Why the First Numbered Verse of Al-Fatiha Must Be the Basmalah

Standard

Despite the Basmalah (pictured above) being the first aya of Surat Al-Fatiha in most printed copies of the Quran including those printed in Saudi Arabia (a copy of the Quran in writing being called a mus’haf not a Quran), there are Muslims, especially of the Hanafi and Hanbali schools of the Sunnis, who believe the first numbered verse of Al-Fatiha to be not the Basmalah but instead what is aya 2 in its most commonly printed text meaning “Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all worlds!” (Pictured below.) We shall discuss the differences of opinion and examine the implications of each.

Those who watched the Hajj broadcast live may have noticed the Saudis do not read the Basmalah aloud during prayers at the sacred mosque in Makkah and wondered why. Those who consider reading it silently the most correct way will explain that according to their hadith and tafsir sources, the Basmalah is not actually a part of Al-Fatiha as a numbered aya, and cite hadiths stating the prophet himself read the Basmalah silently. Others following the Shaf’i school contend that the Basmalah is a part of Al-Fatiha, numbered as its first aya/verse and cite different hadiths claiming it should be read aloud as is the rest of the surah.   

This site summarizes the choice as a decision between two conflicting hadiths (or sets of hadiths):

As for Bismillah and Surah Fatiha, Imam Shafi (رحمة الله عليه) has taken the Hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah (رضي الله عنه) mentioning that Bismillah is a part of Surah Fatiha. On the other hand Imam Abu Hanifah  ((رحمة الله عليه has taken another Hadith from Muslim in which it does not mention Bismillah as part of Surah Fatiha.

So how do we resolve this dispute? The Quran offers advice:

O you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you. And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result. (An-Nisa’ 4:59)

And in anything over which you disagree – its ruling is [to be referred] to Allah. [Say], “That is Allah, my Lord; upon Him I have relied, and to Him I turn back.” (Ash-Shura 42:10)

And how do we refer this issue to Allah the Exalted, or to Allah and His messenger? By studying the Quran, Allah’s book, of which prophet Mohammad is the messenger. The hadiths are in this case contradictory but the Quran is free of contradictions, and contains much information about the prophet, so by mentioning “the messenger” does not at all have to mean “the hadiths,” but first means “the Quran” of which he was the messenger and without which he would not be a messenger. 

Since the conflicting hadiths from both sides are claimed to be “sahih” (true), and therefore useless to resolve this dispute by choosing one over the other, and since sufficiently old Quranic manuscripts are not numbered to show the verses, we shall refer the matter to the Quran in both its structure and ayat to show that indeed the Basmalah is the first numbered verse without doubt, confirmed by the Quran itself, indisputably from Allah the Most High. 

Introducing the Whole Quran from the Source with an Invocation

Having the Bismalah as the first aya (verse) of Al-Fatiha is not just a matter of its relationship to Al-Fatiha, but rather makes it the first introductory aya of the entire Quran. Recall that the only other aya which is considered part of the Quranic text is in Surat Al-Naml (the Ant) 27:30 and is the introductory statement of a letter written by prophet Suleiman (Solomon) to the Queen of Sheba (malikat Saba’) and read “aloud” in the voice of the Queen to her advisors. Is this appropriate to be the only instance in the Quran’s actual text of this most vital invocation expressing a deep meaning about Allah’s nature and tawheed and which precedes, unnumbered, all surahs but one?

Or would it be more appropriate to begin the Quran with the Bismalah in its actual text, thus introducing the Quran with an Invocation in the words and the “voice” of the Almighty, All-Merciful Creator Who sent it? The Hanafi view, that it is not part of the actual (numbered) text of the Quran (which we must consider in addition to its inclusion in Al-Fatiha as a surah), means that the entire Quran actually begins with the aya of praise in the second verse shown above. At first glance one could well ask, “Isn’t that an excellent way to begin, praising Allah and acknowledging that He alone is to be praised?” 

But the issue here is not simply to begin in an excellent way, but to begin in the way that Allah chose for His book to begin. The Basmalah precedes Al-Fatiha whether it is a numbered aya or not. But not being a numbered aya means it may not be read aloud, and numerous imams and other scholars assert confidently that it should not be read aloud or at least the “correct way” is to read it silently, although it is not prohibited per se since no harm is done in reading it and imams do not want this to be a source of conflict and division between Muslims. The conclusion of “correctness” is drawn from hadiths claiming prophet Mohammad read it silently, but we have equally sahih hadiths claiming that he read it out loud. So how do we determine what Allah wants in this case? 

