What’s in a Name? The Names of God


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Balancing Arabization SeriesPart I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX

The purpose of this series is to first please our Beloved Master in highlighting some points which will strengthen our ability to integrate and properly spread His message here in America. This was done by broadening our horizons as to the universality of Islam and realizing that no one has any more ownership of Islam over anyone else except by piety regardless of the language they speak. In the next two articles I will sum up the points of discussion and offer an action plan.

First and foremost Islam is not an Arabic religion; rather it was finally revealed and since then highly nurtured in the Arabic language. Similarly, God is not an Arabic god, nor does He speak just Arabic—or else Moses would not have understood Him. After long research and deep thought, I personally have come to the conclusion that God is exalted above a single proper noun or “name” derived from a terrestrial language. He is known by many descriptions which are in all languages by which He can be called upon. Of course many Jews are adamant that His proper name is YHWH and many Muslims are convinced it is Allah, the Persians have Khuda and all other languages have their word which denotes the Supreme Being. The Arabic Lexicon tells us that the word الله in its literal linguistic connotation means “The Worshipped Entity Worthy of Devotion”. Its historically understood meaning denotes the directly unperceived Almighty Supreme God who created the universe. This word was known and used by the Arabs before they ever received a prophet. The Qur’an indicates that God taught Adam language and obviously all of today’s languages have developed from that language. Archeologically it is categorically false to say Adam spoke Arabic or that Arabic is even close to one of the oldest languages spoken by man. Etymologically and literarily it can be said that Arabic is one of, if not the, oldest preserved language as well as one of the richest in potential eloquence to express meaning.

In each language there are meanings which relate God’s attributes to us. This point is alluded to in the famous sound tradition in which the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) taught us a supplication that would remove all anxiety and sadness from our hearts:

…أسألك بكل اسم هو لك سميت به نفسك أو أنزلته في كتابك أو علمته أحدا من خلقك أو استأثرت به في علم الغيب عندك…

[...]I beseech you with any name (description) that is yours; whether you named yourself with it, revealed it in your book, taught it to someone from your creation or if you kept it hidden with You in the realm of the unperceived [... ] (Ahmad 5/267)

The last thing you should understand from what I am saying is that it is wrong to call upon God by saying Allah. Indeed that is one of His primary descriptions by which He described Himself in His final revelation. The believers should refer to Him accordingly while speaking Arabic. It is the call of Arabic-speaking Muslims to define Him properly to the well over 40 million Christian Arabs who believe Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) is a trinity made up of the father, son and holy spirit. We too carry that responsibility to properly define God for our brothers and sisters in humanity here in America who describe God in ways other than through His pure revelation. When looking at the definition of God with a capital G in the different English dictionaries it becomes obvious that God with a capital G is the English equivalent to the word الله in Arabic. So for me it seems natural for us to say God while speaking English and الله while speaking Arabic. This idea is also supported by the following verse:

“ولله الاسماء الحسنى فادعوه بها”

“God has the best descriptions so call upon Him by them.” (Qur’an 7:180)

Let’s take a look at what are so often called the “names of God”. These are by nature all descriptions which all names/titles originally were.1 In Arabic rhetoric they say, “ الاسم يدل على المسمى ” which means, the noun indicates what it refers to. Other Arabic scholars noted, “ العبرة بالمسميات لا الأسماء ” which means, “The precept of consideration is in what you are talking about (meanings) not their titles.” English grammar views an adjective as a separate class of words that functionally describe nouns. On the other hand, Arabic grammar considers adjectives as a part of the category of nouns, thus my translation above. In Arabic grammar, nouns are called أسماء (asmaa’) which is the plural of the word اسم (ism) which also means name.  When we read the tafseer (commentary) of بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم  at the beginning of the Qur’an we often find the commentators saying that اسم here does not mean a proper name rather it reflects all descriptions of God.  They expound by saying we should begin everything we do remembering all that God is known by.2 Another interesting point is how we all usually translate this verse: “In the name of God, The Beneficent, The Merciful.” Most all of our Qur’anic grammarians said that Rahman (The Beneficent) and Raheem (The Merciful) here are adjectives.3 In English, as opposed to Arabic, we put the adjectives before the word they are describing. So shouldn’t it be translated In the name of the Beneficent Merciful God?

