Naseer Ahmad and Muzaffar Iqbal

The term basmala is an abreviation for the theonymic invocation bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (“In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Ever-Merciful”) which appears in its complete form in Q 27:30, in the letter of Prophet Sulaymān, upon him peace to the Queen of Sabaʾ (Sheba) (see SabaʾAnonymous Mentions). A shorter form—without the two Names of Mercy (al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm; see Beautiful Names of Allah and discussion below)—occurs in Q 11:41, in the invocation of Prophet Nūḥ, upon him peace, when commencing his voyage in the Ark; it is written at the head of every sura except the ninth, al-Tawba (“Repentance”) (see below for the various reasons adduced for this absence, as well as the extensive scholarly discussion on the mode in which the basmala occurs at the head of every sura). Altogether, the basmala is found 114 times in the Qurʾān in its complete form and once in the aforementioned shorter form. The basmala is also known as the tasmiya (“invoking the name [of Allah]”) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīrsub Q basmala), based on the view that a name (ism) is distinct from its referent (musammā) (see more on this below).

Definition and Usage

The term basmala is a verbal noun (maṣdar) of the quadrilateral root b-s-m-l (patterned on the form faʿlala). Grammarians explain that one usage of this form is the construction (through a process called naḥt) of abbreviations from compound phrases by drawing letters from each constituent word (Ibn ʿAqīl, Sharḥ 4:262; Azharī, Tahdhīb 13:108; also Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q basmala). Al-Azharī (d. 369/980) quotes al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) as saying that he has not heard any verbal nouns based on this morphological pattern except four: basmala=bi-sm Allāh (“in the name of Allah”); sabḥala=subḥān Allāh (“glorified be Allah”); haylala=lā ilāha illā-Llāh (“[there is] no god but Allah”); and ḥawlaqa (variant ḥawqala]=lā ḥawla wa lā quwwata illā bi-Llāh (“[there is] no ability and no power but with Allah”). Al-Azharī himself, however, cites other such abbreviations, as mentioned by Abū al-ʿAbbās: ḥamdala=al-ḥamd li-Llāh (“all praise is to Allah”); jaʿfala=juʿiltu fidāka (“may I be a ransom for you”); and ḥayʿala=ḥayya ʿalā al-ṣalāt (“come to prayer”) (Tahdhīb 3:240).

Ibn ʿĀshūr (1296-1393/1879-1972) notes that the word basmala originally signified the act of saying or writing the phrase bi-sm Allāh (“In the name of Allah”), but popular usage extended its conventional meaning to denote saying or writing the entire phrase bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm—even though the abbreviated form does not contain the letters ḥāʾ and rāʾ from the last two words of the entire phrase (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala; al-Ṣabbān, al-Risālat al-kubrā p. 156).

Linguistic Construction and Meaning

Bi-smi is formed by adding the preposition bi- to the elliptic form of ism (contracted by omitting the ḥamzat al-waṣl). The preposition bi- is variously regarded as indicating companionship (muṣāḥaba) or supplication (istiʿāna, seeking aid). In the former sense, it would mean, “I seek the company of…” and in the latter, “I seek the help of….”  It indicates one’s poverty and need (iftiqār) while seeking Divine help to accomplish the act one intends to begin “in (or with) the name of Allah.” Thus bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm means “I have begun in the Name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Ever-Merciful” (badaʾt bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm), even though “I began” (badaʾt) is omitted (Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Samarqandī, Baḥr, sub Q 1:1). Al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-ca.922) and al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) associate the preposition bi- with the act one commences after pronouncing the basmala: thus when a traveller recites the basmala and then embarks or disembarks, it is as if he said “I embark or disembark in the name of Allah….” They both provide another Qurʾānic example of such an elided verb in Q 27:12: with nine signs to Firʿawn and his people (fī tisʿi āyātin ilā Firʿawna wa qawmihi) (Q 27:12), meaning “go (the elided verb idhhab) with nine signs to Firʿawn and his people”(Tafsīr and Kashshāf, sub Q basmala). Al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1802-1854) prefers the  understanding that the mention of the Divine name indicates humility and servitude, rather than just seeking the "company" of Allah Most High (Rūḥ, sub basmala).

Derivation and Meaning of ism

The Baṣra school of grammar derives the word ism (“name/noun”, pl. asmāʾ, pl. of pl. asāmī) from sumuww (root s-m-w), meaning height and prominence (al-ʿuluww wal-ẓuhūr), indicating that a name is “above” its meaning. The Kūfa school, on the other hand, considers the word ism a derivative of wasama (root w-s-m), meaning a marker or sign (ʿalāma) (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, cf. various discussions sub s-m; s-m-w; s-m-a; w-s-m). Al-Samʿānī (d. 489/1095) and Ibn ʿAṭiyya (480-546/1087-1151), among others, hold that the Baṣrian position has more morphological weight because “had ism been a derivative of wasama, its diminutive form would have been wusaym…whereas its diminutive form is sumayyun, its plural is asmāʾ, and the plural of its plural is asāmī. Since diminutives and plurals are always based on the original (aṣl), the Kūfan position is not correct” (Tafsīr and Muḥarrar; also Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ, sub s-m-a; Ibn al-Anbārī, Asrār al-ʿarabiyya p. 35), Ibn ʿAṭiyya adding that apart from this objection the Kūfan opinion is “excellent” (Muḥarrar, sub Q basmala). Among major exegetes, al-Ṭabarī, al-Zajjāj (d. 311/923), al-Samar-qandī (d. 373/983), and al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286) likewise consider ism to derive from the root s-m-w. Baṣrians and Kūfans agree that the leading letter of the word ism (hamzat al-waṣl) is elided: the phrase bi-smi (“in the name of”) was originally pronounced bi-ismi, but the hamza was dropped because of “frequent usage” (kathrat al-istiʿmāl) (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ, sub s-m-a).

According to Ibn al-Anbārī (d. 577/1181), linguists have given nearly seventy definitions of “noun” (ism), the most common being “a word that intrinsically points to a particular meaning unconnected with any of the three verbal tenses” (Ibn al-Anbārī, Asrār al-ʿarabiyya p. 38). Furthermore, it is the only part of speech governed by a particle of attraction (ḥarf jarr) (al-Mubarrid, al-Muqtaḍab 1:1-2). Ibn Ḥazm (384-456/994-1064) devotes ten pages (p. 135-145) of his al-Fiṣal fī-l-milal wal-ahwāʾ wal-niḥal to discussion of the name (ism) and the named (musammā). He explains ism is “an original word in itself, having no natural derivation whatsoever but being a name devised by convention” (al-Fiṣal 5:137; for more on the origin of language, see relevant sections in Ādam; Arabic;Language and Speech).

The Difference between the Name (ism) and the Referent (musammā)

The philologist al-Azharī (d. 369/980) cites the grammarian Abū ʿUbayda Maʿmar b. al-Muthannā al-Taymī (110-209/708-829) as asserting that the name and referent are identical, and Abū Bishr ʿAmr b. ʿUthmān b. Qanbar Sībawayh (d. 180/796) asserting the contrary. Asked for his own opinion, al-Azharī responded: “I have no opinion on this matter” (Tahdhīb, sub s-m). Al-Ṭabarī and Ibn ʿAṭiyya hold that the name and the named may or may not be the same, depending on the context; the former glosses bi-smi-Llāh as referring to the act of naming (tasmiya), thus signifying bi-tasmiyat Allāh (Ṭabarī, sub Q basmala). Ibn ʿAtiyya says:

ism—being [spelled] alif-sīn-mīm—is sometimes used in the language of the Arabs for the [named] entity (dhāt) (i.e., instead of for the name). It is said that the named (dhāt), the name (ism), the essence (nafs), and the quiddity (ʿayn) are the same. It is in this sense that most people of knowledge have understood the saying of the Most High, Glorify the name (ism) of your Lord, the Most High (Q 87:1), and His saying, Blessed be the name (ism) of your Lord, the Lord of Majesty and Glory (Q 55:78), and His saying, Those whom you worship beside Him are merely names (asmāʾ) that you and your forefathers have named (sammaytumūhā) (Q 12:40). (…) At other times ism is used as the name itself (dhāt al-ʿibāra), which is its preponderant usage. An example of this, according to the best-known interpretation, is Q 2:31: And He taught Ādam the names (al-asmāʾ), all of them; and so is the saying of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: “Truly Allah has ninety-nine names—one hundred less one—and whoever gathers them enters Paradise” (Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, inna li-Llāh miʾat ism illā wāḥid; Muslim, Dhikr wal-duʿāʾ wal-tawba wal-istighfār, fī asmāʾ Allāh taʿālā). It is in this sense that the grammarians use ism in the declension of sentences (fī taṣrīf aqwālihim). The outcome of this [discussion] is that sometimes ism is used for things being named (dhawāt al-musammayāt), in which case it is said that the name and the named are the same; and sometimes it is used for the name itself and not for the named. (Muḥarrar, sub Q basmala)

Ism in the Basmala and Its Referent (musammā)

Both opinions are found in exegetical literature. Al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273) suggests that—as in a couplet by the mukhaḍramī poet (that is, one of both the pre-Islamic and Islamic eras) and Companion Labīd b. Rabīʿa (d. 41/661)—the referent of the basmala is the name itself (al-ism huwa al-musammā) (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala). Al-Akhfash al-Awsaṭ (d. 215/830) holds that the original wording was bi-Llāh (“by Allah”), and that the word ism was added to distinguish its sense as an invocation from its sense as an oath (Maʿānī al-Qurʾān, sub Q basmala). Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/ca.1108) understands the phrase bi-sm Allāh to stand in place of several supplications for Divine help, such as “I seek help with Allah” (astaʿīn bi-Llāh), “O Allah, aid me!” (Allāhumma aʿinnī), and the like; had the phrase been simply bi-Llāh, the act of seeking help would have been limited to a single supplication (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala).

Other commentators consider the ism to be distinct from the named (musammā). Al-Ṭabarī, for instance, says that the word ism in the basmala refers to the act of naming Allah (tasmiya, i.e., bi-tasmiyat Allāh). Citing a saying of Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, al-Ṭabarī says that it implies the intent to perform any action that follows the utterance of the basmala—be it standing, sitting down, or anything else—“in the name of Allah”, that is, “by naming Allah” (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala). Abū al-Suʿūd al-ʿImādī (d. 982/1574) comments that one seeks Divine aid either in the commission of a particular act—this being the sense of the supplication and You alone do we ask for help (Q 1:5)—or to ensure its validity from the perspective of Law (sharʿan). The latter is distinguished from the former by the addition of the word ism, meaning thereby that one seeks to perform the act in His name (Irshād, sub Q basmala). Ibn ʿĀshūr likewise comments that the significance of saying bi-sm Allāh instead of bi-Llāh is that the former phrase inscribes the name of the one God upon what follows, “for only the Name of Allah can be appended to actions, not His Being (lā dhātuh).” Saying that one begins by Allah rather than in the name of Allah is also inappropriate (lā yaḥsun), he continues, in that it could imply seeking to participate in, or insinuate oneself into, His Power. “In sum,” Ibn ʿĀshūr writes after citing several examples,

wherever the intent is seeking blessings and orienting oneself toward the Lord, the One, the Necessarily Existing (al-wājib al-wujūd), at such places the verb (fiʿl) refers to the word ‘ism Allāh’—as in His saying: Embark therein! In the name of Allah be its sailing and its anchorage (Q 11:40); and, of hadith [sources], in the supplication made when laying down to rest: “In Your name, my Lord, I lay myself [down] and in Your name I rise” (Aḥmad, Musnad ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAmr b. al-ʿĀṣ 11:190 §6620). (…) The meaning of “In the name of Allah, the Clement, the Ever-Merciful” (bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm) [as said prior to reciting Qurʾān] is “I [will] recite a recitation enwrapped (mulābisa) in the blessing of this Blessed Name (al-ism al-mubārak).” (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala)


See the entry Allah, Most High.

Al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm

The Divine name al-Raḥmān (“the All-Merciful”, or “the Beneficent”) occurs 57 times in the Qurʾān, not including its presence in the basmala at the head of suras (see below). According to most linguists, it stems from the root r-ḥ-m, but some argue that it is an Arabicized (muʿarrab) Hebrew loan word foreign to even the most eloquent of the Quraysh (see Arabic). This argument is primarily based on Q 25:60: When they are told: “Prostrate yourselves before al-Raḥmān,” they say: “What is al-Raḥmān? Are we to prostrate to whatever you bid us?” These linguists further adduce, as evidence for the foreign origin of the word, the objection raised by the polytheist Suhayl b. ʿAmr, the Makkan envoy who came to negotiate the Treaty of Ḥudaybiya in 6/628 (see Alliance and Treaty). Suhayl said, regarding the phrase bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, which had been written at the top of the Treaty: “Who is al-Raḥmān? By Allah, I do not know who he is!” (cf. Māwardī, Nukat; Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī, Samʿānī, Muqātil, sub Q 13:30; Bukhārī, Shurūṭ, al-shurūṭ fī-l-jihād). Al-Ṭabarī, however, attributes such arguments to “fools (ahl al-ghabāʾ)” who “cannot conceive that the polytheists would deny something which they knew to be true” (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala). He then quotes couplets from the “era of high ignorance” (al-jāhiliyyat al-jahlāʾ) (see Jāhiliyya) as proof that even the pre-Islamic idolators were well familiar with the word al-Raḥmān (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala; cf. Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr). Citing Ibn ʿAbbās, al-Ṭabarī states that the word is of Arabic provenance and follows the morphological pattern faʿlān, being a hyperbolic derivative of raḥma (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala; also see Rāghib, Samʿānī, Ibn ʿAṭiyya, and Qurṭubī, the last of whom claims “the consensus of the vast majority of exegetes” for the Arabic provenance of the word).