One piece of evidence is found in the first words of the Quran to be revealed, known and recognized as such by the vast majority of Muslims. And these are the words:

ٱقۡرَأۡ بِٱسۡمِ رَبِّكَ ٱلَّذِى خَلَقَ

Recite in the name of your Lord who created (Al-‘Alaq 96:1) – (5 words, 18 letters, total 23, the same total of words+letters as the Basmalah, matching the 23 years of revelation through the prophet, and the distinctive number of chromosome pairs in the human genome.) 

The first words sent were an invocation! This tells us something significant about Allah the Exalted: He wants to be named first. Why? Because first He wants it to be known by all that this book is from Allah! The emphasis in the Quran is first on thikr Allah — which means both mentioning Him (by any of His beautiful names) and then remembering Him. The fact that every surah of the Quran except Al-Tawba (9) is preceded by the Bismalah should certainly indicate its importance, and also indicate that this is the highest thikr by which Allah wants to be remembered. So if He chose an invocation as the first words given to prophet Mohammad, confirming that this is from Allah and no other, certainly He would choose to begin His final message and revelation to humankind in its final arrangement with His “favorite” chosen Invocation. Which must precede praise. 

We must try to understand Allah’s point of view here, not merely parrot hadiths which contradict each other where obviously both cannot be simultaneously true. And we have evidence of Allah’s preference in the first words sent, indicating that He prefers thikr to praise, in the same way that invoking Allah is itself considered greater than even salat: “Indeed, salat prohibits immorality and wrongdoing, and the remembrance of Allah is greater.” (29:45 excerpt) 

And it makes logical sense when you think about it: He must first be acknowledged so we clarify Whom we are praising. Even the most frequently-used words in the Quran, breaking “Zipf’s Law” to which all other books adhere, have been shown to be these two: “from Allah.” This should suffice as evidence. But the very structure of the Quran also contains proofs that the absence of a textual numbered Basmalah in Al-Fatiha would cause a diminishment of its structural elements that provide profound meaning. 

Ring Composition Reveals Importance of the Basmalah in Al-Fatiha’s Structure

Each of the seven ayat of Al-Fatiha are clearly shown, the color-coded ring composition (from this post) easily visible. In the first yellow box is the Basmalah with three names of Allah, corresponding to the final yellow box showing the three paths of humankind (also in bold in the illustration): “those You have blessed” have won the approval of Allah; “those who have incurred your wrath” earned the wrath of Allah’s attribute as the Almighty Al-Rahman by denying His authority; those who have gone astray are the ones who denied the mercy of Allah’s attribute as Al-Raheem the All-Merciful by seeking refuge in someone or something else or denying it altogether, thus refusing guidance (a mercy from Allah).This understanding would not be possible to attain without the Basmalah as part of this surah. 

The second aya of praise corresponds to the 6th aya, the single du’a in this surah, asking for guidance. We praise Allah for whom is all praise, and accordingly seek guidance from Him, the only One able to guide us, thus showing both acknowledgement of His glory and capability, but call upon Him to grant us what we need most in this life: guidance. 

The third aya reiterates the last two names in the Basmalah, emphasizing them. Without the Basmalah included, we could never consider the question why are these two names repeated twice in this surah? It’s a critical point: they are emphasized because each represents the most basic dynamic of Yang/Yin, the Creative/the Receptive, the Almighty/All-Merciful. And without this understanding we would not see any particular significance or meaning in these names except to emphasize Allah’s mercy, and many are satisfied with that. But this is not a full-throated understanding of Allah’s nature, Who is both Almighty and All-merciful and therefore dynamic, active, and to be feared as well as loved or sought for mercy. If we take out the Bismalah, we lose this critical insight that also ties our knowledge to that of the Far East and Asian religion/culture where Allah the Exalted also sent revelations and messengers, and to whom He also gave great knowledge which helps us understand the extremely important verse 112 Surat Al-Ikhlas, among other things. 

These names directly correlate with aya 5, our acknowledgement of His Almighty Power as AlRahman (“You only do we worship”) and His ultimate Mercy as Al-Raheem the All-Merciful (“in You alone do we seek refuge”). Had we not understood the significance of these names, we couldn’t see the correspondence here, which enlightens us as to the necessity of both worship of and seeking mercy/solace/help from Him alone. 

