At the very beginning of the Quran, in Surat Al-Fatiha “The Opening”, we are introduced to three great Names for God/ Allah in the Bismallah or Invocation which states “In the Name of Allah, Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem”. The meaning and significance of these two Divine names Al-Rahman — The Almighty — and Al-Raheem — The All-Merciful, reflect the polarity of Yang (might and majesty) and Yin (receptivity and mercy), dynamically interrelated in the context of the One who alone encompasses these names altogether in one Singularity, Indivisible and Eternal, Allah the Exalted.
However, the common understanding of their meaning, as shown in almost all translations as well as tafseer or interpretations even in Arabic, is that both names, based on their root rahim or “womb/ mercy”, reflect aspects of Allah’s mercy, thus posing a challenge: how does one express the same attribute in two different names? One might well also wonder, why? Here we shall show how that interpretation completely misses how the Quran itself clearly and unequivocally defines their true meanings as described above (Almighty, All-Merciful) by its usage of them, giving a more powerful and relevant understanding of the Bismallah, the invocation that precedes all Surahs (chapters) in the Quran except one.
The Bismallah, which appears at the head of every Surah of the Qur’an except Surah 9, Al-Tawba (Repentance), is also invoked in daily life: before meals, signing a contract, entering a threshold, going on a trip, or as a way of putting brakes on an argument that’s getting out of hand, for example. The word Bismallah means “in the name of Allah” and refers to the Invocation which opens the entire Quran as its first aya or verse (a word meaning “sign” and used for Quranic “verses”).It is prominent, important, significant. And yet, although the name Al-Raheem is always correctly translated “The Merciful,” the name Al-Rahman is translated as “The Beneficent,” “The Most Merciful,” “The Most Gracious,” or similar variations of “Merciful.” Did no one ask why two names whose meaning is interpreted as essentially the same be so prominently placed together in this way?
To arrive at the true understanding of these names, we must examine and compare how the names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem are actually used in the Qur’an, the clear and unequivocal message. So we shall do just that both in context and meaning within the text itself, and in how these names are placed and contextualized grammatically as words. Even the number of repetitions of each reference is significantly meaningful.
Use of the Name Al-Rahman in Context
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 ‘athab, which also 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/ Merciful?” Or does this act properly exemplify the “power” attributes of The Almighty, who punishes those who incur His wrath? Is allowing someone to become a close ally of Satan an act exemplifying mercy, beneficence, or kindness? Or does it rather express power and authority?
In another passage, the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) appears to Maryam (Mary) 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 the protection of Al-Rahman from you, if you do fear Allâh.'” (18)
فَٱتَّخَذَتۡ مِن دُونِهِمۡ حِجَابً۬ا فَأَرۡسَلۡنَآ إِلَيۡهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَرً۬ا سَوِيًّ۬ا (١٧) قَالَتۡ إِنِّىٓ أَعُوذُ بِٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ مِنكَ إِن كُنتَ تَقِيًّ۬ا (١٨)
Maryam (Mary) had just sequestered herself in a private place, then shocked to find a strange man unexpectedly appear in her presence, she feared for her safety. Would she call upon the Most Merciful or the Beneficent to forgive him for shocking her, or call upon The Almighty, whose power and might would protect her or perhaps strike fear in the heart of the intruder? She needed Allah’s almighty “power, not “beneficence,” to protect her. One might argue that protection is a kind of “mercy,” but the word ‘authu or “I seek the protection of” preceding Al-Rahman, indicates the name of Al-Rahman itself is a “threat” to shield her from whom she thought was a man, as a deterrent. The name Al-Raheem is never used in the Quran in this way.
In fact, Allah the Exalted equated the name Al-Rahman with His great name Allah in Surat Al-Isra’ 17:110:
Say, “Call upon Allah or call upon Al-Rahman. Whichever [name] you call – to Him belong the most magnificent names.”
The only Divine Name thus equated with the name Allah is Al-Rahman. No such statement is made regarding the name Al-Raheem. There are many more examples, but let’s first examine other aspects of usage in the Quran that strongly support a different interpretation of the name Al-Rahman.