All commentators agree that the name al-Raḥmān is exclusively reserved for Allah (cf. Tafsīrs of Rāghib, Bayḍāwī, Qurṭubī; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Abū Ḥayyān, Baḥr, sub Q basmala and Q 19:65). Al-Rāghib says: “By consensus, these two names (al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm) are specific to the Maker (al-Bārī) alone, Glorious and Mighty is He. For this reason, the Most High has said: Say, Invoke Allāh or invoke al-Raḥmān: whichever you invoke, His are the Most Beautiful Names (Q 17:110). Al-Raḥmān [implies] abundant and continuous mercy, encompassing all things” (Tafsīr, sub basmala). It is strictly prohibited for others to call themselves al-Raḥmān in this sense, although this prohibition was notoriously breached by Musaylima the Arch-Liar (d. 11/632) (see relevant section in Abū Bakr), of whom Ibn Kathīr says: “And when he committed this crime and called himself ‘Raḥman of Yamāma,’ Allah Most High wrapped him in the garment of lying and made him notorious as such, so that he is not known by any other name but Musaylima the Arch-Liar (al-kadhdhāb). This [epithet] became proverbial amongst all people (lit. townsfolk as well as villagers)” (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala).

The Divine name al-Raḥīm (“the Most Merciful”) occurs 114 times in the Qurʾān. In four verses (Q 7:151; 12:64 and 92; 21:83), it appears as Arḥam al-rāḥimīn, describing Allah as the Most Merciful of the merciful. In another four (Q 1:3; 2:163; 41:2; 59:22), both names of Mercy (al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm) are paired. In addition, Raḥīm, without the definite article, is used once to describe the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: Indeed, there has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is your distress; he has deep concern for you, most kind and merciful (raḥīm) to the faithful (Q 9:128) (see Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace).

Al-Raḥīm stems from the same root as al-Raḥmān: r-ḥ-m. “Raḥma, lexically, means tenderness of heart (riqqa), which yields sympathy (taʿaṭṭuf) and favor (tafaḍḍul)” (Rāghib, Tafsīr, sub Q basmala). Al-Zajjāj (d. 311/924) cites Abū ʿUbayda as saying “both al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm are attributes of Allah, meaning ‘Possessor of Mercy’ (dhū al-raḥma)” (Maʿānī, sub Q basmala). Some hold that the two names are synonymous, while others differentiate them by qualifying their scope. Among those who consider them synonymous, al-Samʿānī cites the opinions of two early grammarians of Baṣra, Muḥammad b. al-Mustanīr, known as Quṭrub (d. 206/821), and Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Mubarrid (d. 286/899). The former comments that one name is mentioned after the other to affirm their (single) meaning; the latter says that the two names provide “perfection after completion” (tamām baʿd itmām), “favor after favor” (tafaḍḍul baʿd tafaḍḍul), tranquility to the hearts of those desiring it, and a promise (of Divine mercy) whose fulfillment will not be gainsaid (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala).

Al-Samʿānī further explains the position of those who hold that the two names have different meanings:

Ibn ʿAbbās said: “both are names of tenderness (ismān raqīqān), one of them more so than the other.” He [also] said: “al-Raḥmān means He is kind to His servants (al-Rafīq bil-ʿibād) and al-Raḥīm means He is compassionate toward them (al-ʿāṭif ʿalayhim).” (…) [Those who argue that their meanings are different] say al-Raḥmān is general in meaning while al-Raḥīm is specific. That is, [the name] al-Raḥmān means [that He is] the Provider in this world (al-Rāziq fī-l-dunyā) for both the unbeliever and the believer; whereas al-Raḥīm means the Pardoner in the Hereafter (al-ʿĀfī fī-l-Ākhira); for pardon in the Hereafter is confined to believers, and is not for unbelievers. (…) Al-Raḥmān is He Whose mercy (raḥma) encompasses all of His creation universally, and al-Raḥīm is He Who has mercy specifically upon certain creatures. This is why others than Allah may be called raḥīm [without the definite article] but not raḥmān, for Allah Most High [alone] dispenses His mercy to creation [in general]—as when the Most High said, My mercy encompasses everything (Q 7:156). When one other than Allah has mercy on anything, he is [called] raḥīm. (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala)

Qurʾānic verses adduced to support this distinction are Q 7:156 (My Mercy encompasses all things)—to describe al-Raḥmān as the One Whose mercy enshrouds all His creatures, whether they be believers, disbelievers, righteous, or vicious—and Q 33:43 (and to the believers He is Ever-Merciful (raḥīman). Here the Divine mercy restricted to believers is understood to include His guidance , the ability He grants to believers to perform virtuous deeds in this world, and the beatific vision (see Face of Allah and relevant section of Allah Most High) in the Hereafter (cf. Tafsīrs of Samʿānī and Ibn Kathīr; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; and Ibn Jamāʿa, Kashf al-maʿnī, sub Q basmala).

Al-Zamakhsharī poses a question about the sequence of the two names: “If it be asked: ‘Why does the more comprehensive (ablagh) of the two attributes (i.e., al-Raḥmān) precede the other (i.e., al-Raḥīm), while logic (al-qiyās) [generally] proceeds from the lower [order] to the higher…?’ I say: ‘In saying al-Raḥmān, He encompassed the eminent bounties, their magnificence and their essences; He followed it with al-Raḥīm [to ensure its] completion and comprehensiveness to encompass whatever [bounties] are [more] finely detailed (diqq) and subtle (luṭf)’” (Kashshāf, sub Q basmala).

Al-Qurṭubī devotes thirty-two pages (p. 61-93) to the two Names of Mercy in his treatise on the Beautiful Names of Allah, al-Asnā fī sharḥ asmāʾ Allāh al-ḥusnā, and cites this saying of al-Uqlīshī: “His essential Mercy (raḥmatuh al-dhātiyya) is One, but His created mercies are many—as the Prophet said: ‘One hundred’ (Bukhārī, Riqāq, rajāʾ min al-khawf; Muslim, Tawba, saʿat raḥmat Allāh)” (al-Asnā 1:81). Al-Raḥmān is thus taken to refer to Allah’s essential mercy, al-Raḥīm to His created mercies. In his Tafsīr, al-Qurṭubī further states that the two Divine names are paired in Q 1:3 as encouragement (targhīb) after the intimidation (tarhīb) implicit in the preceding verse (in the more weighty description of Allah as Lord of the worlds) (sub Q basmala).

According to al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286): “He specifically chose these names for the tasmiya so that the gnostic (al-ʿārif) might realize that the one truly deserving to be sought for help in all matters is the Real One Who is to be worshipped (al-Maʿbūd al-ḥaqīqī)—the Bestower of all favors, immediate and deferred, great and small—and so that [the seeker] turns to the Sacred Presence with his entire being (bi-sharāshirih), cleaving fast to the rope of success granted by Allah (ḥabl al-tawfīq), occupying his [inner] recesses with only His remembrance in a state of preparedness for Him alone” (Tafsīr, sub Q 1:1).

History of Revelation and Use of the Basmala

It can be deduced from various Hadiths that basmala was revealed soon after Revelation began. For instance, Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, says: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, did not know where the separations between suras were until the basmala was revealed” (Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, man jahara bihā); likewise, another hadith says: “When Jibrīl came and recited bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, [the Prophet] knew that it was [a new] sura” (Ṭabarānī, Muʿjam 12:81 §12544; Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Ammā ḥadīth Anas 1:355 §844).

In some hadiths, the basmala is mentioned as “what was first sent down of the Qurʾān.” For instance, al-Ṭabarī cites a report from Ibn ʿAbbās (Tafsīr, sub al-qawl fī taʾwīl al-istiʿādha) that what Jibrīl first brought to the Prophet was the supplication of refuge (al-taʿawwudh: aʿūdh bi-Llāh min al-shayṭān al-rajīm), then the basmala, and then Q 96 (Iqraʾ bi-sm Rabbik alladhī khalaqa). However, both Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) and Ibn Ḥajar (773-852/1371-1449) contend that the chain of narrators of this hadith is broken (i.e., missing a link after the Successor) (Tafsīr, sub basmala; Fatḥ al-bārī, sūrat Iqrāʾ bi-smi Rabbik alladhī khalaq 8:718). Al-Bayhaqī (384-458/994-1066) reports Abū Maysara ʿAmr b. Shuraḥbīl saying that the first revelation was the basmala, followed by Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Q 1) (Dalāʾil al-nubuwwa 2:158), but Ibn Ḥajar classifies the report as mursal (i.e., missing the narrator between the Successor and the Prophet); even though its narrators are trustworthy and sound, the weightier opinion is that the first sura to be revealed was al-ʿAlaq (Q 96), followed by Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Q 1) (see Descent of the Qurʾān) (Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh sūrat Iqraʾ bi-sm Rabbik alladhī khalaq 8:719). Al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505) cites a report that the first to be revealed was bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm and the first sura to be revealed was Q 96, but adds that he considers this formulation incorrect, in that the basmala would naturally accompany the revelation of every sura (Itqān, Type 7, 1:95).

Abū Dāwūd (202-275/ca.818-ca.888) narrates the following multiple-chained hadith: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, did not enjoin the writing of bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (see Unlettered) until the revelation of Sūrat al-Naml (meaning Q 27:30, where it appears in its full form)” (Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, man jahara bihā). It is also reported that the Quraysh used to write bi-smik Allāhumma (“In Your Name, O Allah, our Lord”) and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also ordered the same to be written until In the name of Allah be its course and its mooring (Q 11:41) was revealed. Thereafter he would dictate bi-smi-Llāh (“In the name of Allah”). After Say: Call unto Allāh or call unto al-Raḥmān (Q 17:110) was revealed, he would dictate the phrase bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān (“In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful”). Finally, after Verily it is from Sulaymān and verily it is “In the name of Allah, the All-Beneficent, the Most Merciful” (Q 27:30) was revealed, he would dictate bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (Tafsīrs of ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Ibn Abī Ḥātim, and Baghawī; Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, sub Q 27:30; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 1:1).

The Basmala in Q 27:30

The basmala appears in its complete form at Q 27:30, in the letter of Prophet Sulaymān to the Queen of Sabāʾ, whose name certain commentaries give as Bilqīs (cf. Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī and Samʿānī). The passage opens with Sulaymān’s command to the hoopoe, who had just related to him what he had observed regarding Sabāʾ and its queen (Q 27:22-26), after which Sulaymān said: “Soon shall we see whether you have spoken truthfully or whether you were of those that lie. Take this letter of mine, deliver it to them, then draw back from them and see what [answer] they return” (Q 27:27-28). The hoopoe travelled back and dropped the letter before the queen. She said: “Know, my nobles, that a gracious letter has been delivered to me. It is from Sulaymān, and it [reads]: ‘In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the All-Merciful. Be not haughty against me, but come to me as those who surrender (muslimīn)’” (Q 27:29-31). Al-Samʿānī comments: “The learned say that this is the most concise of all missives; it consists of only two lines, but contains the address as well as the intended content. The missives of the Prophets are extremely succinct” (Tafsīr, sub Q 27:30).

In his treatise entitled Aḥkām al-qanṭara fī aḥkām al-basmala (“Bridging Rulings on the Rulings on the Basmala”), ʿAbd al-Ḥayy al-Lakhnawī (d. 1304/1886) emphasizes that all disagreements over the Qurʾānic status of the basmala are concerned with its occurrence between the suras, not its (unanimously-agreed) occurrence at Q 27:30 (1:28).

The Basmala in Q 11:41

And he (Nūḥ) said: “Embark therein! In the name of Allah be its course and its mooring. Truly my Lord is Forgiving, Merciful.” (Q 11:41)

The exegetes understand this verse in two ways. Some consider the command and the supplication to be a single clause (“Embark therein in the name of Allah, [and] its course and its mooring”); others consider them separate (“Embark therein! In the name of Allah be its course and its mooring”). Al-Ḍaḥhāk, following the second reading, opines that Nūḥ would say “in the name of Allah” when he desired the Ark to move and when he desired it to rest (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). Al-Rāzī says:

The first reading (maʿnā) [of the verse] indicates that it is not appropriate for a person to begin any undertaking without, at the time when he begins [it], invoking the name of Allah Most High with sanctified [litanies of] remembrance—so that the blessings of such remembrance become a means facilitating the intended [act]. The second reading indicates that when he embarked upon the Ark, he (Nūḥ), upon him peace, informed his people that the Ark [itself] was not the means of [their] attaining safety; rather, it lay in the steady determination and the clinging of the heart to [attain] the bounty of Allah—in this case in the [Ark’s] course and mooring. [In other words, they should put their trust in Allah rather than the Ark, He being the final cause of its course and its mooring.] (…) By the first account, Nūḥ, upon him peace, was at the station of remembrance (maqām al-dhikr) at the time of embarking the Ark. By the second account, he was at the station of utter denial of any power or ability except through Allah, his gaze was severed from all [other] means, and his heart was deeply immersed in the majestic radiance of the Causer of all means (fī nūr jalāl Musabbib al-asbāb). (Tafsīr)

Issues related to the Basmala (Masʾala fī-l-basmala)

The following issues are discussed in this section:

  1. The Place of the Basmala in the Qurʾān
  2. Reasons for the Absence of the Basmala at the Beginning of Q 9
  3. The Basmala as a Verse
  4. Recitation of the Basmala in Ritual Prayer (Ṣalāt)
  5. Recitation of the Basmala before Commencing Recitation of the Qurʾān outside Ritual Prayer

I. The Place of the Basmala in the Qurʾān

There is scholarly consensus that the complete basmala is part of the Qurʾān, given its presence in Q 27:30 (see above) (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, sub basmala). Al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) adds that there is consensus too that anyone who disbelieves in even a single letter of that basmala has left the faith (al-Majmūʿ 3:335). There is also consensus that the basmala is to be written at the beginning of every sura except the ninth (al-Shawkānī, Nayl al-awṭār 2:233).

