By Whatever Name
I received an email from a reader saying “I wish at times you would use the word Allah instead of God all the time.”
An interesting request and one which actually goes to the heart of many issues. Why, I thought, does the writer want me to use Allah?
The word Allah is a beautiful word and holds special significance to Muslims, although not only to Muslims. In Arabic the word Allah can only be applied to the Creator; it cannot be used to describe anything but the One True God. It is a neuter word, neither male nor female. This is unlike the word “god” which is masculine, with goddess being the feminine. In addition, pluralisation is possible with gods and goddesses, whereas Allah cannot be pluralised.
Given all of these benefits of the word Allah, why do I repeatedly use the word God? Well, firstly, I am writing in English. If I was writing in French I would use the word Dieu; in Italian, Dio; in Latin, Deus; in Greek, Theos. If I was writing in Arabic then Allah would be the word to use, even for Arabic speaking Jews and Christians, indeed any Arabic speaker intending to invoke the One True God would use the word Allah. It is not a word exclusive to Muslims; the word for God in an Arabic Bible is Allah.
But I am writing in English, and it is accepted that God with a capital “G” refers to the One True God, the Supreme Creator and this is the English equivalent of the Arabic word Allah.
The word God has deep and meaningful roots in the English language, literally meaning “the one who is invoked in prayer,” which parallels the etymological root of Allah, “‘LH”, which draws on the primary call “to worship”. So Allah and God at their roots refer to “the One who is worshipped/invoked in prayer.”
Secondly, I use the word God because in the current global situation where the talk has been far too much about the clash of civilisations, I believe it is fundamentally important to underline the commonality of those searching for the One True God. This could be those from the Abrahamic tradition of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or those from other religious traditions both global and local.
This aim is not as easy as it may seem, for there has been a strong push by many on the far right, and others, to define Allah as some small-time idol which only crazed Muslims worship.
Lieutenant-General William G. Boykin, a former US Intelligence officer said, on hunting down Osman Atto in Somalia, “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”
Boykin is not alone. Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the famed Billy Graham, put it simply, “The god of Islam is not the same God.” The UK’s Daily Mail tabloid screamed in a headline, “Schoolboys punished with detention for refusing to kneel in class and pray to Allah” and quoted a concerned parent saying, “making them pray to Allah, who isn’t who they worship, is wrong and what got me is that they were told they were being disrespectful.”
Who can blame the poor parent, fed with a constant stream of media messages suggesting a distinct and threatening god called Allah, “I want to see the flag of Allah flying over Downing Street” was another Mail headline, this time focusing on an interview with the self-appointed Muslim ‘leader’ and media darling, Anjem Choudary.
By using God in my writings, I hope to go someway towards underlying that Allah and God are one and the same, for there is only one God.
I know however that it is not just the Boykins and Grahams of this world who want to keep God and Allah separate. There are Muslims, fearful of the Trinity and religious dilution, who want only to use the word Allah. They translate the shahadah, the declaration of faith, as “There is no god but Allah.” This creates an instant division. Why translate all the words except one? Surely “There is no god but God” better encapsulates in English the meaning of the shahadah. Indeed, even deeper meaning may well be found by translating it still further down to its etymological root, “There is nothing worthy of worship except the One who is to be worshipped.” But that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
Religion brings our emotions into play in a profound and passionate sense. I am always rather wary of such emotions, but they cannot be ignored. They do have to be tempered, harnessed and controlled. Muslims are emotionally connected to the word Allah; this is a good thing. However, I firmly believe that those of us who converse in the English language need to use the word God in order to fully express our connectedness to the unbroken chain of revelatory transmission from the Creator to the creation since the beginning of humanity. We must also remember that by whatever we call upon the Creator, the Creator remains unchanged, for “There is nothing like Him. He alone is all-hearing, all-seeing.” (Qur’an 42:11)
And God knows best, or as they say in Arabic, Allah-hu-‘alam.