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Orville Boyd Jenkins
A. The Semitic Language Background. A question which arises for Western or Christian enquirers in approaching Islam is this question: What does the name "Allah" mean? This is one form of the common Semitic word/name. This word occurs in all the languages of the region, for the Creator or High God.
First of all, it is important to note that this is not a name. This word Allah is the Arabic form of the Semitic word for the Creator God. The original, simplest form of the name was l, and is found in the form il or el. In Hebrew, Aramaic and Canaanite it is el. In Arabic it is il.
Adding Al ("the") to Ilah (the masculine form of the stem il) yields Al-ilah, which contracts to the form Allah. The meaning is the One (or High) God.
In usage this has the effective meaning of One True God, and is often translated this way in English. In this usage the word is understood to have no gender, since God can have no gender.
Those who believed in only One God used this word as the designation for that God. Those still believing in a pantheon used this word for the High God, or Creator.
B. Comparisons. Let us look at a side by side comparison to observe this linguistic phenomenon.
This clearly shows that these various "names of God" are actually phonetic variations of the same Semitic word/name.
Language Word Form Gender Canaanite el (masculine) Hebrew el (masculine) Hebrew eloah (masculine) Hebrew elah (feminine) Aramaic elah (masculine) Arabic allah (al-ilah) (masculine)
Arabic allat (al-ilat) (feminine)
Thus the Arabs use the same word/name for God as the Hebrews when they refer to the One God, in their own Semitic dialect form. There occurs a normal process of gradual sound change as similar peoples move apart or experience different cultural influences.
When the differences become so great that the different groups can no longer understand each other, we think of their speech as separate languages. Thus these various Semitic peoples inherited the same basic language, including the word for God.
(There is another word in these languages sometimes used for divinities: Babylonian: bel; Hebrew and Canaanite: baal. This is the equivalent of the English word "lord," the feminine (Canaanite) being baalath, "lady."
Only in Canaanite (Ugaritic) religion did baal come to take priority over el. This name/title became associated with a "religion" so vile and degraded that it makes one sick to think about it. In Hebrew baal was used as a title for captains and "nobles.")
C. Notes on Hebrew usage. Just for clarification, while the root word is the same, the Hebrew usage is a bit different. In addition to el, the plural form elohim is used with a singular verb to indicate majesty. This is the plural of the form eloah, seen in the elah of Aramaic and allah of Arabic.
This plural, which is the same in Aramaic due to Hebrew influence, is used also of gods in general. In addition, the God referred to as El, or Elohim, all through the Old Testament, also came to be known by his relationship name of YHWH, perhaps pronounced as Yahweh. It does not appear that such a relationship name came to be used in Islam. This Hebrew word elohim is also the general word used for any God in much of the Old Testament.
D. Converting the Name. Compare these similar names from various Indo-European languages. English: God; German: Gott; Danish: Gud; Persian and Urdu: Khodah. These words all are phonetic forms of the same initial root word from the ancient pagan Indo-European language.
As the Germanic peoples were gradually converted to faith in Jesus Christ, their original word was also "converted" to be applied to the One True God, who is the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Zoroastrian concept of the Persians was superseded by the monotheistic concept of the One True God. The Hindu concept of the Indians speaking Sanskrit was superseded in the Urdu form of their language by the same concept of the One True God.
None of these people changed their name for God. Rather the concept the name represented was changed as they were converted. This same pattern occurred in the Romance family of languages, which inherited another Indo-European root: Latin: deus; Portuguese: deus; Spanish: dios; French: dieu–all Christian names for "God." And we would be remiss to leave out the Greek form of this same Indo-European word: θέος (theos), the word used in the Koine Greek of the New Testament, also used for the Greek gods of their Pantheon, which means "all gods."
The same thing occurred with the Arabs and related people when they became Christians. The Arabs who heard the gospel came to understand that the god they knew as the creator god, and High God of all the gods, was in fact the Only God, the True and Living God. Therefore they, as the Hebrews centuries before, applied the semitic name of the Creator God to the God of Israel who revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
Thus the name of God in the Arabic Bible is Allah, as Arab Christians have called God since the time of Jesus. This is short for al-illah, which means simply The God. Arabic-speaking Christians use the same word for the God revealed in the Bible that Arabic-speaking Muslims use for the One God who they believe sent Muhammad as a prophet.
Note that these Arabic-speaking Christians were using this native word in their language to refer to the God of the Bible for centuries before Islam ever existed!
First of all, it poses one language against another, when the actual intent is to distinguish one concept of God and his character from another. As we have said, Arabic-speaking Christians believe in Allah, since that is their word for the biblical God who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
This analysis assumes a status for the German pagan word god – which originally referred to any or all objects of worship – which it denies to the Arabic word. In fact the question is a much deeper and more complex one than the use of a name.
The real question is, "What concept of God is held by the individual or religious group?" and then, "How does one bridge the communication gap between the different assumptions entailed?" Perhaps Muslims believe in the One True God, but have a different concept of his character and identity?
To be serious and honest about this, Christian enquirers must also consider the variations of faith and concepts of God that really exist among Christian believers – not just the ideals of the faith and the "best" theology, but the normal everyday actual beliefs.
F. The Critical Difference. It was mentioned earlier that Muslims almost purposefully misunderstand the Christian use of the term "Son of God" to refer to Jesus. Even so, it is in their view of Jesus, not in their word for God, that the definitive difference is found between Muslims and believers in Christ.
The basic claim of the Christian faith is that God has revealed his own personal character in a human life, the life of Jesus. It was a purposeful, willful self-revelation, not a historical accident. Thus Jesus, who was, indeed, prophet and teacher, servant and example, was further the personal expression of God's love, judgement and redemption in human form.
Through Jesus, we are told by Paul of Tarsus, God himself bridged the gap of sin and separation between himself and his human creation. This is the unique role of Jesus, which is the basis of his being called Son of God. John's gospel establishes the depth of meaning of this term "Son of God," used jointly with "Son of Man."
In the book of 1 John (2:23), acceptance or rejection of God the Father is linked with acceptance or rejection of the Son. For followers of Jesus Christ, this filial role in salvation is not a rejection of God's unique role in salvation, as Muslims tend to feel, but rather the fullest expression of it.
This is shown in Paul's explanation to the Romans that in his resurrection Jesus became "the firstborn of many children."
More Resources on the Names of God
Arabic Bible excerpts
Allah is Elohim
Who is Allah?
Allah Does Not Belong to Islam
Allah and Eloh from a Jewish View
Allah and Eloh
Allah and the Moon-God Myth
Various links on the meaning and use of the name "Allah"
Christian, Jewish use of "Allah" before Islam
Originally published in An Outline Introduction to Islam (Nairobi: Communication Press, 1991.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 22 February 2003
Last edited 20 May 2012
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 1991, 2004 by Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.
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