Apart from the consensus that the basmala is part of the Qurʾān on the basis of its presence in Q 27:30, and aside from the various opinions offered for its absence from the beginning of Q 9, two issues pertaining to the basmala have remained long-standing matters of dispute between Sunni schools, resulting in a voluminous literature: (i) whether to consider the basmala that heads all suras except Q 9 to be a verse and, if it is, how to count it; and (ii) whether the basmala should be recited in and outside ritual prayers and, if so, whether it should be recited audibly whenever Sūrat al-Fātiḥa is recited audibly (i.e., the Fajr, Maghrib, ʿIshāʾ, Friday, and ʿĪd prayers).

II. Reasons for the Absence of the Basmala at the Beginning of Q 9

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, himself left no instructions about writing or not writing the basmala at the head of the ninth sura, variously called Sūrat al-Tawba (“Repentance”), Sūrat al-Barāʾa (“Disavowal”) after its first word, and ten other names (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 9). When asked about it, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib (d. 40/661), Allah be well-pleased with him, said: “[The basmala] is a protection (amān) whereas al-Barāʾa descended with the sword (bil-sayf).” Al-Rāzī adds that “because of the annulment of pacts and treatises [conveyed in Q 9], there is no protection in it”—meaning that the protection inhering in the basmala was not appropriate to a sura enjoining fighting against the disbelievers (see War) (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 9; also Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar and Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Tafsīr, tafsīr Sūrat al-Tawba §3273). Other reasons suggested by exegetes include the following:

Ibn ʿAṭiyya cites two opinions as to the reason for its absence from Q 9, one attributed to Ubayy b. Kaʿb (d. 39/659) and the other to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib. Ubayy said: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would tell us to put the basmala before every sura, but he did not command us to do so before this sura; hence we did not place it there.” ʿAlī said: “It is as if the speaker commenced with ‘so, to proceed’ (ammā baʿd), without the [customary] praise and [words of] respect” (Muḥarrar, sub Q 9). Ibn Āshūr also cites this statement by ʿAlī and says that this is due to considerations of rhetoric (raʿyun li-balāgha) and oratory, as when an irate speaker begins his address perfunctorily. Furthermore, he adds, “It was the custom of the Arabs that when they wanted to break a treaty between them, they would write a missive to the people with whom they had contracted the treaty, without the opening phrase ‘In Your name, O Allah’ (bi-smik Allāhumma). Since Sūrat Barāʾa was revealed with (i.e., at the time of) the breaking of the treaty between the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and the polytheists, he sent ʿAlī to them during the Hajj to recite the opening verses of Sūrat Barāʾa. He did not utter the basmala audibly, in keeping with their custom when severing alliances” (Tafsīr, sub Q 9).

Ibn ʿAṭiyya relates the opinion of Imam Mālik that Sūrat al-Barāʾa used to be as lengthy as Sūrat al-Baqara (Q 2), but its initial portion was then abrogated from the Qurʾān (see Abrogation), including the basmala that once opened the sura (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 9).

Al-Rāzī lists six possible reasons, one of which relates to the disagreement among the Companions as to whether Sūrat Barāʾa was actually part of the preceding sura, al-Anfāl (“The Spoils of War”). If it was, the basmala at the head of Q 8 would suffice for both: “Some were of the opinion that these two are actually one sura, as both are about combat (qitāl) and both together [would] form the seventh of the seven long suras (ṭiwāl), after which come the suras containing [approximately] one hundred verses (al-miʾūn). (…) Other Companions said that they were two separate suras. When this difference arose among the Companions, they left a break between the two suras [when writing the Qurʾān], heeding the opinion of those who deemed them two [separate] suras; and they did not write the basmala in that space, out of respect for the opinion of those who considered them one sura. (…) This is an indication of their diligence in protecting the integrity of the Qurʾān from falsification and tampering [because they did not try to conclusively impose one opinion rather than the other]” (Tafsīr, sub Q 9:1-2).

The Sevillan jurist, exegete, hadith master, and linguist Qāḍī Abū Bakr Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 543/1148) lists four reasons for the absence of the basmala at the beginning of Sūrat al-Barāʾa. He considers the most correct of the four (aṣaḥḥ) to be the report by Yazīd al-Fārsī, who narrates as follows from Ibn ʿAbbās:

We asked ʿUthmān: “What made you decide to [put] Sūrat al-Anfāl, which is one of the suras with less than one hundred verses (al-mathānī), [before] Barāʾa, which is one of the suras with approximately one hundred verses (al-miʾīn)—and thus place them next to each other, not write the [separating] line bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm between them, and put it with the seven long suras (al-ṭiwāl)? What moved you to do that?” ʿUthmān replied: “When revelation descended upon the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, he would call one of his scribes and say: ‘Put this in the sura in which such-and-such is mentioned;’ and when a verse descended he would say: ‘Put this verse in the sura in which such-and-such is mentioned.’ Al-Anfāl was among the first [suras] to be revealed [after arriving in] Madina, and Barāʾa was among the last to be revealed of the Qurʾān. Its themes (qiṣṣa) were similar. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, died without clarifying whether it was part of [Sūrat al-Anfāl]. I considered (ẓanant) that it was part of it; I combined them, and did not write bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm between them.” (Aḥkām, sub Q 9)

This report is crucial to exegetical discussions on the question of the basmala’s absence from Q 9, and has been thoroughly investigated by hadith masters for its narrators as well as its text (for references, see Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf 7:267 §35953; Abū Dāwūd, Abwāb tafrīʿ istiftāḥ al-ṣalāt, man jahara bihā; Tirmidhī, Abwāb tafsīr al-Qurʾān, wa min Sūrat al-Tawba, hadith classed ḥasan; Nasāʾī, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, al-sūrat allatī yudhkar fī-hā kadhā; Aḥmad, Musnad ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān 1:459 §399; Bazzār, Musnad, Musnad ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān 2:8 §344; Ibn Abī Dāwūd, Kitāb al-maṣāḥif, Khabr qirān Sūrat al-Anfāl bi-Sūrat al-Tawba; and Ḥākim, Mustadrak, Tafsīr, tafsīr Sūrat al-Tawba bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm 2:360 §3272). Despite certain modern revisionist approaches questioning the veracity of its narrators (Riḍā, Manār, sub Q 8, at 9:484-487), the hadith remains crucial to understanding the absence of the basmala from the beginning of Q 9.

According to the Sufi master and exegete al-Qushayrī (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073): “The correct opinion is there is no basmala in al-Barāʾa, [simply] because Jibrīl, upon him peace, brought [the sura] without it” (al-Qārī, Mirqāt al-mafātī; Suyūṭī, Itqān, Type 19, 1:225).

Ibn Rushd (450-520/1058-1126) thoroughly examines the issue in his al-Bayān wal-taḥṣīl (17:35-39) and quotes the opinion of Imam Mālik that the basmala was left out from Q 9 in conformity with the codex compiled during the time of Abū Bakr.

III. The Basmala as a Verse

This issue has three aspects:

  1. Should the basmala be regarded as a verse of the Qurʾān, rather than an interpolated invocation that serves to separate the suras but is not itself part of the Qurʾānic text at that location?
  2. If so, then is it a verse at the beginning of every sura of the Qurʾān?
  3. If not, is it a verse in Surāt al-Fātiḥa only?

The dominant position of each Sunni school (madhhab)  is here summarized, followed by its proofs as elucidated by its authorities.

Ḥanafī. Al-ʿAynī (d. 855/1451) says:

The correct position, according to our colleagues (aṣḥābinā), is that [the basmala] is part of the Qurʾān, as it is the consensus of the Umma (see Community) that whatever has been written between the covers [of the codex] with the same pen (bi-qalam al-witr) (without differentiating it from the rest of the text) is the Qurʾān—and the tasmiya is like that. This is what Muʿallā [b. Manṣūr al-Rāzī (d. 211/826)] reported from [Imam] Muḥammad [b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī (d. 189/804)]. He said, “I asked Muḥammad: ‘Is the tasmiya a verse of the Qurʾān?’ He said: ‘All that is between its two covers (mā bayn al-daffatayn) is the Qurʾān.’” (al-Bināya 2:192)

With regard to (ii) and (iii) above, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī al-Jaṣṣāṣ (305-370/918-981) says:

There is nothing [on this subject] that can be directly attributed to our Imams (Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767) and his two foremost students, Yaʿqūb b. Ibrāhīm b. Ḥabīb al-Anṣārī, known as Qāḍī Abū Yūsuf (ca.113-182/731-798), and Muḥammad al-Shaybānī); but Abū al-Ḥasan al-Karkhī (d. 340/951) reports they stopped reciting [the basmala] audibly (tarakū al-jahr). From this it is deduced that they did not consider it a verse of al-Fātiḥa, for had it been so they would have recited it audibly, as [they did] the other verses. (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, sub basmala)

Likewise, al-ʿAynī holds that the correct position of the Ḥanafī school is that the basmala is not part of al-Fātiḥa or any other sura of the Qurʾān: it was revealed to separate the suras and to initiate its blessings (wal-bidāya minhā tabarrukan), but it is not itself a verse of the suras it heads (al-Bināya 2:192).

Mālikī. The Mālikī position is that the opening basmala is not a verse of any sura of the Qurʾān. As the Cordovan arch-jurist (mujtahid) Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463/1071) writes in his treatise al-Inṣāf fī-mā bayn ʿulamāʾ al-muslimīn fī qirāʾat bi-sm Allāh fātiḥat al-kitāb (“The Just Ruling in the Dispute among the Learned of the Muslims regarding the Recitation of In the Name of Allah in the Opening of the Book”): “The opinion of [Imam] Mālik [b. Anas (93-179/712-795)] and his companions is that it is not to be recited at the beginning of al-Fātiḥa in prayer, either audibly or silently. According to them, it is not a verse of umm al-Qurʾān (“the Mother of the Book,” a name of Q 1) or any other sura of the Qurʾān, except for [its appearance in] Q 27:30; and Allah has not sent [the phrase] in His Book at any place except this” (1:153; see also al-Ruʿīnī, Mawāhib al-jalīl 1:544; Mālik, al-Mudawwana 1:162).

Shāfiʿī. The Shāfiʿī school considers the basmala in al-Fātiḥa, as well as in all other suras, a verse in its own right. There is a second opinion attributed to Imam Shāfiʿī (150-204/767-820) according to which the basmala is to be counted as a full verse only of Q 1, while it is joined to the first verse and so forms part of the first verse of all other suras (that is, except Q 9); but two leading Shāfiʿī authorities, al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) and al-Nawawī, affirm that the correct position of their madhhab is that it is an independent verse (al-Ghazālī, al-Mustaṣfā 1:82-83; al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:333). Among the Companions, Ibn ʿAbbās, Ibn ʿUmar, and Ibn al-Zubayr all considered the basmala the first verse of every sura (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Inṣāf 1:162).

Ḥanbalī. Three different opinions have been cited from Imam Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (164-241/780-855): the basmala leading suras is (i) part of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa; (ii) not part of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa; (iii) an interpolated phrase of remembrance (dhikr) and not part of the Qurʾān at that particular place. The authenticity of the third opinion was contested by the leading Ḥanbalī jurist of Damascus, ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Abū al-Ḥasan al-Mardāwī (d. 885/1480), who argued that the majority position of the school was that it is not part of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa but is a verse elsewhere in the Qurʾān, separating the suras from one another (al-Inṣāf 2:48). Thus, the Ḥanbalīs’ position resembles that of the Ḥanafī school, and all the arguments for and against it apply to both.

Summary. Al-Zaylaʿī (d. 762/1360) sums up various positions on the question:

In short, the opinions of the scholars and [positions] of the schools [of law] regarding the basmala is that there are three positions: two at the extreme ends [of the spectrum] and one in the middle:

At one extreme is the view of those who hold that it is not part of the Qurʾān except in Sūrat al-Naml (Q 27:30); this is the position of Mālik and some of the Ḥanafīs. Some companions of Aḥmad (i.e., Ḥanbalī Imams) also said that this is their position, or so it has been said in reports from them.

At the other extreme, which is opposite to the first position, is the view of those who hold it to be a verse of every sura, or part of a verse—as is famously known from al-Shāfiʿī and those who agree with him; [but] it is also related from al-Shāfiʿī that it is not at the head of any sura [as an independent verse] except al-Fātiḥa, and that suras begin with it [only] as a blessing.

