The following article is posted on quran-islam.org because it contains a very good argument that sheds light on one of the principal names of God which is "Al-Rahman".
The article was written by sister W.H. Attempts were made to contact sister W.H. to debate a number of issues in the article with her prior to posting but it was not possible to reach her. Consequently, the article is posted here after slight editing and also with the inclusion of a number of 'editor's notes'. These were added to convey various reservations on a number of issues in the article.

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Al-Rahman

By sister W.H.

The first ayat (verse) of the first sura (chapter) of the Quran, which is called "Al-Fatiha" (The Key) firmly establishes that the two names "Al-Rahman" and "Al-Raheem" refer to God, the Supreme Power, and to Him exclusively. They are used together (as a pair) and separately (individually) throughout the Quran extensively to describe or refer to Him in various contexts. The context of usage of these names in the Quran clearly defines their meaning. It is also important that their usage in "Al-Fatiha", in verses 1 and 3, points out the fact that they are, in fact, a pair - as well as indicating the significance of being a pair.

First, the two names' etymology stems from the same root: RAHM, which could mean 'womb' or 'place of origin', the latter of which is more applicable here. Derivatives of this word are mainly in reference to "raheem" or "merciful", and words of the same "family" of meaning, such as "rahma" or "mercy", but the name "Al-Rahman" stands alone in its meaning, different than "Raheem" or "Merciful", but leading students of Arabic conclude that its name may be largely similar to "Al-Raheem". The Quran, as we shall show below, shows us that the real meaning is, in fact, opposite to the meaning of "Al-Raheem" (see editor's note 1). But the shared root indelibly links these two names - as a pair. What is wrong with a pair of opposites? The entire creation is based on it!

The second most important word in the Quran (see editor's note 2), and easily the most commonly misunderstood word, is the attribute-name "Al-Rahman". As mentioned above, we are explaining the meaning of this name with the word "The Almighty", which is by far the closest English expression to the meaning of this name. Almost invariably, English translators and explainers use an expression that is a variant of "Merciful" to express the name Al-Rahman (glory to His name in the highest). Some, such as Yusuf Ali, use the word "Beneficent", others use the word "Most Gracious" (Yusuf Ali uses this occasionally, Rashad Khalifa uses this exclusively), and T. Irving uses the word "Mercy-giver" (which maintains some of the sense of a relationship between the two words, but still misses the point), to name some examples. All base their interpretation on the very same mistake made by Arabic-speaking interpreters, who presume that because both words appear to have the same root, "rahm", which sounds very close to "rahim" or "womb", then both names must have a similar meaning. Other translators, not knowing what to do with the two names "Al-Rahman" and "Al-Raheem" used any two names of the following selection (Most Merciful - All Merciful - Entirely Merciful - Ever Merciful), not realising that they all denote the same meaning! None base their interpretation on examination of usage in the Quran: how does Al-Rahman use His name in His message, the Quran?

And who is more qualified to interpret the name Al-Rahman than Al-Rahman Himself? Usage, not etymology and certainly not dictionaries, is always the ultimate determining factor in Quranic word-meanings, and this is no exception. How a name, or any word, is used in the Quran should be our determining factor in deciding what is the meaning of that name or word. This procedure is even more relevant when researching a name mentioned so often, and given such importance and prominence, as the name Al-Rahman (glory to Him in the highest). When one examines every single reference to this great attribute-name in the Quran, one finds with unvarying consistency that all point to one clear and unwavering and undeniable meaning, and that is referring to the power and authority and all-encompassing might of Allah, glory to Him in the highest! The name encompasses the meaning of all the attributes that are exclusively His as The Almighty!

First, the Almighty Himself described the name Al-Rahman as being commensurate with the name Allah:

Say, "Call upon God, or call upon the Almighty." 17:110

The two names, Allah and Al-Rahman can be used interchangeably, as described in 17:110. Notice also that the name Al-Rahman cannot be used in a possessive form like rabb (Lord) or the English word "God" (e.g., "my God"). That is also true, of course, for the great name Allah (glory to His name in the highest). These two names stand alone: One. A person cannot say "my" in front of either the name Allah or the name Al-Rahman. Also, when the two names, Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem, are invoked together (in succession) in the Quran, their usage clearly declares the ultimate Authority and Power of Allah, glory to Him (refer to 2:163, 41:2, and 59:22).

