The Significance of the ‘Opening Chapter [Al-Fatihah]’ of the Holy Quran
by Maulana Aftab-ud-Din Ahmad
The Message, September 1990 Issue, pp. 14–15
اَلۡحَمۡدُ لِلّٰہِ رَبِّ الۡعٰلَمِیۡنَ ۙ﴿۱﴾ الرَّحۡمٰنِ الرَّحِیۡمِ ۙ﴿۲﴾ مٰلِکِ یَوۡمِ الدِّیۡنِ ؕ﴿۳﴾ اِیَّاکَ نَعۡبُدُ وَ اِیَّاکَ نَسۡتَعِیۡنُ ؕ﴿۴﴾ اِہۡدِ نَا الصِّرَاطَ الۡمُسۡتَقِیۡمَ ۙ﴿۵﴾ صِرَاطَ الَّذِیۡنَ اَنۡعَمۡتَ عَلَیۡہِمۡ ۙ۬ غَیۡرِ الۡمَغۡضُوۡبِ عَلَیۡہِمۡ وَ لَا الضَّآلِّیۡنَ ٪﴿۷﴾
“In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. All praise is due to God, the Lord of the worlds, The Beneficent, the Merciful. Master of the Day of Requital. Thee do we serve, and Thee do we beseech for help. Guide us on the right path, the path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favours, not those upon whom wrath is brought down, nor those who go astray [The Holy Quran, 1:1–7].” Ameen.
Casting aside all our misleading sense of achievements, and rising above the feeling of the apparent vastness and grandeur of creation, we stand with awe and humility before God, the One Invisible Author and Sustainer of all, to realise how in Him lie all strength, awe and beauty, and how all abound in the Universe only by His sufferance. As we perceive in Him the Originator and Sustainer of life, all power, all comfort and all happiness, we perceive also how His power and control encompass the whole of possible existence; we feel how this immense diversity of the creation is held together throughout by His one beneficent purpose, and how, coming nearer to ourselves, the destinies of all the units of human society are guided from step to step with love and care by His overwhelmingly beneficent will.
We further realise that, but for the unceasing manifestation of His mercy, nothing can exist and thrive, and that, as He suffers everything and every system to exist and grow, He also consummates it at the end of fixed periods to make it fulfil some higher object of existence. We remember that He is the Author of all laws, and that the highest manifestations of His laws are beneficence and mercy.
As we realise all this, we feel that the only part we can play in the scheme of creation is to follow His will with all our faculties of body, mind and soul, and that therein alone lies our highest achievement, the fulfilment of the supreme object of our existence. We have not created ourselves, nor do we know our destiny; our destiny is known only to Him, Who has created us. The knowledge of that destiny can come to us only by degrees, and only if we apply to Him with due humility of spirit.
It is in thus appealing to the Author of our destiny for knowledge of it that our spiritual life lies. The spirit of self‑sufficiency in us is disastrous to our spiritual existence. The scheme of creation is irresistible. The Quran says:
لِلّٰہِ یَسۡجُدُ مَنۡ فِی السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ طَوۡعًا وَّ کَرۡہًا
“Everything submits to Him willingly or unwillingly” (The Holy Quran, 13:15).
It is the willing submission to the Author’s scheme that constitutes spiritual life. The nearer this willingness of ours approaches perfection, the healthier we are spiritually, and the more cheerful, joyous and comprehending in our inner nature.
This effort towards willing submission should not, however, proceed from our assertive ego, which makes it appear as if the strength that the mind needs to overcome its own imperfections, including that strength willingly to submit to the course of destiny, lies in the mind itself. Let us recognise instead that our mind is itself a creation of God, and, as such, depends upon Him even for the ultimate strength of submission. It is this total, unreserved reliance on God at every step of our spiritual journey that will enable us to understand His will for us, and understanding, submit to it cheerfully. This is the straight and plain path to our destiny.
There are two other paths — one, the path of arrogantly questioning the wisdom of the Divine scheme, and refusing at every step to follow destiny, and the other, the path of self‑sufficiency that urges the mind, instead of discovering the destiny appointed for it as a part of the whole, to give the individual self and the rest of creation a destiny from itself. This, indeed, amounts to a denial of any scheme of creation. Both these paths being wrong are fraught with pain and suffering to our existence — both immediate and ultimate. May we be given light enough to eschew both these paths and understand not only that creation has a purpose, but also that that purpose is to give the grandest fulfilment to the object of our existence.
As the name itself signifies, Islam is the path of submission. The capacity for walking along this path, no doubt, lies dormant in every person, but the inclination to adopt one of the other two paths is very strong in man as he emerges into moral life. The higher nature of submission is found submerged in the lower nature of disobedience. According to the Quran, the self of man does not emerge into this world in a perfected or refined form. Like a noble metal, the soul of man is pushed forth from the physical to the moral world in a crude form mixed up with all sorts of dross. To use the words of the Book:
وَ نَفۡسٍ وَّ مَا سَوّٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۷﴾ فَاَلۡہَمَہَا فُجُوۡرَہَا وَ تَقۡوٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۸﴾ قَدۡ اَفۡلَحَ مَنۡ زَکّٰىہَا ۪ۙ﴿۹﴾ وَ قَدۡ خَابَ مَنۡ دَسّٰىہَا ﴿ؕ۱۰﴾
“And the soul and its perfection, so He intimated to it by inspiration its deviating from truth and its guarding (against evil). He will indeed he successful who purifies it, and he will indeed fail who corrupts it” (The Holy Quran, 91:7–10).