In the middle [between these two extremes] is the view that it is part of the Qurʾān wherever it has been written. Nevertheless, it is not part of any sura; rather, it has been written as a verse at the head of every sura. (…) This is the opinion of Ibn al-Mubārak, Dāwūd, and his adherents; it is attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal and a group of the Ḥanafīs; Abū Bakr al-Rāzī says that it is the position of the Ḥanafī school; and this [also] is the position of the most diligent researchers from the people of knowledge, as it reconciles all the proofs [advanced]. (Naṣb al-rāya 1:327)

Proofs for the Ḥanafī Position. Al-Jaṣṣāṣ argues the Ḥanafī position (that the basmala occurs only to separate the suras, without being itself a verse) by quoting the lengthy hadith from ʿUthmān (quoted above as cited by Ibn al-ʿArabī). He concludes: “ʿUthmān, Allah be well-pleased with him, related that bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is not [a verse] of the sura, and that he used to write it only to separate suras one from another” (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 1:10). He supports this through a methodological argument and the authority of the consensus of the Prophet’s Companions:

Had the basmala been part of al-Fātiḥa or other suras of the Qurʾān, everyone [among the Companions] would have known it through Prophetic stipulation, just as they knew the locations (mawāḍiʿ) of the rest of the verses in their respective suras—but they did not differ about it (i.e., the basmala). This is so because the way to attain knowledge of the locations of the verses is like that of knowledge of the verses themselves. Since the method of establishing what comprises [the text of] the Qurʾān is mass transmission by all (naql al-kāffa) and not the citation of singular reports (naql al-āḥād), it necessarily follows that the same applies to the location and order [of the individual verse]. Are you not aware that no one is permitted to destroy the order of the [verses of the] Qurʾān, or to shift a part of it from its place to another? Anyone doing so is certainly treated [in Law] like one who desires to destroy and lift the Qurʾān [from its position]. Thus, had the basmala been at the beginning of the suras, its place in all those suras would have been generally known—[as is the case with] all other verses, and like its [known] location in Sūrat al-Naml. Therefore, since we have not seen them (the Companions) transmit that to us in a mass transmission resulting in [certain] knowledge, we are not justified (lam yajuz lanā) in establishing it at the beginning of the suras. (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 1:10)

Proofs for the Mālikī Position. Ibn ʿĀshūr, Chief Mufti of Tunis, explained that the opinion of Imam Mālik and those who agree with him (that the basmala does not appear at the head of suras in any mode, whether as a verse or otherwise) draws on four kinds of proofs: consensus; supporting hadiths; rational arguments; and rhetorical proofs and linguistic subtleties (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala).

Proofs from Consensus (ijmāʿ)

Abū Muḥammad Makkī b. Abī Ṭālib al-Qaysī (355-437/966-ca.1045) says: “Whoever says that [the basmala] is a verse [at the beginning of] every sura adds 113 verses to the Qurʾān. None of the Companions or Successors has argued this: consensus has been established against counting it as a verse of every sura. If, after the consensus of the Companions and Successors, a new opinion arises, such an opinion has to be rejected and cannot be acceptable (qawl marfūḍ ghayr maqbūl). Likewise, there is consensus against counting it as a verse of every sura among the specialists in counting [Qurʾānic verses] (ahl al-ʿadad) of Kūfa, Baṣra, Makka, Madina, and Syro-Palestine (al-Shām)—and this is a conclusive proof and self-evident consensus (ḥujja qāṭiʿa wa ijmāʿ ẓāhir)” (al-Kashf 1:22-23). He then defends the Mālikī position against counting the basmala as a verse of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, first acknowledging the scholarly disagreement on the question stemming back to the early epoch of Islam (the Kūfans and the Makkans counted it as a separate verse of al-Fātiḥa, whereas the scholars of Baṣra, Syro-Palestine, and Madina did not). “We accept this disagreement,” he writes, “but we say: any addition to the Qurʾān cannot be made on the basis of disagreement but only on the basis of consensus. (…) There is neither tawātur nor consensus on bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm being a verse of al-ḥamd (meaning Q 1)” (p. 23-24).

Proofs from Supporting Hadiths

Three kinds of hadiths are used in support of the Mālikī position: a ḥadīth qudsī; hadiths on the beginning of recitation in the prayer; and hadiths mentioning the number of verses in certain suras.

A ḥadīth qudsī—one of the sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, as revealed to him by the Allah Most High—is presented as one of the strongest proofs of the Māliki position, for the entirety of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Q 1) is mentioned as part of the narration. Abū Hurayra (d. 58/678), Allah be well-pleased with him, said:

I heard the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, say: “Allah Mighty and Sublime is He, has said: ‘I have divided the prayer (al-ṣalāt) between Myself and My servant into two halves, and My servant shall have what he has asked for. When he says: al-ḥamd li-Llāh Rabb al-ʿālamīn (“All praise belongs to Allah, the Lord of the worlds”), Allah Most High says: ‘My servant has praised Me.’ And when he says: al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (“the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful”), Allah Most High says: ‘My servant has extolled Me.’ And when he says: Mālik yawm al-Dīn (“Master of the Day of Judgment”), Allah Most High says: ‘My servant has glorified Me’—and on another occasion [the Prophet said:] ‘My servant has submitted to My power.’ And when he says: iyyāk naʿbud wa iyyāk nastaʿīn (“You alone do we worship and from You alone do we seek help”), He says: ‘This is between Me and My servant, and My servant shall have what he has asked.’ And when he says: ihdinā al-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm, ṣirāt alladhīna anʿamt ʿalayhim ghayr al-maghḍūb ʿalayhim wa lā al-ḍāllīn (“Guide us to the Straight Path, the Path of those whom You have favored, not of those upon whom is Your wrath, nor of those who are astray”), He says: ‘This is for My servant, and My servant shall have what he has asked.’” (Muslim, Ṣalāt, wujūb qirāʾat al-Fātiḥa fī kull rakʿa)

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr calls this hadith “the strongest and clearest proof for not counting the basmala as the first verse of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, as there is no other interpretation (taʾwīl) possible here” (Tamhīd 20:215): the hadith begins with al-ḥamd li-Llāh, not the basmala, implying that the latter is not counted as a verse of al-Fātiḥa. Furthermore, he argues that only by not counting the basmala as the first verse of the sura can one obtain the symmetrical division mentioned at the beginning of the hadith (“I have divided…into two halves”), since the first three verses relate to Allah Most High alone, being concerned with extolling His majesty and mercy; the fourth verse relates both to Allah and His slave, being concerned with the relation between them; and the last three verses relate to the worshipper. “There is consensus of the Umma that Fātiḥat al-Kitāb (meaning Q 1) has seven verses, as the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—himself said, ‘it is the seven oft-repeated’ (al-sabʿ al-mathānī). Then there is this hadith which has enumerated the seven verses: bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is not included in this enumeration” (Tamhīd 20:200-201). Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr concludes the argument by saying that since the basmala is also glorification of Allah, were it counted as the first verse of Q 1 then four verses would be specific to Allah and only two specific to the servant (that is, from ihdinā al-ṣirāṭ though the end of the sura), once again yielding an unequal division (Tamhīd 20: 200-202).

A hadith concerning the beginning of recitation in prayer, often cited in support of the Mālikī position, is narrated by Anas b. Mālik (d. 91/709), who said: “I prayed behind the Prophet, and behind Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, ʿUthmān, and ʿAlī; they all started the recitation with al-ḥamd li-Llāh Rabb al-ʿālamīn [instead of with the basmala, as would follow if it were part of Q 1]” (Muslim, Ṣalāt, ḥujja man qāl lā yujhar bil-basmala).

A hadith mentioning the number of verses in certain suras cited in support of the Mālikī position is narrated by Abū Hurayra: “The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: ‘The Qurʾān has a sura of thirty verses which will intercede (see Intercession) for a man until he is forgiven; it is Tabāraka alladhī bi-yadih al-mulk (Sūrat al-Mulk: Q 67)’” (Aḥmad, Musnad Abū Hurayra 13:353 §7975; Tirmidhī, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, mā jāʾ fī faḍl Sūrat al-Mulk, hadith classed ḥasan; Ḥākim, Mustadrak 1:753 §2075). As Sūrat al-Mulk comprises 30 verses by consensus, this number excluding the basmala, this hadith implies the basmala is not part of the sura.

Rational Arguments

Ibn ʿĀshūr refers to al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/ca.1013), and following him al-Jaṣṣāṣ in his Aḥkām al-Qurʾān and Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 422/1030) in his al-Ishrāf, examining how it would be possible to prove the Qurʾānic status of the basmala: either through continuous mass-transmitted reports (tawātur) or by singular (not mass-transmitted) reports (āād). As scholars disagree on the matter, the former is not feasible (for that would have produced consensus and certainty); but the latter is an inadequate means of establishing Qurʾānic text, yielding only conjectural knowledge (ẓann). Accepting the Qurʾānic status of the opening basmala would undermine the integrity of the revealed text as a whole, rendering it merely conjectural instead of a conclusive and certain testament (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q basmala; ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, al-Ishrāf 1:255).

Qāḍī Ibn al-ʿArabī comments that the fact there is no consensus about the Qurʾānic status of the opening basmala is itself sufficient argument that it is not part of the revealed text at that place, for it is an established principle that there can be no disagreement about what comprises the Qurʾān (Aḥkām 1:6). Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr makes a similar argument, citing Q 4:82: Had [the Qurʾān] been from other than Allah, they would have surely found much discrepancy in it. The disagreement over its Qurʾānic status, he continues, means that the opening basmala is not included in the Divine guarantee of the integrity of the revealed text attested in Q 15:9 (Truly it is We who have sent down the Remembrance [the Qurʾān], and it is We who will preserve it) (Tamhīd 20:202). Al-Nawawī, a Shāfiʿī, seems to have exonerated the Mālikī position in affirming that one who denies the status of the basmala at the head of the suras is not deemed to have left the bounds of faith, as would be the case for one who denied the Qurʾānic status of any other verse (al-Majmūʿ 3:335).

Rhetorical Proofs and Linguistic Subtleties

The final Mālikī line of argument is based on what Ibn ʿĀshūr calls the “taste” (dhawq) of the Arabic language. He observes that including the basmala as the opening verse of Q 1 leads to the rhetorically unfelicitous repetition of the words al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm within the span of three verses. He recognizes the opposing arguments of al-Rāzī and al-Bayḍāwī (cf. their Tafsīrs), both of whom interpreted this repetition as emphasis (as with instances of repetition elsewhere in the Qurʾān), but suggests that the demands of rhetoric even in the cause of emphasis require greater distance between such word-for-word repetition. Ibn ʿĀshūr argues in a similar vein against those who consider the basmala to be the opening verse of every sura but one, noting the rhetorically unfelicitous consequence of having every sura of the Qurʾān begin the same way. Eloquence and linguistic beauty call for variety, especially at the beginning and end of a text, which experts in rhetoric agree to be the case with the suras of the Qurʾān as revealed (Tafsīr, sub Q basmala).

Proofs for the Shāfiʿī Position. The Shāfiʿīs have contributed the most to the voluminous literature on the basmala. In general, their proofs rest on three grounds: arguments from consensus (ijmāʿ); supporting hadiths; and systematic refutations of positions of other schools.

Proofs from Consensus (ijmāʿ)

Both al-Ghazālī and al-Nawawī argue from the consensus that the Companions of the Prophet wrote the basmala in the same script as that of the rest of the Qurʾān—as opposed to the sura titles and other signs, which were orthographically distinguished from the revealed text itself by being written in a different color or script. The Companions would never have accepted this, they write, had the basmala not been part of the Qurʾān. Al-Ghazālī describes this as the strongest argument for the Shāfi‘ī position (al-Ghazālī, al-Mustaṣfā 1:82-83; al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:336).

Proofs from Supporting Hadiths

Various hadiths are adduced to support the Shāfiʿī position. Al-Suyūṭī quotes forty-two of them—sound as well as weak-chained—in his al-Durr al-manthūr (sub Q 1:1) and fifteen in his al-Itqān (Type 21-27 1:268-70). Among them is the following hadith narrated by Anas, Allah be well pleased with him: “One day, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was among us when he entered the state in which he used to receive revelation; then he raised his head, smiling. We asked: ‘What makes you smile, O Messenger of Allah?’ He said: ‘A sura has just been revealed to me.’ Then he recited: bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm. Innā aʿṭaynāk al-kawthar…” (Muslim, Ṣalāt, ḥujjat man qāl al-basmala āya min awwal kull sūra siwā Barāʾa). In his commentary on this hadith, al-Nawawī says that one of its imports is that it proves the basmala found between suras to be part of the Qurʾān, given its description here as part of Sūrat al-Kawthar (Q 108)—and that this is what Imam Muslim intended to demonstrate by including it in a chapter he titled “Proofs for one who claims the basmala is a verse at the beginning of every sura but al-Barāʾa” (Sharḥ Muslim 4:113).

Q 15:87 (Indeed, We have given you the seven oft-repeated [verses] (sabʿan min al-mathānī) and this great Qurʾān) is often quoted in support of the Shāfiʿī position that the basmala is the first verse of seven in Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, for otherwise it would only have six. Al-Dāraquṭnī reports from ʿAbd Khayr, with a sound chain of narrators: “ʿAlī was asked about al-sabʿ al-mathānī, and he said: ‘[it is] al-Ḥamd li-Llāh Rabb al-ʿālamīn (Q 1).’ Someone said to him: ‘That makes [only] six verses!’ He replied: ‘bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is a verse’” (Sunan, Ṣalāt, wujūb qirāʾat bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm -l-ṣalāt). Ḥanafīs and Mālikīs counter this by arguing that what is considered the last verse of al-Fātiḥa by other schools is actually two verses, so that the basmala need not be considered a verse for Q 1 to comprise seven verses.

Shafiʿīs also cite a hadith in which Nuʿaym b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Mujmir reports that he prayed behind Abū Hurayra, who recited the basmala aloud followed by the rest of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa. After the prayer, he said: “By Him in Whose hand lies my soul, amongst you, I most resemble the Prophet in [my performance of] the prayer” (al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:344). Al-Nawawī also mentions several other hadiths, some of which indicate that the Prophet did not know when a sura ended until the basmala was revealed, marking the beginning of a new sura. He then says: “The argument here is from the key words ‘until [the basmala] was revealed’ (ḥattā yanzil), nuzūl (“descent”, i.e., being revealed) being an attribute of the entire Qurʾān (ṣifat kull al-Qurʾān).” The basmala being revealed in the same way as the rest of the Qurʾān is thus an argument for its Qurʾānic status. Al-Nawawī notes that Qāḍī Abū Bakr differed, holding that “not everything sent down was [part of] the Qurʾān,” but that al-Ghazālī declared that “any impartial person (munṣif) would reject this interpretation” (al-Majmūʿ 3:338).

