Bismillah at the start of a letter

Translated by:

Abstract: One should write بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم when writing a letter. This is sunnah without doubt when writing to a Muslim or any person who will likely handle the letter with respect. If unsure how it will be treated, it is still worth writing. However, If the letter is likely to be disrespected, the ulama are differed; some say it should still be written whilst others say it should be said but not included. In any case, shortened form or 786 does not fulfill the sunnah - Saif.

[Shaykh al-Hadith Mufti Umar Faruq Lawharwi (damat barakatuhum) writes,]

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Writing Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim at the beginning of a letter is an etiquette from the etiquettes of letter writing. In the noble Quran, there is a mention of a letter by Hadrat Sulayman (peace be upon him) to the Queen of Sheba; her name is said to be Bilqis bint Sharahil. He wrote it to call her to Islam. In that letter, Bismillahir Rahmani Rahim is mentioned. The people of knowledge have deduced from this that Bismillah should be at the beginning of the letter.

It is reported in Sirat Halbiyyah1,

The Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) at first used to have ‘Bismika Allahumma2 written on his correspondences. This in line with the pre-Islamic Arabian custom who used to start their letters with these words. There is a view that the Prophet in four of his proclamations (letters) had these words written. These words were first written by Umayyah b. Salt. The point being, afterwards this ayat was revealed,
و قال اركبوا فيها بسم الله مجرها و مرساها
After the revelation of this ayat, the Prophet had bismillah written in his writings.  Some time later, this ayat was revealed,
قل ادعوا الله أو ادعوا الرحمن
After the revelation of this ayat, the Prophet started having ‘Bismillahir Rahman’ written. Then this ayat was revealed,
أنه من سليمان و أنه بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
After the revelation of this ayat, the Prophet started having ‘Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim’ written.

و في تفسير البغوي (ص 39 ج 1): قال الشعبي - كان رسول الله صلي الله عليه وسلم يكتب في بدء الأمر علي رسم قريش باسمك اللهم حتي نزل، (وقال اركبوا فيها بسم الله مجرها) فكتب بسم الله حتي نزلت (قل ادعوا الله أو ادعوا الرحمن) فكتب بسم الله الرحمن حتي نزلت (أنه من سليمان و أنه بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم) فكتب مثلها.

Hadith Hiraql, in Sahih Bukhari, outlines the letter of the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) to emperor Heraclius calling him to Islam. That letter started with Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. Allamah Nawawi et al3 (may Allah have mercy upon them) write, ‘We can deduce that to start a letter with Bismillahir Rahmani Rahim is mustahab even if the recipient is a disbeliever.’

قال الإمام النووي منها إستحباب تصدير الكتاب ببسم الله الرحمن الرحيم و إن كان المبعوث إليه كافرا هـ. كذا في  الفتح و العمدة

Hadrat Mufti Taqi Usmani4 (may Allah Almighty raise his rank) commenting on Hadith Hiraql states,

We understand from [this hadith], it is sunnah to write Bismillah at the beginning of a letter. It is not omitted when the letter is being written to a disbeliever or a transgressor. This is even though there is a possibility that the letter will be disrespected as was done by the wretched Chosroes. Despite this, the Prophet (peace be upon him) did not stop writing Bismillahir Rahmani Rahim. We understand that whomsoever is written a letter, be they a disbeliever or transgressor, Bismillahir Rahmani Rahim should be written.

The letter of Hadrat Sulayman (peace be upon him) which is mentioned in noble Quran, he sent it to the Queen of Sheba at a time when she was not yet a Muslim. This is even though it had Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim written. Similarly, the Prophet (peace be upon him) sent letters, like the one to Heraclius, to other kings and foreign leaders. In all of them Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim was written.5 Moreover, according to one group of ulama, in addition to Bismillah, there were also some Quranic ayahs included despite [the recipients] not being Muslim. This suggests it is permissible. The grand mufti of Pakistan, Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani6 (may Allah Almighty have mercy upon him) explains the cause,

In fact, the reason is that although the Quran cannot be given in the hands of a kafir, any book or paper which contains an ayat subordinate to a subject is commonly not classed as the Quran. The ruling of [that paper] is not that of the Quran either. It can be given in the hand of a kafir or one without wudu. (cf. Alamgir, Kitab al-Hazr wa al-Ibahat).

Omitting Bismillah

Some ulama are of the opinion regarding the writing of Bismillah that one should not write Bismillah if there is a possibility of it being disrespected.  The grand Mufti of India, Hadrat Mufti Mahmud Hasan Sahib Gangohi7 (may Allah Almighty have mercy upon him) said,

If in any place, there is a possibility where it will not be shown its proper due respect, one should be cautious (in writing Bismillah on a letter).

