This is an explanation of the grammar of surah al-FatiHah for English speakers. The aim of this article is to give the reader a more detailed understanding of the meaning of what they are reciting when praying, and hence become more reflective in their salah inshAllah.
Imam Ali (رضي الله عنه) said: “There is no prayer without understanding and there is no recitation without reflection.”
Imam as-Suyuti in his book ‘Itqan fi ulum il-Quran‘ wrote: “It is sunnah to read with reflection and understanding, as it is the greatest purpose and the most important thing to be sought. With it the hearts (Sudoor) are gladdened and the minds (qulub) enlightened.”
Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:
كِتَابٌ أَنْزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ وَلِيَتَذَكَّرَ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
“(This is) a Book which We have sent down to you, full of blessings that they may ponder over its Verses, and that men of understanding may remember.” [Saad, 38:29]
And He سبحانه وتعالى said:
أَفَلَا يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ
“Do they not then consider the Qur’ân carefully”
The description of that is that his mind (qalb) is busy with thinking about the meaning of what he is saying, so he knows the meaning of every ayah and he contemplates the commands and prohibitions and resolves to implement them. If he was previously deficient, then he asks forgiveness. If he comes across an ayah of raHmah, he rejoices and asks, or punishment, he begs for mercy and seeks refuge.
Muslim reported that Hudhayfah said: ‘I prayed with the Prophet one night. He started with Baqarah and read it, then an-Nisaa and read it, then Al-Imraan and read it. He read in a measured tone. If he recited an ayat that mentioned tasbih, he would say SubhanAllah (Glory be to Allah); if it mentioned a question, he would ask a question; if it mentioned seeking refuge with Allah, he would seek refuge with Allah.'”
Imam as-Suyuti went on to mention ten other hadith with examples of responding to the meaning of what is read.
الإعرَاب (al-i’raab) is Arabic grammar which is related to the sounds at the ends of words. All Arabic words end in one of the three sounds:
i, called كَسرَى (kasra) pronounced like the i in fit,
a, called فَتحَة (fatHa) pronounced like the a in pat, or
u, called ضَمَّة (Damma) pronounced as the u in put,
or it would end in silence called سُكُون (sukoon).
By knowing the correct ending of a word, one knows the role that the word plays in the sentence, and hence, has clarity about the precise meaning of the sentence.
بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ
الْحَمْدُ للَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ
Al-Hamdu li-laahi rabbil ‘aalameen
حمد (Hamd) = praise and gratitude
ربّ (Rabb) = Lord
عالمين (‘Aalameen) = the worlds
It is الحمدُ (al-Hamdu), with the u sound made by the Damma, because it is at the beginning of the sentence and it is the subject of the sentence.
The لِ (li) in لله (li-laahi) is implying that the Hamd is for Allah. li-laahi has the i sound at the end, made by the kasra, as the li always does that to the end of the word after it.
The word Hamd has ال (al) before it to show that it all of the types of Hamd, not just any Hamd. It is the Hamd that is suitable for Allah, so it is at the heart of all worship.
When reading this word, we must intend this meaning, so by remembering this in prayer, we can become very humble and close to Allah.
ربِّ (rabbi) means the Lord, and here it is another word for Allah, mentioned just before (lillahi). Grammatically, it is called بَدَل (badal) (replacement) and is in apposition with what came before it. It has the same ending as the word that it is following, so here rabbi has the i sound at its end as it is following lillahi.
We could equally say: Al-Hamdu li rabbil ‘aalameen. By saying both lillahi and rabbi, we are adding more definition to who Allah is. Similar to this, in English we could say “I saw my brother Ahmad”. ‘Ahmad’ is the badal (apposition) of ‘my brother’, giving further definition when used together.
ربِّ العَلَمين (Rabbil ‘aalameen) combines the two words rabbi and al-‘aalameen, although the alif (a) of ال al is skipped when pronounced, so it becomes rabbil instead of rabbi al… as it is written.