Al-Suyūṭī provides two possible interpretations of these hadiths as outlined by Abū Shāma. First, since it is well known that many suras were gradually revealed over a lengthy period and thus the basmala did not neatly separate them in the order of revelation, it may be that the angel Jibrīl indicated the end of a sura to the Prophet by asking him to recite the basmala. Second, these hadiths show that Jibrīl would bring the basmala when all the verses of a given sura had been revealed and, by asking the Prophet to recite it back to him, would indicate that nothing more would be added to the sura (Itqān, Type 22-27, 1:269).

Systematic Refutations of Other Schools

Shāfīʿī scholars also support their position by systematically arguing against the position of other schools. For instance, al-Nawawī raises several objections to what he calls the misleading position (taghrīr) that the basmala is present between the suras merely to separate them or for the blessings of reciting it there. Why then, he asks, does it not separate al-Anfāl (Q 8) and Barāʾa (Q 9)? Nor does the need to separate suras account for its presence at the head of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, given that there is no sura before it from which it need be differentiated. Third, one might textually mark the sura divisions simply by writing their names between them. “And if it be said that the basmala is there for its blessings in the remembrance of Allah,” al-Nawawī continues, “the above three arguments already counter it.” He then adds further weight to his refutation:

There is a fourth objection to this. Had the basmala been [present] solely for its blessings, its presence at the beginning of the codex would have sufficed; and if this were the case, it should have also been written at the beginning of Barāʾa. Nor should it [then] have been written at the beginning of those suras already containing the remembrance of Allah, such as al-Fātiḥa (Q 1), al-Anʿām (Q 6), Subḥān (Q 17), al-Kahf (Q 18), al-Furqān (Q 25), Ḥadīd (Q 57), and others, for [there would then be] no need for the basmala [at these places]. [It should not be written there] also because the intention of the Companions was to remove whatever was not Qurʾān from the codex (muṣḥaf), and that is why they did not write the taʿawwudh (the invocation of refuge from Satan offered before reciting the Qurʾān) and the taʾmīn (the affirmation āmīn recited after al-Fātiḥa), although an authentic command exists for their [recitation]. Furthermore, when the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, recited the verses of Barāʾa that absolved ʿĀʾisha (in the incident of Ifk; see Falsehood), may Allah be well pleased with her, he did not recite the basmala (since there is no basmala at the beginning of Q 9); whereas he recited the basmala when he recited [Sūrat] al-Kawthar, when it was revealed. Had the basmala been present for its blessings [alone], it would have been more fitting to recite it in the case of ʿĀʾisha’s being absolved, since those verses were a source of joy for the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, his family, and all the Companions.

al-Majmūʿ 3:336

Proofs for the Ḥanbalī Position. ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Abū-l-Ḥasan al-Mardāwī argues that the practice of the Companions in writing the basmala separating the suras is a clear proof that it is part of the Qurʾān—in view of their consensus that whatever lay between the two covers of a codex is to be considered part of the Qurʾānic text—but that there is no proof for it being a verse of each sura of the Qurʾān (al-Taḥbīr 3:1373).

Summary and Analysis

Al-Suyūṭī explains the reason for the existence of various positions by noting a difference of principle between the uṣūliyyūn (that is, early scholars propounding the principles of the jurisprudential tradition) and the muḥaqqiqūn (that is, later scholars investigating, verifying, and establishing the correct positions of these schools):

According to the verifying scholars of the Sunni community (muḥaqqiqī ahl al-Sunna), there is no disagreement over [the principle] that what comprises the [text of] the Qurʾān [must be established] through continuous mass transmitted reports (mutawātir) in both its totality and its segments; the same also unquestionably holds for its place, form, and order. For the Qurʾān is so momentous that one naturally desires unequivocal proofs for everything about it, including its details. It is a great miracle, the foundation of true religion and of the straight path, and it is therefore natural that numerous reports should exist regarding its content and details. But anything that has been reported through singular reports (āḥād) and is not also found in mass-transmitted reports is definitely not considered to be the Qurʾān.

The position of the majority of scholars of jurisprudence (uṣūliyyīn), however, is that while the condition of mass transmission is a sine qua non to establish what is [part of] the Qurʾān in respect to its content (aṣl), it is not an absolute condition with respect to its place, form, and order—for which most of them cite singular reports (āḥād). That is how al-Shāfiʿī reached the conclusion that the basmala is part of every sura of the Qurʾān. (Itqān, Type 21-27, 1:266)

Arguments for or against the different opinions are made primarily with reference to reports going back to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, or his Companions. Refutations of these arguments proceed by scrutinizing these reports and offering alternate opinions about the standing of their narrators or alternate interpretations of their wording. A brief summary of the reasoning of each Sunni school follows.

The identical position of Ḥanafī and Ḥanbalī schools—that the basmala separates suras without being an integral part of them—rests partly on the previously cited reports used by the Mālikīs: the hadiths narrated by Anas (Muslim, Ṣalāt, ḥujjat man qāla lā yujhar bil-basmala; and its variant in Nasāʾī, Iftitāḥ, tark al-jahr bi-bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm) and ʿAbd Allāh b. Mughaffal (see below), which they contend to be evidence only against the recitation aloud of the basmala, not its recitation or its place as such between the suras. Ḥanafīs reject Shāfiʿī objections through their differing evaluation of the hadiths’ chains of transmitters.

The Mālikī position—that the basmala is neither the first verse of every sura nor an extra-Qurʾānic invocation separating them—is based partly on reports that variously describe the Prophet (hadith of ʿĀʾisha) and his close Companions Abū Bakr and ʿUmar (hadith of Anas b. Mālik) as well as ʿUthmān (hadiths of Anas b. Mālik and ʿAbd Allāh b. Mughaffal) beginning their prayer with the takbīr (“Allāh akbar”) and proceeding directly to al-ḥamd li-Llāh Rabb al-ʿālamīn without reciting the basmala in between. In this respect, they cite the hadith of ʿĀʾisha (Muslim, Ṣalāt, mā yajmaʿ ṣifat al-ṣalāt); the hadith of Anas b. Mālik (Bukhārī, Adhān, Ṣifat al-ṣalāt, ma yaqūl baʿd al-takbīr; and the more specific variant in Muslim, Ṣalāt, ḥujjat man qāl lā yujhar bil-basmala); and a report from ʿAbd Allāh b. Mughaffal whose father, upon hearing him recite the basmala aloud in prayer, warned him against such innovations and recalled the example of the Prophet and his Companions who, according to him, did not do so (Tirmidhī, Ṣalāt, mā jāʾa tark al-jahr). This report is received by Ḥanafīs as evidence only against its audible recitation (al-Zaylaʿī, Naṣb al-rāya 1:336ff).

The Shāfiʿī school bases its position—that the basmala comprises an actual verse of the Qurʾān opening every sura but Q 9—partly on three reports. First, the Companion Abū Hurayra is reported by Nuʿaym al-Mujmir to have recited the basmala aloud before beginning Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Nasāʾī, Iftitāḥ, qirāʾat basmala; the Ḥanafī hadith master al-Zaylaʿī considers this report irregular (shādhdh) and defective (maʿlūl) because none of the other students of Abū Hurayra specified that Abū Hurayra recited the basmala aloud). Second, Anas b. Mālik described in a hadith a dawn prayer led by Muʿāwiya (20bh-60/602-680) in Madina, in which he did not recite the basmala before Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, did not recite a sura after it, and did not pronounce the takbīr aloud when he went into prostration. When he finished the prayer, both the Emigrants (see Muhājirūn) and the Helpers (see Anṣār) present asked Muʿāwiya if he had forgotten or “stolen” the prayer. He repented, declaring he would never again pray without reciting the basmala aloud or pronouncing the takbīr while going into prostration (Darāquṭnī, Sunan, Wujūb qirāʾat bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm fī-l-ṣalāt wal-jahr bi-hā wal-ikhtilāf al-riwāyāt fī dhālik, 2:83 §1187; also reported in Ḥākim, Mustadrak 1:357 §851, classed ṣaḥīḥ by the standard of Muslim; and in Bayhaqī, Sunan 2:72 §2410). The Ḥanafī al-ʿAynī cites the opinion of the Shāfiʿī al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī (392-463/1002-1069) that “this is the best report on which to rely in this matter” (ʿUmdat al-Qārīʾ, mā yaqūl baʿd al-takbīr, 5:289); but both its text and its chain of narrators were found lacking by al-Zaylaʿī, who argued that all the Companions who are said to have objected practiced silent recitation of the basmala themselves (Naṣb al-rāya 1:353ff). The third basis for the Shāfiʿī position is a report from Ibn ʿAbbās simply stating that the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, used to recite the basmala aloud (Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, man kāna lā yajhar bi-bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm). This hadith appears to be contradicted by another report from Ibn ʿAbbās declaring that only the desert Bedouins used to recite it aloud. Fourth, another report from Ibn ʿAbbās states that the Prophet would start his prayer with Bi-smi-Llāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm (Tirmidhī, Ṣalāt, man raʾ al-jahr bi-Bi-smi-Llāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm; but Tirmidhī himself questioned the report’s authenticity). 

Attempts at Achieving a Concordance

Al-Suyūṭī and after him al-Zurqānī (1055-1122/1645-1710) are among several scholars who attempted to achieve a concordance between different positions (al-Suyūṭī, Tanwīr al-ḥawālik 1:79; al-Zurqānī, Sharḥ 1:312). The former’s synthesis bears quoting at length for its facility in bridging various positions mentioned above and elaborating methodological precedents:

I say: there are numerous hadiths in favor of and against [the Qurʾānic status and recitation of the basmala]: both reciting it and not reciting it, and both audible and silent reading of it, are all well established from the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace; and this clarifies and removes objections on both sides. By both sides, I mean those who consider the basmala to be the first verse of al-Fātiḥa and every other sura, and those who deny this. Indeed, [what comprises the text of] the Qurʾān is neither affirmed nor negated by conjecture (ẓann)—and this has been pointed out by a group of later scholars, for both affirmation and negation are [only to be] based on definitive (qaṭʿī) [proofs]. This [divergence of opinion] should not be surprising, for the Qurʾān has been revealed in seven aḥruf (see Seven Modes; Canonical Readings) and has been sent down several times, some parts of it with additions and other parts with omissions: like the [differing] recitations of Malik and Mālik [in Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Q 1:3)]; taḥtahā and min taḥtihā in Barāʾa (Q 9:100), and inna-Llāh Huwa al-Ghanī al-Ḥamīd and inna-Llāh al-Ghanī in Sūrat al-Ḥadīd (Q 57:24). No one doubts that the recitation of alif, min, and Huwa [respectively in these variants] is mass-transmitted (mutawātir) and definitive, and likewise their omission. Furthermore, [it is well-established that] their inclusion and their omission are equally valid.

This is also what we say regarding the basmala: it has been sent down in some readings (aḥruf) and not in others, and therefore its inclusion is definitive, as is its omission. Both are mass-transmitted; both are [contained] in the seven [canonical recitations]. (…) An even more subtle indication (wa alṭaf min dhālik) is the fact that Nāfiʿ (b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. Nuʿaym (d. ca.169/785), one of the seven Imams of schools of recitation) has two transmitters, one of whom recites with [the basmala] while the other omits it. This indicates that both ways are mass-transmitted (mutawātir) from him: that is, Nāfiʿ recited it in both ways [as is established through] continuous and unbroken chains of narration. In this way, numerous hadiths are reconciled despite their differences; the issue is clarified; doubt is dispelled; and [the affirmation of the basmala] by those who affirm it as well as its omission by those who omit it will not be surprising.

Some of this has already been pointed out by the master of later reciters, Imam Shams al-Dīn al-Jazarī, who says in his Kitāb al-Nashr—after relating five opinions about the basmala—that all of them are reducible to two positions: those of affirmation and those of negation [of the basmala]. We believe both to be correct and true, and so difference on this matter is just like the difference among the [equally valid] readings. Those are his words. Ḥāfiẓ Ibn Ḥajar has written about it in more detail than him, as reported by his student Burhān al-Dīn al-Baqāʿī in his Muʿjam. (Tanwīr al-ḥawālik 1:79)

IV. Recitation of the Basmala in Ritual Prayer (Ṣalāt)

This issue has two aspects:

Is the basmala to be recited with al-Fātiḥa in the ritual prayer?

If so, should it be recited audibly or silently?

Ḥanafīs. The Ḥanafī school offers two positions: that it is obligatory (wājib) and that it is recommended (masnūn). In his magisterial supercommentary Radd al-muḥtār ʿalā al-Durr al-mukhtār, Ibn ʿĀbidīn (1198-1252/1784-1836) writes that both positions are weighty (murajjaḥ), the former “on the basis of what has been transmitted (riwāyatan) [from authorities of the Ḥanafī school] and the latter on the basis of reasoning (dirāyatan); and Allah knows best” (1:491). Ibn Nujaym al-Miṣrī (d. 970/1562), while citing both positions, himself advocates the first as being the recognized opinion of the school (al-Baḥr al-rāʾiq 1:329, 2:106). Al-Kasānī (d. 587/1191), on the other hand, holds that it is obligatory to recite the basmala in ritual prayer. He argues that “since the recitation of al-Fātiḥa is obligatory [for one praying], so is the recitation of the tasmiya, in a precautionary sense (iḥtiyāṭ)” (Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ 1:204; see also Abū Bakr ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn al-Samarqandī’s (d. 540/1145) Tuḥfat al-fuqahāʾ p. 128, on which al-Kasānī is commenting).

The Ḥanafī school also offers two positions regarding the recitation of the basmala between Sūrat al-Fātiḥa and the next sura recited in the prayer: Abū Ḥanīfa and Abū Yūsuf rule against reciting it, but Muḥammad holds one should recite it as a precaution, just as one does at the beginning of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Badāʾiʿ al-ṣanāʾiʿ 1:204; also Ibn Nujaym, al-Baḥr al-rāʾiq 1:330; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 1:491).

