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Immanuel Kant

What is the connection between Immanuel Kant and the Basmala?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant is one of the most important representatives of the Enlightenment. To date, it is unclear why the “Basmala” was written on the invitation to the ceremonial awarding of his doctorate. Let’s see what happened.

In 1755, Immanuel Kant received an academic title which we would today call a Dr. phil (PhD) from the University of Königsberg in Prussia. The Islamic Basmala (بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ – bismi ʾllāhi ʾr-raḥmāni ʾr-raḥīmi) was written on the invitation to the ceremonial awarding of Immanuel Kant’s doctorate. The Basmala is usually translated as: In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In this article, we will analyze the origin and application of the Basmala and look at some speculations about the Basmala on Immanuel Kant’s thesis.

Who was Immanuel Kant?

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) was a German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers. His idea of a categorical imperative is often cited: “Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”.

To put it simple, one cannot make exceptions for oneself if one claims to be moral.

The Basmala and Immanuel Kant – the document in question

Let’s first see what it is all about. In the following picture, on the very top, you will see the Basmala written in Arabic.

basmalah kant
source: wikimedia

This document was discovered by Abdoljavad Falaturi in 1985, who was working with the University of Cologne.

First of all, it is not a doctoral certificate, as has often been claimed. As the German scholar Prof. Hartmut Bobzin noted, it is “only” the invitation to the solemn award (gradum et insignia) of a doctorate in philosophy on June 12, 1755. This means that the text does not necessarily lose any of its official character, but it is not a certificate in the strict sense, but an academic poster.[1]Journal of Arabic Linguistics Journal of Arabic Linguistics; No. 25; 1993; pp. 108-131

Did Kant have a connection to Islam?

Most probably not.

Some researchers have suggested that all this goes back to another person: Johann Bernhard Hahn, who was a professor of oriental studies and also the dean back then. Since he had a connection to Arabic, it could have been Hahn who is responsible for putting the Basmala on the document.

Abdoljavad Falaturi, who discovered the document on Immanuel Kant, saw a larger context. He suggested that the Prussian accuracy and the “official character of such an academic and state document” speak against a coincidence. The scholar concluded that this had a deeper meaning:

The introduction to this document … evidently bears witness to the open-mindedness of the occidental spirit of the Enlightenment period, which freed itself from the barriers that hindered development, and whose bitter advocates included Friedrich der Große (Frederick the Great) named in the document, and in whose spirit the dean acted…

Abdoljavad Falaturi

The spirit of the Enlightenment is also characterized by the acceptance of foreign values, including Islamic ones.

Other scholars, however, don’t see a hidden, deeper meaning here.

They say that in documents of the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (approximately from the 3rd/4th century to the 18th century), it was not uncommon to invoke God on important documents, which is called invocatio.

In Latin, for example, one often reads in nomine Jesu (I.N.J.C.): in the name of Jesus. Charlemagne (Karl der Große) chose the form: In nomine patris et filii et spiritus sancti (In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) after the imperial coronatio at Christmas of the year 800.

Interestingly, speaking of foreign languages, Hebrew phrases were used probably the most after Latin, followed by Greek. Arabic was a rare guest. However, the formula بسم الله (in the name of God) was already found in a dissertation that appears in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1650.

The origin and meaning of the Basmala in Islam

Translation and meaning

The formula بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ is not so easy to translate since its last two words – رَحمان and رَحيم – are closely related in meaning. Let’s see how distinguished translators rendered it:

  • In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful (Abdul Haleem)
  • In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace (Muhammad Asad)
  • With the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Very-Merciful (Maarif ul-Quran)
  • In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful (Pickthall)
  • In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful (Saheeh International)

Reasons for the invocation of the Basmala

At the beginning of every important act, Muslims recite the Basmala. It is an invocation, to call down the divine blessing upon that act. In the acts of daily life of Muslims, they should pronounce the Basmala when the act is obligatory or praiseworthy – except for the daily prayer which begins with Allahu Akbar (الله أكبر).

At the time of the establishment of Islam, the Basmala invalidated the Arab customs to call upon their gods: “in the name of al-Laat” or “in the name of al-Uzza”.

Interestingly, the Meccans (before their conversion to Islam), protested against the reference to al-Rahman. Some scholars have suggested that rahman was in use prior to Islam in southern and central Arabia (al-Yamama) as a personal name of God, meaning the single and merciful God. The Meccans before Islam, however, had their own gods. Thus, at the treaty of Hudaybiya (628/6 AH), they succeeded and managed to get بِسْمِكَ اللَّهُمَّ (in your name, O my God).