Stylistic and Grammatical Differences in Quranic usage of the names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem
First, the name Al-Rahman is always exclusively used in this form, as a name with the prefix Al-, making it a Name. The name Al-Raheem, on the other hand, is not the only form of expression used for Allah’s mercy; the adjective raheem is also used without the Al- prefix more frequently in fact than the name. In contrast, no adjective form “rahman” exists in the Quran: only the name. Indeed, as the aya quoted above tells us, the name Al-Rahman and the name Allah are interchangeable. Some might argue that Allah the Exalted is full of mercy by definition and therefore to define Al-Rahman as the Almighty denies that fact, to which I reply that we are here examining what the Quran shows us about the dynamic relationship between these names, about which there is no argument, and I am not attempting to present an opinion. Let His revelation reveal what it reveals. Allah the Most High is both Almighty and All-Merciful; Quranic usage of these names makes that clear, but shows us the difference between these qualities. Which have a direct relationship to us: these are the two basic attribute categories with which Allah the Exalted interacts with us: with His Authority and Power, and with His all-encompassing Mercy. Indeed, these two basic attributes and our response to them are shown in Surat Al-Fatiha to directly relate to our final disposition on Judgment Day: did we acknowledge both or deny either?
The name Al-Rahman is not paired in a sequence with any other name except Al-Raheem, and that pairing only appears in the Quranic text six (6) times, two of them in the Bismallah (Al-Fatiha 1:1, and Al-Naml 27:30). Another name may also appear in the same aya, such as the name Allah in the passage quoted above, but the two names (Al-Rahman and Allah) are not paired as one name following the other directly. Both the name Al-Raheem and the adjective form raheem, in contrast, are almost always paired with either another name or adjective (both of the same type). Often the name Allah (the Exalted) is placed directly before the name Al-Raheem or adjective raheem, which is then followed by yet another name paired with it. And that other name is sometimes, nine times in Surat Al-Shuara’ (26) and four times in other Surahs making a total of 13 times, paired with the name Al-‘Aziz which means Exalted in Might, essentially a variant of Almighty. Adding these pairs together—-where the name Al-Raheem is paired with either Al-Rahman (6 times) or Al-‘Aziz (13 times)—-we get 19 times the name Al-Raheem is paired with a Divine Name expressing the attribute of Power/ Might, a significant number, which is also the number of letters in the Bismallah.
Both the names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem are used in the Quran a number of times that is a multiple of 19: Al-Rahman mentioned 57 times, or 19 x 3, and Al-Raheem or the adjective “raheem” (in these two forms only as used in the Bismallah) ) are mentioned 114 times or 19 x 6, also the number of Surahs in the whole Quran, when referring to Allah the Exalted. These numerical correspondences help confirm and augment the meanings described here. That the name Al-Raheem and its adjective “raheem” are mentioned exactly twice as many times (in reference to Allah) as the name Al-Rahman shows the the precise balance between the two: Almighty power has more “weight” than mercy, hence His mercy is all-encompassing, exactly twice as much. The Quran has a total of 114 Surahs, so the mentions of Al-Raheem and raheem match the number of Surahs in the Quran, expressing that His mercy encompasses all things. But there’s more.
The name Al-Raheem and its associated adjective “raheem” are also frequently paired with one of three attributes which serve to define the perimeters of the meaning “merciful” exemplified in Allah’s mercy: most frequently with ghufur or Al-ghufur which means “forgiving/ The Forgiving”, second most frequently tawab or Al-Tawab, which means “Accepter of repentance,” and finally the least-frequent but also important ra’uf or Al-Ra’uf, which means “kind/ The Kind.” The placement of these three specific adjectives (or names when the name Al-Raheem is used) beside the expression of Allah’s mercy serves to define the ways in which mercy is expressed: in forgiveness, accepting repentance, and kindness/ compassion. This in itself precludes us from “muddying the waters” by claiming that, for example, punishment is a form of “mercy” insofar as it is Just and Justice is a kind of mercy, etc. Indeed, the Quran makes it eminently clear that the believers who do good deeds/ actions will receive His mercy and the disbelievers who commit oppression and crimes will receive His wrath and punishment. One could call it the Law of Reciprocity. This point is brought up repeatedly and with emphasis in the Quran, and the two great Names in the Bismallah reflect precisely that distinction.
Paired with ra’uf or “kind” (or could also be translated “compassionate”), the adjective raheem is used in Surat Al-Tawba (Repentance) 9:128, in reference to Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, emphasizing that the qualities of kindness and mercy are attributes we should strive to attain in our own behavior, as the Prophet showed by example. On the other hand, we should not strive to exemplify the attributes of “almighty-ness”, because that would lead to arrogance and cruelty, due to human weakness. Only Allah exemplifies both polarities in perfect balance: Yin — expressed by The Exalted Allah as mercy defined as being the ultimate Forgiver, Accepter of Repentance, and Kind/ Compassionate — and Yang, expressed by Him as the sole Creator, Almighty Omnipotent, All-Knowing and All-Seeing/ Hearing Omniscient, and The Just/ Wise/ Supporter/ Lord of all worlds.
