This sounds counterintuitive, but while discussing the nature of “conquest” in the Quran in my previous post, it occurred to me the root-word connection between fat’h meaning “conquest” and “Al-Fatiha” — the name of the Quran’s first sura — meaning “the opening,” has implications for the first sura itself. In that post I noted how the fact that both words share a root affects the understanding of of the word “conquest” to have a different nuance to it than the English definition and sense of “conquest” as being more of an “opening” in the conflict than merely a subjugation or advantage that often lends to the winner oppressing the loser. But could that same sort of victory or opening in a conflict also deepen our understanding of Al-Fatiha?
Conquering the Resistance to Open One’s Heart
People don’t just casually open their hearts to any new idea, especially one that has a history of contradicting interpretations, none of which one is inclined to understand. Christians, Jews, and those of other belief systems such as Hindus and Buddhists who feel “established” in their respective faiths see the Quran as something like an “enemy’s book.”
There are Christian preachers who literally teach their parishioners that the Quran is “the devil’s book” and warn against reading it. There are Jews and Rabbis who consider the Quran hostile to them, noting the many passages describing Allah’s anger or disapproval of Bani Israel, “the children of Israel” (Israel being another name for Yaqub or Jacob), describing how they harassed and disobeyed their prophet Moses. But the Quran invites both and indeed all people to Islam and clearly indicates itself as part of the same Abrahamic tradition (as Jews and Christians) and coming from the same God. The Hindus note that the Quran is a strongly monotheistic message, and they usually believe in a host of gods, although their concept of Brahman aligns well with the Quranic understanding of Allah the Exalted, except the part of Brahman tolerating the multiple god worship. The Buddhists and Taoists in modern times minimize the role of God as being more conceptual, focusing on the morality and ethics of the path one takes — a path almost identical to that of Islam except insofar as they tend to avoid the specificity of “worshiping God” and reject Divine revelation as a means of obtaining enlightenment.
You can see the similarities and differences. So there is a level of resistance from people in these traditions to “read outside the box” a book they consider somehow antagonistic to their values…even though they never bothered to read it to see what it actually says.
There is also resistance from people who reject religions in general because they consider them all (including the idea of God) illogical and unscientific. Some take science much in the manner of a religion, a trusted source of Truth. Often this is called “scientism” — like religion, it has its dogma (“science can prove everything and is the only source of Truth, science is more ethical and peace-promoting than belief in a God”) and its many adherents. Both atheists and agnostics (the undecided) are often anti-religion, often because the only religion they looked at was Christianity with its illogical worship of a man as part of God. This has led people to start referring to God as “she,” as if God has been male too long, let’s have instead a goddess to balance it out. None of these realize that Allah in Islam is without gender, as is G-d in Judaism, as is Brahman in Hinduism as are traditions in Asian culture. Into this world of conflicting ideas, we bring the Quran with its first sura, Al-Fatiha.
If we look at the single-image “chambered nautilus” design of the Quran, we can see that Al-Fatiha is literally the opening of the shell! And it is also the one sura always recited in its entirety at the beginning of every rak’a (a “set” of standing, bowing and prostration) in salat prayer (the one often associated with Islam that has “prayer time” and is done facing Mecca), and also recited often for other purposes such as after a du’a (supplication) or after signing an agreement or in memory of a deceased Muslim. So I call its opening chamber the House of Prayer, noting that it is the only “open-ended” chamber in which the nautilus resides, the nautilus representing us, and especially our souls or selves. The sign of the Ram, Aries, is associated biblically with sacrifice — symbolically, sacrifice of the ego, by which is meant really the arrogant part of the ego, the ungrateful part.
So it is in this very first sura, this House of Prayer, as one “opens” the Quran, that we face our own resistance to God. He asks us to endure suffering with patience. To give to others without asking from them anything in return. To be kind to those we look down on. But also to “think outside the box” of our own inner “shells,” so we can enter the sphere of Allah, outside our tribalism, pettiness, selfishness, to think beyond, noting that in this open-ended place, our world, we are exposed to all kinds of danger, yet it’s necessary to do so for us to breathe, to stay alive. Often people only develop compassion when they are faced with death — the worst of us will drop it once life comes flooding back again, but many others may carry this lesson into how they live. The Quran is in this sense both an invitation to live truly, and to become stronger as our best, higher selves, knowing we replaced the stifling shell of ego with a more powerful protection of Allah’s words and promise.
Notice Al-Fatiha as the opening on the middle left-hand side. See how many suras are on the inside, yet this is the one single entry point, giving us a sense of the importance of prayer as how we connect to Allah and even to our own lives.
A real nautilus shell (my own!) showing how HUGE the “opening” really is relative to the other chambers, and we can imagine the nautilus itself filling it — this part is its home! It’s worth also noticing that the nautilus starts as a juvenile in the center chambers and grows new chambers as it develops into an adult. This is a perfect metaphor for how the Quran keeps its short central suras like “deep memory” and also dominated by the first revelations (the earlier suras) when the Quran was first revealed (although some later suras are placed among them, like an “embedded future”). We grow as Muslims from the first intense faith (of those new to Islam) to the more developed nuances of adulthood. But also those who think they inherit Islam, whose parents are Muslims, need to develop as well to “own” their own faith. They too must “conquer” their resistance and open their hearts to “receive” the Truth.
