Bismillah


If you were to purchase a copy of the Qur’an from a bookshop and browse through its pages, you will discover that out if its one hundred and fourteen chapters, all, except one, begin with the words “Bismi Allahi arrahmani arraheem”. Is this Arabic statement which means ‘In the Name of God, The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful’, and is often transliterated in abbreviated form as Bismillah, a part of the Qur’an? Were “Bismillahs” originally revealed by God before every sura (chapter)?

You can note that in the printed Qur’ans, individual chapters begin with the Bismillah, however you will also notice that when it comes to numbering the verses, in the printed Quran, the Bismillahs before every Sura are not numbered as verses as such.

Almost all printed Qur’ans in the Muslim world (barring a few by heretical sects such as the International Community of Submitters) do not number Bismillahs before all chapters as a verse and a revealed part of that Sura.

Why is this so? Are the Bismillahs before every chapter a part of the Qur’an? If they are, then why are they not numbered as a verse? Suppose that every Bismillah was revealed before a sura and was a part of that chapter, then in that case Surat Al Baqara, the second chapter of the Qur’an should have two hundred and eighty-seven verses and not two hundred and eighty-six, as we usually observe in the printed text.

The answer is in understanding what exactly is the phenomenon that is the Qur’an. Is it the printed word or is it the spoken word?

We need to understand that when we refer to the phenomenon known as the Qur’an, then in fact we are not referring to the Qur’an as a printed Book. What you hold in your hand that you have obtained from the book shop or library or even downloaded from the internet is the printed text of the Qur’an, and not the Qur’an itself. There is a difference between the two and this is what I would like to highlight in this reflection.

What is the Qur’an?

The word Qur’an is a proper noun in Arabic and is derived from the triliteral root qāf rā hamza (ق ر أ). The third person masculine singular past perfect form of this root, which is the form used to determine meanings of a root and its derivatives is  qara-a (قَرَأَ) which means  he read or recited. From the same root, the imperative اقْرَأْ Iqr’aa  is formed. The noun Qur’an is from the same root and means Reading (Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon pp 2502).

These inflections of the root and the meaning of the word itself clarifies what is the phenomenon called the Qur’an. It is the reading or the orally proclaimed word, and not the printed book on paper. Apart from the linguistic meaning, we also see internal evidence within the Qur’an that identify it to be ‘a reading’ or ‘spoken recital’ and not a book printed on paper.

وَلَوْ نَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ كِتَابًا فِي قِرْطَاسٍ فَلَمَسُوهُ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ لَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِنْ هَٰذَا إِلَّا سِحْرٌ مُّبِينٌ

And if We had been sending down upon you a Book on paper, so they touched it with their hands, the ones who have disbelieved would indeed have said, “Decidedly this is nothing except evident sorcery.” (6:3, Dr Ghali)

So according to above, it is clear that God did not reveal the book on paper. Rather it was revealed on the heart of a man:

وَإِنَّهُ لَتَنزِيلُ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ

And lo! it is a revelation of the Lord of the Worlds,

عَلَىٰ قَلْبِكَ لِتَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُنذِرِينَ

Upon thy heart, that thou mayst be (one) of the warners, (26:192, 194 Pickthall)

It was revealed on the heart of a man, who recited it to other men around him, all of whom memorised what they heard.

بَلْ هُوَ آيَاتٌ بَيِّنَاتٌ فِي صُدُورِ الَّذِينَ أُوتُوا الْعِلْمَ ۚ وَمَا يَجْحَدُ بِآيَاتِنَا إِلَّا الظَّالِمُونَ

But it is clear revelations in the hearts of those who have been given knowledge, and none deny Our revelations save wrong-doers. (29:49 Pickthall)

Thus it is the spoken word that came first, which was then recorded on paper, and it is the spoken word, or the reading which is what the Qur’an is. It is the memorized and recited Qur’an which is the authority on the printed Qur’an and not vice versa. If there are any printing errors, then the Huffaz (memorisers) point them out for rectification to the publisher. Qur’an publishing houses the world over, generally do not circulate a printed Qur’an, unless it is proof read and certified by a Hafiz i.e. a memoriser of the Qur’an. Any copies with transcription errors are withdrawn from circulation upon intimation by a Hafiz.