It is in the إضَافة (iDaafah) form, which is similar to saying ‘of’ between the two words. The meaning of this phrase is “the Lord of the worlds” i.e. The Lord of everything. He is their creator, sustainer, regulator, organiser and arranger. Everything depends upon Him سبحانه و تعالى.
This ayah is very powerful in its meaning. By trying to have the above thought while saying it, or immediately after it, as we pause before the next ayah, then we can be overcome with wonder and the very essence of worship and submission, as it is truly one of the most beautiful statements possible.
There is no need to rush in prayer. We can take time to let our hearts catch up with our tongues to ensure that our words are heartfelt, so that in the pause we may be moved to cry a little more or fear Allah more, to really embody the essence of worship itself. We should know that one of the successful people is a person who cries at hearing Allah’s name, for no other reason than it being a word which inspires pure sincere worship. We may question our heart at this point – “Is my heart in pure worship to Allah alone?”
Imam as-Suyuti wrote in ‘Itqan fi ulum il-Quran‘: “it is liked (mustaHab) to cry when reading the Qur’an, and to try to cry for those who are not able to, and to be sad and humbled and afraid.
Allah سبحانه وتعالى said:
وَيَخِرُّونَ لِلْأَذْقَانِ يَبْكُونَ وَيَزِيدُهُمْ خُشُوعًا
“And they fall down on their faces weeping and it increases their humility.” [al-Israa’, 17:109]
At-Tabarani wrote: “The best of people in reading are those who are saddened by it.” and in ‘sharH al-muhadhab wa Tareeqihi fi taHSeel‘ “crying is to consider what one reads of threats, stern promises and covenants, then thinking about one’s shortcomings in that. If sadness and weeping does not come to one during that, so he should cry at losing that, as it is a calamity.”
الرحمان (Ar-RaHman) = واسع الرحمة (waasi’ ur-RaHmah) = wide in mercy (used exclusively for Allah)
الرحيم (Ar-RaHeem) = دائم الرحمة (daa’im ur-raHmah), عظيم الرحمة (‘aDheem ur-RaHmah) = constantly merciful, great in mercy.
Both of these words end in a kasra (i sound), which indicates that they are both also badal for lillahi in the previous ayah. Again, they add further definition to one who the Hamd is for. This ayah is a continuation of the sentence started in the previous ayah.
The approximate meaning when saying these two words is that Allah is most merciful and He is most compassionate. However, these are only a shade of the real meaning. It would be beneficial if we remember a specific mercy that Allah has shown us, so that we become filled with gratitude for it.
For example, even this word and this prayer are a mercy, as we need to know how to express our love and worship for Allah, and here it is, the best of expressions as a gift from Allah to us. Also, by remembering that all the mercy of all the mothers for their children is just the tiniest fraction of Allah’s mercy, then our awe of Allah grows when reciting these two names. We need to try to feel this sense of awe at the time of saying these in prayer.
The sound patterns of these words in Arabic are often used for exaggeration and emphasising a particular quality of someone or something. It is similar to saying very or extremely before an adjective. Hence, we are not merely saying that Allah has raHmah, but moreover, we are saying that He has a lot of raHma, is very, very merciful, continuously merciful etc. All of this is understood just from the word’s pattern, so again, this is a very beautiful expression. Such beauty also helps to move our hearts while in prayer, especially if we read slowly and clearly, giving plenty of time to contemplate the meanings of what we say.
Imam Suyuti wrote in his book Itqaan fi‘ulum il-Qur’an: “The reciters said: Tajweed is the embellishment of recitation. It is giving the letters their rights (timing) and order, and returning the letter to its makhraj (where sound is formed in the throat or mouth) and place of origin, so beautifying the pronunciation with it in its complete form without exaggeration, arbitrariness, excess or unnaturalness.” And “There is no doubt, just as the ummah worships through understanding the meanings of the Qur’an and establishing its limits, they worship through correcting its pronounced words and establishing its letters on the correct description received from the leaders of the reciters connected to the presence of the Prophet.”
مَلِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ
Maaliki yawm id-deen
مَلِك Maalik = master, owner, king
يَوْم Yawm = day
All of these words are ‘maksoor‘ (end in i sound), as they are all together a badal for lillahi. Again, they add further definition to one who the Hamd is for. This ayah is the completion of the sentence started in the second ayah. These three words are all in the iDaafah form, so again, it is like having ‘of’ between each word. According to the rules of iDaafah, only the last word in the chain has ‘al‘ before it, just as rabbil ‘aalameen was the last in a chain of two.
In the current chain only id-deen has ‘al‘ written before it. When pronounced, the ‘l‘ is skipped and the d in deen is given extra emphasis. This occurs in many of the Arabic letters, but not all. Although ‘al‘ is written with ‘a‘ in English, it is not necessarily pronounced as ‘a‘. If reading continuously, it is pronounced according to the vowel sound before it, as it is merged with the previous word. If we were to start reading after a pause with ‘al‘, then we would pronounce it as al.
The meaning of this ayah is ‘the Master of the Day of Judgement’. Allah is the only master of that day. All of our fates will be decided by Him, so this ayah makes us fearful of Allah and also hopeful in Him, as none can benefit or harm us on that day except Him.
While reading this ayah in our prayer we can feel our loss if not for Allah’s mercy and we can feel our success if we are loved by Allah. Just having this sincere feeling is a way to be among those whom Allah loves. This should fill us with amazement and gratitude at Allah’s mercy for us. Remembering anything we know about the Day of Judgement at this point will help us to focus on our task of worshipping Allah during the prayer.
إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ
iyaaka na’budu wa iyyaaka nasta’een
نَعبُد (Na’budu) = we worship
نَستَعِين (Nasta’een) = we seek help
و (Wa) = and
This ayah contains two sentences, both carrying a very powerful meaning. The نا (‘naa’) sound at the beginning of the second and fourth words means we.
أعبُد (a’budu) = I worship
نَعبُد (Na’budu) = We worship
The root of this verb is عَبَدَ ‘abada( (past tense he worshipped) and is a derivative of عِبادَة (‘ibadah).
أستَعِين (asta’een) = I ask for help
نَستَعِين (Nasta’een) = we ask for help
The root of this verb is عَوَنَ (‘awana) which means help. From the root is derived a word استَعانَة (ista’aana), which means to ask for help. It is the ‘s‘ in ista at the beginning of the word that gives the sense of requesting; it is called سِسنُ الطلب (seen ut-Talab) – the s of request. The مُضارِع (muDaari’) (present and future tense) of the word is nasta’een with a ن (‘n’) placed at the beginning to mean we.
Both of the verbs in this ayah are in the muDaari’ form, so they imply now and after now – i.e. continuously. At this moment we worship and we will continue to worship and at this moment we ask for help and we will continue to ask for help.
Both these verbs need an object (مَفعُول بِهِ maf’ool bihi) to specify who or what it is that we worship and ask for help. We could say نَعبُدُك (na’buduka) to say ‘we worship you’. A variation of this is نَعبُدُ إيّاك (na’budu iyyaak), which means the same, although the pronoun ك (ka) (you) has now been seperated from the verb for emphasis. إيّا (iyyaa) is merely a tool to carry the ‘ka’ and has no meaning of its own.
It should be noted here that (iyyaaka) with a ّ shadda on the ي (y) (the ‘y’ sound is doubled) is very different in meaning to إياك (iyaaka) without the shadda (only one ‘y’ sound). The first means you, while the other means your sun. May Allah protect us from ever worshipping anything other than Allah Himself.
