By Farid Gabteni


When we open the Qurân at the first page, the first thing we read is: Bismi Allah Al-Raḥmân Al-Raḥîm″ (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم), which literally means: “IN THE NAME OF GOD THE ORIGIN THE ARRANGING.
The purpose of this opening named basmalah (بسملة) is to remind that each thing begins and is done “In The Name of God”. Incidentally, it is for this reason that Muslims have a habit of preceding their acts and gestures by the words Bismi-Allah (بسم الله): IN THE NAME OF GOD.


The basmalah (البسملة), the opening
The basmalah (البسملة) is composed of four words: Bismi (بسم), Allâh (الله), Al-Raḥmân (الرحمن) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم).
Bismi (بسم) means “In The Name of” / “By The Name of”. Usually, “In The Name of” / “By The Name of” is written باسم  (bi-‘smi). The writing of “In The Name of God” (بسم الله) without an alif (ا) is exceptional and exclusive to God. Allâh (الله) is a Name specific to God[1], designating “The God”; it is the contraction of al-‘ilêh (الإله), “the divinity”.
Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) are two Attributes of God. Their English equivalent, as in any other language, differs from one translation to another, with the most common being “The Merciful, He who has Mercy”; “Most Gracious, Most Merciful”; “The Merciful, The Compassionate”; “The Beneficent, The Merciful”; “The Most Merciful, Very Merciful”. These translations are only partly correct. They do not indeed convey the etymological notion of origin, which is present in both terms Al-Raḥmân and Al-Raḥîm. I prefer the terms “The Origin” and “The Arranging” – a choice confirmed by the etymological and linguistic analysis of these two terms.


The terms Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) are two agent nouns derived from the same action noun, al-raḥmah[2](الرحمة), “the arrangement, the mercy, the clemency”, which is itself derived from raḥim (رحم), coming from the root R-Ḥ-M (ر ح م) and which means “matrix”.
The action noun al-raḥmah (الرحمة) is therefore usually translated by “the arrangement, the mercy, the clemency.”
The agent nouns Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) express the same notion, but intensified. This is common to both words, but in a graduated way: Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) expresses this intensification in an absolute manner, and Al-Raḥîm[3](الرحيم) in an accommodating manner. This gradation in the intensification is the first element that grants Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) distinct meanings, which creates two different words. The second element of the difference of meaning originates from the fact that each of these two terms expresses, with intensification, a different aspect / function of the matrix (raḥim, رحم):
– the matrix, al-raḥim, is the place from where life originated: the origin of all life. The very situation of the matrix, and therefore the origin, creates a feeling of mercy, such as the one a mother has for the child she carried in her matrix. God, Al-Raḥmân, Himself, Is The Origin in absolute terms, The Prime Essence, The Origin of the matrix, which is itself a secondary essence.
– the matrix is the protected place where beings are formed, modelled and arranged. This notion of arrangement and protection is found, at an intensified level, in the term Al-Raḥîm: God Is The Arranging, He who, step by step, protects the being under formation, with clemency and mercy. As an Attribute of God, this is not instinctive or impulsive clemency, the result of emotion. On the contrary, this is a mercy stemming from wisdom and knowledge. Its English equivalent is indeed, therefore, “The Arranging,” which combines the fact of being accommodating and that of putting things in order, arranging them in an established order. We read in the Qurân: « (…) And My Arrangement is Extended to all things (…) »[4]. It is obvious that everything is subjected to an arrangement, to an established order, such as the laws of physics. As for mercy, clemency, kindness, they only make sense for the living beings, and not for the things; consequently, we understand that God is even more Arranging with believers, the meaning of the term including here mercy and clemency.


