Simone Weil and the Fatihah

The opening chapter of the Qur’an, the Fatihah, is phrased as an expression of the human existential yearning. Comprising merely 7 verses, it is recited by Muslims a minimum of 17 times a day. In the wisdom of scriptures, the repetition of verses signals their significance. Thus, these 7 verses are held to contain, as it were, the entire Qur’an within them. Its reading becomes the measure of a Muslim’s ritual prayer: how you say the Fatihah says it all. History records volumes of commentary being produced on these 7 lines alone, by the likes of the 12th century Razi (whose exegesis of the Fatihah measures around 500 pages), and – more closer to our times – by the First Education Minister of modern India, Abul Kalam Azad, who boasts a 300 paged volume. 

It is a peculiar trait of scriptures to be at once both plain and profound. Reading scripture thus, is set off from all other readings – excepting perhaps some forms of poetry – by carrying the reader not on a linear conveyor belt of information, but by opening up for her a space outside linear time. The reader may calmly float on the surface, or she may find herself steadily spiraling into ever deeper circles on the same spot. Whirling in ecstasy around a point. A dot. A diacritical mark. Like the one under the first letter of the Qur’an: B / ب .


Ali, the Prophet’s son in law, famously saw this ‘dot’ as the summation of all the scriptures of the world. This then, becomes the test of the reader: to find in a dot all that one seeks. Or more modestly, to find in the few verses of the Fatihah the wisdom for life.

If a mere diacritical mark, a dotArabic_Baa, is sufficient material for the deepest meditation, scriptural reading then seems to demand an entirely distinct mode of engagement. Unlike general reading, which may oftentimes be motivated by a desire to complete or conquer a book, here the reader is humbled by the Book to abandon any quest for completion. Rather than fixing the scope of a few verses to a regimented interpretation, here the vortex of meaning beckons to remain perpetually agape. Simone Weil, the tragically young to die critic, activist and modern saint of the early twentieth century, expressed similar sentiments upon first reading the Bhagavad-Gita: “It was in reading those marvelous words, words with such a Christian sound, put into the mouth of an incarnation of God, that I came to feel strongly that we owe an allegiance to religious truth which is quite different from the admiration we accord to a beautiful poem; it is something far more categorical.”

While contemplating the Fatihah, one cannot help but notice certain parallels with prayers in other religious scriptures. One thinks of the Gayatri Mantra of the Rg Veda, or the Biblical Pater Noster (Our Father), aka the ‘Lord’s Prayer‘ . Moreover, there is something extraordinary about finding one’s own beliefs and experiences shared by others that grows one’s confidence in them. Thus, Simone Weil speaks of having learnt to trust the will of God from the pagan stoic Marcus Aurelius. Indeed, this universalist attitude towards truth, is part of the Qur’an’s appeal too when it insists: “Have no doubt, this has been spoken of in previous scriptures.” Without such ‘external confirmation’, the Qur’an couldn’t have argued about itself when it said: “This is a confirmation of what they already possess”. Additionally, it would have been impossible for it to make the plea: “Ask the people of scriptures, if you do not know.”

Thus, one may read Simone Weil’s comment on the Lord’s Prayer as reminiscent of popular Muslim sentiment regarding the Fatihah: “The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it… It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.” And the change was anything but infinitesimal for her.


In one of her letters about her ‘spiritual autobiography’, she recounts memorizing the Greek text of the prayer:

“The infinite sweetness of this Greek text so took hold of me that for several days I could not stop myself from saying it over all the time. A week afterward I began the vine harvest I recited the Our Father in Greek every day before work, and I repeated it very often in the vineyard. Since that time I have made a practice of saying it through once each morning with absolute attention. If during the recitation my attention wanders or goes to sleep, in the minutest degree, I begin again until I have once succeeded in going through it with absolutely pure attention.

Sometimes it comes about that I say it again out of sheer pleasure, but I only do it if I really feel the impulse. The effect of this practice is extraordinary and surprises me every time, for, although I experience it each day, it exceeds my expectation at each repetition. At times the very first words tear my thoughts from my body and transport it to a place outside space where there is neither perspective nor point of view. The infinity of the ordinary expanses of perception is replaced by an infinity to the second or sometimes the third degree. At the same time, filling every part of this infinity of infinity, there is silence, a silence which is not an absence of sound but which is the object of a positive sensation, more positive than that of sound. Noises, if there are any, only reach me after crossing this silence. Sometimes, also, during this recitation or at other moments, Christ is present with me in person, but his presence is infinitely more real, more moving, more clear than on that first occasion when he took possession of me.”

