By Samuel Gonzalez
In Islam, the study of the Divine Names (Asma al-Husna, or the Most Beautiful Names) is of infinite importance. For it is by knowing these names of Allah that we come to know His Attributes and Virtues. These names are a series of complex adjectives, majestic titles, and phrases of power that come to define Allah.
Two things should be noted, then. Firstly, that although the study of these names will give us a better understanding of the identity of Allah, they will never penetrate His essence. Nor are they the only attributes that describe Him, for Allah is beyond the grasp of human intellect/imagination. Second, the goal is not rote memorization but integration of the names in such a way that they become a key part of one’s lifestyle.
The two most-oft invoked names in the Qur’an (and indeed, in the entire corpus of Islamic literature) are ar-Rahman and ar-Raheem. The Noble Qur’an opens up its first surah, al-Fatiha, with Bismillah, ar-Rahman ar-Raheem —
In the Name of Allah, the Merciful Benefactor, Beneficent Redeemer.
These names are usually paired (as are other particular Names of Allah), given their similar meaning and root. Further, these two names are identified exclusively with Allah, both together and separately.
But what do they mean? This short article will dive into the etymological origins of these names, their usage in the Qur’an, and how they were used in the life of pre-Islamic and Islamic Arabia.
While both names share the same trilateral root, r-h-m, their nuances and implications from a grammatical point-of-view are quite distinct. The root r-h-m means to have mercy or compassion for someone. Its derivative words always have some connection to this meaning.
The Arabic word rahim actually refers to the womb of a woman as the amount of love and care a mother has for her child is unfathomable. The love of Allah, or ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, is also unfathomable and the care He has for cultivating the world is incalculable. In fact, the very concept and experience of motherly love is a sign, or reflection, of the love and mercy Allah has towards the Creation.
The name ar-Rahman is meant to denote a vast, abundant, infinite, ever-flowing stream of mercy that extends towards all of Creation. This first name is meant to encapsulate the general revelation of Allah towards all of humanity — the lush vermilion of the plants and trees, the pleasures of a simple home-life, the breath of life that fills our lungs, the rain which nourishes the earth – these are the ayat of which the Qur’an speaks. Their existence and perception in the human mind are extensions of the divine name ar-Rahman.
The name ar-Raheem is meant to evoke a more particularized mercy. Hence, this name is translated as ‘Beneficent Redeemer.’
Ar-Rahman is the Creator which helps all of Creation and sustains it constantly; ar-Raheem refers to the act of redeeming Creation after its fall from grace.
Ar-Raheem is the name which gives humanity the saving knowledge of al-Islam, which forgives a soul after it has sinned, which gives a living being a second chance at life after failing.
One name has a universal meaning, and the other one is a specific mercy aimed at the Believers.
When these names are combined, the pairing means to say that Allah’s mercy is vast and penetrates every square-inch of the Creation through multifarious ways.
Usage in the Qur’an
In the Noble Qur’an, the name ar-Rahim (114) is mentioned exactly twice as many times as the name ar-Rahman (57). The primary teaching being that the power of Allah is balanced with twice as much mercy, which is why these names have been given so much importance in the Islamic literature.
The trilateral root elaborated upon in the previous section appears 339 times in the Qur’an. It appears in several different forms (i.e. al-arhaam, rahmatan, marhamat, ruh’m), all of which have connotations dealing with mercy and gentleness. With the exception of surat at-Tawbah, every surah in the Noble Qur’an opens up with this invocation. (Depending on which school of thought you follow and how they count the verses, each bismillah may or may not count as an ayah.)
As stated in the previous section, the opening chapter of the Qur’an establishes that the two names in question refer specifically to Allah. The Qur’an utilizes both names together and separately, oftentimes interchanging the two names. When they are used together, their usage declares the ultimate authority and power of God, revealing to humanity His primary attributes.
In Surah Maryam, the name ar-Rahman appears most frequently (16 times). In this surah, Maryam seeks refuge in ar-Rahman, and in the same surah, Abraham declares to his father, a wicked polytheist: “I fear that the Wrath of the Merciful Benefactor may strike you and you may end up as one of Satan’s companions.” Both refer to the power of God, but there is also the implication that a merciful deity would not wish any soul to be a companion of Satan.
In another passage, addressing the Christians who transmogrified Jesus into a god, Allah corrects the disbelievers and heretics, reminding the Creation that the mountains, the heavens, and the earth, all make sajdah to Allah, ar-Rahman (19:85-96). The emphasis here is obviously on the power, authority, and sovereignty of Allah – but also wrapped up in the Arabic meaning is the universal mercy of sustaining life, breath, sustenance, and joy is extended towards all inhabitants of the earth, regardless of religious affiliation.
Usage in the Life of Muhammad (PBUH)
There was an episode in the life of the Honorable Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in which the name ar-Rahman was not recognized by the confederates with whom he was going to create a treaty (The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah). While the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) and the Muslims were on their way to Mecca to perform a pilgrimage, they were met with resistance by the Quraysh and forced to take the rugged, mountainous route. Eventually, official messengers were sent from Quraysh while the Muslims camped out on the mountainside, and conversations surrounding the establishment of a peaceful settlement commenced under the leadership of a Meccan man called Suhayl ibn ‘Amr.