The next aya four, “Master of Judgment Day,” is for me the clincher. If we start on aya 2 (the aya of praise), this would be our third aya, making the fourth aya a statement from us at the center of this surah. Whereas the correct arrangement above shows us that Allah is at the center as the Sovereign (Wielder of all Authority) of Judgment Day. Judgment Day is His “scepter,” His ultimate Authority. Surely that should be in the center of this surah! Indeed this surah reveals a spiritual cosmology as pictured:

3 ayat at the top relate to Allah’s celestial realm wherein He and His angels “reside,” not in the sense of separation from elsewhere, but in the sense of a purified state beyond our comprehension, and which we cannot access in our current state. To access it, we must pass through the middle: Yom Al-Deen or Judgment Day, over which only Allah the Exalted has Authority. There’s no getting around that. 

The final 3 ayat are in our “lower” worldly life, alhayat al-dunya. Here we first acknowledge His two great attributes in how we “relate” to Him, then ask for guidance, and finally specify the three paths, a way of acknowledging we understand what is at stake here: no less than our final outcome. All this is lost if we remove the Basmalah from the text. Importantly, we are left with 3 ayat for Allah (and the eternal realm which for us is the Hereafter) at the top and 4 ayat for us at the bottom (representing this worldly life), putting more emphasis (as more ayat) on us than on Allah the Exalted. Indeed it also puts more emphasis on alhayat aldunya (this world) than alakhira (the Hereafter), the opposite of the Quran’s overall message. And by emphasis we are not speaking of numbers of words and letters but rather placement, critical to how we view the text and what the reader will prioritize. 

If we remove the Basmalah as a part of the text in Al-Fatiha, not counting it among the numbered surahs, thus reading it silently as if it is something to be avoided, we are in fact diminishing it, making it less prominent, hiding it from open and audible remembrance or thikr. Is this how we think Allah the Exalted Most High would have chosen His highest thikr to be placed, expressed, or included in the Quran? Do we seriously want to put any human being, including scholars or recorders of hadiths, above the Quran? Do we trust Abu Hanifa or Bukhari over the Lord of all Worlds?

This actually dismisses the importance of the Basmalah, as indicated in how it is interpreted. Despite many scholars understanding that the name Al-Rahman expresses His Power/Authority, the majority opinion is to simply say “it means mercy,” ignoring its usage (how it’s used) in the Quran to express His unimaginable power and authority. 

This emphasis on mercy over power appeals to a concept of God guaranteeing us a pass if we “belong to the right club,” in this case “Muslim,” and maybe even Muslim of a particular “school.” But in the Quran there is no such assurance; rather it unequivocally states we must fear Allah who will judge us by our deeds in absolute fairness. The entire Quran expresses a balance between His authority as Almighty and His receptivity as All-Merciful, not the latter subsuming the former. And finally, the significance of the Basmalah is reduced by its having no textual grounding here, whereas it is a truly foundational phrase in the Quran, according to the understanding introduced by Ibn Abbas explained later below.

The Salat Blueprint Would Have Its Head Cut Off without the Basmalah

Before learning about ring composition, I developed another structural arrangement for Al-Fatiha called the “Blueprint” for salat (Islamic formal prayer) inspired by the hadith where prophet Mohammad (pbuh) said “we pray on seven bones.” I pictured these 7 bones as being placements of our own “bones” in the sujud or prostration position forming a blueprint for this central position when we are closest to Allah the Beloved. 

Figure 1 – the salat (prostration) body positions
Figure 2 – the text positions, each aya corresponding to a location in figure 1

Considering the positions in the above illustrations, we find that there is one verse/aya at the top, the Basmalah, in the “head position,” representing the first “bone.” The remaining 6 bones/positions are paired, one on each side. I also considered the interpretation that Al-Fatiha may be what is referred to in Surat Al-Hijr 15:87: “And We have given you seven of the pairs, and the great Qur’an.” 

Although I divided all seven ayat into pairs, the first aya, the Basmalah, is not actually “divided,” since it is one aya and situated at the top, the “head” position, and the head of course cannot be split. This is a beautiful metaphor for Allah’s absolute Oneness, or tawheed, and makes a powerful connection to our heads, which cannot be thought of as two. (“No man can serve two masters.”) However, there is the bilateral design within the head, expressed below in the feature of matched and unmatched pairs described below. 

