In the name of God,
the Compassionate, the Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds,
most compassionate, ever merciful
King of the Day of Judgment.
You alone we worship
and you alone we ask for help.
Guide us to the straight path,
the path of those whom you have blessed,
not of those who have deserved Your anger
or of those who went astray.
The first surah of the Quran is called 'Al Fatiha'. Most often this is rightfully translated as 'the opening'. We can indeed see it as a piece of text that functions as a portal, as a low arch that forces the one who wishes to enter the Quran to bow down, show humility and kneel in front of God – just like a Muslim prayer is performed.
It is of course to be expected that these words would not just be an introduction but also a prayer for only in this way they immediately bring the reader of the Quran to the peaceful spiritual surrender which is the very meaning of the word 'Islam'.
Yet I believe we can also call these verses 'the opening' because Al Fatiha is in fact the key that unlocks all the other surahs within the Quran.
I have come to realise that every holy book can only be grasped when the reader has some keys that open the window of the broader perspective. That is to say, every holy book can only be properly understood when the reader is aware of the basic premises that form the undercurrent of the thoughts and truths it expresses. One of the keys that helps to understand almost all holy books is for example the knowledge that we need to leave behind the suffocating attachments of our ego if we wish to become free souls. Another example is that the New Testament cannot be truly understood without the key of the realization that God is a God of love and that His love sustains creation. And Al Fatiha is yet another such example since this small surah is the most subtle and impressive summary of the whole of Quran.
Let us therefore have a closer look at the seperate verses. The first and most important aspect is a remarkable repetition in these otherwise very concise and non-repetitive verses: God is not only addressed as Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim (the compassionate and the merciful) in the first verse but he is also described as such in the second. This repetition immediately shows which aspect of God is the most important throughout the Quran and as such it is implied that all other interpretations we make of different verses of the Quran have to be consistend with these principles. The fact that God is addressed as Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim at the start of almost all surahs is a clear emphasis thereof.
Thus, if God is the king of the day of judgement, as is written in the following verse, it isn't because he's a cold-hearted ruler but because he's an embracing king who cares for the world. His justice stems from his benevolence. The very use of the phrasing 'Ar-Rahman' and 'Ar-Rahim' shows this most clearly since these words are related to the Arabic word for 'womb' (rahim) thus invoking the notion that God's presence in this world should not be seen as a demanding force but as a warm protective surrounding from which life originates.
However, if God is truly caring, truly protective and truly life-giving, He needs to be just as well. That is why the Quran at various points also expresses the idea that our actions will be weighed. The holy book is very straightforward about it: in the end, our soul will have to answer to God. He is not only a King, but he is also indeed 'the King of the day of Judgement'. That is to say: at one point in time our lives will be put in front of a 'mirror of the divine'. We will be confronted with how much we deviated from the attributes of the divine. We will look upon ourselves and will see the image of what we have been. At that moment, those that chose to do evil will be frightened by their own ugliness, but those that chose to be benevolent will see the divine light shine through them.
Those that deserved God's anger are in that sense the people who consistently chose the path of arrogance, anger and aggression. Those that went astray are the people who were ignorant of the divine aspect of life because they were too self-absorbed. And those that walked the path of God are the people who might have made mistakes but eventually always chose to try to forgive, who aimed for peace and who were benevolent themselves.
One of the central aspects of the faith of Islam therefore consists in believing that there is no escape from this compassionate justice of the 'mirror of the divine'. And the reason why there is no escape is very simply because there is no God but God. As it says in the first verse: God is the true master of all the worlds. This is not an expression of pompous grandeur but of subtle faith for what it says is not 'bow and tremble' but rather 'God's compassion is the true law of this universe'. So if God is the lord of all the worlds, it's exactly because He is the ever benevolent and not because He's an aggressive or indifferent creator.
It is the initial claim of the Quran then that, unlike what so many people think, wealth, nor status, nor power rule our world. What truly rules our world is compassion, love and gentle divinity. And those that ignore these virtues will, in the end, be confronted with their own ugliness while those that live in accordance with them will find true peace.
