Dilatato Corde 1:2
July – December, 2011



Taking its origin in a series of spiritual exercises proposed to Catholic priests and religious sisters, the study, originally published in  Islamochristiana 35 (2009) 15-30, reproduces in modified form the talks presented during the first two days of an eight-day programme. The Islamic tradition of the Ninety-nine Most Beautiful Names of God is seen to be a rich source for meditation. The Names act as a bridge between God and human beings, and also constitute an invitation to praise God. Some of the Beautiful Names of God are examined within their qur’anic context, and equivalents for them sought in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. The first part of the study looks at God as Creator, with special emphasis on the creation of the human being. The second part considers God as he is in himself, in his transcendence, taking up in particular the Names al-quddûs (the Holy One), al-hayy (the Living) and al-samad (translated here as “the Rock”). 



Dialogue and Proclamation, a document produced in 1991 by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue together with the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, noted that interreligious dialogue can take on different forms. It distinguished four: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of action, the dialogue of theological exchange and the dialogue of religious experience. [1] It was in fact building on indications given in an earlier document, The Attitude of the Church toward the Followers of Other Religions. Reflection and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission, published in 1984 by the Secretariat for Non Christians (which was later re-named the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue). [2]


Dialogue and Proclamation gives the following description of the dialogue of religious experience: “where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches, for instance with regard to prayer and contemplation, faith and ways of searching for God or the Absolute”. [3] The earlier document, Dialogue and Mission, underlined the scope and purpose of such exchanges: “This type of dialogue can be a (source of) mutual enrichment and fruitful cooperation for promoting and preserving the highest values and spiritual ideals. It leads naturally to each partner communicating to the other the reasons for his (or her) own faith. The sometimes profound differences between the faiths do not prevent this dialogue. Those differences, rather, must be referred back in humility and confidence to God who ‘is greater than our heart’ (1 Jn 3:20). In this way, also, the Christian has the opportunity of offering to the other the possibility of experimenting in an existential way with the values of the Gospel.” [4]


In order to prepare for this type of dialogue it may be necessary, or at least useful, to examine the riches to be found in another religious tradition, and to see what resonance they may have within one’s own spiritual tradition. This is the purpose of the essay offered here which attempts to see how the Islamic tradition of the Beautiful Names of God can provide inspiration for Christians. [5]


It may be good, at the outset, to emphasise the limits of the paper. It is not a study of tafsîr (exegesis or commentary),in which Michel Lagarde has distinguished himself, particularly as regards Fakhr al-Dîn al-Râzî. Nor does it aim to show how much Muslims knew of the Bible, a field in which André Ferré has made several valuable contributions. It does not intend to be an exhaustive study of the Most Beautiful Names of God. [6] It proposes simply to pick out some passages from the Qur’an and the Bible which may be conducive to prayer, and thus lead to spiritual enrichment.


The Most Beautiful Names


In four places in the Qur’an it is mentioned that the Most Beautiful Names belong to God. It may useful to introduce these texts straight away, though it will be necessary to return to them again. [7]


“The most beautiful names belong to God: so call on Him by them” (wa-li-Llâhi l-asmâ’ al-husnâ fa-dcûhu bihâ) (7,180).


“Say: Call upon God, or call upon Rahman: by whatever name ye call upon him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names” (qul idcû Allâha aw idcû al-rahmâna ayyan mâ tadcû fa-lahu al-asmâ’ al-husnâ) (17,110).


“God! There is no god but He! To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names” (Allâhu lâ ilâha illâ huwa lahu al-asmâ’ al-husnâ) (20,8).


“God is He, than Whom there is no other god; who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

God is He, than Whom there is no other god; the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to God ! (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him.

He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is exalted in Might, the Wise.”

(huwa allâhu al-ladhi lâ ilâhu illâ huwa câlimu al-ghaybi wa-al-shahâdati huwa al-rahmân al-rahîm

huwa allâhu al-ladhi lâ ilâha illâ huwa al-malik al-quddûs al-salâm al-mu’min al-muhaymin al-cazîz al-jabbâr al-mutakabbir subhân allâhi ‘ammâ yushrikûna

huwa allâhu al-khâliq al-bâri’ al-musawwir lahu al-asmâ’ al-husnâ yusabbihu lahu mâ fî l-samawâti wa-l-ard wa-huwa al-cazîz al-hakîm) (59, 24).


In the last of these texts a number of Names of God are indicated. Traditionally Islam has recognized 99 Names, [8] in other words, one hundred minus one, the ninety-ninth, the Supreme Name, remaining hidden. A tradition related on the authority of Abu Hurayra states: “To God belong the Ninety-nine Names, a hundred less one; for He, the Unique (al-witr – literally the odd one) likes to be designated by these enumerated Names one by one; whosoever knows the Ninety-nine Names will enter paradise.” [9] The Names are drawn from the Qur’an: they are either found as such, or they are derived from phrases in the Qur’an, especially from various verbs expressing the activity of God.


