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Silicon Valley Life

Published Saturday, December 26, 1998, in the San Jose Mercury News

In the Name of God

The Truth, the Light -- Muslims have 99 different ways to characterize the deity

BY RICHARD SCHEININ
Mercury News Religion and Ethics Writer


YOUSSEF Ismail is a satellite engineer in Palo Alto whose work involves the subtlest calculations and analysis. Yet he knows nothing, he says. That unsettling fact comes to mind whenever he remembers that one of God's names is the Knower, or Al-Aleem.

``This means he knows everything, I mean EVERYTHING,'' Ismail explains. ``He knows how many red blood cells are flowing through your body RIGHT NOW and at the same time knows how many ants are crawling on the Earth RIGHT NOW and how many fish are swimming in the oceans and all the lakes and rivers RIGHT NOW and how many atoms exist in the universe, how fast they are moving, and where they are going -- RIGHT NOW and ALL AT THE SAME TIME!''

It's humbling for Ismail, and that's the point. Islam teaches that there are 99 names for the one God. Why? Because God is unknowable: Bigger than that, more than that. It is hard to put a frame around the divine.

So the 99 names are reminders of God's aspects: the Merciful, the Compassionate, the Truth, the Light, the First, the Last, the Unfathomable, the Exalter, the Abaser, the Creator. The hope is that by remembering God's names -- an act known as dhikr in Arabic -- Muslims will look at the world and witness the divine in every thing and every situation.

It is one of the tools that Muslims use to know their creator better. By trying to emulate the 99 ``beautiful names,'' as the Koran puts it, Muslims try to become better people. God's names are their guide.

In fact, Al-Hadi, the Guide, is one of God's names. The Koran is also referred to as ``Al-Hadi,'' and the Koran is on every observant Muslim's mind this month. It is Ramadan, a time of spiritual purification that commemorates the Archangel Gabriel's revelation of the holy book to Muhammad on a mountaintop near Mecca in the seventh century.

A name a day

Throughout the month, Muslims recite the Koran and ``use the 99 names to sharpen their understanding of how God, the divine, permeates our daily life,'' says Michael Wolfe, a Santa Cruz writer and poet. ``They might pick one each day: Al-Karim, the Generous One, or Al-Haqq, the Truth, and meditate on it -- as one in another religion might meditate on a mantra . . . Obviously, we're dealing with a concept that's impossible to attach words to, so these names provide a direction for understanding something about the divine.''

Wolfe's Muslim name is Abd Al-Majid, or servant of the Glorious One, which is one of the 99 names.

The first 200 years of Islam were dominated by philosophical debates over how these names and attributes of the Lord were to be interpreted. To this day, there is scholarly disagreement over just how many names God has. While 99 is a handy number, it may simply represent holy shorthand for ``a lot of names,'' says Hisham Abdallah, a Palo Alto clinical pharmacologist and Islamic scholar. In fact, over the centuries, some experts have concluded that there are an infinite number of names for God, who is infinitely manifest throughout creation. Muhammad hinted at this in a famous supplication to Allah, which is God's proper name in Islam.

Abdallah -- whose name means ``servant of Allah''-- notes that most of the 99 names were revealed in the Koran, which refers to God as the ``Master'' or ``Cherisher of the Worlds'' in its first verse.

But other names have been handed down through hadith, or sayings, attributed to Muhammad. One states that God has 3,000 names: 1,000 are known only by angels, and 1,000 only by the prophets of Islam, who include Abraham, Moses and Jesus. The hadith goes on to say that 300 names for God are found in the Torah, 300 in the Zabur (Arabic for Psalms of David), 300 more in the New Testament, and 99 in the Koran. This makes 2,999 names. One last name -- hidden by Allah, according to some interpretations -- is called Ism Allah al-azam: ``The Greatest Name of Allah.''

Echoes of Moses

It has been said that this name -- which sounds remarkably like the magician's exhortation Allikazam! -- has uncontainable powers. The concept is reminiscent of the Jewish belief that God's true name, whispered to Moses at the burning bush, is unknown and too awesome to comprehend.

``In Zen, they have similar ideas,'' says Thomas Cleary, an Oakland-based translator of spiritual texts. Cleary, who is working on a translation of the Koran, recited a couple of Zen Buddhist adages: `` `When you hear the last word, you go deaf.' . . . `Don't stare at the truth or you'll go blind.' They express the same idea about facing absolute truth'' and its incomprehensible powers.

