunity), as it is variously known, is not really a chapter separate from Chapter 8(Surah al-Anfal), the chapter referred to as entitled “Spoils of War”, but more accurately translated as “Voluntary Gifts”. Be that as it may, although Tauba introduces an entirely different subject matter necessitating and justifying a separate chapter, it is a continuation of chapter 8, and this serves as an explanation for the missing basmallah.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim is a familiar phrase among Muslims that perhaps may have lost its significance among many Muslims,beyond mindlessly repeated ritual and tradition, and of which the non-Muslims may be unaware there is a significance to. It is of course familiarly accepted that the term carries the English meaning “In the Name of Allah”. Yet the significance of it goes beyond this, as it is a spiritual concept and not some empty religious concept, useless beyond the doctrine, dogma, tradition, and ritual of Islam. The first word in the Qur’an is bismillah and a more exact phrasal English equivalent of “bismillah” would be “with the assistance of Allah” or even the prayerful “I seek the assistance of Allah”, with the retention of the literal, plain sense connotation of “in the name of Allah”.
Like many Quranic words, whose usage in the Qur’an often has dual or even multiple meanings, the basmallah is no exception. This dual meaning, itself a proof of Divine origin, should not be lost. As the Fatiha is considered the quintessence of the Qur’an, encapsulating the whole of the Qur’an in a nutshell, the bismillah is the quintessence of the Fatihah, itself a prayer. The significance of the basmallah cannot be minimized as it often is through translation: the head of the head of the Book, reminds Muslims that every action should not be taken without seeking support from the Mighty One, exemplified by the utterance of a formula that is a constant practical expression of Faith in Allah.