Mālikīs. As noted above, Imam Mālik is reported to have held that that the basmala is not to be recited in obligatory ritual prayers either silently or audibly. In supererogatory prayers there is more leeway; there one may recite it if one desires, or omit it (al-Mudawwana 1:162). Other Mālikī jurists also uphold this as the recognized position of their school (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Inṣāf 1:154; al-Kharshī, Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 1:289).

Shāfiʿīs. Shāfiʿī scholars agree by consensus that the recitation of the basmala is obligatory at the beginning of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa; without it, as with the rest of al-Fātiḥa, the prayer is not valid (al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:333). Imam Shāfiʿī says: “If someone omits even a letter of al-Fātiḥa, whether by mistake or due to negligence, that prayer-cycle will not be counted, because whoever omits even a letter of al-Fātiḥa cannot deemed to have recited it completely. Bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is the seventh verse [of the sura], and hence if it is left out or a part of it is left out, that prayer-cycle will not be valid” (al-Umm 1:129).

Ḥanbalīs. Ibn Qudāma (d. 620/1223) holds both that reciting the basmala before beginning every sura is permissible (mashrūʿ), just as it is at the beginning of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Mughnī 1:344), and that reciting it is recommended (masnūn) (al-Sharḥ al-kabīr 1:532).

Summary and Analysis

Al-Zaylaʿī describes the question of the audible recitation of the basmala (masʾalat al-jahr bil-basmala) as “a well-known and difficult juridical issue that has been the subject of abundant debates and books” (Naṣb al-rāya 1:356). Al-Bannūrī (d. 1397/1976) comments that the debate over the Qurʾānic status of the basmala is “even more complex and difficult” than the issue of its audible recitation, and that both have persisted as subjects of scholarly argumentation from the time of the Companions to our own day (Maʿārif al-Sunan 2:362). Al-Zamakhsharī and Ibn Kathīr say that many scholars deem the issue of the basmala’s audible recitation to be a corollary of its Qurʾānic status: those who do not consider it part of the Qurʾān do not recite it audibly, whereas those who do, recite it audibly (Kashshāf 1:1; Tafsīr 1:117). Both al-Nawawī and Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (736-795/1336-1393), however, resolutely differentiate between the question of the Qurʾānic status of the basmala and that of its audible recitation in the ritual prayer. “Certain people (e.g., the Ḥanafīs) who practice its silent recitation do not believe it to be part of the Qurʾān; rather they do so considering it to be a Sunna, just like the invocations of refuge (taʿawwudh) and affirmation (taʾmīn) [that they recite silently]—whereas others who also recite it silently consider it to be part of the Qurʾān. Anyone reciting it audibly or silently does so only because of what they consider to be valid of the Prophetic narrations (akhbār) as well as subsequent reports (āthār) [and not because of a prior decision on its Qurʾānic status]” (al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:343; cf. al-Shawkānī, Nayl al-awṭār 2:241). Ibn Rajab is equally emphatic: “Know that the audible recitation of the basmala is not dependent on consideration of its being or not being part of al-Fātiḥa or other suras, as some people from our school hold, as well as from others; rather, the correct position according to the researchers of our [Ḥanbalī] school, the Shāfiʿī school, and others is that these are not interrelated issues. That is why there are different opinions mentioned from [Imam] Aḥmad [b. Ḥanbal] about whether the basmala is a verse of al-Fātiḥa: most of the reports from him are to the effect that it is not part of the Fātiḥa, which is also the position of his companions and followers; but there is no contradictory report from him against not reciting the basmala audibly, and the same is the position of al-Jūzjānī and other jurists of hadith (fuqahāʾ al-ḥadīth)” (Fatḥ al-bārī 6:427). Likewise, according to the reciters of Kūfa and the majority of their jurists, the basmala is a verse of the Fātiḥa, but in consideration of the reports attributed to the Prophet regarding its silent recitation they recite it silently in their audible prayers (Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Inṣāf 1:157).

These latter positions aside, the questions of the status of the basmala in the Qurʾān and its recitation have remained intertwined for centuries. Numerous earlier scholars (mutaqaddimūn)—including the leading jurists of their schools, the Ḥanafī al-Jaṣṣāṣ (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 1:8) and even the Shāfiʿī al-Nawawī (al-Majmūʿ 3:351), who considers the two issues to be unrelated (as mentioned above)—have at times argued as if they were interlinked. Ibn Rushd provides a concise perspective for understanding the entire debate: “The difference of opinion on the matter of audible recitation arises from two things: conflicting reports (ikhtilāf al-āthār) [about the practice of the Prophet, Companions, and earlier generations] on this matter; and a difference of opinion about whether or not bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is a verse of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa” (Bidāyat al-mujtahid 1:132).

Audible Recitation of the Basmala

A further question for those who recite the basmala in prayer is whether to do so audibly. Three opinions are offered: that it is recommended (masnūn), that it is not recommended (meaning it should be recited silently), and that one may choose either way. Proponents of each position, as with the other questions related to the basmala, invoke the authority of early scholarly practices. The Ḥanafī jurist al-Zaylaʿī argues that audible recitation is recommended, being the position of Abū Ḥanīfa, the majority of the ahl al-ḥadīth, jurists of certain regions, and some scholars of the Shāfiʿī school (Naṣb al-rāya 1:328). Al-Tirmidhī (209-279/825-892) writes that most of the learned Companions, the Successors, and other scholarly authorities (Sufyān al-Thawrī, Ibn al-Mubārak, Aḥmad, and Isḥāq) held that it should be recited silently, to oneself (fī nafsih) (Ṣalāt, mā jāʾ fī tark al-jahr bih; cf. Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Inṣāf 1:156). Al-Nawawī asserts that the Shāfiʿī position (that the basmala follows the norm of the other suras being recited in the prayer) was the prevailing practice of most of the learned Companions, the Successors, and the later generations, as well as of “the jurists and reciters” (al-Majmūʿ 3:341-342). The third opinion, which takes audible or silent recitation of the basmala to be equally permissible, is attributed to Isḥāq b. Rāḥawayh, Ibn Abī Layla, Ḥakam, and Ibn Ḥazm (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 1:6; al-Zaylaʿī, Naṣb al-rāya 1:328; al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 3:342).

V. Recitation of the Basmala before Commencing Recitation of the Qurʾān outside Ritual Prayer

There is consensus among authorities of recitation (qurrāʾ) that recitation of the Qurʾān always begins with the basmala except when beginning with Barāʾa (Q 9) (see below for more on reciting Q 9), whether one is commencing after ceasing a prior recitation (qaṭʿa) or resuming it after a pause (waqf). “Cessation” is defined as an interval in which the reciter has become busy with other things. “Pause” is defined as a short break that interrupts recitation after ending a sura; the reciter then begins the new sura with a new intention to recite, the minimum interval being the duration between two breaths (al-Nūrī, Ghayth al-nafʿ p. 34; ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ, al-Budūr al-zāhira 1:13).

ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ al-Qāḍī (d. 1403/1982), the Madinan-born Azharī scholar and celebrated author of Kitāb al-Wāfī sharḥ ʿalā al-Shāṭibiyya fī-l-qirāʾat al-sabʿ, generally regarded as one of the greatest twentieth-century authorities of the science of recitation, writes that the leaders of the ten authoritative schools of Qurʾānic recitation (al-qurrāʾ al-ʿashara) differ about the recitation of the basmala between suras. The following scholars separate suras with the basmala: Qālūn ʿĪsā b. Mīnā (d. ca.220/835)—not one of the ten reciters but the rāwī (“transmitter”) of the Madanī reciter, Nāfiʿ b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (d. ca.169/785-786); the Makkan ʿAbd Allāh b. Kathīr al-Dārī (d. ca.120/737-738); the Kūfan ʿĀṣim b. Abī al-Nujūd (also said to be b. Bahdala) Bahdala (d. ca.127/744-745); the Kūfan ʿAlī b. Ḥamza al-Kisāʾī (d. 189/804-805), who lived in Baghdad; and the Madanī Abū Jaʿfar Yazīd b. al-Qaʿqāʿ al-Makhzūmī (d. ca.130/747-748). Two reciters combine the end of the first sura with the beginning of the next, without separating them by the basmala: the Kūfan reciter Ḥamza b. Ḥabīb (d. ca.156/772) and Khalf b. Hishām (d. 229/844) of Baghdad. Three different ways of bridging suras have been reported from the Egyptian reciter ʿUthmān (Saʿīd?) b. Saʿīd Warsh (d. 197/812-813), who—like Qālūn—is not among the original ten reciters, but is a rāwī of Nāfiʿ; the Baṣrian Abū ʿAmr Zabbān b. al-ʿAlāʾ (d. ca.154/770-771); the Damascene ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿĀmir (d. 118/736); and the Baṣrian Yaʿqūb b. Isḥāq al-Ḥaḍramī (d. 205/820-821): (i) recitation of the basmala; (ii) al-sakt: a short pause between suras, its duration being the length of time the reciter Ḥamza takes to utter the letter hamza; and (iii) al-waṣl: combining the end of the first sura with the beginning of the next, with no basmala in either of them. ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ continues:

This is a general rule for any two suras, whether they are successive, like the end of al-Baqara (Q 2) with the beginning of Āl ʿImrān (Q 3), or not successive, like combining the end of al-Aʿrāf (Q 7) with the beginning of Yūsuf (Q 12), the condition being that the second sura must come after the first in the sequence of the Qurʾān and in the order of the recitation, as in our examples.

If [the second sura being recited] is before the first one [in its Qurʾānic sequence], like combining the end of al-Raʿd (Q 13) with the beginning of Yūnus (Q 10), all reciters separate them with the basmala, with no pause (sakt) and no continuous recitation (waṣl). Likewise, if the end of the sura is combined with the beginning of the [same] sura, as though one were repeating the sura, then the basmala is recited between them; and the same is the case if one combines the end of al-Nās (Q 114, the final sura) with the beginning of al-Fātiḥa (Q 1, the first sura).

al-Budūr al-zāhira p. 13-14

The Damascan master of the science of recitation, Shaykh al-Qurrāʾ Muḥammad b. ʿAlī b. Yūsuf al-Jazarī (751-833/1350-1429), himself a Shāfiʿī, says that both reciting the basmala and not doing so were practiced in the various recitations when commencing any sura from any place other than the beginning. For instance, the majority of Iraqi reciters recited the basmala whereas the majority of those from the Islamic West (al-Maghrib) and al-Andalus did not. Thus, Abū ʿAmr al-Dānī (371-444/981-1052), “the teacher of the teachers” of the reciters and the author of al-Bayān fī ʿadd āy al-Qurʾān (“On Counting the Verses of the Qurʾān”)—a leading work on the subject—as well as Abū Maʿshar al-Ṭabarī (d. 478/1085), one of the greatest authorities of the science of recitation, and Abū al-Qāsim al-Shāṭibī (538-590/1143-1193), the leading sixth/twelfth century Andalusian scholar of the science of recitation, all consider this to be a free choice. Others, however, disagree, claiming it follows the same rule as the recitation of the basmala between two suras (al-Dānī, al-Bayān fī ʿadd āy al-Qurʾān p. 50-57; al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fī-l-qirāʾāt 1:265-266).

Sūrat Barāʾa and the recitation of the basmala

There is consensus that one does not recite the basmala when beginning the recitation of the Qurʾān with the beginning of Sūrat al-Barāʾa (Q 9) or when combining it with the previous sura (Abū Shāma, Ibrāz al-maʿānī p. 68; al-Jazarī, al-Nashr fī-l-qirāʾāt 1:266). Abū al-Ḥasan al-Nūrī (d. 1118/1706), the celebrated Tunisian reciter and Mālikī jurist, observes that all reciters consider each of the three modes of joining suras without involving the basmala—continuous recitation (waṣl), a brief pause (sakt), and a longer pause (waqf)—equally valid whether Q 9 is preceded by Q 8 or any other sura (Ghayth al-nafʿ p. 35).

Al-Jazarī and al-Nūrī note a difference of opinion among later authorities regarding rules for commencing recitation of Sūrat al-Barāʾa anywhere other than the beginning. The former says that he has not seen any express textual proof (naṣṣ) from early scholars supporting either of the two positions held by later ones: that is, permitting or prohibiting the recitation of the basmala—opinions respectively advanced by Abū-l-Ḥasan al-Sakhāwī (558-643/1162-1245) and Abū Isḥāq al-Jaʿbarī (640-732/1242-1332). Al-Jazarī’s view is that both are valid, the choice depending on the reciter’s practice with respect to other suras. He adds that those who approach the case under the principle that one opens all recitation with the basmala must further consider the question of whether they believe the reason for its absence from the head of the sura is still in effect (as cited by al-Shāṭibī, namely, its “descent with the sword”: the sura’s sternness and rigor). If they believe it is, then they do not recite the basmala; but if they consider that rigor to have been contextual, they do so (al-Nashr fī-l-qirāʾāt 1:266; al-Nūrī, Ghayth al-nafʿ p. 36). Al-Zaylaʿī concludes by observing that certain scholars accepted audible recitation of the basmala over their own preferred opinion, in the interest of maintaining unity within the community (Naṣb al-rāya 1:328).

