In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth
(You may want to read Al-Faatihah — The Opening of the Qur’an before reading this.)
(In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful)
This is the beginning of the Qur’an.
“bi-” is a particle which attaches to the following word. (The “i” is pronounced as in “bit”.) It can be translated as “with” or “in” or “by” or “for” or “to”, depending on the context.
“-ism” is a noun which begins with the “joining-hamzah“, a glottal stop which is not pronounced when preceded by another word or particle. Therefore, “bi-” “-ism” becomes “bism“.
“-ism” is usually translated as “name”. “Name” is an inadequate and misleading translation. In the English language, a name is a label we attach to something. An -ism is inherent in everything that exists. For example, the object we have named “sun” has had that name only as long as English-speaking people have given it that name. But that object has had asmaa’ (the plural of -ism) from the moment of its creation.
(The “s” in “-ism“, “bism“, and “asmaa’” is always pronounced like the “s” in “this”. The glottal stop is the sound we make at the beginning of “it” and other words that, in English, are said to begin with a vowel. In Arabic, the glottal stop — called “hamzah” — is considered a consonant.)
“Allah” is form of address used to refer to the one who has always existed and who created the entire vastness of the physical cosmos and the vast higher non-physical realities beyond (the earth and the heavens, in the language of the King James Bible). This is the form of address used by all Muslims, by all Arabic-speaking Christians, by all non-Zionist Arabic-speaking Jews (who have lived in peace with their Muslim neighbors for 14 centuries), and in the ancient biblical scriptures. (In addition, Allah has at least hundreds, if not thousands, of names in the many diverse languages of the world. In English, Allah is commonly referred to and addressed as “God”.)
There is a unique peculiarity in the pronunciation of the name “Allah”. Normally, the middle “a” (which should be drawn out — “aa”) is pronounced almost like the “a” in “saw”. But when the first syllable becomes “i”, then the middle “aa” is pronounced like the “a” in “hat” (but should still be drawn out, as if we were saying “haat”).
The word “allaah” (there are no upper- or lower-cases in the Arabic writing system) also begins with the “joining-hamzah“. Therefore, “bi-” “-ism” “allaah” becomes “bismillaah“.
Arabic nouns have case endings. As the subject of a sentence, or the doer of a verb, the ending is “-u” (as in “put”). As the object of a verb, the ending is “-a” (as in “hat”). When preceded by certain particles, or in the possessive case, the ending is “-i” (as in “bit”). (Arabic has only those three vowels.) Therefore, “-ismi” is the case that follows “bi-“. And because “allaah” begins with the joining-hamzah, the first syllable becomes “-il” instead of “al” — the “-i-” being the case-ending of “-ismi“.
Whereas, in English, words are normally (in formal speech) separate from each other, like bricks, in Arabic words normally flow into each other organically.
The grammatical from of “-ismillaah” is a construct-formation, a common feature of the Arabic language. In English, we say “the name of Allah”. In Arabic, no word corresponding to “of” is necessary.
The translation “in the name of Allah” is misleading and inadequate. The expression “bismillaah” might better be rendered as “with the quality of Allah”. The primary quality of Allah is compassion — the compassion of abundant giving without asking anything in return (ar-Rahmaan), and the compassion of abundant mercy (ar-Raheem).