A key [miftâh] is an instrument for opening [fath]. Keys are able to open a locked door. An opening can be considered as an unveiling: “There’s a key, an opening, and something opened”, says shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî. “When the opened thing is opened, that which has been veiled by it becomes manifest. So the key is your preparedness [isti’dâd] for learning and receiving knowledge, the opening is the teaching, and the opened thing is the door at which you come to a halt”.
“If you don’t halt and you travel on, you’ll see with every step what you had not been seeing, and you’ll come to know what you didn’t know, and God’s bounty to you is ever magnificent [Qur’ân 4:113], for preparedness is not earned. On the contrary, it is a Divine gift”.
“Once preparedness is gained from God, the key is gained. There remains the opening, so that teaching may occur. Thus He says: The All-Merciful, He taught the Qur’ân, He created the human being, He taught them the clarification [Qur’ân 55:1-4].
The teaching is identical with the opening”.
The Fâtihah is the Opening of the Qur’ân and is an obligatory part of the ritual prayer. Mawlânâ Rûmî says:
In the movements of the ritual prayer,
Your image, oh King,
Is as necessary and obligatory for me
As the seven verses of the Fâtihah.
An Andalusian woman, called Nûnah Fâtimah, once stated: “I was given the Fâtihah and I can wield its power in any matter I wish”.
Shaykh al-Qâshânî has this to say about the opening lines of the Fâtihah:
[1:1] In the Name of God: the name of a thing is that by which it can be known. The Names of God, exalted be He, are the [arche]typal forms (ṣuwar nawʿiyya) whose specificities and ipseities (hûwiyya) indicate the attributes of God and His essence, and [which indicate] by their very existence His countenance, and by their individuation His oneness. For, these are the outward manifestations through which He can be known; Allâh is a name for the divine essence qua essence absolutely, without taking into consideration that it may be qualified by the attributes or indeed taking into consideration that it may not be [so] qualified; the Compassionate, is the one who causes existence and perfection to flow upon all [things] in the measure that [divine] wisdom requires and to the capacity of the receiving entities (qawâbil) from the outset [of their creation]; the Merciful: (al-Raḥîm) is the one who bestows the spiritual perfection (kamâl maʿnawî) that has been earmarked for the human species in the end [sc. in the Hereafter].
It is for this reason that they say O [You Who are the] Compassionate One of this world and of the Hereafter (yâ raḥmân al-dunyâ wa’l-âkhira), but [say] O Merciful One of the Hereafter (raḥîm al-âkhira): the meaning then is, in the perfect human all-encompassing form, general and specific mercy, which is the locus of manifestation of the divine essence and the greatest truth with the totality of attributes, I commence and I recite. It [Allâh] is the Greatest Name [of God].
Al-Fâtihah – the Opening Sura of the Qur’ân – has a triliteral root fâ tâ ḥâ (ف ت ح). Words connected herewith have these meanings: To open, begin, explain, grant, disclose, let out, give victory, conquer, judge, decide.
This triliteral root fâ tâ ḥâ (ف ت ح) occurs 38 times in the Quran, in eight derived forms:
- sixteen times as the form I verb fataḥa (فَتَحَ) – He opened, disclosed.
- once as the form II verb tufattaḥu (تُفَتَّحُ) – Will be opened.
- three times as the form X verb is’taftaḥu (ٱسْتَفْتَحُ) – To demand an opening, victory, beg for help, demand an explanation.
- once as the noun fattâḥ (فَتَّاح) – [One of the Most Beautiful Divine Names] The Opener; the One who doesn’t stop to open, to inaugurate, to conquer, being victorious,
- Twelve times as the noun fatḥ (فَتْح) – Opening; conquest; victory, inauguration, beginning, judgment, decision.
- three times as the noun mafâtiḥ (مَفَاتِح) – Keys, hoarded wealth, treasures.
- once as the active participle fâtiḥîn (فَٰتِحِين) – Deciders, openers, conquerors.
- once as the form II passive participle mufattaḥat (مُّفَتَّحَة) – Opened ones.
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî mentions the technical Sufi term futûh in his al-Istilâh as-Sûfiyyah and gives these meanings: Opening, access to experience. The opening of clear explanation [‘ibârah] in the outer world, the opening of sweetness [hilâwah] in the inner world, and the opening of Divine disclosure [mukâshafah].
The word futûh [plural of fath] is with this Andalusian shaykh a near synonym for several other Sufi experiences, like unveiling, tasting, witnessing, Divine effusion, Divine Self-disclosure and insight. All these terms point to a mode of gaining direct knowledge of God and of the unseen worlds. God ‘opens up’ the heart to the infusion of knowledge. Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî states in “The Openings Received in Mecca”:
“Eventually God will open up his heart the understanding of what He has sent down upon His Messenger and Prophet, Muhammad [s.a.w.], through disclosing Himself to him in his inward dimension [bâtin]”.
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî writes that there are three kinds of openings to be experienced:
- An opening expressing itself in the outward world.
- An opening up of sweetness in your insides.
- A disclosure by al-Haqq [The True; the Reality].
A detailed description of these three categories can be found in chapter 216 of his “The Openings Received in Mecca”.
He makes it clear that futûh can be a torment. Don’t be happy when it comes:
“The intelligent person will not be gladdened when it comes, until you see what is being opened up to you. A person was saying when he was dying: ‘This is a door I was knocking on for so and so many years! It is certainly being opened for me, but I don’t know why’.” That’s why it is advisable to repeat over and over: My Rabb, increase me in knowledge!”