Another interesting point on this subject is that the scholars have differed on how many descriptions God has, although due to some authentic narrations they all agree that there are 99 which are special and crucial for us to know and be affected by. Since there are differing texts indicating them as well as various weaknesses in the chains of transmission narrating them, they differed as to which were those special 99 descriptions. They also differed over what is the greatest of those descriptions since the Prophet ﷺ did not clarify that either. Each one of the descriptions by which He described Himself is a word with a meaning known to the Arabic language before they received revelation. None of them are mysterious heavenly words unknown to man except through revelation. As individual words they carry universal meanings translatable into any language, whether it be with one word or a sentence.

Sadly I have heard Muslims directly, yet more so indirectly, framing the argument for the necessity to use the word Allah by the “Our God vs. their god” mentality. The emotional, politically-charged “east-vs.-west clash of civilizations” idea is completely against the Qur’an on many levels. We will suffice with one verse from the Holy Qur’an:

“وقولوا آمنا بالذي انزل الينا وانزل اليكم والهنا والهكم واحد ونحن له مسلمون”

“Say to the people who received scripture before you, ‘We believe in what was revealed to us as well as what was revealed to you and our God and your God is the same and we submit to His will.’” (Qur’an 29:46)

In a nutshell, God has revealed His descriptions through His creation. Language facilitates referring to Him and we should call Him as such using the meanings He revealed to us in His final revelation. The idea of needing to call Him by the Arabic word Allah in English seems to be superfluous, ethnocentric, and, worst of all, alienating many people from Islam by giving them the false idea that we worship a different god. The argument that Christians use the word God to mean a trinity or Jesus is a lack of knowing the general American thought found in all dictionaries. Furthermore, it is in forgetting the abovementioned fact that even today there are millions of Christian Arabs who describe Allah (swt) as a trinity just as the Polytheist Arabs to whom the Holy Qur’an was first revealed had a general understanding of the word Allah, but they used to describe Him with many false descriptions, e.g. that He is unable to resurrect us. That doesn’t change the true definition of the word الله any more than some devout Christians describing the English equivalent of God to mean other than what God revealed about Himself. It is our mission here to properly define God just as it was the Prophet’s ﷺ mission to define الله when He was sent to the people of Arabia speaking their language.

So who is God??? According to what He revealed in His final message to mankind:

God is One. He is the Eternally Living Absolute Truth Exalted on Most High. The Transcendental Sublime Glorious Creator Uniquely characterized by Pure Flawless Perfection. The Everlasting Originator Tirelessly Sustaining and Maintaining all that exists. The Supremely Greatest Entity of Magnificent Grandeur. The Majestic Manifest One who is also Hidden. The Omniscient Wise One. The Mighty Omnipotent Overwhelming Force. The Allower and Preventer in Whose hand is Benefit and Harm. The Praiseworthy Self-Sufficing One Whom all others need. The Munificent Provider and Protector. The Giver of life and Cause of death and resurrection. The Benevolent King of Kings Whose Expanse of Beneficence Encompasses creation. The Loving Source of Mercy and Compassion. The Enriching Guide who is the Beautiful Light of the Heavens and Earth. The Forgiving Pardoning One of Gracious Forbearance who Answers the call of those who call upon Him. The Inescapable Just Judge Who Calls all to account.

If someone asks what a Muslim believes about God then we should be able to have an enlightening spiritually uplifting discussion about these meanings and the others I may have left out. This is one of our primary responsibilities and priorities as Muslims. In so many cases I have heard Muslims of different levels of knowledge saying that simply God is One when asked about Him. That simply does not fulfill our duty, especially since Jews, Christians and even many Hindus believe that as well.

I beseech The Facilitator to help us in knowing Him and properly presenting Him to everyone around us.

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  1. النهج الأسمى في شرح أسماء الله الحسنى د. محمد نجدي صفحة 19 مجلد 1   []
  2. http://www.thefreedictionary.com/In+the+name+of []
  3. إعراب القرآن الكريم للدرويش []

12 Comments

  1. Yaqub says:

    Brother Yahya; thank you for taking the heart and time to share this series..I have learned quite a bit from it.

    The paragraph starting w/ “God is One” and ending with “The Inescapable Just Judge Who Calls all to.account” …. sounds like a rhyme flow that would make any Wu-Tang Clan, Big L, KRS One, Rakim, etc. rhyme flow sound weak.

    Nothing compares to the Grandeur of The One God.

    • sana says:

      well said!! subhanAllah – the brilliant points and counterpoints summarized in the Quran often do remind me of being far superior to any poetry slam

  2. Malik says:

    Asalaamalaykum, in regards to your statement “we put the adjectives before the word they are describing. So shouldn’t it be translated In the name of the Beneficent Merciful God?” As you are aware in English we don’t always have to put the adjective before the noun e.g. “The big house” can be the “the house that is big” or “the house is big”. Couldn’t we say “in the name of Allah who is the most Beneficent and most Merciful”?