The normal order of words in a sentance is فاعِل (faa’il) (one doing the action), فِعل (fi’l) (the action or verb), and then مَفعُول بِهِ (maf’ool bihi) (one the action is done to). The power of this ayah comes from the fact that the sentence order is changed. Here the maf’ool bihi (one the action is done to) comes before the fa’il (one doing the action) and the fi’l (verb); iyyaaka na’budu instead of na’budu iyyaaka.
This positioning of what should come later in an early position adds a new dimension to the sentence and a new meaning. This technique is often used for emphasis, but here it is used to emphasise that the maf’ool bihi (one the action is done to) is the only one this action is done to. So the ayah means: You alone (and none other) we worship and you alone (and none other) we ask for help.
SubHaan Allah! This statement has outstanding beauty. From so few words, so many books of meaning can be derived. This helps us to appreciate the miracle of the Qur’an and see why people like ‘Umar became Muslim after hearing only a little of it. Its beautifully eloquent style, meaning and precise grammar stunned the Arabs. When we read it, if we can feel even a little of this amazement and attribute it to Allah, then we have embodied some worship in our reading.
While praying we can ponder on the meaning of only asking Allah’s help – i.e. our dependence on Him, as only He can benefit us and only He can harm us. There is so much to consider here. Even a little pondering can make us hysterical with joy that Allah has chosen us to understand this, but at the same time, distraught with fear that we may ever lose understanding of this point. If we can feel even a little of this and be grateful for it during our prayer, then we should consider ourselves the most fortunate people alive.
All of the previous verses were the half of surah fatiHah that are for Allah, as they are pure worship to Him. The following verses form the last half, which are for us, the ones praying, as they are a du’aa to Allah to benefit ourselves.
اهدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ
ihdina SSiraaT al-mustaqeem
صِراط (SiraT) = path
مُستَقِيم (Mustaqeem) = straight
This ayah is a new sentence with its verb in the form of a request. هَدَى (hadaa) is the past tense for of the verb meaning he guides. اِهدِ(ihdi) is the request form of the same verb meaning ‘guide!’. نَا(naa) at the end is the maf’ool bihi (one the action is done to) meaning us. So the sentence ihdinaa means ‘guide us!’ Of course we do not tell Allah to guide us, rather we beg Him, as we are in desperate need of His guidance.
We are begging for a specific guidance, so the thing we want to be guided to is mentioned as a second object for the verb (مَفعُول بِهِ الثاني maf’ool bihi ath-thaani).
We can be sure that the phrase الصِّرَاطَ المُستَقِيمَ (aS-SiraaT al-mustaqeem), meaning the straight path, is the matter what we are asking to be guided to, as it has a fatHa on the end of each of the words (‘a‘ sound) and this is one of the signs of a maf’ool bihi. The word الصِّرَاطَ (aS-SiraaT) means the path, with المُستَقِيمَ (al-mustaqeem) as its description, meaning straight. aS-SiraaT is the second maf’ool bihi for the verb and al-mustaqeem its adjective (صِفَة Sifah).
Adjectives follow the word they are describing, so in this case al-mustaqeem has al at the beginning and a (fatHa) at the end, because aS-SiraaT has al beginning and a ending.
When we pause at the end of reading this ayah we have an opportunity to check whether we really are begging with all our hearts for guidance, while knowing that if we don’t receive it, then we are truly lost.
صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ غَيرِ المَغضُوبِ عَلَيهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ
SiraaT alladheena an’amta ‘alayhim, ghayril-maghDoobi ‘alayhim wa laD-Daaleen
صِرَاطَ (SiraaT) = path
الَّذِين (alladheena) = those who
أَنعَمتَ عَلَيهِمْ (an’amta alayhim) = you favoured them
غَير (ghayr) = not, other than
المَغضُوبِ (al-maghDoob) = whom Allah’s anger is upon them
الضَّالِّينَ (aD-Daaleen) = the misguided ones
The first word SiraaT is a badal for the same word aS-SiraaT in the previous ayah. It has the same a ending, so gives further definition to the path in question. It does not have al at the beginning, because it is the first word in an iDaafah chain, which only allows al to be on the last word; الَّذِين (alladheena) in this case.
