A young Muslim holds a subha as he recites the beautiful names of God. (photo: Kazuyoshi Nomachi/Corbis)
Sufi mystics, known as Mevleviye or whirling dervishes, recall God in prayer through dance. (photo: David Sutherland/Alamy)
Most Christians are unaware of the rich prayer life of Muslims beyond the call to prayer invoked daily throughout the Muslim world. One of the oldest and most common Muslim devotions is the recital of and meditation on the 99 beautiful names of God. Aided by the subha, a rosary-type string of 99 beads, Muslims have worshiped God using the names since the time of the prophet Muhammad.
For faithful Muslims, the names are connected with the practice called dhikr, or remembrance. The Quran calls believers to “please God and call your Lord to mind when you forget” (surah 18, verse 24) and “remember God often!” (33:41).
The Sufis, an Islamic school of mystics, deeply valued this spiritual remembrance of God, developing it into a mystical discipline aimed at opening oneself to contact with the divine.
With respect to content and expression, the names also reveal something of the nature of God to the believer who recites them.
The beautiful names are generally numbered according to the order in which believers recite them. It needs to be noted, however, that some Islamic scholars disagree as to whether God should be considered the first name. Is God so exceptional as to stand outside and above the list?
In this essay, God is considered the first of the names.
The vast majority of the beautiful names appear in the Quran in the exact form in which believers recite them. And most are found in 59:22-24, which lists 14 of the 99 names: the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the King/Sovereign, the Most Holy, Peace, the Giver of Security, the Mighty One, the Irresistible, the Supreme One, the Creator, the Beginner of All, the One who Bestows Form, the Mighty and the Wise.
Some of the names appear more than once in the Quran. For a handful, only the name’s Arabic root appears.
Still others do not appear in the Quran, but originate in Islamic tradition. Some of these names are paired with their opposites. For instance, the One who Withholds immediately precedes the Giver of Plenty; the One who Humbles comes just before the One who Exalts; and the One who Honors is paired with the One who Brings Low.
Similarly, the One who Resurrects from the Dead originates in tradition. Though clearly a characteristic of God in Islam, it is not found in that literal form in the Quran.
Further down the list of names, the Punisher and the Benefactor originate in tradition and are further examples of juxtaposed opposites.
Some of the names appearing in the Quran are similarly composed of opposites. For example, the One who Brings Near precedes the One who Sends Away, the First is paired with the Last and the One who is Manifest is recited just before the One who is Hidden.
Scholars generally recognize the use of opposites as typical of Islamic theology. The Encyclopedia of Islam, for instance, states that, according to the Islamic belief in the otherness and sovereignty of God, evil and good, affliction and favor, harm and benefit derive only from God.
The Hebrew Bible shares a similar use of opposites to describe God. In Job, when his wife rebukes him, Job answers, “We accept good things from God and should we not accept evil?”
Reference to praying and meditating on the names can be found in the Quran, 7:179, which states: “To God belong the most beautiful names. Call upon Him using them.” The names are also mentioned in 17:110 and 20:8.
Every observant Muslim recites the opening chapter of the Quran, the Fatiha, several times each day. It is the most common form of prayer and is often compared to the Lord’s Prayer for Christians. It begins, “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Merciful,” and uses the first three of the names and hints at two more, the Sovereign and the One who Leads on the Right Path.
The Quran is not an easy book to read. For this reason, Muslim scholars have developed a highly sophisticated process of exegesis called tafsir. Early Quranic scholars (mufassir) both learned from and contributed to the exegetical methods used by the Christians and Jews living among them. Mufassir placed great importance on grammar, lexicography and what was called the “occasion of revelation,” which refers to the circumstances in which Muhammad received the particular section of the Quran being studied. The latter is very similar to the notion of Sitz im Leben (setting in life) in biblical exegesis.
Mufassir also applied their skills to the names of God, often with incredible subtlety, developing attributes with which to categorize the names.
While some of these qualities of the divine are self-evident, others need some explanation. Two such attributes are active and negative characteristics of God. Names, for instance, such as the Giver and the Kind One, describe God’s active quality. Whereas Most Holy and the Righteous describe God’s negative characteristics in the sense that they underscore what distinguishes the divine from the nondivine. For example, holiness, as it appears in the Bible, would be considered a negative attribute in that it is separate and distinct from the profane.
