“Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran

“Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran

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. Continue reading ““Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran”

  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