The Sixth of six Discourses on Safar,
18th October 2008,
The Jumu’a Mosque of Cape Town, South Africa
Safar on the ‘Bismillah’

Our journey ends tonight with the opening of the Opening:

Let us start at the beginning of the Beginning. Qur’an opens with the exalted “Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim.” That great opening phrase opens with the Bismillah. So let us look at this in detail.

Bismillah – Bismi – Bi.

‘Bi’ is in English what we call a preposition. In Arabic it is defined as Harf – letter, but precisely it is ‘Harf Jarr’, meaning a modifying letter, literally ‘a pulling letter’. The preposition – Harf Jarr, PULLS the noun into having a Kasra. The Ajrumiyya defines it thus: “Prepositions do not have the characteristics or indications of the noun or verb.” Therefore it modifies but does not connect.

‘Ism’ is from S-M-A and means ‘to be high above’. From its plural we get Samawati – the Heavens. From the same root is S-M-Y which means ‘to name’. This permits us to say that its name – naming – is a heavenly affair. The position of the People of the Sunna is:

If it is true that ISM is derived from Height, Allah was described by it before creation existed, after it existed, and will be when it is annihilated, and creatures have no effect on the Names or Attributes.

It is the Mu’tazili who derive Ism from SIMA, which means ‘a sign’. They say: “Before time, Allah was without name or attribute. When He created creatures, THEY gave Him Names and Attributes. When He annihilates them He will again have no name or attribute. This is against the position of the Community. This is worse than their claim that His Word is created. Allah is exalted above this.

So, right at the beginning – at the first phrase of the Book, we encounter the pure indication of Tawhid, which lets us make our key preposition: The Name is the thing named. This was defined by Qadi Abu Bakr al-Baqillani:

If someone says “Allah is Knowing”, his words indicate the Essence, which is described as being knowing. So the Name is Knowing and it is what is Named. It is the same when someone says “Allah is the Creator.” The Creator is the Lord, and it is the Name itself. In this, our view, the Name is the Named itself with no distinction.

Ibn Hassar said:

The People of Bida‘ deny the Attributes when they claim that namings have no meaning except the Essence. That is why they say that the Name is not the Named. Whoever affirms the Attributes, affirms that the Names have meanings which are the qualities of the Essence. In this correct view they are not expressions, but they are Names.

Now, for the Name to be understood, recognised, and then literally verbalised, the faculty of capacity to name has to precede the naming. Naming demands the namer. Let us look at the Divine investiture by Allah of the human creature as namer. Surat al-Baqara (2:30):

When your Lord said to the Angels,
“I am putting a Khalif on the earth,”
they said, “Why put on it one who will cause corruption on it
and shed blood when we glorify You with praise
and proclaim Your purity?”
He said, “I know what you do not know.”

At-Tabari has said that ‘putting’ means ‘creating’. The Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, said, “The earth was smoothed out from Makkah.” Hence its name as the Mother of Cities. Khalifa in the form of an active particle means ‘the one who replaced the Angels before Him on the earth.’ It may be in the passive mode giving the meaning of ‘one who is sent as a representative.’ Al-Qurtubi, in his renowned Ahkam al-Qur’an, makes this important judgment:

This Ayat is sound evidence for having a leader and a Khalif who is obeyed so that he will be a focus for the cohesion of society, and the rulings of the Khalifate will be carried out. None of the Imams of the Community disagree about the obligatory nature of having such a leader, except for what is related from al-Asamim (literally, the Deaf), who lived up to the meaning of his name and was indeed deaf to the Shari‘at, and those who take his position who say that the Khalifate is permitted rather than mandatory if the Community undertake all the obligations on their own without the need for a ruler to enforce them.

The Companions agreed to make Abu Bakr Khalif after the disagreement which took place between the Muhajirun and the Ansar. If it had been a definite obligation that the ruler had to be from Quraysh, there would have been no point in the argument and debate which took place. When Abu Bakr died, he delegated the task of being Khalif to ‘Umar, and no one said that it was not mandatory. Its obligatory nature indicated that it is one of the pillars of the Deen which supports the Muslims. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds.”

