Monday, April 24, 2006

the key, the opening, al fatiha

Here is the opening chapter of the Quran with 4 different versions given for the last two lines:

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.

Yusuf Ali:
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Show us the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.

Keep us on the right path.
The path of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed favors. Not (the path) of those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.

Guide us in the right path;
the path of those whom You blessed; not of those who have deserved wrath, nor of the strayers.


Here are scanned images of these same verses (over 2 pages) from my copy of the Quran:

I obtained my copy of the Quran free of charge from a Muslim booth set up at the entrance to an interfaith dialogue evening. It was more strictly a Christian-Muslim dialogue as no other faiths were represented. The Christians did not set up comparable stalls handing out free copies of the New Testament Bible. For anyone interested in more details and identifying pages, here are some further scanned images:

I'm posting this specialized entry because I see this opening chapter of the Quran (Al Fatiha, translated both as "The Opening" and as "The Key") as the key to Islam's relationship with all other religions. It is clear from the added interpretations given in my copy of the Quran that 1:7 can readily refer quite specifically to the other main faiths competing with Islam at the time of its formation, viz, Christianity and Judaism. Whether the Christians or the Jews are specifically intended under the terms "those upon whom Thy wrath is brought down" and "those who go astray", one thing is quite clear to me, both groups of people are non-Muslims and all non-Muslims from that time to this have been identified by Muslims as belonging to one or other or (more usually) both groups.

As a non-Muslim, I am perceived by any Muslim I meet, any Muslim at all, as a person who incurs the wrath of Allah and/or goes astray. As a non-Muslim, I am perceived by any Muslim I meet, any Muslim at all, as a person requiring correction or modification of some sort. That sentiment has been expressed to me (not to my face but on internet forums) by quite ordinary Muslims in the form of accusing me of being "blind, deaf and dumb", of suffering from vague forms of insanity and dementia, and even of being plagued by ringworms and irritant skin diseases. In every case, from the mild to the more abusive, I have felt spat on.

I have responded, in the end, by spitting back.

My challenge to any Muslim reading this: Tell me how the Fatiha is not an act of spitting on all non-Muslims first and last. Tell me how it signals* any other world but one in which I, as a non-Mohammadan, can live in full and equal dignity, respected unreservedly for my own faith and my own way of approaching God. Tell me, please, for I really cannot see it and I quite simply don't accept that the fault lies in any defect of my own metaphorical eyesight.

* Update: I've just reread this sentence carefully and I can see now that it says the very opposite of what I intended! It asks the very opposite of the question before it. And yet I have received two anonymous responses today that failed to note this slip of the tongue. Oh well, I'll leave it in place just for the curiosity of it.

* Update 6apr07: More info at Jihad Watch here.


At Saturday, 29 April, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all you need to have an open mind cuz you can not see what you do not want to see.

This opening verse(s)/"sura" is a prayer that every muslim performs orally . It is not meant to be look as preaching hatred whatsoever. Infact this thing is what helps you bring closer to your God- Allah in this case.

I am a by-stander in this case with no as such affiliation to any belief or faith but when i read those translations i did not see where it was taunting non believers as you have suggested. I just hope you open your eyes as your allegations are pretty much baseless.

At Saturday, 29 April, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For a muslim, any non-believer can not possibly be at the same level spiritually but that does not mean that non believers are doomed to hell just because they are non-believer!!! That is just plain stupid logic.

There are several instances in islamic period where muslims and non-believers lived together peacefully for many years and they won the hearts of non believers by their deeds.

If someone says that you are blah blah blah. Dont blame it on the religion but the prejudices that that person may have for you.

Its no wonder Islam is so mis interpreted in west. When so-called ""EXPERTS"" come and air their opinion on national broadcast and lo-and-behold every one takes their word on it withpout even thinking what he has just said.

Talk about Da Vinci code. If someone would have wrote that kind of book against Islam, there would be hell lot of violence but i do not understand why the churches are silenced over this matter because apparently this book has questioned the most fundamental belief of christians and yet it has managed to sell 40 million books in the WEST. Either people dont care aout it or .... whatever

At Saturday, 29 April, 2006, Blogger Arizona said...

