THE first ayat of the Al Fatihah is roughly translated as “In the name of Allah, the most gracious (ar rahman) and the most beneficent (ar raheem)”. “Roughly translated” is a necessary caveat; certainty is not my forte.
To invoke means to cite or appeal to a higher authority. For Muslims, this supreme authority is Allah. The laity invoke the constitution; royalists, the king. With the former, you would need lawyers to plead your case; with kings, their courtiers. Islam, unlike other religions, does not put any intermediary between you and Allah. Moreover, with judges and kings, you would see the tangible consequences of their interventions. It is not the same with Allah. Believing in him and his power is a matter of faith.
Ar rahman and ar raheem have the same root as rahim (womb), a powerful feminine imagery. Despite this, Allah is always mentioned in the masculine. I have not yet found an explanation for this anomaly and this tradition.
Rahim carries a womb/fetus relationship between God and mortals, of nurturer, support and protector. It also implies essentiality – an embryo needs a uterus to develop, artificial wombs notwithstanding. This imagery also alludes to limits or boundaries; likewise with mortals and Allah. Once we cross that boundary, our relationship with Him changes and ends, like an aborted fetus to its mother. This is the central message of all scriptures.
The second ayat begins with al hamdu and ends with rabb bil alameen, before going to the third, which takes up the two most frequent attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheem. Al hamdu is often translated as praise. It involves more – recognition, satisfaction and above all gratitude. The phrase is pronounced after a good meal, a lucky break or upon receiving good news. “Syukur”, gratitude, expresses a similar meaning.
Imagine, al hamdu, just a short but heartfelt praise for Allah. Compare that to the long, embellished tributes we bestow on our sultans and other mortals! As for the syukur, just being able to wake up and recite al hamdu in our Fajar prayers is recognition enough. Think of those who couldn’t. Life is precious! Al Fatihah reminds us of our good fortune and not to take it for granted.
The traditional translation of raab bil aalameen is “lord of the universe”. The Malay word for God is Tuhan, only one letter longer than tuan (master). Have you ever wondered why the Malay sultans and tuans are aloof and imperious, a deferential slave master and non-questioning relationship with those who govern them? The Malays go above and beyond. We sembah our sultans and other rulers, treating them like gods. I have no problem with that as long as they act as our saviors. More often than not, they are just looters, deserving not our sembah but the sumpah (curse).
There are other words similar to rabb, as with maliki, the beginning of the third ayat. Tarbiyah (to nurture or develop one’s full potential) has the same root as rabb; hence the schools of tarbiyah. In this context, rabb means less of a lord, more of a nurturer as a teacher for his students.
As for alameen, the Malay word alam (universe) derives from it; hence the accepted translation, Lord of the Universe. Alam also has the same root as ilm, knowledge; hence the Malay word ilmu. This sentence could therefore be translated as “God who has endowed us with tools to acquire knowledge”. This tool is our God-given senses and faculties, including the akal (intellect). Scientists peering into outer space or biologists exploring the inner secrets of viruses wield the full meaning of alameen.
The ancient Muslims did just that; hence the flowering of knowledge in the golden age of Islam. They were not at all perturbed or hesitant to learn from the atheistic Greeks or the hedonistic Romans. For these early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge; everything ultimately comes from Allah.
When Muslims express themselves on any subject, they always end with the humble expression Allah hu alam, only Allah knows better. This implies that their interpretations or conclusions are only tentative, until someone else can come up with a more meaningful one. This makes the arrogant certainties of many Malay ulama shocking, even “anti-Islamic”!
Today’s fashion for the “Islamization of knowledge”, and the refusal to learn or even acknowledge the contributions of the secular West, is an arrogant assumption that there is a uniquely Islamic version of knowledge and wisdom. All knowledge ultimately emanates from Him. Whether He chose to dispense the vision of the concept of zero to a Hindu, of the secret of gravity to an Englishman, or of the structure of the poliomyelitis virus to a Jew is not for us to question but to learn, to use and add to that wisdom.
Among the 99 attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheem are most often paired. Some interpret rahman as a name, an attribute, while raheem, an action. Others would like the first to apply to all his creations; raheem only to believers. This later interpretation would not correspond to its attribute of justice.
Ar-rahman always precedes ar raheem. The beginning and the end of a sentence are two pivotal positions; the middle, minus. The first for emphasis; the end, what you remember the most. This implies that ar raheem deserves a higher status than ar rahman. However ar rahman has an entire sura (55) named after him. Ar raheem does not deserve this honor.
Why not other agreements, such as al adil (the just) and al ahad (the unique), or al badi (the incomparable) and al baaqi (the eternal)? Both pairs have comparable striking alliteration; the second rhymes too! In the words of Syrian engineer turned Quran commentator Muhamad Shahrour, Allah was precise in his choice and sequence of words in revealing the Quran. So there must be a reason for this particular pairing and sequence. It’s up to us to find out.
If the sequence ar rahman and ar raheem is for some poetic reason, to rhyme with the rest of Surah Al Fatihah, it would only add to the cynicism expressed by the early detractors of the Prophet who dismissed him as a mere poet, and the Koran, poetry.
As is obvious, although I’ve pronounced bismillah a million times, I’m still looking for answers as to why it’s ar rahman ar raheem, and not the other way around. – April 8, 2022.
* Mr. Bakri Musa reads The Malaysian Insight.