Reference to praying and meditating on the names can be found in the Quran, 7:179, which states: “To God belong the most beautiful names. Call upon Him using them.” The names are also mentioned in 17:110 and 20:8.
Every observant Muslim recites the opening chapter of the Quran, the Fatiha, several times each day. It is the most common form of prayer and is often compared to the Lord’s Prayer for Christians. It begins, “In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Merciful,” and uses the first three of the names and hints at two more, the Sovereign and the One who Leads on the Right Path.
The Quran is not an easy book to read. For this reason, Muslim scholars have developed a highly sophisticated process of exegesis called tafsir. Early Quranic scholars (mufassir) both learned from and contributed to the exegetical methods used by the Christians and Jews living among them. Mufassir placed great importance on grammar, lexicography and what was called the “occasion of revelation,” which refers to the circumstances in which Muhammad received the particular section of the Quran being studied. The latter is very similar to the notion of Sitz im Leben (setting in life) in biblical exegesis.
Mufassir also applied their skills to the names of God, often with incredible subtlety, developing attributes with which to categorize the names.
While some of these qualities of the divine are self-evident, others need some explanation. Two such attributes are active and negative characteristics of God. Names, for instance, such as the Giver and the Kind One, describe God’s active quality. Whereas Most Holy and the Righteous describe God’s negative characteristics in the sense that they underscore what distinguishes the divine from the nondivine. For example, holiness, as it appears in the Bible, would be considered a negative attribute in that it is separate and distinct from the profane.
Some names, however, display more than one attribute, making exegesis at times quite complicated.
The name Peace, for example, has several attributes: possessor of a flawless peace (negative); giver of peace and salvation at the beginning of creation and at the time of the resurrection (active); and the One who will pronounce the benediction of peace over his creatures (attribute of speech).
All 99 names originated in the language of Muhammad, Arabic. The vast majority of Arabic words are built off roots composed of three consonant letters. By changing vowels, doubling the root letters and adding prefixes, for example, Arabic is able to produce an extremely rich and complex vocabulary.
Words derived from the same root can have many meanings, which are often quite different and seemingly unrelated. Thus, the root qbl can generate words with meanings as diverse as to accept, to agree, to yield, to confront, to kiss, to draw near, to begin, the future, the direction in which one prays and radio receiver. This suppleness makes it extraordinarily difficult to translate Arabic words.
Often a word’s context alone determines which meaning is appropriate. Likewise, the presence of a particular root in a word will evoke subtle connotations that often only Arabic speakers understand.
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