Traditional linguistic analysis
Traditionally, these two Attributes were analysed as two expressions of the same term. In this way, the Attribute Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) is stronger, more intense and more general than the Attribute Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم). When used after the term Al-Raḥmân, this word would have a restrictive, more particular, more specific meaning (التخصيص).
In other words, following the Attribute Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان), which refers to God by the notion of full, total and absolute mercy, the Attribute Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) would always refer to God by the notion of mercy, but in a specific way. Therefore, if God, Al-Raḥmân, Is absolutely Merciful with all his creatures, God, Al-Raḥîm, would be so, more specifically, with believers.
To justify this point of view, traditionalists set forth an extract taken from the Qurân, where the repetition of a same term expresses the move from a general notion to a specific (التخصيص) and restrictive one. They refer to the first two verses of chapter 96, “THE ADHERENCE” (العلق):
Read By The Name of Your Master, The One Who Created – Created the human from an adherence” 
« اقرأ باسم ربك الذي خلق – خلق الإنسن من علق» 
Indeed, in this example, the verb Created was repeated to enable the move from the general to the specific:Created – Created the human″ (creation in general, that of the human in particular). This conventional transposition explains how the Attributes Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) are regularly translated as “The All-Merciful”, “The Most Gracious”, in a general and absolute manner, and “The Most Merciful”, “The Very Merciful”, specifically in relation to believers.


Weaknesses of the conventional analysis
Although not completely wrong, the conventional analysis of the two Attributes of the basmalah is based on two inaccuracies that result in an incomplete, or even false, interpretation of the terms in question.
The first inaccuracy stems from the fact that a specific notion is given to the Attribute Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم), when it is used after Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان), while Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) is a different word than Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان).
However, the specificity (التخصيص) does not stem from the introduction of a new word, but from the repetition of the same word, as for Created (خلق): there is a move from the general to the specific, through the repetition of the same word (Created, خلق), and not through the use of a different term:
Read By The Name of Your Master, The One Who CreatedCreated the human from an adherence” 
 « اقرأ باسم ربك الذي خلقخلق الإنسن من علق »
A similar example can be found in chapter 96, verses 15 and 16, the forelock – A lying, erroneous forelock″:
“But no! If he does not assuredly restrain himself, We will assuredly Drag him by the forelock – A lying, erroneous forelock” 
« كلا لئن لم ينته لنسفعا بالناصِيةِناصِية كذبة خاطئة » 
In addition, it is difficult to maintain the idea according to which God is at the same time Al-Raḥmân in an absolute way with all creation, and then, to a limited extent, only with believers. In this case, the notion of restriction contradicts that of absolute.
Moreover, in the Qurân, chapter 2, verse 143, we read that God is Arranging″ (Raḥîm, رحيم) towards people″ in general, without distinction:
“(…) certainly God Is, to the people, Assuredly Gentle, Arranging (Raḥîm)” 
« (…) إن الله بالناس لرءوف رحيم »
This same statement is repeated exactly in verse 65 of chapter 22, “THE PILGRIMAGE” (al-ḥajj). The purpose of having two different Attributes in the basmalah (البسملة) is indeed to express two distinct notions, even if both are derived from the same action noun.
Moreover, we can easily understand after reading verse 24 of chapter 33, that God, if He Wills, can rehabilitate the hypocrites and be Forgiving, Arranging:
That God may Reward the truthful for their truth, and Punish the hypocrites if He Wills or Turn to them. Surely God Was Forgiving, Arranging.” 
« لِّيَجۡزِىَ ٱللَّهُ ٱلصَّـٰدِقِينَ بِصِدۡقِهِمۡ وَيُعَذِّبَ ٱلۡمُنَـٰفِقِينَ إِن شَآءَ أَوۡ يَتُوبَ عَلَيۡهِمۡ‌ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ كَانَ غَفُورً۬ا رَّحِيمً۬ا »
In my opinion, the second inaccuracy of the traditional linguistic analysis, which has become conventional, takes us back to the etymology.
Indeed, although it is accurate to say that the substantives Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) and Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) are derived from al-raḥmah (الرحمة), “the arrangement, the mercy, the clemency,” it is inconclusive to stop here. As we have previously seen, the word al-raḥmah (الرحمـة) is, itself, derived from raḥim (رحم), which indicates the matrix. And especially in Arabic, when we seek the meaning of a word, we refer to its root.
The matrix (raḥim, رحم) is the organ that contains the fertilised egg, until its full development. It is therefore the place in which life takes shape, and, as a consequence, its origin.


