Qur'anic Exegesis

While going through Surah Faatiha, the opening surah of the Quran the reader is confronted with some other questions too and is likely to seek guidance, beyond the words of translations, in the interpretations of the Book to get satisfying answers. One of these questions is: Why has this surah been picked to be repeated so frequently by the believers in their prayers?

The answer that its regular recitation enables the believers to praise their Creator as much as they ought to doesn't appear a satisfactory explanation since praising someone cannot normally be a perpetual practice. We might feel compelled to appreciate the Creator of a masterpiece once or may be a few times, but certainly not seventeen times a day---the minimum number of occasions a Muslim is required to recite this surah in his daily prayers. Indeed God Almighty is much more than a mere Creator of a masterpiece: He is the Creater of the entire existence. The fact, however, still remains that howsoever beautiful the world might be, human nature, the way it is, cannot find it particularly engaging to praise someone so frequently.

The explanation that since we seek guidance from Him in this prayer-like surah and guidance is always needed by us still falls short of being thoroughly satisfying, as once shown the way, it seems hardly reasonable to ask God Almighty to do it over and over again: Once properly guided, it's more reasonable to assemble strength to follow it, instead of asking to be shown again and again the right path, giving an impression, as a result, that it wasn't perhaps shown properly in the first place.

We first resort to "Tadabbur" to seek an explanation about the first of the two comments made in response to the question. The author, while explaining the word hamd that has been used to praise God, explains:

The word hamd has commonly been translated as `praise'. I have preferred `thanks' instead, because wherever this word appears in the Quran, it has been used to convey that very sense. For instance, the Quran says: `And they will say: thanks be to God Who guided us to this (felicity).'(7:43), `And last of their prayers would be: thanks be to God, the Lord of the entire creation.' (10:10), `Thanks are due to the God Who gave me Ismaeel and Ishaq even when I was old.' (14:39)

Indeed the word praise is wider in its application than thanks since one can only express feelings of gratitude on such aspects of someone's virtues that concern oneself directly, whereas praise may also include the mention of virtues which may include those that do not have any direct bearing on the doer of the praise. The meaning of thanks is however, the more predominant of the two. Therefore, in order to do full justice with this word, one must either use `thanks' along with `praise' or else the translation will have to confine iteself to thanks only so that it may do justice in expressing the emotions of gratitude to convey the true spirit of the surah. Man can praise anything good even though it may not concern him directly at all. The ecstatic state of our nature this surah is conveying is, on the contrary, the result of our observation of those aspects of the Almighty's attributes which are directly concerned with us, like His Sustenance and Mercy. If this aspect cannot be properly conveyed, the real essence of the surah will remain unrevealed. The word `thanks' helps in conveying this sense." (Vol 1, Pgs 55-56)

The following explanation is offered by Maududi's "Tafheem-ul-Quran" on the subject:

"As we already explained, the character of this surah is that of a prayer. The prayer begins with the praise of the One to Whom our prayer is addressed. This indicates that whenever one prays one ought to pray in a dignified manner. It is not becoming of a cultivated person to blurt out his petition. Refinement demands that our requests should be preceded by a whole hearted acknowledgement of the unique position, infinite benevolence and unmatched excellence of the One to Whom we pray.

Whenever we praise someone, we do so for two reasons. First, because excellence calls for praise, irrespective of whether that excellence has any direct relevance to us or not. Second, we praise One whom we consider to be our benefactor; when this is the case our praise arises from a deep feeling of gratitude. God is worthy of praise on both accounts. It is incumbent on us to praise Him not only in recognition of His infinite excellence but also because of our feeling of gratitude to Him, arising from our awareness of the blessings He has showered upon us." (Vol 1, Pg 43)

It can be noticed that Maududi's explanation suggests an equally satisfying answer to the question raised. It does make a definite mention of the emotions of gratitude flowing from the reader's heart. It is, however, quite noticeable that whereas while going through Islahi's interpretation the reader is convinced that the explanation definitely emerges from the very words of the Quran, Maududi's explanation gives no reason to believe that. If one concentrates on the last sentence of his quoted statement, one cannot avoid imagining that Maududi's explanation, although convincing, gives an impression of being the author's own, rather than an inseparable part of the text itself. "Tadabbur", on the contrary, convinces the reader that the explanation is definitely what the text of the Quran intends to convey.

Yusuf Ali's interpretation makes no attempt to offer any explanation to solve the problem. It translates the first verse of the surah in these words:

"Praise be to God, the Cherisher and the Sustainer of the Worlds." (Vol 1, Pg 14)

In the introduction to the surah, the worthy author has this to say:

"We think in devotion of God's name and His nature; We praise Him for His creation and His Cherishing care." (Vol 1, Pg 13)

It is obvious that the author didn't have the question at hand in mind while writing his interpretation.

The second comment questions the validity of the explanation that Surah Faatiha is frequently repeated because through its recitation guidance is sought from the Almighty. `Why should we keep repeating the same prayer when the way being sought may have been shown to the seeker already?' questions a probing mind. When we again search through the pages of "Tadabbur" to get an answer, we find that while commenting on the fifth verse, the author points out:

"Ihdinaa means much more than the commonly known meaning ie. kindly show us the right way: It also conveys these meaning: `Kindly satisfy our heart on the authenticity of the truthfulness of the way, create an earnest desire in us to follow it, make the difficulties of doing it easier for us to overcome and keep us way from wandering in other digressions once we have adopted the right way.' All these meanings can be construed from this verse because of the omission of a preposition." (Vol 1, Pg 59)

It can be appreciated that if the words of the verse are actually so rich in meanings, the objection mentioned earlier is left with no ground to stand on. After all we do need to be constantly guarded against the evil forces and to be convinced about the rightfulness of the way; we also desire that following the right way should be made easier for us. Given our weak nature, all these desires need to be conveyed as regularly as we do in our prayers. Frequent repeitition of the surah, given this interpretation, is, therefore, not just understandable; indeed it appears to be very much desirable.

It must be conceded, however, that the author has not done enough to convince the reader that the explanation is very much an integral part of the Quranic text. The passing reference to the omission of a preposition needs explanation which the author hasn't offered.

What he actually means by this remark is the fact that while in the Arabic langauge, to convey the meanings `show me the right way', the right expression should have been ihdinassiraat al mustaqeem the Quran has chosen to omit the preposition 'ila. This omission, which has of course been done deliberately by the Almighty, has added considerable depth to the expression, enabling it to include all the meanings which the author has mentioned.

Yusuf Ali's interpretation has also quite successfully given a convincing explanation to answer the objection:

"If we translate ihdina by the English word `guide', we shall have to say: `Guide us to and in the straight way'. For we may be wandering aimlessly and the first step is to find the way; and the second need is to keep in the Way: our own wisdom may fail in either case." (Vol 1 Pg 15)

Again the only problem with this explanation is its inability to give the reader a thoroughly convincing reason to believe that he is not reading an attempt to `rationalize' the Quran but a real interpretation of the Book. In order to achieve the latter purpose, the interpreter should only relate his explanation to the original text.

The interpretation of Maududi has concentrated on the intellectual necessity of a Guidance from God but doesn't address the question about which we are seeking an answer. His explanation to the relevant portion of the surah says:

"We beseech God to guide us in all walks of life to a way which is absolutely true, which provides us with a properly-based outlook and sound principles of behavior, a way which will prevent our succumbing to false doctrines and adopting unsound principles of conduct, a way that will lead us to our salvation and happiness." (Vol 1, Pg 45)