To bring these discussions down to earth, Muslim school children are taught from an early age to memorize God's 99 most famous names. In this way, they learn to think about God, always. They learn the Prophet Muhammad's statement that the doors of paradise are open to those who remember the 99 names. And like their parents, when they pray, they often begin with these words: ``Bismillah Ar-Rahman Ar-Rahim,'' which means ``In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.''

That phrase also opens all but one chapter of the Koran. Ar-Rahman, the Compassionate, and Ar-Rahim, the Merciful, are perhaps the two most prominent names for God in Islam. Many Muslims make supplications to the merciful and compassionate God throughout the day:

`` `Bismillah' might be said before a meal or if you are about to start your homework or give a speech,'' said Abdallah, of Palo Alto. ``God's servants should always try to remember and to mimic the names of God -- within human ability. . . If I'm in a position of being tested, I can remember the name As-Sabur, the One With Infinite Patience. It might be something as simple as your kids getting on your nerves -- that can be a test! Or more serious things: Maybe someone is antagonizing you or abusing you. Wherever a situation needs patience. You want to change something and it's not changing, and you remember the name As-Sabur.''

Checks and balances

This practice of remembering God helps some Muslims to develop a system of checks and balances for behavior. In other words, someone who thinks that Al-Ghafur, God the Forgiver, will turn a blind eye toward his or her sinful behavior, ought to quickly remember that God is also Al-Muntaqim, the Avenger.

``If you believe in those 99 names -- really believe -- then you will not go astray,'' says Irfan Sadaat, an engineer in Santa Clara.

In every religious tradition, God is friend and judge, creator and destroyer: The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Reflecting on all the aspects of God's greatness helps ``paint a picture of what Allah is,'' says Ismail, the satellite engineer. ``It allows one to see all the different facets. You can liken it to a diamond: As a whole it has its own brilliance, and yet without its multiple facets, it would not shine.''

Prayers at dawn

Dilshad Fakroddin, who belongs to a mosque in Mountain View, recites God's 99 names every day at dawn, ``calling upon Allah by his most beautiful names, at the most beautiful time of day.'' She says that ``by repeating the names,'' she and fellow worshipers ``hope to be `dressed' in these heavenly attributes, such as majesty (Al-Jalal), beauty (Al-Jamal), and patience (As-Sabr). As you repeat the names, more and more inspiration comes to the heart to exemplify those attributes.''

Fakroddin is trained in an order of Sufism, Islam's esoteric tradition, which teaches that every human being is born with an affinity toward a particular name of God.

Habibe Husain, who grew up in Turkey with a Sufi father, felt such an affinity as a child without recognizing it. She was overwhelmed with emotion, she says, in the presence of the elderly, the poor, anyone with a hard row to hoe. ``If going to school I met a blind person, I said, `Oh, my God, how does this person survive through life?'' she remembers.

Much later, Husain, who lives in San Jose, began to examine this impulse. Five years ago, toward the end of Ramadan, while deep in prayer, she experienced something that she describes with reluctance. What happened, she says, is that one of God's names seemed to appear ``in my heart: Ar-Rahim, Ar-Rahim, Ar-Rahim.''

Her response was to help establish a charitable organization known as Rahima -- the feminine form of the Merciful -- that gives monthly food supplies to 160 families, mostly refugees from Bosnia and Somalia. Every time an unexpected check arrives at the office, Husain says, she feels that the group is ``monitored by the divine mercy'' and that she lives ``under the umbrella of God's mercy, compassion and justice.''

The Koran says that creation practically exists to praise Allah: ``The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise God, and there is not a thing that does not hymn his praise.''

Last week, San Francisco photographer Saļ¤ Nuseibeh discovered one more way to praise God: by remembering the name Al-Musawwir, the Fashioner of creation. Somehow Nuseibeh had previously overlooked that name, even though ``musawwir'' is also the Arabic word for ``photographer.''

``I stopped dead in my tracks,'' Nuseibeh says.

He started thinking about God's overwhelming power as creator and fashioner of the cosmos. How could he even share one word with the creator?

``I'm just a little peon,'' he says. ``But this is a form of encouragement. My take on it is that the Koran and religion and the prophets give us something to live up to. God is a magnificent figure to emulate -- to strive to become even a little like God. When I think about God as `just,' it encourages me to be just to those around me. By the same token if God is a musawwir, it makes me want to do non-trite things with my work. To do something honorable.

``These names, these words, are so pregnant with meaning and association, that when I look at them they spark,'' Nuseibeh says. ``Musawwir? Lord, I'm going to feed on that for years.''

Related Story:Holy Names


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