Between Fear and Hope: Implications of Divine Names

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Dr. Ahmed Afzaal

In the previous issue a brief essay outlined the basic Islamic understanding regarding the most beautiful names of Allah (SWT).
The present essay will show that a correct understanding of divine names is closely related to a correct understanding of Islam. The latter has direct implications for Islamic activism, as our relationship with Allah (SWT) ends up determining the shape of our actions
and the contours of our lives.

It has been pointed out earlier that the dhat (or Essence) of Allah (SWT) is an unknown and unknowable mystery; human beings cannot know Him as He truly is in Himself. Yet, human beings have a need and a strong desire to know their Creator and Cherisher so that they can love, serve, and worship Him in a manner worthy of Him. In His infinite mercy, therefore, Allah (SWT) has made it possible for us to gain some degree of knowledge of who He is; our knowledge of Allah (SWT) is possible through our experience and understanding of His names and attributes as they manifest within this world, within our own souls, and within His own living speech. In other words, even though humans cannot know Allah (SWT) as such, they can come to know some of the ways in which His names and attributes are manifested.

All of the most beautiful names, with the possible exception of the name Allah (SWT), consist of adjectives preceded by a definite article. These names are indicative of various attributes of Allah (SWT). Each name therefore indicates a particular aspect of the relationship that Allah (SWT) chooses to establish with His creation. In the present issue, we will discuss the traditional Islamic view of the inherent symmetry of these names. As noted by a number of Islamic authorities, many (but not all) of the most beautiful names of Allah (SWT) may be divided into two groups: 1) names denoting His majesty (or jalal), and 2) names denoting His beauty (or jamal).

Some divine names indicate that Allah (SWT) is majestic and wrathful, a just ruler, a sovereign king; He is distant from the creation and utterly transcendent. Such are the names of jalal or majesty. When we experience and understand our relationship with Allah (SWT) through His distance, transcendence, power, justice, holiness, majesty, severity, wrath, etc., then we use His names of jalal to describe the corresponding attributes. We say that He is Magnificent, Overbearing, Tremendous, King, Holy, Majestic, Slayer, and so on. These experiences of our relationship with Him, and the corresponding attributes and names, make us feel finite, small, and insignificant; we realize our impotence and we fear His justice and His wrath.

On the other hand, some divine names indicate that Allah (SWT) is near and very easily accessible to His creation; that He is immanent and merciful in relation to His creation. He is kind, lenient, and loving. Such are the names of jamal or beauty. When we experience and understand our relationship with Allah (SWT) through His nearness, immanence, mercy, beauty, kindness, love, etc., then we
use His names of jamal to describe the corresponding attributes. We say that He is Merciful, Gentle, Loving, Beneficent, Life-Giving, etc. These experiences of our relationship with Him, and the corresponding attributes and names, make us feel loved, cherished, protected, and appreciated; we realize our loving closeness with Him and we hope for His mercy and blessings.

Anyone who is somewhat familiar with the Qur

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