Therefore, we shall examine the Quran directly and see which meaning in fact is most suitable for the name Al-Rahman, according to how this name is used in His own message to us. Sura 19 is the Sura in which the name Al-Rahman is mentioned most frequently (16 times). In verse 18 of this Sura, Maryam (Mary) says:

I seek refuge in Al-Rahman from you, that you may be reverent. 19:18

Mary asks for protection from Al-Rahman against one whom she perceives as an unknown man entering her private chambers, but who in fact is the Archangel Jibreel (Gabriel). She is asking for protection from the Most Powerful, the Almighty, not mercy from "the Beneficent"! (see editor's note 3). She is asking for protection from Al-Rahman against the "intruder" in order also to frighten the "intruder", for which situation the appellation "the Merciful" or "The Most Gracious" would hardly instill fear, and hence be unsuitable. Obviously, Maryam knew the meaning of the name Al-Rahman and we are shown here by Al-Rahman himself (who, according to 55:2, teaches us the Quran) that she used His name appropriately.

In 19:45, Abraham says to his father, a disbeliever and idol-worshipper:

I fear that you will be touched by a punishment from Al-Rahman and that you would be an ally of the devil." 19:45

The choice of which name for God to use by Abraham is very significant. Abraham wanted to warn his father and scare him of a great punishment from God. Abraham chose the name Al-Rahman knowing that great punishment is more appropriate to scare his father when associated to an Almighty rather a Most Merciful. This again sheds great light on the true meaning of the name Al-Rahman. It is within the bounds of the Almighty, His authority and power to afflict punishment, but it is not within the definition of "mercy" or "beneficence" or "graciousness" to afflict punishment or cause torture.

In 19:85-96, one of the most powerful and clarifying illuminations of the meaning of the name Al-Rahman, used here repeatedly, forcefully condemns the idol-worship of Aissa (Jesus) by Christians and any allegation that the Almighty (all glory to Him in the highest) shares power with any other, or procreates. No, He is the Creator, alone, and there is none like Him, and all others and all else are creatures, categorically different, and all are utterly and completely subjected to His authority and are His worshippers: recognise it or not! These ayat mention that the mountains, the heavens and the earth all prostrate in awe and worship of Al-Rahman. They vividly describe how this blasphemy invokes His wrath. Is this the description of "The Beneficent" or "Most Gracious"? Do these ayat describe a benevolent benefactor (as in "beneficent") or a generous host (as in "gracious"), "graciously" accommodating His "guests" or the recipients of His largesse, or a kind-hearted ruler forgiving His subjects, or do they describe none but the Almighty? For a word of such magnitude, such immense significance, an inept substitute for the true meaning cannot be simply brushed off as a minor 'mistake'.

The consequences of this 'mistake' are a chain reaction of 'mistakes' and errors in understanding the Quran that have led many to accept two unacceptable premises:

1) That Allah's mercy is the attribute with which He predominantly deals with humankind, thus relieving us of the anxiety and fear associated with His overwhelming Power and Authority and potential anger; and

2) That the Quran's meaning is more symbolic than literal and should be interpreted by those long-accepted 'ulama' or scholars who supposedly know how to interpret the symbolic meanings better than "regular people" who are not specially knowledgeable or gifted. In reality, it is one of the facts having highest priority in the Quran, that Allah (glory to Him in the highest) is both the Almighty and the All-Merciful and, in His relationship to His creatures, these attributes are in exact equivalent proportion on the most profound level. Just as the name Al-Raheem (the All-Merciful) is mentioned in the Quran (in reference to Allah) exactly twice as many times (114 times) as the mentioning of the name Al-Rahman (The Almighty) (57 times), so His power, being the "heavier" element, is balanced with twice as much mercy, such that His mercy "is as wide as everything" or encompasses all that exists (7:156).

In every instance of the usage of the name Al-Rahman in the Quran, the only appropriate interpretation is expressed in the name The Almighty. In another clear example, we have the description in 20:1-5, culminating when "Al-Rahman 'ascends' on His throne (more accurately 'assumes power on'. The Arabic word used, which is 'estawa' has no sense of 'going up' as does the term 'ascend' and Allah is higher than His throne)." This is the perfect image of power and authority, the assumption of full authority over everything. The concept of mercy is irrelevant here: that is not its time nor its place. Note translations of the Towrah (Torah) of Moosa (Moses) use the word "Mercy-seat"; could this not be a mis-translation of the name Al-Rahman as "Mercy" and Al-aarsh (throne) as "seat"? Bear in mind that these two names, Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem are part of the most ancient and profound and universal/eternal zhikr! Misconceptions also have begun deeper in history than we may think.

