The Magnificent Name Allah: What’s in a Name?

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One of the controversial points regarding Islam these days is the name Allah. People come to the idea of God with many different preconceptions, one of them being that a different name refers to a different God, which of course is true only of polytheism. But the name Allah reveals deeper meaning on closer examination than the word ”God.”

The word ”God” in English” is derived from a Germanic/ nordic pagan deity. It has been transformed over time to simply mean ”deity,” as a general and unspecific term using lower case ”g” or as a specifically monotheistic Creator/Supreme Power using the capitalized ”G.” Some believe the name of God to be so sacred we should not even pronounce or write it. They write the word God as ”G-d.” This is not because they worship a pagan Germanic God but because they believe this shows a higher level of reverence for the One God. But the Quran enjoins us to show reverence not by avoiding but by frequent mindful mention of His name or i could say names because to invoke Allah’s name frequently and mindfully, thikr Allah, is the greatest form of prayer (Quran 29:45). We are in fact invited to study His names, many of which express His attributes, to understand Who our Creator Is, guided by reverence and seeking to understand. And a closer look at the name Allah reveals much.

The Arabic name Allah refers to God, the God all people recognize intuitively as the Supreme Power, the Creator, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God “over heaven” mentioned in Chinese texts, the God recognized in India as Brahman, “typically described as absolute truth, consciousness, and bliss … as well as eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.“ What a perfect description of Allah the Exalted. Of course, the difference lies in what one makes of the name beyond its interpretation. In short, Allah is not the ”name of a different God as some ignorant people think, but the Creator Almighty All-Merciful universally recognized, but importantly non-anthropomorphic in any way whatsoever nor comparable to anything else.

What is the significance of the name Allah? Can we translate it into different languages since all names refer to the Supreme Power? And why would we even spend time analyzing a name? Since I am speaking of the “architecture” of the whole Qur’an, one may wonder how stopping to analyze the name Allah would contribute. But the whole Qur’an is from Allah, and shows us who He is and what is the nature of our relationship with Him. So it would seem to be a crucial starting point. And names, in the Qur’an, are important. Especially Allah’s names.

We are enjoined to invoke Allah’s name(s) frequently in the Qur’an:

Surat Al-Insan 76:25

And remember (mention) the name of your Lord morning and evening. (25)

سُوۡرَةُ ٱلدَّهۡر / الإنسَان
وَٱذۡكُرِ ٱسۡمَ رَبِّكَ بُكۡرَةً۬ وَأَصِيلاً۬ (٢٥)

Surat Al-Aala 87:1

Glorify the Name of your Lord, the Most High.(1)

سُوۡرَةُ الاٴعلی
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
سَبِّحِ ٱسۡمَ رَبِّكَ ٱلۡأَعۡلَى (١)

The word “ithkur” derived from “thikr” is variously translated. Its meaning has richer connotations than any English word, but it roughly means both “remember” and “mention,” which does not carry the emphatic sense of the Arabic. Yes, it means to say a name. “Remember,” on the other hand, is a purely mental activity, although it is Biblically used in a similar way to the Qur’anic “thikr.” But certainly the desired effect of “mentioning” Allah here is to call Him to mind with reverence. The second passage uses the verb “sabbahh” which means to glorify. Both verbs convey the way thikr Allah is a central part of worship. Note the passages do not simply say “remember/mention Allah,” but rather remember/mention the name of Allah. There are many such passages in the Qur’an.

The sanctity of Allah’s name is emphasized in the Qur’an, as well as His names’ authenticity. Here, as in many other ayat, the magnificence (husna often translated as “beautiful” or “best”) of His names is pointed out.

Surat Al-Araf 7:180

And to Allah belong the most magnificent names, so call upon Him by them; and turn away from those who violate the sanctity of His names. They will be requited for what they were doing.