Being in the iDaafah form means that it is as if there is ‘of’ between the two words. alladheena means those who, so the phrase SiraaT alladheena… means ‘the path of those who …’.
نِعمَة (Ni’mah) is a blessing from Allah. نَعِمَ (na’ima) is a verb meaning to be delighted or to enjoy. Adding the أ (hamza and alif) before it makes a new verb أنعَمَ (an’ama) related to the original meaning, but now meaning that the action was done to someone or something. an’ama means to make pleasant. Adding تَ (ta) on the end of the verb, changes the one doing the action to one who is directly addressed (second person), like saying ‘you’ before an English verb. When combined with the عَلَى (‘alaa) it specifically means ‘to be graciously disposed towards’ or ‘bestow favours upon’.
With the pronoun هُم (hum) after ‘alaa, which becomes عَلَيهِمْ (‘alayhim), the sentence SiraaT alladheena an’amta ‘alayhim becomes ‘the path of those whom you bestowed your favour upon them’ or ‘the path of those whom you favoured.’
These are clearly pious people, for Allah was pleased with them, so He bestowed His favour and blessings upon them. In this ayah, we are asking to be on the same path as them. We are speaking directly to Allah, as we are using the verb أَنعَمتَ (an’amta), so we should remember this when we say it so that we are careful to be reverent in our address.
غَيرِ (ghayri) ends with an kasra (i sound), which tells us that it is the second part of an iDaafah chain. Its first part, SiraaT, is not repeated again, as it was mentioned at the beginning of the ayah. This whole section from ghayri until the end of the ayah is a second badal for aS-SiraaT al-mustaqeem that we are asking Allah to guide us to, as mentioned in the previous ayah. Its role is to give further definition to the path (SiraaT) that we are asking for.
المَغضُوبِ (al-maghDoobi) also ends with a kasra and starts with al, so it must be the third and final part of the iDaafah chain which began with SiraaT and has ghayri in the middle, as if saying SiraaTa ghayril- maghDoobi which means the path of other than those whom Allah’s anger is upon them – ghayr means other; than comes from the fact that it is iDaafah. ‘Those whom Allah’s anger is upon them’ is the interpreted meaning of al-maghDoobi. al-maghDoob is a noun that represents the one that an action is done to, called the مَفعُول (maf’ool).
The action itself isغَضبَ (ghaDiba) meaning ‘he became angry’, so al-maghDoobi is the one who made him angry, not the one who became angry. The one who became angry is understood from the context of the ayah to be Allah.
In this part of the ayah we are asking Allah not to lead to us to the path of those whom He is angry with. The language does not restrict it to the past, present or the future, but includes them all.
ولا الضَّالِّينَ (aD-Daaleen) starts with a وَ (wa) which is called عَطف (‘aTf) as it joins this last part of the ayah to what is before. The word لا (la) appears instead of ghayr, although it plays the same role, which is to negate whatever comes after it. Immediately after la is an implicit SiraaT although it is not mentioned, so the sentence is effectively wa la Siraat aD-Daaleen: ‘and not the path of the lost ones’.
This sentence is joined to the badal sentence before it ghayril- maghDoobi and so is a third and final defining quality of aS-SiraaT al-mustaqeem mentioned in the previous ayah.
The word الضال (aD-Daal) means ‘lost one’. It’s plural is الضالون (aD-Daaloon). It appears here as الضَّالِّينَ (aD-Daaleen) to show that it is at the end of an iDaafah chain (Siraat aD-Daaleen) – even though the word SiraaT is implicit – as a word ending in oon cannot take a kasra so it is changed to een.
means ‘O Allah respond (to my duaa)’