Surah Al-Fateh is known as the opening of the Quran. It is also known as Surah us Shifa, the healing chapter. Some exegetes of the Quran call it the Exordium of the Quran and some call it the Key of the Quran. Many other names are also in vogue; however, there is a consensus that Surah Al-Fateh is a prayer that Allah Himself teaches to man and in response to this prayer the whole of the Quran is revealed. In this small write-up, let’s study how Surah Al-Fateh establishes a connection with the whole of the Quran and how it sets the stage for reading a Book which, in the words of the Quran, is a source of guidance for those who want to tread on the path of righteousness, straightforwardness and purity.
The Opening has seven ayats which in the words of the Quran are called “saba’n mathani” (the seven repeated ones). It starts with Basmallah which means “I begin with Allah’s name who is the most Beneficent, the Most Merciful”. The word Allah and His two attributes are foregrounded in this opening ayat of Surah Al-Fateh: Rahman and Raheem. Allah is the name that God uses in the Quran for Himself. It means “the one who is worshipped”, “the one who is returned to”, and “the one who is the center of all hope”. Then His two attributes Rahman and Raheem appear in the same ayat. Rahman means the one whose mercy is for all irrespective of religion, caste, creed, colour and region, and Raheem means the one whose mercy will be specifically showered upon those who live their life in this world as desired by Allah. While Basmallah is the opening ayat of Surah Al-Fateh and of the whole Quran as well, what deserves our attention is that this ayat is read before the reading of all the chapters of the Quran except Surah Al-Bara’at. It speaks volumes about the importance of Basmallah and its place in the whole structure of the Qura’n. By foregrounding Basmallah, what one can understand is that the Quran is the reflection of Allah’s mercy on the whole mankind in general and in particular for those who follow the path of mercy.
With this beautiful opening, another key expression that deserves our focus is “Al-hamd lilah I rabbi l aalamin” which means “All the praise is due to Allah who is the sustainer of all the worlds”. All the praise is due to Him alone because He created and creates everything: the world of animals, the world of plants, the world of angels, the world of stones, and the world of insects. In Surah ur Rehman, Allah says, “What blessings of Allah would you, oh mankind and djinns, go on falsifying!” At another place, Allah says, “If all the trees of the world become pens and the water of oceans becomes ink, the oceans would dry up but the praise of Allah would not”. At yet another place, there appears this ayat: “If you count the blessings of Allah, you cannot count them.” And, of course, there are many other hundreds of ayats which dwell on the theme of Allah’s praise and the reasons thereof.
With Basmallah having key words like Allah, Rahman and Rahim and then the second ayat having Al-hamd, Allah, Rabb il Aalamin, one quickly understands the relationship between all these key words. The two attributes of Allah mentioned in Basmallah, Rahman and Rahim, are then repeated again followed by yet another very important attribute, “Maliki yom id Din”, which means “Master of the Day of Judgement”. What one gathers so far is that Allah is the most beneficent, the most merciful, the sustainer of all the worlds and the master of the Day of Judgment. By foregrounding all these attributes of Allah, what one gathers is that it is He alone who deserves all the praise for all of His blessings in this world and the mercy that He will disclose on the Day of Judgement. Moreover, what one understands is that His mercy is found in everything; therefore, there is no scope for being pessimistic and disappointed as He says in the Quran: “Don’t be disappointed from my mercy” and further explains the same when He says “My mercy overshadows everything in this world”. When He is all mercy and has even called His last messenger “The mercy for all the worlds”, one can very easily understand that the Book revealed by Allah in response to this prayer must be full of mercy for the whole mankind.
We are further told to say “Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’in” which means “Thee alone do we worship and from thee alone do we seek help”. If this ayat is read in juxtaposition with the former ayat, the relationship would become quite clear: that He alone is worthy of worship, praise, seeking help from and for absolute trust because He is the most beneficent, the most merciful, the sustainer of all the worlds and He would do justice on the Day of Judgement. This part of this Surah foregrounds what Allah is all about and how His mercy encompasses everything in this world and the hereafter.
Now comes the actual prayer that Allah teaches us to make: “Ihdinas sirat al mustaqeem; sirat al lazeena anamta alaihim gairil magdhub alaihim wa ladddaleen” which means “Show us the right path, the path of those people upon whom you showered your blessings and not the path of those who were accursed by you and had gone astray”. Allah does not teach us to ask for wealth or the luxuries of the world or anything else. An abstract straight path is being mentioned and then we are told to abstain from the path of those who were accursed by Allah. Before making this prayer, we praise Allah for all His blessings and love and care for us and now we ask for straight path. What is this straight path? The Qur’an does not identify it here. Where does the Qur’an identify it?
