Is Allah the God of the Bible?

AllahIt is becoming increasingly common to hear Evangelical Christian missionaries suggest that “Allah” is the name we should be using for “God” in Islamic contexts and many bible translation organizations are now frequently using “Allah” in the translations they produce for Islamic contexts.  Because there has been so much misinformation from both those opposing and those supporting this practice, trying to evaluate this practice has often proved to be very difficult for those on the outside who are trying to understand this issue. The difficulty in evaluating the claims being made has often lead people without direct knowledge of the issues involved to simply defer to the “experts,” leaving the door open to some very troubling practices in the mission’s field today. It is my hope to bring some clarity to the questions surrounding this issue so that we can better understand when this is the right practice, when it is wrong, and when the answers are not as clear as we would like them to be. It is important to recognize that anyone who tells you that the practice of using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ in the bible is always right or it is always wrong either does not himself understand the issues or he is being deceptive; the answers to these questions are not quite that simple. With that background I would like to evaluate the following common arguments used in this debate.

  1. Allah is a generic noun used to describe a divine being and is the proper word to use to describe God.
  2. Allah comes from the same root as Elohim in the bible and is the proper word to describe God.
  3. Allah was originally the name of the pagan moon God and should never be used in a bible translation; it is Satanic.

Is “allah” really a generic noun for divine being?

Missionaries who advocate using “allah” as the word for “God” in Islamic contexts tell us that the word “allah” is simply a noun used to describe a divine being just as the word “god” is a noun used to describe a divine being in English. These missionaries will point out that “allah” is the word used for “god” by Arabic speakers in most religious contexts including Christian contexts and just as we properly use the word “god” to describe the Hindu god, or Mormon god, or Buddhist god, etc…, those in Arabic speaking countries use “allah” in a very similar way. These claims are all true and these answers seemingly suggest that the claims made by these missionaries are valid. However, there are many more questions that still need to be asked before coming to that conclusion and if we stop here we will have made a tragic mistake.

In order to understand the real issues involved in this controversy, it is important to understand that there is almost zero concern by anyone with experience in Arabic cultures about the appropriate use of ‘allah’ in Arabic bible translations. Georges Houssney has been a vocal critic of missionaries and bible translators who have inappropriately used the word ‘allah’ in bible translations and yet the modern Arabic bible translations produced under his direction use the word ‘Allah’ for God. Obviously, this question is not “should ‘allah’ should be used in translations of the bible?,” the question is “when and where should it be used?” In an Arabic bible translation, ‘Allah’ is the appropriate word to use when translating the Greek word ‘theos’ (god), the Aramaic word ‘elah’ (god), or the Hebrew words ‘el, eloah, or elohim’ (god). However, in other languages, like Persian, Amharic, French, English, etc… the word ‘Allah’ is not a generic noun, it is a proper name. In these contexts, the name ‘Allah’ brings to mind only the deity of Islam.The Al-Kitab English translation of the bible demonstrates this issue quite well. In this translation, Duet. 6:4-5 is translated as 4Hear, Israel: Allah is our God, Allah is one: 5and you shall love Allah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In the original Hebrew text, ‘elohim’ is the generic noun used for ‘god’ and it is twice translated as the generic noun ‘God’ in the Al-Kitab translation but the proper name ‘Yahweh’ is translated as the proper name ‘Allah.’ Clearly the translator of the Al-Kitab understood that, in English, ‘Allah’ is a proper name and not a generic noun. His translation1 demonstrates that he believes that Allah (of the Qu’ran) and Yahweh (of Scripture) are one and the same and it is this point of confusion about Christian theology that we should be careful to avoid. As was done in the Al-Kitab, some missionaries are now proposing that we use ‘Allah’ in languages where there has already been a long history of bible translations that uses other words to describe God. Within these cultures, these new translations are raising as much alarm with the local churches there as would be raised in our own churches if we were given the ‘Al-Kitab’ version to use in our English speaking churches. Our Christian brothers and sisters are rightly concerned about these new ideas in bible translation and we who are funding much of this translation work should stop and hear their concerns.

 

Does Allah really come from the same root as Elohim?

Missionaries supportive of IM will often point out that the word “allah” is derived from the very same Semitic root as “elohim” (The word used for God in the Hebrew bible) and while this is correct, it is also misleading. Unfortunately, this too often becomes the bases for the claim that these are essentially the same word and therefore interchangeable and that is incorrect. Looking at the words for god in Arabic (“allah”), Aramaic (“Elah”), and Hebrew (“Eloah”) written in a Hebrew script it seemingly confirms that these are in fact the exact same word and it is easy to see how someone could be easily confused.