    Also I have heard the argument that Allah is preferred as it is a noun that does not have a feminine form whereas God has a feminine equivalent in Goddess.

    Finally, The use of Allah in an English language setting should not really be a problem because Allah is actually an English word, (albeit with an Arabic etymology!) as you will find it in all major English dictionaries such a Oxford (UK) and Merriam Webster (US). Therefore by definition it is now an English word. A rather flippant analogy would be that we shouldn’t use the word “pajamas” because it is originally a Hindi/Urdu word and instead should use the word “nightwear”. Further as a real noun example should we use the original English version of “Mohamet” rather than the name Muhammad (s.a.w.)?

    Forgive me if I have said anything out of line, it was not my intention, rather in the spirit of discussion these were just some thoughts I had when I read your article.

    JazakAllah khairan.

    • John Ederer says:

      Salam bro Malik ,

      Acording to all dictionaries i could find, the word God with a Capitol G cannot mean other than the genderless Supreme Creator of the universe. The word goddess with a lower case g falls under the anything that has been worshipped or deified which is known in the English lexicon as gods with a lower case g.

      This is the same difference between Arabic the root word of الله which is إلاه.

      Allah is only an English word because we insisted upon using it. If you look at the definition you see the redundance.
      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Allah?s=t&ld=1032
      We have the same problem with other words like masjid too when you look them up.

  3. Malik says:

    Sorry, just to clarify in my last post when I said the word God has the feminine equivalent of Goddess, I did not meant to imply that the word Allah is masculine, but rather that it is not gender specific (other than grammatically). wasalaam

  4. latifouro says:

    as salam aleikoumk .thanks for your post . there is no ethnocentrism by calling GOD Allah . this is the name prophet muhammad (pbuh) use to call GOD and he is the best teacher. and we are following his sunnah. do you know why christianity is not in his pure form today because the original language the religion was revealed has been lost.
    salam aleikoum

    • John Ederer says:

      WAS dear latifouro,

      We really have to be intellectual spiritualists not literal simpletons if we expect to succeed in our mission.

      The reason the Prophet called God Allah is because he was raised an Arab and that was the word his native tongue had to describe what we call in English God.

      Hebrew predates Arabic and God revealed many scriptures to them. The known and agreed upon so called proper name for God to the Jews in Hebrew is Yahweh.

      Why didn’t the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) call on Him by Yahweh. Ponder… Ahh!!! now you get it!

  5. sana says:

    subhanAllah – such a beautiful translation!!! Took my breath away. it truely resonated much more powerfully with me by just changing the way the adjectives are translated….thank you!

  6. AmazedSister says:

    Assalamu Alaykum,

    This is a brilliant article and for someone who loves languages, it was great to read!
    I often think about the fact that in Islam, Allah/God doesn’t have a gender and is beyond this, but language makes it necessary for us to refer to Him (SWT) as Him. Whether its referring to Allah as هو in the Quran or Him/He in English, it seems as though language itself opens up but also simultaneously closes the door to describing/understanding Allah.
    So it was very interesting to read: “After long research and deep thought, I personally have come to the conclusion that God is exalted above a single proper noun or “name” derived from a terrestrial language. He is known by many descriptions which are in all languages by which He can be called upon.”

    As for referring to Allah as God, my local Imam gave a lecture on this and says that God can be conjugated in various ways: Godhead, Goddess, Gods, but that Allah in Arabic remains as is.

    • Thinker says:

      With all due respect to your Imam, the idea that God with a capital G can be conjugated goes against all English dictionaries. The word God with a capital G means the exact same things as Allah in Arabic.

      The correct way to write those words would be with a lower case g as in god or goddess.

      Just like the word Allah in Arabic has the definitive article “AL” before the word Ilah. The word Ilah can become Ilahah (goddess) or Aalihah(gods).

      So the capital G in English serves the same function as the definitive article “Al” in Arabic.

      • Malik says:

        That is fine in written text, but how about in speech where the capital letter is not articulated.

        • John Ederer says:

          If you are talking to a Hindu or about greek mythology then you would know from context that they are talking about a god. If you are talking to a Muslim, Christian or Jew you know we are talking about the Supreme Omniscient Omnipotent Creator. This is both from living the American culture for a lifetime and from the definition of the word found in dictionaries.

          The only word from a cultural and linguistic definition that is a problem is Lord which many Christians say to mean Jesus (PBUH).

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