Ninety-Names of the Beloved:
Intimations of the Beauty and Power of the Divine
written by Camille Hamilton Adams Helminski
Introduction by Michael Wolfe
Author of One Thousand Roads to Mecca
Try as you might to put a face on Him (or Her or It), the expansiveness of the whole proposition of a Creator of the Universe exceeds any image you may draw. Yet Islam encourages the pleasures of contemplation. For people who reflect, this possibility of thinking about God is fruitfully facilitated by a spiritual lexicon of modifiers called the “Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names,” which, like tangents drawn around a perfect circle, reveal its outline, even while the Circle of the Divine remains unseen.
The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God are attributes of the invisible Bestower. They are the qualities embodied by God, the discernable ways in which He interacts with His Creation. The two best-known of these attributes, the ones invoked at the start of every chapter of the Quran, are The Merciful and The Compassionate. When you experience Mercy, you are experiencing God. When you experience Compassion, you are in the embrace of The Compassionate One.
The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names are a favorite theme in the art of Arabic calligraphy. They hang on walls in Muslim homes around the world. They are worked into carpets and writ large in tiles on the towering walls of impressive mosques. They are pondered and repeated while praying or walking, driving or flying. They are told on beads the way Catholics tell their rosaries, as a means to draw nearer to the Unknowable, and as a means of self-transformation.
The book before you is a meditation on these attributes, not incised in plaster, fired on tile or told on beads, but inscribed in words on paper, in flows of poetry. Francis of Assisi, it is said, after some months spent among the Muslims of Egypt, was inspired by these Names to translate and concentrate their meanings into a Christian prayer of praise, which he set down in medieval Latin. The following pages arise from their own unique occasion.
These are praise poems—unhesitant, pure, reminiscent in places of the Welsh-English metaphysical poets Henry Vaughan and George Herbert, as when Herbert says, “There is a sweetness in love, ready-penned, write that.” Here the poet’s faith is the starting point for a surprisingly wide-ranging inspiration, drawing the Ninety-Nine Eternal Qualities into a contemporary context without ever debasing them.
When, for example, “You, the All Hearing” (As-Sami) is evoked, the poem begins,
Ah, the moon is full.
No wonder I can’t sleep
and pulls the poet outdoors into a full moon night of chorusing cicadas. A few lines later the same poem easily makes room for
This week I learned
it really matters
who tunes your piano.
Its roving lines reach into modern life, but they are also ready to draw larger conclusions. From piano strings, the poem moves swiftly to the overtones that linger “of our lives”:
What are we telling ourselves?
Here candor is at the service of a larger project. Soon enough we are being asked to,
Realign our voices . . .
These poems are inspired by a deep contemplation of Divine attributes, bright as sparks struck off flint, in Camille Hamilton Adams Helminski’s blazing encounter with the Ninety-Nine Names of the Beloved.
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