Louis Palme / Apr 10, 2008

As Muslim and Christian religious leaders continue to call for dialogue, one of the principle issues taking shape is the proper name for the Creator of the Universe.  A recent essay published in the Los Angeles Times contends that distinguishing between God and Allah helps the terrorists win.  Such a provocative argument deserves closer examination.  Since all religious faiths believe that their god was the progenitor of the universe and of mankind, the choice of different names for that god derive from each religion’s own doctrines.  If two different religions claim to worship the very same god, this can only be demonstrated by their common historical evolution.


Jews and Christians have the same God -- Jehovah


For example, Jews use the name Jehovah for their god.  The root of this word was used by God himself when he spoke to Moses through the burning bush in Exodus 3:14-15, “I AM WHO I AM. . . (hayah) Say this to the people of Israel: Jehovah, the God of our ancestors – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.” The name of God was so sacred to the Jews that they used euphemisms instead, like Elohiym (translated God) and Adonai (translated Lord), throughout the Old Testament.  But when it got down to being specific about which god the Bible was talking about, it used the word Jehovah.


Abraham is associated with Jehovah in Genesis 17.  The people of Israel are associated with Jehovah in Exodus 25. Moses is associated with Jehovah in Deuteronomy 1. David is associated with Jehovah in I Samuel 17. Solomon is associated with Jehovah in I Kings 9. (All of these citations refer to the Hebrew word number 3068 – Yehovah – in Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible.)  The first book of the New Testament, Gospel According to Matthew, begins with the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham to His mother Mary. Jesus links Himself with Jehovah in the New Testament in His statement, “I have come to you from God. I am not here on my own, but He sent me . . . I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I AM.”   (John 8: 42 and 58)  


So for two thousand years there has been no controversy about the God Jehovah of the Jews being the same God of the Christians.  After all, Jesus was a descendant of Abraham and David, according to Matthew 1.1.


Islam’s Claim for Allah


Muslims would also like to claim Jehovah as their god, whom they call Allah.  The Quran says, “Our God and your God is one.”(Surah 29:46)  But that is not how the Quran began. The “oneness of God”  statement is found in the 85th Surah to be “handed down,” chronologically.  In fact, Abraham and his God aren’t even mentioned until the 26th Surah, in Surah 51:24.   On the other hand, Allah was known to the Arabs long before Muhammad’s time. His own father was named Abdullah – slave of Allah.  But this god Allah was initially associated with the moon more than with the god of Abraham.  In the second Surah handed down, Surah 74, the author swears by the moon. The same for the fifth Surah of the Quran, Surah 91. This is reiterated in another early Surah, “I swear by the glow of the sunset; by the night, and all that it brings together; by the moon, in her full perfection: that you shall march onwards from state to state  . . therefore proclaim to all a woeful doom save those who embrace the truth Faith . . . (Surah 84:24-25)  Now, if the “speaker” of this verse is the Supreme God, Creator of the Universe, why must He swear by things He has created?  If the speaker is Muhammad, he is swearing by the moon – which was a common expression of worshippers of the Moon God, Al-Ilah, whose daughters al-Uzza, al-Lat, and Manat are also mentioned in the Quran (Surah 53:20)   While the Quran mentions the names of 20 characters (prophets and otherwise) which are common with the Bible,  there is little information in the Quran about when they lived, where they lived, or what they said or did that was remarkable.  At best, these common “prophets” are merely name-dropped into the Quran, along with stories which often disagree with the original source of the information.  This gives a superficial, but false, appearance of commonality between Islam and the Judeo-Christian faiths.


What Islam Stands to Gain from Commonality Between Allah and God


Since the early 1970’s when the modern-day use of terrorism to advance the Islamist agenda in the non-Muslim world began, there has been increased resistance to Muslims and Islamic doctrines in the West.  While freedom of religion is protected in the West, increasingly, Muslims in particular have been viewed suspiciously.  The cry “Alahu akbar” is not heard as a soothing praise of the Creator but rather the battle cry of terrorism.   To  counteract this visceral reaction, Muslims would like the name Allah to invoke on the nobler sentiments of the Judeo-Christian God.  This would also dispel the fear that Islam is conducting jihad against non-Muslims.