Here are all three words in Hebrew:

allah-elah-eloah

If you cannot tell the difference, you are not alone. Without knowing the vowels or the context even a native Hebrew speaker would not be able to tell these words apart; they are truly identical. However, that does not mean that a Hebrew speaker would be confused about which word is being used in daily speech. When we speak, we always include the vowels and when written with the vowel markings, the differences between these words is very easily discernible. See below:

allah-elah-eloah-pointed

While it is true that these words are derived from the same root, it is simply not true that they are understood the same way. A Hebrew speaker who hears the pronunciation “allah” will always assume that the speaker is referring to the Muslim god. Here is how “allah” is defined in Abraham Even Shoshan’s Hebrew dictionary (The Hebrew equivalent of Webster’s English dictionary):

Allah-milon-ivrit

This dictionary reference reveals two interesting facts. First, the word “allah” is understood specifically as the Muslim god by Hebrew speaking people despite its common root. Second, the word “elohim” is understood in Hebrew as a generic noun for “god/gods;” this form is used almost identically to the way ‘allah’ is used in Arabic. While both Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages that share a common root for the word “god,” in Hebrew “allah” is used only in reference to the Muslim “god” and “elohim” is used as a generic word for “god.” In Arabic we have the exact opposite situation; the word “elohim” is used only in reference to the Hebrew God and “allah” can be used to refer to any “god.” The idea that words derived from the same Semitic root are themselves the same cannot be supported when we examine how these words are used in real life situations.

 

Is ‘Allah’ really the name of a pagan moon god?

No, it is a word used in reference to many different deities (including a pagan moon god) in the same way that the English word ‘god’ can be used in reference to many different deities. In the title of this section the word ‘god’ is itself used in reference to a pagan moon god; however this does not mean that the word ‘god’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god any more than a similar use in Arabic confirms that ‘Allah’ is the “name” of a pagan moon god. Confusing proper names with generic nouns is something that is, unfortunately, frequently done in arguments presented by both sides and it is always wrong. On the other side, it is not uncommon to hear those proposing that we use ‘allah’ in Islamic contexts suggest that the Greek words ‘theos’ and ‘kurios’ were “names” of pagan gods, or the Germanic word ‘gott’ (from which the English word ‘god’ is derived) was the “name” of a pagan deity. Confusing proper names and generic nouns is one of the quickest ways to cause confusion because it is often difficult for those who do not understand these foreign languages to recognize the difference. Arguments, on both sides of this debate, that begin with the claim ” the word __fill-in-the-blank__ is the name of a pagan god” are almost always in error. When you hear these kinds of arguments it should cause the alarm bells to start ringing!

 

Another consideration

Sometimes ‘Allah’ has been used to translate words other than ‘god’ and that is always wrong. When it is used as a translation for words like ‘father’ it is the wrong word to use (even in Arabic translations) and is a reflection of serious compromise. Islam teaches that god has no familial relationships and some translators have attempted to resolve this conflicting claim between Islam and Christianity by replacing familial language in Scripture with alternative words that lack a familial understanding. In some cases, the word chosen for the translation of ‘father’ has been ‘Allah’ and this mistranslation obscures one of the most important truths in scripture i.e that God is our Father! Even in contexts where ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use for the translation of ‘god’, using ‘Allah’ to translate other words like ‘father,’ ‘lord,’ ‘Yahweh,’ etc… is never correct.

 

Sometimes the answer isn’t quite black and white

When a different cultures interact with one another it is common for one culture to adopt words from another. In English we use the words like ‘hors d’oeuvres’ (French), ‘angst’ (German), ‘pro bono’ (Latin), ‘tour’ (Hebrew), sometimes without even recognizing the foreignness of the word itself. Adopting words from other languages is an extremely common practice that affects every spoken language. In languages that have been heavily influenced by Arabic cultures this can create a situation where questions about the use of ‘allah’ are not nearly so easy to answer. For example, due to Arab influences, Turkish adopted many Arabic words including the Arabic word for God. Turkish was originally written in the Arabic Script and the very first bible translations were translated by Arabic speaking Muslims beginning in the 17th century; these translations were then used by Christians for centuries. These early translations used the word ‘allah’ for ‘god’ and its “Turkishized” plural ‘ililar2‘ for ‘gods.’ So while this was not a Semitic language, it had adopted this Semitic term and used it to describe many different deities. However, Turkish also has its own Turkish words for ‘god’ and ‘gods’ i.e. ‘tanri’ and ‘tanrilar’ and, because of the history of the Turkish language, modern translations of the Bible typically use these Turkish words for god. In the 1920’s and 30’s the president of Turkey instituted a series of language reforms in an attempt to create a pure Turkish language. As part of his reforms, he changed the Script used to write Turkish from its historical Arabic Script to its modern Latin Script. He prohibited the use of many Arabic loan words (including the word ‘allah’) and ordered that translations of religious texts like the Qur’an and Bible use the Turkish words for God. As a result, today in Turkey both ‘Allah’ and ‘Tanri’ are understood and used as generic and equivalent words for God. Because of this unusual linguistic history, it is not unusual or unreasonable for Christians in Turkey to use the word ‘Allah’ in reference to God but it is also not the only choice and it may not be the best choice to use in a modern bible translation. This is one of the few cases where there is a considerable amount of gray area to consider when trying to answer questions about the use of ‘allah’ in Christian ministry and/or Bible translation.

