Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III
by Hamid Algar
BESMELLĀH, Islamic formula meaning “in the name of God,” more fully Besmellāh al-raḥmān al-raḥīm “in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” that stands at the head of every sūra of the Koran (except sūra 9). The formula is also known as basmala or tasmīa.
The formula, which in its short form occurs only twice in the Koran, has been attested since the first century of the Hejra, although a precise date for its introduction cannot be established. It is included on the reverse of Arab-Sasanian coins beginning in 652, soon after the death of Yazdegerd III (r. 632-51), and in the margins of coins struck with the image of Ḵosrow II. The formula seems to have been rare on Islamic seals and intaglios (cf. Kalus, 1981), but the fact that these materials have not been well published precludes evaluation.
The formula may have been adapted to strict Muslim monotheism from Iranian, following the pattern of the Mazdean formula pad nām ī yazdān “in the name of the gods,” which occurs in the inscription of Narseh at Paikuli (end of the third century) and at Meškīnšahr (fourth century). Such an adaptation can perhaps be recognized in bilingual inscriptions an objects in which, after the first century of the Hejra, the besmellāh was correctly translated into Pahlavi by the singular pad nām ī yazd, whereas the distinction between the singular and the plural yazd/yazdān was strictly observed throughout the Mazdean tradition.
The besmellāh does not introduce the prayer (ṣalāt), but it is pronounced before nearly every activity in daily life, particularly meals and sexual relations. A formula used so extensively could not escape the esoteric speculations of the Ismaʿilis, who have associated its seven letters with the seven imams and also with the seven planets and other cosmological and astronomical entities. Finally, the formula has played an important role as a decorative element in both manuscript illumination and monumental architecture, and even in the composition of approved talismans.
B. Carra de Vaux, “Basmala,” in EI1 I, 1913, pp. 689-90; EI2 I, 1960, pp. 1116-17.
R. Curiel and Ph. Gignoux, “Un poids arabo-sasanide,” Studia Iranica 5, 1976, pp. 165-69.
Ph. Gignoux, “Pour une origine iranienne du bi’smillah,” in Pad nām ī yazdān, Paris, 1979, pp. 159-63.
Ph. Gignoux and L. Kalus, “Les formules des sceaux sasanides et islamiques: continuité ou mutation?” Studia Iranica 11, 1982, pp. 123-53.
G. Gropp, “Die sasanidische Inschrift von Mishkinshahr in Āzarbaidjān,” AMI, N.S. 1, 1968, pp. 149-57.
H. Humbach and P. O. Skjærvø, The Sassanian Inscription of Paikuli III/1, Wiesbaden, 1983, pp. 65, 69f.
W. Iwanow, Studies in Early Persian Ismailism, Leiden, 1948.
L. Kalus, Catalogue des cachets, bulles et talismans islamiques, Bibl. Nationale, Paris, 1981, p. 11, no. 1.1.2.
ii. In Exegesis, Jurisprudence, and Cultural Life
It is not known when the formula first began to be used. Ṭabarī mentions an opinion that it was the first part of the Koran to be revealed, which was also the view of ʿAlī Wāḥedī Nīsābūrī in his Asbāb al-nozūl, but this is unlikely (Nöldeke, I, p. 115; Rāmyār, p. 556). The formula occurs in an abbreviated form in 11:41 (“He [Noah] said: “embark on it [the ark] in the name of God, whether it move or be at rest. . . .””) and in its full form in 27:30 (“It [a letter to the queen of Sheba] is from Solomon, and it is: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful””); the latter occurrence can be placed in the mid-Meccan period. Some authorities are of the opinion that the Prophet began to use besmellāh after the revelation of 11:41; expanded the formula to besmellāh al-raḥmān after the revelation of 17:110 (“say: “call upon Allāh or call upon al-raḥmān . . .””); and gave it its final form after the revelation of 27:30 (Rāmyār, p. 556). Once this development was complete, the Prophet did not consider the revelation of any sūra complete until he was commanded to place the formula at its beginning.
