One of the controversial points regarding Islam these days is the name Allah. Perhaps one could say, not that “there is more than meets the eye,” but that “there is more *in* what meets the eye.”
The 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 “in heaven” mentioned in Chinese texts, the God we mean when we think of one God, the monotheist omnipotent and omniscient deity, the God referred to by Jesus and Moses, by all people of all faiths who believe in one God who does not share power with other gods. It is not the name of a “foreign god,” nor is the prophet Mohammad worshipped as some in the West erroneously believe, but prophet Mohammad is the last in the line of Abrahamic prophets. That having been said, the name Allah in Arabic has “properties” nonexistent in the word “God.”
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)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.