ONE night the Prophet (PBUH) was praying and supplicating in his house in Makkah with the words, “Ya Allah! Ya Rehman!” Abu Jahal, his unbelieving neighbour, was overjoyed on hearing this.
He ran to his friends and said that Muhammad (PBUH), who was preaching the worship of the One God, was himself calling out to two Gods: Allah and Rehman.
After this the verses in Surah Bani Israel were revealed: “Say, ‘Call out to Allah or call out to Al Rehman, whichever name you call Him by, His are the most Beautiful Names.”(17:110). According to a hadith, Allah has 99 al asma’ al husna or, ‘the most beautiful names’, which represent His attributes (Tirmizi).
Allah, a combination of ‘Al’, meaning ‘the’ and ‘ilah’, meaning ‘deity’, is the personal, proper name of the One God. This name combines in it all the qualities of His attributes.
‘Al Rehman’, meaning ‘the Most Merciful’ is one of the most frequently used of His names. ‘Al Raheem’ means ‘the Ever Merciful’. It has the same root as ‘Al Rehman’: ‘rahama’, meaning the womb — the seat of all love and mercy. These names also seem to be God’s favourite names since they are used in the formula, ‘bismillah hir Rehman nir Raheem’, which is recited before doing anything from starting to read the Quran to eating food to going on a journey. Besides, there is the Hadith Qudsi in which God says, ‘rahmati sabaqat ghadabi’, meaning, “My mercy precedes My wrath.”
When God decided to create Adam, He said to the angels: “I am going to appoint a vicegerent on earth.” They replied: “Are You going to appoint one who will destroy the peace and shed blood, although we glorify You, singing your praises and sanctifying You?” He replied, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know!” Then God gave Adam the knowledge of the names of everything and asked the angels about the names of all the things.
The angels said, “Glory be to You. We have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, You are the Aleem (All-Knowing), the Hakim (All-Wise).” Then He said, “Adam, give them the knowledge of the names.” When Adam had informed them about the names, God said, “Did I not tell you that I am well aware of the secrets of the heavens and the earth?”
The question arises as to what is meant by ‘the names’ which were taught to Adam. One explanation is that the names signify knowledge. Human beings have been given the capacity to acquire knowledge and to discover the secrets of the universe.
Another explanation is that they are ‘the 99 beautiful names of God’. His qualities permeate the universe and all creation. To understand the universe, one has to acquire knowledge of His attributes.
Imam Ghazali writes in his treatise on the beautiful names, Al Maqsad al Asna fi Sharh asma’Allah al Husna, that everyone understands the meaning of these names, at many different levels, according to one’s capacity. Among God’s creatures, the two extremes are occupied by the angels and the animals: the angels are not subject to passion and anger, while the perception and action of the animals is limited to these. Human beings are in between the two and, even though their nature has a tendency to predominate, they desire to use their free will to creatively combine the two and thus seek perfection.
It is said that there are innumerable names and that every individual can add to the list by virtue of his own experience of and with God. It is also said that every name is a key to some of the treasures of God. There is a rich tradition of reciting these names one by one or in special combinations for various purposes, according to their spiritual effect. For example, ‘Ya Salam’, meaning the ‘Flawless’ or the ‘Peaceful’ is often recited collectively when someone is ill or in trouble.
One can attempt to take one’s share of the attributes of God, according to one’s capacity. If a person wants his share from the name ‘Al Rehman’, the ‘Most Merciful’, he should start practising this attribute by becoming more merciful towards other creatures. On the other hand, if he practises its remembrance and keeps reciting Ya Rehman, he will find that God will start becoming more merciful towards him. So he will end up becoming merciful and at the same time will enjoy the mercy of God.
This creates a link between this attribute and the human soul, which develops under its influence. The desire to move closer to God, Who is perfect and is the Truth, also increases. Some of Allah’s names are also granted to the Prophet in the Quran (9:128), such as ‘Aziz’, (‘Eminent’ or ‘Mighty’), ‘Rauf’, (‘Affectionate’), ‘Hadi’ (Guide), and ‘Raheem’, (‘Merciful’), since his was the being closest to God in the history of creation.
According to the Sufis, the truth of God’s Essence, or ‘zaat’, cannot be mastered. But one can try to acquire one’s share of His attributes and achieve closeness, first to the angels and then to God, by reciting and practising them.
Those who progress to great heights can reach the stage when they become masjud-i-malaik, or those to whom even the angels have to prostrate before, as in the case of Adam. Since ultimate perfection is limited to the One and Only God and other things can be perfect only in relation to Him, the quest for acquiring and benefiting from some of the attributes of God is a quest for the path to perfection.
The writer is a scholar of the Quran, and writes on contemporary issues.