سُوۡرَةُ الاٴعرَاف
وَلِلَّهِ ٱلۡأَسۡمَآءُ ٱلۡحُسۡنَىٰ فَٱدۡعُوهُ بِہَا‌ۖ وَذَرُواْ ٱلَّذِينَ يُلۡحِدُونَ فِىٓ أَسۡمَـٰٓٮِٕهِۦ‌ۚ سَيُجۡزَوۡنَ مَا كَانُواْ يَعۡمَلُونَ (١٨٠)

Allah’s name is also required to be invoked in the slaughter of animals for meat. It is prohibited to eat meat that has not had Allah’s name invoked at the time of slaughtering it. This use of a name is mostly unfamiliar in the non-Muslim world (except in the case of Jewish slaughter for kosher meat, which is acceptable for Muslims). There is no longer a common practice, as existed in earlier times, of invoking idols’ names on animals for slaughter in any way. Not do people in the West, for example, invoke any name before engaging in other activities such as going on a trip or even getting married, although quite a few still “say grace” in a sense of invocation before meals. The use of Allah’s name (in this case, specifically the name Allah) in many aspects of one’s life is central to Islam.

Surat Al-Anaam 6:118

So eat of (meats) on which Allah’s name has been pronounced, if you have faith in His Signs. (118)

سُوۡرَةُ الاٴنعَام
فَكُلُواْ مِمَّا ذُكِرَ ٱسۡمُ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيۡهِ إِن كُنتُم بِـَٔايَـٰتِهِۦ مُؤۡمِنِينَ (١١٨)

Surat Al-Ma’ida 5:3

Forbidden to you (for food) are: dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which has been invoked the name of other than Allah …

The names of Allah are frequently described in the Qur’an as being “sent down with authority.” Would it not make sense that such names, in the language in which they were “sent down,” would have some unusual significance or characteristics?

The names of idols or polytheistic gods worshipped by people, on the other hand, are pointed out in the Qur’an as being unlike Allah’s names. And the fact that those names are made up is emphasized. Clearly, Allah’s names, most of all the name Allah, are here distinguished as being not made up by humans but rather sent down by the Almighty with authority. Therefore invoking Allah’s name is an act of power, whereas invoking false names is a useless and ineffectual act. There is then something extraordinary about Allah’s names. In particular the name Allah, which we shall examine here, and the pair of names Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem, which we shall examine later.

Surat Yusuf 12:40

What you worship besides Him are nothing except names which you have invented, both you and your fathers, which Allah has not sent down with any authority. The judgment is for none except Allah. He has ordered that none be worshiped except He. That is the true religion, but most of the people do not know.

سُوۡرَةُ یُوسُف
مَا تَعۡبُدُونَ مِن دُونِهِۦۤ إِلَّآ أَسۡمَآءً۬ سَمَّيۡتُمُوهَآ أَنتُمۡ وَءَابَآؤُڪُم مَّآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ بِہَا مِن سُلۡطَـٰنٍ‌ۚ إِنِ ٱلۡحُكۡمُ إِلَّا لِلَّهِ‌ۚ أَمَرَ أَلَّا تَعۡبُدُوٓاْ إِلَّآ إِيَّاهُ‌ۚ ذَٲلِكَ ٱلدِّينُ ٱلۡقَيِّمُ وَلَـٰكِنَّ أَڪۡثَرَ ٱلنَّاسِ لَا يَعۡلَمُونَ (٤٠)

Surat Al-Araf 7:71

(Hûd) said: “Torment and wrath have already fallen on you from your Lord. Do you dispute with me over names which you have made up — you and your forefathers — not sent down with authority from Allâh? Then wait; I am with you among those who wait.” (71)

