The first Sura of the Qur’an is al-Fatiha, or “the Opening.” It is short, consisting of 29 words arranged in seven ayat. Note the word for “verse,” when referring to the Qur’an, is aya (singular) or ayat (plural), and means “sign” or “signs.” This carries the sense of “miracle” as it does in English.
In Surat al-Hijr (15):87, this aya: We have given you the seven pairs, and the great Qur’an. has been said to refer to the seven ayat of al-Fatiha. This would seem to elevate Surat al-Fatiha over the other Suras in some way, or at least point to a significance that requires one to consider beyond its apparent meaning, to perhaps a greater meaning or significance.
Of course, seven “pairs” would be 14, not just 7. So either the idea that this refers to al-Fatiha is erroneous or the seven ayat can be each thought of as a pair, perhaps a pair of ideas. I am of the opinion that it can refer to al-Fatiha, but that it may also refer to something else. More on this “seven pairs” matter later.
Bear in mind the relationship between “signs” and “significance.” One of the often overlooked points made in the Qur’an is that of the relative significance and importance of things. Many do not apparently distinguish between the major and minor issues, and this can lead to wars and dissociation between Muslims over relatively insignificant issues, ignoring other extremely important issues where they could find common ground.
There are differences of opinion as to the numbering of these seven ayat, stemming from the issue of whether or not to number the bismallah, the invocation of Allah’s three names — Allah, Al-Rahman, and Al-Raheem — which precedes all Suras of the Qur’an except Surat al-Tawba (9). It precedes al-Fatiha without question, but differences of opinion exist as to whether or not it should be numbered as aya number one. This question arises because it is not numbered in any of the other Suras it precedes. My opinion is that it should be numbered, for reasons pertaining to my study of Quranic structure, but Muslims whose opinion I respect insist it not be numbered. We will not go to war over this. But suffice it to say that the same study that indicates the Bismallah of al-Fatiha is numbered also indicates that “seven pairs” can significantly refer to al-Fatiha. The very structure of this Sura is itself revealing.
The main obvious significance of al-Fatiha is that it is recited at the beginning of all salat (an Islamic way of worship that has very specific protocols and is not the same as “prayer” in English, which in Arabic is du’aa). I and many others were taught to recite all Suras or excerpts of the Qur’an beginning with the Bismallah, and that especially is true of recitation within salat. I noticed these days it is being only recited in the first instance at the beginning of salat by many people, including those who lead prayers in the Hajj. I consider this to be very wrong, and a loss, but again, not a reason to condemn people to gehennem (hell). And my reasons for believing this are based on my study of Quranic structure, as well as my conclusion that this bismallah or invocation is of great significance. It is the highest form of thikr, which means, among other things, a way of mentioning and thus remembering Allah.
From Surat al-Aanqabut (The Spider)(29):45:
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
اتْلُ مَا أُوحِيَ إِلَيْكَ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ إِنَّ الصَّلَاةَ تَنْهَىٰ عَنِ الْفَحْشَاءِ وَالْمُنكَرِ وَلَذِكْرُ اللَّهِ أَكْبَرُ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ مَا تَصْنَعُونَ
Recite that which has been “revealed” (sent down) to you of the Book and keep up (regular performance of) salat; for salat keeps (one) away from immorality and wrongdoing, and (thikr) remembrance of Allah is greatest, and Allah knows what you do.
If thikr (remembrance/ mentioning of Allah) is so important, even greater than the salat (formalized prayer-worship), then it would seem of great importance not to remove the Bismallah (the highest form of thikr) from its place as a numbered aya of Al-Fatiha.
Why numbered? Because now the Bismallah is being omitted from recitation of the Qur’an and in particular al-Fatiha, for the reason that it is not considered literally part of the Qur’an and not part of Al-Fatiha. So it is considered optional to read it or not. But were the Bismallah considered a numbered part of al-Fatiha, we would have to read it every time we read al-Fatiha. It also seems that such an important thikr as the Bismallah would be part of the Qur’an and prominently placed. Being at the top, the very beginning of Al-Fatiha as the first aya of the entire Qur’an does that, elevates this thikr to the importance it should have.
The Bismallah does exist in the Qur’an in one other instance, in Surat al-Naml (27:30) where the Prophet Suleiman (Solomon) begins his letter to the Queen of Saba’ (Sheba) with the Bismallah. But this is not prominently placed and hence, the position as the first numbered aya of Al-Fatiha is critical.
The subject of al-Fatiha is so deep it took over 50 pages of study. Here we have barely touched on the subject of 1) its importance being great, 2) the way it is numbered is somewhat controversial, 3) part of its importance is related to its being always a critical part of salat and thikr, hence it is frequently used.
It is also read in sealing contracts, especially verbal agreements, and in remembering the dead, recited before meals, before beginning a journey or project, and as a recitation when “making du’aa” or supplication and prayer. It is, in itself, the quintessential prayer. That, and other details, are the subject of the next day’s post.
You may wonder “where is the promised structural approach thus far?” But such in depth study requires some basic knowledge from which to begin. There are so many English translations today, and perhaps to the chagrin of many, I shall use my own, or borrow from various sources, in order to arrive at the clearest possible understanding that most conveys the original’s multi-layered depth.