“In the Name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate
1. Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds;
2. The Merciful, The Compassionate;
3. Master of the day of Requital;
4. You do we serve and You do we beseech for help;
5. Guide US on the straight path;
6. The path of those whom you have favored;
7. Not those upon whom is wrath and not those who are lost.” (Surah Al-Fatihah, 1:1-7)
Volumes upon volumes have been written on the Qur’an’s opening surah, even though it consists of only seven short verses, but we, my fellow travelers, have only time enough to pause for a few very brief observations.
The first verse indicates a hymn of praise, to God, "the Lord of the worlds." The divine names, "The Merciful, The Compassionate," appearing in the second, head every surah but one (the ninth) and are among the most frequently mentioned attributes of God, both in the Qur'an and by Muslims in their everyday speech. The mood abruptly changes in verse two as it reawakens deep-seated anxieties and conflicts. No sooner are God's mercy and compassion emphasized than we are threatened with the "Day of Requital." Would it not have been more tactful to postpone such considerations, to wait until the reader is a little more comfortable with and confident in the Qur'an? Assertions about God’s mercy, compassion, gentleness, or love never drove us from religion, but warnings of a Day of Judgment, of Hell, of eternal damnation that we found impossible to harmonize with mercy and compassion, did.
The fourth verse goes even deeper into the quagmire as it reminds us that service is rendered and pleas for help are directed to the very creator of the predicament from which we seek salvation. Far from allowing us to warm up to its message, the scripture wastes no time recalling our com plaints against religion. We will discover that this is a persistent tactic of the Qur'an; that it repeatedly agitates the skeptic by confronting him with his personal objections. We will soon see that this Qur'an is no soft sell nor hard sell; that in reality it is no sell at all; that it is no less than a challenge, a dare, to fight and argue against this book.
We can relate to the last three verses all too readily. Life is a chaotic puzzle, a random and confusing maze of paths and choices that lead nowhere but to broken dreams, empty accomplishments, unfulfilled expectations, and one mirage after another. Is there a right path, or are all in the end equally meaningless? Note the transition from personal to impersonal in verses six and seven, as if to say that to obtain the "straight path" is a divine favor conferred on those who seek and heed divine guidance and that those who do not follow divine guidance are exposed to all of life's impersonal, unfeeling wrath, and utter loss and delusion. This wrath and loss we know well, for we have absorbed life's anger and aimlessness and made it our own; it is our argument for the nonexistence of a personal God and the foundation of our philosophy.
We moved through the seven verses quickly. There was a subtle shift in mood from the first four that glorified God to the last three that asked for guidance. More than likely our first reading of them was so casual that we did not observe the change. It was not until we had finished the opening surah that we realized that we had just involuntarily and semiconsciously made a supplication. We were almost tricked into it before we had a chance to resist. The beginning of the next surah will inform us that whether we consciously intended it or not, our prayer has reached its destination and that it is about to receive an answer.
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