Issue 101 / September - October 2014
What Is In a Name?
God's names were subject to various discussions and books. Arthur C. Clarke has written a science fiction story in 1953 titled, "The Nine Billion Names of God."1 It tells a story of monks who try to decipher all the names of God using a computer permutation program. They believed that God had created the universe to reveal His names, and once all of His names were revealed, the end was close. When Westerners learn that the monks are close to finishing the program, they take off and leave the earth before it all ends.
In the Hebrew Bible, God says to Moses: "I know you by name." This knowledge indicates a deeper insight as to who Moses really is and tells that the acquaintance via exchange of the names is not just superficial information, but rather a kind of in-depth knowledge.2 In the Psalms, David narrates: "He leads me on right paths for his name's sake" (Ps 23:3).
Both in the Hebrew Bible and in the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), God is present wherever His name is recited: "In every place where I proclaim my name I shall come to you and bless you" (Exod 20:24).
In the Qur'an, in Chapter Baqarah, God declares His intention to create humans. The angels cannot help but ask Him "Are you going to create someone who will shed blood on the earth?" Then God says "I know what you don't." When He summoned Adam and asked him to recite the Names He taught Him, the angels were surprised by the knowledge and potential of Adam. "They said: 'Glory be to You! We possess no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are All-Knowing, the Wise'." He said: "O Adam! Inform them of their names." When he had informed them, God said: "Did I not tell that I know what is unseen in the heavens and on Earth, and I know what you reveal and what you hide?" (Surah al-Baqarah; 31- 33.)
A modern day Muslim scholar, M. Fethullah Gulen, writes that the knowledge given to Adam was not exclusive to him, but rather was given to all humans. Generations of people developed the seeds of knowledge given to Adam and this is how the sciences were developed. Human's deep desire to know is the seed that was planted in human soul with the "Names." 3
According to the early 13th century scholar, Fahraddin al-Razi (d. 1209), the knowledge that should be attained first and foremost on earth is the knowledge of God's names. Only through His names can a person know God.4 20th century scholar Said Nursi (d. 1960) writes that all sciences came from one specific name of God. For instance, 2 plus 2 makes 4, and this relates to equality of the two sides of the equation. Thus, math comes from His name Just, in Arabic, al-'Adl. Medicine treats an illness and has a strong connection to the name of The Life-Giver, alâHayy. Similarly, the physics that rule the universe, from gravity to rain, are reflections of God's name in the language of this world. The clouds function as a sponge, clean the sky, and the rain cleans the earth, leaving behind not only cleanliness but also beauty and tons of benefit for the circle of life. 5
Muslim scholars have written treatises to explain the meaning and function of the Names of God over the centuries. These treatises are called "The Exegesis of God's Names." They are manuscripts in libraries, from Spain to Turkey, and in various languages, from Arabic to Turkish. When one considers that Hebrew became a written language in Spain in the 12th century,6 and since God's names are a theological topic in Judaism, manuscripts on God's Names in Hebrew might have been penned. I am not aware of any research to disclose the various forms of Hebrew literature on God's Names. However, there are books in traditional Cabbalist literature on the power of God's names when recited certain times.7 These types of books also exist in the Islamic tradition, but they are read as a means and formula to pray in the best way to communicate with God. Reciting God's seven names, though different in Judaism and Islam, exists in both traditions. Certain Muslim scholars used to recite these names, while others recited the other names, either in silence or aloud in a group, once a week, functioning as a social practice of prayer and meditation.
The names of God also formed a genre on its own in poems written by Muslims and Jews. Muslims narrated that the Qur'an reveals a hundred names of God, Allah, being the one that encompass all other names. Yet God's names are not limited to this number. Another prayer called "Jawshan" enumerated God's 1000 names poetically.8 This book is narrated in the sources of Shia, yet it is widely read among Sunnis, too. Ali, the son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is known as the door of the city of sciences and knowledge in both Sunni and Shia traditions. Thus, it is not a surprise that Ali narrated this very valuable source on God's names. After all, God's names are the keys to opening the doors of knowledge and various sciences till the end of time.
A thousand names of God are poetically narrated in "Jawshan" in a form of prayer for all, 300 names were revealed in the Torah, and another 300 in Bible.9 God's name reminds believers, not only Muslims of different sects â but also People of the Book, be they Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or someone else â that the hearts and minds of humans address One God, Who has Beauty and Mercy in His Power, and Power and Magnificence in His Beauty.
1 Clarke, Arthur C. 1983. "The Nine Billion Names of God". Golden Age of Science Fiction.
2 Exod 33: 12 from Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. In Search of God: The Meaning and Message of the Everlasting Names. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988, p. 8
4 Dilek, Mehmet. "Hadislerde El-Esmau'l-Husna", HRU Ilahiyat Fak. Dergisi, C: XI, Sayi: VI, Temmuz-Aralik 2003, s. 77-94.
5 Nursi, Said, and HuÌseyin Akarsu. The 30th Gleam, in The Gleams, The Risale-I Nur Collection. Somerset, N.J.: Tughra Books, 2008.
6 Menocal, Maria Roa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, 2003.
7 Swart, Jacobus G., The book of Sacred Names, The Sangreal Sodality Press, 2012.
8 Al-Jawshan Al-Kabir: a prayer for all, a supplication of Prophet Muhammad. Somerset, N.J.: The Light, 2006.
9 Sahin, Abdullah. 'Edebi bir Tur Olarak Klasik Edebiyatimizda Esma-i Husnalar', A. U. Turkiyat Arastirmalari Enstitusu Dergisi, s. 16, Erzurum, 2001, s. 52.