Attention can be called to the words in the first text quoted above: “So call on Him by them”. The Beautiful Names can be considered as both a bridge and an invitation. They form a bridge in so far as they establish a link between God and human beings. They provide a way of access to God. They also serve as an invitation, first of all to praise God, through the constant remembrance (dhikr) of His Names, and then to imitation of the qualities of God, according to the Sufi principle of clothing oneself with the divine attributes (al-takhalluq bi-akhlâq Allâh).


The verb used in this verse is in the plural, and without any restriction. Can it therefore not be understood to include Christians? This is the conviction behind the present study: that Christians too can derive profit from considering the Divine Names.


Yet care needs to be taken. The verse quoted continues: “But shun such men as use profanity in His names” (dharû alladhîna yulhidûna fî asmâ’ihi). Yusuf Ali, in his note on this verse, says: “As we contemplate God’s nature, we can use the most beautiful names we can think of, to express His attributes….. Our bringing such names to remembrance is part of our Prayer and Praise. But we must not associate with people who use God’s names profanely, or so as to suggest anything derogatory to His dignity or His unity.” [10] It must not be thought that by knowing these Names one can achieve a power over God, or even come to a complete knowledge of God. As has been remarked, “Pious Muslims have always revered the mystery of the Name, which at one and the same time both designates and veils the Named” [11] So great respect is required when treading along this path.


The reflections presented here are based on a spiritual retreat given to Catholics, priests on one occasion, religious sisters on another occasion. The retreat lasted eight days and comprised two talks per day. Even then, only a few of the Ninety-nine Names were considered. The selection was made according to pre-established themes (attempting in fact to follow the progression suggested by the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius of Loyola):

-         God, the Creator

-         God in Himself, the Transcendent One

-         God close to human beings, the Immanent One

-         God of Goodness, Pardon and Love

-         God, Lord and King

-         God who guides

-         God who is generous and faithful

-         God of Peace.


The method followed comprised three steps:

-         an examination of the Names within their Qur’anic context

-         a search in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) for similar Names

-         a reflection from the standpoint of the New Testament.


What follows will be a selection of the considerations on some of the Names.


The Creator

In sûrat al-hashr, already quoted, there appears a series of Names dealing with creation: “He is God, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours)” (huwa Allâh al-khâliq al-bâri’ al musawwir) (59:24). [12] In sûrat al-baqara we find the expression “the Creator of the heavens and the earth (badîc al-samawât wa-l-ard) (2:117). The term used suggests the production of something new, a new beginning (it may be recalled that the term bidca is used to signify an innovation, with the connotation of something heretical). The passage continues, explaining how God realises this: “When He decreeth a matter, He saith to it: ‘Be’, and it is (wa idhâ qâda amran fa-innamâ yaqûlu lahu kun fa-yakûnu) . In fact the root bdc is akin to another bd’ with the meaning “to begin”. This latter root is also found in the context of creation, though in the form of a verb, rather than a participle providing a Name: “It is He who beginneth the process of creation, and repeateth it, that He may reward with justice those who believe and work righteousness (innahu yabda’u l-khalq thumma yucîduhu li-yajziya lladhîna âmanû wa-camilû al-sâlihât) (10:4). It can be seen here that God who is the Creator is also the Judge. He created once, but he can repeat that creation, or bring it back, for judgement – just as the desert, which seems dead, comes to life again after rains falls. In sûrat al-rûm the same phrase is used, with the addition “for Him it is most easy” (wa-huwa ahwanu calayhi) (30:27).


One sûra (35)has been given the name Fâtir, taken from the participle used in the first verse: “Praise be to God, who created (out of nothing) the heavens and the earth” (al-hamdu li-Llâhi fâtir al-samawâti wa-l-ard) (35:1). Majid Fakhry translates here “Originator”. [13] Perhaps the word could be taken to mean “Separator”, the one who distinguishes the heavens from the earth. The same term is found again in sûrat al-zumar in a context of judgement: “Say: ‘O God! Creator of the heavens and the earth! Knower of all that is hidden and open! It is Thou that wilt judge between Thy Servants in those matters about which they have differed” (qul allâhumma fâtir al-samawâti wa-l-ard câlim al-ghaybi wa-l-shahâdati anta tahkumu bayna cibâdika fî mâ kânû fîhi yakhtalifûna) (39:46).


