the qur'an starts with the surah (chapter) called "al-fatihah" which means "the opener" as it opens the qur'an it is sometimes also able to open people's hearts.
1 in the name of allah most gracious most merciful.
2 praise be to allah the cherisher and sustainer of the worlds.
3 most gracious most merciful.
4 master of the day of judgement.
5 it is you we worship and serve and it is you we seek help from.
6 show us the straight way.
7 the way of those upon whom you bestowed your grace, not those upon whom is anger, nor those who go astray.
the importance of these verses to the practising muslim is very great. the closest comparable thing in christianity is 'the lord's prayer' (our father, who art in heaven, give us our daily bread....). these verses of the qur'an are a prayer that forms the core of the obligatory and non-obligatory formal prayers of all muslims. they recite it and reflection it at least 17 times a day. it sets the state of the mind, heart and soul at the beginning of each prayer and therefore sets the outlook on the day and hence indicates the whole perspective on life of a muslim. it contains, in a few short verses, all the basic principles of islam.
the phrase "bismillahi-rahmani-rahim" - in the name of allah the most gracious the most merciful - is a key part of the everyday life of muslims. muslims are encouraged to start every act with these words since by doing so, that act becomes a direct 'ibadah' (worship & service) of allah provided that what is being done is in accordance with islamic law. it therefore helps to develop in muslims a good habit of reflecting on the moral value of all their actions at the point they are about to do them. indeed, all permissible acts in islam can be a form of worship of allah - including sex with your spouse.
if we look a little more closely at the arabic words we might give the following clarification. firstly, the words that are allah’s names are in an intensive form. the basic word of rahman is an adjective meaning showing kindness and giving benefits. the intensive form implies that you can basically ignore all other rahman in comparison. al-rahman means the gracious - the one whose grace totally eclipses the grace of others. al rahim is a very similar word but implies definite action taking place. so allah is the one who is actively bestowing of grace so much more than any other that the others are negligible by comparison.
the name allah is also of this form. it literally means "the god" in comparison to which all other (would be) gods are as nothing.
verse 1 has the effect of saying "now we begin". after it is said, we start the actual prayer:
alhamdu lillah - literally: "the praise is for allah" this is very fundamental to islam - god is the source of all good and consequently when we appreciate anything of his creation, we exclaim praise to he who is responsible - allah. this exclamation contains the driving idea of islam and ties in exactly to the value argument presented earlier in the section on the sin of disbelief. the exclamation forms a key part in the muslim outlook on life. when muslims are happy at some good thing happening they exclaim alhamdu lillah - praise be to god. this helps prevent arrogance from thinking that this good is from yourself rather than from the source of all good. if things happen that to you seem bad you should also say "alhamdu lillah!" to counter the idea that allah causes bad to happen to you. this has the effect of turning perceived problems into opportunities. it reminds one to show moral virtues like patience and trying to learn how to solve the problem. it put one in the frame of mind that looks towards how to achieve good deeds out of this situation.
after the exclamation the explanation comes in a superbly condensed form. "rabb al-‘alamin" - the lord of the worlds. the word meaning 'worlds' implies all possible worlds known to exist. this was interpreted at the time to mean the spirit world, the world of the heavens, the world of human beings. essentially each realm of known existence. (the word in fact comes from the root verb "to know"). a modern interpretation might consider the worlds to mean different planets or even parallel universes as in the 'many worlds' theory which some physicists seem to like at the moment.
the word rabb means primarily the person in charge - the authority figure. the person who makes the decisions. this goes to the heart of the argument made earlier about seeking deeper explanations. the ultimate explanation behind all of the ways that existence functions is the decision of allah. the word rabb also has the implicit meaning of cherishing, sustaining and bringing to maturity. allah cares for all the worlds he has created.
this verse sets the initial perspective of the reader or person praying towards the ultimates of existence: the ultimate authority behind existence and the ultimate good of existence.
this re-iterates the meaning from verse 1 and guides the perspective more towards the relationship of humans to allah. the primary reality of this relationship is authority of allah over his creation as expressed in the word "rabb". this relationship however must never be thought of as an arbitrary authority. it is authority with a purpose. the authority is used for the good; it is used for "rahma" and this is verse three that brings this point home. it the recognition of the grace of allah towards his creation.
the qur'an now brings the focus humanity's relation to allah. human beings, unlike any other part of allah's creation have free will. they can be part of the divine purpose of rahma or they can oppose it.
this leads to man's responsibility, which flows towards allah and the consequences of this responsibility. there is a judgement of a person's efforts and implicitly rewards and punishments depending on how well that person has done. if they have tried to be part of the divine purpose, if they have tried to do what is right, then they are rewarded. if they have opposed the divine purpose they are punished before allah then shows mercy on all who have had even as little as a mustard seed of trust in allah and puts them into paradise. (sahih bukhari hadith 8.565)
from this recognition flows gratitude and from this gratitude flows the desire to please the object of your gratitude. the muslim tries to please allah primarily out of gratitude for the grace he has bestowed on him / her. islam literally means willinglyseeking to do what allah wills by submitting to his will and thereby pleasing him.
this is now very directly the relationship between allah and human beings. we are made by allah and we are subject to his laws. we owe all that we have to allah since he gave us all we have. our lives are indebted to his grace and we continually recognise this through worship and through seeking allah's pleasure through serving him. in exchange to what we do we receive help from him in abundance. the emphasis here implies ‘only’, so that it means that a muslim only worships and serves allah and only seeks help from allah. no matter how muslims receive help they attribute it to allah as being in control of all things. the emphasis also quashes the thought that allah might in any sense need our help by stressing that the relation is the other way round.
this is the essential form of help that allah provides in answer to our asking for help. he provides guidance.
the word ‘show’ <ya comment>
‘straight’ the meaning of the root word also includes ‘stand up’ and has profound meaning connected to ideas of upholding virtues etc which in english require many words. part of the structure of arabic where verbs are the centre and each verb has many forms and each form has many nouns that can be made from it. it allows huge flexibility and yet the words remain tied together giving resonances of meanings that can't be achieved in english.
verse 7: the path is in front of you. you have the choice. the path of those allah has given comfort and blessing and ease (all implied by "an'amta"). this is those who deliberately go for the straight path with definite intention. the next option is those who have anger on them. these are those who deliberately do the opposite of going for the straight path. the last option defines a midway position where there is no deliberate intention either way and so the person goes astray
this puts the muslim in the right frame of mind to receive guidance and to follow it and therefore is the perfect "opener" opening the heart and mind.
(to read further see qur'an, though there are as yet few commentaries on the internet. abdullah yusuf ali's translation is widely regarded as one of the best in english but all translations have their problems of one form or another.)