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The significance of Bismillah

by Dr. Basharat Ahmad


(This article occurs at the commencement of Anwar-ul-Quran, and was originally translated by Yahya Adnan Ahmad.)

Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim: "In (or with) the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful."

Not only does the Holy Quran begin with this verse, but it also heads every chapter of the Quran, except for Chapter 9. This verse is a part of the Quranic revelation and through which the Holy Prophet distinguished the separation of the various chapters. In short, this verse keeps on recurring and possesses such depth that it has been said that just as the Fatihah (the first chapter of the Quran) summarizes the entire Holy Quran so does this verse summarize the Fatihah. In other words this verse is the summary of the summary of the Quran. Therefore, I will make a general commentary on this verse, so that it will not be necessary to comment on this verse at the beginning of every chapter. It may be noted, however, that like the daily sun, this verse too shines with a new splendour and power at the beginning of each chapter of the Quran.


This verse is translated as "In (or with) the name of Allah, who is Beneficent and Merciful". Here, the particle "Bi" (meaning in or with) in the word "Bism" represents a call for help. So the verse means:
"With the help of the name of Allah..."
Now it is apparent that a verb or action is implied in this sentence and by studying the Quran one realizes that this verb is iqra which means 'read' or 'recite'. This is in line with the hadith where it is written that an angel appeared to the Holy Prophet, while he was engaged in his usual worship of God at the cave of Hira. The angel said: iqra, i.e. read. The Holy Prophet replied: "I do not know how to read". The angel repeated the same words and the Holy Prophet repeated his answer. And so it happened three times. The fourth time the angel said: Iqra bismi rabbi-ka alladhi khalaq, i.e. read in the name of your Lord who created (the Holy Quran, 95:1). Then the Holy Prophet started reciting. So it is clear that the verb implied before "In the Name of Allah" is iqra, i.e. to read or recite with the name of Allah. This verb is not explicitly stated because when a person recites the Quran, the use of the word iqra, which is a command, would not be eloquent. The worshipper at that time is fulfilling the order. Therefore at the time of recitation the implied verb is aqrau, i.e. "I read". The subtlety in this is that when the revelation descended from God, then because the sentence reflects a command of God, so the implied verb is iqra, i.e. "Read" (imperative), and when the worshipper recites the Quran then because he is at that time fulfilling the commandment of God, the implied verb would be understood to be aqrau i.e. "I read or recite with the help of the name of God..."

Another advantage of keeping the verb implicit is that when a person recites bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim at the beginning of any work then whatever he is going to do would be considered implied in the sentence. That is, this call for God's help is not restricted to the recitation of the Holy Quran but is asked for at the beginning of each and every work so that God's help is asked for in that work. Thus in the hadith "kul amr la yabd fihi bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim fa huwa ajzam," that is "any work started without reciting bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim is without blessing", and certainly if any person starts his works by asking for the help of God then his work will be blessed.

The word Allah

To understand the meaning of the two attributes of God ar-rahman and ar-rahim specially mentioned here, it is necessary to study the meaning of these words. Allah is the personal name of God the most high, and this is the greatest name and incorporates within it all the other names of God. It is certainly not derived from ilah (God) for ilah is used for that which is worshipped besides God, whereas the word Allah has never, either before or after the advent of Islam, been used for any other object of worship. Nor is "Allah" a shortened form of al-ilah (the God), for if it were so then when the particle of invocation ya (O!) preceded it, then al would be dropped. For instance, al-Rahman (The Beneficent, pronounced ar-Rahman) is a name of God. When the particle ya precedes it, the al is dropped. We call on God by saying: ya Rahman (O Beneficent!) and not as ya al-rahman (O the Beneficent!). In the same way if Al in Allah was an addition to the word ilah then on using the invocative ya, the prefix Al would be dropped and instead of saying ya Allah (O Allah) we would say ya ilah. But this is not what happens, so it is apparent that Al is not a prefix to ilah but is an integral part of the word Allah.

To sum up, Allah is an independent word which is the personal name of God, and this is unique to the Arabic language as no other language has a personal name for God. The Quran itself explains the meaning of the name Allah where it states:

La-hu al-asma al-husna
"To him belong (all) the beautiful names." (20:8)

That is, Allah means a being who possesses the complete perfect attributes. Now no attribute is perfect unless it possesses within itself both Husn (beauty) and Ihsan (beneficence).That is, on the one hand the attribute has no fault, flaw or dependency and is thus perfect in its Husn and on the other hand its Ihsan, that is the benefits of the attribute, should also be reaching creation. For instance generosity is a husn but no matter to what extent it is present in any being, until its Ihsan, that is its beneficence, reaches some other being, then until that time it is of no import whether that attribute exists or does not exist. That is why God's attributes are not only perfect in their Husn (Goodness/beauty) but are also perfect in their Ihsan (Beneficence) and it is the blessing of these attributes which is responsible for the emergence and sustenance of the entire creation.

Rahman and Rahim

Ar-rahman (the beneficent) is he whose generosity is so great that before the birth of man and without any effort or labour on man's part, the entire resources required for his sustenance were provided while Ar-rahim refers to the mercy which is granted repeatedly, and these attributes manifest themselves time and again and have an excellent and improving effect on each person's actions. That is why it is stated in the Hadith that God most high, is the rahman (beneficent) of this world and the rahim (merciful) of the hereafter. This is because Rahman before the birth of man, merely out of his beneficence, provided the entire resources for the sustenance and progress of man. So this entire world is a manifestation of the attribute Rahman. The attribute Rahim rewards man for good works and this is fully manifested in the hereafter. That is, the initial resources are provided to man through Rahman and when man through effort takes advantage of these resources, the results achieved are decided through Rahim. Land, water, fire, the sun, the moon, rain etc. exist due to the stipulation of the attribute Rahman. Man's labour of ploughing and watering the land, is rewarded manifold through the necessary stipulation of the attribute Rahim,so that each seed sown can be returned seven hundred fold. In the same way eyes, ears, hands, feet, intelligence and knowledge are all a manifestation of God's Rahman (beneficence). When man utilizes these resources and gets excellent results this is necessary stipulation of the attribute Rahim.

