Oftentimes the first question we ask strangers is “What is your name?”
It’s a simple, but essential part of getting to know someone. Names are what we call each other, how we refer to our friends, our family, our teachers, our pets, strangers, and everyone in between.
There are names people give themselves (I shudder whenever I hear someone call my mother by her full legal name instead of “Mama”), and names people are given.
Ultimately, names are how we connect with others. In Islam, God had ninety-nine names, ninety-nine titles that He chose for Himself, for us to call Him, for us to invoke in prayer and for us to find Him in.
I think for so long, the magnitude of that went unnoticed for me.
I remember this small book that would always come out of a dusty closet once a year, during the holy month of Ramadan.
The cover was a beehive, except the bees were gathered in the shape of the name Allah in Arabic, and I, as a small child, thought that was neat. But inside of the book were the ninety-nine names, as it was the holy month, my mom would always encourage me to try to memorize the names. It was always more of a joking-kind-of-goal for me, something that we just imagined we could do but never truly believed.
I had no attachment to these names, no importance I gave to or found in them. They were just names, as if names can be just anything. But I was a kid, and I thought the bees were cool.
Come this past Ramadan, and I attended a talk given by Malek Bendelhoum, where he talked about knowing Allah, and how that is key to our religion. I raised my hand, asking for some action items, some tangible steps to get to know God. He said to use different names of Allah during dua according to the situation, and I found that interesting.
I usually just said “Hey Allah, please like get me into Heaven please, if it’s best for me." But to ask Ar-Rahman, the Most Merciful, to ask Al-Wadud, the Origin of Love, to ask Allah by telling him “I know you, I love you and to love someone is to strive to know them, and I have striven to know you'? That is powerful.
In the book Secrets of Divine Love, author A. Helwa introduced an exercise involving the 99 names, where the reader observes nature with a notebook and pen, opening their heart to their environment and observing the beauty around them.
The reader is told to write any qualities that come to mind when they do this, and then they should look through the list of Allah’s names and find the ones that resonate with the qualities of nature they recorded. There’s another part to this activity, but I was most fascinated by this first part.
I had never considered connecting Allah’s names to my lived, real-life experiences, let alone my love of nature. I decided to try and implement my own form of this reflection, where every night, right before bed, I would journal, recapping my day to myself, in all of its ups and downs, and at the end, I would pick out a name or two from the list of God’s 99 names that I felt represented my day in some way.
I’ve been doing this for a while now, and it truly has aided my connection with the names and hence, Allah.
I have also discovered that linguistically, the names of Allah are incredibly insightful once one considers the multiple meanings that they have.
Ar-Rahman and Ar-Raheem, for example, are two of the most well-known names of Allah, as they are in Surah Al-Fatiha and are therefore recited in every one of the five daily prayers. However, I think that there is more to be gained from looking beyond 'The Compassionate' and 'The Merciful'.
Ar-Rahim can be used as a quality of a human being, but Ar-Rahman is reserved for description of Allah. When used together, Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim are all-encompassing in their representation of mercy, they become every form and shape of mercy, and therefore, they can only be used together to represent God.
Furthermore, Al-Wadud is another name that has printed itself onto my consciousness ever since I found that one of its translations is 'The Origin of Love'. I’m sure I have read and heard Allah described as 'The Most Loving', another translation of the name, but when I read that he is the source, the beginning of every love in this universe, I was struck.
I was shook by the magnitude of this name, of what it implies. The love, platonic, familial, romantic, divine, all of it comes from Allah. How can I not make an effort to love the One who invented love?
I have found Allah’s names to be powerful forces for change in how I perceive Allah and how I pray to Him, and I highly recommend exploring them with an open, curious mind.
Try thinking about the various meanings his names can have, how they apply to what you or someone you know is experiencing, how Allah is in control of that and how he can undeniably help you.
Call out to these names of Al-Wadud, Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim. The One who encompasses these names is always listening.