The reason mentioned for not writing Bismillah in the case where there is a possibility of disrespect is that even though Bismillah is sunnah, the sunnah is not fulfilled only through writing rather it is also fulfilled if one utters by mouth. Hadrat Mufti Muhammad Shafi8 (may Allah Almighty have mercy upon him) writes,

The actual sunnah is that Bismillah is written at the beginning of every letter. However, the fuqaha via indications and references of the Quran and Hadith have stated a general maxim. Wherever the name of Bismillah or the name Allah Almighty is written, if there is no consistency in maintaining respect rather it is thrown after reading, in such papers or items, it is not permitted to write Bismillah or name of Allah Almighty. This is so that they do not become a party to the sin of that disrespect. Nowadays, commonly the letters that are written to each other, everyone knows their state which is often seen in drainage and rubbish. Hence, it seems appropriate that to fulfill the sunnah one should utter Bismillah but it should not be written.

كتب الشيخ الموصوف رحمه الله تعالي في أحكام القران للتهانوي (ص 33-34 ج 3) يجوز دفع كتاب فيه شيء من آيات القران إلي مشرك بخلاف المصحف، فإنه لا يجوز دفعه إليه بعد ما اغتسل و لم يخف منه سوء الأدب كما في كتاب الحظر و الإباحة من العالمكيرية و غيرها. و ذلك لأن الأية في الكتاب تبع لمضمونه لا يقصد منه تلاوة القران أو كتابته

Writing 786

Many people in their general letters and writings, write the numbers 786 instead of Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. Some assume that this is a custom started by non-Muslims to deprive the Muslims of the sunnah and reward of writing bismillah. However, the view of the ulama with a deeper insight is that it is not the mischief of the non-Muslims rather it is the [numeral] count of Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. As letters are usually ripped and thrown which is disrespect of Bismillah, to avoid this impertinence, it is likely Muslims started writing 786 instead of Bismillah.

Hadrat Mufti Nizam al-Din Sahib A’zami9 (may Allah have mercy upon him) whilst mentioning the permissibility of writing 786 instead of Bismillah writes,

The numbers 786 is indicative of Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. It is wajib to show respect and save the noble ayat from contempt. Letters and other general writings are generally dropped all over the place. So, if the ayahs are written, it being in a state of disrepute or even on filth is clear. Hence, if someone to save the ayahs from falling into a state of disrepute writes 786 in place of the ayat, in keeping with al-amir bi maqasidiha (an accepted maxim), it will certainly be permissible.

However, the Muhaqqiq ulama hold that the reality is that 786 is not equivalent to Bismillah. These number may represent another sentence [combination]. Hence, writing 786 is insufficient and will not fulfil the sunnah of writing Bismillah.

Shortening Bismillah

Some people assume that writing Bismillah would lead to it being disrespected. So, they write Bismihi Subhanahu or Bismihi Ta’ala etcetera instead of the Basmalah. Regarding this matter, Hadrat Mufti Taqi Usmani10 (may Allah Almighty raise his ranks) states,

Some people with the worry that the letter should not be disrespected write Bismihi Subhanahu. If the leader of the two worlds, [the Prophet] (peace be upon him), did not do this, why should we? Respect and etiquettes are required to the limit set by the Shariah. Beyond this, it is not required. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) himself wrote Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim despite knowing that it going to the hands of a disbeliever. This naturally draws the conclusion we should start [a letter] with Bismillah. May Allah forbid, if another shows it disrespect, it is upon that person’s head.
I mention this warning because the custom of writing amongst us is diminishing. I get a lot of letters from friends, students, and others. Perhaps only one out of hundred might write Bismillahir Rahman Rahim. The remaining ninety-nine, write 786 or do not write at all.

The pre-eminent jurist of his time, Mufti Rashid Ahmad Sahib Luhdhyanwi11 (may Allah Almighty have mercy upon) writes whilst answering a query,

It is not permissible to write Bismillahir Rahamanir Rahim in newspapers or on adverts. It is permissible in official correspondences (of an Islamic Government) rather it is recommended. The sin will be upon the person who shows disrespect. In the place of Bismillah, writing other words such as (Bismihi Subhanahu wa Ta’ala, Bismihi Ta’ala) or 786 is contrary to the practice of the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) and the established practice of the ummah. During the treaty of Hudaybiyyah, the Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him) commanded that Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim be written. The polytheists objected and said, ‘Write what you used to write; Bismika Allahumma.’12 We understand from this that Islam has fixed a specific manner to write Bismillah. One will not gain the reward of Bismillah if words other than this is used. The sunnah will not be fulfilled. Allah Almighty knows best.

