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The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God
by Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.
Most Christians are unaware of the rich prayer life of Muslims beyond the call to prayer invoked daily throughout the Muslim world. One of the oldest and most common Muslim devotions is the recital of and meditation on the 99 beautiful names of God. Aided by the subha, a rosary-type string of 99 beads, Muslims have worshiped God using the names since the time of the prophet Muhammad.
For faithful Muslims, the names are connected with the practice called dhikr, or remembrance. The Quran calls believers to “please God and call your Lord to mind when you forget” (surah 18, verse 24) and “remember God often!” (33:41).
The Sufis, an Islamic school of mystics, deeply valued this spiritual remembrance of God, developing it into a mystical discipline aimed at opening oneself to contact with the divine.
With respect to content and expression, the names also reveal something of the nature of God to the believer who recites them.
The beautiful names are generally numbered according to the order in which believers recite them. It needs to be noted, however, that some Islamic scholars disagree as to whether God should be considered the first name. Is God so exceptional as to stand outside and above the list?
In this essay, God is considered the first of the names.
The vast majority of the beautiful names appear in the Quran in the exact form in which believers recite them. And most are found in 59:22-24, which lists 14 of the 99 names: the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate, the King/Sovereign, the Most Holy, Peace, the Giver of Security, the Mighty One, the Irresistible, the Supreme One, the Creator, the Beginner of All, the One who Bestows Form, the Mighty and the Wise.
Some of the names appear more than once in the Quran. For a handful, only the name’s Arabic root appears.
Still others do not appear in the Quran, but originate in Islamic tradition. Some of these names are paired with their opposites. For instance, the One who Withholds immediately precedes the Giver of Plenty; the One who Humbles comes just before the One who Exalts; and the One who Honors is paired with the One who Brings Low.
Similarly, the One who Resurrects from the Dead originates in tradition. Though clearly a characteristic of God in Islam, it is not found in that literal form in the Quran.
Further down the list of names, the Punisher and the Benefactor originate in tradition and are further examples of juxtaposed opposites.
Some of the names appearing in the Quran are similarly composed of opposites. For example, the One who Brings Near precedes the One who Sends Away, the First is paired with the Last and the One who is Manifest is recited just before the One who is Hidden.
Scholars generally recognize the use of opposites as typical of Islamic theology. The Encyclopedia of Islam, for instance, states that, according to the Islamic belief in the otherness and sovereignty of God, evil and good, affliction and favor, harm and benefit derive only from God.
The Hebrew Bible shares a similar use of opposites to describe God. In Job, when his wife rebukes him, Job answers, “We accept good things from God and should we not accept evil?”
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