Ad-Dhikr – The Remembrance

God’s claim for preservation is also of Dhikr or the remembrance (of the Quran), and it is illogical to conceive that what is printed on paper is preserved by God, because with time, paper withers away and can also have transcription errors on it.

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ

Surely We, Ever We, have been sending down the Remembrance, and surely We are indeed Preservers of it. (15:9, Dr. Ghali)

Therefore it is through the Huffaz that the Qur’an has come down to us and it is in their hearts that it is preserved. It follows that what is memorised and recited i.e. the remembered and the spoken Qur’an in its original Arabic is what is actually the word of God.

Bismillah is never recited loudly to mark begining of a chapter at Masjid Al Haraam

As it is the spoken Qur’an which is the authority on the printed Qur’an, we should see whether the Bismillahs are recited in spoken form before Qur’anic recitation. Doing so, you will observe that during an oral recitation, the Bismillah’s are never recited as part of the Qur’anic recital by a Qari (reciter) during the Salat (five daily prayer). The best way to verify this is to observe the Qur’anic recitation during prayers held at Masjid Al Haraam (the sacred mosque), in Makkah during Taraveeh prayers – the daily night prayers in the month of Ramadan in which the entire Qur’an is recited from memory.

One can observe that during these prayers, when the Qari finishes a sura, he does not recite the Bismillah loudly prior to starting a new Sura. This shows that the Bismillah before every Sura that one finds in the printed Qur’an, are not part of the recited Qur’an, and to be kept in mind that the Qur’an is the reading, and its remembrance is what is vouchsafed by God.

Thus Bismillahs before every Sura were not revealed by God, but were placed in printed versions when the spoken word was recorded on paper or other material to indicate beginning of a new chapter. There are other such bifurcations of the printed text also done to facilitate the recitation and memorization. Such as dividing the entire Qur’an into thirty equal Juz or portions. We can see through internal Qur’anic evidence that its revelation was as Suras or Ayaat (Signs, verses), but never as Juz. The practice of dividing the Book into thirty portions being done to facilitate reading the entire text in thirty days of the month.

The Bismillah occurs only once in the Qur’an

However, while understanding that the Bismillah before every sura was not revealed by God, it is also worthy to note that it does occur internally within the Qur’anic text on a single occasion, and indicates that the wordings  “Bismi Allahi arrahmani arraheem” are indeed revealed words.

The statement of Queen Saba to her counsel upon receiving a letter from Prophet Suleman is narrated in sura twenty seven:

قَالَتْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْمَلَأُ إِنِّي أُلْقِيَ إِلَيَّ كِتَابٌ كَرِيمٌ

She said, “O you chiefs, surely an honorable book has been cast to me.

إِنَّهُ مِن سُلَيْمَانَ وَإِنَّهُ بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

Surely it is from Sulayman, (Solomon) and surely it is in The Name of Allah, The All-Merciful, The Ever-Merciful. (27:29, 30 Dr. Ghali)

Thus we can observe in above that Bismillahs were not revealed each and every time before the revelation of a new sura as this is not prevailing in the spoken Qur’an. We can also see that within the spoken text is sura twenty-seven within which the wordings of the Bismillah occur. Thus its wordings are a part of the Qur’an only by virtue of a single occurrence.

Kitab of Suleman

The Kitab or writing that Suleman sent to Queen Saba in Sura twenty seven is self explanatory in the same chapter as a Kitab i.e. writing or letter. It was not the Qur’an that Suleman had sent but a written message to the Queen. Kitab in the said verse is in its generic sense, and not as the specific Al Kitab. The following are reasonst:

(i) Suleman himself says that the writing was his, and not from Allah.
اذْهَب بِّكِتَابِي هَٰذَا فَأَلْقِهْ إِلَيْهِمْ ثُمَّ تَوَلَّ عَنْهُمْ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا يَرْجِعُونَ

“Go with this my letter and throw it down unto them; then turn away and see what (answer) they return.” 27:28 Pickthal

The words “Ithhab bikitabee hatha.”, meaning “Go with this my letter..” are clearly showing that it is Suleman’s Kitab that was sent to Saba and not Allah’s Kitab.

