God’s Names

–Mansour Al Hallaj–

The names of things are not reality. On the contrary, they veil it. The man who seeks the essence or nature of things will not find it in names that hide it, much more than they reveal it.

Hallâj developed this idea (deeper than it seems at first glance) in his theory of the « veil of name », ḥijâb al-ism.

The word « veil », ḥijâb (حِجاب), has a very general meaning here. It does not refer, as often in the media, to the woman’s veil, which is rather called burqa’ or sitâr, in classical Arabic.

The « veil of the name » placed on things is necessary. It is God Himself who is at the origin of it. The « veil » is there for the good of men. Reality without this « veil » would blind them, or make them lose consciousness.

Men need this « veil », and their own nature is itself covered in their eyes by another « veil ».

Hallâj formulates his theory as follows:

« He has clothed them (creating them) with the veil of their name, and they exist; but if He manifested to them the knowledge of His power, they would faint; and if He revealed to them the reality, they would die.»i

There was already the Jewish idea of assured death for the man who would see Godii. Here, death also awaits the man who would see, not God face to face, but only the world, nature or things, – without their veil.

What is this « veil of the name » placed over the world?

« The veil? It is a curtain, interposed between the seeker and his object, between the novice and his desire, between the shooter and his goal. One must hope that the veils are only for the creatures, not for the Creator. It is not God who wears a veil, it is the creatures he has veiled. » iii

And Hallâj here cracks a play on words, which does not lack wit, in Arabic, so fond of alliterations and paronomases: « i’jâbuka hijâbuka ».

Louis Massignon translates: « Your veil is your infatuation! » iv

I propose to translate rather, word for word: « Your wonder is your veil! ».

There is a real difference in nuance, and even meaning, between these two interpretations.

The translation of the word i’jâb by « wonder » is strictly in accordance with the translation found in dictionariesv . The word i’jâb, إِءْجاب , means « wonder, admiration ». It comes from the verbal root ‘ajiba,عَجِبَ, which means « to be amazed, to be seized with astonishment at the sight of something ».

It is the word ‘ujb ءُجْب, which also comes from the same root, but with a phonetization very different from i’jâb, which means « fatuity, sufficiency, admiration of oneself », the meaning chosen by Massignon to render the meaning of the word i’jâb.

From the semantic point of view, Massignon’s translation, which is lexically faulty, appears to be tinged above all with a certain ontological pessimism: man, by his « sufficiency », by his « infatuation », is supposed to have thus provoked a « veil » between himself and the object of his search, namely the divine. Man admires himself – how could he be concerned with anything else, for example, marveling at the divine?

Sticking to the dictionary, I translate i’jâb as « wonder », which opens up a very interesting and rich research avenue. Man has glimpsed a little of the divine splendor, a little of its glory, and he is « amazed » by it. But it is precisely for this reason that a « veil » is then placed over his mind to protect him from too much light, on the one hand, and to encourage him to continue his research, which is certainly infinite, on the other hand.

It is the wonder itself that must be veiled.

For it is wonder itself that is the veil.

Beyond wonder, which amazes and fills, there is astonishment, which incites, awakens, and sets in motion.

After his (mystical) joke Hallâj continued talking, and once again played with the verb ‘ajibtu (« I am surprised »): ‘ajibtu minka wa minni...

I translate: « I am seized with astonishment, by You, and by me. »

No trace of fatuity or vanity here. There is only astonishment there. The soul is overwhelmed by a double and dazzling intuition that Hallâj describes:

« I am seized with astonishment, by You, and by me, – O Vow of my desire!

You had brought me closer to You,

to the point that I thought You were my ‘me’,

Then You escaped in ecstasy,

to the point that you have deprived me of my ‘I’, in You.

O my happiness, during my life,

O my rest, after my burial!

It is no longer for me, outside of You, a jubilation,

if I judge by my fear and confidence,

Ah! in the gardens of Your intentions I have embraced all science,

And if I still desire one more thing,

It is You, all my desire! » vi

The Jewish religion, like the Muslim religion, has a real problem with the Name. The problem is that the Name (of the One) is certainly not one, but multiple.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah writes: « He who invokes by this name Allah invokes by the same token the thousand names contained in all the revealed books. »vii

The name « Allah » comes from the contraction of the definite article al, ال, « the », and the common noun ilah, إِلَه , « god, divinity », plural âliha آلِهة.

In pre-Islamic times, a creator god named Allah already existed within the Arab polytheistic pantheon.

« The god », or « the deity », al ilah, merge into the word allah (the capital letter does not exist in Arabic), ٱللَّه which is traditionally written الله. viii

Henri Meschonnic, a serialpolemicist, never one to rest on sharp points and sarcastic persiflings, notes on this subject: « The very name of Allah, according to the commonly accepted etymology, has nothing that distinguishes it. It is by designating the god, that it signifies him. A name that is ‘a defect of a name’, where we have seen ‘repercussions on Islam whose mystical elements seem to create uncertainty as to the true name of God »ixx.