سُوۡرَةُ الاٴعرَاف
قَالَ قَدۡ وَقَعَ عَلَيۡڪُم مِّن رَّبِّكُمۡ رِجۡسٌ۬ وَغَضَبٌ‌ۖ أَتُجَـٰدِلُونَنِى فِىٓ أَسۡمَآءٍ۬ سَمَّيۡتُمُوهَآ أَنتُمۡ وَءَابَآؤُكُم مَّا نَزَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بِہَا مِن سُلۡطَـٰنٍ۬‌ۚ فَٱنتَظِرُوٓاْ إِنِّى مَعَڪُم مِّنَ ٱلۡمُنتَظِرِينَ (٧١)

Surat An-Najm 53:23

These are but names that you made up — you and your forefathers — which Allâh never sent down with authority. They only follow conjecture and their own desires, whereas there has surely come to them Guidance from their Lord! (23)

سُوۡرَةُ النّجْم
إِنۡ هِىَ إِلَّآ أَسۡمَآءٌ۬ سَمَّيۡتُمُوهَآ أَنتُمۡ وَءَابَآؤُكُم مَّآ أَنزَلَ ٱللَّهُ بِہَا مِن سُلۡطَـٰنٍ‌ۚ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا ٱلظَّنَّ وَمَا تَهۡوَى ٱلۡأَنفُسُ‌ۖ وَلَقَدۡ جَآءَهُم مِّن رَّبِّہِمُ ٱلۡهُدَىٰٓ (٢٣)

In fact, the glorification and remembrance of Allah’s name is so central a tenet of Islam that it is described as what is done in mosques, and the reason why destruction of a mosque is such a heinous crime. Of course, the word “masjid,” which is the Arabic word for mosque, means “place of prostration.” So it is a place of salat and prostration, and also a place in which to mention His name frequently with reverence.

Surat Al-Baqara 2:114<br /

And who are more unjust than those who forbid that Allâh’s Name be glorified and frequently called upon in Allâh’s mosques, and seek their destruction? They should not be able to enter them except in fear. For those there is humiliation in this world, and they will suffer great torment in the Hereafter. (114)

سُوۡرَةُ البَقَرَة
وَمَنۡ أَظۡلَمُ مِمَّن مَّنَعَ مَسَـٰجِدَ ٱللَّهِ أَن يُذۡكَرَ فِيہَا ٱسۡمُهُ ۥ وَسَعَىٰ فِى خَرَابِهَآ‌ۚ أُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ مَا كَانَ لَهُمۡ أَن يَدۡخُلُوهَآ إِلَّا خَآٮِٕفِينَ‌ۚ لَهُمۡ فِى ٱلدُّنۡيَا خِزۡىٌ۬ وَلَهُمۡ فِى ٱلۡأَخِرَةِ عَذَابٌ عَظِيمٌ۬ (١١٤)

Here also is pointed out that none can carry Allah’s names but He. They are his exclusively. And of all the names, the three names of the Bismallah are the most distinctive, being part of such an important invocation. Many names are the infinitive of a “regular” word. For example, “Aziz” which means strong/powerful, becomes “Al-Aziz,” or the most powerful, the ultimate Power. This is true of Al-Raheem, the All-Merciful, derived from “raheem” or merciful.

Surat Maryam 19:65

Lord of the heavens and the earth, and all that is between them: so worship Him, and be constant and patient in His worship: do you know of any who could have His Name? (65)

سُوۡرَةُ مَریَم
رَّبُّ ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَٱلۡأَرۡضِ وَمَا بَيۡنَہُمَا فَٱعۡبُدۡهُ وَٱصۡطَبِرۡ لِعِبَـٰدَتِهِۦ‌ۚ هَلۡ تَعۡلَمُ لَهُ ۥ سَمِيًّ۬ا (٦٥)

Clearly the name of Allah is important. There are many names which denote specific qualities of Allah. But all qualities fall into two categories: qualities of might and qualities of mercy. Note that the names of Allah are always sent down with authority, whereas idols are names “you (humans) name your idols with,” in other words, made up. But the name Allah is sent down with authority and thus we examine it as it appears in Arabic. And from what I have presented thus far, it seems that the Arabic name Allah would be preferable to the English “God,” a name that was not sent down “with authority.”