The absence of besmellāh at the beginning of the ninth sūra (al-Tawba or al-Barāʾa) has been variously explained. It is said that it originally formed a single sūra with the eighth sūra, al-Anfāl, the whole being known as Sūrat al-barāʾa (Soyūṭī, I, p. 65). Alternatively, Mālek b. Anas is quoted as saying that the ninth sūra was originally much longer (“as long as al-Baqara”), but then its initial portion, including the besmellāh, fell away (Soyūṭī, loc. cit.). Most widely accepted (e.g., by Anṣārī in Maybodī, IV, p. 60) is the view that the use of the besmellāh would have been inappropriate on this occasion, given the declaration of war on the polytheists with which it begins; thus ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb said, “Besmellāh is security (amān), whereas al-Barāʾa was revealed with a sword” (Soyūṭī, I, p. 65).
Opinion also differs on whether besmellāh is an introductory formula, serving to separate each sūra from the preceding one, or a verse in its own right. The qorrāʾ (Koran reciters) of Kūfa and Medina held it to be a separate verse at the beginning of every sūra (Rāmyār, p. 554). Shiʿites are of the same view, and Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is related even to have described besmellāh as “the greatest verse in the Book of God” (Ayoub, p. 47). One consequence of this opinion is that the besmellāh becomes syntactically connected with the opening statement of each sūra, so that it acquires a subtly different meaning at each occurrence. Hanafites deny that besmellāh is ever a verse, and Shafeʿites grant it that status only at the beginning of Sūrat al-fāteḥa (Kufralı, p. 569).
All authorities agree that the recitation of any portion of the Koran must be introduced with the utterance of besmellāh; some regard it as permissible to utter it only at the beginning of a recitation including more than one sūra. Besmellāh is never pronounced aloud in the prayer, even at the beginning of Sūrat al-fāteḥa, since it was not the practice of the Prophet to do so (Ṣaḥīḥ Moslem; Ketāb al-ṣalāt, Hadiths 786-89).
The Prophet is reported to have described the besmellāh as the foundation (asās) of Sūrat al-fāteḥa, itself the foundation of the Koran, which is in turn the foundation of all revealed books (quoted in Maybodī, I, p. 9). The meanings and properties of the formula have accordingly been discussed in great detail by exegetes of all schools, especially Sufis. Foreshadowing the theories of Ebn al-ʿArabī, Qošayrī (d. 465/1072) remarked that the bāʾ in besmellāh means that all things are created and exist by means of the name of God. The inclusion of esm (name) in the formula is either to distinguish it from an oath or to aid in purifying the heart of the reciter before he utters the word Allāh. The three letters of which besm is composed can, moreover, be taken as the initials of various divine qualities; the qualities they indicate are different on each occasion, depending on the content of the sura besmellāh introduces (Laṭāʾef al-ešārāt I, p. 44).
Anṣārī took besmellāh to mean “I [God] begin and continue in My own name; begin and continue then, you too, in My name.” He considered “name” in besmellāh to be superfluous in that the name and the entity named are, in this case, identical in the view of the people of insight (ahl-e ḥaqq). Drawing attention to the nineteen letters of which the formula is composed, Anṣārī also suggested that each of them serves as a protection against one of the nineteen guardians of hellfire (Maybodī I, pp. 4-5).
Because of the morphological affinity seen to exist between the Koran and the created universe, Ebn al-ʿArabī declared that besmellāh is the predicate of an implied subject, i.e., “the world appeared by means of the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” (al-Fotūḥāt al-makkīya I, p. 103). The bāʾ in besm is an indication of the First Intelligence (al-ʿaql al-awwal), the agent of manifestation, and the dot beneath it is an indication of the separation of the worshipper (ʿābed) from the object of worship (maʿbūd; Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-Karīm I, p. 8). As for the alef of esm, always omitted in the writing of the besmellāh, this points to the hidden presence in creation of the One Who sustains it (al-qāʾem be’l-koll taʿālā). The complete formula also indicates the chain of the prophets, besm referring to Adam and al-raḥīm to Moḥammad (al-Fotūḥāt al-makkīya I, p. 102).
