Surah 1: “The Opening of the Book is a cure to every poison”

The first chapter (surah al-Fatihah) of the Qur’an is special for a lot of reasons. Firstly, it is the only one that is out of the Qur’an’s normal order, which in virtually every publication has its chapters arranged from longest to shortest, as I’ve mentioned. Secondly, it is (probably) one of the only chapters that is provided to us in almost the chronological order by which it was “received” by Muhammed.

According to Islamic tradition, the Qur’an was provided orally to Muhammed by an angel whose Anglicized name is Gabriel, and was then recited orally by Muhammed to his early followers. If it is true that this chapter was among the first ones “received” by Muhammed, then that would place its original creation sometime in the year 609. (Islamic tradition holding that the Qur’an preexisted Muhammed eternally notwithstanding; this is all pure myth-making on the part of later Islamic philosophers.)

The exact history of the first commitment of the Qur’an to writing is complicated and inconsistent so I will save my thoughts on it for a later post. That being said, what record we have of the earliest companions of Muhammed are more or less consistent in asserting that what we today know as Surah 1: the Opening was, indeed, chronologically one of the earliest parts of the Qur’an written down. Al-Zanjani’s fabulously detailed chronological order of the Qur’an, which I will treat as authoritative based on its consistency with both Islamic and Western academic treatment of the question until somebody gives me reason to think otherwise, places it as the fifth chapter received by Muhammed.

A note on terminology: “received” is a word I will be using here and there just as shorthand for “probably made up by Muhammed.” I understand that a plain reading of “received” could give the reader the impression that I believe that a magic being actually orally delivered the text of the Qur’an to Muhammed; this, in my view, is nonsense, but since my differences with the believer in Islam are clear enough there is no need to belabor them.

Here is its entire text as translated by Yusuf Ali:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

There is a rich and fascinating commentary on this Surah. It plays a central role in Islamic prayer and poetry and it has attracted voluminous scholarly work from sources both Islamic and non on its language. The modern call to prayer (adhan, which if you are from the Islamic world have heard many times a day; if you are in the Western world, you have probably heard it being played as ominous opening music to bad movies that take place in the Middle East) opens with the words of this chapter.

One of Muhammed’s earliest companions, a man named Abu Sai’id, provided the quote that opens this post to ad-Darimi. (You may have heard the term hadith, which refers to the words and sayings of the first generation of Muslims other than Muhammed, and usually means somebody who claims to have personally known him; Abu Sa’id is such a person, ad-Darimi recorded his words. I think that we have a lot of reasons to believe that many of the haditha we have received are apocryphal at best; again, another time). There is even a hadith of al-Bukhari asserting that no prayer is valid that does not begin with the words of the Opening.

The Opening has a rich history and sophisticated poetic style. But this is the Jefferson Qur’an, and so I must unpeel the superstitious gobbledygook to deliver a purer product. My edits are as follows:

1. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2. Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;
3. Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4. Master of the Day of Judgment.
5. Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6. Show us the straight way,
7. 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 way,
The way of those who go not astray.

There is a part of me that would strike the whole chapter since it is a prayer to one of the many gods I do not believe in. I do not believe that prayer serves any purpose other than to vocalize the personal desires of those who pray, and that nobody is there to hear them (unless that prayer is the adhan, in which case many millions of people are forced to hear it many times a day).

I do, however, very much appreciate the sentiment that lies behind the prayer, which I am sure is the sentiment also appreciated by those many Muslims who venerate the Opening beyond merely its excellent writing. The opening beseeches God for guidance on the quest for truth. I do not believe in God but I, too, fervently crave the truth wherever it lies. I think that the skeptical community and the community of secularists and atheists around the world would hardly disagree.

We skeptical and atheistic types, in my experience, have a deep (some would say exaggerated) love for the natural sciences precisely because it is such a powerful tool for honest, accurate inquiry into the world around us. I sometimes bemoan that same community’s disdain for the humanities (I am biased because, before I went to law school, I was in it for the money and so I studied philosophy and music in college), but recognize that that disdain can come from a sincere respect only for those disciplines that are focused razor-like on objective and accurate truth.

The truth is important and the truth matters. The Opening acknowledges this and goes a step further and in fact pleads for truth, it begs the empty sky for it – as I, in moments of quiet reflection, will plumb my own beliefs for falsehood and inconsistency. I am sure that many Muslims do as well, and are heartened each day by a prayer that joins them in openly pleading for help and guidance. I join with them not in this or any other prayer, but in a heartfelt and sincere yearning for truth both human and scientific.

And so the Jefferson Qur’an and the Qur’an itself open with a plea for a straight path to truth. The Muslim pleads to God for guidance; I plead merely in general. Perhaps I am pleading to you. As I have said here and throughout, I desperately encourage your criticism and corrections on any points historical, liturgical, literary, or in any other form. The next post will provide a little more context on the historical origins of the Qur’an, on the distinction between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses (the Opening is likely a Meccan chapter), and other historical details that will be crucial for understanding the sublimely mundane Surah 2: Al-Baqarah, the Heifer.

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