Al-Fatiha and the Quran Only Open to the Sincere Reader — Even if a Sincere Enemy
Reading Al-Fatiha with all these outside barriers needs the potential reader to conquer their resistance to reading it. If only to just “check it out” out of mere curiosity. Some have opened (fatah’t) the Quran and read it to give examples of what’s wrong with it. If their intention is sincere to actually find out how bad it really is, they will find the truth. If their intention is only to cherry-pick excerpts that affirm their preconceptions, they will never find the truth.
And who does greater wrong than the one who is reminded of his Lord’s signs and turns his back on them, ignoring what his hands have done? We have put covers over their hearts, so they cannot understand the Quran, and We put heaviness in their ears: although you call them to guidance they will never be guided. (18:57)
There is a difference between those who trust in Allah and those who don’t. But it’s really a matter of the heart.
Calling to deniers is like a herdsman calling to things that hear nothing but a shout and a cry: they are deaf, dumb, and blind, and they understand nothing. (2:171)
The word for “deniers” or (often translated) “disbelievers” is kafireen coming from the root kufr which means “to cover up.” It does not mean to “not believe” but means literally to cover up the truth. Hence the closest English word is really “deniers.” We say about people who refuse to face reality that they are “in denial.” This perfectly describes the kafireen. But even someone who is hostile to religion but sincerely believes religion to be harmful and wants to go to the source, open the book and prove it may well receive guidance because he is a seeker not a denier. On the contrary he seeks to find how many lies are in this book, and finding none, loses his reasons to reject it because what was rejected was actually lies which he found in religions he knew.
Al-Fatiha gives us a cosmology.
The orange central section is where Allah is mentioned as Sovereign of Judgment Day. He alone owns Judgment Day and entirely rules over it. It is the Day when all of creation will see the Truth without the veil of time.
In this cosmology, everything above the orange box is in the timeless Celestial Realm. Everything below that orange box is in the Worldly Realm of time in which we reside.
These worlds are conceptual. This is not a scientific treatise of physical reality. It is a mathal, a graphic representation of something we cannot perceive with our senses as the “realms” involved are not fully accessible to us, even to our ability to reason and use our intellect. But it is a symbolic/allegorical graphic that shows us the truth.
We are “in time” and bound by the limits of time. Allah the Exalted and the angels are not confined by such limits. The angels are Allah’s jund — usually translated “soldiers” but also they carry out all manner of commands from Allah and this is something out of our sphere of knowledge and thus we can’t “know” this in the usual sensory way. The answers to our questions of how or why these realms exist cannot be answered scientifically, nor can science prove or disprove this, just as it cannot prove or disprove God’s existence, nature, or anything about Him. Yet the “fact” of His being Reality is in our deep intuition and all we can do is deny it or cover it up — we can never be “rid of it,” no matter how many people are “on board” with anti-religionists or other deniers. It was ever thus.
So when one reads Al-Fatiha, one must open one’s mind up to the possibility of worlds beyond our knowledge in ways unlike what we currently think of as reality. We now are aware of planets outside our solar system that are systems with separate stars as their suns. But we as of now have no idea if indeed such exoplanets support life at all, let alone intelligent life. But at least we do know these worlds exist in our galaxy, opening up the possibility that they can exist in a universe full of galaxies.
So how do we know that Allah the Most High (and therefore “most difficult to see”) is indeed Real and indeed the ultimate Reality? Start with knowing there are literally worlds we cannot perceive beyond such pictures. Each galaxy potentially contains a black hole, which potentially is a porthole to yet other worlds.
So here we have a cosmology directly from the creator of all this we see and don’t see, a practical cosmology showing us what is most consequential for us in this universe: that orange box in the middle, the Day of Resurrection and Reckoning. Reckoning what? Our fate once time meets its Maker and is basically shut down. In comes timelessness. The celestial realm becomes evident. Even those who are resurrected blind (per the Quran) will know and feel it. It will be, for the rejecters/deniers, the consummation of every terror imaginable. It will be, for those who put their trust in the Almighty All-Merciful, ultimately (after a stage we do not really know) the fulfillment and satisfaction of every desire and hope, the unimaginable bliss of being free from this world and its suffering and tests, having worked hard to resist the forces of denial and chosen faith.
In a sense it is both a cosmology and a “cosmic battlefield” showing the “deck is stacked” in Allah’s favor. We ourselves could not have created such galaxies and such a universe. We have limited power and we have clear choices. But by simply reading this one book, or even this one sura, we can make the biggest conquest of our lives: the conquest of our own hearts to defeat our inner demons and choose to do those small but mighty acts of kindness and charity, to help others and forgive, and to appreciate our Maker and direct our longing to the Almighty All-Merciful.