(ii) Supposing it was the Qur’an that Suleman had sent to Queen Saba, and supposing the Qur’an were to begin with Bismillah as a revealed verse before the Suras, then Queen Saba should identify that the Book sent from Suleman is the Qur’an by first reading the Bismillah to her counsel, followed by the opening verse of a Sura, if indeed Bismillahs before Suras are also revealed verses.

But notice that she does not read Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen after Bismi Allahi arrahmani arraheem to her counsel. In fact her next statements make it crystal clear as to what it was that she received from Suleman:

قَالَتْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْمَلَأُ إِنِّي أُلْقِيَ إِلَيَّ كِتَابٌ كَرِيمٌ

(The Queen of Sheba) said (when she received the letter): O chieftains! Lo! there hath been thrown unto me a noble letter. 27:29, Pickthall

إِنَّهُ مِن سُلَيْمَانَ وَإِنَّهُ بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

“Lo! it is from Solomon, and lo! it is: In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful;” 27:30 Pickthall

أَلَّا تَعْلُوا عَلَيَّ وَأْتُونِي مُسْلِمِينَ

Exalt not yourselves against me, but come unto me as those who surrender. 27:31 Pickthall

We see from above that the Kitab or writing of Suleman in its entirety is:

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful; Exalt not yourselves against me, but come unto me as those who surrender.

It is this written message that King Suleman sent through the Hoopoe bird and not the entire Book of God. As Suleman himself identifies by the Arabic word “Kitabee” that it is his Kitab that is to be sent to Queen Saba, therefore it is not the Qur’an referred in 27:30. As after reading the Bismillah the Queen identifies the next line of Suleman’s writing to be the invitation to embrace Islam and not a beginning verse of a Sura, therefore this also proves that it is not the entire Qur’an which is mentioned in 27:30 but just the letter of Suleman. The word Kitab is used in the said verse in its generic sense of a written message, i.e. a letter or communique.

Reading Bismillah is an etiquette of Qur’anic recitation and inscription, distinct from the revealed text.

Bismillahs before every chapter of the Qur’an are not revealed verses or a revealed part of those chapters. When Muslims recite the Qur’an then they begin the recitation with Bismillah because of the order given in Sura 96:1

اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ

Read: In the name of thy Lord Who createth. 96:1, Pickthall

Thus when a believer is to begin the reading of the Qur’an or any of its passages then one is to do it “bi-ismi rabbik” literally “With the Name of your Lord”. This is the Qur’anic etiquette to begin Qur’anic recitation and is in obedience to the order in Surat Al Alaq 96:1. However this does not mean that a Bismillah that one reads prior to a Sura or passage is the first verse revealed in a Sura. The first verse of a Sura is the text that occurs after the Bismillah, e.g. 1:1 is “Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen”, 2:1 is “Alif-lam-meem”, 3:1 is “Alif-lam-meem” and so on and so forth. Reciting a Bismillah before Quran reading or to print it to demarcate sura-chapters is simply an etiquette or rule given in the Qur’an that a believer is to observe.  Similarly another such rule is given in Surat An-Nahl 16:98:
فَإِذَا قَرَأْتَ الْقُرْآنَ فَاسْتَعِذْ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ

And when thou recitest the Qur’an, seek refuge in Allah from Satan the outcast. 16:98 Pickthall

Thus in obedience to the order in 16:98, one can recite the words “audhu billah mina ‘sh-shaytani ‘r-rajeem” lit. “I seek refuge in God from Satan, the stoned”, followed by b-ismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm.  However once again it must be emphasized that these words are simply etiquette for reciting Quranic text and their utterance prior to reciting the Qur’an does not make them the first revealed verse of any Sura. These are simply  words a human being utters in response to the divine command prior to reciting divine words. The human proclamation is distinct from God’s words. This is the reason that one never hears Bismillah before a Sura and Audobillah in the audible recitation of the Imam when he leads the Salat (Prayers) in congregation during prayers held at night such as the Maghrib (Sunset), Isha (Night), or Fajr (Dawn) prayers. The entre text of the Qur’an is what one can hear and observe during the Qiyam ul Layl (Ramadan Night) Prayers in Masjid Al Haram in Makkah. In that recitation the first verses of Suras are never “Bismillahs”.

WOULD YOU LIKE TO DISCUSS THE ABOVE OR ANY OTHER TOPIC WITH THE AUTHOR THROUGH LIVE CHAT? SCHEDULE A MEETING USING THIS FORM.

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