Some names, however, display more than one attribute, making exegesis at times quite complicated.
The name Peace, for example, has several attributes: possessor of a flawless peace (negative); giver of peace and salvation at the beginning of creation and at the time of the resurrection (active); and the One who will pronounce the benediction of peace over his creatures (attribute of speech).
All 99 names originated in the language of Muhammad, Arabic. The vast majority of Arabic words are built off roots composed of three consonant letters. By changing vowels, doubling the root letters and adding prefixes, for example, Arabic is able to produce an extremely rich and complex vocabulary.
Words derived from the same root can have many meanings, which are often quite different and seemingly unrelated. Thus, the root qbl can generate words with meanings as diverse as to accept, to agree, to yield, to confront, to kiss, to draw near, to begin, the future, the direction in which one prays and radio receiver. This suppleness makes it extraordinarily difficult to translate Arabic words.
Often a word’s context alone determines which meaning is appropriate. Likewise, the presence of a particular root in a word will evoke subtle connotations that often only Arabic speakers understand.
Thus, the names rahman and rahim are built off the same root, rhm, “to have mercy.” These names are often translated as the Merciful, the Compassionate. However, the Muslim thinker al Ghazzali (died A.D. 1111) maintained that rahman differs from rahim in that the former can be applied only to God. Several other sets of names are built on the same root with different sets of meanings.
The names al wahid and al ahad are both derived from the Arabic root hd, which means “to be one.” Al Ghazzali characterized al ahad as God’s oneness in essence, unity and simplicity of being and al wahid as the “one and only” God. Other commentators see the two as synonymous.
While many of the beautiful names of God require little explanation to the non-Muslim, others may demand it. For instance, the Supreme One is often translated the Haughty One because everything is profane vis-á-vis the Divine Nature. God is also the Thankful One or Grateful One because he rewards people far beyond what their good deeds deserve. He is the Responsive One or the Answerer because he answers the prayers of those who call upon him. And as the Benign or Pious One, God calls forth piety from believers.
One of the seemingly most unusual of the names is the Repentant One, or more precisely the Acceptor of Repentance. The Hebrew Bible also characterizes God as “repenting” (Hebrew, nhm).
According to Exodus 32:14, “The Lord repented of the evil which he had planned to do to his people.”
Therefore, in both the Bible and the Quran, repentance — human and divine — has the notion of turning away, changing one’s mind or returning to a right relationship. The Repentant One refers to how God immediately “turns” to those who turn to him in repentance and faith. In this sense, it is similar to the beautiful name the Most Forgiving, whose Arabic root ‘fw means “to rub out” or “erase,” specifically the faults and sins of those who repent.
Other names also refer to God’s forgiveness. The Forgiver (gaffer) and the One who Conceals Faults (gafur) share the common Arabic root gfr. Whereas some commentators interpret these two names as synonymous, al Ghazzali saw differences. He interpreted gaffar as above all else the one who pardons sins — a characteristic incidentally he also attributed to Jesus, though clearly in a derivative, nondivine sense. On the other hand, he interpreted gafur as referring to the absolute characteristic of God’s readiness to forgive.
The practice of reciting names or simple verses while praying or meditating is not unique to Islam. It can be found in most of the world’s great religious traditions.
For centuries, Eastern Christians have recited the Jesus Prayer in an effort to center themselves in order to contact the Divine. Latin (Roman) Catholics recite the rosary to meditate on the mysteries of salvation. Japanese Pure Land Buddhists engage in the analogous practice of nembutsu, which involves the repetitive, attentive chanting of the title of the Buddha. Even some forms of yoga require adherents to repeat a mantra as an aid to concentration and meditation.
In Islam, God is utterly transcendent and other. In a sense, the believer gains access to the absolute otherness and sovereignty of the Divine through the beautiful names. Muslims always make it clear that God is beyond all characterization and all human categories. Nonetheless, the beautiful names of God provide the believer with an entrance into the ineffable and infinite mystery of the Godhead.
The purpose of reciting the beautiful names is not merely to count them off, but to give the believer access to the mystery of the Divine — an event that transforms the believer and cannot be articulated in human language.
A Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon has a licentiate in theology in Old Testament studies and a doctorate in Near Eastern languages.