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Qur’an: the opening

Posted on 22 September 2010, 4:17

Why I’m reading the Qur’an

Qur’an sura 1

Where the Bible opens by showing us God already in action, hard at work creating heaven and earth, the short opening sura of the Qur’an is in no such hurry. Impressively, its calm attention is on the God who is, rather than the God who does. And it begins by inviting me, the reader, to offer my proper human response to God…

Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds:
Merciful to all,
Compassionate to each!

The language immediately reminds me of the Psalms and makes me wonder if the Bible would be different if it began, say, with Psalm 23. I think it would set a different emotional tone, and that’s the feeling I get reading these much-loved opening words in the Qur’an. Also impressive is this first glimpse of the qualities of God: ‘Lord of the Worlds’ sounds grand but distant, while mercy and compassion speak of love and presence.

After these three lines, the Qur’an turns to address God directly as ‘Lord of the Day of Judgement’. The writer calls for God’s help in following the straight path, which is full of God’s generous grace, rather than joining the lost, who know only God’s anger.

In Psalm 1, the poet contrasts two roads: the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. Jesus refines the idea with his image of the broad way which leads to destruction and the narrow way which leads to life. But here in the Qur’an there seems to be just one road blessed by God; the alternative is to be lost in the desert, with no road to follow.

The three monotheistic faiths envisage a right way and a wrong way. You are righteous or you are wicked. You follow God’s will or you are lost. You are welcomed with grace or driven out with anger. That uncompromising view is challenged now in western culture by the belief that there are many paths in life, and we have the freedom to choose between them without being judged. This sura raises the issue for me with new clarity.

Ziauddin Sardar, who blogged the Qur’an in 2008, says that these opening lines are known as ‘the mother of the book’, in that they sum up the essence of the Qur’an, as well as being woven into the prayers which Muslims make five times a day.

If holy places are bathed in glory because of all the prayer that has been offered in them, then that must be true of these words, in which so much love, passion and hope has been placed.

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