Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem: The Dynamic Pair of Names

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Here we come to a crucial element of the Qur’an: the significance of these two names, Al-Rahman — The Almighty — and Al-Raheem — The All-Merciful, two names that are in a sense opposite in meaning, but dynamically interrelated in the context of the One who alone fits these names altogether, Allah.

They are part of the Bismallah which appears at the head of every Sura of the Qur’an except Surat Al-Tawba (Repentance), Sura number nine (9). The Bismallah is also mentioned in daily life: before meals, before entering a contract, before entering a threshold, or as a way of putting brakes on an argument that’s getting out of hand, for example.

It is prominent, important, significant. And yet, usually mis-translated as “The Beneficent, The Merciful,” or a similar rendition involving two variations on “Merciful.” So they get the “Merciful” part — Al-Raheem — but not the “Almighty” part — Al-Rahman. To arrive at the true understanding of this name, we must examine how the name Al-Rahman is used in the Qur’an. And that usage is clear and unequivocal. Apparently most translators, and even explainers in the Arabic language, did not bother to see how Allah Himself (all glory to Him) used and thereby defined the meaning of His own name in the Qur’an He sent!

Examples of how the name Al-Rahman is used abound, none more frequently than in Surat Maryam (19). For example, Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) warned his father not to be influenced by Satan and not to continue in his idol worship in Surat Maryam 19:45.

“My father, I fear that a torment will inflict you from Al-Rahman and that you will become a close ally of Satan.”

يَا أَبَتِ إِنِّي أَخَافُ أَن يَمَسَّكَ عَذَابٌ مِّنَ الرَّحْمَٰنِ فَتَكُونَ لِلشَّيْطَانِ وَلِيًّا

The word “torment” in Arabic here is aathab, which literally means “torture.” Is inflicting “torture” or torment on a person as punishment an act exemplifying “beneficence” — which literally means “kindly in action or purpose” — or “the Most Gracious?” Or does this act properly exemplify the “power” attributes of The Almighty?? Is allowing someone, even if deserving, to become a close ally of Satan, an act exemplifying “The Beneficent,” an act of kindness?? Or does it rather express power and authority? In every usage in the Qur’an of the name Al-Rahman, you will find the meaning “the Almighty” appropriate and these mercy-synonymous substitutes strikingly inappropriate.

In another passage, the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) appears to Maryam in the form of a man:

Surat Maryam 19:17-8

“So she took a barrier to separate herself from them (her relatives); then We sent to her Our Spirit [archangel Jibreel (Gabriel)], and he appeared before her in the form of a man in all respects. (17) She said: ‘I seek protection from Al-Rahman from you, if you do fear Allâh.'” (18)

سُوۡرَةُ مَریَم

فَٱتَّخَذَتۡ مِن دُونِهِمۡ حِجَابً۬ا فَأَرۡسَلۡنَآ إِلَيۡهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرً۬ا سَوِيًّ۬ا (١٧) قَالَتۡ إِنِّىٓ أَعُوذُ بِٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ مِنكَ إِن كُنتَ تَقِيًّ۬ا (١٨)

Maryam was shocked to find a strange man unexpectedly appear in her presence, so she feared for her safety. Would she call upon the Most Gracious or the Beneficent, or call upon The Almighty, whose power and might would protect her? She needs Allah’s power, not “beneficence,” to protect her in what she perceived as a dangerous situation. She is not asking for grace or beneficence (kindness or generosity) from Allah towards one she feared as a potential attacker.

Sometimes “aauthu” is translated “seek refuge,” but in this case, that translation loses the intensity of the original, and in normal current English usage, people don’t say “I seek refuge” at all. Something like “God help us” would be similar, but there really is no English equivalent. In this situation, I chose “seek protection.”

Yet another example emphasizes The Almighty’s authority over humankind. Authority, of course, is a facet of power. And assertion of authority means punishment of those who rebel against it, as in Surat Maryam 19:69:

Then We will drag out from every clan the ones which were most rebellious against Al-Rahman.

ثُمَّ لَنَنزِعَنَّ مِن كُلِّ شِيعَةٍ أَيُّهُمْ أَشَدُّ عَلَى الرَّحْمَٰنِ عِتِيًّا

In Surat Al-Naba’, Al-Rahman as the greatest Authority/Sovereign in Judgment Day is described in powerful terms in Surat Al-Naba’ 78:37-8.

رَّبِّ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا الرَّحْمَٰنِ لَا يَمْلِكُونَ مِنْهُ خِطَابًا

“The Lord of the heavens and the earth and what is between them, Al-Rahman — none shall be able to address Him (directly).”

Clearly this expresses His total power. On the Day of Judgment, all the heavens and the earth and what is between them shall not have the ability to address Al-Rahman in all His unimaginable glory and power. This is followed by another aya confirming that power in no uncertain terms in Surat An-Naba (78):38.

The Day when the Spirit and the angels stand in line, none will speak unless Al-Rahman permits him and he speaks (only) what is true.

