Event Review: Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan “Rediscovering the Fatihah”
What: Rediscovering the Fatihah
Where: Sunctec City Convention Center
Who: Ustazh Nouman Ali Khan
When: 7 September 2013
By: Bayyinah Institute (USA) and Youth Alive Discourse (MUIS)
For any avid follower of Ustazh Nouman Ali Khan who has been voraciously reading his articles and watching his talks and videos over the past few years, Ustazh’s three-hour lecture at the Suntec City Convention Center would have been a rather monumental moment.
Consequently, it was no surprise then that when I arrived at the venue, half an hour before registration ended, I was met by a 300m long queue of participants, some of whom had been here for the past hour. The predominantly young crowd boasted familiar faces, participants whom I had previously met at other talks organized by Youth Alive Discourse, and unsurprisingly the ladies easily usurped the gents in numbers yet again.
Depths of the Qur’an
Anyone who has watched his lectures would also know that Ustazh is exceptional when it comes to going through Tafseer. The Tafseer lecture, which was conjointly organized by MUIS’ Youth Alive Discourse along with the Bayyinah Institute, entitled “Rediscovering the Fatihah”, unpacked each line of the first Surah in the Quran.
Ustazh detailed the perfection within each syllable of the Surah, voyaged with us through the multiple meanings of each word, unpacked the syntax and grammar of each verse and even the very structure of the Surah – finally arriving at the ultimate conclusion that the opener to the guiding text of the world’s largest growing religion encapsulates inimitable perfection and symmetry – a product only of Divine craft.
If there is one thing you had taken away from the lecture it would be that there is so much more depth to every single line in the Quran. It would be both simplistic and over-ambitious for any of us to lay claim to having understood the meaning of the Quran from reading it simply because, too much has been lost in translation.
Imagine the amount of time and dedication it would take to even begin understanding the Quran in its most basic form if the 6 lines of the Fatihah took a 3 hour lecture (and I suspect Ustazh was already tailoring all he had to say to the running time).
Perhaps another point that stood out was that the miracle of the Quran lay far beyond the meaning you derive at first read. Linguistic and metalinguistic analysis, cross-referencing with Hadiths and a detailed exploration of even why a word was used as a noun as opposed to a verb reveals a multi-faceted, multi-layered text where all the layers and facets meet in confluence to communicate a simple message but in the most elegantly poetic of ways.
And whats that simple single message? According to Ustazh, the Quran can be summed up in one sentence:
[blockquote style=”1″]“That we are but servants, and Allah is master.”[/blockquote]
That being said, the opener to the Quran, which is also the first complete surah to be revealed, zooms right into the heart of its meaning. The servant-master relationship between us and Allah swt is a cornerstone of the Surah and in 7 lyrical lines, the parameters of this relationship is communicated to us.
“The most beautiful Surah of the Quran is the first complete Surah given to Rasulullah (peace be upon him)” – Ustazh Nouman Ali Khan.
Themes of Surah al-Fatihah
The Fatihah is built upon the themes, Action and Knowledge. The Surah begins with knowledge and ends with Action (as I will elaborate later). At the beginning we are introduced to Allah, and our relationship with Him and we conclude with the supplication to turn our knowledge into actions. The Surah also concludes with us asking Allah to prevent us from being of those who know yet act wrongly (Maghdub) and from those who do not know better and as a result act wrongly (daal).
The thematic analysis of the Surah reveals a symmetry, which is further illustrated when we break the Surah up into three key parts. The first, talks of Allah (his introduction), the second refers to our relationship with him (the agreement that He is Master and we are slave) and lastly, is our own supplication for us.
Grammatically, the first part uses Nouns which are inherently permanent thereby matching Allah’s embodiment of infinity, while the second part is written with both Nouns and Verbs (a representation of Allah’s permanence and our impermanence) and the conclusion, written in Verb which alludes to tenses and consequently an impermanence that our temporal nature embodies.
These two examples of symmetry that can be fleshed out in a reading of the Fatihah is just a couple of the many dichotomies that it illustrates including the balance between Praise & Thanks, Hope & Responsibility and Knowledge & Action.
Ustazh used a lot of stories, metaphors and allegories which made his 3-hour lecture easy to understand. He packed the talk with heaps of information that many of us have overlooked and taken for granted, highlighted the many miracles embedded within the 7 lines of the Surah and revealed the universality of the themes in something that was revealed centuries ago.
