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One God Many Names | Principles for Understanding

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[drocap]W[/dropcap]e concluded the previous article by listing 7 reasons that make this study of Allah’s Names so vital for the life of a Muslim. The seventh and final reason was because the greatest ambition is to gain Allāh’s pleasure and entry to Jannah, and this study is a means of attaining them both.

We then quoted the famous Hadith, where the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

إن لِلَّهِ تِسْعَةً وَتِسْعِينَ اسْمًا مِائَةً إِلَّا وَاحِدًا، مَنْ أَحْصَاهَا دَخَلَ الجَنَّ

“Allāh has ninety nine names, one less than a hundred. Whoever comprehends them will enter Jannah.”

In light of the narration above, what does Ahsāhā/comprehends mean? Understanding this is of the essence as the premise of the promise for paradise is on “comprehending” Allāh’s Names. The scholars have several answers:

1 – “Comprehends them” includes the meaning of memorisation

In a similar narration to the one above, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

إن لله تسعة وتسعين اسمًا – مئة إلا واحدًا – لا يحفظها أحد إلا دخل الجنة

“To Allāh belongs ninety nine names, one less than a hundred. Anyone who memorises them will enter Jannah.”[1]

This second narration widens the understanding around the concept of “comprehending” Allāh’s Names, adding an element of memorisation and constant recollection of them.

2 – “Comprehends them” includes the meaning of understanding

The Arabs say, فلان ذو حصاة “So and so is a person of Hasāh/understanding”. This adds yet another dimension to the term “comprehends” in that such an individual did not merely retain these names by memory, but made an effort to understand their meanings.

3 – “Comprehends them” includes the meaning of knowing their effects

So a person who “comprehends” these names has made an effort to not only understand their meanings but to realise their effects on one’s everyday life. Such a person ponders over their meanings and makes links with everyone and everything that he comes into contact with.

4 – “Comprehends them” includes the meaning of worshipping Allāh through them

Worshipping Allāh through His Names is part of “comprehending” them, so how is this to be done?

1) By translating theory into action

One worships Allāh using His names by translating theory into action. In other words, the effects of these names appear on his heart, speech, and actions. So when he studies the names of “Al-Samī’”/The All Hearing, and “Al-Baseer”/“The All Seeing”, the effects of these names immediately become evident. He ensures that he is fearful of His Lord and is conscious of Him during his public and private moments. When he studies the name “Al-Razzāq”/“The Provider”, its effects immediately appear on his day-to-day life. He rids himself of every prohibited and doubtful source of income, having realised that Allāh is The Provider.

2) By calling upon Allāh using His names

Allāh said:

وَلِلَّهِ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَى فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا

“And to Allāh belongs the most beautiful names, so call upon Him by them…” [2]

 Such a person would choose the particular name of Allāh that suits his request most, having truly felt the implications of this name. He would say, for example:

“Ya Rahmān (O You who is Most Merciful), have mercy upon me”

“Ya Razzāq (O You who Provides), provide for me”

“Ya ‘Alīm (O You who knows everything), teach me”

“Ya Ghaffār (O You who constantly forgives), forgive me”

3) By applying the [most suitable] attributes found within the meanings of these names into our personalities and interactions.  

Allāh is “Al-Latīf”/“The Most Subtle”, and so Allāh loves to see subtlety from us. Allāh is “Al-Halīm”/“The Most forbearing” and so Allāh loves to see forbearance from us. Allāh is “Alīm”/“Knowing” and so Allāh likes to see us learning. Allāh is “Shakūr”/“Grateful” and so Allāh likes to see us displaying gratitude.

It becomes clear that one’s worship of Allāh using His names includes the application of the [suitable] attributes found within the meanings of these names into our personalities. I use the word “suitable”, as this rule does not apply to all of Allāh’s names.

Ibn Battāl said,

“The way one applies these names is by emulating the suitable ones, such as Al-Rahīm (The Most Merciful) and Al-Karīm (The Most Generous). Allāh loves to see these attributes in His servants, so one must train himself to emulate them. As for those names that are exclusive to Allāh, such as Al-Jabbār (The Compeller) and Al-‘Adhīm (The Supreme), then one is to believe in them and submit to them rather than emulating their attributes.”