What is noticeable in the Qur’an is the concept of God’s absolute freedom. A philosophical trend within Islam will develop the idea of emanation (fayd), according to which creatures develop from God as it were by necessity, in a descending degree of perfection. This hardly seems to correspond to the qur’anic presentation of creation. Yet the freedom of God only serves to underline the mystery of creation. Why should God who is al-qayyûm, the “One who stands on his own”, the Self-Subsistent, he who is also al-ghânî, the Rich, who needs no other, create anything outside of Himself? God’s gratuitous creative act provokes a reaction of wonder which can be felt in the chronologically first passage of the qur’anic message: “Proclaim (or Read) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created – created man out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood” (iqra’ bi-smi rabbika lladhî khalaqa khalaqa l-insân min calaq) (96:1-2). Another passage, in sûrat al-mu’minîn, describes the care God takes in creating the human being, and ends with the joyful exclamation: “So blessed be God, the Best to create” (fa-tabâraka Llâhu ahsanu l-khâliqîn) (23:14). Indeed, God is recognized as the unique Creator: “Is there a Creator, other than God, to give you sustenance from heaven or earth. There is no God but He: how then are ye deluded away from the Truth?” (hal min khâliqin ghayru Llâhi yarzuqukum min al-samâ’i wa-l-ardi lâ ilâha illâ huwa fa-annâ tu’fakûna) (35:3). [14]


God, the unique source, is also the unique end of creation. He creates for a serious purpose. “Did ye then think that We had created you in jest, and that ye would not be brought back to Us (for account)?” (afahasibtum annamâ khalaqnâkum cabathan wa-annakum ilaynâ lâ turjacûna) (23:115).


One final observation which follows on from what has just been said: God not only creates; he also sustains his creation. In sûrat al-dhâriyât we find the following Names of God: “For God is He who gives (all) sustenance – Lord of Power – Steadfast (for ever)” (inna Llâha huwa al-razzâq dhû l-quwwati l-matîn) (51:58). It is worth taking note of the context in which this verse occurs. The teaching is that God does not expect anything from his creatures other than adoration. It is he who provides that sustenance (rizq) which is necessary for this life. Yet God is also teaching his creatures to look further than this life, in fact to a reward which will be everlasting: “Nor strain thine eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendour of the life of this world through which We test them: but the provision of thy Lord is better and more enduring” (wa-lâ tamudanna caynayka ilâ mâ mattacnâ bihi azwâjan minhum zahrata l-hayâti l-dunyâ li-naftinahum fîhi wa-rizqu rabbika khayrun wa-abqâ) (20:131).


God the Creator according to the Old Testament

In the Islamic tradition some of the Names of God are not found as such in the Qur’an. They have been derived from verbal forms. Perhaps it may be considered legitimate to operate in the same way with regard to the biblical texts.


Taking the first account of the creation (Genesis 1:1 – 2:4) we read: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” [15]This is the traditional rendering of the opening sentence of the Bible. A more accurate rendering of the Hebrew would be: “When God began to create heaven and earth.” [16] In other words God is the Initiator (al-bâri’).


If we ask how this comes about, then the text shows us that God creates through his Word. Throughout the passage there is a constant repetition of “God said”. For instance, “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light” (v.3). This could be taken as a parallel to the qur’anic kun fa-yakûn. There follows immediately: “God saw that light was good, and God divided light from darkness” (v.4). A little later we read: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the waters to divide the waters in two’ (v.6). So, in creating, God brings about division. It could be said that he is al-fâtir. God also names the various elements of creation: “God called the light ‘day’, and darkness he called ‘night’” (v.5), as also “God called the vault ‘heaven’” (v.8). It could be said, perhaps, that God is a “Caller into being”.


At the end of the account of creation, special attention is paid to how God made man (a collective noun is used, thus including both male and female). There is first a sort of deliberation: “God said: ‘Let us make man in our own image and likeness, in the likeness of ourselves’” (v.26), and God decides that man will have mastery over other creatures. [17]


The special interest that God takes in creation provokes praise and admiration, expressed particularly in the Psalms. So the short psalm 8 starts and ends with the exclamation: “O Lord, our Lord, how great your name throughout the earth.” A sentiment of wonder is found in a central verse of the psalm: “I look up at your heavens, made by your fingers, at the moon and the stars you set in place – ah, what is man that you should spare a thought for him, the son of man that you should care for him?” (Ps 8:3)


The psalms contain many references to God the Creator, displaying much imagery. From the verbs used, many Names of God could be derived. An example could be the long hymn on the glories of creation:

Bless the Lord, my soul. Lord my God, how great you are!....

You stretch the heavens out like a tent,

You build your palace on the waters above….

You use the winds as messengers….

You fixed the earth on its foundation…

You wrapped with the deep as with a robe (Ps 104 [103]: 1-6)


The psalmist goes on to praise the provident God:

          All creatures depend on you

          to feed them throughout the year;

          you provide the food they eat,

with generous hand you satisfy their hunger (Ps. 104: 27-28)


So God is al-Râziq, or al-Razzâq, the Dispenser of all good.