Personally, Ustazh talk was one that struck me as very informative and “meaty”. At the same time, the rigor with which he examined the Tafseer called for an audience which was already privy to at the very least a moderate understanding of not only the Fatihah, but more importantly, a well-rounded understanding of the faith itself.
Ustazh’s talk was largely underscored by the balance between Mercy and Justice; a dichotomy which I felt required more time and attention.
Coming from a society whose early education in Islam was one that was built upon the “Haram/Halal” or “mis-whack” school of thought, I personally wished that Ustazh had looped back to Allah’s unquantifiable, infinite, expansive mercy after we spoke of Justice (punishment, rather) instead of ending on that note.
Or perhaps, we all needed that reminder.
Tafseer of the Fatihah
The rest of this article dives into the Tafseer of the Fatihah and through it I hope you will gain a better understanding of the discussions aforementioned and also at the very least a glimmer of the wonderful lecture delivered by Ustazh Nouman Ali Khan.
Most of us would be most familiar with the following translation of the Fatihah:
Al hamdu lillaahi rabbil ‘alameen
1. All the praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the ‘Alamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists).
2. The Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful.
Maaliki yaumid Deen
3. The Only Owner (and the Only Ruling Judge) of the Day of Recompense (i.e. the Day of Resurrection)
Iyyaaka na’abudu wa iyyaaka nasta’een
4. You (Alone) we worship, and You (Alone) we ask for help (for each and everything).
Ihdinas siraatal mustaqeem
5. Guide us to the Straight Way
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim,
6. The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace,
Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim waladaaleen
7. Not (the way) of those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor of those who went astray (such as the Christians).
– The word “hamd” has two meanings – both “thanks” and “to praise”. We would notice that thanks could exist without praise, just as we could be praising something without thanking anyone for it. Unlike the word Syukr, hamd is not a reaction to something, as we would say “Thank You” as a reaction to something that has been said or happened to us. Instead of being reactionary, hamd is actually a declaration (an active rather than re-active word).
Also, instead of using the word “and” between Thanks and Praise, Allah swt specifically chooses to use a word that encapsulates both meanings. This results in “Alhamdulillah” being more than a statement, but a mindset too. It forces us to declare the reality that everything is from Allah swt and that we should always be thankful for it. In that same vein, it forces us to don an attitude also grounded in humility by never taking praise for anything.
– Being a noun as opposed to a verb, “hamd” earns two other qualities – that it is permanent as it is without tense, and that it doesn’t require a Subject (like a verb would), suggesting on a metalinguistic level that “Alhamdulillah” is a declaration and attitude which awkwardly translates to “Infinite and timeless praise and Infinite and timeless thanks is always due to Allah swt”
– as opposed to “lillahilhamd” as we would say in the Takbir, (which translates to ONLY Allah), “Alhamdulillah” does not make that declaration. Not because it isn’t true but because it insinuates that the knowledge that there is only one Lord would already be imbibed within the monotheic Muslim.
– The word “Rab” translates to “Lord” however it simultaneously explicates the qualities of this Lord: That He is the 1. Owner (inversely I would own nothing) 2. He Is the Ensurer of Growth 3. Gives Gifts (to us) 4. Completely Independent and that 5. He has Full Authority.
– In this closing of the first sentence of the verse, we are introduced to the crux of our existence, that Allah is our Rab who owns us, gives us gifts, ensures our growth, upon whom we are completely dependant as only He has full authority, making us His abd or slave.
– Alameen translates a meaning beyond all the worlds (or the dimensions as we know it of the Djinn and our own for example) to “all the nations”, “all the worlds of people”. This statement insinuates more than the one message that we get that he was and has always been ruling and sustaining all words, but also that all nations and dimensions are equal and deserve respect – an education we all could do with.
– Rahman and Raheem both refer to specifically extreme love, care, concern and mercy.
– Rahman: Refers to an immediate but temporary love, care, concern and mercy. This alludes to the fact that in that moment of recitation we are recipients of the extreme love, care, concern and mercy but at the same time we must not take advantage of it as being temporary, it can be taken away too.
– Rahim alludes to the same set of characteristics however instead of being temporary and immediate it denotes that it is one that is permanent and not necessarily immediate.
– Put together, the cousin of Rasulullah (peace be upon him), Ibn Abbas, said “Rahman is for the Duniya and Raheem for Akhirah”. The completeness, SubhanAllah!
Maaliki yaumid Deen
– Juxtaposed with the previous verse on love and mercy, this verse reminds us that at the end of the day we will still face Allah swt’s Justice and that we should not take advantage of the Rahmah and Raheem we receive.
