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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Thursday, April 07, 2022

Living Surah Al Fatihah: On Being Grateful

 Living Surah Al Fatihah During Ramadan

M. Bakri Musa


[Excerpts from my memoir, Cast From The Herd, will resume after Ramadan]


April 7, 2022:  Third of Eight Parts:  On Being Grateful


Al-Fatihah’s first ayat is approximately translated as, “In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious (Ar Rahman) and Most Beneficent (Ar Raheem).” “Approximately translated” is a necessary caveat; certitude is not my forte.


Invoke means to cite or appeal to a higher authority. For Muslims, that highest authority is Allah. Secularists invoke the constitution; royalists, king. With the former you would need lawyers to argue your case; with kings, their courtiers. Islam, unlike other faiths, puts no intermediaries between you and Allah. Further, with judges and kings you would see the tangible consequences of their interventions. Not so with Allah. Believe in Him and His power is a matter of faith.


Ar rahman and ar raheem have the same root as rahim (womb), a powerful feminine imagery. That notwithstanding, Allah is always referred to in the masculine. I have yet to find an explanation for this anomaly and tradition.


Rahim carries a womb/fetus relationship between God and mortals, of nourisher, sustainer, and protector. It also implies essentiality – an embryo requires a womb to develop, artificial wombs notwithstanding. That imagery also hints at limits or boundaries; likewise with mortals and Allah. Once we transgress that boundary, our relationship to Him changes and ends, as an aborted fetus to its mother. That is the central message of all scriptures.


The second ayat begins with Al hamdu and ends with raab bil alameen before going to the third which repeats the two frequently attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheemAl hamdu is often translated as praise. It implies more – thankfulness, satisfaction, and most of all gratitude. The phrase is uttered after a good meal, a lucky break, or on receiving good news. Syukur, gratitude, expresses similar meaning.


Imagine, Al hamdu, just a short but heartfelt praise for Allah. Contrast that to the long, embellished tributes we heap  upon our sultans and other mortals! As for syukur, just to be able to wake up and recite Al hamdu in our fajarprayers is gratitude enough. Think of those who could not. Life is precious! Al Fatihah reminds us of our good fortune and to not take it for granted.


            The traditional translation of raab bil aalameen is “Lord of the Universe.” The Malay word for God is Tuhan, only one letter longer than Tuan (master). Ever wonder why Malay sultans and Tuans are aloof and imperial, a deferential slave-master, non-questioning relationship to those under them? Malays go beyond. We sembah our sultans and other leaders, treating them like Gods. I have no problem with that as long as they act as our saviors. More often they are but plunderers, deserving not our sembah but sumpah (curse).



There are other words similar to rabb, as with maliki, the start of the third ayatTarbiyah (to nurture or develop one’s full potential) has the same root as rabb; hence Tarbiyah Schools. In this context rabb means less a lord, more a nurturer as a teacher to her pupils.


            As for aalameen, the Malay word alam (universe) derives from this; hence the accepted translation, Lord of the Universe. Alam also has the same root as ilm, knowledge; hence the Malay word ilmu. That phrase could thus be translated as “God who has equipped us with the tools to gain knowledge.” That tool is our God-given senses and faculties including akal (intellect). Scientists peering into outer space or biologists exploring the inner secrets of viruses are exercising the full meaning of aalameen.


            The ancient Muslims did just that; hence the flowering of knowledge during the Golden Age of Islam. They were not at all perturbed nor shied away learning from the atheistic Greeks or hedonistic Romans. To those early Muslims, knowledge is knowledge; it all ultimately originates from Allah.


            When Muslims expound on any topic, they always end with the humble expression Allah hu alam, only Allah knows best. Implied there is that their interpretations or findings are but tentative, until someone else could give a more meaningful one. That makes the arrogant certitudes of many Malaysian ulama jarring if not “un-Islamic!”


Today’s “Islamization of Knowledge” fad, and the refusal to learn from or even acknowledge the contributions of the secular West, is an arrogant assumption that there is a uniquely Islamic version of knowledge and wisdom. All knowledge ultimately emanates from Him. That He chose to dispense the insight on the concept of zero to a Hindu, the secret of gravity to an Englishman, or the structure of the polio virus to a Jew is not for us to question but to learn, use, and add to that wisdom.


Of the 99 attributes of Allah, ar rahman and ar raheem are the most often paired. Some interpret rahman as a noun, an attribute, while raheem, actions. Others would have the former apply to all His creations; raheem only to believers. That later interpretation would not square with His attribute of justness.


Ar-rahman always precedes ar raheem. The beginning and end of a sentence are two pivotal positions; the middle, less so. The first for emphasis; the end, what you remember most. That implies ar raheem meriting a higher status than ar rahman. However ar rahman has an entire surah (55) named after it. Ar raheem does not merit that honor.


Why not other pairings, as with Al Adil (The Just One) and Al Ahad (The One), or Al Badi (The Incomparable) and Al Baaqi? (The Everlasting)? Both pairings have comparable arresting alliterations; the second also rhymes! As per the Syrian engineer-turned-Qur’an-commentator Muhamad Shahrour, Allah was precise in his choice and sequence of words in revealing the Qur’an. Hence there must be a reason for this particular pairing and sequence. It is up to us to discover that.



If ar rahman and ar raheem sequence is for poetic reason, to rhyme with the rest of Surah Al Fatihah, that would only add to the cynicism expressed by the prophet’s early detractors who dismissed him as but a “mere” poet, and the Qur’an, poetry. 


            As is evident, despite my having uttered Bismillah . . . a zillion times, I am still seeking answers as to why it is ar rahman ar raheem, and not the other way around.


Next:  Fourth of Eight Parts:  Lord of The Day of Judgement 


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