The next Ayat informs us about the investiture of Adam as namer of all things. Surat al-Baqara (2:31):

He taught Adam the names of all things.
Then He arrayed them before the Angels and said,
“Tell me the names of these if you are telling the truth.”

A respected Sufi of our Habibiyya-Darqawiyya once asked me in the Tafilalet desert of Morocco, “Did Adam have a Book?” I said that I did not know. He replied, “Yes. He did. It was Alif, Ba, Ta, Tha…” In other words, what he was explaining was that the teaching of the names was language itself. This in turn means that Allah had created man – Adam’s kunya is Abu‘l-Bashir, which means ‘Father of Humanity’ – both with an intellect to grasp language and a physique to express it: tongue, palate, lips and the vocal chords.

This allows us to say that the beginning of mankind is the beginning of language. We find, corroborating this, that ancient languages first manifest with a complex grammar and large vocabulary, and that language then ‘dies’ of simplification and decrease of terms.

At the core of language is its return to He Who created it. So the naming of Allah is the speaking of the Name of the Giver of Names. Here, inevitably, scholarship stutters as it strives to give roots to the root. It has driven Sufis in misguided but intoxicated search for the Greatest Great Name. The truth is, and I mean the Qur’an, that the Supreme Name is ALLAH itself. Imam ash-Shafi’, Al- Khattabi and Al-Ghazali, and confirmed by al-Khalil, said that the Name itself is Allah. Surat al-Waqi‘a (56:96) ends:

So glorify the Name of your Lord, the Magnificent!

This takes us to the Bismillah in that it is completed by the connection of the two Supreme Attributes: Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim. There is general agreement that these two Names indicate in the first, general compassion, and in the second, specific acts of mercy on the Mumin. Allah makes the importance and primacy of these Names clear in the Qur’an. Look at Surat al-Isra’ (17:110):

Say: “Call on Allah or call on the All-Merciful,
whichever you call upon,
the Most Beautiful Names are His.”

Here is the clear Tawhid that indicates Allah by His Names and Attributes. Let us look at Surat an-Naml (27:29-31):

She said, “Council! a noble letter has been delivered to me.
It is from Sulayman and says:
‘In the name of Allah, All-Merciful, Most Merciful.
Do not rise up against me,
but come to me in submission.’”

Here, the invocation of the full Bismillah demands submission to Allah’s Prophet, Sulayman, ‘alayhi salam.

We find in Surat al-Hud (11:41):

He said, “Embark in it.
In the name of Allah be its voyage and its landing!
Truly my Lord is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful.”

Then in Surat al-An‘am (6:118), we find:

Eat that over which the name of Allah has been mentioned,
if you have Iman in His Signs.

From this we find that the Bismillah is the door to the actions of the Muminun. From the act of Dhikr to the written word, on to the opening of the meal and eating and drinking – Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim.

To sum up: the Bismillah in itself, by its indications, and being an indication, defines the fundamental truths of Tawhid. Thus, Bi, as we have established, in grammar, as Harf Jarr, is that which pulls the noun, or we could say it is that which activates it. The Bi is therefore an action. It is the Act.

Ism, the noun itself, represents the Name. The Name cannot be named but by its own empowerment. The recognition of ‘Name’ is the Divinely decreed and necessary attribute which entails in itself, by implication, having capacity: Seer, Hearer, Doer, Knower, Living – in effect the Mother-Attributes, from which all the other attributes emerge.

Allah is, of course, the Named, the One, Unique, without association, Essence, and yet while of Himself exalted in this way, is by Divine Revelation, inextricably bonded to two of the key-Names: the Merciful and the Compassionate. So, the Bismillah is by Divine Revelation, the Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim. Act-Attribute-Essence.

Here is the great declaration which opens the Qur’an, and the Surat is the open declaration of Tawhid which sets Islam as the crown and triumph over all previous stages of religion.