– Ust Khan used the allegory of a master-slave to explain this: There was once a master who drew a line on the floor using chalk and told the slave that he could do whatever he desired behind this line – but never to cross the line. The slave followed his orders for years and one day, he fell down with one leg over the line by accident.
Immediately he got up and looked around, finding his master sitting at the porch looking at him. The slave dusted himself off and continued with his business before the chalk line as he always did. The next day, he pretended to fall down with both legs beyond the line. He did the same thing and the unflinching master didn’t seem bothered.
Subsequently the slave began walking on the chalk line, and then walking over it and soon enough he was wandering beyond the line. His master, again seemed unbothered, only smiled acknowledging the slave. One day, the master called the slave and asked him, “do you remember I told you not to cross the line?”, laughingly the slave replied that he did – thinking that it was no matter since he had crossed over it for so long. And at that moment, the master pulled out a record detailing the exact number of times to slave had blatantly disobeyed him.
And that allegory is a microcosm of all our realities that we too, one day will be called to account for all our mistakes and wrongdoings by our master, Allah. Ust rounded off the story with one take-away that, “ don’t think you can take advantage of all the Rahmah and Raheem you have received, because you may be disqualified from it”.
– We are making a claim that we are Allah’s abd, his slave. And in doing so, we surrender that He knows best.
– Being a slave means that we live by our Master’s rule and if we are actively involved in the haram and we claim this, we are being hypocritical.
wa iyyaaka nasta’een
– We are seeking His help in being his slave.
– The root word, Istinana, suggests the seeking of help as we are actively doing something. This suggests that we can only seek Allah’s help to be better slaves if we help ourselves first.
– Looking at the syntax of the entire verse, we realize that our first declaration is to Allah (that we are His slave) and the second half is for ourselves (that we require His help)
– dina refers to guidance. Grammatically, it specifically refers to help for a collective, where we see the Surah switch from individual to collective – instead of asking Allah to help “me” we seek his help for “us”.
– Interestingly, instead of asking Allah for Knowledge, we seek his Guidance – a crucial difference as again we are declaring that we need Him to give us the strength, commitment and will to do the right thing in addition to merely knowing what is the right thing to do.
– We are not just asking for mere direction, rather, guidance to and through the straight path, all the way till its end.
– “Sirat” implies a wide, straight, dangerous and long path. This connotes that it is a path on which many people can travel on, an extension of the movement to a collective desire as opposed to the individual prayer.
– Implies rising as opposed to traveling straight. The connotation of rising upwards suggests two things:
– That we are going to a more lofty realm of Allah
– And like climbing a mountain, a greater ascent only means a greater and worse fall. Which is why we ask for His guidance for all of us as we ascend on a dangerous, long, wide path towards Him, and protection as we proceed through till our journey’s completion.
Siraatal ladheena an ‘amta’ alaihim,
– The past tense is used here to suggest that it is not a path upon which Allah will shower his Mercy but has already paved with grace and mercy. By asking for this we are asking the Almighty to place us upon a path of guaranteed favor.
Ghairil maghduubi’ alaihim
– “Maghdub” being a noun instead of a verb, suggests it is permanent and infinite. The people in this phrase are those who had knowledge yet chose to ignore guidance. We are asking Allah to prevent us from being from these people upon whom Anger (not JUST His Anger) has been directed to, an Anger which is bound by permanency which in turn means that this Anger is one that never ceases.
– “daal” refers to those who are Lost: we are completing our supplication to be relieved of being from those who know yet disobey and those whom disobey from ignorance.
Bio of the speaker:
Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan is the founder and CEO of Bayyinah, as well as the lead instructor for a number of Bayyinah courses including the ‘Fundamentals of Classical Arabic’ and ‘Divine Speech’. His first exposure to Arabic study was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where he completed his elementary education.
He continued Arabic grammar study in Pakistan, where he received a scholarship for ranking among the top 10 scores in the national Arabic studies board examinations in 1993. But his serious training in Arabic began in the United States in 1999 under Dr. Abdus-Samie, founder and formal principal of Quran College, Faisalabad, Pakistan who happened to be touring the US for intensive lectures in Tafseer and Arabic studies.
Currently he has dedicated himself to a seven-year-long project, of conducting a linguistic & literary focus Qur’anic Tafseer series in English including Bayinnah.tv and Bayinnah.com.
Farah is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, studying Communications and New Media. She aspires to be a change-maker, ground-breaker, time-shifting, paradise-seeker.