The second agenda of the “Allah” is God movement is to help pave the way for the introduction Shariah-based legal principles in Western countries. The reasoning is, if we all worship the same god, then what can be so bad about a few special, Islamic requirements?   Recent court cases instigated by Muslims reflect a growing list of these requirements based on Shariah Law, which include:


            1.   Muslims taxi cab drivers may refuse to carry passengers with dogs or alcoholic beverages

            2.   Muslim check-out clerks are excused from handling pork or alcohol products

            3.   Prison urinals must be installed so that Muslim users will not be facing Mecca

            4.   Public buildings like schools and airports should have foot bathing facilities for Muslims

            5.   Crosses, offensive to Muslims, may not be displayed in hospitals or other public buildings

            6.   Some Muslim women refuse to be photographed or to work without face-covering scarves

            7.   Polygamy, if entered into overseas, is tolerated and multiple wives supported on welfare

            8.   Medical students and hospital visitors exempted from using alcohol-based disinfectants

            9    Food services may be liable for inadvertently serving pork products to Muslims

          10.   Employers must schedule break-times so Muslims may pray 5 times a day


None of these concessions is provided for the members of any other faith, so the only way they can seem reasonable or tolerable is that “we all worship the same God.”


The Latest Attempt at Uniting Allah with God


Jordanian-born Lebanese-American author and artist Rabih Alameddine has published an Op-Ed essay in the Los Angeles Times on April 6 using a linguistic argument for the oneness of God and Allah.  (The article is presented at the end of this essay and can also be viewed at  http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-alameddine6apr06,0,2743519.story.)  After demonizing the use of foreign words -- “we promiscuous speakers shamelessly shoplift words” --  he says that you can’t force new meanings into words.  His exhibit A is the word Allah.  While there is no distinction in the Arabic language between the gods of Christians, Jews, Muslims and even Zoroastrians, in English usage the word Allah means something different from the word God.    To put that difference in stark contrast, Mr. Alameddine asks why we don’t use Dieu when talking about the god of the French or Dios when talking about the god of the Mexicans when many users of English always differentiate the Arab god with an Arab name.  He says, “It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads – rarely the compassionate God.”  While acknowledging that even Muslim countries like Malaysia have tried to restrict the use of Allah exclusively to the god of Islam, he contends that the distinction is most pronounced in the Western media. 


There is an ominous tone to Mr. Alameddine’s concluding remarks:  “In these troubled times, creating more differences, further parsing so to speak is troubling, even dangerous.  I suggest we either not use the word Allah, or better yet, use it in a non-Muslim context.  Otherwise, the terrorists win.”


Someone insisting that we always use “God” for the deity who verbally handed down every word of the Quran should take time to read some of that deity’s pronouncements and see if Jews and Christians would recognize him as their God:


1.  The Quran god says Christians and Jews are infidels and should be killed. 

            (Surah 2:87-89 and Surah 9:123)

2.  The Quran god decrees the cutting off the hands of a petty thief – destroying one of the

             Creator’s most marvelous works of creation. (Surah 5:38)

3.  The Quran god has determined that a woman’s testimony and inheritance should be worth

             only half that of a man. (Surah 2:282 and Surah 4:11)

4.  The Quran god urges men to beat their wives if they are suspected of disobedience

            (Surah 4:34)

5.  The Quran god exhibits his love only conditionally (Surah 19:96)

6.  The Quran god says if He were generous to his followers they would have committed much

             injustice in the land. (Surah 42:27)

7.  The Quran god determines whether people will be good or evil, but then judges them for their

             sins. (Surah 7:178 and Surahs 14:23 and 14:51)

8.  The Quran god is the only intercessor, which raises the question, the Quran god is interceding

             between man and whom?  (Surah 32:5)


Some readers of this line of reasoning will complain that it highlights apparent differences between the Quran god and the Judeo-Christian God when there are, in fact, so many similarities.  If you are in a store and the clerk rejects your $20 bill, will the clerk be convinced of its genuineness if you say, “But, sir, it’s green, it’s the right shape, and it has lots of 20’s printed all over it. What’s the problem?”   No, the clerk will show that it is lacking some very minute feature – embedded threads, a watermark, or a serial number.   The genuineness of a god is not in the superficial claims, but in the details known and understood for thousands of years.


If Muslims want non-Muslims to call the Quran god by the Judeo-Christian name, Jehovah God, then the short list above would a be a good place to start repairing their god’s credentials.  The terrorists will win when they have a Sacred Text which provides divine justification for every one of their evil acts.


Here is the article by Alameddine:


Allah vs God

Using English to separate the two has become a dangerous practice.


Source:  http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-alameddine6apr06,0,2743519.story


By Rabih Alameddine
April 6, 2008


All living languages are promiscuous. We promiscuous speakers shamelessly shoplift words, plucking bons mots and phrases from any tempting language. We wear these words when we wish to be more formal, more elegant, more mysterious, worldly, precise, vague. They flash on our fingers like gaudy rings, adorn our hair, warm our necks like rich foreign scarves. They become our favorite trousers, the shoes we cannot live without, our way of describing illness to our doctors, declaring love to our lovers, formulating policies, doing business. We believe we own them and are frequently astonished to discover their original roots in another language.