Acting upon the characteristic of Allāh’s name “Al-Jabbār”/“The Compeller” is only praiseworthy in Allāh’s regard, whilst it is blameworthy in ours. In praise of Prophet Mohammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam), Allāh said:

وَمَا أَنْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ بِجَبَّارٍ

“And you are not one to compel them (“Jabbaar”)”[3]

 وَخَابَ كُلُّ جَبَّارٍ عَنِيدٍ

 “…and every tyrant (“Jabbār”) was brought to a complete loss.”[4]

The likes of these attributes are exclusive to Allāh, and our worship of Allāh through them is – as Ibn Battāl said – “To believe in them and submit to them and to not emulate their attributes.” He concludes:

“As for those names that indicate a promise, our approach towards them is one of hope and desire, and as for those names that indicate a threat, our approach towards them is one of fear and awe. This is what is meant by “comprehending” them and memorising them.”[5]

This is essentially what the scholars have mentioned regarding the meaning of the term “comprehends”.

Principles that govern our understanding of Allāh’s Names

In order to ensure a correct approach to Allāh’s Names and Majestic Attributes, there are a number of key principles that govern their understanding.

The first principle: All of Allāh’s names are revelation based

The mind of man is able to deduce some of Allāh’s attributes through observation and reflection, however man does not have the capacity to arrive at the names of Allāh. In this department, he is limited to only one source of knowledge – revelation. Attributing to Allāh a name which revelation did not name Himself with, or negating a name which revelation has affirmed for Him, is therefore to commit a major crime.

However, the remits of Ikhbār (conveying news about Allāh) is wider than simply naming Allāh. The latter is limited to revelation, whilst the former allows for more flexibility. Allāh can be described as being Mawjūd/present, although it is known that Mawjūd is not one of His names. Similarly, Allāh can be described as being Qadīm/always was, although it is known that Qadīm is not one of His names.

The second principle: All of Allāh’s names are Husnah/most beautiful

Every one of Allāh’s Names is at the peak of beauty with respect to both wording and meaning. Never will one be repulsed by the sound of any of His names or aggravated by its meaning. Rather, there is enormous joy in merely hearing Allāh’s Names being pronounced, and an even greater joy when understanding part of their breathtaking meanings. This is contrary to the names of man, which can sound unappealing, carry ill meanings, or both. The names of Allāh are, as described by Al-Qurtubī: “Beautiful to the ears and heart.”

As for those descriptions of Allāh that can have both a praiseworthy and blameworthy meaning, they cannot be classified as names of Allāh, but are praiseworthy within their context.

For example, Allāh said:

وَإِذْ يَمْكُرُ بِكَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِيُثْبِتُوكَ أَوْ يَقْتُلُوكَ أَوْ يُخْرِجُوكَ وَيَمْكُرُونَ وَيَمْكُرُ اللَّهُ وَاللَّهُ خَيْرُ الْمَاكِرِينَ

“And [remember, O Muhammad], when those who disbelieved plotted against you to restrain you or kill you or evict you [from Makkah]. But they plot, and Allāh plots, and Allāh is the best of plotters.”[6] 

Does this āyah entail that one can name Allāh “Al-Mākir/“The plotter”? The answer is no, as (1) Allāh did not give Himself this name, and (2) it is only praiseworthy within in its context, i.e. in retaliation of the plotting of the evil doers, for this description has negative implications on its own.

Other examples of this include the following:

Speaking about the hypocrites, Allāh said:

نَسُوا اللَّهَ فَنَسِيَهُمْ

“…They forgot Allāh, so Allāh forgot them”[7]

Speaking about how the hypocrites mock the believers, Allāh said:

اللَّهُ يَسْتَهْزِئُ بِهِمْ

“Allāh mocks them…”[8]

And Allāh said about them:

إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ يُخَادِعُونَ اللَّهَ وَهُوَ خَادِعُهُمْ

“Indeed, the hypocrites strive to deceive Allāh, but He is deceiving them…”[9]

And Allāh said:

إِنَّهُمْ يَكِيدُونَ كَيْدًا (15) وَأَكِيدُ كَيْدًا (16)

“Indeed they are scheming a scheme. But I too am scheming a scheme.”[10]

Despite the above, it is not permissible to name Allāh as “An-Nāsi”/“The forgetful”, “Al-Mustahzi”/“The mocker”, “Al-Mukhādi’”/“The deceiver”, or the “Al-Kayyād”/“The schemer”.

As stated above, this is because (1) Allāh did not call Himself these names, and (2) they are only praiseworthy within their context, i.e. in retaliation of the evil doing of others, for they have negative implications as standalone traits.

The third principle: The greatest example belongs to Allāh

The only resemblance between the matters of this world and the Hereafter is in the names. As for the realities, they are completely different. For example, there are grapes in this world as well in Paradise. The names are the same but the realities are completely different. Similarly, Allāh is Al-Ghafūr/“The Most Forgiving”, and whilst term “forgiveness” is understood, the reality of Allāh’s is completely different to anything that is known to man.

