Oceans of Subtleties

640px-FirstSurahKoran

Surah Al-Fatiha; the opening chapter of the Qur’an

Companionship is incredibly important, and the companionship of scholars even more so. By spending time with them, you pick up so much from both their state and speech, picking up elements of the Prophetic inheritance these great men and women have worked so hard to preserve and pass on.

Yesterday, I was honoured to sit in the company of my beloved teacher and guide Shaykh Ahmed Saad, may Allah ﷻ preserve him! After travelling to Australia, Canada and back, it was such a joy to be in his presence! There are so many things I could share. From the way he remembered God to his interactions with fellow students, you could see the carefully refined character he embodied.

“I don’t get angry” he said, explaining the words of his own teacher. “of course he gets the feeling of anger, but he has complete control over it. Piety and proximity to God isn’t to lose your humanity, but to control it”

One of the most beautiful lessons I heard from Shaykh Ahmed was an insight few scholars can pick up. He described one of the secrets behind one of the most oft repeated phrases in Islam:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

The first observation was that the phrase was incomplete. It’s like someone saying “In the great, big house”; something is missing in the sentence. What is in the house? What’s happening there? Scholars have commented that there is a hidden verb preceding the phrase implied within the sentence, depending on what context it is used. When you eat, the sentence become “(I eat) in the name of Allah ﷻ”; when you work, it becomes “(I work) in the name of Allah ﷻ, and so on. More generally, scholars place the verb “I begin”, encompassing the intended meaning in every setting.

His second set of insights is incredibly subtle and beautiful. He pointed us towards the structure and shape of the word (بسم). Why has Allah ﷻ chosen to use the letter (ب) as the preposition in this sentence? More specifically, the word (اسم) which it joins to usually contains and alif (ا). Why has it been omitted?

  • We first turn our attention to the letter (ب). The choice of this specific preposition ahead of any other is for three key reasons
      • The preposition ب is one of the shortest prepositions or prefixes in Arabic, comprising of only one letter. This alludes to the insignificance of ourself before Allah ﷻ, recognising our place in all of this as insignificant when compared to (اسم الله الرحمن الرحيم).
      • Unlike many prefixes such as (في) and (مع), the (ب) joins to the letter after it. This connection is key to the understanding we should have in our action. Everything and anything we do should be connected to Allah ﷻ
      • More specifically, the choice of this letter has a more subtle indication highlighted by the dot beneath the letter. Its placement below the line symbolises the humility one has to approach Allah ﷻ with in their actions. This humility is necessary before any action is to be accepted.
  • To further indicate this humility and connection of the (ب), we notice another subtlety; the (ا) of the word (اسم) is omitted. Why?
      • The Alif is a elevated letter, demonstrated both in its form and pronunciation. To place this after the (ب) and before the name of Allah ﷻ indicates an arrogance after humility. Such an attitude would be inappropriate to approach Allah ﷻ with.
      • The Alif also contains a disconnect between itself and the proceeding letter. By placing it after the (ب), we are defeating the very objective of connection with which we approach Allah ﷻ in the first place. Its omission is thus to keep us both connected and humble before our creator.
      • Even if the Alif were to be included, it would not be pronounced. As such, we can do away with the Alif with no impact on the intended outcome or meaning of what we seek. This demonstrates the essential meaning the basmallah seeks to instil; the insignificance of “me” and the complete glory, majesty and independence of Allah ﷻ.
  • Contrast this to the Alif which appears immediately after in the majestic name (الله).
      • After ones own humility, we must recognise that all majesty and power belongs to Allah ﷻ alone, free from need from anything and everything. Thus, the Alif here stands alone, connected to nothing before or after it.
      • The Alif (ا) here remains in all cases regardless of whether it is attached to a (ب) or not. Allah ﷻ is majestic beyond need, and the Alif asserts His loftiness above all things.
      • However, what’s fascinating here is that the (ا) is not pronounced; we recite the two words as a single word “Bismillah”. Tajweed scholars explain that the kasra on the (ِم) of (ِبسم) necessitates that it must connect directly to the (ل) of Allah and that it is invalid to pronounce the Alif (ا). This kasra was caused by the placement of the preposition (ب) where we humbled ourselves before Him. It is only through our humility that Allah opened the doors of acceptance into his countenance. Our humility before Allah necessitates His acceptance and elevation of us.
      • Moreover, unlike cases where the word (الله) is preceded by a dammah (ُم) or a fatha (َم), the (ل) here is recited lightly (مرقق) because of the kasra on the meem (ِم). Our humility before Allah brings His love and mercy in dealing with us. If we raise ourselves by as little as a vowel (fatha or dammah), the (ل) becomes heavy (مفخم), indicating the stern response our “atoms weight of arrogance” brings from Allah.
      • All of this demonstrates how our humility raises us through Allah’s honour to his servant. When one humbles himself before Allah, Allah opens the doors of mercy to him by all.
  • Now, we return to the omission of the verb we began with. Why did we not include it?
      • The verb in Arabic requires a “doer”. Its omission subsequently omits the one doing the action from the sentence. The person is “me”
      • In light of the subtlety of the word (بسم) alone, we realise there is no place for us to mention ourselves or our actions when approaching Allah ﷻ as they hold no significance before Him ﷻ. Both our existence and our actions depend entirely on Him ﷻ, and hold no significance without Him ﷻ. Thus, they are left as incidental – “implied” within the sentence – to show that we are all nothing before Allah ﷻ.
      • The omission of the verb points to a further subtlety; neither we as human beings nor our actions matter in reality when it comes to either the things we do, the impact they have nor their acceptance from Allah ﷻ. Allah ﷻ is the only One that matters. All that we do is incidental – “implied” in the sentence – as an honour Allah ﷻ has bestowed on us to be the one through whom Allah ﷻ has chosen to manifest His command.
      • To place ourselves in the sentence is to suggest we have some significance amidst all this, contradicting the humility we require when approaching Allah. Any attribution to ourselves is thus omitted so that the only thing that matters is given true focus: Allah
  • Finally, lets return to letter (ب) which we began with.
      • In Arabic, there are three types of words; a ‘verb’ (فعل), a ‘noun’ (اسم) and a ‘particle’ (حرف). The first indicates a meaning within time, for example ‘running’. The second is a meaning independent of time such as ‘house’. The particle such as “in” however has no independent meaning in itself. The (ب) is classified as a particle and is the only thing attributed to us in the sentence. We ourselves have no meaning or existence independent of Allah.
      • Moreover, grammatically, the use of a particle (known as حرف in Arabic) must attach to something to give it its complete meaning. Grammarians have attributed this back to the implied verb within the sentence as discussed in the first point before. This further emphasises the true reality of our actions. Allah ﷻ has ennobled us by allowing the actions we do to be ascribed to us, just as this preposition is grammatically attached to the verb. We are rewarded by Allah ﷻ for what we do and people thank us for the things we bring forward. However, the reality is that without (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم), we would have no existence. There is no ‘verb’ or ‘me’ without Allah ﷻ.