So, if we assume that certain regions used the name rahman for a god, how does this fit into the concept of Islam, i.e., that there is only one God and that Islam abolished the practices of the Jahiliyya (‏جَاهِلِيَّة‎‎)?

Scholars assume that the Basmala conveys the meaning of: the One God who is Lord of the Mercies.

Why is the letter ا of اسم deleted in the Basmala?

If you add ب before the word اسم, the letter Aleph (i.e., the همزة الوصل) is deleted in the phrase باسم الله resulting in بسم الله. This spelling, as some sources indicate, may have already been mentioned (or perhaps fixed) by Caliph Umar, who is supposed to have said to his scribe:

“Lengthen the ب, make the teeth of the س prominent, and round off the م.”

Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab

Remark: Umar ibn al-Khattab (عمر بن الخطاب) was the second Muslim caliph (from 634). Under his command, Arab armies conquered Mesopotamia and Syria and started the conquest of Iran and Egypt.

The Basmala in the Qur’an

Suras that contain the Basmala

The Basmala occurs twice in the text of the Qur’an.

  • In Sura 27:30 (النمل – the ant) in its complete form. In this verse, it opens Solomon’s letter to the queen of Sheba:

إِنَّهُۥ مِن سُلَيْمَـٰنَ وَإِنَّهُۥ بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

It is from Solomon, and it says, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.”

  • In Sura 11:41 (Hud – هود), we find an abbreviated form:

قَالَ ٱرْكَبُوا۟ فِيهَا بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ مَجْر۪ىٰهَا وَمُرْسَىٰهَآ

He (Noah) said, ‘Board the Ark. In the name of God it shall sail and anchor.

The Basmala before every sura

The Basmala (in its complete form) begins each sura of the Qur’an – with one exception: Sura 9 (التوبة – The Repentance).

Why does Sura al-Tawba not begin with the Basmala?

This Medinan sura 9 got its title from verse 104.

The sura opens by giving notice of the severance of the treaty with the idolaters because they had broken it, but the bulk of the sura deals with preparations and recruitment for the expedition to Tabuk, which took place in the heat of the summer of 631 (9 AH). The hypocrites and those who stayed behind and did not support the Prophet are all rebuked.

Since we do not know the reason why the Basmala is not found at the beginning of Sura al-Tawba, it is all speculation.

Many scholars say that this is related to the sura before (الأنفال – spoils of war) and just a matter of arrangement. Muhammad Asad: “This undoubtedly deliberate omission is responsible for the view held by many Companions of the Prophet that At-Tawbah is in reality a continuation of al-Anfal, and that the two together constitute one single surah (Zamakhshari), notwithstanding the fact that an interval of about seven years separates the revelation of the one from that of the other.”

Others say that the reason why the Basmala should not be recited at the beginning of al-Tawbah is its historical background. Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (ابن حجر الهيثمي), an Islamic theologian of the 16th century, narrated that “it came with the sword” (إذْ الْمَعْنَى الْمُقْتَضِي لِتَرْكِ الْبَسْمَلَةِ أَوَّلَهَا , مِنْ كَوْنِهَا نَزَلَتْ بِالسَّيْفِ), i.e., the command to fight the hypocrites and unbelievers.

The Basmala in the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody

Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
Bismillah, no, we will not let you go (Let him go)
Bismillah, we will not let you go (Let him go)
Bismillah, we will not let you go (Let me go)
Will not let you go (Let me go)
Will not let you go, let me go
(Ah, ah, ah, ah)

It is not clear why Freddie Mercury, who wrote the song, inserted the Basmala. Freddie Mercury was certainly not a Muslim, but was born in 1946 in Zanzibar (Tansania), where most of the people believe in Islam. His Parsi-Indian parents practiced Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions, based on the teachings of Zoroaster.

YouTube video
Scene of the movie Bohemian Rhapsody when the producer asks about bismillah. Source: YouTube

Freddie attended English-style boarding schools in India from the age of eight and returned to Zanzibar after secondary school. In 1964, his family fled the Zanzibar Revolution, moving to Middlesex, England.

Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS.

References

References
1 Journal of Arabic Linguistics Journal of Arabic Linguistics; No. 25; 1993; pp. 108-131
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