Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Koran and the Basmala

The Arabic expression Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, in the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, is one of the most famous in the entire language. It begins all but one of the Koran's 114 suras, and is commonly used among Arabic speakers when saying their prayers, before eating a meal, or giving a formal speech. It even has its own abbreviation and is known simply as "the Basmala".

Since the expression is the very first sentence of the Koran (surat Al-Fatiha, Koran 1:1) and is later repeated 113 times, Muslims believe it is an essential part of the revelation given by God to Muhammad. Is that true, or was the Basmala inserted into Islam and the Koran at a later date? That question was discussed on this Arabic TV program Daring Question, in which host Rashid presented the following evidence that this well-known expression was not a part of the original Koran.

1. The Basmala does not appear in the story of Muhammad's first revelation. According to Islam, an angel appeared to Muhammad and told him to recite. When Muhammad repeated several times he did not know what to recite, the angel squeezed him tightly and said in Surat Al-Alaq, "Recite 'In the name of your Creator who created humanity from a blood clot.' Recite 'Your Lord is generous, who with the pen taught men what they did not know." (Koran 96:1-5).

If the Basmala was part of the Koran, why did it not appear in the first revelation of Gabriel to Muhammad? Why did the angel not begin with, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One, Recite..."?

2. Muhammad and his early successors did not pray using this expression. An authentic Hadith from Sahih Muslim recounts that Anas, a servant of Muhammad who was with him for many years, said, "I prayed with the Prophet, and with Caliph Abu-Bakr, and with Caliph Umar, and with Caliph Uthman (the first three leaders succeeding Muhammad). I never heard any of them say, "In the name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Muslims who perform the five daily prayers repeat the Basmala 17 times in one day. Why do they  repeat thousands of times throughout their lifetime an expression Muhammad and his companions never used once in their prayers?

3. Except for Surat Al-Fatiha, the Basmala always appears in the Koran as an introduction to the chapter and not as the first verse. If the Basmala was in each sura as originally revealed, why is it merely an introduction and not the first verse of the sura?

4. The 114 suras of the Koran do not represent 114 revelations given by God to Muhammad; Muslims believe their Prophet received thousands of revelations that were combined in these chapters long after Muhammad's death. If revelation ceased with Muhammad, how could each chapter begin with the Basmala as part of the original revelation?

5. Muslim claim not a single letter has been added to the Koran. The Basmala, however, contains 4 words in Arabic. If that expression was affixed to 113 suras, does that not mean a total of 452 words have been added to the Koran?

As could be expected, these arguments are not new to Muslim scholars and Rashid next played a video from a Saudi Shaykh who offered his explanation. The Shaykh said that when the Basmala came within the verse, as in the first ayah of Al-Fatiha (Koran 1:1), it was part of the inspired text. When it appeared outside the text, as in 112 other suras, it was not part of the inspired text but a Tabarruk, a blessing or working aid given to separate the suras from each other. 

Rashid noted in his response that even the Shaykh admitted that the Basmala was added to the Koran; who knows what else has been added? The problem with this explanation, continued Rashid, is the Shaykh's insistence that the Basmala in Koran 1:1 is the exception. Surat Al-Hijr (Koran 15:87) is interpreted by Muslim scholars to mean that the first chapter of the Koran, Surat Al-Fatiha, must contain seven verses. Since Al-Fatiha's first verse is the Basmala, was it not simply added to the sura to give it the required seven verses?

In another authentic Hadith, Anas continued, "I prayed behind the Prophet and his companions. They would always open their prayers with 'Praise God, the Lord of the Universe, but never mentioned the Basmala."

Why do Muslims not begin their prayers as Muhammad did? Was the Basmala added to Surat Al-Fatiha just to give it the required seven verses? When Muslims use it in their prayers today, are they repeating a phrase their Prophet never used in his prayers?

Apart from Koran 1:1, and appearing 113 times as a sura designator, the Basmala appears one other time in the Koran. This is in the chapter of the ant, Surat al-Naml (Koran 27:29, 30), in which the Queen of Sheba informs her cabinet, "Oh my ministers, I have received a letter from Solomon that begins, In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Merciful One."

Note that the Basmala in the above verse is not portrayed as revelation from God to Muhammad, but as simply the introduction of a letter from Solomon. Solomon was a Jewish king, and naturally began his  letter with a common Jewish greeting.

Surat Al-Anfal (Koran 8:31) states that the Quraysh often responded to Muhammad's alleged revelations by saying they had heard these expressions before, with Surat As-Saffat (Koran 37:36) adding they were not prepared to leave their gods to follow "a mad poet". To his own people, Muhammad simply repeated religious expressions with which they were already familiar and claimed they were inspiration from God.

