When I try to explain to other Muslims that the name Al-Rahman in Arabic is better translated as the Almighty as explained here in another post, most recoil from the idea, as if I am suggesting the removal of compassion from Allah’s primary attributes, even from the most important first aya of the Quran, the Basmalah. Most, if not all, major Islamic sites and organizations translate the name Al-Rahman as some variation of mercy such as The Most Merciful, The Compassionate, The Beneficent, and The Mercy-giver. This last name always struck me as the closest to the truth, although in a deeper sense, Al-Rahman is essentially a name, not simply an attribute. They say the name derives from the root word rahma, which means “mercy,” or possibly rahim, which means “womb.” But which came first, Al-Rahman, The Creator, or the “womb” which is part of creation?
Indeed, the word womb is more likely to have been derived from the name Al-Rahman, to show that the womb is for us, like its Creator, a place of origin. We indeed were originated by Al-Rahman, and thus He is our Origin. That could be another sense of this name.
But examining the excerpt mentioned in the caption under the photo above, let’s see how that idea, to “decree (literally write) mercy upon Himself,” could apply to the Basmalah.
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
The first 3 letters form the word bism which means “in the name of” — an idiomatic English expression. The literal Arabic means “with the name”. The 2 names that follow are Allah – الله – and Al-Rahman – الرحمن . These two names are considered equivalent, according to Quran 17:110 (“Call upon Allah or call upon Al-Rahman”). It is with the name Al-Rahman that Allah presents how the Almighty gives us His mercy.
Now we compare the paired names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem in Arabic. As you can see above, they begin with the same first four (4) letters, which are الرح aleph, lam, ra, ha. Let these four letters “represent” that these names both refer to One Allah (and are only used as separate names to tell us something about Him).
In the name Al-Rahman, the final two letters are من meem noon. The letter “meem” is used in Arabic grammar as a prefix attached to a word to make it the doer of the action of that word, such as for example muarikh which adds the meem sound to tarikh (history) to mean “historian”, or mujeeb adds meem to the root jawab (reply) to mean “the one who replies.” So we can say this “meem” symbolically makes Al-Rahman do something, which would be relating to the letter that follows it, noon ن .
Now what could the letter “noon” possibly mean? Since “noon” is a Quranic initial (the separate letters that appear at the beginning of some surahs), let’s look at the only surah where this single letter appears alone as a Quranic initial, Surah 68. The name of that surah is The Pen. So this letter noon could represent a pen, even The Pen, with which Al-Rahman writes decrees. The curved line looks a little like an inkwell, and the dot inside it could be the mark made by the point of a pen!
And what is it that Al-Rahman will write with The Pen? Rahma, Mercy! The name that follows Al-Rahman: Al-Raheem, the All-Merciful! Al-Rahman, The Almighty, our Origin, wrote upon Himself His Corollary, The All-Merciful. In that sense, He is indeed the Mercy-Giver. But there’s more!
Because there can be no mercy without justice, and no justice without Omniscience and Omnipotence, it had to be written/ decreed by the Almighty. Now look to the last two letters of the name Al-Raheem. They are يم ya meem. The meem, as we showed above, grammatically indicates the doer of an action, in this case giving mercy, one might surmise. But what does the ya ي indicate? It is used grammatically as a prefix making an action in the present tense. The Quran describes the present as “that which is between your hands” associating the present with free will. Because we are given free will, with that gift we are also given mercy, a present tense in which we call upon Allah and He responds, a time “opening” in which we can change, repent, turn back to Allah. And in that opening, Al-Rahman accepts us into His mercy.
And that “opening” of mercy comes before Allah, who is Al-Rahman, The Almighty, takes any action. The “present tense” open-vowel ya precedes the “doer” meem. Thus Allah, despite knowing the Pharaoh will never believe or repent, sent His great Prophet Moses to the Pharaoh “that perhaps he might return” in faith to Allah. He has to give everyone that chance. So Al-Rahman is indeed The Almighty, but He is also the One who decreed/ wrote “mercy” into the prominently-placed Name Al-Raheem, upon Himself, a mercy that is all-encompassing, and whose opening precedes any action taken against us. We can refuse or deny it and face the ultimate catastrophe, or accept it and face the ultimate success and fulfillment. And we’ve been forewarned: the present doesn’t last forever. The choice is ours.