The Old Testament insists that God is the only Creator. So the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

“Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, he who formed you in the womb: I, myself, made all things, I alone spread out the heavens. When I gave the earth shape, did anyone help me?” (Is 44:24; cf. 45:18).


Another prophet, Jeremiah, underlines God’s freedom in creation. He is inspired to visit the workshop of a potter, and sees him rejecting some pots and starting all over again. A word from the Lord comes to him: “As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so you are in mine, House of Israel” (Jer 18:6, see the whole passage 1-12). This gives rise to a new Name for God, the Potter. It is to be found in the third part of the Book of Isaiah: “And yet, Lord, you are our Father; we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand” (Is 64:7). Paul takes this up in his letter to the Romans: “But what right have you, a human being, to cross-examine God? The pot has no right to say to the potter: Why did you make me this shape? Surely a potter can do what he likes with the clay?” (Rom 9:20-21). This brings us to the New Testament.


Creation in the New Testament

There is little really in the New Testament about creation. Probably it was something that was taken for granted. As Paul writes in the same letter to the Romans: “Ever since God created the world his everlasting power and deity – however invisible – have been there for the mind to see in the things he has made” (Rom 1:20).


Jesus, however, does lay a stress in his preaching on God’s providence: “Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow nor reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them… Think of the flowers growing in the fields, they never have to work or spin; yet I assure you that not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed like one of these. Now if that is how God clothes the grass in the field which is there today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, will he not much more look after you, you men of little faith?” (Mt 626-30)


According to the Christian understanding, creation came about through the Word of God. So we find in the prologue of John’s Gospel:

          In the beginning was the Word:

          the Word was with God

          and the Word was God.

          He was with God in the beginning.

          Through him all things came to be,

not one thing had its being but through him. (Jn 1:1-3)


Now since “the Word was made flesh” (Jn 1:14) in the person of Jesus Christ, early Christian meditation sees Jesus, in his pre-existence, as being at the centre of creation; he is indeed both creator and the goal of creation: “He is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth: everything visible and everything invisible, Thrones, Dominations, Sovereignties, Powers – all things were created through him and for him. Before anything was created he existed, and he holds all things in unity” (Col 1:15-17).


God in himself

Although, as both the Qur’an and the Bible teach, we can know God through creation, and can recognise him as our Creator, yet he remains hidden because he is transcendent. He is both al-Zahir, the Patent, or Apparent, and al-Batin, the Latent, or the Hidden One.


There are many Names giving expression to this transcendence: al-azîz, the Great, the All-Powerful; al-mutakabbir, the Haughty; al-cazîm, the All-High; al-mutacâlî, the Sublime; al-kabîr, the Great; al-jalîl, the Majestic; dhû l-jalâl, Endowed with Majesty. This respect for God’s greatness gives rise to the popular expression: subhân Allâh: “God is far and away above” all that could be associated with him.


So God is al-quddûs, the Holy One, as mentioned in sûrat al-hashr (59:23). We find this Name also in sûrat al-jumuca: “Whatever is in the heavens and on the earth, doth declare the Praises and Glory of God – the Sovereign. The Holy One, the Exalted in might, the Wise” (yusabbihu li-Llâhi mâ fî l-samawâti wa-mâ fî l-ard al-malik al-quddûs al-cazîz al-hakîm (62:1). When God reveals to the angels that he is going to create man as his deputy (khalîfa) on earth, they cry out: “Wilt thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? – Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” a-tajcalu fîhâ man yufsidu fîhâ wa-yusfiku l-dimâ’a wa-nahnu nusabbihu bi-hamdika wa-nuqaddisu laka (2:30).


To proclaim God’s sanctity is to recognise that he is above the whole of creation. Yet can one say anything more about what he is in himself? The Verse of the Throne, in rat al-baqara, reads as follows: “God! There is no god but He, - the Living, the Self-subsisting, Eternal” (Allâhu lâ ilâha illâ huwa al-hayy al-qayyûm) (2:255). [18] God is the Living One, the Everlasting One. In fact he is not simply the Living One, but is the very source of life. He is the one who “stands on his own” (according to the etymology of al-qayyûm). In other words he does not derive his life from any other being. Consequently he alone is worthy of adoration. “He is the Living (One): there is no god but He: call upon Him, giving Him sincere devotion” (huwa l-hayyu lâ ilâha illâ huwa fa-dcûhu mukhallisîn lahu l-dîn ) (40:65).


The implication here – and this is the meaning of true devotion (al-ikhlâs) – is that nothing is to be associated with God. All form of shirk is to be avoided. God is al-haqq, the Truth, or the Real. In fact we could say that God is the only real Real. So we find this exclamation in sûrat tâ hâ: “High above all is God, the King, the Truth!” (fa-tacâla Llâhu l-maliku l-haqq ) (20:114).


