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Surat al-Fatiha

A Lecture by Suhaib Webb | Transcribed by Fuseina Mohamad

Surat Al-Fatiha Series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IXPart X | Part XI | Part XII | Part XIII | Part XIV | Part XV | Part XVI | Part XVII | Part XVIII | Part XIX | Part XX | Part XXI | Part XXII | Part XXIII | Part XXIV | Part XXV

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The riddle that I give you is going to answer a very important point: al-`ibadah (worship of Allah). What is the correct concept of al-`ibadah? In order to get the correct concept of worship in Islam we have to go to the revelation of Surat al-Fatiha: The Opening (Qur’an, 1).

If we go to the major books of the mufasiroon (scholars of tafsir or interpretation) we find something interesting. The majority of the salaf (the old scholars) held that al-Fatiha was sent in Makkah. There are two types of revelation: makki (surahs that were sent before the Prophet ﷺ migrated to Medina) and madani (surahs that were sent after the Prophet’s ﷺ migration). The Makkan period was thirteen years, and the Madani period was ten years.

The majority of scholars said that al-Fatiha was sent in the Makkan period of Prophethood, and they based this on a verse found in the fifteenth chapter of the Qur’an (Surat al-Hijr) where Allah (swt) says, “And We have certainly given you, [O Muhammad], seven of the often repeated [verses] and the great Qur’an” (15:87).

The seven often repeated verses are al-Fatiha because we know from some of the hadith (reports of the sayings and actions of the Prophet ﷺ) that we mentioned previously that the Prophet ﷺ said al-Fatiha is the seven often repeated verses. Since this verse and this surah (i.e. Al Hijr) were sent in Makkah, many scholars said this means Al-Fatiha was sent in Makkah. But then we find a hadith related by Imam Muslim on behalf of Ibn Abbas in which Ibn Abbas narrates: “One day Jibreel was sitting with the Prophet ﷺ and Jibreel heard the sound of a door in the heavens. So he raised his head and saw an angel coming. Then Jibreel said to the Prophet ﷺ, ‘This door is a door that was never opened before until today. And this angel is an angel who never came before.’ The angel came to Jibreel and the Prophet ﷺ and gave salaams (greetings of peace) to them. Then he said to the Prophet ﷺ, ‘I give you the good news of two lights that are given to you that were never given to any prophet before you: the Opening of the Book (i.e. Surat al-Fatiha) and the last verses of Surat al-Baqarah.’”

How does this hadith indicate Surat al-Fatiha was revealed during the Madani period?  Because Surat al-Baqarah (Qur’an, 2) was revealed in Madinah. Subhan’Allah (glory be to Allah) this is why you can respect the scholars. They catch these little points.

Surat al-Baqarah was sent in Madinah; it’s madani according to the majority of scholars. You can’t find any scholar that says al-Baqarah was sent in Makkah. So now we have this issue. The verse of Surat al-Hijr which was revealed in Makkah as agreed on by the scholars. Then we have this hadith related by Ibn Abbas radi allahu `anhu (may Allah be pleased with him) from Imam Muslim that al-Fatiha was sent along with the end of Surat al-Baqarah.

One lesson we can take from this is – how do you value something? What is one of the means we use to measure the value of something?

Audience: It’s cost.

Cost, ok, that’s true. But we’re going to throw that one out because [sometimes] our minds are very materialistic. But look at how it’s sent to you. For example, let’s say you get a normal letter. You will say, “Alhamdulillah (All praise be to Allah.)” If it comes second-class, “Alhamdulillah!” If it comes first class, “ALHAMDULILLAH!” But if it comes overnight, “Alhamdulillah hamdan katheeran tayiban mubarakn feeh (All praise is for Allah – abundant, good and blessed praise)!”

So how, brothers and sisters, did Allah (swt) send you al-Fatiha?  Look at how the Prophet ﷺ is being told that al-Fatiha is a light to show you the way. So how did you get al-Fatiha? When you read al-Fatiha in your salah (prayer), do you feel that this is something special that Allah gave you? What about when you stand the night and pray your qiyam al-layl (night prayer) and no one can see you and you’re crying in front of Allah (swt)?

And, by the way, this crying is a sadaqah (charity). Maybe someone says, “I don’t have any money, I’m in college, I’m broke. I’m just barely even. What can I give to Allah?” At least you can give the tear in the night.

So, subhan’Allah, when you stand in the night and you’re reading, “Alhamdullilahi rabil `alameen (all praise is due to Allah the Master of the worlds),” did you think about how it was sent to you?

