The 99 Names of Allah: Bridge or Barrier?

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On March 8, 2017, the news department of the Christian Reformed Church reported on talks given by Barrie Evans with the title, “Former Missionary Says Violence is not at the Heart of Islam.” In his talks Mr. Evans related how he has come to appreciate the views of a Muslim, Farhana Mayer, who suggests that the way to understand Islam is to understand the 99 names of Allah. In this short piece, I hope to explore the possibilities and limits for understanding Islam based on these 99 names.

Farhana Mayer on the 99 names  

After listing a few representative names of Allah, including “The All-Merciful,” “The Source of Peace,” “The Forgiving,” and the “Restorer,” Evans provided the following direct quote from Farhana Mayer:

“I put forward the case that the divine natures as enunciated in the cardinal Islamic divine names, are...the governing verses of the Quran, and all other verses and interpretations are to be governed by the objective values of the core divine qualities.”

According to the CRC article and this quote, both essentially infer that the 99 names of Allah are the interpretive grid by which one must interpret the Qur’an, and that this limits the possibility of interpreting the violent verses of the same text in a literalistic way, as ISIS is doing. According to Evans, “But viewed from the perspective of the beautiful names, there is solid ground on which Christians and Muslims can set aside the terrorist ideology of violence and hatred and start talking through the issues that divide them.” Thus Mayer and Evans see these names as a bridge. Is the reader given the entire picture?

99 names and more

If one examines a sample list of the 99 names of Allah, with transliteration and verse references, one could at first glance think that they were a listing of the characteristics of the God of the Bible. This is a short sampling from a longer list found here.      

  1. Ar-Rahman      “The Gracious”           1:1
  2. Ar-Rahim        “The Merciful”            1:1
  3. Al-Malik         “The King”      59:23
  4. Al-Quddus       “The Holy”      59:23
  5. As-Salam        “The Peace”    59:23
  6. Al-Mu’min      “The One Who Gives Security”          59:23
  7. Al-Muhaymin  “The Protector” 59:23
  8. Al-Aziz           “The Mighty”  59:23
  9. Al-Jabbar        “The Compelled’        59:23
  10. Al-Mutakabbir “The Majestic”            59:23
  11. Al-Khaliq        “The Creator” 59:24
  12. Al-Bari            “The Maker”   59:24
  13. Al-Musawwir “The Shaper”  59:24
  14. Al-Ghaffar       “The Forgiver”            20:82
  15. Al-Qahhar       “The One Who Subdues”        12:39
  16. Al-Wahhab      “The One Who Bestows”        3:8
  17. Ar-Razzaq       “The Provider”           51:58

This list is one of the more popular lists of the 99 names. If one puts a number of these lists side by side, as one Arabic source has done, one can come up with as many as 257 names. Yet one must ask three questions: What is the significance of these names, how are they used, and what might be lost in the English translations.

What is the use and significance of these “most beautiful” names?

According to the Qur’an, “The Most Beautiful Names belong to Allah: So call on Him by them; But shun such men as use profanity in His names: For what they do, they will soon be requited.” (7:180) One can see this “calling on Him” in action in Islamic countries, when the Islamic rosary is used as a memory device to recall all of these names. This also has to do with the fact that forgetfulness, according to Islamic theologians, is one of the cardinal sins in Islam, and so a constant reminder of these names is needed for humans. Secondly, according to Islamic traditions, knowledge of these names will ensure that a Muslim goes to paradise. For instance, “Abu Huraira reported Allah’s Messenger 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.” (Sahih Muslim 6475)

These names are said to describe the attributes of Allah of Islam, yet at the same time, we must be very careful not to equate what one knows of the attributes of the Triune God as revealed in the Bible, with those of Allah of Islam. The Bible contains the self-disclosure of a God who is knowable and who has created humans in His image. Islamic doctrine suggests that Allah of Islam is essentially unknowable, and to create humans in his image would be tantamount to shirk, or associating things with God. Thus these lists serve as descriptions, some of which, legitimately, Muhammad might have gained from the fact that the Living God does make Himself known through creation, conscience and His acts of providence (Romans 1, Acts 14, 17). What we must acknowledge from Romans 1, however, is that as much as Muhammad might have been a ‘knower’ of the Living God, at the same time, he, like all humans, ‘suppressed the truth in unrighteousness.” That is to say, he pushed down the truth claims of the Triune Living God, as one would push down a beach ball under water. Instead, he substituted a deity, created largely in his own image, as humans are said to do in Romans 1: 23. This is evidenced by the fact that parallel lists of the names of Muhammad, almost equate those of Allah of Islam. That is to say, with verses such as Q. 3:132; 24:53/54 that obedience to Allah and obedience to Muhammad were the same thing. This is a common qur’anic view.

What might be lost in English translations?

“The Haughty”

In Surah 59:23 one can read an English rendition by Sam Shamoun, referring to Allah: “He is the One GOD; there is no other god beside Him. The King, the Most Sacred, the Peace, the Most Faithful, the Supreme, the Almighty, the Most Powerful, the Most Proud (al- mutakabbir) GOD be glorified; far above having partners.”  Other English ‘translations’ render al- mutakabbir as “the Supreme” (Yusuf Ali, Moshin Khan); “All-Sublime” (Arberry) and “The Superb” (Pickthall). Here are their renditions of the verse:

Yusuf Ali: 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.