This realisation points us to a Name which is found only once in the Qur’an: al-samad. It occurs in sûrat al-ikhlâs (112). How is this term to be translated? Yousef Ali has recourse to two words: “the Eternal, Absolute”. Majid Fakhry is content with “Everlasting”. Arberry [19] opts for “the Everlasting Refuge”. Mir Ahmed Ali, a shi’ite translator and interpreter of the Qur’an, renders it “the Needless”, while a marginal note gives the following gloss: “Perfect – the compact – independent on Whom all depend”. [20] Louis Gardet translates it as “the Impenetrable”. He then proceeds to present other possibilities: the Master, He who reigns; the One who is neither troubled nor moved by the actions of his adversaries; the Very High in dignity; He to whom one prays and makes supplication; the One in whom there is no “hollow”, so denying all possibility of admixture or division into parts. [21]


Can all these different interpretations be reconciled? Could one word be found which would express all these shades of meaning? In the Qur’an commentaries on this passage reference is made, by way of example, to a powerful chief who is not subordinated to any other. One can therefore have recourse to him without fear. He will always be there. He will never be deposed. He is not like moving sand, but rather like solid rock. So perhaps al-samad could be rendered “the Rock”, describing God as one who is eternal, immovable, indivisible, impassible and impassive, yet on whom one can always rely, and so to whom one can pray and in whom one can seek refuge. [22]




God in himself according to the Old Testament

Though in the Old Testament God is seen to intervene in history, thus being close to events, he nevertheless remains transcendent. This is expressed, for instance in the Psalms, by the use of the Name, the Most High. “The Lord thundered from heaven, the Most High made his voice heard” (Ps 18 [17]: 13). “You alone bear the name Lord, Most High over the whole world” (83 [82]: 18). So the Psalmist cries out: “I give thanks to the Lord for his righteousness, I sing praise to the name of the Most High” (Ps 7:18).


Other instances of this usage could be given, but it is better at this point to concentrate on three Names that have appeared in the qur’anic text: the Living One (al-hayy), the Holy One (al-quddûs) and the Rock (al-samad).


The Living God

According to the Bible, Moses died before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. It fell to Joshua, his lieutenant, to lead the people. He made them carry the Ark of the Covenant, as a sign of God’s promise to the people, telling them: “By this you will know that a Living God is with you” (Jos 3:10).


In a passage from the prophet Jeremiah this Name is used in conjunction with others: “The Lord is the true God. He is the Living God, the everlasting King” (Jer 10:10). It is worth noting the context of this acclamation. The prophet has been speaking about the worship of idols which is to be totally rejected. They are false gods, mere “nothings”, “stupidities” (to this description of idols corresponds the qur’anic use of the term bâtil). Jeremiah upbraids those who are unfaithful to God. Addressing the Lord, he says: “All who abandon you will be put to shame, those who turn from you will be uprooted from the land, since they have abandoned the fountain of living water” (Jer 17:13). Earlier he had conveyed the words of God: “My people have committed a double crime: they have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, only to dig cisterns for themselves, leaky cisterns that hold no water” (Jer 2:12-13).


Since God is obviously the true source of life, he is worthy to be called the Living God. This is the Name used by King Darius, who does not follow the Jewish religion, when he sees that Daniel has been saved from the jaws of the lions. The king acclaims the God of Daniel, saying: “He is the Living God, he endures for ever, his sovereignty will never be destroyed and his kingship never end” (Dan 6:26).


The Holy One

One of the clearest expressions of God’s holiness comes in the vision granted to the prophet Isaiah: “I saw the Lord seated on a high throne; his train filled the sanctuary; above him stood seraphs… and they cried out to one another ins this way: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Sabaoth (i. e. the Lord of Armies). His glory fills the whole earth” (Is 6:1-3). This passage could recall the “verse of the throne” in sûrat al-baqara.


Isaiah often speaks of “the Holy One of Israel” (Is 1:4; 5:19; 5:24; etc.). In a prophecy probably related to the invasion of Sennacherib, he describes with powerful imagery the action of the Lord: “The light of Israel will become a fire and its Holy One a flame burning and devouring thorns and briars in a single day” (Is 10:24). It can be seen from this that holiness is demanding, destroying what is opposed to it.


This way of naming God may seem to be too exclusive. In the latter parts of the Book of Isaiah, in Deutero-Isaiah, or the Book of Consolation (ch.s 40-55), and in Trito-Isaiah (ch.s 56-66), the particularity is opened up to a universal perspective. “Your redeemer will be the Holy One of Israel, he is called the God of the whole earth” (Is 54:5).