The Basmala in Hadiths

Shams al-Ḥaqq al-ʿAẓīm-Ābādī (1273-1329/1856-1911) notes that there are four types of hadiths mentioning the basmala: (I) those containing the entire phrase; (II) those that contain the abbreviated form bi-sm Allāh; (III) those which have bi-sm Allāh and addenda; and (IV) those alluding to the basmala without mentioning it directly (ʿAwn 13:186-187). The paradigmatic examples he gives of each type include:

A hadith narrated by ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (d. 35/ca.656), Allah be well-pleased with him, who said: “Whenever I fell ill, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would come to visit me. Once he visited me when I was sick and said, ‘bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm: I place you under the protection of Allah, the One, the Self-Sufficient Besought of all (al-Ṣamad), who begets not, nor is He begotten.’” On such occasions, the only way to follow the Prophetic practice is to pronounce the basmala in full.

A hadith narrated by ʿAbd al-Raḥman b. Jubayr, who narrates from a man who served the Prophet for eight years that he heard the Prophet say “bi-sm Allāh” whenever he began eating and “O Allah, You gave me food and You gave me drink” when he finished. On such occasions one may pronounce either the short form bi-sm Allāh or the full form bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm: the former follows the Prophetic practice, while the latter falls under the general injunction to begin every action with the basmala (as extrapolated from the hadith “every matter of import…”; see below for discussion).

A hadith narrated by Ibn ʿUmar (classified as marfūʿ): “When lowering your dead into the grave, say: bi-sm Allāh wa ʿalā millat Rasūl Allāh (“in the name of Allah, and following the practice of the Messenger of Allah”).” On such occasions one must follow the Prophetic supplication and not substitute the basmala for it.

A marfūʿ hadith narrated by ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her: “When you begin eating, mention the name of Allah (i.e., pronounce the basmala).” At such moments it is better to say the full basmala, that being the implied referent of the injunction (ʿAwn 13:186-187).

Meanings of the kull amr dhī bāl hadith

The hadith most often cited—and debated—by jurists, scholars of hadith, and exegetes in relation to the everyday pronunciation of the basmala before commencing an action is the one according to which the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “Every matter of import (kull amr dhī bāl) that does not begin with bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm is dissevered [from blessings].” There are five variants of this hadith; al-Nawawī lists them all (al-Majmūʿ 1:73) before commenting on their relative grades. Three variants replace “bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm” with (i) bil-ḥamd li-Llāh (“with the praise of Allah”); (ii) bil-ḥamd (“with praise”); and (iii) bi-dhikr Allāh (“with the remembrance of Allah”), while the fourth reads: “Every speech (kull kalām) that does not begin with the praise of Allah (bil-ḥamd li-Llāh) is diseased (ajdham)”; a variant of this version has abtar (“cut off”) instead of ajdham (Ibn Mājah, Nikāḥ, khuṭbat al-nikāḥ; Aḥmad, Musnad Abī Hurayra 14:329 §8712; al-Bayhaqī, al-Daʿawāt al-kabīr, Mā jāʾ fī faḍl al-duʿāʾ wal-dhikr 1:65; al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab al-īmān, Taʿdīd niʿam Allāh ʿazz wa jall 6:214 §4062; Bayhaqī, Sunan, Jamāʿ abwāb ādāb al-khuṭba, mā yustaḥabb min al-kalām ʿind al-ḥāja 3:295 §5768; Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ, Muqadimma, dhikr al-ikhbār ʿammā yajib ʿalā l-marʾ min ibtidāʾ al-ḥamd li-Llāh 1:173 §1; Ibn Abī Shayba, Muṣannaf, Mā qālū fīmā yustaḥabb an yubdaʾ bih min al-kalām 5:339 §26683; Nasāʾī, Mā yustaḥabb min al-kalām ʿinda l-ḥāja 5:339 §26683; for evaluations of these variants, see Nawawī, Sharḥ Muslim 1:43 and al-Majmūʿ 1:73; Dāraquṭnī, Sunan 1:427; Ibn Daqīq, Sharḥ al-Arbaʿīn p. 11; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, bāb qawluh taʿālā qul yā ahl al-kitāb; and al-Subkī, Ṭabaqāt al-Shāfiʿiyya 1:28, whose examination of the hadith is most extensive and concludes it is sound (ṣaḥīḥ); for a modern evaluation of this hadith, see the short treatise by al-Ghumārī, al-Istiʿādha wal-ḥasbala).

Glosses on the hadith examine each of its words. The jurist and judge Zakariyyā al-Anṣārī (824-926/1421-1519) explains “every matter of import” (dhī bāl) as follows: “bāl means ‘heart’, therefore dhī bāl is any affair that is attached to the heart because of its gravity (yaʿlaq bil-qalb li-ʿaẓamatih)” (al-Ghurar al-bahiyya 1:3). The importance referred to in the hadith, Ibn Ḥajar al-Haytamī (909-973/1503-1563) comments, means religious (sharʿī) import, not customary (ʿurfī) import, being also neither mere remembrance (dhikr maḥḍ), nor something forbidden or disliked, nor a matter for which Allah has specified another beginning (such as ritual prayer, which opens with the takbīr) (Tuḥfat al-muḥtāj 1:13-14). As an example of a “matter of import,” al-Nawawī cites the case of Prophet’s missive to the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (r. 12bh-20/610-641), which opened with the basmala and not with al-ḥamd li-Llāh (Sharḥ Muslim, Jihād wal-siyar, kutub al-Nabī 12:108). The three words “diseased” (ajdham), “severed” (aqṭaʿ), and “cut off” (abtar) all indicate that the undertaking is deprived of blessings (see Blessings, Bounty, and Favor of Allah). Al-Shawkānī notes the rhetorical effect of the hadith: “An undertaking not started with the remembrance of Allah is likened to a person suffering from leprosy (majdhūm), in order to engender aversion [to it]” (Nayl al-awṭār 3:314). The latter two words liken the matter—bereft of the blessings integral to it—to creatures with severed limbs or appendages: aqṭaʿ refers to a man whose hand(s) have been chopped off, and abtar to an animal whose tail has been cut off (al-Kharshī, Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 1:9). Ibn Mahnā (d. 1126/1714) produces a synthesis of the versions of the hadith: “Any important matter that does not begin In the name of Allah, the Most Beneficent, the Ever-Merciful or In the name of Allah, or with the praise of Allah, or with praise, or With the remembrance of Allah is cut off (aqṭaʿ or abtar) or diseased (ajdham).” He adds that there is no conflict between these variants, because all the words used in them ultimately lead to the intended goal, that is, the praise of Allah, which can be achieved with any formula of remembrance (al-Fawākih al-diwānī 1:3).

Legal Rulings (al-aḥkām al-fiqhiyya)

All five categories of legal rulings (al-aḥkām al-khamsa), as developed by the Islamic legal tradition, apply to the basmala: depending on the situation or context, reciting it may be obligatory (wājib), recommended (mustaḥabb, sunna), permitted (mubāḥ), disliked (makrūh), or prohibited (ḥarām). For instance, according to the majority opinion, it is obligatory when slaughtering an animal and, while hunting, at shooting (and according to some when sending off a hunting animal; see below). Reciting the basmala is recommended before eating and drinking. It is obligatory before ablution  in the Ḥanbalī school and recommended in other schools of jurisprudence. It is part of the supplication when entering or exiting the mosque, when entering a home, when entering the toilet, and before sexual intercourse with one’s spouse (cf. al-Salūlī, Dirāsa taḥlīliyya ḥawl al-basmala p. 247-256). In short, and as noted above, it is recommended when commencing any permissible action other than mere remembrance of Allah (dhikr maḥḍ), because it is dhikr in itself, and so long as there is no other specified formulation for that action (such as the takbīr specified for prayer or the talbiya for Hajj and ʿUmra). Circumstances in which reciting the basmala is permitted include when beginning an array of actions such as walking, sitting, or standing. It is prohibited or disliked when commencing recitation of Sūrat al-Barāʾa (as discussed above), while naked, when in an impure place, and (according to the majority) when smoking. Finally, it is prohibited when in a state of ritual impurity (see Ritual Purity and Impurity) or when commencing anything itself prohibited—in certain such cases (see Enormities) being tantamount to unbelief, including reciting the basmala when drinking wine, engaging in fornication, gambling, and divination, or illicitly appropriating material goods (al-Qārī, Minaḥ al-rawḍ p. 462; Ṣāwī, Ḥāshiya 1:13; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 1:9).

Recitation of the Basmala at Slaughtering

Verses specifying recitation of the basmala at the time of slaughtering include:

And eat not of that over which the name of Allah has not been pronounced (lam yudhkar ismu Llāhi ʿalayh), for that is sinful conduct indeed (la-fisq)... (Q 6:121)

And they ask you what is made lawful for them. Say: “Lawful to you are all good things; and hunting animals which you teach by teaching them something of the knowledge that Allah has taught you. Eat of what they catch for you, but mention the name of Allah over it, and remain conscious of Allah; verily Allah is swift in reckoning.” (Q 5:4)

As for the sacrifice of cattle, We have made it among the symbols of Allah for you: in it there is much good for you. So extol the name of Allah over them (fa-dhkurū sma Llāhi ʿalayhā) when they are lined up [for sacrifice]… (Q 22:36)

Al-Rāzī cites the Successor ʿAṭā b. Abī Rabāḥ (27-114/647-732) as having anomalously ruled that any food or drink over which the basmala has not been pronounced (kull mā lam yudhkar ʿalayh ism Allāh min ṭaʿām aw sharāb) is unlawful (ḥarām), based on the general sense (ʿumūm) of Q 6:121; but al-Rāzī himself says that there is consensus among jurists that the verse pertains specifically to slaughter (dhabḥ) (Tafsīr, sub Q 6:121). While jurists agree that the short phrase bi-sm Allāh should be recited at the time of slaughtering, they differ on the consequences of its forgetful omission. If it is omitted with disdain, then all four Sunni schools consider the slaughtered meat impermissible. Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī writes that sinfulness (fisq) as noted in the verse (for that is sinful conduct indeed) is an intentional characteristic, so that the verse censures only those who willfully refuse to pronounce bi-sm Allāh, not those who absentmindedly forget to do so (Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh bāb al-tasmiya ʿalā al-dhabīḥa wa man taraka mutaʿammidan, 9:624; cf. likewise Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 4:173). One who willfully omits the basmala because he considers it a lowly and inconsequential phrase is described as a sinner (fāsiq) and an unbeliever (kāfir), whose slaughter is not to be consumed (Ibn al-ʿArabī, Aḥkām 2:274). The Ḥanafī, Mālikī, and Ḥanbalī schools consider the meat impermissible if the person slaughtering the animal purposefully refuses to pronounce the phrase (al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ 11:236; al-ʿAbdarī, al-Tāj wal-Iklīl 4:328; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 9:388), but according to the Shāfiʿī school even if the phrase was omitted carelessly the slaughtered meat remains permissible to eat so long as the omission is not due to disdain. This is so because the Shāfiʿīs consider pronouncing the basmala a recommended practice (sunna), not an obligatory one (al-Māwardī, al-Ḥāwī al-kabīr 15:10; al-Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 8:410). Moreover, as al-Shāfiʿī explains, “a Muslim slaughters in the name of Allah even when he forgets [to say the words]” (al-Umm 2:249).

Q 6:121 does not itself specify the phrase to be pronounced when slaughtering, stating only that “the name of Allah” must be remembered. Jurists offer various phrases adequate to the legal requirement—including “Allāh akbar,” “Allāh ajall,” and even simply “Allāh”; but they specify that the customary (maʿrūf) phrase is bi-sm Allāh wa-Llāh akbar (“in the name of Allah, and Allah is greater”), as established in Ibn ʿAbbās’s commentary on Q 22:36 and a hadith of the Prophet reported by Anas (al-ʿAynī, al-Bināya 11:549; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-muḥtār 6:301; al-Kharshī, Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 3:15).

Ḥanbalīs make a further distinction between a slaughtered animal and game, the latter being impermissible if one does not pronounce bi-sm Allāh when shooting an arrow or releasing a hunting animal (al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ 11:236; al-ʿAbdarī, al-Tāj wal-iklīl li-Mukhtaṣar Khalīl 4:328; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 9:388). The other three schools make no such distinction.

Other Legal Rulings

It is recommended to recite the basmala prior to ablution according to three of the four Sunni schools. The exception is the Ḥanbalī school, which makes reciting it in full obligatory provided one has it memorized, and if one forgets, then one performs ablution again (al-Maqdisī, Kitāb al-Furūʿ 1:173; al-Bahūtī, Kashshāf al-qināʿ 1:178). The Ḥanafī school considers that any formula of remembrance suffices (one may interchangeably pronounce the basmala or, for instance, al-ḥamd li-Llāh) (al-Sarakhsī, al-Mabsūṭ 1:55; Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-Muḥtār 1:109, 123). The Shāfiʿī school prefers reciting the full basmala to the shorter form bi-sm Allāh (Nawawī, al-Majmūʿ 1:346; Abū Shujāʿ, Matn Abī Shujāʿ p. 6). The Mālikī school considers that either the full or the shorter form achieve the same end: namely, invoking Allah’s blessings (Minaḥ al-jalīl 1:94; al-Dasūqī, Ḥāshiya al-Dasūqī ʿalā l-Sharḥ al-kabīr 1:158). Pronouncing the basmala prior to eating is a recommended Prophetic practice (al-Dasūqī, Ḥāshiya, 1:103). Damād Afandī (d. 1078/1667) says: “That is the thanksgiving of the believer” (Majmaʿ al-anhur 2:525).

Merits of the Basmala

The basmala is an oft-repeated phrase in everyday Muslim life, by virtue of the enormous blessings associated with it. As explained above, its recitation is sometimes a legal requirement for certain actions and at others a means to seek divine blessing and succor.

Its healing powers are attested in a sound hadith narrated by ʿUthmān b. Abī al-ʿĀṣ al-Thaqafī (d. ca.50/670), who complained to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, of a certain bodily pain he had felt since entering Islam. The Prophet told him: “Put your hand on the part of your body that ails you and say: ‘bi-sm Allāh’ three times; then say seven times ‘I seek refuge in Allah and His power from the evil I feel and apprehend’ (aʿūdhu bi-Llāh wa qudratih min sharr mā ajid wa uḥādhir)” (Muslim, Salām, istiḥbāb waḍʿ yadih ʿalā mawḍiʿ al-alam maʿ al-duʿāʾ).