The meanings in the Quran are dense. There is so much packed into even the most subtle of structures. From just 3 letters of the basmallah, we can expound vast treasures of meaning. From our discussion, we realise the essentiality of the prophetic words:

كُلُّ كَلَامٍ أَوْ أَمْرٍ ذِي بَالٍ لَا يُفْتَحُ بِذِكْرِ اللهِ فَهُوَ أَبْتَرُ – أَوْ قَالَ : أَقْطَعُ
“Any speech or affair of importance that does not begin with remembering Allah is cut off / devoid of blessing.”
[Musnad Ahmed]

Although there is weakness in the chain, the meaning of these words are established in our tradition, strengthened by countless hadith of the Prophet ﷺ to the same meaning. If we realise all that we have discussed and bring it to the fore of our minds when reciting these words for everything we do, the value of what we do will increase immeasurably. It is by this that we ask Allah ﷻ for beneficial knowledge which we can act upon.

May Allah ﷻ bless Sh. Ahmed Saad, his teachers and all those scholars, students and Muslims seeking to come closer to Allah ﷻ! Ameen.

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One thought on “Oceans of Subtleties

  1. This is an interesting read, but what genre do you think it belongs in? It can’t be tafsir, unless it falls into the esoteric type known as “al-tafsir al-ishari”, which is based on internal reflections and spiritual experiences, rather than the type of knowledge that can be based upon usul (principles), codified in books and deemed a science (‘ilm). See Fadil Ibn ‘Ashur’s criticism of this approach (Al-Tafsir wa Rijaluhu, under his generally positive comments on Imam Alusi’s tafsir). Those who permitted it (see the discussion by Dhahabi in Al-Tafsir wa-l-Mufassirun) did so on the condition that the reflections should not be claimed to be the actual and intended meaning of the revealed word. As such, I wonder about the terms “knowledge” and “teaching” in this regard.

    The primary question, I would say, should be the meaning of the preposition here. Could it have been replaced by another with the same meaning? If not, then the meaning is what dictated its use. Moreover, I the following methodological questions have a bearing on the ideas presented above:

    – Who is responsible for the orthography of this phrase? It is plausibly directed by revelation, but that theory has its scholarly detractors.
    – Was there originally a dot under the ba’? Is that convention significant spiritually?
    – Why was it written with the alif in Surat al-‘Alaq (اقرأ باسم ربك) if that implies disconnection etc., as suggested above?

    Allah knows best.

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