Ar-Rahman, Ar-Rahim and Ar-Rahm by Jameelah X. Medina


 [The Most Compassionate, Beneficent, Ever-Merciful and the Womb]

In the Islamic tradition, there are numerous Names of Allah of which 99 are said to be known. Of these 99 Names or Attributes of Allah, two open the Qur’an in the very first line in the first chapter: ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim. The Qur’an begins with, “Bi ismiAllahi ar-Rahmani ar-Rahim [in the Name of God, The Beneficent, The Merciful]…” These two names are also ubiquitously repeated by Muslims when reciting from the Qur’an, initiating prayers, commencing events and gatherings, and more.

Although I am not particularly interested in etymology, I have long been fascinated by these two Names or Attributes of Allah coming from the same root as the word for “womb” and “mercy”—ar-rahm and ar-rahma respectively. Since all of human creation is brought into physical being through a womb I had so many questions: 1) Of all the root words that could have been used to establish the meaning of these opening words of the Qur’an to describe the Creator, why were words that relate to the womb, wom(b)anhood, female anatomy, and motherhood chosen instead of some phallic symbol of power and creation?; 2) How is mercy, beneficence, compassion, and graciousness related to the womb in Arabic?; 3) Was this Allah’s way of elevating the status of women at that time in that time and among the people to whom the Qur’an was originally revealed?; 4) If the female attribute of a womb  is related to these two Attributes of Allah, is the womb godly? Is the wom(b)man divine?; and lastly, 5) Could we have all been created from the figurative or even literal Womb of Allah making Allah The Great Mother of all creation?

In the Qur’an (e.g., 4:1), Allah tells “mankind” to revere/fear/remain dutiful to “the wombs.” Many take this to mean actual mothers, familial relationships, and/or woman in general. In that same verse of the Qur’an, Allah also states that all humans were created from a single human being. Most Muslims I have encountered, believe in the creation story of a male, Adam, being the first human to be created by Allah; I was once one of them. However, after researching and critically thinking about the creation story in the context of these two Names of Allah, I began to opine that (if the story is literal) Adam was the first man and first of mankind to be created but not the first human. I began to believe that womankind or a woman was the first human to be created. I wanted to be fair and think that both were created at the same time, but the Qur’an clearly stated that all come from a single human being. Short of this original human creation being some sort of mix of man and woman (as many also attribute to Allah), I sided with that part of me that knew that the all of human creation passes through a womb in this physical world. Unless Adam had that womb, Eve was the first human for me.

Later in the Qur’an, a full chapter (55) of 78 verses is named after one of these two Attributes of Allah: ar-Rahman. Within the first few verses of Chapter/Surah ar-Rahman, Allah speaks to humankind reminding them that Allah created them, the Qur’an, their intelligence, their ability to speak, and even the sun, moon, herbs, and the trees. After arriving at my new conclusions, I began to read more into these first verses, specifically 55:5 where Allah states, “The sun and the moon follow courses (exactly) computed” otherwise translates as “The sun and moon (move) by precise calculation” due to Allah. Reading this verse through the lens of a woman with a pretty precise menstrual cycle/course, I saw confirmation of my opinions regarding the close relationship between Allah, the womb, woman, and her menstrual cycle as something divine that mimics Nature (i.e., the moon) or the reverse.

As many Muslims follow prophetic sayings (ahadith) after the Qur’an, I began searching there for a relationship between Allah and the womb. In the Sahih Bukhari collection (Volume 8, Book 73, Number 16-18), I found three ahadith that answered my call. One is narrated by Abu Huraira and states:

 “The Prophet said, ‘Allah created the creations, and when He finished from His creations, Ar-Rahm (the womb) said, “O Allah at this place I seek refuge with You from all those who sever me. Allah said, ‘Yes, won’t you be pleased that I will keep good relations with the one who will keep good relations with you, and I will sever the relation with the one who will sever the relations with you.’ It said, ‘Yes, O my Lord.’ Allah said, ‘Then that is for you.’”

There are two more ahadith that are very similar reported from Abu Huraira and ‘Aisha (a wife of the prophet), both of which also confirm the root ar-Rahman and ar-rahm as the same. The hadith quoted above also amazed me because the womb (symbolically or literally) had a conversation with Allah and Allah responded to it and granted the request. The little brat in me stuck her tongue out and smugly (and silently) remarked, ‘Hmph! How many penises and testicles can say that their original one had a conversation with Allah?!’