Similar interpretations based on cosmogony and letter symbolism can be found in the Baḥr al-ḥaqāʾeq of Najm-al-Dīn Kobrā (d. 617/1220) and in the Eʿjāz al-bayān fī taʾwīl omm al-Qorʾān (Hyderabad, 1949, pp. 85-224) of Ebn al-ʿArabī’s pupil Ṣadr-al-Dīn Qūnavī (d. 673/1274).
Shiʿite commentaries uniformly cite sayings of the imams—especially ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb, Moḥammad al-Bāqer, and Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq—concerning the virtues of besmellāh and the necessity of uttering it on a variety of occasions. Some also take up the concerns of Ebn ʿArabī and his school. A recent example is furnished by the lectures of Ayatollah Ḵomeynī on Sūrat al-fāteḥa in the course of which he suggests that the bāʾ in besmellāh signifies “by means of” rather than “in.” In keeping with the Shiʿite view that besmellāh is always a verse, syntactically connected to what follows upon it, he further remarks that its occurrence at the beginning of Sūrat al-fāteḥa means that “all instances of praise, by whomever uttered, are accomplished by the name of God; it is the name itself that produces the utterance” (Tafsīr-e Sūra-ye ḥamd, pp. 18, 32).
The ascription to ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭāleb of the saying, “I am the dot beneath the bāʾ of besmellāh,” found in some Shiʿite commentaries, is dubious, given the fact that the dots had not been introduced into Arabic orthography during his lifetime (Ateş, p. 320). The same utterance has, moreover, been attributed to the Sufi Abū Bakr Šeblī (d. 334/945; al-Fotūḥāt al-makkīya I, p. 102).
Outside of the Koran, besmellāh was used by the Prophet to introduce almost all written communications and documents (Hamidullah, passim). That this diverged sharply from the pre-Islamic usage of the Arabs is apparent from the insistence of Sohayl b. ʿAmr, on behalf of the Qorayš, that the treaty of Ḥodaybīa be introduced with the traditional formula besmeka Allāhomma (in Your name, o God), rather than the distinctively Islamic besmellāh (Ebn Hešām, II, p. 317). In keeping with the precedent set by the Prophet, almost all types of writing have been headed with the besmellāh, although in early times some authorities objected to placing it in front of poetry (Kufralı, p. 569). Sometimes an equivalent formula omitting the name Allāh—such as besmehe taʿālā (in His name, may He be exalted!)—is used, out of fear that a piece of paper on which besmellāh is written might fall to the ground or be treated with irreverence.
Hadiths found in both Sunni and Shiʿite collections prescribe the utterance of besmellāh before embarking on a wide variety of everyday acts such as coition, eating, mounting a riding beast, putting on clothes, and entering a dwelling. Shiʿite feqh, together with all the Sunni schools except the Hanbalite, regard the pronouncement of besmellāh as desirable (mostaḥabb) when starting one’s ablutions. Koran 6:119 forbids the eating of food over which the name of God has not been pronounced; this is commonly seen as restricting the permission, given in 5:4, to eat food prepared by the People of the Book.
A well-known Hadith promises abundant blessings to those who write besmellāh beautifully (quoted in Schimmel, p. 3); it has accordingly been a favorite subject of calligraphers in almost every period. Sometimes it has been artfully written in pictorial form to depict birds and other creatures. A well-executed besmellāh is a frequent feature of architectural ornamentation, particularly over the prayer niches and gateways of mosques.