Jābir b.ʿAbd Allāh, Allah be pleased with him, reported that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said: “When night falls, keep your children close to you, for the devils (al-shayāṭīn) spread out at that moment (tantashiru ḥīnaʾidhin). A while later you may let them free. Close the doors of your house [at night], and mention the name of Allah thereupon (meaning: recite the basmala); cover your utensils and mention the name of Allah thereupon (meaning: recite the basmala), and [if you have nothing to cover them with] put something across them” (Bukhārī, Badʾ al-khalq, ṣifat Iblīs wa junūdih).

ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, reported that whenever a person complained to the Messenger of Allah of pain from a canker or a wound, the Messenger of Allah would put his finger in his mouth, push it into the soil of the ground, and then lift it, saying: “In the Name of Allah (bi-sm Allāh). This is the soil of our earth mixed with the saliva of one of us. Let it be a cure for our sick, by the permission of our Sustainer” (Bukhārī, Ṭibb, ruqyat al-Nabī; Muslim, Salām, istiḥbāb al-ruqya min al-ʿayn wal-namla wal-ḥuma wal-naẓra).

According to al-Nawawī the basmala is recommended in all actions, whether or not they are specifically acts of worship. He cites a hadith narrated by Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him, that the Prophet said: “If any of you, before sexual intercourse with his wife, says: ‘In the name of Allah. O Allah, protect us from Satan, and protect also what you grant us [of children from this union] from Satan’—if it is destined that they shall have a child, Satan will never be able to harm him” (Bukhāri, tasmiya ʿalā kull ḥāl wa ʿind al-wiqāʿ; Muslim, Nikāḥ, mā yustaḥabb an yaqūlah ʿind al-jimāʿ). Al-Nawawī adds: “The complete tasmiya is to say bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, but if only bi-sm Allāh is pronounced, the grace (faḍīla) of the tasmiya will yet obtain. There is no difference of opinion about that. (…) And Allah knows best” (al-Majmūʿ 1:344).

Scholarly Literature

Because of the issues surveyed above as well as others, variously touching on matters of creed, ritual, and practice, and the differences of opinion and method among the schools of law, the basmala and its ancillary injunctions have remained the subject of scholarly discussion for centuries. Saʿīd Shifāʾ al-Salūlī writes that he is aware of at least seventy independent works on the basmala, ranging from voluminous monographs to short treatises (Dirāsāt p. 9). Based in part on the bibliography in his thesis, titled Dirāsa taḥlīliyya ḥawl al-Basmala fī ḍawʾ al-Kitāb wal-Sunna (“An Analytical Study of the Basmala in the Light of the Book and the Sunna”), completed in 1978 under the supervision of the Saudi scholar Muḥammad Abū Zahū, here follows a list of some of prominent writings on the subject, to illustrate the range and longevity of the discursive tradition of scholarly engagement with the basmala.

The following ten early works are no longer extant, but are known from their description in other works:

Kitāb al-Basmala by Muḥammad b. Naṣr al-Marwazī (d. 294/906), mentioned by al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ (3:342).

al-Masʾala fī-l-basmala by Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Isḥāq b. Khuzayma [al-Sulamī] al-Naysābūrī (d. 311/923), mentioned by the author in his Ṣaḥīḥ (1:248).

Kitāb al-Basmala by Abū Ḥātim Muḥammad b. Ḥibbān al-Taymī (d. 354/ca.965).

Kitāb al-Basmala by Abū Bakr Aḥmad b. al-Ḥusayn al-Bayhaqī (d. 458/ca.1065), mentioned by al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ (3:342) and by al-Bannūrī in his Maʿārif al-Sunan (2:361).

Kitāb al-Jahr bil-basmala by ‘Alī b. ‘Umar al-Dāraquṭnī (d. 385/ca.995), mentioned by him in his Sunan (1:311), Ibn al-Jawzī (510-597/1116-1201) in his al-Taḥqīq li-aḥādīth al-taʿlīq (p. 313), al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ (3:342), and al-Bannūrī in Maʿārif al-Sunan (2:361).

Kitāb al-Basmala by al-Ḥākim (d. 405/ca.1014), mentioned in his Mustadrak (1:234).

Kitāb al-Basmala by Abū al-Fatḥ Salīm b. Ayyūb b. Salīm al-Rāzī (d. 448/ca.1056), mentioned by al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ (3:355), Ibn ʿIrāq in his al-Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm (p. 43), and al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī in his Ḥāshiya (2:410).

Kitāb al-Jahr bil-basmala by al-Khaṭīb al-Baghdādī (d. 463/ca.1070), mentioned by Ibn al-Jawzī in his Taḥqīq (p. 313), al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ, al-Bannūrī in Maʿārif al-Sunan, al-Suyūṭī in his Durr (1:7), and Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī in his Kitāb al-Tanqīḥ (p. 108).

Kitāb al-basmala of Abū Shāma (d. 665/ca.1266), mentioned by al-Nawawī in his Majmūʿ (3:334), Ibn ʿIrāq in al-Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm (p. 39); and al-Amīr al-Ṣanʿānī in his Ḥāshiya (2:410).

Kitāb al-radd ʿalā kitāb al-Jahr bil-basmala by al-Maqdisī al-Ḥanbalī (d. 744/ca.1343), refuting the above work, which the author mentions in his Kitāb al-Tanqīḥ (2:199) and is mentioned by Ibn Rajab in Ṭabaqāt al-Ḥanābila (2:436-439) and al-Zaylaʿī in his Naṣb (1:355-358).

Sixteen unpublished works recorded by al-Salūlī are:

Aḥkām al-basmala by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209). See Fihris al-Khizānat al-Taymūriyya (the catalogue of the Taymūriyya Library: hereafter “Taymūriyya catalogue”, 4 vols., Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, 1948-50), ms. 125 at 1:72).

Tafsīr al-basmala by an unknown author (ms. 326, see Taymūriyya catalogue 1:76), containing a commentary on the basmala from 114 different aspects in the context of each sura (on the model of al-Qushayrī’s (376-465/ca.986-1072) exegesis, Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt.

Khayr al-kalām ʿalā l-basmala wal-ḥamdala of Nūr al-Dīn Abū al-Faraj ʿAlī b. Burhān al-Dīn, the celebrated author of al-Sīrat al-Ḥalabiyya (d. 1044/1634), composed in 999/ ca.1590 and revised in 1018/ ca.1609. This is a commentary on Zakariyyā b. Muḥammad al-Anṣārī’s treatise Fī-l-basmala wal-ḥamdala (Dār al-Kutub al-Ẓāhiriyya (the Ẓāhiriyya Library, the contents of which are preserved at the Asad Library, Damascus), ms. 5139; see al-Ẓāhiriyya catalogue, ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān p. 356; and Taymūriyya catalogue 1:93).

Risāla fī-l-kalām ʿalā l-basmala by Abū Saʿīd Muḥammad b. Muṣṭafā al-Ḥanafī, containing discussions on virtues of the basmala, its exegesis, and other matters (Ẓāhiriyya Library, ms. 5787: see al-Ẓāhiriyya catalogue, p. 365).

al-Risālat al-mushtamila ʿalā anwāʿ al-badīʿ fī-l-basmala by Muḥammad b. ʿĪsā b. Maḥmūd al-Kinānī al-Ṣāliḥī (d. 1153/ ca.1740), ms. dated 1139/ ca.1726: Taymūriyya ms. 355: see Taymūriyya catalogue 1:97).

Rafʿ al-astār al-isāla fī-l-kalām ʿalā l-basmala by Ismāʿīl b. Ghunaym al-Jawharī (d. 1160/1747), containing discussion on seven issues related to the basmala: Ẓāhiriyya ms. 58; Taymūriyya ms. 3791:98; and al-Maktabat al-ʿIrāqiyya, Baghdad, 5:9817.

Ẓahr al-rabīʿ sharḥ mā fī-l-basmala min anwāʿ al-badīʿ by Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Maḥmūd b. Muḥammad, known as al-Kanjī, a commentary on the above Risāla: see Taymūriyya catalogue 1:98.

Riyāḍ al-ṭālibīn fī-l-kalām ʿalā l-taʿawwudh wal-basmala by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī, his first work on the subject (bound with his Durr al-manẓūm): Taymūriyya ms. 404, see catalogue, 1:98; also Kashf al-ẓanūn 2:1031.

Sharḥ Risālat al-basmala wal-ḥamdala by ʿAbduh Muḥammad al-Amīr (d. 1232/ca.1816), a commentary on al-Ṣabbān’s (d. 1206/ca.1791) Risāla (Taymūriyya Library ms. 269: see catalogue 1:100; another ms. is preserved in the main library of the Faculty of Sharīʿa, Umm al-Qurā University, Makka, ms. 1761).

ʿUqd al-durr al-manẓūm fī munāsabat al-basmala li-mā ishtahar min al-ʿulūm of Sulaymān al-ʿAzīzī, composed in 1055/ ca.1645: Taymūriyya mss. 26 and 404; see catalogue 1:101.

Risālat fī-l-basmala by Ibn Ṭāhir al-Maqdisī, read by al-Bannūrī in Cairo in 1357/1938 as mentioned in his Maʿārif al-Sunan (2:361); al-Salūlī reports that he has a copy of the manuscript.

Kashf al-sutūr al-musdala ʿan awjuh al-basmala by Manṣūr al-Sarmīnī (ms. 7055, al-Maktabat al-ʿIrāqiyya, Baghdad; see catalogue 1:141).

al-Ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm ilā maʿānī bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm by Nūr al-Dīn ʿAlī b. Muḥammad b. ʿAlī Ibn ʿIrāq (853-963/ca.1449-1555): ms. 1017 in the main library of the Faculty of Sharīʿa, Umm al-Qurā University, Makka; also two mss. in Dār al-Kutub, Cairo, 23269B).

Nuzhat al-afhām fī-mā yaʿtarī al-basmala min al-aḥkām by Yūsuf b. Saʿīd b. Ismāʿīl, composed in 1186/1772: Taymūriyya Library ms. 401; see catalogue 1:109.

al-Masʾala fī-l-basmala by Mullā ʿAlī b. Sulṭān al-Qārī (d. 1014/1605-1606): Taymūriyya ms. 136; see catalogue 1:107.

Mīzān al-maʿdala fī shaʾn al-basmala by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī: Taymūriyya ms. 105, see catalogue 1:108; ms. 56, Maktabat al-Jāmiʿat al-Islāmiyya (Islamic University Library), Madīna; also ms. 496, al-Khizānat al-ʿIrāqiyya: see catalogue 1:162).

Seven important published works are:

Ibdāʿ ḥikmat al-Ḥakīm fī bayān bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm by Abū Saʿīd Muḥammad al-Khārimī (composed 1156/ca.1743; published 1954).

Īḍāḥ ibdāʿ ḥikmat al-Ḥakīm fī bayān bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm by the Mālikī mufti Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. Muḥammad ʿAlīsh (d. 1299/ ca.1881) (published 1295/ ca.1878).

al-Inṣāf fī-mā bayna al-ʿulamāʾ min al-ikhtilāf by al-Qurṭubī (368-463/978-1071), which includes a section on the basmala.

al-Risālat al-kubrā fī-l-basmala by al-Ṣabbān (d. 1206/1791).

Risāla jalīla fī mabāḥith al-basmala of Aḥmad Zaynī Daḥlān (1296/ ca.1878).

al-Kahf wal-raqīm fī sharḥ bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm by ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Jīlī (published at Hyderabad in 1321/ca.1903 and 1340/ca.1921).

al-Basmala bayn ahl al-ʿibāra wa ahl al-ishāra by Ibrahīm Basyūnī (1972).

Writing the Basmala

Over time, the calligraphy of the basmala has developed into an ornate genre in its own right, partly due to its merits and ritual significance. Saʿīd b. Abī al-Sakīna narrates: “I have been told that ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib saw a man writing the basmala; he said to him: ‘Make it beautiful (jawwid-hā), for whoever writes it beautifully will be forgiven’” (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 1:1, at p. 191). Al-Thaʿlabī (d. 425/1035) quotes al-Qalīsī recounting about scholars and calligraphers that “They did not like to begin writing the Book of Allah without a large, prominent letter (i.e., an elongated bāʾ opening the basmala)” (Kashf, fī faḍl al-tasmiya, sub Q 1:1). The Umayyad caliph ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz (ca.62-101/682-720; r. 98-101/717-720), an eminent scholar in his own right and great-grandson of ʿUmar b. Al-Khaṭṭāb, used to tell his calligraphers: “Honoring the speech of Allah Most High, lengthen the ʾ, write the sīn distinctively, keep a distance between [the two letters], and make the mīm circular” (Thaʿlabī, Kashf, fī faḍl al-tasmiya, sub Q 1:1; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 1:1). Abū Khālid b. Yazīd al-Murādī comments that the reason why the bāʾ is lengthened is that the alif is elided, its length being incorporated into the bāʾ (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf).

Devotion to inscribing the basmala in various artistic forms has produced numerous calligrams and zoomorphic decorative designs. One of the most outstanding calligrams is that of the Ottoman master calligrapher Aḥmad Qarāḥiṣārī (d. 963/1520), who conceived and wrote the entire basmala in a single fluid stroke, without lifting his pen and using principles of assimilation to vertically highlight the Supreme Name Allah while horizontally highlighting the letter sīn, and forming a harmonious unit with the two Names of Mercy (in the ḥā-mīm glyph of al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm mirroring each other).


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See also

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