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April 2005
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Opinion

Can Muslims Use 'God' instead of 'Allah'?
By V.A. Mohamad Ashrof
Kerala


Muslims who insist on using the word “Allah” even when addressing non-Muslims, who are unfamiliar with Islam and the Arabic language, do both a disservice to themselves and their religion.


One important point to understand about Islam is that Prophet Muhammad (Pbuh) never claimed that he was teaching a new religion. He said that his mission was to restore the original and true religion of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and all other prophets. The Qur’an emphatically says: ‘Say: “We believe in God, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in [the Books] given to Moses, Jesus, and the Prophets, from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to God do we bow our will”’ (2:136). Thus we may say that Jesus was a Muslim, that is one who submitted to Jehovah, to God Almighty or as the present day Muslims know Him, as Allah.


God chose Arabic language, not for its inherent value as a language, but simply for its expediency that is because the message was addressed primarily to the Arabic-speaking people. The Qur’an does not suggest that Arabic has any unique or intrinsic merit as a language of revelation, or that it is the only language in which we can understand revelation.


Rather the Qur’anic rationale of the Arabic language is based in the very clear cultural consciousness that each nation has its own language, and Arabic is the language of the Arabs, and it is, in this capacity, only one of many languages: “Never did We send a Messenger except (to teach) in the language of his (own) people in order to make (things) clear to them” (14: 4).’Had We sent this as a Qur’an (in a language) other than Arabic, they would have said:’ Why are not its verses explained in detail? What! a foreign (tongue) and (a Messenger) an Arab?”(41:44).


Some of the biggest misconceptions that many non-Muslims have about Islam have to do with the word “Allah”. For various reasons, many people have come to believe that Muslims worship a different God than Christians and Jews. This is totally false, since “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God” - and there is only One God and Muslims worship the God of Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. “Allah” is the same word that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use for God. According to Islam, Allah is the God of Abraham and thus the Muslims claim to be followers of the same God of Judaism and Christianity. If one picks up an Arabic Bible, he/she will see the word “Allah” being used where “God” is used in English. This is because “Allah” is the only word in the Arabic language equivalent to the English word “God” with a capital “G”.


Although the name “Allah” is most commonly associated with Islam, it was also used in pre-Islamic times. Arab Christians used it in the pre-Islamic Umm al-jimal inscription (6th century). The father of Prophet Muhammad had the name “Abdullah”, which translates “servant of Allah.” The pre-Islamic pagan Arabs claimed that the chief god at Mecca, hubal, had three daughters, a belief condemned in Qur’an (53:19). The Hebrew word for deity, El or Eloh was used as an Old Testament synonym for Yahweh.


All Semitic languages use one or another variation of Allah for God. In Aramaic, which is the language spoken by Jesus the word for God is Eli - which again sounds close to “Allah”. Thus we can safely say that all the Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic prophets as well as other prophets who spoke a Semitic language used the word “Allah” for God or one of its variations.


The Qur’an also uses the related name Allahumma, which may be an Arabic rendering of Elohim, a word for ‘God’ or ‘Deity’ used in the text of the Hebrew Bible. It is interesting to note that the Aramaic word “El”, which is the word for God in the language that Jesus spoke, is certainly more similar in sound to the word “Allah” than the English word “God”. This also holds true for the various Hebrew words for God, which is “El” and “Elah”, and the plural form “Elohim”. The reason for these similarities is that Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic are all Semitic languages with common origins. It should also be noted that in translating the Bible into English, the Hebrew word “El” is translated variously as “God”, “god” and “angel.” This imprecise language allows different translators, based on their preconceived notions, to translate the word to fit their own views. The Arabic word “Allah” presents no such difficulty or ambiguity, since it is only used for Almighty God alone.


However, in the contemporary world one has to realize certain harsh realities: There is a lot of anti-Islamic literature in existence, which tries to picture Islam like something, strange and foreign to Westerners. There are some people out there, who are obviously not on the side of truth, that want to get people to believe that “Allah” is just some Arabian “god”, and that Islam is completely “Other” - meaning that it has no common roots with the other Abrahamic religions (i.e., Christianity and Judaism). Insisting on the use of the word “Allah” which is the Arabic word for God immediately creates the illusion that “Allah” is a whole different deity than God of the whole world. It creates a god that belongs only to the Muslims, and takes the universality of Islam out of it.


To say that Muslims worship a different “God” because they say “Allah” is just as illogical as saying that French people worship another God because they use the word “Dieu”, that Spanish-speaking people worship a different God because they say “Dios” or that the Hebrews worshipped a different God because they sometimes call Him “Yahweh”. Certainly, reasoning like this is quite absurd! It should also be mentioned, that claiming that any one language uses only the correct word for God is equivalent to denying the universality of God’s message to mankind, which was to all nations, tribes and people through various prophets who spoke different languages.


Muslims who insist on using the word “Allah” even when addressing non-Muslims, who are unfamiliar with Islam and the Arabic language, do both a disservice to themselves and their religion. Unfortunately, this practice is usually based on the wrong assumption - by a non-native speaker of English - that the word “God” in English is incapable of expressing a pure and proper belief in Almighty God. This is certainly false. If someone says that the English word “God” cannot be used to express the pure Islamic belief in Tawhid, they are wrong not because they misunderstand Tawhid, but simply because they don’t comprehend the English language. Many people who insist on using the Arabic word “Allah” usually don’t realize this, because in reality, they are not so much affirming the word “Allah” as they are rejecting the word “God” as unsuitable - based on erroneous assumptions.


Those who insist that ‘Allah’ is the actual name of God are somewhat short on Qur’anic knowledge. The Qur’anic evidence is, indeed, capable of ending further altercations on the issue. It says: “Call upon Allah or call upon Rahman: by whatever name you call upon Him (it is well): for to Him belong (all) the most beautiful names” (17:110). Thus it is of no great importance by what name or word we call upon our Creator. What is important is that we have the right beliefs about Him, that we have faith and trust in Him and that we develop an inner relationship with Him through prayer and remembrance.


The Qur’an lists over 99 names for God and not just the word Allah. We can call Him Allah, we can call Him the Most Gracious, or we can call him by any of the beautiful names that are worthy of Him. Whether we use the Arabic word for the name like Rahman or the English equivalent, which is The Most Gracious, does not make any difference. The restriction to use the Arabic words to call God is not a condition set by God.


To say the word “God” should be rejected because it can be changed into “god”, “gods” or “goddess” is illogical because each of these words has a distinctive meaning and a distinctive spelling - at least to someone who knows how to speak English correctly. The capital “G” implies something different than the small “g” - and those who deny this simple fact don’t know English.
My suggestion is that it is better to use the word “God” when we are communicating with believers of other faith, for this facilitates communication and understanding. Muslims converts may also continue to use the word “God” if that brings them more meaning and more experience of Allah. Otherwise, my opinion is that Muslims should generally use “Allah” since it is more authentic, logical and consistent with what the Prophets and Messengers used in the past, and since the Qur’an, the Living Guide for all Muslims, uses it.


The mentality of some of our brothers almost approaches that of the Israelites - the “our God vs. your God” mentality! Therefore, for anyone to claim that the word Allah is the personal name of God or that the word Allah denotes the God of the Qur’an must indeed revise his or her knowledge in the light of all the issues discussed in this article.


The writer is associated with Al-Harmony: Journal on Islamic Thought and Ethics, Kochi, Kerala, and can be reached at vamashrof@yahoo.com