Perhaps the best understanding of the concept of God’s holiness in the Old Testament can be derived from the experience of the Covenant between God and his people on Sinai, as related in the Book of Exodus. Chapter 19 relates how God, wishing to sanctify his people, gives instructions to them through Moses. They are to purify themselves. In fact the people are afraid of God; Moses approaches God in their name, but they stay apart. In ch. 24 it can be seen that when the Covenant had been ratified, Moses could enter the cloud which represented the glory of God, and he could do so without suffering any harm. Ch. 33 shows the intimacy that exists between God and his servant Moses. Moses is able to speak to God face to face (the Islamic tradition calls him kalîm Allâh). God knows Moses by name, and so Moses expresses his desire to know God’s Name. In the following chapter God does in fact reveal himself to Moses: “Lord, Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). At the same time the demanding nature of this relationship with God is stated clearly: “You shall bow down to no other God, for the Lord’s name is the Jealous One; he is a jealous God” (Ex 34:14). The Holy One will brook no rival.


The Rock

The impossibility of God having any rival is part of the message of sûrat al-ikhlâs where the Name al-samad occurs. The last verse of that short sûra runs: “And there is none like unto Him” (wa-lam yakun lahu kufu’an ahad) (112:4). This goes together with the impenetrable, unrivalled Rock that God is.


This Name “Rock” occurs frequently in the Bible. It is found, for example, in a psalm that is used as the “invitatory”, that is at the opening of the Divine Office, or the prayers that monks and priests, and others too, recite each day. “Come, let us praise the Lord joyfully, acclaiming the Rock of our safety” (Ps 95 [94]:1). It appears, with a whole host of synonyms, at the beginning of another psalm:

I love you, Lord, my strength…

The Lord is my rock and my bastion,

my deliverer is my God.

I take shelter in him, my rock,

my shield, my horn of salvation,

my stronghold and my refuge.    (Ps 18 [17]:1-2)


The richness of this theme, God as the Rock, is especially to be found in the Song of Moses given in chapter 32 of the Book of Deuteronomy.

          He is the Rock, his work is perfect,

          for all his ways are Equity.

          A God faithful, without unfairness,

          Uprightness itself and Justice.     (Deut 32:4)


The description puts us in mind of some other of the Most Beautiful Names of God, al-muqsit (the Equitable), al-mu’min (the Faithful, who is a source of security and protection), al-cadl (the Just One).


The song continues by criticising the people of Israel:

          Jeshurun (another name for Israel) grew, fat, turned restive…

          He disowned the God who made him,

          dishonoured the Rock, his salvation….

          You forget the Rock who begot you,

unmindful now of the God who fathered you. (Deut 32:15, 18)


The contrast with sûrat al-ikhlâs is striking. Whereas the qur’anic text completes the profession of faith in the One God, the sole source of refuge, with the strong denial: “He begetteth not, nor is He begotten” (lam yalid wa-lam yûlad) (112:3), here the Rock is strangely able to beget.


The forgetfulness of the people leads to their defeat. They have forsaken God, relying on their own power.

          How else could one man rout a thousand,

          how could two put ten thousand to flight,

          were it not that their Rock has sold them,

          that the Lord has delivered them up?   

But their rock is not like our Rock,

our enemies are no intercessors.        (Deut 34:30)


As has been said already, the gods of the enemies are in fact nothing; prayers to them are completely without value. Only the Rock is the one to whom recourse must be made.


In the New Testament

Following the leads presented by both the Qur’an and the Old Testament, brief references can be made to the way the New Testament gives to God the name of the Living One, the Holy One, and even the Rock.


The Living God

The term “Living God”, current in Judaism, is found in the Gospel when the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin is related. Jesus remains silent, giving no answer to his accusers. This leads the High Priest to press him: “I put you on oath by the Living God to tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” (Mt 25:63). In response Jesus confesses his true identity.


Even before this Jesus had been put to the test by the Sadducees (a priestly caste). Not believing in the resurrection, they made up a story about a woman whose husband had died without her bearing his child, and who had then had six other husbands in succession. The question put to Jesus was to which of the seven would this woman belong when she died. Jesus replies that they have completely misunderstood the matter: “God is God, not of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22:32).


 We find the term “Living God” used by St Paul when referring to the conversion of pagans. Writing to the Christians of Thessalonica he reminds them of “How you broke with idolatry when you were converted to God and became servants of the real, living God” (1 Thess 1:9). God is real, as opposed to the idols, that are false and indeed nothing. It is interesting to see that Paul uses the term “servant” for the true believer. This could evoke for us the names given to Muslims: cabd al-haqq (servant of the True One, the Real), cabd al-hayy (servant of the Living One).


For Christians, God has manifested life in his Son. This is seen clearly in the prologue to the Gospel of John. “In the beginning was the Word…. Through him all things came to be… All that came to be had life in him and that life was the light of men” (Jn 1:1-4). To this the first disciples give witness:

          Something which has existed since the beginning,

          that we have heard,

and we have seen with our own eyes;

          that we have watched

          and touched with our hands:

          the Word, who is life –

          this is our subject.

