“Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran

Originally posted on the Light of the Furqan Blog


الرحمن على العرش استوى

The All-beneficent, settled on the Throne1

I was recently writing an article about the word “al-raḥmān”, particularly focusing on its philological background amongst other discussions. While doing so, I came across a verse that was the source of some interesting philological discussions. The verse is as follows,

وَ إِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ اسْجُدُواْ لِلرَّحْمَانِ قَالُواْ وَ مَا الرَّحْمَانُ أَ نَسْجُدُ لِمَا تَأْمُرُنَا وَ زَادَهُمْ نُفُورًا

When they are told: “Prostrate yourselves before the All-beneficent,” they say, “What is ‘the All-beneficent (al-raḥmān)?’ Shall we prostrate ourselves before whatever you bid us?” And it increases their aversion2.

In what follows, I would like to briefly discuss the following verse in terms of its role within the broader philological discussion on the word “al-raḥmān”. In order to do so, I will briefly summarize the general philological discussion about the word “al-raḥmān” so as to contextualize the role of this particular verse.

Origins and Philological Background

In short, there are two main views about the origins of the word “al-raḥmān”. Some scholars argue that the word was originally an Arabic word. Such scholars typically resort to quoting pre-prophetic usages of the word to establish a precedent for the word within the Arabic language.

The second view is that the word was taken from another language, that is, it is a loanword. This view has two groups of proponents. One group is that of the orientalists who largely resort to usages of similar words within other Semitic languages to establish that this word is a loanword3. The other group is that of the classical Muslim exegetes, many of whom resort to this particular verse amongst other proofs to establish the plausibility that this word was a loanword. They particularly use this verse as evidence that the Arabs were not familiar with this word, as indicated by the question, “What is ‘the All-beneficient (al-raḥmān)?’”

Regardless of whether or not the word is indeed a loanword, my goal here is simply to outline some other interpretations and understandings of this verse. This is in order to highlight that often times it is not an easy task to use a verse of the Quran within arguments because of the multiplicity of plausible interpretations that can be offered for Quranic verses.

For this purpose, I have quoted the relevant exegesis about this verse from The Study Quran and offered some criticism. Furthermore, I have also mentioned another interpretation of this verse.

The Study Quran

It is said that the idolatrous Arabs were unfamiliar with using the Compassionate (al-Raḥmān) as a way of referring to God. For example, at the signing of the Treaty of Ḥudaybīyyah (see 2:190-94c; and the introduction to Sūrah 48), the Prophet instructed that it be written, “In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,” but the Qurayshī negotiators objected and said they did not know of either name; they wanted it to read, “In Thy Name, O God” (bi’smika Allāhumma; IK4). Some note that the idolaters said that they only knew of one raḥmān, namely, Musaylimah, a contemporary of Muhammad who also claimed to be a prophet, who had taken on the title Raḥmān al-Yamāmah, or “the Compassionate One of [the region of] Yamānah”  (Q5, Z6). Most commentators believe this meant the idolaters were questioning the name al-Raḥmān, not the existence of that to which it referred (R7). Some read command in the third person, so that it would be translated, “Shall we prostate before that [to] which he commands us?” (Q5, Z6). According to some reports, upon the revelation of this verse the Prophet and other Companions prostrated, and the idolaters imitated them in mockery which is what is meant by and it increases them in aversion(R7)11.

Criticism and Notes

One interesting point to note from the above exegesis is the claim that the idolaters knew of only one “raḥmān”, namely Musaylimah. This is mentioned by both al-Qurṭubī and al-Zamakhsharī. However, this claim is not very plausible. Musaylimah only began to start claiming prophethood after his tribe, Banū Ḥanīfah, visited the Prophet in the tenth year after his migration to Medina 12. This is contrary to the revelation of this chapter which has been recorded to have been revealed in Mecca. Furthermore, even if the chapter was revealed as late as the tenth year A.H., almost a year before the death of the Prophet, most people would have been familiar with the usage of “al-raḥmān” by then as its usage had been largely established once Islam was propagated after the Prophet’s announcement of prophethood.

It should also be noted that the reason why scholars believe that, “…the idolaters were questioning the name al-raḥmān, not the existence of that to which it referred”, is because the people were not asking about “who” the “al-raḥmān” was for which they would have had to ask, “مَنِ الرَحْمَان (Who is the raḥmān)”. Rather they seemed to be asking what the word itself meant as indicated by the usage of “مَا (what)” instead of “مَنْ (who)”. This point can be used to strengthen the argument for the people not being familiar with the word itself.

Another Interpretation

There are, however, other interpretations of this verse. One plausible interpretation is that which was proposed by al-Ālūsī and later on by al-Ṭabāṭabāī13. They both argue that this question was being asked in an effort to feign ignorance. Thus, the word “what” was being used instead of “who” in order to demonstrate that not only did the people not know “who” the “al-raḥmān” was, furthermore they did not even know that it was some sort of living entity. Therefore, the usage of the word “what” instead of “who” in this scenario offers more exaggeration of their state of apparent ignorance then if they were to use the word “who”.

Both al-Āluṣī and al-Ṭabāṭabāī argue that there is a Qurānic precedence for such usage. They refer to an instance from the Qurānic narrative about the Pharaoh and Moses where the Pharaoh asks the following question,

قالَ فِرْعَوْنُ وَ ما رَبُ‏ الْعالَمينَ‏

He said, “And what is ‘the Lord of all the worlds 14’”

Here many exegetes argue that the Pharaoh was indeed aware of who the “Lord of the Worlds” was, but was in fact attempting to feign ignorance of the fact and thus resorted to questioning Moses with “what” instead of “who” 15.

Conclusion

I do not intend to offer any conclusions or further analysis on this discussion, although there is much more room for discussion. The above was largely a summary of some notes I made when researching the general philological discussion on the word. In terms of the general philological discussion, even if this verse is ruled out of the discussion, there are still many other factors, particularly usages within other Semitic languages, implying that the word “al-raḥmān” was most likely a loanword.


  1.  Ṭaha 20: 5
  2. Al-Furqān 25:60
  3. For a discussion concerning such usages see Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’ān pg. 140
  4. Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qurān al-Aẓīm v. 6 pg. 109
  5. Al-Qurṭubī, Al-Jāmi’ lī Aḥkām al-Qurān v. 13 pg. 64
  6. Al-Zamakhsharī, Al-Kashshāf v. 2 pg. 289
  7. Al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb v. 24 pg. 479
  8. Al-Qurṭubī, Al-Jāmi’ lī Aḥkām al-Qurān v. 13 pg. 64
  9. Al-Zamakhsharī, Al-Kashshāf v. 2 pg. 289
  10. Al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb v. 24 pg. 479
  11. This passage was taken from Nasr, The Study Quran pg. 901
  12. Ibn Hishām, Al-Sīrat al-Nabawīyah v. 2 pg. 577-578
  13. See Al-Ālūsī, Rūḥ al-Ma’ānī fī Tafsīr al-Qurān al-‘Aẓīm v. 10 pg. 39-20; Al-Ṭabāṭabāī, Al-Mīzān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 15 pg. 234
  14. Al-Shu’arā 26:23
  15. Apart from al-Ālūsī and al-Ṭabāṭabāī, see Abū Ḥayyān, Al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ fī al-Tafsīr, v. 8 pg. 148

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