After a regrettable gap in this series, we will be continuing with the next part of Salah Study, the ayahs of Surah al-Fatiha. Before we begin, I’d like to add that the exegesis shared in the next six posts is taken directly from Bayyinah Institute’s Cover to Cover tafseer series.
Following our last post on the words Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim, the first ayah of Surah al-Fatiha is Alhamdulillahi Rabbil ‘Alamin.
Part A: ‘Alhamdulillah’
When we divide the word Alhamdulillah, we see that the first part is Al-hamd. The word hamd means two things:
1) praise, and
First off, praise and gratitude are two very different things. You might see a beautiful car in the parking lot and say “Wow, that’s nice!” But you wouldn’t go up to it and pat it, saying ‘Thank you BMW’. Similarly, if someone helps fix your car, you would thank them, but praise would not be involved.
And so, the first thing to remember is that the word hamd is made up of these two distinct meanings: praise, and gratitude.
The Arabic language has words for both praise (‘madh’, or ‘thanaa’) as well as for gratitude (‘shukr’), then why do we not say something like ‘al-madh-hu wash-shukru Allah’? What difference does it make after all, if the Quran is perfect anyway? Why specifically, Alhamdulillah?
The first reason is conveyed through a phrase in Arabic that translates as:
‘The best speech is that which is succinct and to the point.’
Alhamdulillah gets the point across immediately. The second reason to not use
al-madh-hu wash-shukru Allah has to do with the meaning of madh and shukr.
Madh means ‘praise’ but madh can be done for good, sincere reasons, or for not-so-sincere reasons. A cop may pull you over and you’d say “nice hat officer.” It’s not hamd because it has another motive. It is madh.
The second trait of madh is that madh can be done of living and nonliving things, but hamd is only done for the living. Thus hamd is appropriate for Allah because He is living, and because hamd is necessarily sincere.
Shukr is the Arabic word for gratitude, but when does gratitude happen? It’s when someone does you a favor. And in response you would or wouldn’t be grateful. When someone does a favor, the one who received that favor is in charge of the gratitude. You may say thank you, or you may not. The gratitude is an action that is a reaction.
Hamd is not a reaction. It is a genuine feeling. It is independent. It is there even without an action. Ihmadullah translates as “praise Allah!” It is a command. And the person receiving it can follow the command, or not follow the command.
Allah did not begin the Quran saying Ihmadullah. If He had, then who is responsible to praise Allah? We are. But He says: whether you do it or not, I still have it—it doesn’t depend on you. Thus He begins the Quran instead with Alhamdulillah.
What if the Quran began with ‘We praise Allah’ or ‘I praise Allah’? Then it would all exist in the present alone. Verbs are different from nouns. Verbs have tenses, but a noun does not. Tense is about time. Nouns are timeless.
That means nouns are permanent, and verbs are temporary—either they happened, are happening, or will happen, but a verb cannot guarantee any other tense besides the one it’s in. The word ‘nahmadullah’ (we praise) only talks about the present. There is no guarantee of before, or after.
But when Allah says al-hamd—praise itself belongs to Allah—that’s a noun. That means that be it past, present, or future, hamd is always Allah’s, whether you are here or not.
The other thing to note is that a verb cannot be done until the doer does it. It is dependent on the person or thing doing it. But the praise of Allah does not need a doer. It is not only permanent—it needs no one else to exist. In using hamd, Allah tells us that His praise is permanent, and it does not need anyone.
Alhamdulillah means that everything Allah does, deserves to be praised—
ie not only do we praise Him, we also thank him that He did it. And this goes for everything. It doesn’t matter what it is, how bad it appears, how difficult it seems—we are to be thankful for everything, because Allah did it.
The word Alhamdulillah with this understanding, can transform our lives.
If you get into a problem, you’ve been laid off, your marriage is in trouble, etc—even in the darkest of times, you say Alhamdulillah.
Whatever Allah does merits praise. Before telling us His name even, He tells us hamd first. The main problem of atheists is just this—they cannot appreciate God. They ask “why is this happening to me? I deserve better” or “what do you mean my life is great? It’s terrible.”
To be a believer, the first thing he/she must learn have to do is gratitude. Before anything else, Allah begins the Quran by teaching us hamd.
Allah’s Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wa sallam) told us that Allah has many names, The Most Forgiving, The Most Loving, The Responsive—but Allah didn’t use any of those names in Alhamdulillah. He used the name Allah.
The Fatiha is Allah’s introduction to Himself. If He used one of His other names, like ‘The Creator’ for example, then all we would be acknowledging Him for would be creation. By using the name Allah, we are able to capture all the names and attributes of His, and we get credit for all we know about Him and all that we don’t. It’s a huge blessing from Him to us.
And so the absolute best phrase to use is Alhamdulillah.
Part B: ‘Rabbil’
Rabb in Arabic, means a few things:
. the owner
. the one in charge
. the caretaker
. the giver of gifts
. the maintainer, who makes sure things continue to exist
But the #1 meaning is ‘master’, a master that has all of the qualities mentioned above. These meanings are what can help us realize that Allah in front of us when we engage in Salah. By knowing what the word Rabb really means, we realize we aren’t talking to ourselves, or to open air. In reality, our Master, the Master of everything, is in front of us paying close attention to what we say to Him.
In using the word Rabb, Allah says right after giving us His name: the first thing you need to know about Me is what your relationship will be with Me. He says Alhamdulillah and then says “I am your Rabb.”
Everything that the Quran demands or says is centered around one idea:
Accept Allah as master and accept yourself as slave
(not just that He is Master but also that you are slave).
All other masters are associated with ugly things, but Allah is associated with giving gifts, taking care, making sure things stay alive.
Part C: ”Alamin’
‘Alamin in Arabic means ‘people’. When Allah uses the word ‘alamin, He is not talking about being Lord of the skies and heavens, etc. He’s talking about nations, tribes, races, species (angel/human/jinn) of people. This entire ayah is about the relationship with God.
He says He’s the Master of all people, including generations of people. So one cannot say ‘that sort of thing was in old times, now it’s a new age, viewpoints have to be updated etc’. In front of Allah we are all slaves. We all have the same job description.
No race is better than another.
This also takes out the idea of ‘better or worse’, because in the slave-and-master relationship, it’s just the master that is praised. No nation can say ‘we’re better than those guys.’ It kills all problems of nationalism, racism, tribalism, Urdu speaking vs Punjabi, different backgrounds, etc.
Because Allah says ‘alamin, no human is superior to another. We are all slaves before Allah.