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Contrapuntal Harmony in the Thought, Mood and Structure of Sūrah Fātihah
Qur'anic Exegesis
Dr. Mustansir Mir


The opening Sūrah of the Qur’ān is generally regarded as consisting of seven verses. There is, however, disagreement on whether the basmalah is part of the sūrah and is to be counted as one of the seven verses (for details, see Abū ‘Abdu Allāh Muhammad Al-Qurtubī, Al-Jami li-Akham al-Qur’ān, 20 vol. in 10 [Tehran reprint of Egyptian edition], 1:114-115). For our purposes, the sūrah, when the basmalah is left out, consists of six verses. A close study of these six verses reveals that they are, in several ways, marked by harmony of point and counterpoint. The harmony is noticeable not only on the plane of thought, but also in respect of the structure and mood of the poem.

The sūrah is divisible into two main parts, the first consisting of verse 1-3, the second, of verses 5-6, with verse 4 being the intermediary or link verse, as will be explained below. In order to facilitate reference to the text, the sūrah is reproduced below in transliteration.


1.      Al-hamdu li llāhi rabbi’l-‘ālamīn

2.      Al-Rahmāni r-īm

3.      Māliki yawmi d-dīn

4.      Iyyāka na‘budu wa iyyāka nasta‘īn

5.      Ihdina s-sirāta’l-mustaqīm

6.      Sirāta’illadhīna an‘ amta ‘alayhim, ghayri’l-maghdūbi ‘alayhim wa-la d-dāllīn


1. Nominal and Verbal Sentences. The first three verses make up a nominal sentence (Jumlah Ismiyyah), whereas the last two verses are a verbal sentence (Jumlah Fi‘liyyah). The fourth verse, which is in between these two sets, partakes of the qualities of both types of sentences and may be called, in grammatical terms, Jumaltun Dhātu Wajhayn (literally: ‘two-faced sentence’). Structurally speaking, this sentence facilitates the transition from the nominal to the verbal sentence (note that it begins with the noun-equivalent pronoun Iyyāka, which links it with the nominal sentence made up of the first three verses, and ends with the verbs Na‘budu and Nasta‘īn, which connects it with the verbal sentence made up of the last two verses. In the following paragraphs, we shall refer to the first three verses as Part 1 and to the last two verses as Part 2. As for the intermediary verse 4, it stands independently, though for certain practical purposes it may be included in Part 2.

Grammatically, the nominal sentence signifies Dawām (‘permanence’ – or, in philosophical language: ‘being’), whereas the verbal sentence signifies Hudūth (‘happening’ – philosophically: ‘becoming’). Part 1 describes the Divinity, the nominal sentence indicating the Dawām, or eternality, of His Being and Attributes. Part 2 (inclusive of verse 4) describes man’s prayer to that God for help, the verbal sentence indicating, within a historical context of Part 1, man’s call to God and, implicitly, the Divine response to that call.

2. Thought and Action. In Part 1 man reflects on the universe and breaks out in praise of an All-Compassionate God. In Part 2 he seeks help from this All-Compassionate God. In other words, perception and understanding lead to action and movement. Part 1 of the sūrah represents the realm of contemplation, Part 2, the realm of action, the two being interconnected: in Part 1 man reflects, in Part 2 he is moved to action – by that reflection.

3. God-Man Interaction. According to this sūrah, man needs Divine help and ought to seek it. On the other hand, God is not unconcerned with man’s affairs, but intervenes in history by furnishing the help man needs. God and man thus interact, and the interaction is reflected in the structure of the sūrah. Part 1 states how God relates to the world in general (note especially the phrase Rabb al-‘ālamīn) and to man in particular (the notion of judgement, stated in Māliki yawmi d-dīn, clearly indicates this), whereas Part 2 states how man ought to relate to his Creator-Lord. Each verse in the first set has a counterpart in the other. Thus:

Verse 1 speaks of God’s Rububiyyah (providence), and verse 4 speaks of the homage that is due to God from man for guidance, this guidance being, as the Qur’ān explains in many places, a manifestation of God’s mercy.

Verse 3 speaks of God’s being the Master of the Day of Judgement, and verse 6 speaks of God’s adjudging, on that day, of human beings as righteous or wicked.

