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Unique and shared names of God in Islam and Judaism.

Polytheists have many names for God because they have many Gods, just as every human has many names for his or her many relatives and friends. But, how can monotheistic religions such as Islam and Judaism have many names for the one and only God in whom they deeply believe? The explanation is that only one of the one God's "names" is a personal name; all the other "names" are appellations that refer to one of the one God's many attributes or character traits. For example, The Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan contains over 2,500 individual named entries about deities from ancient and modern cultures and societies.

Jordan also includes several entries of spiritual teachers and/or miracle- working humans who lived and died among their fellow humans and, in retrospect, were elevated into Gods such as Asklepios, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, and a young Chinese woman known as Ma-Tsu or Tin-Hau who died at age twenty-eight. For more than a dozen years, she had many dream-visions of sinking fishing ships that she was able to rescue by her prayers and vows. Sometime after her death, her oral narrative was inscribed on the walls of a sanctuary in Hangchiow (in 1228), and she was deified fifty years later by the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn. Ancient Chinese government edicts, court documents, Taoist scriptures, and even shipping logs provide stories of this young girl who became a goddess and who is still worshiped in more than 1,500 active temples. Even the over-2,500 named Gods in the book do not include the thousands of unnamed Chinese Taoist and Japanese Shinto deities or the "ten thousand-plus" Hittite Gods not referred to as individuals.

In English the word "God" is not the name of the one and only God, as is Allah or YHVH. It is the generic term for any and every deity, similar to the West Semitic root word "El," as it is found in Sumerian and Akkadian; Ellil-Enlil, in Hittite and Hurrian; Ellel, in Hebrew EI-Elohim; in Arabic, as Al-Ilahi, the God, or Allat, a pre-Islamic Goddess--one of three daughters of Al-Ilah worshiped in Palmyra as Allat, referred to by Herodotus as Alilat, and worshiped as Allatu by North African Carthaginians.

For those religions that trace their prophets back to Prophet Abraham and his sons Ishmael and Isaac, the many names or appellations (titles and descriptions) of God simply describe different aspects or attributes of the one God's multifaceted personality. Thus, to say that God is a King or Judge describes one of many ways God acts. To say that God is the Compassionate One is to describe one of many character or personality traits of the one and only God. While each name is only one of the many appellations of the one universal creator of space and time, both Islam and Judaism also have one Divine name that is always in the believer's heart and soul.

This name--Allah for Muslims and YHVH for Jews--differs from all the other names that are just philosophical terms for a universal aspect or role of God. This Divine name has a very intimate meaning for each community of believers that is lacking all the other names. This personal name is connected to the covenant that the one God made with Moses (YHVH) and Muhammad (Allah), with Noah, Abraham, and Jesus (Qur'an 33:7). Because the Qur'an is filled with beautiful Arabic poetry; it is not surprising that it is also filled with so many names of God.

Because the Jewish tradition reaches back more than thirty-five centuries, it is not surprising that Jews have focused on additional names for God over those many centuries. Yet, because all the many names of God call upon the same one God, it is also not surprising that many of the ninety-nine beautiful names of God in Muslim tradition also appear in Jewish tradition, which sometimes refers to the seventy names of God (Midrash Shir HaShirim and Midrash Otiot Rabbi Akiba). Since Arabic and Hebrew are sibling languages, in some cases the names even sound alike:
Arabic          Hebrew
Ar-Rahman       Ha Rakhaman, the Compassionate One
Ar-Rahim        El Rakhum, the Merciful One
Al-Quddus       Ha Kadosh, the Holy One
Al-Bari         Ha Boray, the Creator
Al-Aliyy        El Elyon, the Most High
As-Salam        Oseh HaShalom, the Peacemaker
Malik ul Mulk   Melek Malkay Melakim, the king/ruler over all
Al-Muhyi        Ha Michayah, the Giver of Life
Al-Mumit        Ha Maymeet, the Taker of Life


Most of the similarities between Jewish and Muslim appellations of God are not due to linguistics alone. They reflect similar philosophical views of God's attributes. However, since for more than twelve centuries the only ongoing monotheistic religious community in the world existed within the Jewish People, God's universal attributes were frequently expressed in the Hebrew Bible in terms of God's activity and relationship to Israel. For example, Elohei kol basar, the God of all flesh (Jer. 32:27) is usually referred to as Elohei Yisrael or Elohei of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Ex. 3:15). Thus, Prophet Isaiah refers to both "The Holy One" (Is. 40:25) and "The Holy One of Israel" (Is. 1:4; 5:19), and Prophet David refers to both El Yisrael, "The God of Israel" (Ps. 68:36), and El HaShamayim, "The God of the Heavens" (Ps. 136:26). Of course, just as one parent can love, protect, and judge many children, the one God of Israel is also the one God of the whole world. So, Ezra, the most narrowly focused of prophets, uses both Elah Yisrael, "God of Israel" (Ez. 5:1), and Elah Sh'maya V'Arah, "God of Heaven and Earth" (Ez. 5:11).