 

Concluding thoughts

While in some languages ‘Allah’ is the correct word to use when speaking about the God of Scripture, it is never correct to say that the god of Islam is the same as the God described in our Christian Scriptures. The picture of God presented in Islam is very different than the picture of God that is presented in our Scriptures and trying to harmonize these divergent ideas about who God is can only lead to confusion. So as we evaluate specific instances where ‘Allah’ is used in bible translation or Christian outreach, we need to be asking primarily whether this usage is likely to cause people to associate the God of Scriptures with the god of Islam? Because the stakes for misunderstanding who God is are so high, we need to be diligently ensuring that we and the missionaries we support are making good biblical choices in these areas and that takes a little bit of diligence on our part. Here are some questions we can ask that can help us understand whether using ‘allah’ as the word for ‘god’ is appropriate in the contexts that we, or our missionaries, are involved.

  • Is there and established history of bible translation in this language?
    • When there is already a history of bible translation in a particular culture, the words they have already chosen to describe God are the words that should typically be used. Alarm bells should be ringing when a translator chooses to ignore the traditional terminology used in existing bible translations.

     

  • How has the local Christian church received these new translations?
    • In many cases, the strongest objections to these new translations has come from the local Christian churches in the countries where these bibles have been produced. If local Christian churches are opposing these newer translations because they are concerned that the terminology being used has been chosen to harmonize Islam with Christianity, we too should be concerned. Too often our Christian brothers and sisters abroad have felt abandoned and powerless to intervene when our western missionaries have begun ministries and bible translation projects that use terms that have created confusion about the differences between Islam and Christianity. It, unfortunately, is becoming more frequent for missionaries to be working in opposition to the local church instead of working with them.

     

  • In the language of this culture is ‘Allah’ a generic noun or a proper name?
    • There are many questions that should be asked in order to make this determination. Are there other words for ‘god’ that are commonly used? What terms have religions other than Islam used? Is there a plural form of ‘Allah’ that can be used to describe ‘gods?’ If possible, ask a native speaker that does not have a stake in this debate because their understanding will almost be certainly better than the missionaries (on either side of the issue) that are not native speakers of the language. If the answers to these questions suggest that ‘Allah’ is a proper name, then it almost certainly is the wrong word to use for God in bible translation or Christian ministry.

     

 


Notes:

1. The Al-Kitab includes a translation of the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Qur’an.

2. As a result of the Turkish language reforms, the cultural understanding of ‘ililar’ as a plural form of ‘allah’ has been almost completely lost. It is found in old Turkish bible translations but this form is not used in modern Turkish.

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Comments

  1. […] Increasingly ‘Allah’ is being used as a word for ‘God’ in non-Semitic language bible translations produced by organizations like Wycliffe, Frontiers, and others and this has raised concerns with the local churches where these translations are being introduced, missionaries who work with these churches, and other bible translators who are concerned about the legitimacy of these new translations. These new Muslim Idiom Translations (MIT’s) are being produced in languages like Amharic, Russian, Persian, etc… that have used other words for God for centuries. In these languages, the use of ‘Allah’ as a word for ‘God’ is a foreign concept ; in these cultures they understand ‘Allah’ much as we do in English i.e. as a name of the Islamic God. In many of these cultures the Christian community has had a very long history of bible translation in which the native word for ‘God’ in their language has been used for centuries. In these cultures, the introduction of a bible that replaces the word ‘God’ with ‘Allah’ is as offensive as it would be if the bibles we read in English made such a replacement. For more information on the use of ‘Allah’ as a name for ‘God’ please read this article. […]

  2. The Aided says:

    Allah is one of the name used to refer to God the Creator, and does not mean god/tuhan. As in arabic , god/tuhan is being referred with ilah or rab. In other semitic language god/tuhan would elah/eloah/el.

