By Nick Gier
Early this month the Georgia Department of Education removed a teaching guide for world history. Parents in Walton County were protesting the way Islam was being taught, especially the claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worshipped the same God. Some parents were fearful that their children had actually become Muslims because they had been forced to memorize the Five Pillars of Islam.
Meanwhile half way across the world a judge in Malaysia ruled last year that the word Allah is exclusive to Muslims and that the nation’s 2.5 million Christians must refrain from using the word in their scripture and worship. Bibles have been confiscated all around the country. In January of 2010, nine churches and a convent were fire bombed by militants on motorcycles.
There are about 12 million Arabic speaking Christians in the world. They live as substantial minorities in Lebanon (35%) and Syria (10%) and in lesser numbers in Iraq, Palestine, and North Africa. Many others live as good citizens in dozens of nations throughout the world. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Arabs living in the U.S. are Christians, not Muslims.
Jews and Christians prayed to God as Allah long before the prophet Muhammed. Wikipedia informs us that “the first Christian ruler in history was an Arab called Abgar VIII of Edessa, who converted ca. AD 200.” The Covenant of Medina (AD 622) recognized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as different religions, but it declared that their adherents worshipped the same God, acknowledged by all those present as Allah. These three faiths are sometimes called the “Abrahamic religions” because they also recognize Abraham as their first patriarch.
Malaysian Christians speak Malay and their Bibles are printed in that language, but Allah, a loan word from Arabic, is used for God. Malay Christian scholar Ng Karn Weng states: “I think the government knows that its policy of banning the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims is just intellectually untenable, legally indefensible, and morally embarrassing.”
Laying out a detailed linguistic explanation, Weng maintains that “allah is an ordinary Arabic word which is not specifically linked to a particular religion.” The word is composed of two parts “al-ilah” literally meaning “the strong God.” Il as God is exactly the same as the Canaanite El, which appears many times in the Hebrew Bible as El Bethel (the God at Bethel) and El Shaddai (the God of the Mountain). (Do you think that the Canaanites led protests yelling: “El is our God not yours”?) Elohim is the most common word for God in the Old Testament.
Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language from the Assyrian Empire. There are at least a dozen phrases in the New Testament where the original language is Aramaic. One of them is rather famous: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”? (Matt. 27:46). Trying to be as authentic as possible in his film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson has Jesus speaking Aramaic and praying to Aalah, Western Aramaic for God.
Allah and Elohim are not names of God; rather, they are generic Semitic words for deity itself, or one might say the Godhead. When the Quran lists the 99 names of God, Allah is not among them. Only the Sufis believe that Allah is the 100th name of God.
Some argue that Allah is a superior word for God because it is genderless and cannot be made into a plural. In the Old Testament Elohim is sometimes found with a plural verb. I agree with Muslims who are concerned that the Trinity undermines the Christian claim to monotheism.
Careful readers of the Old Testament will notice that the word “Lord” is substituted for the Hebrew Yahweh (English: Jehovah), because the Hebrew God forbade that his name be spoken. One might argue that Yahweh/Jehovah was a unique divine revelation to Moses and therefore exclusive to the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, in his book The Early History of God, Mark Smith has discovered that Yahweh has an earlier appearance as a warrior-god in the religious traditions of the Midianites and Edomites.
When I taught the existence of God in my philosophy classes, the conclusion, if any the arguments are valid, is that there is one God not many. Deity could be expressed in any number of languages as Allah, Elohim, Deus, Dios, Dieu, Gott, or Gud, but of course it would be absurd for believers to insist that only their word for deity is the legitimate one.
Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.
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