THE FIRST WORD
The Worth of Bismillah
Bismillah (In the Name of God) is the start of all good things, so we shall start with it. This blessed phrase is a mark of Islam, one constantly recited by all creatures through their tongues of disposition. If you want to perceive its inexhaustible source of strength and blessing, consider the following allegory:
Travelers in Arabian deserts must travel under a tribal chief’s name and protection, or else they will be bothered by bandits and unable to acquire what they need for the journey. Two people,3 one humble and the other arrogant, set out on a journey. The humble one obtained the name of a tribal chief; the arrogant one did not. The former traveled everywhere in safety. Whenever he met a bandit, he said: “I’m travelling in the name of this chief,” and so was left alone. He was treated with respect in every tent he entered. In contrast, the arrogant one suffered disaster and constant fear, for he had to struggle and beg for every need. He became base and vile.
O arrogant soul! You are that traveler, and this world is the desert. Your weakness and poverty are endless, and the enemies and privations to which you are exposed are beyond number. Given this, invoke the name of the Eternal Owner and the Everlasting Ruler of this world, for only this can deliver you from such begging and fear.
Bismillah is a blessed treasure. It transforms your boundless weakness and poverty, by binding you to the Omnipotent and Merciful One’s infinite Power and Mercy, into the most heeded intercessor at His Exalted Court. When you say bismillah, you act in His name. You are like a soldier acting in the state’s name, fearing no one, doing all things in the name of the law and the state, and persisting against all odds.
How does everything recite bismillah via its very mode of existence? For example: A stranger arriving in a city can order its people to gather at a certain place to work on a certain task. If this order is obeyed, the stranger obviously is acting in the name of the ruler’s strength and authority, not his own. In the same way, everything acts in the name of God, the All-Mighty. Small seeds and grains carry huge trees on their heads and raise weights as heavy as mountains. Each tree says bismillah and, filling its hands with fruit from Mercy’s treasury, offers them to us on a tray. Each garden, a cooking pot from the Divine Power’s kitchen where countless varieties of delicious foods are prepared, says bismillah.
All blessed animals (e.g., cows, camels, sheep, and goats) say bismillah and become fountains of milk from Mercy’s abundance. They offer us, in the Provider’s name, a most delicate and pure food like the water of life. Every plant and blade of grass, every root and stem, says bismillah. All plant, tree, and grass roots and fibers, soft as silk, say bismillah and pierce hard stones and soil. Mentioning His Name, the Name of the Merciful, subjects everything to them.
A tree’s branches spread in the sky, and its roots spread unhindered among stones and soil. It generates underground spontaneously, and its delicate green leaves hold moisture despite intense heat. These realities vex the naturalist. It jabs a finger into the naturalist’s unseeing eye and says: “You put so much trust in the power of hardness and heat, yet they obey the Divine Command.
That is why each soft fiber of the plant’s roots, like Moses’ staff, obeys: And We said: “O Moses, strike the rock with your staff” (2:60) and penetrates the rock. Every delicate, paper-thin leaf, like one of Abraham’s limbs, recites: O fire, be coolness and peace (21:69) in defiance of the intense heat.
All things inwardly say bismillah and deliver God’s bounties to us in His name. Thus we also should say bismillah, give and take in His name, and accept nothing from those who do not give in God’s name.
QUESTION: We pay people for whatever they bring us, even though they are only “tray-bearers.”
What payment does God, their true Owner, ask of us?
ANSWER: That true Bestower of all precious bounties and goods we enjoy requires three things: remembrance, thanksgiving, and reflection. Saying bismillah at the beginning is a manner of remembrance, and saying al-hamdu lillah (praise and thanks be to God) at their end is a manner of thanksgiving. Reflection means always being mindful and thinking of the precious and ingenious bounties we receive as miracles of the Eternally-Besought-of-All’s Power and as gifts from His Mercy.
If you kissed the hand of someone who brought you a precious gift without recognizing the true sender (the king), you would be making a great mistake. Praising and loving the apparent bestower of bounty, while forgetting the true Bestower of Bounty, is far worse. O soul! If you wish to avoid such stupidity, give and receive in God’s name. Begin and act, to the very end, in His name. This will suffice you.
3 God declares in the Qur’an : I shall not allow to go to waste the deed of any doer among you, whether be a male or female: you are one from the other (3:195). It is clear that Islam does not discriminate between men and women in religious responsibility. Each gender shares most of the responsibilities, but each one has certain responsibilities that are particular to it. The Qur’an usually uses the masculine form of address, for this is one of Arabic’s characteristics. In almost every language, the masculine form is used for a group comprising both men and women, like the English word mankind, which includes both men and women. So, brotherhood also includes sisterhood, and, since the believers comprise both male and female believers, the believers are brothers and sisters. However, in order to maintain the original text and avoid repetition, usually we do not mention the feminine forms in translation. (Tr.)