Writing about the literary dimension of the Quran for an audience that may or may not have background in Arabic grammar and rhetoric can be rather challenging. I am going to attempt to navigate around technical lingo as much as possible. Building a basic familiarity with the subject is my goal, not presenting it in a sophisticated fashion.
The words Alhamdu Lillah are most commonly uttered from Muslim lips around the world. After the basmalah (the tag name used for Bismillahi Alrahmani Alraheemi)¸ it is the first statement mentioned in the opening surah, Al-Fatiha. One way to explore the beauty, precision, and thought-provoking eloquence of the Quran’s words is to explore the very choice of each word. Arabic is a rich language full of terms similar in meaning.
Hamd, commonly translated ‘praise,’ has sister terms like shukr, madh, and thanaa.
Comparing Madh’ Hamd and Thanaa’
Madh: Praise + Mention of noteworthy qualities and actions attributed to someone or something.
Hamd: Praise + Acknowledgement of noteworthy qualities and actions done out of genuine love, veneration, reverence, gratitude, and appreciation.
Madh can be made for the living as well as the non-living, for beings of intellect (humans, angels, and jinn) and animals.
Hamd is exclusively directed at the Living and Intellectual.
Madh is possible before a noble deed or after (as a result of it). It is therefore possible to make Madh of a person who may not have done anything good and no good deed may ever have been attributed towards him/her.
Hamd can only be made after a noble/ praiseworthy contribution of some sort.
Thanaa’ is a more eloquent, more impressive, more flattering than Madh.
Use of Hamd Instead of Madh or Thanaa’
We acknowledge Allah as Eternally living
We recognize His attributes and decisions as Hamd worthy
There is an element of sincerity in our praise of Him stemming from love and reverence
We not only praise His incredible being, attributes and works; we appreciate them as favors for which we are grateful
Shukr (thanks) is a consequence of whatever good comes to a person from someone else.
Hamd is a consequence of good whose effects go beyond an individual favor. Shukr is exclusively related with favors and does not include appreciation or praise of any noteworthy attributes. For instance, you do not thank someone for being smart or wise or athletic. Hamd is made because of favors and over noteworthy attributes even if they do not benefit one directly. For example, I say Alhamdu Lillah when I hear that my friend passed his midterms.
Madh is too wide in scope and using it would not be precise enough
Shukr is too narrow in scope and using it would not be comprehensive enough
Hamd as opposed to Shukr and Madh also implies a genuine motive
The Word Allah in Alhamdulillah
We looked briefly at the choices that would have represented alternatives to the word Hamd in the divinely revealed phrase Alhamdu Lillah. Let us now take a look at the word Allah itself. It is the unique name of our Lord. We learn through His revelation that He possesses and rightfully owns the best Names and Attributes. Why is it most appropriate to use His unique Name in this phrase rather than AlRahman (the exceedingly merciful), Al Khaaliq (the creator), etc.? Simply because any of these names might imply that His Hamd is associated with that particular power or attribute. By using the word Allah, Hamd is acknowledged for Him independent of any of His attributes or for all of them simultaneously!
A Variety of Ways to Make Hamd of Allah
Arabic offers great flexibility in communication. There are varying degrees of emphasis with which a statement can be made. There are multiple options that can be manipulated in sentence structure. Similar statements can be made such as:
“I praise Allah.”
“We praise Allah.”
All of the above are Jumal Fi’liyyah. This sentence structure necessarily implies the occurrence of an act bound by time. Alhamdu Lillah is Jumlah Ismiyyah, which, for one, is a far more emphatic form of declaration in Classical Arabic by comparison. Secondly, it implies continuity, stability, and permanence. Another unique feature of the Ismiyyah structure is that it communicates a decisive statement.
Jumlah Fi’liyyah exclusively attributes an act to a specific subject. In the suggested alternatives above, ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you all’ are the specific subjects, respectively. being a Jumlah Ismiyyah, does not identify the subject that makes it a universal declaration. I, we, you, they, people, animals, rocks, trees, rather all of creation can be understood as the subject! There is another beautiful subtlety here. Whether anyone or anything makes Hamd of Allah or not, is still for Allah!
