What’s the big deal with ‘Bismillah’

The big deal with bismillah is that it demolishes, if and when I adopt it as a practice, a perspective, all the self-injuring prisons and groundless illusions that I take from others or that I have manufactured for myself in order to feel things are meaningful and everything is fine. It proposes a new perspective, a vision of reality that existing things say ‘yes’ to. It is a question that I can put to existing things and for which they answer me back.The frameworks I depend on without a direct encounter with revelation from my maker – things like religion, history, spiritualities, philosophies, traditions, stories, cultures – leave me without the means to finding a satisfactory and truthful meaning for my existence, without a perspective that is satisfactory for me to feel safe and secure. They give me narratives and concepts and vocabularies within which I am supposed to understand existence, my experiences, and all action in the world (human or otherwise). They tell me how to conceive and evaluate the aims and purposes of those actions and experiences. But when I listen to them and follow them, they disappoint me. They leave my in need of meaning. They leave with contradictions and ask me to ignore or accept them and just get on with it. To me, bismillah is an alternative narrative, a framework, a vocabulary that my maker proposes to me as an alternative to other practices or frameworks I may choose to live by (or live by without even being aware that I have chosen them). Bismillah is a proposal. It’s my maker’s proposal. It is his description of what he has made and he claims in the Quran that if I ask his creatures if they exist and act “bismillah”, they would respond with a ‘yes.’ And the Quran claims that I can ascertain the truth of bismillah as the truth of all existence and I can live and act ‘bismillah’ as well and find safety in it. How do I ascertain the claim and how, if at all, it brings me to safety, will be a discussion for another time.

I read bismillah as saying: ‘Faraz, have you asked a thing, anything whose meaning you want to understand or you think you understand with perspectives you have gathered so far from here and there or things you do not bother to understand the meaning of: in whose name do you exist? whose name do you reveal? whose name do you invoke? whose name do you depend on? in whose name do you act? whose name do you praise? whose name do you make known? in whose name do you ask and give? with whose name do you speak and fall silent? which name do you carry and which name do you cover up? Have you asked your own self: ‘in whose name does it exist and live? think? feel? sense? respond? ask? accept? reject? thank? cry? love?’ and so on.

To me, the basic transformative message of the Quran is summarized in this phrase: bismillah. I realize I am making a big claim. Whatever I have understood from the Quran after encountering the phrase ‘bismillah’ leads me to make this claim. So I don’t expect the reader to share my view, not at this stage at least. Perhaps if you stick around to read what I understand the verses of the Quran to be saying, you may also see the absolutely liberating, encompassing truth and life-giving potential of a ‘bismillah perspective’ if and when I adopt it. There is no permanence to this perspective. It is asked for again and again from the source of all perspectives and it is received as often as it is asked for from that source. If and when it is not asked for, it is not given and I default back to some other perspective on a thing or event.

The Quran’s proposal with ‘bismillah’ is that every apparent thing or event or relation (between me and the thing and event and between things and events) stands on a name or rather names, exists and acts on account of those names, makes those names known to me, reflects those names to conscious observers (human beings) and thus can, should a ‘bismillah’ perspective adopted, show themselves to be signs (ayat). Those names are the abiding and permanent reality of things and events, their real meanings. And I am quite prone to (by design and from no fault of mine) assign these names to the things/events/relations upon which they appear to me. This assigning of the names to things is the cause of immense loss and harms me. The Quran presents itself to me as a guide for me, for a person in deep and unavoidable loss, to a place of safety/iman. What are things that stand on names and act on account of names and make names known? Let me give a few examples:

Think of a squirrel or a bird or a cat or a fish foraging for food.

Think of a person making bread on a pan atop a fire fueled by wood.

Think of a person typing on a computer.

Think of a person walking.

Think of yourself breathing, looking, sitting, thinking.

Think of a person telling their spouse or mother when they will come home.

Think of a person worrying about the wellbeing of another.

Think of a person feeling sad or worried or sick or excited.

Think of a person looking for work or livelihood.

Think of an orange growing on a tree and of plants dying in winter.

Think of a person grieving the loss of a loved one.

Think of a person excited to share some good news with others.

Think of a person feeling bored and looking for excitement and entertainment.

Think of a person exploiting another’s weakness.