Allāh said:

وَلِلَّهِ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَى

“…and for Allāh is the highest description”[11]

And Allāh said:

لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ

“…There is nothing like Him…”[12]

However, the fact that Allāh’s names and attributes are incomparable to those of man is not to say that their meanings cannot be understood. They can be, but at the same time, they are unique and unparalleled.

The fourth principle: The difference between Names (asmā) and Attributes (sifāt)

The names of Allāh differ from His attributes in two ways:

1- The names of Allah are those which refer to His essence along with an attribute of perfection. Examples include the names “Al-Hakīm”/The Wise, “Al-‘Alīm”/The Knowing, “Al-Samī’”/The Hearing. These names refer to both the essence of Allāh as well as attributes of wisdom, knowledge, and hearing respectively.

As for His attributes, they are in reference to the traits of perfection that are part of His essence, like ‘ilm/knowledge, Sam’/hearing and Basar/seeing. Thus, the name signifies two matters, while the attribute signifies only one.

2- Attributes are more general than names. For example, the attributes of coming and descending are of Allāh, but names cannot be derived from these attributes. In other words, it is prohibited to name Allāh as ‘the comer’ or ‘the descendant’. The same can be said about the attributes of speech.

This is in contrast to His names, where attributes can be extracted from them. For example, one can extract from Allāh’s name “Al-‘Azīz”/”The Mighty” the attribute of might. However, one cannot extract from Allāh’s attribute a name, as His Names are derived from revelation.

The fifth principle: Pinpointing the ninety nine names of Allāh

The Hadīth that promises Paradise for s/he who “comprehends” Allāh’s ninety nine names was referenced above. What are these ninety nine names? Some narrations have listed them. It was recorded by Al-Tirmidhī and others, where the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is narrated to have said:

هُوَ اللَّهُ الَّذِي لا إِلَهَ إِلا هُوَ الرَّحْمَنُ، الرَّحِيمُ، الْمَلِكُ، الْقُدُّوسُ

“He is Allāh, none has the right to be worshipped except Him, Al-Rahmān, Al-Rahīm, Al-Malik, Al-Qudūs…”

And the narration continues till it lists the last of the ninety nine names.

However, the majority of the scholars have declared this addition as unreliable. What is authentic is the narration recorded by Bukhārī and Muslim, as mentioned above, which does not make any mention of the names.

Imām Ibn Taymiyya said:

“The ninety names have not been recorded in any authentic narration. The most famous narration which we have in this regard is that of Al-Tirmidhī’s […] and the scholars of Hadith have mentioned that this addition was compiled by Al-Walīd Ibn Muslim via his Hadith teachers (i.e. these were not the words of the Prophet Mohammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam)).”[13]

Ibn ‘Atiyya said,

“The Hadith of Al-Tirmidhī is not Mutawātir and some of the names that it mentions are erroneous.”[14]

Other scholars have attempted to arrive at the ninety nine names. Two such compilations have been included in the appendix.

The sixth principle: Are Allāh’s names only ninety nine in number?

The narration, which was cited above seems to suggest that Allāh’s names are limited to ninety nine, but the scholars have stated otherwise.

Imām Al-Nawawī said:

  1. “The scholars of Islam are agreed that this Hadith does not limit Allāh’s names to these ninety nine. What it means is that whoever comprehends these specific ninety nine names will enter Jannah, thus informing us that paradise is attained through the comprehension of them, as opposed to informing us of their limitation in number.”[15]

An example of this type of expression is when a person says, “I have 1000 pounds which I have prepared for charity”. One does not understand from this statement that the individual at hand only possesses 1000 pounds, but what we understand is that this is the specific amount that he has set aside for the purpose of charity, whilst, at the same time, possessing more.[16]

The evidence that Allāh’s names are more than ninety nine in number is the Hadith of Ibn Mas’ūd who narrated that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said,

ما أصاب أحدًا قط هم ولا حزن فقال: اللَّهُمَّ إني عَبْدُك وابن عبدك وابن أمَتِكَ، ناصيتي بيدكَ، ماضٍ في حُكْمُكَ، عدلٌ في قضاؤُكَ، أسألك بكل ِاسم هو لك سَميتَ به نَفسكَ، أو عَلَّمْتَهُ أحدًا من خَلقكَ، أو أنزلتهُ في كتابكَ، أو استأثرتَ به في علم الغَيْبِ عنْدكَ أنْ تَجْعَلَ القُرآنَ العظيْمَ رَبْيع قلبِي ونُور صَدْرِي، وَجَلاء حُزْنِي، وذهاب همِّي، إلا أذْهَبَ اللهُ هَمَّهُ وَحُزْنَهُ، وأبدلهُ مَكَانَهُ فَرَجًا). قال: فقيل: يارسول الله ألا نتعلمها؟ فقال: (بلى، ينبغي لمن سمعها أن يتعلمها)