          That life was made visible;

          we saw it and we are giving our testimony,

          telling you of the eternal life

          which was with the Father and has been made visible to us.  (1 Jn 1:1-2)


These words echo those of Jesus in John’s Gospel, on the occasion of the raising of Lazarus. Before working this miracle Jesus says to Lazarus’ sister, Martha: “I am the Resurrection and the Life” (Jn 11:25). To the Apostle Thomas, who had asked Jesus how to know the way to the Father, Jesus replied: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6).


As can be seen from this example, the Names of God are applied to Jesus. This is only natural for Christians, since the Christian belief is that Jesus is indeed God.



The Holy One, as a Name for God, does not appear to be frequent in the New Testament, but it is present in an equivalent form. For instance, Jesus addresses the heavenly Father as “Holy Father” (Jn 17:11). The prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples makes the connection between God’s Name and holiness: “Our Father in Heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven” (Mt 6:9-10). It can be understood from this that God’s holiness is manifested in the establishment of his Kingdom. Again Mary, in the Magnificat, declares: “The Almighty has done great things for me. Holy is his Name” (Lk 1:49). At the time of the Annunciation she had heard the angel Gabriel explaining to her how she could conceive while remaining a virgin: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow. And so the child will be holy and will be called Son of God” (Lk 1:35).


We find, therefore, that all three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are called Holy. Just as the Father is Holy, and the Spirit is Holy, so Jesus, the Son of God made man, is also called holy. When Jesus casts out unclean spirits, it is under this title that he is recognized: “I know who you are: the Holy One of God” (Mk 1:24). An equivalent expression is found in a prayer of the first Christian community which speaks about the alliance made against God’s “holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:27). Indeed, just as in the Old Testament Book of Wisdom it is said that the wicked pursue the virtuous person, the holy one, because his very presence underlines their unfaithfulness to the Law (cf. Wisdom 2:12sq.), so the same is said of those who condemn Jesus: “It was you who accused the Holy One, the Just One, you who demanded the reprieve of a murderer while you killed the prince of life” (Acts 3:14). Yet Jesus, according to Christian belief, rose from the dead and is seated at the right had of the Father, where he is “the holy and faithful one” who has the power of judgement (cf. Ap 3:7).


The Rock

The theme of “the Rock” is barely present in the New Testament. One has to come to it in a round about way. In the Gospel of John, Jesus cries out in the Temple, on the last day of the feast of Tabernacles: “If any man is thirsty, let him come to me! Let the man come and drink who believes in me.” The evangelist comments: “As scripture says: ‘From his breast shall flow fountains of living water.’ He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive” (Jn 7:37-39). The words reflect a rite performed during the feast of Tabernacles, prayer for rain which recalled the water provided for the people of Israel while they were wandering in the desert. Moses was instructed to strike the rock, and when he did so water flowed from it (cf. Exodus 17:1-7). According to a midrash, the rock thereafter accompanied the people during their journey throughout Sinai. Paul refers to this in his letter to the Corinthians. He reminds the Christians that many of the chosen people, though they had been given manna to eat and miraculous water to drink, rebelled against God: “All ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink, since they all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them as they went, and the rock was Christ. In spite of this, most of them failed to please God” (1 Cor: 10:3-5). In other words, Paul is reminding Christians that they find their nourishment in Christ, and draw from him the living water. [23] So once again a Name used for God in the Old Testament is applied to Jesus.



There can really be no conclusion to this paper since it has taken only two of the themes addressed during the eight-day retreat for spiritual exercises. There would be so much more to reflect on, first in the Qur’an, and then in the Bible. There is the goodness of God, who is al-rahmân al-rahîm (Most Gracious, Most Merciful), but also al-wahhâb (The Constant Giver). There is the theme of the forgiveness of God, al-ghâfir (the One who forgives), al-ghaffâr (the One who habitually pardons), al-ghafûr (the Abundant in pardon). There is the God who guides (al-hâdî), a Name which recalls that of Shepherd in the Bible. There are difficult names: al-jabbâr (The Very Strong, or Oppressor), al-qahhâr (The Dominator), al-muntaqim (The Avenger), for which equivalents could be found in the Old Testament, and which would need to be explained. There is God who is the First and the Last (al-awwal, al-akhîr), the One who remains, the Eternal (al-bâqî). For in fact, finally it is God who remains, whereas everything else fades away: “All that is on earth will perish: but will abide (for ever) the Face of thy Lord” (kullu man calayhâ fânin wa-yabqâ wajhu rabbika dhû l-jalâl wa-l-ikrâm (55:26-27). We could perhaps find something of an equivalent to this in Paul’s view of the ultimate state of things, after the final Judgement, when God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).