English, a mongrel from the start, greedily helps itself to foreign words more than any other. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 500,000 of them, whereas German has about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, according to "The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil. Give us your tired, your poor, your fabulous words yearning to be free. We'll take them.

English has always had a special fondness for other European languages, a neighborly soft spot -- perhaps because Britain has been invaded by speakers of those languages from the onset of its recorded history.

But not so much fondness for the languages of non-neighbors. Despite huge increases in immigration from Africa and Asia in the last 50 years, English has resisted adopting words from these continents, except for the names of certain foods. Think of Mandarin words that have come into the language. How about from Tagalog? ("Kowtow," "shanghai" and "typhoon" from Mandarin; "boondocks" and "yo-yo" from Tagalog.)

So whenever I come across an Arabic word mired in English text, I am momentarily shocked out of the narrative. Of course, English has pilfered numerous bits of Arabic -- "artichoke," "zero," "genie," "henna," "saffron," "harem," "tariff" -- but the appropriation was so long ago that few English speakers know the words' origin. These dictionary entries were probably introduced by the Moors into Spanish first, and then by the Spaniards into English.

What has Arabic done for us lately?

If we take away the familiar food pilferages ("hummus," "falafel"), words recently adopted from Arabic are all troublesome: "hijab," "intifada," "fatwa" and "jihad." For an English speaker, the first suggest humiliation, the last three violence.

In Arabic, the word "hijab" means any type of veil or cover. The American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "the head scarf worn by Muslim women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the eyes." In Arabic, "intifada" denotes rebellion, a throwing off of shackles. Merriam-Webster's definition is an armed uprising of Palestinians against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Fatwa" isn't simply a religious decree; it's an Islamic religious decree. Even though a fatwa could be an exhortation by, say, a Moroccan cleric to raise literacy for women, in English, it is used almost exclusively in reference to the ignominious Salman Rushdie affair, in which former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of the novelist because of Rushdie's alleged blasphemy in his novel, "The Satanic Verses."

And "jihad" comes from the word "excel," juhd or ijtihad in Arabic. It means a holy war or righteous struggle. Some schools in the Middle East, religious and secular, will hold jihads -- or special intense programs to get students to accomplish something -- to improve math scores and raise reading levels. Although most English usage I've come across refers only to an Islamic holy war, I have begun to see "jihad" as a synonym for crusade (originally a Christian holy war, broadened now) and a vigorous fight against something. In other words, jihad, this English word, might one day encompass its full Arabic meaning.

English has yet to incorporate these words fully, and history suggests it might never do so. The language is filled with words that are culture specific: "sahib," "coolie," "effendi," "bey." The word "emir" simply means prince in Arabic, but in English it is a prince or ruler of an Islamic state. When my sister in Beirut tells her daughter a bedtime story, the emir kisses the sleeping princess awake. No mother in the U.S. or Britain would let an emir anywhere near a princess' lips. No princess will ever sing "Someday My Emir Will Come."

That in some ways is how it should be. Language, after all, is organic. You can't force words into existence. You can't force new meanings into words. And some words can't or won't or shouldn't be laundered or neutered. Language develops naturally.

I bring all this up, however, to get to the word whose connotation I would love to see changed -- "Allah."

Allah means God.

In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim deity. No one would think of using the word "Allah" to talk about any other religion. The two words, "God" and "Allah," do not mean the same thing in English. They should.

This isn't about political correctness; it isn't about language distortion. Altered or incomplete usage of words is natural, even amusing. "Confetti" in its original language means little bonbons or small sweets. And incomplete usage is at times explainable and logical. The words "beef," "pork" and "mutton" arrived with the Norman invasion. They refer solely to the meat, never to the animal, whereas in the original French they refer to both (mouton is both sheep and mutton). That is primarily because French was integrated into the language of the upper classes, which ate the meat, and less so that of the farmers, who raised the animals.

God, however, is a big deal. The word for God matters quite a bit more than what lands on one's table for dinner at night. We never say the French pray to Dieu, or Mexicans pray to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies that Muslims pray to a special deity. It classifies Muslims as the Other. Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads -- rarely the compassionate God. The opening line of every chapter in the Koran is "Bi Ism Allah, Al Rahman, Al Rahim": In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful. In the name of Allah. One and the same.

The separation is happening on all sides. This year, the Malaysian government issued an edict warning the Herald, a weekly English newspaper, that no religion except Islam can use the word Allah to denote God. No such edict, or fatwa for that matter, is needed for the New York Times: a quick search through the archives shows that Allah is used only as the Muslim God.

In these troubled times, creating more differences, further parsing so to speak, is troubling, even dangerous. I suggest we either not use the word Allah or, better yet, use it in a non-Muslim context.

Otherwise, the terrorists win.

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