Shaykh Abû Madyan used to say about people who talked about openings: “Give us fresh meat to eat. Don’t feed us your jerky! Don’t transmit to us any openings except what opened up to you in your heart; don’t transmit to us the futûh of others.” Doing this otherwise would only remove the energy and enthusiasm of his disciples, as they were seeking to take directly from God.
The remark about fresh meat was given to his disciples directing themselves to him. It concerned the interaction between disciple and shaykh. The following is important in other situations:
“Report on nothing but what comes from someone truthful, and from a matter which actually occurred which you have verified for yourself, without adding a single letter or trying to adjust or correct a single thing on your part”.
‘Abd al-‘Azîz has an experience of fath (illumination, inner opening) three days after the death of Sîdî ‘Umar. Michel Chodkiewicz, aka shaykh ‘Alî, who died in 2020, has called the description of this fath ‘one of the most extraordinary documents known about this subject’:
It so happened that the wife of ‘Abd al-‘Azîz asked him to buy some oil. ‘Abd al-‘Azîz had to buy it near the Sufi shrine where he had met Khidr. At that place his body started to tremble vehemently. This state intensified and it became so difficult to bear that he thought that he was going to die.
‘Abd al-‘Azîz has given this description:
“My body started to expand until it became larger than large.. Things unveiled themselves to me and showed themselves to me as if they were present in my hands. I saw all the cities, villages and all hamlets – I saw all that can be found on earth. I saw the Christian woman giving milk to the baby in her lap, I saw all the oceans, the seven earths and all they contained as for animals and other creatures. I saw heaven as if I was above it and I was thus able to see what was in it”.
“Then an intense light, which looked like lightning, appeared from every side, from above me, below me, to my right and to my left, in front of me and behind me – and the cold was so intense that I thought that I had died. I quickly tried to cover my face in order to avoid seeing this light, but when I became taller I noticed that all of my body had turned into an eye: my eyes could see, my head could see, my foot and all my bodily members could see. When I saw my clothes I found out that they did not veil the capacity to see which was to be found in every part of my body. I then understood that it was useless to hide my face as it did not change anything”.
This state was rather difficult to bear and hard to understand for ‘Abd al-‘Azîz. He started to cry. He, however, received help from some people. One of them stayed some time in the company of ‘Abd al-‘Azîz in order to protect him.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz continued his description of his fath (illumination, inner opening) thus:
“That state continued for about an hour and then stopped. I regained the first state that I originally had and returned to town. I was incapable of reaching a certain area near a Sufi shrine in Fez and was afraid for myself and was busy weeping. That state returned to me for an hour and then stopped again. It began to come upon me for an hour and then vanish for another hour until it was living intimately with me. It began to be absent only for an hour in the day and an hour in the night, until finally it became continuous”.
Shaykh al-Jurjâni defines al-futûh – الفتوح [= the unforeseen opening] thus: “It’s getting something you didn’t expect”.
Saadî Shakûr Chishtî has given this comment on the Divine name al-Fattâh [The Opener الفتاح]:
“Traditional translations of this quality include ‘opener of truth’ and ‘judge’. The root shows us the mouth or face of something opening [FT] to give and receive breath [-AH]. Probably one of the oldest sacred sounds in the Middle East, Fattah carries resonances at least back to the name of the ancient Egyptian god Ptah, who created the universe through space. Old Hebrew also contains a form of the same word. In addition, the Gospel of Mark, even in the Greek version, records Jesus using the Aramaic equivalent in healing a deaf man: eth-phatah – ‘Be opened!”
“God says”, according to shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî, “The giving of your Lord is not closed [Qur’ân 17:20]. In other words, it can never be withheld. God is saying that He gives constantly, while the loci receive in the measure of their preparedness [isti’dâd]. In the same way we say that the sun spreads its rays over the existent things. It is not miserly with its light toward anything. The loci receive the light in the measure of their preparedness. […] The sun blackens the face of the washerman, while it whitens the clothing. The sun whitens the clothing because of the clothing’s preparedness”.
“The same thing takes place regarding the Divine self-disclosure. The Self-discloser, in respect of what He is in Himself, is One in Entity, while the self-disclosures, I mean their forms, are diverse in accordance with the diversity of the preparedness of the loci of self-disclosure. The property of the Divine gifts is the same. […] It is possible that a person has the preparedness to ask, but he doesn’t have the preparedness to receive what he asks for”.
“He who has no knowledge imagines that travelling to this door [of the descent of spiritual knowledge] is the cause by which was earned that was gained when opening took place. Were this the case, those who experience the opening would all be equal. Hence this takes place only through preparedness, which is not earned!”
Shaykh Ibn al-‘Arâbî told his disciple Ibn Sawdakîn: “I went into retreat before dawn and I received an illuminating opening [fath] before the sun rose. […]”. There are many travellers on the Path who have never received such an experience. Hazrat Bâyazîd Bastâmî calls those who still persist in their travel along the Sufi path and never have received an opening, the sultans of the ‘arifîn – the kings of the illuminated ones. May we receive the key [miftâh] to bring about an illumination [fath] if that is good for us!
The journey is a journey without an end. All of us have heard the command: “Come back!” so we are travellers. The Prophet hinted at a possibility of an opening at the moment of death, because before dying we are said to be asleep and we get ‘awake’ at death. And know: After death, the journey still goes on.