Our beloved Book, the Holy Quran, begins with words that we recite at the absolute least, 17 times a day. Our prayer is not considered valid without the recitation of Surah Fatiha in each rakah.
Yet the long-held familiarity with it can very easily lead us to remain incognizant of what we’re even saying. Our tongues know it so well that we can recite it without a second thought, but Allah has granted the Fatiha to us in every part of our salah for a much higher end. Its special place in prayer itself demands that we reflect on what we are saying. As Nouman Ali Khan says, “the muslim is supposed to really develop a genuine connection with the Quran in salah—that’s where the connection with the Quran exists—and that the purpose to tafseer (exegesis) is to give life to our salah.”
Thus we begin with the first part of the surah today, in attempt to appreciate what the Fatiha means and how it can help us connect with Allah during our prayers.
Scholars dispute whether the basmallah (Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim) counts as an ayah of the surah or not. Regardless, as we do not begin the Fatiha or any other surah without reciting the basmallah first, this study will begin with a short note on the words Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim before beginning the actual ayaat.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim occurs at the beginning of every surah of the Quran save one—#9: Surah at-Tawbah—and it occurs twice within one surah—#27: surah an-Naml—making its occurrence a grand total of 114 times in the Quran. It’s the first thing we’re encouraged to say as toddlers, we are taught to say it before eating, before starting anything, before any regular act really. All the things that make up our day ideally should begin with the name of Allah.
Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim is often translated as: ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Kind.’ However, this isn’t a very accurate translation. The basmallah includes two names of Allah, ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim, out of the 99 some that we know. Why were these two used and not one of the others?
The answer to this came for me in an explanation of the root word behind both names: the word Rahmah. I could only do as good as transcribe the words of the speaker from the clip of the talk I heard (which I have also provided), but I much rather recommend listening to the audio, as Nouman Ali Khan’s way of explaining it is much more emphatic than it may read in written words. Nonetheless both are below:
Or read here:
“Rahmah in Arabic comes from the word rahm.
Rahm is actually the stomach of the pregnant mother—rahm is the womb. Commonly Rahmah gets translated as what? Mercy. I don’t like that translation. I have a problem with the translation ‘mercy’. Even though I use it because I’m so used to it—it’s not a good translation for the word Rahmah. Because the word mercy is used when something bad was about to happen and you stopped it from happening—in other words: “please, mercy, mercy, mercy.” Or for example: ‘the soldiers went into the village and they showed nobody any mercy,’ which means they didn’t spare anyone. In other words, when we use the word mercy in English, it’s when thinking about something bad that was about to happen and it stopped from happening. Ever seen the kids game, Mercy Mercy 1-2-3? It’s about being scared.
But the word Rahmah is not about being scared. The word for being scared is ‘being forgiven’—its maghfirah. The word Rahmah has to do with the stomach of the mother:
So this child is inside. This child’s entire world is what? This stomach. He has no sky. He has no other house. He has no bills to pay. He’s got nothing else. This is his world. He’s fed from that world, he sleeps in that world, he wakes up in that world, he breathes in that world—everything is inside here.
And all of his needs are being taken care of without any effort from him, by who? Now if somebody lives in your house—a stranger lives in your house—they eat whatever they want, whenever they want. They wake you up whenever they want. They kick you whenever they want. They’re a constant burden on you and the more time they spend, they get more and more difficult on you. Does your love for them increase? Does your love increase for a person staying in your house with a constant burden that is increasing, and they’re getting fatter and fatter and fatter and eating more and more of your food, and when you lie down, they sit on your belly. Would your love for them increase?
The more the baby becomes dependent, the more it kicks from the inside, the more it stretches—does a mother’s love increase or decrease? She cares more! She gets more careful, she walks around like this when she enters a door like she doesn’t want to touch the doorway. The idea here is that someone who takes care of you despite the pain you cause them, and someone who keeps providing for you, and their love for you continues to increase, and so does their care for you. And as their care for you increases, what you demand from them increases—meaning you’re not giving them anything in return. And they’re giving you love and care. Continually.
When Allah is Rahmah, when Allah is Rahim, it doesn’t just mean He’s merciful. It means He loves you, and He cares for you, and you keep asking Him for more and more stuff, but it doesn’t take away from His love. He doesn’t get annoyed with you—He keeps giving you more and more stuff. The love of Allah is embedded inside the word Rahim, which is why Hadith Qudsi says: ‘Allah turned to the womb of the mother, and said “salaytuka bi ismi:” I named you with My Name.
To get some idea, of what it means that Allah is Rahim—wa lillahi mathalul ala—to just get SOME picture of what that means—is the mother and her baby. It’s the closest you’ll get.” —Nouman Ali Khan
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Every time we say Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim before our prayer, every time we say ar-Rahman ar-Rahim in Surah Fatiha, with this explanation in mind as our definition for those names of Allah, we can know Him the way He means for us to know Him, and we can feel His love and care in every salah.
There’s still one more thing though: the qualities of the names ar-Rahman, ar-Rahim. I’ll be quoting Nouman Ali Khan, but again his verbal explanation is a lot more powerful, provided here: audio about ar-Rahman ar-Rahim.
Nouman Ali Khan goes to explain that ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim have very unique qualities to them despite a single syllable shift in structure. He says:
“Ar Rahman actually does three things because of the way it’s spelled. It is extreme, and it is beyond expectation. What that means is that Allah is not just loving, He is EXTREMELY loving, beyond expectation. So whatever you expect from Allah in love and mercy, know that it is beyond your expectation.
The second meaning of ar-Rahman is that it is something immediately. It’s not something you have to wait for, it’s something happening now. Think of it in English, what’s the different between someone who is patient, and who is being patient? Ar-Rahman is not something happened generally, but RIGHT NOW. In ar-Rahman, we acknowledge that we don’t have to wait for Allah to show you love or care or mercy, it is actually happening in its extreme form right now.
The third part of the meaning is that it’s temporary. Every word on this pattern in the Arabic language is temporary—atshaan means ‘extremely thirsty’ but eventually you drink water and you’re better. Ju’aan means your ‘extremely hungry’ and then you eat and you’re okay. When you add the ‘aan’ at the end of a word in the Arabic language, it means the quality is extreme, right now, and it’s not permanent. But it’s temporary because something takes it away. What takes thirst away? Drink. What takes hunger away? Food. But then we’re saying that Allah’s love is extreme, beyond expectation, it’s coming right now, but don’t mess up because if you do something so bad, you may be disqualified and it may be taken away.
So the three qualities of ar-Rahman are: (1) extreme, (2) happening right now, and (3) temporary.
The next name is ar-Rahim and this has two things to remember. One is that it’s permanent. The second is that it’s not necessarily right now. For example, when I say that my mother is loving, it’s a long term quality, but she may not be loving right now.
Now think about this. If Allah only said ar-Rahman, the love and mercy of Allah would’ve been extreme, it would’ve been right now. But it would not have been permanent. If Allah only said ar-Rahim, the love and mercy of Allah would have been permanent, but it would not have been extreme, and it would not have necessarily been right now.
So, how do I talk about the love and mercy of Allah so it’s extreme, so that it’s right now, and it’s permanent, all at the same time—the only way to do that is: ar-Rahman ar-Rahim.
Allah is so caring, so loving to us, that when He teaches us the names of His that we will use most in our lives, He gives us the ones that not only emphasize the extent of His love, but also the ones that ensure we are extremely, immediately, always under His love and care.