To the first anonymous commenter, I can only ask that you yourself open your mind and see what it is that I am seeing. I think I've cleaned the window to this insight enough that it's up to you to actually open your eyes and see.

To the second anonymous commenter, you should re-read your Quran: non-believers are indeed confined to hell. Your very opening statement that I, as a non-Muslim, "can not possibly be at the same level spiritually" only confirms for me that you have swallowed the message of the fatiha hook, line and sinker. It demonstrates the very arrogance and religious intolerance that I am drawing attention to. I don't believe in your God but I believe in many good things like Truth and Justice and if spiritual levels do exist outside of our imaginations then I can stand higher than you any day. In truth and fairness, however, I think this whole spiritual levels thing is childish nonsense.

At Saturday, 29 April, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a reader of Rumi, you should be aware of the levels of witnessing. At the universal level all those who submit themselves to the Creator of the universe (including all of the natural world, animals, minerals and vegetables) are 'muslim' in the generic sense, because that is simply what the word means: one who is in a state of submission to God. It is at this universal level that Rumi could write about the second specific level: "What is to be done, O Muslims? For I do not recognize myself. I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Magian, nor Muslim." It is also at this level that the Qur'an calls Abraham a muslim (see Kabir Helminski's comments on

At the specific level a Muslim is one who follows the teachings and rituals that the Prophet Muhammad was commissioned to impart to humanity. There are many Muslims who forget the generic level and think that being a Muslim is only about their own specific shari'a, but the Qur'an also says (in translation):

"Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ." (5:48)

So if you can understand that the Qur'an defines categories of people differently than simply Muslim or non-Muslim, then you can understand that the censures in al-Fatiha apply specifically to groups of people who are in the process of rejecting or ignoring God. (BTW that could include so-called 'Muslims' such as the group called the Hypocrites: those who outwardly appear to be submitting to the will of God but are inwardly rejecting it.)

Umm Yasmin

At Saturday, 29 April, 2006, Blogger Arizona said...

Thank you, Maryam (or Umm), for a longish commentary on this post. I hope you've bookmarked this page and will return to see my own response.

I've just been reading Salim Mansur here and he makes a similar distinction but talks of the shell of Islam and the esoteric pearl within, images similar to what Rumi and other Sufis might use. He further writes:

Who official Islam consider heretics, the Sufis for instance, read the Qur’an esoterically, understand it in terms of its hidden meaning (batin), and in this reading the Qur’an itself becomes an apostate to official Islam (as it does for instance in the reading by Rumi, who was a judge and jurist).

This is the paradox: to become a true Muslim, you *must* apostasize.

What I hold against your own analysis (and that also of Mansur) is that it simply plays the *same* game, only "lifted" to a different level. (And I don't think Rumi is guilty of this, btw.) You still divide the world into different *people*: those who believe at the universal level and those at the merely specific or formal level.

This analysis, like the Quran itself, assumes that a person's belief and behaviour is unitary and uniform (as you'd expect from a monotheism). People just aren't like that: one moment a man is angry and violent, the next moment he is purring to his sweetheart like a big pussycat. Under whatever moral system you choose, a man will walk along the straight path today, then get it all wrong the next, and finally on the third day forget there even is a moral system to guide his actions.

It is far better to refer to wrong *behaviours* or wrong *thoughts and feelings* (if you really must make such judgments). That way you might make a little progress in avoiding projecting your own mistakes and forgetfulness onto other people instead of owning them as part of your human nature.

Wording is very very important and it is my assertion that the writer of the Quran worded this verse badly. You can think of it as God erring (which He can do since He is, after all, omnipotent and hence capable of anything) or you can think of it as Mohammad hearing it wrong. I don't mind. I'm just trying to point to a mischievous error in wording that is at the very core of Islam. It is also at the very beginning of Islam in that many a Muslim mother sings the Fatiha to her baby as a lullaby. It is the first thing the Muslim learns.

I appreciate the efforts of Muslim reformers but they do often retreat to the Quran and to historically contextual interpretations (this bit applied then, not now). I'm throwing out this challenge to the very heart of Islam.

And your own reply has not been entirely satisfactory.


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