Well, the straight path is identified and described with all of its characteristic features in rest of the Quran. This is why some exegetes say that the prayer that we make in Surah Al-Fateh is responded to by Allah through the ayat in rest of the Quran, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. Then what is the reader of the Qur’an supposed to do? To come back again and again to the key expressions of Surah Al-Fateh and connect the ayat to the rest of the Quran for a fuller appreciation and explanation of Allah’s mercy, love, care, guidance, teaching, nurturing and all other blessings, for example, while reading the first ayat of Surah Al-Alq “Iqra bismi rabbikalazi khalaq” which means “Read with the name of your Lord who created”, one would definitely read “reading” as a mercy from Allah”; and similarly when Allah at around five-hundred places in the Quran asks man to think and ponder on everything that we see in nature, what would one gather except seeing in every object of nature the signs of Allah’s mercy and in return would end up saying “Alhamd lilahi rabbi l aalmeen”. Whether we look within or without and reflect on everything that we see or experience, the natural response from us would be the expression of gratitude to Allah for everything that He has given us.
As pointed out earlier, a good reader always attempts circular readings of a text. Having said this, our prayer “Ihdinas sirat al mustaqeem” is echoed everywhere in the Quran: when in Surah Al-Baqara Allah introduces the Quran in these words “zalika al kitab laraiba fihi hudan lil muttaqeen” which means “This is the book about which there is no doubt and it is a source of guidance for those who fear God”; at hundreds of places in the Quran, Allah quotes the history of nations and of people and demonstrates to us how there were some people who lived their life in harmony with the straight path and so were successful and those who deviated from the straight path and were thus punished and accursed by God. In other words, the whole of the Qur’an actually echoes the response to this prayer.
A beautiful prayer as it is, having an aesthetics of its own from the spiritual and psychological point of view, what is more beautiful is that the Quran explains this brief abstract differently at different places; in fact, the Qur’an becomes a mirror which shows the images and symbolic representations of different attitudes, behaviours, conducts, worldviews, ideologies and expressions of man, thus becoming a beautiful model of “showing”. There are moments when telling is used as a method of teaching something very important but showing is used as a powerful means of demonstration for arriving at some conclusion with reference to the straight path.
From Surah ul Baqara to Surah un Na’as, the Quran is actually a response to this prayer of Surah Al-Fateh; subsequently, it becomes a conversation with Allah and a complete code of life wherein the boundary between Good and Evil is clearly drawn and the mind of man is prepared for a journey which enables him for the evolution of the soul. A prayer once made does not necessitate it to be responded there and then; it rather calls for a journey and it is only at a certain point in that journey that the essence of that prayer is revealed to man. More than six-thousand ayats of the Quran take a believer on a time travel wherein History of mankind under the sun is invoked as witness that man is at utter loss without believing in Allah, without being righteous, without advising others of the truth, and without being an agent of goodness and mercy for others. There is not a single moment when the attention of a reader is not being drawn towards the battle between khair and shar, within and without, man.
The idea of a circular reading as proposed in an earlier column demands that while reading the Quran, Surah Al-Fateh must be invoked again and again so that connections between its key expressions with the rest of the Quran are established and explored to the maximum. According to Imam Farahi, Surah Al-Fateh is the best example of coherence in the Quran; the seven ayats of this Surah are not only interconnected but they are semantically related with thousands of other ayats in the Quran. The three central ideas of the Quran – Tawhid, Risalat and Ma’ad – are very much there in the thematic structure of this Surah; therefore, its reading prepares us for the details of these three key themes in the subsequent chapters of the Quran.
Prayers in Quran
There are more than seventy prayers in the Quran which Allah quotes in different contexts. Reading “ihdinas sirat al mustaqeem” in juxtaposition with those seventy prayers would reveal the whole aesthetics of prayers to the students of the Quran. I would quote a few of those prayers here for the benefit of readers:
“Oh Allah! Whatever good you reveal, I really need it”; “Oh Allah! Don’t leave me alone”; “Do pray to me so that I respond to your prayers. I am closer to you than your windpipe”; “Oh our Lord, give us the best in this world and the best in the hereafter”.
Concluding, the opening chapter of the Quran not only precisely introduces to a reader whatever themes the Quran focuses on but by foregrounding Allah’s attributes like Rahman and Rahim it actually sets the stage for the disclosure of Allah’s mercy through the ayats of the Quran that follow in other chapters. This would make a good hypothesis for researchers to see how the essences of the Quran actually exist in an abstract form in Surah Al-Fateh, the first chapter of the Quran. The more we internalise these essences, the more we understand the soul of the Quran, and so is our prayer for the straight path responded to by Allah.