The reciters have two different ways of reciting this word, both of which have been reported via continuous (mutawatir) transmission from the Prophet, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, as well as Abu Bakr and Umar. (at-Tirmidhi)
Reciting it as Malik, or the King
The meaning of the verse would be that on that Day, kingship would belong to Allah Alone and not to any of the creation who before then used to be kings on earth, vying with each other for power and dominion exulting in what they had, pompously boasting about their grandeur and trying their best to outdo their competitors. However on that Day they will come to know with certainty that in reality they are powerless, helpless and vulnerable and that grandeur, power and authority belongs, in its entirety, to Allah Alone. Allah, Exalted is he says, “That Day when they will all come out, nothing of them will be hidden from Allah. Whose is the kingdom this day? It belongs to Allah, the One, the Irresistible!” (Ghafir 40:16)
Reciting it as Mālik, or the Owner
The meaning of the verse would be that on that Day, everything would belong to Him and no one else. No one will be able to voice an opinion or enforce a ruling as they used to do in this world. “That Day on which the Spirit and the Angels will stand forth in rows, none shall speak except he whom the All-Merciful allows and he will speak only that which is correct and true.” (an-Naba’a 78:38) “…All voices will be humbled before the All-Merciful and nothing shall you hear but the low sound of their footsteps.” (Ta Ha 20:108) “They cannot intercede except for one with whom He is pleased.” (al-Anbiya 21:28)
Both recitations, of course, carry sound and good meanings. However it is possible to argue, as at-Tabari does, that the first reading has the most comprehensive meaning as it is not possible to have sovereignty and kingship without possession, whereas there can be ownership without kingship. Similarly, it is the the king who will enjoin laws upon the owner as to how he should regulate his possession. However ash-Shawkani and ibn Atiyyah argue that both descriptions carry a meaning that is not found in the other. The mālik of property is able to dispose of his property as he wills whereas the malik will only be able to dispose of the mālik’s property in a limited fashion. The malik is able to command the mālik to dispose of his property in a particular way that promoted the benefit of his kingdom, but the mālik is not able to command another mālik with the same. (at-Tabari, vol 1, p95-96)
Allah also says, “His will be the kingdom on the Day that the trumpet is blown.” (al-Anam 6:73) If it is asked: why did Allah specify his kingship or ownership to the Last Day when it is known that these questions always have and always will apply to Him? The answer lies in the fact that on that Day the completeness and perfection of His kingship justice and wisdom just as it will become entirely clear that the sovereignty of the creation has been severed to the extent that the kings, ministers, slaves and freeborn will all stand on par with each other; all of them yielding to His greatness, rendered in complete submission to His magnificence, expectant of His recompense, hoping for His reward and fearing His punishment. His kingship has been emphasised by mentioning it in this context, otherwise he indeed is master of the Day of Judgement and all other days. (al-Baydawi, vol 1, p59)
It is important to note that there is no true Owner besides Allah, “To Allah belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth; He creates what He wills.” (ash-Shura 42:49) “…To Him belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. Then to Him you will be returned.” (az-Zumar 39:44) “Blessed is He in whose hand is the Kingdom! He has power over all things.” (al-Mulk 67:1) “The kingdom of the heavens and the earth belongs to Him. He gives life and causes to die, and He has power over all things.” (al-Hadid 57:2)
Allah adduced the absence of ownership of those worshipped besides Him as proof that they did not deserve worship, “…and worship, instead of Allah, things that have no control over their provision from the heavens or earth in any away, and are themselves completely impotent.” (an-Nahl 16:73) “Say: Do you worship, besides Allah, something which has no power to harm or help you when Allah is All-hearing, the All-Knowing?” (al-Maidah 5:76) “Say: call on those you make claims for besides Allah. They have no power over even the smallest particle either in the heavens or in the earth. They have no share in them and He has no need of their support.” (Saba 34:22) “That is Allah, your Lord. The Kingdom is His. Those you call on besides Him have no power over even the smallest speck.” (Fatir 35:13)
There is also no true King besides Allah, and therefore there is none who deserves absolute obedience save Allah, and this obedience comes before obedience to any other.
As for describing someone as malik or mālik then this is permissible for one who fulfils the requirements of the description, by way of metaphor. (al-Qurtubi, vol 1, p99) In this sense is His saying, “Indeed Allah’s sent you Saul as a king.” (al-Baqarah 2:247) “Moses said to his people: O my people! Remember the favour of Allah upon you when He appointed amongst you prophets and made you kings.” (al-Maidah 5:20)
Yet, we should beware of letting our ownership fool us into vain-glory and boosting as was the case of Pharaoh, “Pharaoh called to his people saying, ‘My people, does the kingdom of Egypt not belong to me? Do not all these rivers flow under my control? Do you not see? Am I not better than this man who is contemptible? Am I not better than this man who is contemptible and can scarcely make anything clear?” (az-Zukhruf 43:51-52) “But then he rallied and called out, saying, ‘I am your Lord Most High!” (an-Naziat 79:23-24) and Allah made him an example in history of His punishment of such people, “In this way he swayed his people and they succumbed to him; they were a deviant people. Then when they provoked Our wrath, We took revenge on them and drowned every one of them. We made them a thing of the past and an example for later people.” (az-Zukhruf 43:54-56)…
Al-Qurtubi and ash-Shawkani both stated that with respect to Allah, Malik points to an Attribute of the Essence whereas Mālik points to an Attribute of Action.
The Spiritual Cure: An Explanation of Surah Al-Fatihah prepared and translated by Abu Rumaysah Pages 97-105