In the beginning of Sura 20, which in a sense completes the description of Al-Rahman in Sura 19, even the approach to the name Al-Rahman in this Sura is preceded by fear (verse 3): the proper attitude of mu'mineen (faithful people) to the Almighty (we fear His power, not His mercy). Then the source of the Quran is clearly declared (verse 4): the Creator of the earth (closest to us) and the high heaven (farthest from us, closest to Allah). Verse 5 declares His authority (not His mercy or beneficence) as Al-Rahman, glory to Him in the highest. Verse 6 declares His ownership of (to Him belongs) the heavens, the earth, and all that is between them, and what is within the earth, inclusive, and verse 7 declares His complete omniscience. This sequence is culminated in verse 8, where the "Power-Statement" or la illaha ila Allah (there is no god but Allah) is given. This specific statement is of great power and significance, to the point where its declaration is considered equivalent to the declaration of ones Islamic faith, called the shahada. Its use in the Quran is always with power and most emphatic. Here it completes the image of Allah's total authority. The cumulative effect of these words and their relationship to the name Al-Rahman emphasises and powerfully demonstrates to us the obvious fact that this name refers to none other than the Almighty! There are many appropriate places to invoke His mercy, His benevolence, and His grace, but this is not one of them!

Furthermore, this portion of 20:1-8 ends with mentioning that "His are the best names" or al-asma' alhhusna. Although alhhusna is often translated as "beautiful" it actually means the infinitive of "good" both in the aesthetic sense (beautiful) and in the general sense. In the general sense, one of the attributes of "goodness" in a name is its appropriateness. Notice that in the Quran, He repeatedly ends many ayat with a pair of names, showing us appropriate attributes to the issue or story revealed in that ayat. Again, it is as if the important point for us to know is His particular attribute, as if He is telling us about Himself, first and foremost. The fact that His names are the culminating fact revealed by these 8 ayat would indicate that these 8 ayat are telling us something directly about the meaning of the name Al-Rahman, which was also referred to in 17:110 as one of the asma' alhusna. Specifically, they show the appropriateness of this great name to the most graphic description of His power and authority, the power and authority which solely belongs to The Almighty!

In this same Sura (20), following a devastating description of the Day of Judgement and Allah's terrible power on that Day, verses 108 and 109 give a powerful and terrifying description of Al-Rahman's authority and power on that Day: wherein all will be totally submitted to Him, and you will not hear except slight whispers, and no intercession will be allowed except that for which He has already made a decision and granted permission (and even that permission is for the angels only - humans cannot intercede on behalf of other humans) (see editor's note 4). These two verses are followed by verse 110 describing vividly Allah's omniscience and aya 111 stating that all faces will be submitted to the Living, the Eternal (Al-Hayy Al-Khayyum) and that those who carry the burden of even a single act of oppression (sin) will be doomed (without His forgiveness - where is the alleged allusion to "mercy" and "beneficence" here?). This entire sequence also emphasises the power and authority and devastating wrath of the Almighty!

In order to conduct your own study of this great attribute-name, we have listed below all references to the name Al-Rahman for you to investigate and see how consistently the name refers to the attribute of omnipotence, and those attributes which are derived from omnipotence, but not the attribute of mercy or "beneficence" or "graciousness". Also note that the name Al-Rahman (glory to His name in the highest) is not derived from an adjective that can refer to anything or anyone else than the Almighty. Other attribute-names, such as Al-Qadeer (the Capable), Al-Ghafur (the Forgiver), and even Al-Raheem (the Merciful), are all derived from roots, removing the prefix Al-, that are applicable to human beings and others, and it is only their being in the Al- form that makes them solely applicable to Allah (glory to Him in the highest) (see editor's note 5). The highest exclusivity is reserved for the name Al-Rahman and this emphasises the name's greatness, significance, and meaning as referring to the Almighty, and also referring, in that sense, specifically to His being One, His being categorically unique.

The Sura named Al-Rahman is one of the most powerful in the Quran, describing in vivid details His creation in this world and the next, that creation being clear evidence of His power and supremacy as the Creator. In that Sura, this name is mentioned only once, in the first verse, and in fact, forms the entire ayat. This fact alone emphasises the importance of this name. The very next ayat mentions that He (Al-Rahman) teaches (us) the Quran, then the following ayat mention that He created humankind, and taught humankind to distinguish between things (including right from wrong). His creation of the sun and moon and the heavens, and the prostration of the stars and the trees, all are mentioned and all show His great and ultimate power over all things as The Almighty. He also includes a warning in this first set of ayat in this Sura to people not to be inequitable in weighing (i.e., not to cheat others for ones own personal gain). Creation, teaching (the imparting of knowledge requires that first there be that knowledge, and then the power and authority to communicate it), subjecting all creation to Him, and warning against wrong actions, are all acts of The Almighty. The very refrain in this Sura challenges humans and jinn to deny any of His marvels, and does not offer mercy for those who deny them. Is this the description of a "gracious" host or is the appropriate name for this set of acts "merciful" - or is it most appropriately understood to be the description of The Almighty, the All-Powerful, the All-Knowing, the Ultimate Avenger, the Supreme Power, The Creator, glory to Him in the highest? Yes, He is also the All-Merciful - but we must first fear His power and authority before we can be eligible for consideration for His mercy! Do you not see that the name Al-Rahman is always invariably mentioned before the name Al-Raheem? Do you not see that both attributes are described separately and very frequently in the Quran, to show us that these two opposite (complementary) attributes, absolute power and absolute mercy, are and can only be His alone, and this dynamic and extreme attribute of possessing the ultimate and absolute of the most basic of all opposites is, in fact, the very "seat" or modus operandi of His power? This is not conjecture. This is obviously what He wants us to know, and what mu'mineen of other eras described in the Quran also knew. Afa la taa'qiloon? (Will you not use your minds?).