“No person suffers any anxiety or grief, and says: ‘O Allāh, I am Your slave, son of Your slave, son of Your female slave, my forelock is in Your hand, Your command over me is forever executed and Your decree over me is just. I ask You by every Name belonging to You which You named Yourself with, or revealed in Your Book, or You taught to any of Your creation, or You have preserved in the knowledge of the unseen with You, that You make the Qur’an the life of my heart and the light of my breast, and a departure for my sorrow and a release for my anxiety’ Allāh will surely take away his sorrow and grief, and give him instead of them joy.” It was said: O Messenger of Allāh, should we not learn these words? He said: Yes indeed; whoever hears them should learn them.”[17]

This Hadith makes it clear that the names of Allāh have not all been made known to man. Therefore, it can be concluded that the Hadith which speaks of Allāh’s ninety names does not seek to limit them in number. Rather, it simply demonstrates that some names are greater than others, and that those ninety names are amongst the special ones, which, if comprehended, will be a means of a person’s entry into Jannah.

Traditional approaches to the study of Allāh’s Names vs. this series approach

The study of Allāh’s names and attributes is usually approached in one of two ways. The first is the scientific/academic approach, involving a description of the principles which the scholars have authored around this topic so as to ensure that one’s understanding of Allāh’s names is sound, and in order to refute the innovators who misconstrue them. This approach is, Alhamdulillāh, very well served. Both abridged and extensive writings are accessible.

The second approach focuses on the effects of these names on the life of a Muslim when they are understood, believed, and applied. This, of course, is the true fruit of the study of Allāh’s Names, and will be the focus of this series. Undoubtedly, an academic analysis of each of the chosen names will be included, but this study will largely be centred on the manifestations of the effects of these majestic names on everyday life to allow the reader to remain in an almost permanent state of awareness. This is to help him traverse the challenging terrain of life, to aid him in understanding and cope with the tests of life, and to ultimately ease his journey to Allāh and the Home of the Hereafter.

Since this chapter was introduced with a discussion around Tazkiat al-Nafs/purification of the soul, perhaps it is apt to conclude it in a similar manner with a statement by Imām Ibn al-Qayyim, who summarised the desired outcome of this study by saying:

“And if a person ascends in the field of realisation to a level where he can almost see the perfect traits of Allāh and His majestic descriptions, his soul will feel the special type of closeness […] where it will experience the removal of veils that stand between one’s heart and soul, and his Lord. That veil is the self, and so if Allāh allows that veil to be removed, his heart and soul will make their way to Allāh, causing a person to worship Allāh as if he can see Him.”[18]

We ask Allah to allow us to reach this lofty station.

We are now ready to start our journey with Allah’s Majestic Names.



[1] Bukhārī, on the authority of Abū Huraira

[2] Al-Qur’ān, 7:180

[3] Al-Qur’ān, 50:45

[4] Al-Qur’ān, 14:15

[5] Fathul Baari

[6] Al-Qur’ān, 8:30

[7] Al-Qur’ān, 9:67

[8] Al-Qur’ān, 2:15

[9] Al-Qur’ān, 4:142

[10] Al-Qur’ān, 86:15-16

[11] Al-Qur’ān, 16:60

[12] Al-Qur’ab, 42:11

[13] Majmū’ Al-Fatāwā

[14] Al-Talkhīs al-Habīr

[15] Sharh Muslim

[16] As was the reasoning of Al-Khattābī

[17] Ahmad

[18] Madārij al-Sālikīn

About Shaikh Ali Hammuda

Shaikh Ali Ihsan Hammuda is a UK national of Palestinian origin. He gained bachelors and masters’ degrees in Architecture & Planning from the University of the West of England, before achieving a BA in Shari'ah from al-Azhar University in Egypt. He is currently based in Wales and is a visiting Imām at Al-Manar Centre in Cardiff, and also a senior researcher and lecturer for the Muslim Research & Development Foundation in London. Ustādh Ali is the author of several books including 'The Daily Revivals' and 'The Ten Lanterns", and continues to deliver sermons, lectures and regular classes across the country.

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