Why is the chapter entitled Repentance (Surat At-Taubah, Koran 9) the only one in the Koran that does not begin with the Basmala? Mufassir (Koranic expositor) Uthman claims it is a continuation of the previous chapter, The Spoils of War (Surat Al-Anfal), and therefore does not need the Basmala to separate it from the previous sura. Al-Qurtubi, on the other hand, claims that the beginning of Surat At-Taubah with its attached Basmala has been lost to history.

Since surat At-Taubah contains the famous "Verses of the Sword", in which Muslim warriors are commanded to fight unbelievers wherever they find them, it is perhaps poetic justice that this chapter does not begin with the usual reference to the mercy and compassion of God.

Rashid then introduced an Arabic scholar to explain the linguistic origin of the four words of the Arabic Basmala. The first word bism or "in the name of" is a contraction of the preposition "b" (in) and the noun (ism) "the name of". The Arabic word for "name", however, begins with an "a" that was deleted in the contraction of the preposition and the noun. This contraction is a feature of Aramaic and Syriac, not Arabic, giving evidence that the Basmala was an Aramaic/Syriac expression. These two languages were spoken by the Christians and Jews of the era.

The second word of the Basmala, Allah, also finds its origin in the word "Elohim", which is a common word for God in the Syriac and Aramaic languages. The following word Rahman is from the Syriac active participle Rahma meaing the Lover, with the "n" added in Arabic to turn it into an adjective. The final word Rahim also comes from Syriac and is a passive participle meaning the Beloved. The Basmala, according to the linguist, was a common expression used by Jews and Christians in Arabia at the time of Muhammad and as a result found its way into the Koran.

As noted in previous postings, comparatively few Muslims will have the courage to present the Imam at their local mosque with the evidence given above that the Basmala was not revelation given by Allah to Muhammad, but simply an expression their Prophet adopted from the religious vocabulary of the Christians and Jews of his day. Some individual Muslims, however, might seriously think about it on their own, and thinking is always a good thing.


aemish said...

Bearing in mind that I've heard it described that modern Christianity might as well be called Paulianity due to his contempt for the gospels of Thomas and Mary etc, and that most texts in the Bible while being ascribed to the disciples were actually ghost written (no one has any clue who this Q character might have been), and even these watered down editions were vastly further censored by the Council of Nicaea (and God only knows how many times since), I must say I look forward to reading this blog entry... tomorrow. :p

For now ZZzzZZzz.. good night to you

Susanne said...

Interesting! Good to see you posting again!

aemish said...

I wanted to share this short clip of Naseem's birth on the new TLC's new Sunday night show, All-American Muslim, so that you might witness for the first time a father singing the call to prayer into his son's ear. New to this tradition when my daughter was born, during the song I looked around the room and found my nephews eyes and I said, 'Do you feel that too??' because I literally felt like I was having some kind of out of body experience.. he just kind of laughed and I asked them to come sing to our whole house! I was so happy they included this special moment so that all Americans could share in it. It's a truly special event.

aemish said...

oops! forgot the link:

Anonymous said...

and even these watered down editions were vastly further censored by the Council of Nicaea

I can't figure out with all this censoring - by a committee no less! - how the Gospels contain all these apparent contradictions.

The books which are edited tend to be the ones without textual errors - or so I thought.

Btw, I'm humoring you. There was no "editing" at the council of Nicea. They primarily focus was deciding on the date Easter should fall on.

No serious historian is going to back up your crazy claims. And I'm giving you this free advice sans the wild, self righteous attitude you would surely deliver if you responded to someone supposedly spreading "discredited myths" on Islam.

Try not to be the little hypocrite, aemish.

aemish said...

"The precise date of Easter has at times been a matter for contention. At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 it was decided that all Christian churches would celebrate Easter on the same day, which would be computed independently of any Jewish calculations to determine the date of Passover. It is however probable (though no contemporary account of the Council's decisions has survived) that no method of determining the date was specified by the Council."

Hypocrite, Devil's Advocate.. tomato, tomahto :p

Anonymous said...

Another well-paced and informative piece of writing.

Increasingly I find doubting moslems making oh-so-clever references to Paul as if anyone knows what his motivations were, or the true early history of the church - and whether he or any other character described in the bible even existed.

Out of body experiences cast doubt on the state of someone's mental health.

aemish said...

My husband thought it was all my nice post-op medication. To each his own :p

aemish said...

Anonymous said...

The 'issue' of the basmalah is NOT whether it is part of the Quran or not, rather whether it is read silently or loudly when commencing prayer and this is where Muslim authorities have disagreed.