What Christians can learn
The contemporary Christian world often shows a tendency to forget the primacy of God. This forgetfulness manifests itself in two forms: the obsession with Christ as God's image and the obsession with 'saving others'.
The first obsession is produced by constantly focussing on Christ's historical, spiritual and theological meaning so that they forget to see the Father that works through the Son. They are so blinded by being a Christian that they forget to follow God.
Sure, according to Christian tradition Christ will come at the end and separate the good from the wicked. But Islamic tradition upholds the same belief. For Muslims have understood that if Christ would do so, it is only because God will do so through Him. It is God which is the eternal judge, so above all we should open the ears of our heart and the eyes of our soul to God and try to feel what He inspires us to. All in all, that is also what Christ asked of us.
And if we do indeed focus our attention primarily on God as such, we will also see the obsession to 'save others' more clearly. For it is as if Christians often feel the need to 'sacrifice' themselves 'just like Christ did'. Yet we aren't Christ. We can perhaps try to be like Christ but we won't do so by sacrificing ourselves all the time to help others. Obsessively sacrificing ourselves 'to help others' is a mimicking of Christ's behaviour instead and not sincerely acting from Christ's spirit. We can only try to be like Christ by opening up to God and by living from God's love as much as we can. For it wasn't Christ's sacrifice that made Him Christ, it was his complete devotion to God. And it was God that sent Him to people, not his preconceived idea of what He should do to be 'a good Christian'.
Questions for Muslims
If the verses of Al Fatiha are the key that opens the meaning of the Quran and if these sentences are therefore the most profound expression of the essential truth of the message that was given to Prophet Muhammad – and many scholars agree with me on this – then why do so many Muslims all over the world cling to petty details to define their Islam? I might be mistaken, but it seems to me that Islam today is often (and perhaps even increasingly) being 'locked' instead of 'opened' by those who claim Islam is about rigorously following specific rules like wearing a headscarf, limiting your food to certain products, growing a beard like the prophet, and so on.
Sure enough, a lot of sociology of religion has described Islam as an orthopraxis, a religion that has a strong emphasis on following rituals and traditional rules. Just like Judaism. And I'm well aware of the fact that it is also often experienced in this way by many Muslims. But in fact, Al Fatiha shows that this perhaps shouldn't be the case.
Al Fatiha clearly states that the divine is all forgiving. This means that even if we breach the rules, we can always return to the divine. Not in the least because the rules aren't always clear and because certain contexts often raise certain dilemma's. It is, in the end, only God who can judge whether we took the right decision or followed the correct rule in certain difficult times of our lives. For, as Al Fatiha clearly states: God is the master of the day of judgement, not we. And thus it isn't the books, the scholars or the imams that can judge every aspect of life for theirs is only a human interpretation of God's law, it isn't God's law itself.
So God is indeed the one who will be weigh our acts – or better said, his love is indeed the mirror in which our soul is reflected – but let us never forget that 'the judge' is but one of his 99 names. If 'the judge' is His name, it's because 'the forgiving' is His name as well. Like I said, this name is even repeated twice in Al Fatiha. Those that 'go astray' and those that 'deserve his anger' are therefore not those who sometimes skip a prayer or those who grow their beard too short. Al Fatiha does not mention any of these things. What it does imply, as I see it, is that those that deviate from God's path are those that deviate from his essential benevolence and compassion – those that live in anger, hate and rancour. Those that do follow his path are thus not determined by the length of their skirt or the fluency of their Arabic but by their portrayal of the attributes of forgiveness, love and respect.
Why then the exaggerated emphasis on rules? Why not see the peaceful devotion of Islam first and foremost as a refusal to be a cold-hearted ego and as an effort to live a life of embracing warmth? It seems rather evident to me that the cold-hearted are far less attuned to the message of Al Fatiha than those who show spiritual love – even when the cold-hearted follow every rule of the strictest of the strict and even when the lives of those who live from love do not take the exact shape tradition prescribes.