Reading this spiritually mouth-watering description, one wonders what the fruits of this unio mystica would have tasted like? What would the mind that experienced such intimacy with the prayer say about it? Fortunately, we have a glimpse of this light – if only a glimmer – preserved in Simone Weil’s own reflections on the Lord’s Prayer which, needless to say, double as a rich commentary on the Fatihah:

 “Our Father which art in Heaven”

He is our Father. There is nothing real in us which does not come from him. We belong to him. He loves us, since he loves himself and we are his… We do not have to search for him, we only have to change the direction in which we are looking. It is for him to search for us. We must be happy in the knowledge that he is infinitely beyond our reach. Thus we can be certain that the evil in us, even if it overwhelms our whole being, in no way sullies the divine purity, bliss, and perfection.

“Hallowed be thy Name.”

God alone has the power to name himself. His name is unpronounceable for human lips. Man has access to this name, although it also is transcendent. It shines in the beauty and order of the world and it shines in the interior light of the human soul. This name is holiness itself; there is no holiness outside it; it does not therefore have to be hallowed. In asking for its hallowing we are asking for something that exists eternally, with full and complete reality, so that we can neither increase nor diminish it, even by an infinitesimal fraction. To ask for that which exists, that which exists really, infallibly, eternally, quite independently of our prayer, that is the perfect petition. We cannot prevent ourselves from desiring; we are made of desire; but the desire that nails us down to what is imaginary, temporal, selfish, can, if we make it pass wholly into this petition, become a lever to tear us from the imaginary into the real and from time into eternity, to lift us right out of the prison of self.

“Thy Kingdom Come.”

This concerns something to be achieved, something not yet here. The Kingdom of God means the complete filling of the entire soul of intelligent creatures with the Holy

Spirit. The Spirit bloweth where he listeth? We can only invite him. We must not even try to invite him in a definite and special way to visit us or anyone else in particular, or even everybody in general; we must just invite him purely and simply, so that our thought of him is an invitation, a longing cry.

“Thy will be done.”

We are only absolutely, infallibly certain of the will of God concerning the past. Everything that has happened, whatever it may be, is in accordance with the will of the almighty Father. That is implied by the notion of almighty power. The future also, whatever it may contain, once it has come about, will have come about in conformity with the will of God. We can neither add to nor take from this conformity. In this clause, therefore, after an upsurging of our desire toward the possible, we are once again asking for that which is. Here, however, we are not concerned with an eternal reality such as the holiness of the Word, but with what happens in the time order. Nevertheless we are asking for the infallible and eternal conformity of everything in time with the will of God. After having, in our first petition, torn our desire away from time in order to fix it upon eternity, thereby transforming it, we return to this desire which has itself become in some measure eternal, in order to apply it once more to time. Whereupon our desire pierces through time to find eternity behind it. That is what comes about when we know how to make every accomplished fact, whatever it may be, an object of desire. We have here quite a different thing from resignation. Even the word acceptance is too weak. We have to desire that everything that has happened should have happened, and nothing else. We have to do so, not because what has happened is good in our eyes, but because God has permitted it, and because the obedience of the course of events to God is in itself an absolute good.

“On earth as it is in heaven.”

… We have to cast aside all other desires for the sake of our desire for eternal life, but we should desire eternal life itself with renunciation. We must not even become attached to detachment. Attachment to salvation is even more dangerous than the others.

“Give us this day our daily bread -“

— the bread which is supernatural. Christ is our bread. We can only ask to have him now. Actually he is always there at the door of our souls, wanting to enter in, though he does not force our consent. If we agree to his entry, he enters; directly we cease to want him, he is gone. We cannot bind our will today for tomorrow; we cannot make a pact with him that tomorrow he will be within us, even in spite of ourselves. Our consent to his presence is the same as his presence. Consent is an act; it can only be actual, that is to say in the present. We have not been given a will that can be applied to the future…

We should ask for this food. At the moment of asking, and by the very fact that we ask for it, we know that God will give it to us.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors”

At the moment of saying these words we must have already remitted everything that is owing to us. This not only includes reparation for any wrongs we think we have suffered, but also gratitude for the good we think we have done, and it applies in a quite general way to all we expect from people and things, to all we consider as our due and without which we should feel ourselves to have been frustrated. All these are the rights that we think the past has given us over the future. That is the claim we have to renounce.

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

After having contemplated the name, the kingdom, and the will of God, after having received the supernatural bread and having been purified from evil, the soul is ready for that true humility which crowns all virtues.”

Selectively excerpted from ‘Waiting for God’ by Simone Weil, translated by Emma Craufurd (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)

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