Mohsin Khan: He is Allah than Whom there is La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He) the King, the Holy, the One Free from all defects, the Giver of security, the Watcher over His creatures, the All-Mighty, the Compeller, the Supreme. Glory be to Allah! (High is He) above all that they associate as partners with Him.

Arberry: He is God; there is no god but He. He is the King, the All-holy, the All-peaceable, the All-faithful, the All-preserver, the All-mighty, the All-compeller, the All-sublime. Glory be to God, above that they associate!

Pickthall: He is Allah, than Whom there is no other Allah, the Sovereign Lord, the Holy One, Peace, the Keeper of Faith, the Guardian, the Majestic, the Compeller, the Superb. Glorified be Allah from all that they ascribe as partner (unto Him).

The word ‘mutakabbir’ comes from an Arabic root k-b-r which occurs 171xs in the Qur’an and conveys a sense of greatness, yet is most frequently associated with the terms ‘haughty’ or ‘arrogant.’ Michael Fitzgerald, a Roman Catholic Arabic scholar, on mostly very friendly terms with Islam, evidenced by his multiple books on dialogue, renders this term “the Haughty” in his article “The Beautiful Names of God: The Meaning for a Christian.” The Muslim exegete, al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144) defines its usage in this text as “Supreme in pride and greatness or the One who is haughty above the wickedness of his slaves.”

“The Best of Deceivers”

In the qur’anic story of the death of the Islamic Jesus, one is told that the Jews plotted against Allah, but he was a superior plotter or deceiver, and he foiled their plot. See 3:54, c.f. 7:99; 8:30; 10:21; 13:42. The root word, here is ‘m-k-r’ and it means to lie, or to deceive, as Lane’s classic lexicon states: “To practice deceit or guile or circumvention, practice evasion or elusion, to plot, to exercise art or craft or cunning, act with policy, practice strategem.” Yet in English translation, one finds, “And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned, and Allah too planned, and the best of planners is Allah” (Yusuf Ali); “the best of schemers” (Pickthall) and the “the best of devisers” (Arberry). For further information see the article by the former Muslim, Sam Shamoun, entitled “Allah – The Greatest Deceiver of them All” [http://www.answering-islam.org/Shamoun/allah_best_deceiver.htm]. It is also evident that Muslim apologists have worked very hard to dull the effect of this statement which in effect attributes imperfection to Allah.

“The Humiliator”

In the list of 99 names compiled by Jamiʿ at-Tirmidhi (d. 892 ) he places the name Al-Khafid in the 22nd position. This can be rendered as  “The Abaser, The Humiliator, The Downgrader” and it comes from Surah 56:3 which reads, “Abasing (some), exalting (others).” A similar sense is found in the name Al-Mudhill, or “The Abaser” or the “Degrader” is found in  Surah 3:26, which reads in part, “…Thou enduest with honour whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleasest” (Yusuf Ali). One Islamic source describes Allah of Islam in this text as “The Dishonorer, The Humiliator, He gives esteem to whoever He willed, hence there is no one to degrade Him; And He degrades whoever He willed, hence there is no one to give Him esteem.”

Observations:

English translations tend to smooth over any of the ‘less than beautiful’ aspects of the names of Allah of Islam. This calls for diligence on the part of the English reader to know what is being communicated. These more difficult names also place the names that are closer to the Bible in a different light: a fact which is easily obscured. Consider these biblical texts in relationship to the above three names:

  1. "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30
  2. “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” Numbers 23:19
  3. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” Isaiah 42:3

Summary:

The author Daniel Strange, described non-Christian religions as being ‘parasitic on Biblical truth’ and the 99 names showcase this reality. They are designed to make Allah of Islam, ‘the most beautiful’ but in reality, they rob the Triune God of the honor solely due to him. They promise paradise with the knowledge of these titles, but it is illusory, as this is a deity made in the imagination of Muhammad, whose name is not Redeemer or Father, or the covenant-keeping One. In fact, Surah 59:23 effectively precludes the divinity and sonship of Jesus. Muhammad created a god out of his imagination, who is essentially his alter-ego, and his actions were blessed by Allah. It would seem that it is safe to conclude that these 99 names, although having a few similarities to the Triune God of the Bible, effectively serve as a barrier, rather than a bridge to knowing Him.

As to the relationship of ISIS to this deity, one must remember the adage, “Show me your god, and I will tell you why you act the way you do.” The humiliations and degradations inflicted by ISIS on anyone they deem to be infidels, is a logical extension of one of the names of Allah. They are simply acting out the adage, ‘What Would Muhammad Do?’ and applying it literally.

For further reading:

  1. Keith Thompson, a Christian apologist developed a blog piece which compares and contrasts some of the names of Allah in the Qur’an with the Biblical ‘best of deceivers.’ http://www.reformedapologeticsministries.com/2016/01/the-quran-testifies-satan-is-lot-like.html
  2. Samuel Zwemer, The Moslem Doctrine of God https://archive.org/details/moslemdoctrineof00zwem
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  • Muslim Ministry
  • Discussion Topic

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