[First Published in How to Read the Quran – Medium, 26.5.2017]
On Surah 1, Al-Fatiha
Al-Fatiha, The Opening
In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds,
The Beneficent, the Merciful.
Owner of the Day of Judgment,
You (alone) we worship; You (alone) we ask for help.
Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favoured. Not (the path) of those who earn Your anger nor of those who go astray.
The first ‘chapter’ (Surah) of the Qur’an is called ‘Al-Fatiha’, it means ‘The Opening’ or could also be described as ‘The Doorway’. It tells us a few things — Open the Qur’an, Open your heart to hear God’s Words, God is Open, Islam is about Openness. If this is not what you have heard about God (Allah), the Qur’an or Islam, then this is why I am writing.
The Qur’an is the Book of God’s open heart, highlighted by the bismillah (‘in the name of God …’) which contains the frequently repeated phrase, not just at the beginning of all but one chapter, ‘the most merciful, the most compassionate.’ This could and, perhaps should, to convey the full meaning for those who are used to Judaeo-Christian scripture, be translated as ‘The Most Loving, The Most Gracious’. Thus this opening message, or prayer — it features in the 5 Daily Prayers — is an invitation to the reader to open her heart towards God, while God opens God’s heart through the sending and sharing of the Word. In fact it has come via the heart of the Prophet, hence the story of an angel appearing to him and washing his heart. The heart is central to the reading of the Qur’an and to Islam, we literally forget this at our peril, and it is the same issue with the Bible. It is so easy to turn God’s message of love into hate when man hijacks it.
The Qur’an was given in Arabic for Arabic readers. It has burst out of, or escaped from, that context, leaving some questions generally unanswered — you can talk to Muslim friends about Arabic issues — but spreading the openness more widely. As a Book it is addressed to everyone. Of course this raises its own questions, but the key point I want to make is — don’t think it is not for you. This opens up various possibilities for reading it yourself, but also Muslim friends (get in touch with me if you’d like any help with this, or follow me on Twitter @julianbond12 and check out my hashtag #howtoreadthequran).
In its original context the monotheism of the Qur’an was a radical concept but not, in my own context, in the ‘West’, and beyond. Monotheism is the norm, even atheism is set in a monotheistic context. So there is less of an obstacle for the modern reader than the original hearers of the Words. Some, however, seek to exploit this very welcome monotheistic emphasis into something that is not intended — making God (Allah) foreign, different and other. Thus our (or perhaps ‘our’) ‘Western’ Judaeo-Christian God — and if you concentrate on the Judaeo- part you can already begin to see the problem. From my own Christian context, the belief in the Trinity emphatically does not mean that I cannot talk to others about God unless I have defined the term exclusively.
So yes, ‘my’ God is Allah and Allah is my God.
So, yes, ‘my’ God is Allah and Allah is my God, it’s only another way of saying, ‘God is God’ so the whole discussion is redundant and wrong. Allah is of course the same God (look at the ridiculous things we say when we create this argument). I don’t say Jews don’t believe in the same God because they have no idea of God as Trinity. How in God’s Name could I get away with this?! It would mean that Jesus’ early followers began to worship an entirely different God. It may be that, at the beginning of our Quranic journey, you are not aware of the strong foundational connection between Islam and Judaism, which begins with the link between the Qur’an and the Hebrew Scriptures. This is a theme that will emerge strongly in the next chapter.
So, to take Al-Fatiha inclusively, which I believe we must, and I have given some pointers already, then we find ourselves either already on the ‘straight path’, contemplating it, or perhaps ‘rejecting’ it, but the deeper meanings may undermine this. Perhaps outspoken atheists are doing more for the cause of God than those of us who claim to serve God — puncturing pompous piety, highlighting absurdities, or just encouraging us to ‘prove’ our truth by being lovingly patient, as God would expect. The Qur’an is not a book which is in a hurry — the first copy I ever bought (read about it here) sat unread on my bookshelf for 15 years, having providentially survived an almost complete cull of my religious books after I left university.
In the closing verse of Al-Fatiha I’d like to translate the last part as ‘not on the path of those who think you are angry with them, or others.’ We will see, God willing, whether any Islamic scholars agree with me. This is on the basis that these are words intended to challenge us, those who pray to God, not those who are being ‘prayed against’, as some spiritualities seem to encourage. They are not words which justify looking down on others, or distancing ourselves from them, let alone identifying the groups that may be included in the description — God definitely doesn’t encourage anyone to add their own thoughts to the Word. It is our choice (yes, Islam is about choice too) to respond to God’s message for ourselves, not worry about what anyone else is doing, which is another Qur’anic theme. Similarly, ‘going astray’ is about where we are in ourselves, not the particular spiritual path that we have chosen. God is so much bigger than that. There is more to say about Qur’anic inclusivity and pluralism in future chapters.
I close by offering a Christian version of Al-Fatiha, using a collection of verses from the Bible, to show that Christians, and Jews, are on the straight path.
In the name of our God (1)
the compassionate and gracious God. (2)
Praise be to God Most High (3)
the Lord of heaven and earth, (4)
the Lord is full of compassion and mercy, (5)
he gives us more grace. (6)
He will bring judgment on all humankind. (7)
We will worship the LORD (8)
[and] ask God for help, (9)
to guide our feet into the path of peace. (10)
Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, (11)
not in your anger (12)
and did not go astray. (13)
I would like to express special thanks to my very dear and lovely friend Qaisra Khan who recited Al-Fatiha for me, in fact for both of us, as we walked together on a 23 mile Christian-Muslim pilgrimage from the Coptic Cathedral in Stevenage to Palmers Green Mosque in September 2015. I also thank imam Musa Admani who was the first scholar who sat and read the Qur’an with me back in 2003/4.
1 Psalm 20.5
2 Exodus 34.6
3 Genesis 14.20
4 Acts 17.24
5 James 5.11
6 James 4.6
7 Jeremiah 25.31
8 Joshua 22.7
9 1 Timothy 5.5
10 Luke 1.79
11 Psalm 119.1
12 Jeremiah 10.24
13 Ezekiel 48.11