Since Judaism is a religion that is very close to, yet different from, Islam, there are also several Jewish names for God's attributes that are not found among the ninety-nine names that appear in the Qur'an. The words El, Elah, Elohei, and Elohim are all pre-Abrahamic, West Semitic generic terms for a God or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.

However, the most important name of the one God, the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush, is YHVH, which appears more than 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible. In Ex. 3:13-15, Moses said to God, "If I go to the Israelites and tell them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?'--what should I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh." "Ehyeh" is the verb "to be" in future tense singular; it means I will/could/might/may be/become Who I may/could/will/might be/become. "Ehyeh" is the God of Potentialities, the God of Possibilities, the Living God of Becoming and Transforming, the one who can liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt.

Unfortunately, the Greek and Latin translations of this verse were influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that God was similar to a permanent ideal form (similar to an equilateral triangle) or an unmoved mover, rather than being similar to a living personality. Since they thought God must be a static, unchanging being, they mistranslated "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" as "I am who 1 am," rather than its plain meaning of "I can be whatever I should be to redeem you," that is, God Almighty.

The Torah continues:

And God said, "You must say this to the Israelites, 'I am' [the usual false translation for God's self-revealed name] has sent me to you." God also said to Moses, "You must say this to the Israelites, Ehyeh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob--has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation." (Ex. 3:13-15)

When Jews speak of God in the third person, God's name is YHVH--"the One who causes being and becoming, the One who brings potentials into existence." This name was spoken publicly from the time of Moses and throughout the centuries of the First Temple of Solomon, but it was pronounced as "Adonai" (Lord) before the beginning of the third century B.C.E., because God's actual holy name was eventually considered too holy to utter audibly.

In later centuries, even the substitution was considered too holy to utter; the custom among pious Jews till this day is not to use any name for God at all (except in prayer), but to say HaShem--the name (of God) when speaking about God. YHVH replaced a much older name of God: El Shaddai. Exodus 6:2-3 relates: "God also said to Moses, I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH I did not make myself fully known to them.'"

In the whole Hebrew Bible, the full appellation "El Shaddai" is used only in connection with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "Shaddai" by itself appears thirty- one times in the ancient book of the Prophet Job, who was not Jewish, and in a few other poetic passages. In the Greek translation of the Torah, El Shaddai was erroneously translated "Pantokrator," all-powerful/omnipotent, instead of "The God who is sufficient." The Greek philosophical idea of omnipotence leads to the false contradiction between God's power and human free will, but God is, indeed, more than sufficient. God is and will always be YHVH, the God who enables human hopes of future possibilities of improvement to become realized.

El Shaddai can also be translated as the Nourishing or Nursing God, because in Hebrew "Shaddaim" means female breasts. This feminine image may help many women today replace the ancient image of God as an old man with a long beard with something more representative of God's classical attribute of loving concern for God's children.

One name of God that few Jews know or use today is a name that 1 believe will become more important in the future as Jews and Muslims learn more about each other's religions. This name, "El Ro'ee," appears only twice in the Hebrew Bible and, as far as I know, is not used at all in the Talmud. El Ro'ee is Abraham's wife Hagar's name for God. El Ro'ee means "A Self-reflecting God" or "A God Who Sees (literally mirrors) Me." It also becomes the name for a well (Zamzum?). "Then she [Hagar] called the name of YHVH, who spoke to her, El Ro'ee, 'You are a God who sees me'; for she said, 'Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?' Therefore the well was called Beer-la Hai-roee; the well of the Living One (Al-Hayy) who sees me." "Behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael" (Gen. 16:13-15).

Neither Sarah nor Hagar/Ha-jar is mentioned by name in the Qur'an, but the story of Ha-jar's exile from Abraham's home is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Ibrahim's prayer in the Qur'an (14:37): "I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House." Muslim tradition relates that, when Ha-jar ran out of water, and Isma'Tl, an infant at that time, began to die, Ha-jar panicked and ran between two nearby hills, Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, repeatedly searching for water. After her seventh run, Isma'Tl hit the ground with his heel and caused a miraculous well to spring out of the ground, called Zamzum Well. It is located a few meters from the Kaaba in Mecca.

Perhaps these two Torah names of God, El Ro'ee and Hai (Hayy) Ro'ee, which are Hagar's names for God, and the name for the Zamzum well, "BeerlaHai- roi," can help bring Jews and Muslims to see each other better and thus become closer together in the future. That would be an excellent example of the power of God's name.

Allen S. Maller (Rabbi emer.)

Temple Akiba

Culver City, CA
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Title Annotation:EXPLORATIONS AND RESPONSES
Author:Maller, Allen S.
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2014
Words:2014
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