Knowing the Divine: The Names of God

99 Names of God

Allah is often (mis)understood as the Muslim God. However, “allah” is simply the Arabic word for “god”; thus, Arabic speakers from other faith traditions will also use that word. In Islam, Allah is not only known by this name, but is also known by attributes that are found in the Qur’an and the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. Commonly, Muslims say there are 99 terms that are considered to be both names as they refer to God and attributes because they describe different aspects of God. These attributes all refer to the singular being of God, but are representative of various traits. A metaphor for these attributes given by Hamza Yusuf, a well-known scholar, is the numerous colors that appear when light is refracted.

There are several verses in the Qur’an that tell the believer that God has beautiful names, “asma ul-Allah al-husna” in Arabic. In chapter 7, verse 180, people are commanded to call on God by these names:

The most beautiful names belong to Allah: so call on Him by them.

Also, in chapter 59, verses 22-24 mention God having multiple attributes and include some of these names:

Allah is He, than whom there is no other god? Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He Most Gracious, Most Merciful. (22) Allah is He, than whom there is no other god? the sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection). the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to Allah! (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. (23) He is Allah the Creator the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the exalted in Might, the Wise. (24)

There is also a hadith from the Prophet that underscores the virtues of knowing and memorizing the names of God:

Abu Hurairah reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: There are ninety-nine names of Allah; he who commits them to memory would get into Paradise. Verily, Allah is Odd (He is one, and it is an odd number) and He loves odd number. And in the narration of Ibn ‘Umar (the words are): “He who enumerated them.” (Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj Nishapuri, Sahih Muslim)

All these names and attributes are preceded with the definite article “al-“. People can name their children with one of the attributes (like Kareem, which means generous), but they cannot use the definite article. In other words, human beings exhibit some of these attributes like generosity, mercy, patience, forgiveness, but only God has the attributes in their absolute sense. Another common structure for names that utilizes these attributes is when the attribute of God is preceded with the term “servant/slave”–“abd” in Arabic–forming names like AbdulRahman (the slave of the Most Mercifiul) and AbdulKareem (the servant of the Most Generous).

Some attributes are often misunderstood, as for example Al-Mumiit, which means the One who brings Death. For Muslims, this is one of God’s beautiful names because it describes a reality of the Divine–that God is the one who begins life and ends it. All of the attributes help Muslims know God and how to call on Him in the many circumstances that they face throughout their lives.

Are you familiar with the attributes of God in Islam? What is your reaction to these names? Do other faith traditions have multiple names for the divine? What function to these names have?

One thought on “Knowing the Divine: The Names of God

  1. Is God really a “Being?” This article tries to explore what that means. I realize that language is finite and we’re restricted by vocabulary and our human limitations in describing the universal force of God. But is there a better word that we could use? And by “we,” I mean all of those speaking about God, not simply Muslims or people of “the Book.”