اللَّطِيفُ is translated as The Subtle, The Gracious and The Refined. It has a lot of meaning. Some names have overlapping meanings but have subtle differences.
That Being Who treats others well and with such compassion that a person does not even know / realise they are the recipient of such compassion. The One Who is giving that compassion takes care of the Asbaab to resolve issues from such places that the recipient does not realise. Allah ta’ala says in the Qur’an,
اللَّهُ لَطِيفٌ بِعِبَادِهِ يَرْزُقُ مَنْ يَشَاءُ ۖ وَهُوَ الْقَوِيُّ الْعَزِيزُ
Allah is very Kind [Gracious] to His servants. He gives sustenance to whom He pleases. He is the Powerful, the Almighty.
[Surah Shura: 19]
The word لَطِيف is used in two major ways in the Arabic language:
• As above i.e. That Being Who treats others well and with such compassion that a person does not even know /realise they are the recipient of such compassion
• That Being which is so subtle / refined that it cannot be perceived by the senses.
A beautiful point is made in the commentary: Allah ta’ala is لَطِيف and His compassion is like water. It comes everywhere, fills all types of vessels, people use it in all different ways or waste it and it reaches all of creation. Allah ta’ala’s compassion is fluid and in all crevices and corners!
The word encompasses all these meanings. Yet another meaning is that لَطِيف is something subtle, so اللَّطِيفُ is that Being Who knows about the smallest things (very similar to الْخَبِيرُ which is next).
Another meaning is that Being Who wants good for all His servants and arranges the Asbaab for it i.e. He creates the means and ways for all things good in this world and the best of it is Imaan and Hidaayah.
Yusuf AS said:
إِنَّ رَبِّي لَطِيفٌ لِمَا يَشَاءُ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ
Indeed, my Lord is Subtle in what He wills. Surely He is the One Who is the Knowledgeable, the Wise.[Surah Yusuf: 100]
This was said when he was speaking to the prisoners in jail, describing Allah ta’ala as لَطِيف.
The commentary spends a lot of time on discussing Surah Yusuf as all the episodes within it are a reflection of this name. Allah ta’ala plans and determines as He wishes and it is beyond our perception and understanding. In the episodes in Surah Yusuf, something would happen and that would become the means to something else. Something bad like Yusuf AS’s brothers throwing him in the well led to something good. Allah ta’ala being اللَّطِيفُ saved him and sent him to the house of the ‘Azeez of Misr. The brothers intended something and Allah ta’ala used their plotting and transferred it to something positive.
Another example is that of Zulaykha when she wanted Yusuf AS humiliated by sending him to jail however Allah ta’ala being اللَّطِيفُ took him out and made him a minister in Misr. The brothers of Yusuf AS wanted to separate father and son as their father loved Yusuf AS the most but Allah ta’ala being اللَّطِيفُ gathered them all together in the end.
Therefore this one of those names of Allah ta’ala which seems mysterious and hard to explain. It has these subtle elements which works in subtle and mysterious ways and not straightforward like الْخَالِقُ. On a basic level all the names i.e. knowing, having power over everything etc. mean the same thing but they have different tones and colours, so for a blue there are different shades of blue. Similarly, though the names sound similar to each other they have different shades.
In the Qur’an
It is mentioned 7 times in the Qur’an in the context that nothing is hidden from Allah ta’ala. In the following verse of Surah Mulk, Allah ta’ala mentions Himself i.e. The One Who created everything, does He not know?
أَلَا يَعْلَمُ مَنْ خَلَقَ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ
Would He not know, Who has created them? He is the Knower of finest mysteries, and aware of everything.
[Surah Mulk: 14]
He knows even the minutest detail. He knows the subtle matters and the greater matters, the universe, human beings and every act we do, good or bad which will be compensated in the Aakhirah. When a person realises this in the heart, then they will be careful about their actions.
Another place it is mentioned is in Surah An’aam, verse 103:
لَا تُدْرِكُهُ الْأَبْصَارُ وَهُوَ يُدْرِكُ الْأَبْصَارَ ۖ وَهُوَ اللَّطِيفُ الْخَبِيرُ
No vision can grasp Him while He grasps all visions. He is the Subtle, the Aware.
Allah ta’ala is so subtle that a person cannot perceive Him yet He can perceive everything.
“You will find God in the detail”
Another way this name is used is that He is beyond perception and understanding. He works in a mysterious and subtle manner. There is a saying of a scientist, “You will find God in the detail” i.e. you will wonder when looking into the details under microscopes and in the laws of gravity and the laws of nature. Looking at these things a person will find Allah ta’ala.
Allah ta’ala is compassionate to people and makes it easy by granting means so we should also adopt this and make ways and become the means to make it easy for people and this is part of compassion. There is a saying in English, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Part of being لَطِيف is giving people the means and ways to earn a living i.e. offer a job or help look for work. Therefore compassion by giving others the means to do good, to find Khayr and be better.