4. Temporal and non-Temporal. As noted already, verses 1-3 are, grammatically, one sentence. This sentence, being nominal, has no tense – it represents non-temporality. If we leave verse 5 aside for the moment, the last two verses, 5-6, also make up a single sentence, which, being verbal, has tense – thus representing temporality. The difference is perhaps a symbolic representation, first, of the difference between the Divine realm, which is unconstrained by time, and the human realm, which is time-bound; and, secondly, of the God-man interaction (see above): God, who is beyond time and is infinite (verses 1-3), intervenes in the world of man, who is finite and time-bound. Verse 4, which links up the two sets of verses, is thus a declaration by the finite human being to submit to the Infinite, and also a prayer for the non-temporal to enter into the world of the temporal. But, even though verses 5-6 make up a verbal sentence, the verb used, Ihdi (guide) is imperative, which, being non-declarative (Inshā’), implies that the guidance sought – and, hopefully, provided – is free from the limitations of time and is relevant to all ages.

5. Perception and Conception. The data reflected on in Part 1 are primarily sensory in character: the evidence of God’s providence and mercy is found everywhere in the physical universe. The Straight Path of Part 2, as also the recompense, is primarily conceptual in nature. A transition or development from the material and physical to the conceptual and spiritual thus takes place in the sūrah.

6. Emotion and Cognition. Part 1 is emotive: man, upon reflecting on the universe and his own situation, cannot help exclaiming how providential, compassionate, and just God is. Part 2, on the other hand, represents, first, a recognition of the fact that Divine providence, compassion, and justice demand in return submission from man, and, second, a translation of that understanding into a prayer for guidance so that submission may take a proper form. The affective element is not entirely absent from Part 2, though the cognitive and discursive elements predominate. In Part 1, on the other hand, the reflective aspect is not completely missing – in fact it is reflection that leads man to make the exclamatory pronouncement – but reflection is in the background, exclamation in the foreground.

7. Initiative and Response. Part 1 represents the initiative taken by God: being provident, merciful, and just, He showers his blessings on man. Part 2 represents the response made by man: he submits to God. From another point of view, this human response is also an initiative: man makes a conscious decision to worship God and mould his life in accordance with His decrees. To this initiative, the response of God, one can infer from the second half of the last verse (Sirāta’lladhīna an‘ amta ‘alayhim, ghayri’l-maghdūbi ‘alayhim wa-la d-dāllīn), would be that he would bless those who follow the Straight Path and punish those who go astray and earn His wrath.

8. Privilege and Responsibility. Part 1 speaks of the privileges man enjoys in this world. Part 2 speaks of the responsibilities entailed by those privileges. The sūrah indicates that there is, or ought to be, a causal connection between the blessings man receives and the gratitude he shows, or ought to show.

9. Dunyā and Ākhirah. While both Part 1 and Part 2 make reference to this world (Dunyā) and (Ākhirah) both, the primary focus in Part 1 is on the Dunyā (it is in the context of the Dunyā that man reflects on this universe), in Part 2, on the Ākhirah (it is in the context of the Ākhirah that salvation is sought). At the same time, Part 1 (God as Master of the Day of Judgement [verse 3]) refers to the Hereafter in explicit terms, whereas Part 2 (salvation and condemnation earned on the basis, respectively, of good and evil actions performed in this world) makes a definite, if implicit, to this world as the ‘abode of action’ (Dāru’l-‘amal). Another point, ancillary to the discussion of the Ākhirah, is that Part 1 (see verse 3) refers to the Day of Recompense in general terms, whereas Part 2 (see verses 5-6) speaks of recompense in the more specific terms of reward and punishment.

10. Individual and Society. Since the mood of Part 1 is predominantly exclamatory, the speaker in it, in all probability, arguably represents humanity); overwhelmed by the blessedness of the state of his existence, the speaker proclaims the praises of the Lord. On the other hand, the speaker in Part 2 is man as a member of society: man’s commitment to serve God, as also his prayer for guidance, is made as a member of a collectivity, hence the use of plural forms in this part: we serve God and we seek His help; guide us in the Straight Path.


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