The 99 Names of God - book review
The 99 Names of God : an illustrated Guide for Young and Old
Written and illustrated by Daniel Thomas Dyer, with calligraphy by Azim Rehmatdin. Published by Chickpea Press.
In troubled and turbulent times, this beautiful book seems like a gift to the world – a gift that is badly needed. It will be of immense value to Muslim families who seek to introduce their children to the guiding principles of their faith, but perhaps of even greater value to people who are not Muslims but who seek to understand a faith that in the present day has been tragically misused and misunderstood. The publishers say “We hope this humble offering may be of service on the path to greater understanding and love”. I feel sure that it will be.
The author and illustrator of the book, Daniel Thomas Dyer, is a convert to Islam who enjoys a loving and creative dialogue with people of all backgrounds. He found his way to Islam through his love of Rumi, the 13th century Sufi poet – an attempt to write a poem which would help him memorise the 99 Names of God eventually led Daniel to write this book, which has the profound and truthful simplicity of poetry.
In tone the book is welcoming and gentle, the format very clear and accessible. Each of the 99 Names is written in English and elegant Arabic calligraphy, with a phonetic spelling to aid pronunciation. A brief but profound explanation of the name is accompanied by an appropriate verse from the Quran and one other source, followed by suggested Reflections and Activities. The eclectic approach taken in these sections reflects the inclusive, open-minded and open-hearted nature of the book. There are references to, and quotes from, sources as diverse as the Bible and Buddha, Gandhi and Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Leonard Cohen. It comprehensively dispels the often presented image of Islam as a culturally narrow and exclusive religion.
The Introduction emphasises this undogmatic, honestly searching approach, which is at the heart of all spirituality, saying, “No answers are contained in this book. The important thing is that we learn to ask questions, reflect, research, and discuss with others to arrive at our own point of view. Besides, often there are no ‘correct’ answers to the questions posed. Learning to be comfortable with flexibility, mystery, nuance, and uncertainty is a valuable skill, and we aim to show that we live in a subtle, qualitative universe as much as a quantitative one.”
Whilst being simple, accessible and gentle in tone, the book is also ambitious. The publishers say, “a major concern for us in creating this resource was to give ample space to female voices. Islam has a rich treasury of wisdom from strong, intelligent, and deeply spiritual women. We hope this book will be part of the movement toward restoring balance and honouring the feminine side-by-side with the masculine.” The author also emphasises environmental concerns – living in the Lake District he takes inspiration from the mountains, lakes, rivers and trees, and seeks to nurture a respect for nature in his readers.
As a Christian with an embarrassingly meagre knowledge of Islam I found this book to be a revelation, and reading it an enriching experience. It reminded me of the words of the late Jo Cox MP, when she said that people of different faiths and backgrounds "have far more in common with each other than things that divide us". It is a wonderful expression of a peaceful, loving and gentle Islam, rooted in ancient wisdom but engaged with the challenges of the twenty first century. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
In addition to hardback and paperback versions The 99 Names of God has been produced as a set of cards, which would be an excellent resource for schools and discussion groups, particularly in interfaith work. It is published by Chickpea Press and is available from their website. http://chickpeapress.co.uk/99-names/
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden
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