Our spiritual life, therefore, consists of a sustained effort to purify the original but latent spirit of submission in the soul from the dross of the spirit of rebellion. This is not a path strewn with roses. Like all real achievements, it is beset with difficulties. Like all real comforts, it has to be earned through discomfort. All the different aspects of life have to be harmonised; each and every faculty of ours has to be disciplined for the purpose of that harmonisation. It is indeed ‘an uphill road’, as the Quran would put it, but it is the only road. Difficult though the path is, the inexhaustible helpfulness of Divine beneficence not only promises, but assures us of the achievement of our goal.
His help comes first in the shape of revealed ordinances for the general guidance of our individual and social lives on all their different planes. These are accompanied by the example of the persons who receive this revelation for the rest of the people, and who are specially purified by the Holy Spirit of God to serve that purpose. These persons are called nabi in Arabic, imperfectly translated into English by the word prophet, and they have appeared in all ages and among all nations. We should pay indiscriminate and unreserved homage to all of them, as this will open our minds to the universality of Divine Light in human society — a stepping‑stone towards cosmic consciousness.
These two principles of universal Divine guidance through dispensation and appointed personalities are the lines along which our spiritual struggle should be carried on. The course of the struggle is a long one, and consists of innumerable stages, which can broadly be reduced to three. The first is the one in which the spirit of submission is practically non‑existent, and the self manifests itself only in the overwhelming passion of insubordination and sin. The self at this stage is in its original crude form, and has not yet received the supporting light of God. In Islamic terminology, it is called al‑nafs al‑ammarah or the commanding self: The animal self of man holds sway over his whole consciousness and completely over‑shadows his spiritual vision. It creates for him a false heaven of bestiality. The ignorant self wallows in and gloats because of it. The terms ‘morality’ and ‘moral standards’ are meaningless to it, and it does not follow such standards except in so far as it is compelled to do so by convention or by the physical power of others.
Then, by a prolonged effort, through patient prayers and disciplinary measures, one reaches the second stage of the spiritual journey. Here, the spirit of obedience and submission does make itself felt, but it is still too weak to have mastery over the other spirit of insubordination. To borrow a biblical phrase,
“the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
In Islam, it is called al‑nafs al-lawwamah, or the chiding self. Remorse, repentance, and what is called the pangs of conscience are the characteristics of this stage, during which the difficulty of the spiritual struggle is especially felt. Doubts and despair beset the path, and the pilgrim is, spiritually speaking, almost bled to death in the course of this struggle. Indeed, at times he cries out in despair:
مَتٰی نَصۡرُ اللّٰہِ
“Mata Nasrullah?” (‘Where is the help of God?’) [The Holy Quran, 2:214].
But just at these critical moments the voice of God rings in the soul, saying:
اَلَاۤ اِنَّ نَصۡرَ اللّٰہِ قَرِیۡبٌ ﴿۲۱۴﴾
“Behold! The help of God is very near” (The Holy Quran, 2:214).
Thus, supported subtly, yet tangibly, by the hand of God and gradually overcoming the different weaknesses of the flesh, the self of man progresses till it reaches the third and final stage of its evolution, termed in Islam, al‑nafs al‑mutmainnah or the self in repose. At this stage, there is a complete harmony between the Divine purpose and the desire of the self. The soul is completely free from the rule of the restless and insubordinate flesh. Peace has descended on the soul. The self has entered into complete submission. May God lead our souls along the straight path to this submission and peace!
رَبَّنَا لَا تُؤَاخِذۡنَاۤ اِنۡ نَّسِیۡنَاۤ اَوۡ اَخۡطَاۡنَا ۚ رَبَّنَا وَ لَا تَحۡمِلۡ عَلَیۡنَاۤ اِصۡرًا کَمَا حَمَلۡتَہٗ عَلَی الَّذِیۡنَ مِنۡ قَبۡلِنَا ۚ رَبَّنَا وَ لَا تُحَمِّلۡنَا مَا لَا طَاقَۃَ لَنَا بِہٖ ۚ وَ اعۡفُ عَنَّا ٝ وَ اغۡفِرۡ لَنَا ٝ وَ ارۡحَمۡنَا ٝ
“Our Lord! Call us not to account if we have forgotten or erred in anything. Our Lord! Lay not on us a burden heavier than we have the strength to bear. Wipe out the faults that we have committed, and cover us from any in future, and have mercy on us” (The Holy Quran, 2:286).
“O God! Thou art the Author of peace, and from Thee comes peace, blessed art Thou, O Lord of Glory and Honour! O God! Bring affection between us and reform us and open for us the paths of peace, and take us out of the spheres of darkness into light, and save us from overt and hidden sins, and bless us in what we hear, and in what we see, and in what we feel. And accept our repentance, for surely Thou art He Who accepteth repentance” (Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be on him).
“O God! We ask of Thee steadfastness in our pursuits. We ask of Thee the intent for good action, and power to thank Thee for Thy benevolence, and the power to render Thee devoted service. We ask of Thee the tongue that speaketh truth, and the heart that entertaineth no misgivings and the gift of fellow-feeling” (Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of Allah be on him).