And although the expression min almathani has been translated “of the oft-repeated,” mathani is a very specific word for two of something, therefore I looked for a “pair” in each aya. And discovered something unexpected: all the ayat on the right side of this arrangement formed unmatched pairs, while all the ayat on the left side formed matched pairs, the match determined by both structure and meaning. You can see this in Figure 2 above, and emphasized in the table below for clarity. The pairs would be divided as follows, indicated by a slash (/) and space between them:

the Almighty, the All-Merciful 1 – In the name of Allah
3 – the Almighty/  the All-Merciful 2 – all praise due to Allah/  Lord of all worlds 
5 – You alone we worship/  in You we seek refuge4 – Owner-Master/ of Judgment Day
7 – the path of those you’ve blessed/  not those on whom is your wrath, nor those lost6 – guide us/  on the straight path

Here we can see how the words match up in a different but equally effective way compared to ring composition. In aya 1, the Basmalah, the names “Almighty, All-Merciful” (Al-Rahman Al-Raheem), themselves a pair, can be thought of as attributes forming another “pair” with the words “in the name of Allah.” This pairing distinguishes the name Allah as the overarching name encompassing all His attributes, which are exemplified and classified in their “type” of attribute by these two great names: yang/yin or Al-Jalal/Al-Jamal (majesty/power and beauty/receptivity). 

And Allah’s choice of names to distinguish these attributes is clearly Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem, shown from these names’ inclusion in the Basmalah. And the truth of this understanding is in turn evident in how it validates, or one could say reveals the reason for the repetition of the Basmalah at the head of each surah, not merely as a structural “divider” but as a meaningful reminder to make us think about Who He actually IS. 

You can also see in the illustration above how the names Almighty, All-Merciful connect this part of the first aya to the third aya, as well as being part of a meaningful pattern connecting the fifth and seventh ayat as matched pairs in this arrangement. The seventh aya pairs the path of the “righteous” as a singular path with the two paths of the “unrighteous” together, showing that their fate is the same regardless to which type of these two violations is involved. These types then illustrate the connection between the paths and Allah’s attribute-names of power and mercy:

  • Almighty: to be worshiped, Authority to punish (violators being “upon whom is His wrath” for denying His authority, assuming they can do whatever they want, and breaking laws against humanity)
  • All-Merciful: to be sought for refuge, mercy, as true Forgiver (violators being “lost/astray” for denying His mercy and guidance, seeking these from other than Him such as Christ in idolatry; or deeming Allah to be excessively vengeful, assuming Him to be unfair/ the cause of evil or other wrong assumptions)

All odd-numbered verses thus form pairs of opposites whose words “match” in composition as well as subject matter (2 sides of “the same coin/subject”). Similarly, all the ayat/verses on the right side are unmatched and even-numbered. 

The two sides in unmatched pairs form different parts of speech and in their meaning as well and so do not form pairs of opposites as evident in the table above, especially in contrast with the matched pairs. They are also initiating in character whereas the matched pairs are responding in character. This is a clear meaningful structural difference, and forms a “balance scale” also reflected in verse 7, with the two variants of denial outweighed by a single path of tawheed (Allah as strictly One, Indivisible). Removal of the Basmalah would remove this structural significance. 

Interestingly, the yin of matched pairs is mixed with the yang of odd numbers, and the yang of unmatched pairs is mixed with the yin of even numbers. This shows a layer of complexity in the nature of Allah which certainly is found in the nature of creation and life itself. We should not oversimplify Truth. 

Don’t forget that without the Basmalah we have to divide the last aya into two pieces, losing its connection to the three names of the Basmalah and giving more weight to the mention of the two “wrong” paths in the form of having 2 out of 7 verses/ayat, thus removing the “balance scale” effect (one path for those who accept Allah as One, and the other for those who “divide” Him in two by “playing with interpretation” and denying one or the other of His 2 main attributes) and ending the sura on Allah’s wrath after having removed from the top His assurance of mercy!

Whereas with the ring composition, in removing the Basmalah we lose the sense of the central aya being Allah at the center with Judgment Day and its balance scales (implied) as the fulcrum of the two meaningful sets of three ayat — 3 for the celestial realm of eternity and the Hereafter, and 3 for the worldly realm where we live and die — with the salat “Blueprint” arrangement, we literally lose the head! 

The Foundational Relationship of the Basmalah to Al-Fatiha and the Quran

Much has been written about Al-Fatiha. An interesting correlation with the Basmalah on this site comes from Ibn Abbas, the famous commentator of the Quran, who referred to Al-Fatiha as Asas al-Quran (أَساسُ القُرآن: the foundation of the Quran)

«لکل شي اساساً… و اساس القرآن الفاتحة و اساس الفاتحة {بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ}»

For everything there is a foundation:

  • The foundation of the world is Mecca,
  • the foundation of the heavens is the seventh heaven
  • the foundation of Bani Isra’il is prophet Jacob (AS), and
  • the foundation of all divine books is the Quran, and
  • the foundation of the Quran is Fatiha al-Kitab (the opening of the book)
  • and the foundation of Fatiha al-Kitab is Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim. 

