Names of God, or Holy Names, describe a form of addressing God present in liturgy or prayer of various world religions. Prayer involving the Holy Name or the Name of God has become established as common spiritual practice in both Western and Eastern spiritual practices. A number of traditions have lists of many names of God, many of which enumerate the various qualities of the Supreme Being. According to Islam, the earliest mention of the name of God is found in the Koran sura 2, The Cow: “When your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am placing on the earth one that shall rule as My deputy,’ they replied: ‘Will You put there one that will do evil and shed blood, when we have for so long sung Your praises and sanctified Your Name?” Mohammad encouraged his followers to call upon God by any of His 99 Names. Judaism refers to 72 Divine Names, and the Hindu scripture Mahabharata contains a thousand names of Vishnu.
Ancient cognate equivalents for the word “God” include proto-Semitic El (deity), Hebrew Elohim “God or/of gods”, Arabic ‘ilah “(an or the) god”, and Biblical Aramaic ‘Elaha “God”. The personal or proper name for God in many of these languages may either be distinguished from such attributes, or homonymic.
For example, in Judaism the Holy Name is sometimes related to the ancient Hebrew ehyeh, “I AM“. In Hinduism the term Brahman or Parabrahman is often used, while in other cases the proper name for a deity is given special significance as a true name of God; or incorporated from earlier beliefs, as in the case of the Native American appellation Gitche Manitou.
Correlation between various theories and interpretation of the Name of God, used to signify a monotheistic or ultimate Supreme Being from which all other divine attributes derive, has been a subject of ecumenical discourse between Eastern and Western scholars for over two centuries. In Christian theology the word must be a personal and a proper name of God; hence it cannot be dismissed as mere metaphor. On the other hand, the Names of God in a different tradition are sometimes referred as symbols. The question whether divine names used by different religions are equivalent has been raised and analyzed. See also Taboos below.
Exchange of names held sacred between different religious traditions is typically limited. Other elements of religious practice may be shared, especially when communities of different faiths are living in close proximity (for example, the use of Om and Gayatri within the Indian Christian community) but usage of the names themselves mostly remain within the domain of a particular religion, or even may help define ones’ religious belief according to practice, as in the case of the recitation of names of God (such as the japa).
The Divine Names, the classic treatise by Pseudo-Dionysius, defines the scope of traditional understandings in Western traditions such as Hellenic, Christian, Jewish and Islamic theology on the nature and significance of the Names of God. Further historical lists such as The 72 Names of the Lord show parallels in the history and interpretation of the Name of God amongst Kabbalah, Christianity, and Hebrew scholarship in various parts of the Mediterranean world.
One definition of the Name of God was given by Elisha Mulford as ‘that name which passes into the common forms of thought’. The author states that in its derivation it may have an ethical significance. Other writers suggest that the “name of God represents the nature of God”. The attitude as to the transmission of the Name in many cultures was surrounded by secrecy. The pronunciation of the Name of God, in Judaism, has always been guarded with great care. It is believed that in ancient times the sages communicated the pronunciation only once every seven years; this system was challenged by more recent movements.
The nature of a holy name can be described as either personal or the attributive. In many cultures it is often difficult to distinguish between the personal and the attributive names of God, the two divisions necessarily shading into each other.