All of these ruminations took place long ago, thereby helping me to understand why patriarchy, especially in Islam and among Muslims, flexes its muscles so intently. It makes me wonder: What would happen if every Muslim woman read and understood the Qur’an and ahadith from a woman’s perspective and countered every mainstream narrative that sought to reduce the Muslim woman to a second-class adherent instead of a being that is, perhaps, anatomically and/or creatively closer to Allah than her male counterparts?

Jameelah X. Medina, Ph.D., is an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.

 

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Categories: Islam, Prayer, Spiritual Journey

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26 replies

  1. Jameelah, when I read these and similar ideas in the Hebrew Bible and other religious texts or in traditions about (Virgin) Mary I have to ask myself: is this “openmindedness” on the part of the authors of the texts or traditons to female power, or is it rather co-opting ideas and images that came down from ancient pre-patriarchal traditions and “baptizing”:them into the patriarachal cannon–because the people wouldn’t give them up? What do you think?

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    • Carol, I can’t say for sure of it is a mix of both or one or the other. However, there is so much of Islam that is not original; Islam is taught as a continuation of Jewish and Christian holy books.And those ttraditions have commonalities with pre-religious beliefs and practices.

      It is easy to read patriarchy into texts or the opposite. I also don’t think Allah is pro-woman vs man. There are elements of Islam that show how new ideas and rules were introduced to the population gradually. The txt itself came down over 20 years, and the prohibition of alcohol began on Fridays and then became an outright prohibition. The same for the rights of women and teaching them that female infanticide was wrong, as well as the gradual prohibition of slavery since most had them and were not keen on the idea of giving them up. Therefore, there was a gradual manumission of slaves as a way to expiate sins. So, there could be an element of keeping womanhood divine as a way for those would-be Muslims who were still worshipping the goddess.

      What do you think about it?

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  2. Like I always say, the Goddess is the Grandmother of God. The Goddess of Old Europe predates the standard-brand gods–all of them, and the patriarchal pagan pantheons (Zeus, Jupiter, Odin, etc.) too. It’s nice to consider holy books opening wombs, so to speak. Thanks for writing this! You may be right that they don’t teach girls to read because girls who read may read “womb” instead of “penis.”

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    • Thank you. Yes, it just seems to me that girls and women can read some really empowering things instead of knowing religion by second-hand and blindly accepting another’s interpretation and perspective. You are not saying this, but I want to add that it is not so much womb v. penis so much as it is simply women too.

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  3. The same correspondence between “womb” and “compassion” exists in the cousin language of Hebrew. Rekhem and Rakhamim. It probably predates both Judaism and Islam.

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  4. I have a different perspective.
    1) It is true that Hebrew also has similar words with similar root-word/meaning. Because some of the words used in Hebrew are grammatically feminine, some Jews have posited that God is gender-less because he consists of both genders. As per my understanding—this is not the Islamic view. God is gender-less, neither male nor female nor both male and female. Therefore God(Allah) should not be appropriated by any genders.

    2) Language has limitations and this must be recognized when understanding major concepts. For example, the use of grammatical male language does not necessarily make God male—it is simply a limitation of language. As I understand it, (verse 4:1) “nafs” or self/soul/consciousnesses in Arabic is grammatically female (as is nefesh(soul)—the Hebrew equivalent). However, soul need not be gendered.

    3) Compassion/Mercy=Womb—A womb provides a protected and nurturing environment for the fetus to grow (physically)—the position of the earth in the universe, the circumstances and vicissitudes in our lives, and the gift of a limited will, offers a protected and nurturing environment for our souls to grow in spirituality.

    There is a wonderful verse from the Tao te Ching which I think echoes the Quran:-

    The Tao gives birth to all beings
    nourishes them,
    maintains them,
    cares for them,
    comforts them,
    protects them,
    takes them back to itself
    creating without possessing
    acting without expecting
    guiding without interfering
    that is why the love of the Tao is in the very nature of things.

