In this HuffPost Jummah, I would like to reflect on one of the most common and central practices of Islam. We Muslims, 1.5 billion people around the world, have every possible cultural, ethnic, linguistic, theological, sectarian, denominational diversity. Yet there are several practices and rituals common and central to almost all Muslims. One of the most famous one is how we greet one another by saying Assalamu Alaykum (Peace be unto You) regardless of what language we speak, what level of practice we have in our religion, in what cultural zone we live or what school of thought we belong to.
One another such common and central Muslim practice, may others know less, and is what we Muslims say before we do anything or how we start things. Muslims of all different backgrounds say the same thing before we start anything new: Bismillahirrahmanirrahim. It literally means, “In the Name of God, The Merciful, The Compassionate.” It is so central to all Ummah to say Bismillah at beginning of things. This is one of the first Muslim rituals we teach to our children. Before we eat, drink, before we go to sleep, before we enter or leave our house, before we start our car, start our day, before we put a new cloth and so on, we say, often the shorter version: Bismillah — In the name of God.
The centrality of this Bismillah as a general Muslim code is often a source of amazement. I will never forget, several years ago in Sydney-Australia, I took a cab. And the Cambodian driver before he started the car he said Bismillah. This symbol of Islam immediately brought our hearts together, became an open door or an invitation for an immediate rich conversation for this Cambodian Muslim and me. We had so many ethnic, racial, cultural and even theological differences. Despite all of that Bismillah took us several steps ahead in our conversation. Ten minutes later we were good friends and an hour later I was having dinner in his house with his family. I was deeply moved to witness the magical effects of Bismillahirrahmanirrahim.
Why is saying Bismillah is so important that it became a central ritual among all Muslims? What meaning and role saying Bismillah plays at the beginning of everything?
The Holy Quran starts with Bismillah. Every single Surah in the Quran (with one exception in which Bismillah comes as part of the surah not at the beginning) starts with Bismillah. This in itself enough reason for believers to take Bismillah and its layers of meanings and function very seriously. Saying Bismillah at the beginning of almost every action is a very strong Sunnah, (legacy and example of the prophet of Islam). Prophet Muhammad, in any given condition or hardship, hardly ever neglected saying Bismillah before he did anything. So when we start things with Bismillah, we start as the Holy Quran and our beloved Prophet started everything.
It is the genius of Islam to have several built in spiritual practices, like Bismillah, to encourage believers to live a prayerful and God concise lives. Saying Bismillah, “In the name of God,” reminds us our real and most core identity: Being human. This practice takes us to the creation story and reminds us God Almighty’s conversation with Angels. When God said “I will create a Khalifa, vicegerent, representative on earth” which will act in my name. Bismillah reminds us the human uniform that we wear and invites us to honor the meaning and responsibility of that uniform.
Bismillah is a constant practice of believers in the journey to submit themselves to God Almighty. As practice makes perfect in anything, this whole submission journey requires a consistent discipline and practice as well. Bismillah connects us with God and it is a practical discipline to achieve taqwa (piety), God’s conscientiousness and ihsan (worshiping God as we see God) or experience God in the highest level possible.
Bismillah attacks the whole idea of “I am in charge and I am running this whole show called life.” By reminding us that we act in the name of an authority, Bismillah humbles us before God and opens the believers eyes to the reality that ultimately God is in charge. We humans only try to play our minimal given role and task as good as we can. By saying Bismillah at the beginning of a day, week or a year, we acknowledge that the success of this day, week or year is not entirely dependent on us. In this sense, Bismillah functions as a form of prayer and supplication to the sources of all Power and Strength saying: “In your name I will try my very best but the result and the ultimate out come is in your hands, guide me and help me in this process, you are the All High and Most Powerful.”
Bismillah enables us to built muscles of gratitude and thankfulness toward God and to other fellow human beings. It shapes us to be more mindful people. By saying Bismillah we get a chance to reflect briefly that the food that I am about to enjoy, the house that I am about to leave or enter, the business that I am about to start are ultimately not mine. These are all gifts and blessings from the source of All Blessings, Almighty God, who delivered these often through other people to whom I should always be grateful and generous.
Bismillah again invites us to be more alert about life as it unfolds. It cautions us not to fail to see the signs of God in the actions that we are about to do. Pulls are attention to the God’s fingerprints and God’s various possible manifestations in God’s creation.By saying Bismillah at the beginning of a science class, a long trip, a project, the believer reminds himself or herself to look for God in what he or she is about to do, see or hear because everything in the universe, in their own unique languages, points put the creator of the havens and the earth and glorifies God’s beautiful names. Bismillah empowers us to pay attention to those slightly hidden signs and divine manifestations.
Bismillah, saying in the name of God, helps believers to make ethical and moral decisions and warns us from doing evil. By definition, if you act in the name of an authority whatever you do has to be in consistent with your covenant with that authority. It should please that authority. Can anyone imagine a mentally healthy Muslim saying Bismillah before he steals or lies or disrespects his parents? In the same senseb you cannot start a day by saying Bismillah and do things on that day inconsistent or in violation of that authority in whose name you act. You can’t start a day, week, business, marriage or journey with Bismillah and do things to displease God along the way. Bismillah pumps life into our moral and ethical compass.
So I invite myself and others to say heartfelt Bismillahs before we do anything. Hopefully not out of habit but by meaningfully engaging its layers of deep wisdom and very beneficial blessings. Bismillah!
Imam Abdullah completed his basic training and education in his native Turkey. From 1996-2003 he worked on a variety of faith-based humanitarian and relief projects in Myanmar (Burma) and Malaysia with the Association of Social and Economic Solidarity with Pacific Countries. He is the founder and executive board member of the Muslim Chaplains Association and a member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. From 2003 to 2005 he served as the first Muslim chaplain at Wesleyan University. He then moved to Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, where he was the associate director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program & Interfaith Relations, as well as an adjunct faculty member.
As the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, he is be one of only a handful of full-time Muslim chaplains at U.S. colleges and universities. His work at Duke focuses on three primary areas: religious leadership for Duke’s Muslim community, pastoral care and counseling for persons of any faith, or of n