Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Raheem. I really wanted to go through Ibn Kathir's Tafsir (I have the ten volume, english abridged version), and it is recommended to start sequencially as he does make references to explainations provided in previous Surahs. So in sha Allah we will start with Surah Al-Fatiha.
The Meaning of Al-Fatiha and its Various Names
Al-Fatiha means the Opener of the Book, and is the Surah we recite in the beginning of all our prayers. It is also known as Umm Al-Kitab, The Mother of the Book which is referenced in a Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH). Fatiha is also caled Al-Hamd, Al-Ruqyah (the remedy), Ash-Shifa (the cure), and Al-Salah. One of the most beautiful aspects of this Surah is that it really is like a dialogue between Allah and the Believer, as demonstrated in this Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH):
"The prayer (i.e., Al-Fatiha) is divided into two halves between Me and My servants.' When the servant says, 'All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of existence,' Allah says, 'My servant has praised Me.' (Tirmidhi).
Surah Al-Fatiha is a Makki Surah (simply meaning it was revealed in Makkah rather than Madinah - which is really important regarding the type of content it pertains to, addressing early Muslims versus the Muslims that had completed Hijrah).
How many Ayat does Al-Fatiha contain?
Seven. According to majority of reciters, Companions, and scholars, Bismillah is a separate Ayah in it's own right.
The Number of Words and Letters in Al-Fatiha
Twenty-five words and one hundred and thirteen letters.
The Reason it is called Umm Al-Kitab
According the the Tafsir of Al-Bukhari, it is called as such since the Quran begins with it and prayer is commenced by reciting it. It is also said that it is called so because it the meanings of the entire Quran are contained in it.
Ibn Jarir explains in a more linguistic matter, that Arabs call "every comprehensive matter that contains several specific areas as Umm." The examples he gives of this matter are Umm Ar-Ras (the skin that surrounds the brain) or Umm Al-Qura (another name of Makkah - the Mother of the Villages, as it was basically the New York City of surrounding villages :), and the opinion that the earth was made starting from Makkah).
Virtues of Al-Fatiha
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal relates an incident in his Musnad that Abu Sa'id bun Al-Mu'allah and the Prophet (PBUH) have an interaction where the Prophet (PBUH) mentions Surah Fatiha as "the greatest Surah in the Qur'an".
The uniqueness of the Surah is also mentioned in an interaction between the Prophet (PBUH) and Ubayy (recorded by Imam Ahmad, related by Abu Hurayrah), where this point is emphasized when the Prophet (PBUH) says, "By Him in Whose Hand is my soul! Allah has never revealed in the Tawrah, the Injil, the Zabur or the Furqan a Surah like it. It is the seven repeated verses that I was given".
There are many similar narrations regarding how immensely virtuous this Surah is, and is the basis of the deductions that scholars have made as evidence that some Ayaat and Surahs are more virtuous (relatively) than others.
Al-Fatiha and the Prayer
Muslim recorded that Abu Hurayrah said that the Prophet (PBUH) said,
"Whoever performs an prayer in which he did not read Umm Al-Qur'an, then his prayer is incomplete." He said it three times, and this highlights the fact that recitation of Fatiha is obligatory.
When behind the Imam, we are to recite it to yourself as the Hadith of the Prophet (PBUH) as related by Abu Hurayrah indicates the rest of the dialogue that occurs when Fatiha is recited.
When we say All praise and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of existence
Allah says My servant has praised me
In response to The Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Allah says My servant has glorified Me
When we recognize The Owner of the Day of Recompense
Allah says My servant has glorified me
When we proclaim You (alone) we worship, and You (alone) we ask for help
Allah says This is between Me and My servant, and My servant shall acquire what he sought
When we say Guide us to the straight path. The way of those on whom You have granted Your grace, not (the way) of those who earned Your anger, nor of those who went astray.
Allah says This is for My servant, and My servant shall acquire what he asked for.
These are in the words of An-Nasai, while Muslim and An-Nasai collected the phrase "A half of it is for Me and a half for My servant, and My servant shall acquire what he asked"
In sha Allah I will continue the tafsir tomorrow, feel free to add comments or corrections :).