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    • It is one thing to declare a gender for the Divine (we could quote Dao De Jing on that too: “The Dao that can be named is not the eternal Dao”) and entirely another to correct the masculine template imposed for millennia. Also, bringing up a female *conceptual* way of describing the divine is not the same thing as grammatical gender. In any language; as we can see in Greek, penis (psolí) is grammatically feminine, and there are many other disconnects of this kind that could be enumerated. However, saying that the Divine is ungendered or co-gendered or any other descriptions of this kind, does not dig people’s conceptions of the Female out of the deep hole of “inferiority,” subordination, exclusion, and profanity that has been culturally assigned to her for a very long time in a great many societies. So i think you miss the point.

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    • thanks for your pov.The mainstream Islamic view actually is the same–Allah is genderless. Another pretty mainstream view but not as popular is that Allah is (or encompasses) male and female.

      I absolutely agree that no one should appropriate Allah as belonging to them. This piece serves as an example of ‘hostile bravado’ that Goffman talks about in his seminal work on social stigma.

      Obviously, language is limited and he is often used to encompass all others. However, it is not without implications, especially when dealing with such a huge concept as Allah and religion in world and time where patriarchy is rampant. This limitation in language has been used to exert power, privilege, and control over those who are not “he.”

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  5. “saying that the Divine is ungendered or co-gendered or any other descriptions of this kind, does not dig people’s conceptions of the Female out of the deep hole of “inferiority,” subordination, exclusion, and profanity that has been culturally assigned to her for a very long time in a great many societies.”

    thanks for making this point much more clearly than I did!

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  6. Perhaps I missed the point or misunderstood—but I would like to explain further……
    “saying that the Divine is ungendered or co-gendered or any other descriptions of this kind, does not dig people’s conceptions of the Female out of the deep hole of “inferiority,” subordination, exclusion, and profanity that has been culturally assigned to her for a very long time in a great many societies.”

    Constructs for male/female gender roles may differ depending on the society/history. Sometimes, when symptoms look the same—we assume the cause is also the same. Yet, when causes are different, then how solutions are articulated may also be different.

    It is true that abuse of privilege has occurred even with an “ungendered Divine” —to correct this abuse by gendering God would not be an appropriate response in the Islamic ethico-moral context. This does not mean one needs to stifle perspectives that view a relationship with God through gendered lens—rather a diversity of views would bring insight and compassion. But it must be done under Tawheed (Unity)—the understanding that LGBT, female, male , youth, handicapped views of their conceptual relationship to Divine will lead to insights that create balance and harmony that lead to Unity. To dismantle the (singular pov) privilege in this context would mean to embrace a many-faceted, inclusive view —and the 99 names of God paves the way for this….but it also means that “God” (concept of Divine) must remain a sort of “blank canvas”—it cannot be appropriated or personified.

    “…countered every mainstream narrative that sought to reduce the Muslim woman to a second-class adherent instead of a being that is, perhaps, anatomically and/or creatively closer to Allah than her male counterparts?”
    …..I may be misunderstanding/misreading here….but if this means that a female perspective is better than, or must replace the male perspective in order to counter and empower—then such a solution will create an imbalance (in the Islamic context)—on the other hand if this is saying that the female perspective must be one in a diversity of perspectives (including the male) in order to counter and balance the singular male perspective then this could perhaps create (conceptual) justice/equality and empowerment inclusively.

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    • It seems to me that it has been appropriated and personified, with a masculine construction of “God” that is so pervasive (including in the grammatical masculine default of the 99 Names) as to have convinced countless people that it is required to understand “God” in that framework, to the point where calling “Goddess” is regarded as blasphemy, shirk, unthinkably wrong. When one side of the garden has been flooded and the other has gotten no water at all, you do not restore balance by watering both sides equally. We start from where we are, and denying the elevation of the masculine at the expense of the feminine helps perpetuate the imbalance. In a world where gender did not matter, none of this would matter; it would be a non-issue. But that is not where we stand, and the status quo is injurious no matter what claims of non-genderedness are made for the Divine.

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      • “it has been appropriated and personified, with a masculine construction”— I do not see this in Islam, however, assuming it has happened—that “God” has been appropriated and personified into a male—-solving this “problem” by creating another “problem” is not the solution according to my understanding of the principle of Tawheed (Unity)—rather promoting “right belief” is a better long term solution. In this case right belief would be understanding that ANY appropriation and personification of God is “Shirk”. (…but, God knows best…)

        watering both sides equally—IS they way to restore balance because causing injustice to the male in the course of promoting female privilege will cause an imbalance. An evenly well-watered (and well -drained) garden will reflect paradise…….