Think of a person hurting another person or creature.

Think of feeling hurt.

Think of the frustration at something not working or turning out as you want or expect.

Think of the joy of something working out as you want or desire.

Think of a smile.

Think of tears.

Think of memory and remembering the past and think of forgetting things.

Think of feeling tired and sleeping and think of waking up.

Think of feeling hungry and think of food.

Think of the comfort and security of having food and shelter and health.

Think of the grief and fear and anxiety of not having shelter, food and health.

Think of buying your child a bicycle.

Think of the sadness of not being able to buy your child the bicycle they want.

Think of existing now when many years ago you did not exist.

Think of people who were here not here anymore.

Think about caring for others.

Think about a grandmother wanting happiness for her children and grandchildren.

Think about wanting to be loved and cared for by others.

I can’t think of ‘everything’ all at once. If you ask me to think of existence or existing things – I come up blank. So I am helping myself by thinking of one existing thing or relation at a time. When I live life, I encounter a limited number of existing things and relations at a given time. So it is helpful to think about revelation in relation to one existing thing, feeling, relation or event at a time. Each one of these things (and the list, as you can see, can go on) means something to me. I have an interpretation and understanding of it, even when I am not aware that I am actually interpreting it. I can be working on my default mode, whatever it may be. I give each thing some meaning. And I feel and experience that thing/event on the basis of my existing understanding or perspective. Now the reason I am interested in ‘bismillah’ is because (and I am sorry to repeat again) I do not find the meanings that I could understand or give (unconsciously or consciously) to things, satisfactory for me as a human being. To take an example, I feel hungry and feel satiated and happy when I find food to eat. And then I get hungry again and eat again. I feel that having food is good and pleasurable. I feel sad when a hungry person cannot find enough food to eat. I can simply live my life eating, getting hungry again, eating again and so on till I die. I can understand this to the natural dietary needs of the human species. Thats possible. And the same could be said of feelings. I could feel happy at the success of my daughter, sad about her failures, happy about finding love and sad about losing a beloved and so on until I die. I came to find it deeply unsatisfactory to live like this. I want to know the meaning of feeling happy, feeling hungry, feeling full, walking, a bird eating, a person crying, a person hurting, my sleeping and waking up, my concern for my loved one’s health and well being and so on. The best source for this meaning, I find it reasonable, must be the one who makes me, makes these things, makes these relations between things and me, makes me feel this or that way about this or that thing and so on. This maker, this source is the best source for me to teach me the meaning of what he makes and what he makes me ask about it. And insofar as I assume the Quran to be the message from this source (I can only assume it at the start and only confirm it later), I take it to be addressing my need for such meaning. To give another example, I already feel I should help the poor or needy when I can and I already find it wrong to deny help to the needy. What I don’t know is the meaning of wanting to help and the meaning of the discomfort or sadness in the absence of such help. When I turn to my maker, he says ‘bismillah’. And adds to it ‘al-rahman’ and ‘al-rahim’, which have something to do with compassion, mercy, protective safety, benevolence and so on. It is a claim that is, for me, an answer to my need for the meaning of the kinds of things I have listed above. What kind of answer is it? I’ll try to discuss a few examples in my next post. You will realize I hope that it is neither possible nor desirable to discuss this phrase exhaustively. It is perspective to be lived. One can only describes instances where such a perspective would be at work. As long as I understand, with examples, what kind of perspective bismillah is, I will have to choose it and be aware of it from one moment to another. Understanding it would be one thing – living it (yes, bismillah is a practice – a way of making sense of things – not a verbal formula to be repeated) will be a process. It will likely be a story of mixed success, often failing to see things acting/being bismillah (to my own loss here and now) and finding myself able to witness bismillah (to my benefit here and now). Everything that I encounter and witness, I will either understand to mean ‘bi-ismillah’ or else ‘bi-ismi-something-else’ (and this includes bi-ismi-religion or bi-ismi-myself or bi-ismi-nature, bi-ismi-time, bi-ismi-the-thing-itself, bi-ismi-culture/laws/tradition, bi-ismi-my-own-previous-convictions etc. etc.) A discussion of the truth of bismillah would need to include a discussion of why all these other bi-ismi-somethings are not satisfactory for me and why bi-ismallah is a truth I find beneficial for me.

Published by Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh

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