قُلِ ادْعُوا اللَّهَ أَوِ ادْعُوا الرَّحْمَٰنَ ۖ أَيًّا مَا تَدْعُوا فَلَهُ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ
Qul-id‘ullāha aw-id‘ur-rahmāna, ayyam-mā tad‘ū falahul-asmāul-husnā
Say: Call upon Allah or call upon, the Beneficent Allah; whichever you call upon, He has the best names
(Sūratul Isrā, No.17, Āyat 110)
Almighty Allah cannot be described or understood by names that are limited in what they convey. However human beings need names to refer to the essence of Allah. Hence the beautiful names of Allah which are essentially descriptions that help us understand the qualities of Allah. Just like everything else about the Essence of the Creator, the creature has a limited understanding. That is why the Holy Prophet (s) has said: We do not know You the way You deserve to be known’.
The names and attributes of Allah refer to the Being who is worshipped. It is not the names that are worshipped. Imam al-Sādiq (a) in a conversation with Hishām bin Hakam says:
There are ninety-nine Attributes of Allah. Had each Attribute been the same as it describes, each one of them would have been a god by itself. But ‘Allah’ is the meaning one deducts once he becomes familiar with all these Attributes. They all, O Hishām, in their collective sense, are not the same as He Himself. Bread is something you eat. Water is something you drink. A garment is something you put on. And fire is something that burns. [But these are just names for what you eat, drink, or protect yourself from].
To know and understand these names serves two functions;
– understanding the qualities of the God we worship.
– taking on the qualities of Allah and manifesting them in ourselves. The Holy Prophet (s) has said: Take on the moral characteristics of Allah (Sharh Usūl al-Kāfī, 1:227). That is what answers our supplications and helps us enter Heaven, not just the verbal repetition of the names.
The name Rahman is one of the beautiful names of Allah used 157 times in the Holy Quran. It is derived from the root letters R.H.M (ر ح م) and signifies Ism Mubāligha, a name that shows the doer of that verb with intensity. Rahmān signifies intense and extensive mercy which covers the entire creation in all aspects of life. The mercy of Allah is different from the mercy of human beings. It is the flowing of grace and giving which comes from concern and attention to the needs of creation. It is complete, comprehensive, and general. It has been translated as ‘The Infinitely Good’ or even ‘The Loving’. The name Rahmān signifies mercy for all of creation while Rahīm is mercy for the believers. Imam al-Sāadiq (a) says; Allah is the god of all things, Rahmān to all of His creatures, Rahim to the believers (Ma‘āni al-Akhbār, Shaykh Sadūq, p. 21)
It is important to note that Rahmān applies only to Almighty Allah and the name cannot be used as a quality for others. Rahīm on the other hand has been used for others, for example for the Holy Prophet (s) where Allah says about him: to the Believers he is most compassionate, merciful (Q 9:128) Rahmān always comes with the definite particle ‘al’ while Rahīm also comes without being definite.
Rahmān was a name for God before Islam. People in some parts of Arabia worshipped al-Rahmān as the Creator, and also had other gods they worshipped. The people of Makkah did not like to use the name Rahmān for their Creator. The Holy Quran has alluded to this in various verses, using the name al-Rahmān interchangeably with the word Allah. The above verse explains that it is a name refers to the essence of Allah, so it does not matter if you call Allah by it.
Let this verse remind us of the vast mercy of Allah that encompasses all beings. Rahmān is the name He has chosen for Himself exclusively, repeating it many times so we understand the purpose of creation and turn to Him. Why then do we still turn away?
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūne; Yasin al-Jibouri, Allah