The Persian rendering of the formula given in the anonymous 4th/10th-century translation of Ṭabarī’s commentary on the Koran (Tarjama-ye tafsīr-e Ṭabarī I, p. 10), be nām-e ḵodā-ye mehrbān-e baḵšāyanda, has remained fairly standard down to the present, although Maybodī’s commentary and translation (Kašf al-asrār wa ʿoddat al-abrār), based on the instructions of Ḵᵛāja ʿAbd-Allāh Anṣārī (d. 481/1089, q.v.), renders besmellāh as be nām-e ḵodāvand-e farāḵ-baḵšāyeš-e mehrbān. For the uses of besmellāh in Persian language and literature see Dehḵodā, s.v.
Anonymous, Tarjama-ye tafsīr-e Ṭabarī, ed. Ḥ. Yaḡmāʾī, Tehran, 1339 Š./1960.
Anonymous (“yak-ī az fożalā-ye baʿd az ʿaṣr-e Mollā Moḥsen Fayż”), Tafsīr-e Fāteḥat al-Ketāb, ed. J. Āštīānī, Tehran, 1360 Š./1981, pp. 25, 72-80.
S. Ateş, İsari tefsir okulu, Ankara, 1974, pp. 51, 93, 193, 227, 320, 323-26.
M. Ayoub, The Qurʾan and Its Interpreters, I, Albany, N.Y., 1984, pp. 46-47.
Carra de Vaux (L. Gardet), “Basmala,” in EI2. Moḥyi’l-Dīn b. al-ʿArabī, al-Fotūḥāt al-makkīya, Cairo, 1329/1911, I, pp. 101-03.
Idem, Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-Karīm, Beirut, 1387/1967, I, pp. 7-9.
Ebn Hešām, al-Sīra al-nabawīya, ed. M. Saqqā et al., Cairo, n.d. M. Hamidullah, Corpus des traités et lettres diplomatiques de l’Islam à l’époque du Prophète et des khalifes orthodoxes, Paris, 1935.
Najm-al-Dīn Kobrā, Baḥr al-ḥaqāʾeq, ms. Dār-al-Kotob (Cairo) Ḵedīw no. 1301, fols. 1b-11a.
K. Kufralı, “Besmele,” in İA. M. Ḵomeynī, Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-Karīm I, Qom, n.d., pp. 35-211.
Ayatollah Rūḥ-Allāh Ḵomeynī, Asrār-e namāz, Qom, n.d., pp. 88-92.
Idem, Tafsīr-e Sūra-ye ḥamd, Tehran, n.d. Abu’l-Fażl Rašīd-al-Dīn Maybodī, Kašf al-asrār wa ʿoddat al-abrār, ed. ʿA.-A. Ḥekmat, 4th ed., Tehran, 1361 Š./1982, I, pp. 4-5, 8-9; VII, p. 217.
Th. Nöldeke, Geschichte des Qorāns, Leipzig, 1909, I, pp. 115-17; II, pp. 79-81.
R. Paret, Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz, Stuttgart, 1971, p. 11.
Abu’l-Qāsem Qošayrī, Laṭāʾef al-ešārāt, ed. E. Basyūnī, 2nd ed., Cairo, 1971, I, p. 44.
M. Rāmyār, Tārīḵ-eQorʾān, Tehran, 1362 Š./1983, pp. 553-57.
A. Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy, Leiden, 1970, pp. 3, 16-19.
ʿAbd-Allāh Šobber, Tafsīr al-Qorʾān al-Karīm, ed. Ḥ. Ḥ. Dāʾūd, Cairo, 1397/1977, p. 37.
Jalāl-al-Dīn Soyūṭī, al-Etqān fī ʿolūm al-Qorʾān, Cairo, 1370/1951, I, p. 65.
Abū ʿAlī Ṭabarsī, Majmaʿ al-bayān fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān, Beirut, 1380/1961, I, p. 37.
M.-Ḥ. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān fī tafsīr al-Qorʾān, Beirut, 1393/1973, I, p. 22.
Philippe Gignoux, Hamid Algar
Originally Published: December 15, 1989
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