1- Al-Raḥmân (الرحمن)
The term Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان), which is an intensified derivative of matrix (raḥim, رحم), therefore conveys with intensification (بالكثرة والتأكيد والمبالغـة) the notion of matrix, of beginning, in order to designate The prime Origin of everything, The Origin of origins, The Absolute Origin (السبب الأول أصل الأصول). The notion of arrangement and mercy is inherent to this, due to the relationship between the origin and what results therefrom.
On the other hand, after examining all the verses of the Qurân in which Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) is cited, we can unequivocally state that this Attribute is practically never used in reference to mercy or clemency, but rather to designate God The Origin, The Prime Principle.
The relationship between the terms “matrix” (raḥim, رحم) and “The Origin” (Al-Raḥmân, الرحمن) is so strong that a sacred utterance [5](ḥadîth qudusî – حديث قدسيّ) establishes this close causality:
God Blessed Himself and Arose and Said: ‘I Am God (Allâh) and I Am The Origin (Al-Raḥmân), I Created the matrix (al-raḥim) and I Extracted for it from My Name. So the one who joined it, I Joined him, and the one who sliced it, I Cut him off[6]
« قال اللَّه تبارك وتعالى أنا الله وأنا الرحمن خلقت الرحم وشققت لها من اسمي فمن وصلها وصلته ومن قطعها بتته »
With this ḥadîth qudusî, we clearly understand that the name raḥim, رحم (matrix) and the Attribute Al-Raḥmân, الرحمان (The Origin) are taken from one another. Everything in the Qurân demonstrates that the word Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) is distinguished from the other Attributes of God, starting with the following verse:
“Say: ‘Invoke God or invoke The Origin (Al-Raḥmân, الرحمان), Whichever you invoke, so for Him the Superexcellent Names’ (…)” [7]
« قل ادعوا الله أو ادعوا الرحمن أيـا ما تدعوا فـله الأسماء الحسنى (…) »
This verse constitutes the ultimate argument to indicate that the Attribute Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) applies only to God (لا يجوز استعماله لغيرالله). Here, the Name Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) is used as a referential value equivalent to the Name Allâh (الله), giving the name Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) a status different from all the other Divine Attributes. In Arabic, outside of the Qurân, even the indefinite form of this word (without a definite article) is also used exclusively for God. This is also the case in English with regard to the Attribute (with the definite article) “The Origin”, as the Prime and Absolute Principle, contrary to the epithet “merciful” for example, which can refer to anyone with this quality.
Lastly, it is worth pointing out that this term was not familiar to the Arabs who were contemporaries of the Prophet: “And when they were told: ‘Prostrate to The Origin (للرحمن)!’ They said: ‘And what is The Origin (الرحمن)? Should we prostrate to what you order us? And it increased their dispersion”[8]. With a closer look, the verse preceding the latter tells us that Al-Raḥmân Is at the origin of creation: The One Who Created the skies and the earth and what is between them in six days (time), then He Aimed Himself upon the culmination; The Origin (للرحمن)! So question by Him one well informed”[9]


2- Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم)
In the Qurân, the term raḥîm (رحيم) is generally used in a context of clemency, and incidentally, often also combined with the qualifier “gentle” (ra’ûf, رءوف).
We have seen that the word Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) is also derived from ramah (رحمـة), “mercy”, which is itself derived from raḥim (رحم), “matrix”, and that it stems from a form of derivation that gives the agent noun the notion of characterisation (التمييز) in relation to an exaggerated status or behaviour. This word combines the fact of arranging that of which one is at the origin, like the egg is “arranged” inside the matrix until it forms a living being, and the fact of being accommodating, clement, merciful, arranging; its equivalent in English is therefore more accurately “The Arranging”. With the definite article, the term becomes specific to God. I shall stress here that “The Arranging,” when applied to God, combines the fact of putting in proper order; disposing or setting out conformably to a plan or purpose and that of being accommodating, conciliating, merciful.
The Attribute Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم) therefore includes the notion of arrangement, mercy and clemency, like a mother has for the child that she carried in her matrix (raḥim, رحم) for nine months.
Unlike the Attribute “The Origin” (Al-Raḥmân, الرحمان), it is possible to use the word “arranging” (raḥîm, رحيم) as a qualifier that applies to man, without the definite article of course (ينطبق على البشر أيضا بدون ألف ولام التعريف).
This is the case in the verse 128 of chapter 9 where, for only once in the Qurân, the attribute “arranging” (raḥîm, رحِيم) does not designate God, but the Envoy:
“Certainly there has already come to you an envoy from among yourselves; considerable for him what you suffered, caring about you; towards the assurers (believers), [he is] gentle, arranging (raḥîm, رحيم)” 
« لقد جاءكم رسول من أنفسكم عزيز عليه ما عنتم حريص عليكم بالمؤمنين رءوف رحيم »
The term raḥîm is therefore used to qualify the Messenger with regard to believers, and it is clear that in this verse, the gentleness is combined with the arrangement.
God, The Origin, Is The Arranging by excellence, It Is He Who Forms you in the matrices (هو الذي يصوركم في الأرحام), how He Wills! There is no God but Him, The Considerable, The Judge[10], He whose clemency shall not be sentimental and impulsive, He whose mercy is marked with order, arrangement, wisdom and science.
Thus emerges clearly the distinct and complementary meaning of God’s Attributes in the basmalah: God (Allâh, الله), The Origin (Al-Raḥmân, الرحمن), The Arranging (Al-Raḥîm, الرحيم).




[1] God cannot be defined as such by any name; no designation can define Him. However, He has all of the Superexcellent Attributes.

[2] As an example, here is a simple illustration of the concept of an action noun and an agent noun: the word "walk" is the action noun, from which the agent noun "walker" is derived.

[3] The agent noun Al-Raḥmân (الرحمان) is obtained by adding the suffix ân (ان), to the triliteral (composed of three consonants) root R-Ḥ-M (ر ح م), which gives the agent noun a notion of intensification, abundance and exaggeration (الكثرة والتأكيد والمبالغـة).

With regard to the agent noun Al-Raḥîm (الرحيم), it is obtained through the introduction of a long vowel, the î (ي), between the second and third letter of the triliteral-rooted word, i.e. between the Ḥ (ح) and the M (م). This form of derivation gives the agent noun the notion of characterisation in relation to an exaggerated state or behaviour (التمييز و المبالغة). The walker is characterised by walking.

[4] Chapter 7, verse 156.

[5] The content and form of the Qurân are, by nature, divine. The content and form of the ḥadîth are, by origin, human, i.e. traditionally attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. The form of the ḥadîth qudusî (sacred utterance) is human: it is a phrase attributed to the Prophet Muhammad; but as for the Qurân, its content is considered as, by nature, revealed.

[6] Sunan Al-Tirmîdhî, Kitâb al-birr wa al-ṣilah (سنن الترمدي كتاب البر و الصلة).

Musnad Ahmed, Musnad al-Σachra al-mubashsharîna bi-l-jannah,

 (مسند أحمد مسند العشرة المبشرين بالجنة).

Sunan Abî Dâwûd, Kitâb al-zakât (سنن أبي داوود كتاب الزكاة).

[7] Chapter 17, verse 110.

[8] Chapter 25, verse 60.

[9] Chapter 25, verse 59.

[10] Chapter 3, verse 6.

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