Note that many have argued about the origins of the name Allah, some asserting that it was the name of an idol later appropriated into use to refer to the Supreme Power in the monotheistic sense. One can argue that this is not true and baseless, but in fact, the whole issue of its supposed linguistic origins is speculative, since by logic, the All-Powerful is capable of bringing to us the name of His choosing.

So put aside for this moment the arguments and circuitous discussions that lead nowhere and let’s examine the name Allah as … a graphic! And also as a sound. Here we have the appearance of the four Arabic letters that form the name, including the diacritical mark “shadda” which indicates a place where the sound of the letter over which it is placed is held a bit longer than it normally would be, giving a sort of emphasis in sound. Some may rightly argue that in the earliest Quranic texts, these diacritical marks were not there, and hence we presume they were added later as a guide to pronunciation. But as of this era we are in, the Qur’an is printed with diacritical marks, including the name Allah (subhanahu wa t’aala — glory to Him in the highest).

image

ا ل ل ه
الله

The first letter from right to left is aleph, which is pronounced like “a” and appears like the number one (1). The significance of this is obvious: Allah is One.
Note the letter aleph does not connect cursively to the letters that follow it, but stands alone.

The aleph is followed by a pair of the letter “lam” which looks, when not connected cursively, like an upside-down staff, such as a shepherd’s staff. The letter “lam” connects to letters that follow it, hence the two lams are connected as seen above. The “lam” is pronounced like the letter “L.”

They also connect to the letter “heh” that comes immediately after them. The “heh” is pronounced like a light “h” sound, and when placed at the end of a word has the appearance of a circle, as shown above. For decorative and cursive expressiveness/variance reasons, the “heh” in the same end-of-word position can also be written as a curved line that looks similar to the “lam” to those whose native language is not Arabic. We will, for this purpose, consider it with the standard circle appearance.

The two connecting lams represent the two names Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem, which always follow the name Allah in the Bismallah, which as I said earlier, is the highest form of thikr or mentioning/remembrance of Allah, an act considered greater than salat (Islamic worship performed 5 times daily facing Makkah).

Note that the lams are a “pair,” and that the two great names, whose meaning is The Almighty, The All-Merciful, also form a pair. As described previously, the meanings of these two names are dynamically opposite: opposite in meaning but related dynamically in the “application” of the yang-yin qualities they represent.

The “connection” also symbolizes Allah’s connection to His creation, including us. The dynamic interaction between the two qualities of power and mercy, when applied to the creation, is itself the crux of Allah’s dynamic nature. Note that people often assume God to be somehow static. In reality, Allah is categorically the source of all that is dynamic, all life, all energy, and is in fact the Most Dynamic, continuously active.

This aspect of Allah’s nature is crucial to our understanding of Him. He is not aloof, apart, disconnected. But in His being the sole, one Supreme Power, in that sense He stands apart, and alone. His name begins with aleph, which is also the number one, and which is not connected and stands alone.

The two lams, as I said, look like upside-down shepherd’s staffs. This represents His connecting to us as both an authority (the staff as symbol of power or control, such as a scepter, but also the control the shepherd has over His sheep) and as the greatest source of mercy. The crook of the staff “pulls” us out of trouble, is a lifeline to hold onto in times of need. It is extended down to us for us to hold to Him. The rope is also used as an image in this context, as we are admonished to “hold fast to the rope of Allah.” The curved line could also be pictured as a rope, although I prefer the staff image for its rigidity, something hard and fast to hold onto.

The final “heh” is simple to interpret: a breath. The final circle of “heh” or “breath” represents both our return to Allah after we die, and the cycle of life, birth and death.

