By Zaina Cassam
Bismillahirahmanirahim translates to ‘In the Name of Allah the Most Gracious and the Most Merciful.’
Ar Rahman and Ar Rahim are two names of Allah that both derive from the Arabic word Rahmah which means ‘mercy.’ Or more specifically, ‘to show mercy in order to bring benefit to.’ Hence ‘gracious’ and ‘merciful’ as the watered-down English translation. This root word Rahma refers to a kind of mercy that actually benefits the person. Allah then derives from this word Ar Rahman and Ar Rahim. To derive two names from this same root word, the same concept, of this kind of mercy therefore emphasises Allah’s merciful nature.
Both refer to Allah’s mercy and Allah chose them for a reason to be at the beginning of every surah, apart from Surah at Tawba and to be a part of the most common form of dhikr all Muslims use – Bismillahirahmanirhahim – what we say before we do anything really: eating, sleeping, working.
Ibn `Abbas said - about Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim, `They are two soft names, one of them is softer than the other.’ This quote is one of many that expresses the significance of Ar Rahman and Ar Rahim.
So, what is the difference between these two words if they are both to do with the mercy of Allah? There are many opinions given by scholars all of which are valid and complementary to each other. Here are just a few interpretations:
The first interpretation is that Ar Rahman refers to showing mercy to the entirety creation as a whole at all times.
Whilst Ar Rahim refers to extra Rahma specifically for believers. Both words basically mean God's love for His creation.
Rahman denotes the outpouring of love that He showers on all humans and creatures; on the whole universe, through which life exists and it enjoys comforts and moments of happiness. And Raheem denotes the mercy and compassion that Allah showers on those who believe in Him, through which He overlooks their failings and gives them forgiveness.
Another interpretation is that the word 'Rahman' is a noun that indicates Allah is always merciful by nature. Whereas 'Rahim' is a noun that indicates that Allah is merciful in His actions.
Nouman Ali Khan gives another interpretation. He explains that Ar Rahman has three qualities:
Extreme – Allah goes beyond what is expected. However much mercy you may think is being spread upon you, Allah gives out more than that. An example of this quality of Rahman would be from Hadith Qudsi when Allah says, ‘If you come to me walking, I will come to you running.’
Transient – meaning it’s happening as we speak; so you don’t have to wait for Allah to love you because it’s happening right now. E.g. someone who is being patient as supposed to someone who is patient (it isn’t describing a quality, but describing the quality as being expressed in that moment)
Temporary – as in it isn’t permanent. It’s true, all of Allah’s names are thought to be permanent as you would expect, but, as Ibn Abbas explained, Ar Rahman is more to do with life in this world – it refers to Allah’s mercy as it manifests in this life, so it makes sense that it is temporary because this life is temporary.
And Ar Rahim has two qualities associated with it:
Permanent – meaning it’s always the case, it’s a constant state.
Not necessarily right now = long term quality. It’s not actual, it’s potential. For example, a wise person who is sleeping isn’t expressing the quality of wisdom while they’re sleeping but they are still regarded as wise. So already you can see how they complement each other nicely. But why have these two forms of mercy?
Let’s think about why Ar Rahman is first. Humans love immediacy. When we have an immediate need, we cannot think about anything else. But when it is met, then we can think about the future. The example of being sleep deprived helps to explain this immediacy as inhibiting our ability to think about anything else. When we need sleep, I don’t know about you but after I’ve pulled a late one, I honestly don’t care about anything- I can’t think about anything, I don’t care what I’m wearing, where I am, I just know that I need sleep right now before anything else happens. Then after I’ve had a good rest of about eleven hours and I finally wake up - suddenly I’m thinking I need to finish that assignment that was due yesterday even though I still haven’t eaten yet, I should probably clean my room and become a functional human being again – what I’m trying to say is that once your immediate need is satisfied, then and only then will you start thinking about the future.
So that’s how Allah revealed it. Ar Rahman comes first. Never will you see Ar Rahim first and that is for a reason. Ar Rahman is transient – it deals with right now. Thus, it satisfies a human nature of needing the immediate to be dealt with first. And in extreme amounts as well, because remember Allah’s Rahma is extreme – it’s getting poured all over us right now. Subhanallah.
But then not only does Allah satisfy our immediate need for His mercy - Ar Rahim comes next, because it is permanent – so basically Allah is then reassuring us that His mercy is constant – satisfying our thoughts about the future that arrives after our immediate needs.
To be Ar Rahman and Ar Rahim simultaneously is seemingly impossible for us to even imagine. There are a few scholars who use the example of imagining a violent ocean with waves as Ar Rahman because it is happening right now. And then imagining a calm ocean as Ar Rahim because its constant. Pretty sure it is beyond all of us to imagine both a calm ocean and a violent storm - all happening at the same time. We simply cannot fathom it – inshallah this helps you to realise the true power of Allah’s Rahma. That’s what makes these two words, when paired together, utterly incredible.
Ar Rahman takes care of this dunya whilst Ar Rahim - the akhirah. Allah says His Rahma will always overcome His anger. Without Allah’s Rahma we would not be here. Creation is because of Allah’s Rahma.
So, to end this reminder, I’d like to let you know how you can obtain Allah’s Rahma. There’s a hadith of what the Prophet (saw) said Allah told us, Hadith Qudsi: ‘Those who are merciful will be shown mercy from the one who is full of mercy.’ So have mercy on those in this world and the One from the Heavens will have mercy on you. That simple, subhanallah!
Inshallah, may Allah (st) make us all worthy of His Rahma in this life and in the next. And may Allah (st) help us all to appreciate and reflect on the power and beauty of the Quran, Ameen.
Dr Yasir Qadhi, ‘Tafsir Surat al-Fatihah – Meaning of Ar-Rahman and Ar-Rahim’