    Allah in Israelite scriptures would be referring to Yhwh (name for God the Creator referred by Israelites).

    some Christian sect believed that Jesus and Yhwh are two different presence. as can be found in Roman Christian books for e.g in John, it is mention that Word/Jesus is ‘with’ God (greek use noun theo/god an not name of Allah the Creator). Word /Jesus is God. But this does not mean Word/Jesus is Yhwh/Allah. It is just that Word/Jesus to have equal status to Yhwh/Allah that is having the status of theo/god/tuhan (in Roman Christian belief.)

    1. Mike Tisdell says:

      In Arabic, ilah and Allah are from the exact same root and yes, people from every religious background (including Christians) do use allah as a generic word for god. Rab is the word for “Lord” and is used in reference to YHWH just like Adonai is verbally substituted in the OT or kurios is used in the NT.

      In the Hebrew scriptures the form ‘allah’ is never used. In modern Hebrew it is used ONLY in reference to the Islamic god. Eloah (plural Elohim) are used in the Hebrew scriptures in reference to either YHWH or in reference to the false gods of other nations.

      Example:
      Gen 1.1 In the beginning God (Elohim) created…. (A reference to YHWH)
      Hos 3.1 They turned to other gods (elohim)… (a reference to false gods)

      Additionally, in Hebrew when eloah is used in reference to YHWH, it is almost always in the plural form (elohim) but the verbs used with elohim are almost always used in the singular; this would be a grammatical mistake in any other context. In essence, almost every page of the Hebrew OT scriptures declares both a plurality and a unity when speaking about the nature of God. And then there are passages like Gen 1:26 where God (plural) said (singular) “WE will make man in OUR image and OUR likeness.” Similarly when we look at Deut. 6:4 (Hear Israel YHWH our God (plural), YHWH is one). Now looking at Jn. 1.1 we see that John says both that “the word was with God” and that “the word was God.” That declaration seems pretty consistent with the reset of Scripture.

      1. The Aided says:

        The problem for Christians is that they translate ho theos/ton theon equivalent to generic nouns of (the god) or Al-ilah in Arabic to that of the word Allah.

        For those who try to look into the etymology of the word Allah will relate it to root ilah with tittle Al- (the) in front. However, when doing comparison of word Allah with generic nouns like ilah or al-ilah , one will find it is no longer equal to those two words. For example we have titles of God like Al-awal, Al-akhir, when one wish to invoke it as name, one drops the word Al-, by saying O Awal, or O Akhir. The same cant be applied when doing supplication towards Allah, as one will say O Allah. Not O Ilah, O Lah, nor does can one imply that such invocation is due to there is a title Al-Allah. The reason is that Allah is proper/unique noun.

        1. Mike Tisdell says:

          The Aided,

          Looking at the etymology of a word alone will never tell you how the word is used in daily conversation. In Arabic speaking cultures, allah is used as a generic noun to describe the gods of many religions (including the God of Scripture). I have friends from Arabic speaking countries who have been involved in the production of Arabic translations that state that they wish that the Christian church had used ilah rather than allah because it would have avoided confusion but they also recognize that have to accept how the language is used in their culture.

          1. The Aided says:

            You might want to recheck and validify the usage of Allah with your Arabic friend. Allah is not gods/god. Allah refer to unique name/word of singular being (which would be the Creator).
            Ilah is generic word for god. For plural then one use alihah as the generic word for gods.

            if Allah is generic in the sense of saying its Al-Ilah , then when one wish to call upon Allah, it should be rendered Ya Lah, Ya Ilah (drop the Al-). But certainly that is ot the case as unique word Allah is certainly not equal to generic word Al-Ilah.

            As for why Christians use ilah for translation, that is due to the scriptures itself using generic words like ‘ho’ ‘theos’ / ‘ton’ ‘theon’ (meaning ‘the’ ‘god’). As such , they are re-amending the mistakes of translation made centuries ago.

          2. Mike Tisdell says:

            The Aided, you might note that I actually said ‘elohim’ is translated as God/gods, not ‘allah.’ Note: the use of the Hebrew plural form to refer to the singular ‘God’ is unique to Hebrew. Other Semetic languages, like Arabic, use a plural form of the root when speaking of ‘gods.’

  3. The Aided says:

    i would like to attach a good read regarding the word Allah being proper/unique noun from Arabic Bible point of view
    http://www.arabbible.com/t-Allah.aspx

    1. Mike Tisdell says:

      Aided, I read the article and it simply does not address the fact that most Christians use bibles where ‘allah’ is used to translate ‘elohim’ and ‘theos’ and have been doing so for centuries. They understand this word to be a generic name for God and not a proper name.

      Trying to tell an Arabic speaker that they cannot use ‘allah’ to refer to a god because it is a proper name is like trying to tell a modern American English speaker that they cannot use the word ‘gay’ to refer to a homosexual because the word really means ‘happy.’ In both cases current usage dictates its meaning rather than its etymology.