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There is only a minor difference which has to do with the respective object. These two words are often mistranslated and mixed up.
The two words al-Rahmān (الرَّحْمٰن) and al-Rahīm (الرَّحِيم) look almost the same and are both names strongly associated with Allah (مِنْ أَسْمَاءِ اللَّهِ الحُسْنَى).
The Arabic root r-h-m (ر–ح–م) means: to have mercy (upon s.o.); to have compassion. The dictionary by Hans Wehr translates both words with merciful. In Arabic grammar, both are intensive forms of “merciful” (i.e., extremely merciful). A complimentary and comprehensive meaning is intended by using both together.
However, there is a difference in meaning.
- al-Rahmān is more intensive, including in its objects the believer and the unbeliever, and may be rendered as The Compassionate. Or: The Most Merciful. It circumscribes the quality of abounding grace inherent in, and inseparable from, the concept of Allah's Being. Rahmān is above the human level (i.e., intensely merciful). Rahmān is an adjective, referring to an attribute of Allah and is part of His essence.
- Al-Rahīm has for its object the believer only and may be rendered as The Merciful. Or: the Most Beneficent [to the believers]. It expresses the manifestation of that grace in, and its effect upon, Allah's creation: it is an aspect of Allah's activity. Raheem includes the concept of speciality – especially and specifically merciful to the believers. Forgiveness is a part of this mercy. Rahim indicates what He does: implementing mercy.
- Watch out! Rahmān is used only to describe Allah, while rahim might be used to describe a person/human being as well. The Prophet Muhammad was described in the Qur'an as rahīm. So, never use rahmān – except for Allah.
Thus, a possible translation of the meaning of the sentence بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم could be: In the name of God, The Most Gracious, The Dispenser of Grace.
Here are some examples of how professional and well-distinguished translators have rendered it:
- In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy! (Abdul Haleem)
- In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. (Pickthall)
- With the name of Allah, the All-Merciful, the Very-Merciful. (Maarif al-Quran)
- In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. (Yusuf Ali)
- In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. (Saheeh International)
- In The Name of Allah, The All-Merciful, The Ever-Merciful. (Dr. Ghali)
- Im Namen Allahs, des Allerbarmers, des Barmherzigen. (Frank Bubenheim and Nadeem)
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