When the Prophet (PBUH) asked his scribe to invoke Allah at the top of the page with the names Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, Suhayl objected, claiming that he did not recognize the deity known as ar-Rahman ar-Raheem, suggesting instead Bismik Allah (“In the Name of Your God). This issue arose because the name ar-Rahman represented something very specific and exclusive to Suhayl, namely, this all-powerful deity was not compatible with the polytheistic worldview of the Meccans at the time. To sign the treaty in the name of this deity would be to confess the legitimacy of Islamic Monotheism. The Muslims agreed to the terms established by Suhayl, the treaty was signed, and the affair ensured that the following year they would enter Mecca peacefully, and in time would result in Muslims becoming stronger and more respected throughout Arabia.
“Say, ‘Call upon Allāh or call upon the Most Merciful [ar-Raḥmān], but whichever name you call – to Him belong The Most Beautiful Names.’” [The Noble Qur’an 17:110]
The lesson in this episode in the life of the Prophet (PBUH) ought to set an example for those who believe. Firstly, that we ought to recognize the versatility in using the names of Allah – the Christians call Him ‘Abba,’ or ‘Lord,’ the Jews refer to Him as ‘Adonai’ or ‘YHWH,’ and the Muslims know Him as ‘Allah,’ or ‘ar-Rahman’ – but to insist in using one name over another could cause divisions among religions, more confusion, and misunderstandings (it should go without saying that the divine names ought to be scrutinized before accepting them, i.e. it is a sin to call Allah ‘Jesus,’ or ‘the Universe,’ because both are created things, however majestic they may be).
Second, respecting the names of Allah means respecting various sacred symbols. While Muhammad did not sign the treaty in the name of some pagan god, he found common ground with the Meccan party and respected the sacred social relations involved in signing the treaty. In this case, the sacred symbol was somewhat secularized, but nowadays, this might mean inquiring as to the symbol or refraining from disrespecting it. In fact, the Qur’an condemns disrespecting other religions:
“Do not abuse those whom they worship besides Allah.” [The Noble Qur’an 6:109]
Finally, this interaction between the Muslims and Meccans gives an example of the Quranic injunction to respect all living things, regardless of religious affiliation, age, gender, vocation, and nationality. As the famous ayah goes: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Furthermore, the Qur’an provides us with specific instructions on how to engage the People of the Book in the event of a disagreement (29:46 suggests using good words and good manners in debate), and the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) insisted on the just and equal treatment of non-Muslim minorities, “lest I complain against you on Judgement Day.” [Abu Dawud Book 20, Hadith 125, No. 3052]
“Verily we have honored the Children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked graciousness.” [The Noble Qur’an 17:70]
Usage in Pre-Islamic Arabia
The primary sources for understanding pre-Islamic Arabia have come from inscriptions which number into the hundreds of thousands. While inscriptions can tell us a great deal of the ancient world, they are usually incomplete fragments which only cover a limited range of topics.
Prior to roughly the year 375 A.D., there were no mentions of a deity by the name ar-Rahman or ar-Raheem, however, it was around this time that the Arabian Peninsula saw a rise in monotheistic thinking, mostly from Jewish and Christian sects that entered into the desert and slowly began to replace the tribal pantheons of Southern Arabian religions.
Perhaps even before the rise of monotheism, the traditional South Arabian religions had already become weak and less attractive, opening the door for Judaism to flourish, which it did, but mostly trickling down from the upper classes. It is around this time that Jewish inscriptions containing the name Rahmanan began to appear. From the reading of the Jewish Sabaean inscriptions it is clear that Rahmanan is called “The Merciful,” “Lord of the Jews,” “Master of Heaven,” and the “Praiseworthy One.” The people beseeched this deity to give them a life of justice, grant them and their children mercy from the harsh desert climate, and to consider them among the faithful. However, the degree to which this deity is connected to the Jewish YHWH varies on the inscription.
Given the inscriptions, their historical context, and linguistic roots, it appears that the name Rahmanan is directly equivalent to ar-Rahman ar-Raheem. In many of these inscriptions, Allah is expressed in multifarious ways, indicating that His complex nature cannot be restrained by a single name. Furthermore, this also indicates that, even before the rise of Islam, Allah was revealing Himself to the general public as a merciful creator who wants to know, be compassionate towards, and cultivate humanity with proper guidance.
The main meanings behind both of the divine names in question are mercy and sovereignty — the merciful character of the Sovereign Lord of Creation. This is supported by both the linguistic developments behind these Arabic attributes as well as the appearance of the names in the Qur’an.
Furthermore, the way the name developed over centuries in certain Jewish and Christian inscriptions and the way it was used during the time of the Prophet (PBUH) shows us the importance of tolerance in religious differences, a significant teaching in both the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Muhammad (PBUH) — that whatever names we use to refer to Allah, to Him belong the most beautiful attributes.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Abu Dawud Book 20, Hadith 125, No. 3052
Gouvermeur A., Azzam, L.. “The Treaty of Hudaybiyyah.” The Life of the Prophet Muhammad. Published by Islamic Texts Society. Cambridge, U.K.. 1999.
Leaman, Oliver. “Ar-Rahman.” The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Published by Routledge. New York City, NY. 2007.
Wahid Abu Abdul. “The Difference Between ar-Rahman ar-Raheem.” Published November 21, 2019.