So when a person starts a work by reciting Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim he acknowledges and thanks God the most high for the blessings which God provided merely out of the demands of his attribute of Rahman. On the one hand man is asking God's help for knowledge, provided due to the attribute Rahman, of the right path to achieve his objective and on the other hand he is asking God's help, provided through the attribute Rahim, that the works he carries out produce excellent results. For example when a surgeon recites Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim before an operation then at that time his recitation is a prayer of help from God. He acknowledges God's attribute of Rahman has provided him eyes, ears, hands, feet, instruments and medicine and he uses them. But furthermore he seeks that God through the attribute Rahman to provide him with the correct knowledge and lead him on the correct path so that he would achieve his purpose. From God's attribute Rahim he seeks help that the results of the application of his surgical knowledge are successful.

Similarly at a time of reading the Quran when a person recites Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim he acknowledges this blessing of God, that merely due to God's attribute of Rahman (beneficence) a blessing such as the Quran was granted. As the Quran itself states:

Al-Rahman `alam al-Quran
"the Beneficent, He taught the Quran". (55:1-2)

Now at this time of taking advantage of the Quran he seeks from the attribute al-Rahman that true knowledge of the Quran, which when acted upon would lead to achieving his purpose in life and from the attribute al-Rahim he seeks help that his good actions would produce excellent results. In other words from the attribute Rahman he seeks excellence in knowledge and from the attribute Rahim he seeks excellence in works. It is apparent in this call for help both this world and the hereafter are included. To be successful in the world it is essential to possess correct knowledge for without correct and complete knowledge no action, whether for the world or the hereafter, produces effective or correct results. And unless the results of works are correct and complete there can be no success in the hereafter. The Quran contains all the principles and guidance, by acting upon which, man can achieve the goodness of this world and the hereafter. So at the time of the recitation of the Quran, the prayer and call for help to God that man utters in the form of Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim means that from God's attribute Rahman he seeks such a complete knowledge of this perfect Book of God, that acting in accordance with this knowledge would lead him to inherit the goodness of this world and the hereafter. From the attribute Rahim he seeks that his works be of such perfection that from them would be produced excellent and better results.

Summary of Fatiha

This is also the summary of the first Chapter of the Quran Al-Fatihah: The call for help in Bismillah (In the name of God) in truth stands together with iya-ka na`badu wa iya-ka nasta`in which means "thee do we worship and thee do we ask for help". The attribute Rahman contains the prayer ihdina sirat al-mustaqim which means guide us on the correct path. And it is apparent that this correct path is found through correct and complete knowledge which is necessary stipulation of the attribute Rahman. The attribute Rahim contains the blessing of the prayer sirat alladhina an`amta `alaihim, that is, make our works and action so perfect that we become part of those people who are blessed by God. So when any person at the time of recitation of the Quran, or at the time of any work, requests from God a perfect knowledge of the correct path and for the ability to achieve excellence in works and requests that these actions would provide successful results, it is apparent that such a person has found the purpose of the Quran. He is happy in this world and he is assured of success in the hereafter. This is because the Quran was revealed so that mankind could achieve excellence in both knowledge and works and it is on this excellence of knowledge and works that success in this world and hereafter is based.

So in this way Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim is not only a summary of the Chapter Fatiha but is a summary of the whole Quran. Whoever recites Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim asks for complete and correct knowledge as well as perfection in works which produce excellent results. In other words he asked for knowledge of the Quran and good works and further requested perfection in these. One who receives the correct and complete knowledge of the Quran and furthermore is blessed with excellence in works is successful and achieves goodness in this world and the hereafter.

Names 'Ahmad' and 'Muhammmad' correspond to Rahman and Rahim

The late Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Mujaddid of this age, has in his book Ijaz-ul-Masih given a subtle exposition, in a sufi manner, about these successes. To summarize in a few sentences: Allah, the most high, is perfect in Husn (Goodness/beauty) and Ihsan (benevolence). When man, without any effort on his own part, is granted through Allah's attribute of Rahman limitless mercy and blessings and thus observes the Husn and Ihsan of God, then in the heart of the worshipper a love for God is born. As these blessings and the grace of Allah's Husn and Ihsan descend upon the believer, his love for God keeps on increasing. It is true that the more one loves something the more one praises it. So, a person who reaches a position of excellence in the love of and praise of Allah, the most high, is called Ahmad, that is one who praises profusely and frequently. It is apparent the person who so praises God and spreads this praise in the world, would become the beloved of God, as required by the attribute of Rahim. Finally, the more a person becomes a beloved of God, the more praiseworthy he becomes. So, a person who, through his constant praise, attains the highest stages of the position of beloved of God, would correspondingly be highly worthy of praise and would be called Muhummad which means one praised exceedingly. So the two names Ahmad and Muhummad of our Holy Prophet (may peace and the blessings of God be upon him) are in fact the manifestation of the two attributes Rahman and Rahim of Allah the most high. These names reflect the best results man can achieve through the help of these attributes of God and there are no better meaningful names for this position than Ahmad and Muhummad.
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