How the greatest sūrah of the Quran is organized
Last week we explored the structure of the greatest āyah of the Quran, Āyah al Kursi. This week we turn our attention to the greatest sūrah of the Quran, Sūrah al-Fātiḥah (The Opening). This is a unique sūrah to begin with because of how much depth there is to it. We’re going to break up our observations into five parts.
But before we do that, here is a look at the overall structure of the sūrah:
*We are numbering the āyāt based on the opinion that the basmalah (بِسۡمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ) is not a part of the sūrah. Perhaps the following analysis can act as further proof of this opinion being the correct one.
Part 1 - Worship
The first three āyāt constitute a small ring:
Grammatically, these āyāt are actually one continuous sentence. Allah ﷻ mentions His amazing attributes and sandwiches two references to His mercy in-between them. This ring describes the One worthy of being worshiped.
Part 2 - Worship and Prayer
The next āyah is a nice two-part sentence that perfectly transitions between the first and last ring. The statement of “You alone we worship” links back to the first sentence (Part 1 - Worship) and the second half, “You alone we ask for help” connects to the next section (Part 3 - Prayer).
Part 3 - Prayer
The last three āyāt also form a small ring:
Grammatically, these āyāt also form one continuous sentence. We pray for guidance, and then spend the rest of the prayer defining that guidance. We want to be guided like those before us (a show of mercy), not like those who incurred anger - the Arabic does not associate Allah ﷻ with the anger, which is another show of mercy - nor of those who went astray because of their lack of guidance.
Part 4 - Altogether
When we put it altogether we see that the two rings correspond to each other - mercy is emphasized twice in the center of each - and that the central āyah of the sūrah contains the main ideas of both rings.
Thus we see that Sūrah al-Fātihah has a concentric structure, consisting of two corresponding outlying parts - themselves consisting of smaller rings - that enclose a central part relating to them both.
Just as interesting, we see that the sūrah is split perfectly between Allah ﷻ and us, His servants.
Part 5 - For the Grammar Nerds
We’ll try and make this understandable even to those with no Arabic background. Going back to Part 2, the central āyah actually links the two halves of the sūrah grammatically as well.
As mentioned earlier, Part 1 is one continuous sentence. Of particular note is that it is a sentence that begins with a noun, which is called a nominal sentence (جملة اسمية). In contrast, the last sentence (Part 3) begins with a verb and is therefore a verbal sentence (جملة فعلية).
Bridging these two parts together, the central āyah is made of two statements where the noun has been brought forward of where it’d typically be in an Arabic sentence (مفعول به مقدم). Thus, the two statements begin with a noun and end with a verb.
This matches perfectly with the two sentences on either side of the āyah.
And finally, there is even a rhetorical benefit to the grammatical structure of the sūrah. Rhetorically in Arabic, sentences that begin with nouns are considered independent and permanent. In contrast, sentences that begin with a verb are considered dependent and time-bound.
It’s amazing that the section that speaks of Allah ﷻ is nominal (i.e. permanent and independent) and the section that describes us and our prayer is verbal (i.e. dependent and time-bound).
وَاللهُ أَعلَمُ - And Allah knows best
Farrin, Raymond. Structure and Quranic Interpretation: a Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islams Holy Text. White Cloud Press, 2014.
Mir, “Contrapuntal Harmony in the Thought, Mood, and Structure of Surat al-Fatihah,” Renaissance 9 (1999): 1-2