‘Basmala’

‘Bismillāhi r-raḥmān r-raḥīim’,

In the Name of God,
the Compassionate, the Merciful.

 

As noted in relation to the canon, 〈7.〉, each surah of the Qur’an, with the exception of Surah 9, begins with the words of the basmala, produced above. In Surah 1, see 〈53.〉, these are the opening words of the first verse, and consequently the opening words of the Qur’an. In the other one hundred and twelve surahs, the formula precedes the numbered verses as a preliminary invocation.

 

Devotion specifically towards the name of God, as distinct from reverence to God Himself, has a particular significance in Jewish tradition where God’s names (Yahweh, Jehovah, Elohim, etc) are often left unstated. The Christian practice of praying to God in the name of God, whilst somewhat paradoxical, probably derives from Jesus’ reassurance in John 14.12-14: ‘I go to the Father and whatever you ask in my name I will do. Pursuant to this verse, it has become common for Christians to commence their prayers by invoking all three members of the Holy Trinity with the words:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.

The Qur’an’s repeated invocation of God’s name at the start of each surah would appear to serve a similar role, although without reference to the Trinity.

 

The two words used for God in the basmala, ‘ar-raḥmān’ and ‘ar-raḥīm’, both derive from a common Arabic root r-ḥ-m. Rendered together in English as ‘the Compassionate, the Merciful’, or some similar pair of adjectives, the description seems tautologous. It is sometimes said that in the Arabic the difference in their meaning is clearer than it is in translation, that ‘raḥmān’ represents a tendency towards performing merciful acts, whilst ’raḥīm‘ reflects upon a merciful disposition as an aspect of God’s inherent nature. However the compound-term undoubtedly plays on the similarity of the words, and is likely an example of a polyptoton – a repeated word in different forms for the purpose of creating a poetic emphasis. Such a form is known from the Hebrew Bible (such as the phrases ‘Holy of Holies’, ‘vanity of vanities’, ‘Song of Songs’, and ‘King of kings’, which also occurs twice in the New Testament followed by ‘and lord of lords ). It also occurs in the speech of four biblical characters in the Qur’an, Moses, Jacob, Joseph and Job, who each address God as ‘the most Merciful of the merciful’ ({7.151}, {12.64}, {12.92} and {21.43}).

 

The Hebrew word ‘rahimim’, from ‘rehem’ meaning ‘womb’, has a long history as an epithet for God, evoking a mother’s love for her child, (Isaiah 49.15 and Hosea 11.8 ). Interestingly, it has also been discovered in dozens of devotional inscriptions made by Christians in pre-Islamic South Arabia, including one inscription made on behalf of Abraha, the Christian king of Himyar 〈1.〉, prefaced: ‘With the help of Rahman and His Messiah’ . Most intriguingly, in 2018 the full text of the basmala itself was found etched into a Yemen rockface using a pre-Islamic script. This all suggests that the appearance of the basmala in the Qur’an is evidence of a South Arabian influence upon its author. With this in mind, it may be no coincidence that the only instance in which the full basmala appears in the Qur’an other than the start the start of a surah, is in Solomon’s salutation to the South Arabian Queen of Sheba in {27.30} 〈23.〉

 

Ar-Raḥmān’ is the second most common epithet for God in the Qur’an, second only to Allah, and appearing over fifty times in twenty surahs. The use of ‘raḥmān’ often accompanies passages focussing upon retelling Jewish and Christian stories, being employed no less than sixteen times in Surah 19, in verses mostly concerned with the life of Jesus. Such passages seem to have been announced only during a middle phase in the Qur’an’s composition, sandwiched between the early Qur’an’s esoteric ‘rhapsodies’, 〈10.〉, and the later surahs’ preoccupation with the practical matters of war and law. Consequently, a reference to ‘ar-Raḥmān’ in the Qur’an should usually be regarded as an occasional, formal epithet for God, rather than an indication that He is actually, within the context of the verse, inclined towards compassion or mercy. Indeed, in the following verses:

{19.45}: ‘Truly I fear a punishment from (ar-Raḥmān)…’,

{19.68-69}: ’… We shall surely bring them around Hell on their knees. Then indeed We shall pluck out from every group, whosoever amongst them was most insolent towards (ar-Raḥmān)’,

{19.75}: ’Whoever is in error, (ar-Raḥmān) will extend his term till, when they see that which they have been promised, be it punishment or the Hour (ie Judgment on the Last Day), they will know whose position is worse and whose protector is weaker’,

{21.42}: ’Say: ‘Who will protect you, night and day, from (ar-Raḥmān)?...’, and

{36.23}: ’If (ar-Raḥmān) desires harm for me, intercession would avail me naught…’

to give ‘ar-Raḥmān’ its literal meaning of ‘the compassionate one’ would render the verse nonsensical.

 

Regarding the absence of the basmala from Surah 9, three plausible theories present themselves.

1. One possibility is that contrary to the traditional account, the compilation of the Qur’an into a single volume was, other than for Surah 9, completed within Muhammad’s lifetime. Since Surah 9 is traditionally regarded as the last full surah to have been composed, it may be that it remained unfinished at the time of the prophet’s death, such that none of his companions felt competent to add the basmala on his behalf.

 

2. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Surahs 8 and 9 may have once formed a single continuous surah, which was later separated into two parts. If these two surahs had indeed originally been one, this would have been by far the longest surah in the Qur’an. The content of these surahs broadly fits this thesis since Surah 8 is traditionally read as containing references to Muhammad’s earlier military expeditions, in particular the Battle of Badr 〈40.〉, whilst Surah 9 addresses his later campaigns, see 〈47 – 49.〉 and the treatment of his vanquished former enemies 〈50 – 51.〉

 

3. A third, and it is suggested the most plausible, scenario is that after Muhammad’s death but before the Qur’an was compiled into a complete canon, the opening verses of Surah 9 were lost; see 〈7.〉 above. If this last explanation were to be accepted, it would be the clearest evidence that the Qur’an had undergone some editing after it had already been compiled into a canon in which each surah had been given its basmala.