The Jumlah Fi’liyyah renditions above are limited by time and applicability. The original statement is timeless and has universal applicability. Through the way in which the praise is made is kept unspecified while in the Fi’liyyah format, the praise would be by the tongue.
In Jumlah Fi’liyyah, there is the possibility of doing an act for an object that is not worthy of it. For instance, ‘I paid him’. It may be that ‘he’ did not deserve to get paid. In Jumlah Ismiyyah, the necessary implication that this praise is actually rightfully placed is naturally implied, ALHAMDULILLAH!
In saying we are also acknowledging that Hamd is the property of Allah while this is not implied in alternative fi’liyyah renditions. When using the command form ’Praise Allah’ instead of Alhamdulillah, there are a number of shortcomings. Firstly, there is the sense that this praise is being asked of the audience. By comparison, declares the existence of Hamd without dependence on an audience responding to an imperative. The imperative may also imply a response that may or may not be voluntary while Alhamdulillah is an observation of the voluntary praise done by all forms of creation.
Why the ‘Al’ in Alhamdu?
Alhamdu is definite or proper as I like to call it in my intro course. As Dr. Fadel puts it in his article, the Al serves the meaning,
The distinguished, universally acknowledged form of Hamd known among you belongs particularly to Allah. The ‘Al’ also serves the implication of ‘istighraq’, a kind of absolute totality (All Hamd is Allah’s). None of these enhancements would come forth in the indefinite version Hamdun.
Why Not Inna Alhamda Lillah?
Have you ever heard a khateeb say Innal Hamda Lillahi? The word Inna means ‘certainly’ and is used to emphasize a statement. What benefit would there be in not emphasizing Alhamdulillah in the Fatiha? You see, Arabic sentences are divided and categorized from different angles and perspectives. One of these angles is Jumlah Khabriyyah vs. Jumlah Insha ‘iyyah. What this categorization basically means is that statements in the language are either declarative (which can be judged as either true or false) or they are statements communicating an emotion. The latter are a form of subjective communications that do not necessarily communicate facts, but rather serve to vocalize feelings and sentiments. When a statement has Inna, it can only serve to be informative, and the emotional dimension of it is removed. By not stating the Inna, the phrase retains informative and emotional potential depending on the context. Think of it this way: If a bus whizzes by you missing you by half an inch, and you say ‘Alhamdulillah’, you are not really making a statement of fact, but rather vocalizing your internal feelings. The emotionally charged dimension of Alhamdulillah is kept intact by not using the INNA.
What About Lillahilhamdu?
In Hajj season, we say Allahu Akbar wa Lillahi Alhamdu! We reverse Alhamdu lillah with Lillahi Alhamdu. This is a form of Taqdeem in Arabic grammar and serves to color a sentence with a shade of exclusivity that ‘Hamd belongs only to Allah’. It is appropriate particularly on the occasion of Hajj because that blessed house was misused for Shirk, so in response, a strong denial of it is implied even when we say Lillahi Alhamdu. This Taqdeem also serves the function of Izaalat Alshak ‘removing doubt’. Why not say it this way in the Fatiha then? The context of the Fatiha is not one that demands the removal of doubt. Also, exclusivity exists in response to a challenge to the original statement. If somebody is attributing Hamd to Allah and other than Him, he or she should be taught that Hamd is only for Allah. The Fatiha is not a response in debate with those who falsely associate with Allah. But, we do find LillahilHamdu in the Quran. Interestingly, it appears in Al Surah Jathiah, verse 36.
The context, unlike Fatiha, is one where disbelievers credit life and death to other than Allah. Here, the exclusive, emphatic mode of declaration is more befitting, so we see Lillahilhamdu. The Fatiha declares certain universal truths that are completely in line with the embedded fitrah (natural pre-disposition) that you and I are born with. In our fitrah, there is no competition between belief and disbelief, tawheed and shirk, iman and kufr. Rather, our faith is an unchallenged manifest truth seeded deep within our conscience. In Fatiha, this truth is therefore uttered in a fashion (Alhamdulillah and not Lillahilhamdu ) that does not even indicate the existence of an alternate point of view because within our genuine conscience, there isn’t one.