سُوۡرَةُ النّبَإِ يَوۡمَ يَقُومُ ٱلرُّوحُ وَٱلۡمَلَـٰٓٮِٕكَةُ صَفًّ۬ا‌ۖ لَّا يَتَكَلَّمُونَ إِلَّا مَنۡ أَذِنَ لَهُ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنُ وَقَالَ صَوَابً۬ا (٣٨)

The “line” referred to here is an expression of the high level of control Allah has over His angels, also known as His “troops” (all translations being rough). This is an unimaginable scene in which seemingly uncountable throngs are presented under the unmitigated and devastating power of The Almighty, Al-Rahman, glory to Him in the highest. No one can or dare speak, even the angels in all their glory, without the permission of Al-Rahman, The Almighty. And if granted permission to speak, they will be unable to say except the truth. It is indeed a terrifying moment — that expresses… “Gracious?” Or expresses absolute and terrifying authority and power?? When one translates the name to Most Gracious (Yusuf Ali) or The Beneficent (many translators), the name becomes in a sense merely a name, not specific to the circumstances in which it is used. But when one understands the meaning, that the name Al-Rahman expresses specially Allah’s power and might, it makes sense, not just as “a name,” in the sense that we all have names unrelated to our circumstances or in what situation we are being called.

In a very real way, Allah’s names, which express Allah’s attributes, are used in the Qur’an in a way appropriate to the situation. This in turn expresses the different ways in which we relate/connect to Allah, and He to us. It also exemplifies the integrity of “style” (how a thing is expressed) with content (what is expressed). Note also that many ayat in the Qur’an end with Allah’s names, most often a pair of His names. Those names relate directly to the situation or narrative preceding them, reinforcing our understanding of Allah’s connection to us, and guiding our response.

There are so many examples of the name Al-Rahman! But one that I encourage others to read again with the understanding of the name Al-Rahman as the Almighty, would be the last ayat of Surat Maryam (19:69-78), one of the most powerful, forceful, unequivocal sequences in the Qur’an. Without the proper understanding of the meaning of Al-Rahman’s name, the passage loses some of its impact. People are always seeking loopholes and exits for their misdeeds, and they know they need all the mercy and forgiveness they can get, but Allah is also Al-Raheem, the All-Merciful, and the fullness and power of Allah’s might does not in any sense diminish Allah’s mercy. Only the unjust, exemplified by many human leaders, diminish their responsive qualities when they obtain power.

Surat Maryam (19):88-96

وَقَالُوا اتَّخَذَ الرَّحْمَٰنُ وَلَدًا

And they said “Al-Rahman has taken (to Himself) a son!” (88)

لَّقَدْ جِئْتُمْ شَيْئًا إِدًّا
Certainly you have come up with a gross blasphemy. (89)

تَكَادُ السَّمَاوَاتُ يَتَفَطَّرْنَ مِنْهُ وَتَنشَقُّ الْأَرْضُ وَتَخِرُّ الْجِبَالُ هَدًّا
The heavens are about to shatter from it, and the earth crack open, and the mountains fall and crumble, (90)

أَن دَعَوْا لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ وَلَدًا
That they claimed Al-Rahman had a son! (91)

وَمَا يَنبَغِي لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ أَن يَتَّخِذَ وَلَدًا
“And what need does Al-Rahman have to take (to Himself/have) a son?” (92)

إِن كُلُّ مَن فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ إِلَّا آتِي الرَّحْمَٰنِ عَبْدًا
When all there is in the heavens and the earth will come to Al-Rahman (the Almighty) as servants. (93)

لَّقَدْ أَحْصَاهُمْ وَعَدَّهُمْ عَدًّا
He has a comprehensive knowledge of them and He has counted them with a (comprehensive) numbering. (94)

وَكُلُّهُمْ آتِيهِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ فَرْدًا
And every one of them will come to Him on the day of resurrection all alone. (95)

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ سَيَجْعَلُ لَهُمُ الرَّحْمَٰنُ وُدًّا
Surely (as for) those who believe and do good deeds, for them Al-Rahman will bring about closeness to Him (of His love). (96)

After feeling and understanding the terrifying and all-encompassing power of Al-Rahman, the impact of this same Al-Rahman bringing a human being (believer) close in love and acceptance is overwhelming. But were one to simply presume oneself as a recipient of His love and mercy, since by these names that’s “what He does,” one would not value this love so intensely. It is a critical point in the understanding of Allah’s nature. And is “understanding Allah’s nature” not one of the major points of the message of the Qur’an itself???

It is by virtue of His power that we appreciate Allah’s mercy. The name Al-Rahman comes first for that reason. We must first learn to be “God-fearing.” People don’t slide into faith by inertia. It is an act and involves the mind, the heart, and is expressed in words and deeds. But on the other hand, the name Al-Raheem is mentioned twice as frequently as the name Al-Rahman. I believe that is because His power is “heavier” than His mercy, i.e., it is more consequential and carries more weight in our minds, if we understand it. For one act of wrath, we need a double dose of mercy. That is the dynamic I’m referring to here. Recall that these names express Allah’s relationship to us and to His creation. Two “opposite” attributes in a dynamic relationship, like yang and yin. Even the sound of the names in Arabic, Al-Rahman (yang) and Al-Raheem (yin) sound like yang and yin. Except, and this is important, that yang and yin have been reduced to concepts, whereas Allah’s names refer to the most real Allah, Supreme Power, Creator of the heavens and the earth. Hence we recognize that the origin of the concepts “yang” and “yin” were part of a divine revelation which has since been reduced to a philosophical concept, one that is real and useful, but does not include the Supreme Power as the embodiment of these attributes, which are reflected in various ways throughout His creation.

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