The `ulema’ (scholars) started to discuss. We have strong proof that al-Fatiha was sent in Makkah. We have a strong proof that al-Fatiha was sent in Madinah. So they started to discuss. There was a great scholar by the name of Ibn Atiyah. Ibn Atiyah was from Andalus (Spain). Imam Al Qurtubi, who was also one of the great mufasiroon took a lot of his tafsir from Ibn Atiyah.  The `ulema said that Ibn Atiyah was like Az-Zamakhshari in his control of the Arabic language and in balagha (eloquence) but Ibn Atiyah was not mu’tazila, he was from ahli Sunna waj-jammah, he was ash`ari from the people of the sunnah. Ibn Atiyah made a strong study of this and the answer to this riddle about al-Fatiha is going to give us the correct understanding of `ibadah. The answer will show us the wisdom of Allah (swt). According to most scholars, especially contemporary scholars, Al-Fatiha has the distinction of being sent twice. It’s amazing. Once in Makkah and once in Madinah.

But the question is why? That was the riddle I gave you.

If we want to get this answer we have to look at one of the biggest things which is plaguing the Muslims: the misunderstanding of `ibadah. For example, many people think `ibadah is only salah (prayer). Usually if I give a speech to non-Muslims and I say, “I’m going to say the word worship, tell me what you see.” They say, “The white picket fence and the nice white church house and the man with the suit on.” For the Muslims it’s a guy with a big stick who’s really mad in the masjid (mosque). As Imam Hassan al-Banna (may Allah have mercy on him) mentioned, the downfall of the Muslims was brought by their thinking that `ibadah was only in the masjid. Imam al-Ghazzali wrote Ihya Uloom Ad-Deen (Reviving the Teachings of the Religion) which we are going to use a lot next week. The reason it is it called ihya, the reviver (the root coming from the word life in Arabic) is to get the people out of this way of thinking (in his time especially they were very materialistic) and also to let them see that Islam is your life. It applies to every aspect of your life.

So this misunderstanding of worship is due to a major, major misunderstanding on the part of Muslims. Usually when you read a book they define worship as the five pillars of Islam: shahada (declaration of faith), salah (prayers), zakah (obligatory charity), sawm (fasting in the month of Ramadan) and hajj (pilgrimage to Makkah). But Sheikh Abdul Karim Zaidan mentioned something interesting in his book Al-Mufassal, a very good book about the fiqh of a woman, about eleven volumes. Sheikh Abdul Karim Zaidan lives in Yemen now, and he’s originally from Iraq. He said that many Muslims think that `ibadah only means the five pillars because this is the definition used by the scholars of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). For example, we have the word nahu. What does nahu mean?

Audience: Grammar.

No, nahu does not mean grammar. It means grammar to the grammarian, but in Arabic it means “like this.” Why do they call grammar nahu? That’s a long story, you’ll get it another time, insha’ Allah (Allah willing).

But to the grammarian, nahu means grammar.

What about the word rafu’? What does rafu’ mean? Raise (for example, raise your voice). But in nahu, rafu’ means a word that has a damma (one of three short vowels used in Arabic), or something that represents a damma.

Similarly in our Islamic sciences different scientists use terms differently. So according to the scholars of fiqh, `ibadah means the five pillars. But when most Muslims read they don’t know that so when they read that they think, “Oh, this is `ibadah.”

But as Sheikh Abdul Karim Zaidan mentioned, those scholars know that `ibadah is comprehensive.  But since it’s not good in prose to always repeat, in their science they just said `ibadah for simplicity.  They didn’t continuously say, “`Ibadah, it means more than what we mean, but here we mean this.” No, because they figure the person who is reading understands that.

Did everyone catch this point? Let’s go over it one more time.

When the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence use the word `ibadah within the framework of their science they regulate it to only the five pillars of Islam because that’s what their science pertains to. For example, a scholar who deals with inheritance might say, “The best `ibadah (act of worship) in this matter is…” What does he mean when he says worship? He means inheritance, but he doesn’t want to elaborate because he figures the reader knows that (this is why it’s important to learn from a Sheikh).

Most Muslims have taken the definition of `ibadah given to us by the fuqaha’ (the scholars of Islamic jurisprudence). That’s why, for example, you can go to different Muslim places and find someone who prays, but when it comes to interactions with each other they might not be very good.

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship.

Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010 and his website, www.SuhaibWebb.com, was voted the best “Blog of the Year” by the 2009 Brass Crescent awards.

Suhaib Webb has lectured extensively around the world including in the Middle East, East Asia, Europe, North Africa and North America. Upon returning from his studies in Egypt, Webb lived in the Bay Area, California, where he worked with the Muslim American Society from Fall 2010 to Winter 2011. He currently serves as the Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cultural Center (ISBCC).

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