The Puzzling 25 Words and 113 Letters of Surah al-Fatihah
Once I was reading the Tafsir Ibn Kathir, which is a well-known commentary of the Holy Qur’an by the 14th century scholar Ibn Kathir. I started with Surah al-Fatihah, since that is the first surah of the Qur’an. However, while reading the commentary, I came upon an interesting note and stumbling block:
“The scholars say that Al-Fatihah consists of twenty-five words, and that it contains one hundred and thirteen letters.” (Tafsir Ibn Kathir for Surah al-Fatihah)
The problem is that when I went back to check this out, I could manage 25 words by excluding the Basmallah, but I couldn’t seem to derive 113 letters. You see, there was a difference of opinion on whether the Basmallah was a part of the surah or not. It is a universally accepted that there were 7 ayat (verses). However, some scholars believed that the Basmallah was the first line of the surah, whereas others believed it was just used as a header, like it is in every other surah, and then the 7th verse was actuallly divided into 2 verses (or else, excluding the Basmallah, there would be only 6). To illustrate, the first group that included the Basmallah divided the surah like this: 1A, 2B, 3C, 4D, 5E, 6F, 7G. Those not in favour of the Basmallah divided the surah like this: 1B, 2C, 3D, 4E, 5F, 6G(first half), 7G(second half). This doesn’t mean that we lost the surah, since there aren’t any discrepencies in the words themselves. It is reallly just a matter of bookkeeping. The format of al-Fatiha is just the way it was then – it is only a matter of numbering the verses, that’s all. Apparenly, the scholars decided later to include the Basmallah. I don’t know too much about it.
However, what bothered me was that even though I could count 25 words if I didn’t count the Basmallah (I don’t know whether Ibn Kathir believed the Basmallah didn’t count as a verse, or that the Basmalalh was such a well known and integral formula of Muslim life that it didn’t need to be considered for this essentially record-keeping activity), I could never get 113 letters – instead I kept counting 120 letters. This has been bothering me a lot the past 2 months, to the point where it became an obsession. However, today I finally cracked it, masha’Allah! I am going to share it with everyone here because at the moment there is not a single site on the Internet that explains it, and I don’t want any Muslim brothers or sisters to be as worried as I was.
This explanation will only make sense to those who know Arabic and are familiar with Surah al-Fatihah, due to the nature of the topic. Anyways, to begin, the first rule to counting by Ibn Kathir’s method is that you only count the letters that are pronounced, and exclude those that are silent. So, is the phrase “Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim,” which means “The Lord of Mercy, the Ever-Merciful,” you only count, in order, the alif, ra, haa, meem, nuun, ra, haa, yaa, and meem – and ignore the silent letters such as the lam’s. Also, using the same phrase, you count letters with the shaddah twice, since that is the effect of the shaddah on the pronounciation. The last rule is that when you have a letter attached to an alif to prolong its pronounciation to two beats, and that same letter also falls under a maad, you count the maad and exclude the alif. For example, in the last word of the surah is “Daaaleen”, meaning “those who have gone astray.” It is attached to an alif, and is under a maad. Therefore, you count the letter but ignore the alif. Following Ibn Kathir’s rules (which no one uses nowadays, or at least to my knowledge), and using his method of numbering the verses (which is to exclude the Basmallah), here is what you should count per ayah: V1 – 18 letters, V2 – 11 letters, V3 – 10 letters, V4 – 21 letters, V5 – 15 letters, V6 – 17 letters, and V7 – 21 letters. It is important to note that you should be wary of which mus’haf to use – some spell the word “maliki” with a meem connected to an alif to signal the double prolongation, but for Ibn Kahtir’s method to work, you need one that signifies the prolongation using a short fat’ha muddah that looks like a minuture alif above the meem. Both methods are legitimate, by the way, just like you spell it “colour” or color,” depending on where you are from and your preference. It also should be noted that the entire surah is recounted and various ahadith and early Qur’anic manuscripts, so no one should be worried about whether the Surah al-Fatiha we know today is the same one that was revealed to Muhammad (SAW) so long ago – it is, no doubt about it. The difference among scholars was just on numbering the verses.
Anyways, I hope that was enlightening. It was nice to write on something a bit more trivial for a change.
– Farhan R.