We praise God with his Most Beautiful Names, but in the end we are not satisfied. We know that human words, however inspired, are not sufficient; human language is inadequate to express the true nature of God. So we are left with silence. This is not, however, an embarrassed silence, caused by shame or shyness. It is rather the silence of long-time lovers who are simply happy to be in one another’s presence. It is a silence of fullness to which only God can guide.




[1] Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, Dialogue and Proclamation, Vatican City, no. 42. The full text is to be found in Francesco Gioia (ed.), Interreligious Dialogue. The Official Teaching of the Catholic Church from the Second Vatican Council to John Paul II (1963-2005), Boston, Pauline Books & Media, 2006, pp.1156-1189. This text will be cited as DP.


[2] Cf. Gioia, Interreligious Dialogue, pp.1116-1129. The text will be cited as DM. See here specifically pp.1125-1126.


[3] DP 42 d); Gioia, Interreligious Dialogue p.1171.


[4] DM 35; Gioia, Interreligious Dialogue, p.1126.


[5] A first version of this paper formed the basis of a public lecture at the American University of Cairo, December 4, 2006.


[6] For such a study see Daniel Gimaret, Les noms divins en Islam, Paris, Cerf, 1988. See also Angelo Scarabel, Preghiera sui Nomi più belli. I novantanove Nomi di Dio nella tradizione islamica, Genova, Marietti, 1996.


 [7] Unless otherwise noted the translation of the Qur’an used will be that of A. Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an. Text, Translation and Commentary, Beirut, Dar al Arabia, 1968 (first edition 1934).


[8] The lists of 99 Names do not always correspond. The one used as a basis for this study was published in the documents Etudes Arabes 20, pp.44-45.


[9] Quoted by Louis Gardet in art. al-Asmâ’ al-Husnâ in The Encyclopaedia of Islam (2nd Edition), vol.1, p.714.


[10] A. Yusuf Ali, op. cit. p.395.


[11] L.Gardet, ibid.


[12] The translation of Majid Fakhry has for the second and third of these Names: “the Maker, the Fashioner”; cf. An Interpretation of the Qur’an. English translations of the meanings. A bilingual edition, New York University Press, 2002, p.562.


[13] One could bear in mind the term fitra used to designate the “original nature of the human being”; cf. 30:30.  It is strange that the term al-fâtir, though clearly occurring in the qur’anic text, is not found in the list of Most Beautiful Names taken as the basis for this study.


[14 ]Since the verb afaka in the passive means “to lack intelligence”, the final phrase could perhaps be translated: “How then can you be so stupid?”


[15] Unless otherwise stated, translations from the Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, are given from The Jerusalem Bible, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1966.


[16] Cf. the commentary on Genesis by R.J.Clifford and Roland E. Murphy, in The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary, London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1991, p.8.


[17] Something of a parallel to this could be seen in the Qur’an when God makes a covenant with the descendants of Adam even before they have come into existence; cf. 7:172.


[18] Yusuf Ali’s translation gives the impression that there are three Names of God in this verse, whereas in fact only two are mentioned. The richness of the Arabic terms gives rise to the addition of synonyms.


[19] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, London, Oxford University Press, 1964, p.667.


[20] S.V. Mir Ahmed Ali, The Holy Qur’an. Karachi, Muhammad Khaleel Shirazi, 1964, p.1922.


[21] Louis Gardet, art: Al-Asmâ’ al-Husnâ ; p. 116.


[22] Only after the original version of this paper had been delivered did I discover that Michel Cuypers has also proposed this rendering of al-samad. He found confirmation for his choice in Amin Ahsan Islahi’s Urdu commentary on the Qur’an, Tadabbur-i Qur’an (Lahore (?), 1967-1980) where it is stated: “By the word Samad is actually meant a large rock behind which refuge is sought from enemy attack. It is because of this root meaning that it is also used for the leader of a nation, who is a resort and refuge for his people. In many holy scriptures, particularly in the Psalms of David, God has been called a rock, and has also been addressed as the rock of help.” Though Amin Ahsan Islahi translates the qur’anic term by the phrase “He is with everyone”, one of his disciples, Moiz Amjad , has published on the internet the following translation: “God is the Rock (that provides shelter to everyone)”. He gives the following explanation: “Samad is used for the rock, which provides shelter from the attacking enemy. God has been referred to as the ‘Rock’ that provides shelter and saves from the enemy, at numerous instances in the Bible as well. Thus, the first two verses state that although God is separate and distinct from all His creation. He is not similar to anything, and not related to anyone, yet he is not heedless and inconsiderate of His creation. He is their shelter and saviour.”  Quoted by Michel Cuypers in “Une lecture rhétorique et intertextuelle de la Sourate al-Ikhlas » in MIDEO, 25-26 (2004), pp.142-143 ; cf. the whole article, pp.141-175 with the relevant bibliography.


[23] Cf. the commentary on First Corinthians by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p.807.


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