In this field, uncertainty seems to be universal. Thus, Jewish solutions as to the « true name of God » increase the number of questions by multiplying the nominalization of God’s attributes, or their antonyms. Or again by artificially presenting the word « name » שֵׁם (chem) for the Name of God (which one does not name):

וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ

v’qarati bishem Adonai lefanikh

« And I will call by the ‘Name’ YHVH, in front of your face.»xi

What is that Name (chem) that the word YHVH can’t tell?

A little later, the Lord came down from the cloud, approached Moses, and : « He called by the Name, YHVH », וַיִּקְרָא בְשֵׁם, יְהוָה . xii

What is this Name? Not just « YHVH », only, – but rather a very long enumeration, beginning with a triple enunciation (twice YHVH and once EL), and continuing with a litany of attributes, the first of which are:

וַיִּקְרָא, יְהוָה יְהוָה, אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפִַם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמ

« And He calls YHVH YHVH God (El) Merciful Clement Slow to Anger Rich in Grace and Faithfulnessxiii.

And the Litany of Names continues, precise and contradictory, and extending endlessly through the generations: « Custodian of His grace to thousands, Tolerating fault, transgression and sin, Leaving nothing unpunished, Punishing the faults of fathers on children and grandchildren, until the third and fourth generation. » xiv

Let’s summarize. The real Name of YHVH is quite a long name:

יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן–אֶרֶךְ אַפִַם, וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמ

נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֺן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה; וְנַקֵּה, לֹא יְנַקֶּה–פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבוֹת עַל-בָּנִים וְעַל-בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים

Does this Name seem a bit long?

Actually all the letters of the Torah put together may also form His Name.

So which solution is better?

An unpronounceable name (יְהוָה), a name of six hundred thousand letters, or الله, a « defect of a name »?

I find Hallâj’s solution to this question very elegant.

Hallâj simply calls Him: « You! »


iSulamî, tabaqât; Akhb., n°1. Quoted by Louis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 183.

iiEx 33.20

iiiMs. London 888, f. 326 b. Quoted by Louis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184

ivLouis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184

vI consulted the Larousse Arab-French Dictionary, as well as Kazimirsky’s Arab-French Dictionary.

viLouis Massignon. The passion of Husayn Ibn Mansûr Hallâj. Volume III. Gallimard. 1975, p. 184

viiIbn ‘Ata’ Allah, Treatise on the Name Allah, p.106.

viiiThe Wikipedia article on Allah states: Most opinions converge on the view that the word is composed of al and ilāh (the deity, a definite case) and that the first vowel of the word (i) has been removed by apocope, because of the frequency of use of the word. This opinion is also attributed to the famous grammarian Sībawayh (8th century). The word consists of the article ال al, which marks the determination as the French article « le » and has an unstable hamza (letter), and ilāh إِلَاه or ilah إِلَه, which means « (un) god ». Al followed by ilāh is the determined form, would give Allāh (« the God »)2 by apocope of the second term. The word would then have been univerbé. The term Allah is etymologically related to the terms for the deity in the Semitic languages: He or El. Allah is the Arabic form of the generic divine invocation in the Bible: « Elijah, » « Eli » or « Eloi » meaning « My God » in Hebrew. The Akkadians already used the word ilu to say « god » between 4000 and 2000 BC. In pre-Islamic times, the Arabic term Ilâh was used to designate a deity2. The name Allâhumma, sometimes used in prayer, could be the counterpart of the name « Elohim » (plural of majesty of Eloha meaning « God » in the Bible). (…)

For some, this explanation is not valid and would be based on popular etymology. It would be all the more astonishing since the apocope of the i in ʾilāh is not very credible because it is the first vowel of the word really meaning « god ». They also put forward the fact that terms considered sacred are often preserved by taboo. On the other hand, the radical ʾel or ʾil designating a deity is frequent in other Semitic languages: in Hebrew, אל El (« god »), אלהים Elohim (« gods »), ʾāllāhā in Aramaic, could be at the origin of the Arabic word by borrowing then amuising the final ā (which is in Aramaic a disinential vowel, which are rarely pronounced in common Arabic) and finally shortening the first ā by metanalysis and confusion with the article ʾal. One approach would be to derive the name of Allah from another root than إِلَهٌ. For some, the name would derive from al and lâh, from the verb لَاهَ which means « veiled », « elevated », which could associate this name with the meaning of the « Most High ».

ixJ. Chelhod. The structures & of the sacred among the Arabs. Paris, 1964. p.98

xHenri Meschonnic. « God absent, God present in language « . In L’utopie du Juif. Edition Desclée de Brouwer. Paris, 2001, p. 198-199

xiEx 33.19

xiiEx 34.5

xiiiEx 34, 6

xivEx 34.7

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