The sound of the first aleph is an “ah” sound, an open vocalization, followed by the consonant “L” sound, a closed but “liquid” (moving not stopped) sound. It is held a bit longer for emphasis because a shadda diacritical mark appears over the two lams. Over the shadda is another aleph, indicating the sound of aleph is the vowel sound, the sound of the two lams is a consonant sound, ending on a breath, barely audible… The rhythm, with the holding of the ll sound, makes the sound of a heartbeat: al-LAH, al-LAH, al-LAH. The alternate pronunciation is also like a heartbeat: AL-lah, AL-lah, AL-lah… You can hear and sense that the heart is mentioning Allah…all the time, for as long as it beats, although most “owners” of those hearts are unaware of this.

Now…back to the visuals of the name Allah, which in Arabic has a diacritical mark, the shadda or holding mark, over the two lams, looking very much like a crown. Often another aleph is placed over the shadda to indicate the “ah” sound following the lams and accompanying the “breath.” One could imagine the aleph as a number one, being the diadem of the crown, the number that shows Allah is one and there is nothing at all like Him.

The shadda also looks like a mini version of the two lams placed over them. When they are connected, the lams form a shape that creates two open-ended “chambers.” The two “chambers” of the lams combined with the two “chambers” of the shadda-crown form a four-chambered “heart” at the center of Allah’s name, with the number One on the right hand, and “breath” on the left. “Breath” is also associated with “rooh” or “spirit.” The Qur’an states that when Allah created Adam, He “breathed into him (Adam) from His spirit (rooh)” after which the angels prostrated before Adam. The “spirit” is the “breath of life” and comes from Allah, and thus our circle of life begins with the first breath and ends when the last breath is exhaled and the soul itself leaves the body, then returns to Allah, who again brings the soul back to Him.

٤

Note also that the two lams, when turned on end, form the Arabic number 4, shown above. The number 4 represents the heart, the house of Cancer the crab, the house of the mother (the nurturing principle). It is also the number of chambers in the heart. Note the last digit in the number of Suras in the Qur’an, 114, is 4. Also significant is that the name of Allah in Arabic consists of four letters. And the root of both names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem is “rahm”, which in Arabic means “womb.” One can also think of it as a crucible, the crucible of life and creation.

Thus, the central portion of Allah’s names forms a “heart” image, the “pulse” of all existence, associated with the number four. Flanked on the right is the number one itself, and on the left, the small circle happens to be a number five in Arabic. Which, when added to the one plus four, is 5+5=10=1+0=1. A numerical expression that Allah is one.

In another way of looking at it, we have, from right to left, a 1 for the aleph, 2 lam’s over which are another 2 tiny lam’s, forming two Arabic number 4’s, followed by a 5. This could be read 5+4+4+1 = 14 or 7×2, or “seven pairs” like “7 of the pairs” (seb’a min al-mathani) mentioned in Surat Al-Hijr 15:87. Or one could multiply 5x4x4=80, and since multiplication by 1 doesn’t affect the number, add the 1, giving us 81 or 3 to the 4th power, the same “3,4” pairing associated with the mentions of “raheem” (the same form of spelling that occurs in the name Al-Raheem) in the Quran. The central “8” could represent the angels carrying Allah’s great throne, the initial 1 representing Allah the Exalted as Indivisibly One, and the heh as a “5” representing the “Hand” of Allah, to Whose giving and help and creating powers we turn in prayer and thikr (bringing to mind) and supplication. Of course these are attempts to express the scope of worship and devotion to Allah, for which the Quran is the best guide.

Thus the name Allah itself forms a graphic for the message of the Qur’an, showing that Allah is one, categorically unique. And that He connects with us, reveals His nature as the Almighty and All-Merciful, the Most Dynamic and Most High, the heart of the universe, closer to us than our jugular vein. And that just as our hearts beat his name continuously, so too He is there in our hearts, giving us the breath of life, whether or not we acknowledge this, and His power and mercy are always there for us to call upon. But whether we do or not is entirely up to us. We are given free will to choose our own path(s), but there are consequences, and everything we do is recorded. Even words carry the spirit, carry our “breath.” And we will inevitably return to Allah.

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