Guidance for correspondence would be given to those who wrote to him for spiritual rectification. Number one was the following guidance13,

Write the full Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim at the beginning of your writing. The numbers 786 do not fulfil the sunnah of Bismillah. Similarly, Bismihi Ta’ala and other such words are against that which is reported.

See Hadrat [Mufti Rashid Ahmad Ludhyanwi’s]14 strict adherence to fulfilling the sunnah of writing Bismillah,

Whilst printing pads for legal reasons, some dear people gave the advice to have Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim printed on top. Hadrat (may Allah have mercy upon him) stated that it is not appropriate for two reasons. (1) Whether the sunnah of starting with Bismillah like this would be done or not? There is doubt. (2) My heart will not allow that I rely on print rather than writing Bismillahir Rahmin Rahim by hand. The lover15 without any need, merely to settle the heart, enjoys writing the name of the beloved. The Muslims of today even in need, finds it hard to write the name of the master.

Respecting Bismillah

The point being, there is a need to start the trend of writing Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim instead of 786 or Bismihi Ta’ala. People should be made aware that Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim is an ayat of the Quran. One should be considerate of its respect. It is stated in Marasil Abi Dawud,

Hadrat Umar b. Abd al-Aziz (may Allah Almighty have mercy upon him) narrates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) went past a letter which was on the floor. He asked those around him, ‘What is this?’ They answered, ‘Bismillah’.  He responded, ‘May Allah Almighty curse the one who did this. Keep the name of Allah in its proper place.'

عن عمر بن عبد العزيز أن النبي صلي الله عليه وسلم مرّ علي كتاب في الأرض فقال لفتي معه، ما هذا؟ قال: بسم الله. قال لعن الله من فعل هذا. لا تعضوا اسم الله إلا في موضعه.

Khatib Baghdadi16 narrates via a marfu’ hadith from Anas (may Allah Almighty be pleased with him),

Whoever picks up a paper out of respect or to preserve it from destruction, that person to Allah Almighty will be counted amongst the siddiqin.

من رفع قرطاسا من الأرض فيها بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم أجلالا له أن يدرس كتب عند الله من الصديقين

The ulama should take lead in promoting the writing of Bismillah. They consistently write it in their letters.

Allah knows best.

Mufti Umar Faruq Lawharwi

Khat Ke Shuru' Me Bismillah Likna
In Fiqhi Jawahir. 1429. v. 4 p. 68-77
Kosamba, India; Jamia Abu Hurayrah.

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Muhammad Saifur Rahman Nawhami (Translator)
7 Rabi I 1438
7 December 2016

  • 1. Sirat Halbiyyah p. 140 v. 2 and p. 82 v. 5
  • 2. بسمك اللهم
  • 3. Muslim ma’ Sharhihi li-Nawawi p. 98 v. 2; Fath al-Bari v. 67 v. 8; Umdat al-Qari p. 99 v. 1
  • 4. Dars Bukhari pp. 248-249 v. 1
  • 5. Zad al-Ma’ad pp. 573-580 v. 3 - ذكر هديه صلي الله علي و سلم في مكاتبته إلي الملوك و غيرهم
  • 6. Ma’arif al-Quran p. 579 v. 6
  • 7. Fatawa Mahmudiyyah p 412 v. 14
  • 8. Ma’arif al-Quran p. 579 v. 6
  • 9. Fatawa Nizamiyyah pp. 395-396 v. 1; p. 473 v. 1
  • 10. Dars Bukhari p. 249 v. 1
  • 11. Ahsan al-Fatawa p. 24 v. 8
  • 12. أكتب ما كنت تكتب باسمك اللهم
  • 13. Anwar al-Rashid p. 83 v. 3
  • 14. Anwar Rashid pp. 586-87 v.1
  • 15. The original text Majnun and Layla which was changed to the lover and beloved respectively - Saif
  • 16. Ahkam al-Qantarah fi Ahkam al-Basmalah p. 5
Cite: 

Lawharwi, Mft. Umar Faruq. (2016). Bismillah at the start of a letter. (Nawhami, Muhammad Saifur Rahman, Trans.). Islamic Studies Bulletin (DIBAJ), Issue 5. Available at http://uloom.com/dibaj/article/161207501

Status: 
In review