These are all references to the name Al-Rahman in the Quran: 1:1, 1:3, 2:163, 13:30, 17:110, 19:18, 19:26, 19:44, 19:45, 19:58, 19:61, 19:69, 19:75, 19:78, 19:85, 19:87, 19:88, 19:91, 19:92, 19:93, 19:96, 20:5, 20:90, 20:108, 20:109, 21:26, 21:36, 21:42, 21:112, 25:26, 25:59, 25:60, 25:60, 25:63, 25:63, 26:5, 27:30, 36:11, 36:15, 36:23, 36:52, 41:2, 43:17, 43:19, 43:20, 43:33, 43:36, 43:45, 43:81, 50:33, 55:1, 59:22, 67:3, 67:19, 67:20, 67:29, 78:37, and 78:38. In all of these instances, the name Al-Rahman means The Almighty.

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Editor's note 1:

The article proceeds to establish that the word Al-Rahman means Almighty while Al-Raheem means Most Merciful. It is not accurate to say that the words Almighty and Merciful are opposites. The two words speak of totally different attributes of God. The opposite of anything is that which presents the other extreme of it, or that which lacks the attribute of the first. For example the opposite of hot is cold, this is because hot contains heat while cold lacks heat. Also the opposite of long is short, and so on. It follows that the opposite of Merciful would be ruthless (he who lacks mercy) and not Almighty. Similarly, the opposite of Almighty would be feeble (or word to that effect), and not Merciful. The claim that the two words (Almighty and Merciful) are opposites indirectly leads to the possibility that to be Almighty would mean lack of mercy, or that to be Merciful is lack of might! This is obviously not true. Therefore, and when we speak of the two names Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem, a better way to describe them would be contrasting names rather than opposite names.

Editor's note 2:

The inclination to quantise the Quran is not recommended. The Quran being the word of God would necessarily be divine in itself. One of the divine attributes of God is that God is Absolute (Al-Samad). Consequently God's words are also absolute. By definition, that which is absolute is not subject to comparisons, and thus cannot be quantised. We are not to say that one sura in the Quran is more important than another nor that one word is more important than another, and certainly not one attribute of God more important than another.

Editor's note 3:

The phrase: 'She is asking for protection from the Most Powerful, the Almighty, not mercy from the Beneficent presents a problematic argument. The author presents these two alternatives as two possible scenarios and attempts to influence the reader into accepting the first alternative. In reality, the second scenario is not a possible one since Mary was not asking for mercy but protection, and since the second scenario is not applicable, the reader is influenced unfairly to accept the first alternative as the correct one!

But in reality they are not the only two alternatives. A third, and valid alternative, is that Mary was seeking protection from the Most Merciful, this is because it is perfectly normal and valid to describe God's protection for us as a sign of Mercy. Also, we are told in the Quran that we can call on God by any of His names, nowhere in the Quran is there any indication that the believers should use only the appropriate name that is connected to the nature of their call! As a result, the author's presentation that these are the only two alternatives, is an unfair attempt to influence the reader to accepting the first alternative.

Editor's note 4:

The Quran proclaims categorically that there will be no intercession on the Day of Judgement. 39:44 proclaims very clearly that all intercession belongs to God alone, not the angels and not any humans are able to intercede. Nowhere in the Quran are we told that the angels or some of them are able to intercede on Judgement Day.

Editor's note 5:

The claim that the prefix Al before a name makes it solely applicable to God, although attractive in concept, yet is untrue in reality. In the Arabic language the prefix Al is often used for human beings. Examples for those are Al-Mudeer (the manager) and Al-Wakeel (the representative). We even find God using the prefix Al in the Quran in connection to humans, examples to those are Al-Ssedeeq (12:46), also Al-Miskeen (30:38), and in the plural as Al-Saleheen (21:75) and Al-Mumeneen (3:68). Note that both the words Al-Ssedeeq and Al-Mumin are also names of God.