Why Is There No Basmalah on Surah 9 Al-Tawba (Repentance)?


The Basmalah precedes every surah except Al-Tawba, “Repentance,” for a profound reason, not just as a “fluke” confusing the two adjacent suras, Al-Tawba (9) with Al-Anfaal (8). In fact, we can understand the reason for the missing Basmalah from the surah that follows it, Yunus (Jonah). First, note that the Basmalah is the featured dhikr in the Quran, highlighting that the Quran is directly from Allah the Most High, and it shows the dynamic nature of our Creator as Almighty, All-Merciful, the ultimate authority and ultimate source of comfort, meaning, and security. Without knowledge of and faith in Him, our lives would be random and meaningless. Are we seriously satisfied to think that after we die, all that’s left is our bodies which disintegrate and everything we thought or believed or did or felt is for no reason? Do we seriously see truth and beauty in the concept, tossed around these days to “make sense of it all,” that we “become stardust?” So the Basmalah encapsules that which gives meaning and value to existence: Allah the Almighty All-Merciful. Rejecting this in effect dissociates us from Him. And the first word in Al-Tawba is “dissociated.” From which the only way out is tawba, repentance. 

“Dissociation” Beyond the Historical Context

That first verse 9:1 is not merely referring to an historical event, but to all those in need of repentance. 

بَرَآءَةٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِۦٓ إِلَى ٱلَّذِينَ عَٰهَدتُّم مِّنَ ٱلۡمُشۡرِكِينَ

[This is a declaration of] disassociation, from Allah and His Messenger, to those with whom you had made a treaty among the polytheists. (9:1)

Here the translator gives us a parenthetical expression relating the interpretation to a specific historical event that occurred during the lifetime of prophet Mohammad — as do most, if not all translations. And this is a valid interpretation, and the most clearly applicable one. But it is not the only valid one. Let’s take the Arabic statement literally. 

بَرَآءَةٌ مِّنَ ٱللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِۦٓ إِلَى ٱلَّذِينَ عَٰهَدتُّم مِّنَ ٱلۡمُشۡرِكِينَ

First word in bold: dissociated — to disconnect or separate. So we read in the order of the original (which doesn’t fit English grammar but we can see how the words are emphasized and placed to give other possible readings): “Dissociation from Allah and His messenger for those contracted with you of the idolators.” Or another translation:

9:1   A revocation is made by Allah and His messenger to those with whom you have made a pledge from among the polytheists. 

It’s a declaration. The word ahadtum is a verb for “contracted” in the sense of having made a legal or binding agreement with, such as a treaty, and it can also refer to a promise or pledge, usually a promise in writing (think “promissory note”) or something legally binding.  

So if we take this in a broader context, we see the Basmalah, which would ordinarily be the first words one sees on the top of the surah (though not part of the text), is replaced by the word bara’un which is the declaration of a contract as null and void. Outside the historical event this technically refers to, we can see another wider application.

The term Mushrikeen or “those who adulterate their trust in and allegiance to Allah with trust in and allegiance to other than Him” could apply to a wider group of people when it is not a “group” identification, as those who espouse a religion worshiping multiple gods, but instead could also refer to what happens when a person breaks their promise or pledge with Allah, a pledge Muslims make in daily prayers. In other words, consider shirk or “idolatry” not as a defining identity or a regular practice, but rather as a sin, the sin of giving importance to someone or something in a way that causes you to forget that pledge and do something you know to be wrong. And since we are by nature prone to error and forgetfulness, it means there comes a point when those who break their pledge to Allah (and by extension, to His believers/ faithful) will have their “contract/pledge” revoked or when Allah will “dissociate” or separate them from Him. 

The Example of Yunus (Jonah)

This moment of dissociation is the moment for Repentance. It is a time that comes to all people, when they are so caught up in matters of this life — which could be anything — that they break their pledge to Allah in some way. And this can happen even to the best people, including prophets. In the very next surah 10, Yunus, Prophet Yunus (Jonah) broke his pledge to Allah as His prophet when he abandoned his people, literally giving up his role as prophet, for which he was swallowed by a whale or sea creature (huut in Arabic can refer to whales, fish, or other similar sea creatures) after drawing lots during a storm (on a boat to escape his land) where he would be the one thrown overboard to save the rest. Only when he repented to Allah while in the belly of the whale was he forgiven and returned to the shore and his people, all of whom became believers. The Quran emphasizes this:

  • 37:139   And Jonah was one of the messengers.
  • 37:140  When he escaped to the laden ship.
  • 37:141  And he drew lots, and became among the losers. 
  • 37:142  Thus a whale swallowed him, and he was the one to blame. 
  • 37:143  And had it not been that he was one of those who [implore] glorifying [Allah]
  • 37:144  He would have stayed in its belly until the Day of Resurrection.