The reference to Prophet Mohammad as kind and merciful is also given a numerical correspondence to show its inclusion was intended by the All-Knowing: the numbers of the name Al-Raheem and its corresponding adjective show a “3,4” pairing match — 34 mentions of the Name Al-Raheem, and 81, which is 3 to the 4th power, mentions of the adjective “raheem” — the same pairing as one finds in the very Name Allah (the Glorious), 3 unique letters forming a 4-letter word. Expressed in simple arithmetic, 3+4=7, seven being an important and symbolic number in the Quran. (See http://kaheel7.com/eng/index.php/numeric-miracle/449-free-book-the-marvels-of-the-number-seven.)
This shows us the context in which the Prophet’s example is referenced and its significance in our human lives (being in the Surah named “Repentance”), and in a separate numerical context we are shown the balance of mercy and Creative Power perfected in Allah’s very Being (glory to Him in the Highest). This pairing of “3,4” described above also is a sign of Allah the Exalted’s acceptance and appreciation of Prophet Mohammad’s exemplary behavior, which by extension we should strive to emulate, so that we too may be accepted by The Almighty and receive the gift of His all-encompassing and powerful Mercy.
Distinguishing Mercy from Authority/ Creative Power in Quranic Usage
In that context, even though we are enjoined to be forgiving and accepting of those who change their behavior toward us and others (a kind of repentance in our worldly sphere), the ultimate forgiveness and acceptance of repentance is the prerogative of Allah. “Kind” is the adjective defining the use of “mercy” in reference to the Prophet, as it reflects the attitude of compassion overall, whereas forgiveness and accepting repentance should first be asked from Allah, who is the ultimate Judge of all things. We too must forgive others, something the Quran specifically asks us to do, but from the perspective of kindness, as we may not fully be aware of a person’s level of sincerity (nor are we asked or expected to know this), but should be aware of God as the ultimate Authority. One can see from this usage how precise the Quran is in defining mercy and how Allah the Exalted exemplifies it, and how it is defined in relationship to humans, given the example of Prophet Mohammad.
Another important point then regarding the use of the name and adjective for Merciful (Al-Raheem/ raheem) in the Quran, as distinct from Al-Rahman, is that both references of His mercy include within the same verse either the name Allah or, less frequently “Lord” or even less frequently “He/ Him,” as a referent to Allah. For example, in the aya below, the word “your Lord” is used, as those being addressed are believers. From Surat Al-An’am 6:54:
وَإِذَا جَآءَكَ ٱلَّذِينَ يُؤۡمِنُونَ بِـَٔايَـٰتِنَا فَقُلۡ سَلَـٰمٌ عَلَيۡكُمۡۖ كَتَبَ رَبُّكُمۡ عَلَىٰ نَفۡسِهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَةَۖ أَنَّهُ ۥ مَنۡ عَمِلَ مِنكُمۡ سُوٓءَۢا بِجَهَـٰلَةٍ۬ ثُمَّ تَابَ مِنۢ بَعۡدِهِۦ وَأَصۡلَحَ فَأَنَّهُ ۥ غَفُورٌ۬ رَّحِيمٌ۬ (٥٤)
When those who believe in Our Ayât (proofs, verses, signs, revelations, etc.) come to you, say: “Salâmun ‘Alaikum” (peace be upon you); your Lord has decreed (literally “written”) Mercy upon Himself, that if any of you does wrong out of ignorance, and thereafter repents and corrects himself, then certainly, He is Forgiving and Merciful. (54)
At the same time, conditions are given here for His mercy, for the Lord speaks from the position of Authority and Justice, qualities of the Almighty. Note that in this translation, by capitalizing the adjectives here in English, the distinction between adjective and name is blurred (although from the lack of a preceding “The” one can hopefully figure it out); whereas in Arabic the use or lack of the prefix Al- (aleph lam in Arabic) clearly distinguishes the two ways of expressing His mercy.