Although I do not see eye-to-eye on his first two statements, which speak of things that we do not know (seem to be conjecture) and are not contained in the Quran which he states is the foundation of all Divine books, I decided to post it nonetheless because it gives his own context to the rest. And he’s trying to develop a philosophical framework for interpretation, a worthwhile pursuit rarely undertaken these days. And with the Quran to Al-Fatiha to Basmalah trajectory, he’s certainly onto something. To which I would add “and the name of Allah is the foundation of the Basmalah.”

  • The name of Allah and its letters indeed form a foundational relationship of {3,4}: the 3 unique letters in Allah’s name form His 4-letter name. From these two numbers we derive the significant numbers 3+4=7 and 3•4=12. 
  • This sets a pattern: three of one kind of set, and four of another different set, often overlapping.
  • Now look at the Basmalah: 3 names of Allah form a 4-word statement, in which we can see the numbers 3+4= 7 (letters in the words bism Allah) and 3×4= 12 (letters in the names Al-Rahman Al-Raheem) which total 19, a significant number (Surat Al-Muddathir 74:30) that is also a factor in the number of surahs, 114 (6×19). 
  • Now look at Al-Fatiha’s ring composition: 3 stages of time (worldly life, Judgment Day, and eternity/ timelessness) form a 4-tiered (see the 4 colors in the illustration above) ring composition with 7 (3+4) verses/ayat, whose total letters plus words add to 170 = 34•5. And whose total letters are 139, the 34th prime! Half of 34 is 17, which is the 7th (3+4) prime. 
  • Now look at the Quran: its chambered spiral structure contains 3 structural elements — circling (return/ adaptation) in the repeated spiral shape and ring compositions; enclosures (fixed, stabilizing) in the surahs as chambers (and other features); and openings/channels (initiating, energizing) in the many meaningful repetitions and patterns as well as the initial opening of Al-Fatiha (named “the Opening” and also the open chamber of the shell design) — in 4 layers of meaning — action (initiating du’a, sadaqa giving, gratitude), setting values (flourishing, development, trust, salat), communication (language and truthfulness, revelation/ signs, guidance), and justice (law and goodwill-promoting behavior, zakat). 

This entire foundational basis, particularly in the last 4 foundations — the Quran, Surat Al-Fatiha, the Bismalah, and Allah’s name — is lost when we remove the numbering of the Quran’s first verse, as being numbered requires us to pay more attention to it and acknowledge its foundational significance. Otherwise, as an unnumbered preface, it is removed from the Quranic text as its first numbered aya and hence becomes indistinguishable from the role it plays in other suras. Therefore we cannot say it has a direct textual connection to Al-Fatiha any more than to any other sura such as, say Al-Masad. Just to satisfy AbuHanifa? At the expense of, say Ibn ‘Abbas? Or are all these scholars men, subject to error like all humans, whereas the Quran cannot be estimated on the same scale, certainly? 

In conclusion, the above evidence from the Quran speaks louder on behalf of the inclusion of Al-Fatiha as the first numbered aya of Al-Fatiha, to be read aloud as the rest of the sura is read aloud, than the hadith evidence in dispute. 

وَلَقَدۡ صَرَّفۡنَا فِى هَٰذَا ٱلۡقُرۡءَانِ لِلنَّاسِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍۚ وَكَانَ ٱلۡإِنسَٰنُ أَكۡثَرَ شَىۡءٍ جَدَلًا

And indeed We have employed every kind of mathal (parable, example, similarity, metaphor, illustration) for humankind in this Quran. And man is the most contentious of beings. (Al-Kahf 18:54)

_______________________________________

As mentioned above, early Quranic manuscripts do not provide evidence one way or another in this matter, and the earliest ones do not show verse numbers or chapter titles, although divisions between surahs are evident. Also some do not include Al-Fatiha, as these are often fragments or incomplete as the example shown below. However, radiocarbon dating has proven them to be much closer to the lifetime of prophet Mohammad (pbuh) than the orientalist’s previous assumptions, and in the case of the Birmingham manuscript, exactly during his lifetime. 

Examining the Quranic manuscripts that include Al-Fatiha, the one below is among the oldest:

Fragment of the extant folio from the “Great Umayyad Qur’an” showing Sūrah al-Fātiḥah. The radiocarbon dating of this manuscript suggests a date between 657 and 690 CE. The Basmalah is visible in this fragment. 

Al-Fatiha inscribed on stone and dated:

A mus’haf (Quran manuscript) from ca 1,000 CE. 

No numbering present but Al-Fatiha is included.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s