        This does not mean that we ignore the injustice—rather, that as we strive for justice—we keep the end goal of Tawheed(Unity) in mind. When we build on the right foundations—perhaps there is more possibility of systemic justice…….and the blueprint (the way) already exists in Islam…..

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        • Anon, whoever you may be: to overwater an already flooded land is harmful, and brings blight. That is not restoration of balance. When the sogged area has drained, then we can speak of watering evenly. When the male child is fed and the female starved, the food must be divided more fairly. That is the path to Oneness. The discourse of Allah as “he” is the approved norm in Islam, is it not? That is not Tawhid, because oneness includes everything in its vision. It is not enough to state, as we are accustomed to hearing, that the masculine “includes” the feminine, and so the feminine goes unmentioned, and women struggle to find themselves in a One which is skewed to the masculine. Such imbalance is the real threat to Tawhid, and not the attempt to restore balance within human culture and naming of the Divine.

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  7. Agreed, Max. Almost every time I refer to Allah as She, I am called out for it even though the claim is that He is just a default and Allah is genderless or both male and female. If referring to Allah as He had no charge to it, no eye would blink when one chooses to say She instead.

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  8. @ Max
    “When the male child is fed and the female starved, the food must be divided more fairly. “—that is exactly my point—one does not restore balance by starving the male child in order to feed the female.

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    • You assume that not overfeeding the male child would cause him to be starved. But the female is being starved, and you do not seem concerned about that. Your conclusion is erroneous; no one here is suggesting that the Divine should never be invoked in masculine form.

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  9. @Max
    “…no one here is suggesting that the Divine should never be invoked in masculine form.”—In that case we are in agreement—though I am uncomfortable with the phrasing of that sentence—perhaps “conceptual narrative” may reflect our discussion better than “invoke”, and “form” understood as grammatical/linguistic rather than person/image…..?……….

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  10. “we imagine reality with images as well.”–Interesting statement.
    As a Muslim I have to disagree. Muslims have been steadfast in holding on to the idea that God/Divine cannot have imagery. In this regard, Dr Medina has also been steadfast in upholding this both in her post and subsequent comments. (—concept of 99 names as attributes)

    In one of the Surah in the Quran God is described as light upon light. “Light”(in our culture) also has connotations of Knowledge/Wisdom. Neither of these description/symbolism has fixed gender or form/imagery. In other words—it is understood that God is beyond “human reality”….and God knows best.
    In the Islamic framework—this is a very important concept.

    This is not true of the West or of Western Christianity where imagery of God is that of a white male. (and often attempts at replacement simply create a white female goddess….). I cannot comment on the Western solutions to male privilege or the (singular) male pov in religion—other than to say that the West has come up with solutions that best fits its particular needs arising from its own particular narrative.

    We Muslims also need to have solutions that best fit our needs—but we must articulate both the problem and the solution within an Islamic framework. As I see it, the “problem” is not male privilege itself, rather the abuse of privilege. Which is why replacing one gender with another gender will not solve the problem. Abuse of privilege requires solutions from justice…and this justice must have within it aspects of compassion, liberty and equality……

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  11. Well, i am not a Muslim, so there you go. However i will just say that some of the 99 Names such as “al-Malik” and “al-Wali” have definitely gendered human associations within the Muslim cultural context. Male privilege results in abuse, as is true of any kind of artificial social rank of this kind, not by merit but by sex, ethnicity, class, etc. This is why Muslim feminists have prioritized expanding female participation in fiqh; it has been dominated by men for so long. There needs to be room for women’s interpretation – and not just the echo chamber we find in any patriarchal tradition. But you fundamentally misunderstand the point here, which is not “replacing one gender with another gender” but repudiating the entire paradigm of hierarchy based on sex.

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  12. I agree that a multiplicity of views within an Islamic framework will pave the way for more compassion and insight.

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  13. Reblogged this on She Who Is and commented:
    An excellent article. I learned things I had not known. And the comments are equally valuable.

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  14. I love it when people use words to counter the limits of words… and yet act as though their usage will transcend the limits.

    Muslim intellectual tradition referred to rhetoric as kalaam, from the root form of “word”.

    So now, for a moment if silence..

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  15. I love the connections to the feminine and how you typed wom(b)manhood! :D

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