As mentioned earlier, the name Al-Rahman is only used alone as a name, and not “supported” in any instance by any other name to define His attribute as the 3 mercy-related attributes are used with Al-Raheem/ raheem, nor paired with a “Yang” referent to Allah (as is done consistently with Al-Raheem/ raheem) as a “supporting/ containing” attribute. This shows us that Allah’s Power powers His mercy, or as stated in above, “decreed upon Himself mercy.” Another aya (verse) which illustrates how the name Al-Raheem is used and in what context is in Surat Al-Imran 3:129:
وَلِلَّهِ مَا فِى ٱلسَّمَـٰوَٲتِ وَمَا فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِۚ يَغۡفِرُ لِمَن يَشَآءُ وَيُعَذِّبُ مَن يَشَآءُۚ وَٱللَّهُ غَفُورٌ۬ رَّحِيمٌ۬
And to Allâh belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. He forgives whom He wills, and punishes whom He wills. And Allâh is Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Here not only is Allah’s Name mentioned twice, but His prerogative to forgive or not, as He wills, is brought to our attention. The adjective ghufur is translated “Forgiving” and both adjectives are capitalized in translation as if the name form was used, while it is not, as described above. Even so, you can see how the paired adjectives help define the scope of the attribute mercy with reference to Allah the Exalted. Note also that the translation “Most Merciful” used for the adjective “merciful” is now commonly used for the name Al-Rahman, thus adding to the confusion in English. Whereas Allah The Glorious uses each name, each adjective, each word with measured precison and intent, in which there is no confusion. Regarding forgiveness as ultimately the prerogative of Allah, the Quran pointedly asks the question (Surat Al-Imran 3:135) “and who can forgive sins except Allah?”
Using a name that shows Allah’s omnipotence and omniscience as Creator of the heavens and the earth does not then in itself deny His mercy, neither in the usage of the name Allah, nor of the name Al-Rahman. But while His authority and power are revealed in ways that shows Him to be unlimited in power, which must by definition mean that His mercy does not limit His power, Allah’s mercy is shown to be both all-encompassing and at the same time defined or delineated as shown above, always in the context of His “almightiness.” This makes sense, since only with omniscience and power over the forces of evil/ denial can mercy be truly merciful.
Indeed, without Almighty power, omniscience, and justice/ wisdom being a part of that, mercy could not be perfected. Thus these two names are not only differentiated, but the difference is critical in understanding Allah’s very Being as He presented it to us, and thus not falling into the error of assigning, to Allah the Exalted, Yin/Yang aspects as they are reflected in creation, such as gullibility, darkness, or weakness on the Yin side, or aggression, oppression, and arrogance on the Yang side. For Allah the Exalted is in a category by Himself, categorically different from and unlike anything whatsoever in creation of which He is by definition the Creator. And so, because of Allah’s perfect balance of the yin/ yang polarity dynamic, neither Creative-Power/ Authority nor Receptivity/ Mercy is ever excessive. Even in the number of repetitions of these two great Names is a sign to us of this perfect balance, as is in the way the Names are expressed as described herein. Thus we must never, for example, assign human frailties to Allah in the process of interpreting or examining the meanings of His revelations. And strive to find the highest, most reverent interpretation. Often people tend to think of God as being somehow, by virtue of being on His Throne, “remote” or “static” in some way. The Quran counters by telling us in Surat Qaf 50:16: “And We have already created the human and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein.” And of course, one of Allah’s Names is Al-Hayy, the Living, who “creates” in the present tense as mentioned frequently in the Quran.
Although others have acknowledged there is a yang/ yin-like differentiation in Allah’s names generally, referred to in Arabic as Jalal/ Jamal or Majesty/ Beauty, it is of prime importance to recognize that this yang/ yin relationship is different with Allah the Most High than with all creation in its totality, because Allah (God) is in a category alone by Himself and has no equal or similar in all of creation. Mercy may be our favorite attribute of Allah, but we would do well to be reminded that His mercy is “powered” by His Authority as the Most High; and at the same time never hesitate to call upon Him for mercy, or to think of Allah as merely “wrathful”, as this would deny that His mercy is all-encompassing. These ayat below, referring to the Hour when we will need His mercy most, show us that when we acknowledge Allah’s Divine nature as ultimately Good, and strive to follow His guidance and the example of Prophet Mohammad, and indeed all the Prophets, then we can attain His acceptance and even love.
Al-Rahman as the greatest Authority/Sovereign on Judgment Day is described in Surat Al-Naba’ 78:37-8. This shows His authority on that Day is absolute. Therefore, in the here and now, we should always be mindful of Him.
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).”
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)
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ وَعَمِلُواْ ٱلصَّـٰلِحَـٰتِ سَيَجۡعَلُ لَهُمُ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنُ وُدًّ۬ا
Surely (as for) those who believe and do good deeds, for them Al-Rahman will bring about closeness to Him (of His love). (96)