Reflections: God has 99 names

Reflections: God has 99 names October 11, 2006
99 names artwork by Fouad

Islamic tradition counts 99 names or attributes for God. It gives one only a glimpse, a small one at that, into the beauty that is God. And yet, He is not circumscribed by these attributes; He is more than they. Still, it allows the finite human mind to know Who his or her fully unknowable Creator is.

Yet, what should we do with them? Many Muslims have the names of God in beautiful frames hung on the walls of their homes. Some have them hung around their necks. Some sing the names in songs or prayer sessions. Some repeat the names over and over. All of these are good things. I want to go even further: I want to reflect on these names and attributes and try to understand what they mean for me.

I have already discussed how “Allah” is not some moon god, but the Arabic name of the One and Only God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael. Now, I will reflect on the two names that begin each and every post on my blog: Ar-Rahman, Ar-Raheem.

These words are very difficult to truly translate, very difficult to fully convey the beautiful meanings of these two most beautiful words. I translate them at “The Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” But they mean more than that – much more.

My very existence on this earth is testimony to the truth of these two attributes. The fact that I continue to walk this earth shows the unending mercy and compassion of our Lord. Each day, I continue to commit sins, continue to disobey the Lord despite everything He has given me, despite all the Grace He has shown me from the very beginning of my life.

Yet, I am spared. I am spared His justice. He would be just to strike me down for all the insolence I have shown Him. Yet, He doesn’t. He continues to bless me. He continues to give me His Grace. He continues to shower me with mercy and compassion. I love Him. I love Him with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind. I love Him with everything I can muster.

Yet, I still sin. I still disobey Him. I still fall short of His standard which He sets out for me. And His mercy continues to fall upon me like a fresh and sweet spring rain, bringing life and breath after the long, dark death of winter. There is nothing I could say or do that would even come close to repaying the Precious for all that He has done for me and continues to do for me.

Each breath I take is like a shout out to the heavens and earth that my God is the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. Each breath itself is a miracle. With each passing moment that I live, His mercy is manifested. With each passing moment that is free of disease, so many processes in the body had to work exactly and correctly together, and that is because of His mercy. I have felt the powerful pain of disease: health is part and parcel of God’s mercy.

He gave me life when I was nothing. He gave me life when He knows that I could never, ever repay Him for His gift. Is that not out of love? Is that not out of mercy? Is He not the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful?

With each day that I lay to sleep – having sinned so much – He gives me a chance to come back to Him, to repent for my misdeeds. Each time I forget to ask His forgiveness for the sins that I have already committed, He gives me a chance to remember Him and come back to His Light and Soothing Presence. If I were to drift off His glorious path, He waits for me to come back to that path, and He is there with open arms, happy to see me again. He is happy to see me even if my sojourn away from Him was years. Is He not the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful?

Each day I live and breathe, I feel his mercy. All I have to do is look around me. The warmth of a mid-October sun, even though it should be much colder than it actually is. The green of the grass, the leaves on the trees, the bright white clouds against the backdrop of a clear, deep blue sky. The mystical sounds of a babbling brook, with the water joyfully tumbling over red, green, and yellow stones. The peaceful hush of trees or large, tall grasses blowing in the wind. Even the buzz of insects – my least favorite creature – testifies to God’s Grace and Mercy.

When the rain falls, and the earth cools from its life-giving waters, the sound of the water’s pitter patter on my roof lulls me to sleep. The fact that I have a roof on which the rain’s life-giving waters pitter patter is itself tremendous compassion and mercy, for there are too many people who do not have roofs, and they have to endure the pitter patter of rain on their faces and bodies. Even the frightening crash of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning testify to God’s Mercy. I am enveloped all around by the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. There is no where that I could go in the universe without being caressed – willingly or unwillingly – by the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

So, what should I do with this reality? What is my response? Should I continue in my insolence and sin, falling short of God’s way and standard? Or, do I strive and struggle (the real meaning of jihad) to better myself and truly be thankful for all the mercy that literally slaps me in the face each and every day? Do I continue on heedlessly in my life? Or, do I ask God for His forgiveness whenever I fall short of His teachings?

I must always strive to do good: good to myself (which means staying away from all that He told me stay away), good to my family, good to my community, good to my country. And, because I know that I will always fall short of His ideal, I must always remember to ask Him for His forgiveness. And the beauty of that is: He told me He will give it to me and then give me even more. Is He not the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful indeed?

Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at

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