The exact words Yunus/Jonah used to implore Allah included the word used to glorify and exalt Allah — subhannak — the same essential word mentioned in the original Arabic of aya 37:143 “those who glorify” yusabbiheen, the root being s-b-h or  سبح  — are mentioned in the aya below:

And [mention] the man of the fish [i.e., Jonah], when he went off in anger and thought that We would not decree [anything] upon him. And he called out within the darknesses, “There is no deity except You; exalted are You. Indeed, I have been of the wrongdoers.” (21:87) 

The exact du’a in Arabic is below: 

لَّآ إِلَٰهَ إِلَّآ أَنتَ سُبۡحَٰنَكَ إِنِّى كُنتُ مِنَ ٱلظَّٰلِمِينَ

The first four words are the shahada: La ilaha illa ent (“there is no god but You”), followed by subhannak “exalted are You.” Followed by an admission of wrongdoing. This is exactly Prophet Yunus’ repentance

This is the reason that the surah named after Yunus directly follows Surat Al-Tawba whose title means “Repentance.” Because the story of Yunus is essentially a story of wrongdoing followed by dissociation followed by repentance, which was followed, after the du’a of repentance, by Allah’s forgiveness and acceptance of that repentance. Even though much of the story of Yunus/Jonah is told in other surahs, this is the surah named for him and therefore its title forms a reference to him and his story just as the title of Surat Al-Tawba, Repentance, forms a reference to repentance itself. 

So in this way, the titles connect: from the meaning of the title of surah 9 to the example of that meaning in the title of surah 10. 

There are other examples of repentance among the prophets. Prophet Suleiman (Solomon) repented after he admitted being taken from the remembrance of Allah by his love of horses. Prophet Dawood (David) repented after giving an unfair judgment in a dispute that came upon him by surprise at night. Of course these were not mushrikeen, the word used in 9:1 — these are examples of that moment of lapse in their attention and devotion to Allah, when their better judgment was distracted or clouded and they strayed off-course in different ways. So although 9:1 refers to people who were mushrikeen/ idolators in their basic beliefs and religion, we all have occasions in our lives when our devotion to Allah is somehow breached, when we need to return to him, and this breach can be a form of shirk — not full-blown idolatry but rather prioritizing someone or something over Allah in our actions or words, associating powers or mercies to something that are the exclusive powers or mercies or help of Allah. We ask Allah for forgiveness, but tawba or repentance is for something we are fully aware we did wrong, not inadvertent or unintentional mistakes or errors in judgment, although we can ask forgiveness for those once we realize we made them, and simply try to do better. 

And what is the result if we do not repent from actual serious wrongdoing? Dissociation from Allah and His messenger. Because to repent is a humbling of oneself before God. It is an act of submission all should do during their lifetime because no one is immune from such sins. So Allah “does not love the arrogant.” And refusal to humble oneself or admit wrongdoing and ask forgiveness is a kind of arrogance. 

Surah 9 “Repentance” followed by Surah 10 Yunus (Jonah) and the Basmalah

In fact, the Basmalah embodies all the qualities we acknowledge in Allah in order to repent. We must acknowledge both His Power and authority, exemplified in the name Al-Rahman, which is done in the glorification/exaltation of the word subhannak from prophet Yunus’ du’a above; and His mercy as Al-Raheem, the All-Merciful, exemplified in Yunus admitting his mistake. Thus we implore Allah who alone embodies these two comprehensive attributes in one dynamic whole. 

So the absence of that Basmalah in Surat Al-Tawba directly expresses a profound meaning that could not be more eloquently expressed any other way. Here we feel the absence of that beautiful and reassuring Basmalah. No it’s not just a place marker. These are profound and meaningful words that we are given to call upon and invoke in times of need. And when are we not in need? There is a reason for obligatory daily contact or prayer/salat to maintain our connection to Allah.

In fact, we can feel in the story of Yunus his frustration with his people’s rejection, and his desire to just walk away from what he promised to do, seeing it simply wasn’t going to work, like saying “this isn’t what I signed up for.” But he realized he was wrong — how often we walk out on responsibilities we felt were above our “pay grade” or abilities, but that we were held accountable for, and then realize that was the worst thing we could do. He didn’t, however, realize his mistake until he was as good as dead, swallowed by a fish. And indeed his delivery from that unimaginable plight was a miracle. 

So on the top of Surat Yunus, the first surah in the Quran to be named after a prophet, thus the first prophet to have a surah named after him, at “celestial” number 10 no less, is the example of Allah’s grace, whose premier expression is given, as a huge relief, in the Basmalah. The same Basmalah anyone who felt their “agreement” with Allah revoked and themselves dissociated from Him would long to see and hear. For indeed, the belly of a whale is a metaphor for the darknesses His dissociation would bring. And the Basmalah, in this revelation, shines like a morning light after being caught in a seemingly bottomless pit. 

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