Who is “Allah”

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Sharing the Message “with Courtesy and Respect” (I Peter 3:15)
Who is “Allah”?
by Rick Brown

                                                       he rise of Islamist terrorism has outraged people across the world.
                                                       Many Christians have directed their anger, not simply towards
                                                       militant Islamists, but towards Muslims in general and towards
                                             Islam in particular. (Most Muslims, on the other hand, direct their anger
                                             sensibly towards the Islamist terrorists themselves rather than against the whole
                                             Muslim community.) Much of the anger expressed in the West has taken the
                                             form of demonizing the Islamic religion, to the extent of accusing Muslims of
                                             worshiping a demon. A key element of this attack has been the claim of some
                                             that the name Allah refers to a demon or at least a pagan deity, notably the
                                             so-called “moon god.” Such claims have even been made by scholars who are
                                             reputable in their own fields but who are poorly acquainted with the Arabic
                                             language and Middle-Eastern history. The Kingdom of God, however, is never
                                             advanced by being untruthful, so this matter bears further investigation.

                                             Moon God?
                                             Those who claim that Allah is a pagan deity, most notably the moon god, often
                                             base their claims on the fact that a symbol of the crescent moon adorns the
                                             tops of many mosques and is widely used as a symbol of Islam. It is in fact true
                                             that before the coming of Islam many “gods” and idols were worshiped in the
                                             Middle East, but the name of the moon god was Sîn, not Allah, and he was not
                                             particularly popular in Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. The most prominent
                                             idol in Mecca was a god called Hubal, and there is no proof that he was a moon
                                             god. It is sometimes claimed that there is a temple to the moon god at Hazor in
                                             Palestine. This is based on a representation there of a supplicant wearing a cres-
                                             cent-like pendant. It is not clear, however, that the pendant symbolizes a moon
                                             god, and in any case this is not an Arab religious site but an ancient Canaanite
                                             site, which was destroyed by Joshua in about 1250 BC. There is also an ancient
                                             temple in the ruins of the kingdom of Sheba (Saba), in Yemen, and it includes
Rick Brown is a Bible scholar and            inscriptions to the kingdom’s patron god Almaqah. It has been claimed that
mission strategist. He has been
involved in outreach to the Muslim
                                             Almaqah was a moon god, but there is no solid evidence for this, and scholars
world since 1977.                            now think Almaqah was a sun god.1 If the ancient Arabs worshipped hundreds
International Journal of Frontier Missions                                                                23:2 Summer 2006•79
80   Who is “Allah”?
of idols, then no doubt the moon god          Talmud and in the Syriac Aramaic           and they suggest that the name Allah
Sîn was included, for even the Hebrews        Bible used by many Middle-Eastern          is derived from the expression al ’ilah,
were prone to worship the sun and             Christians today. These Aramaic-           meaning “the God.” It might be
the moon and the stars,2 but there is no      speaking Jews and Christians lived         noted that the word ’ilah is related to
clear evidence that moon-worship was          throughout the Middle East, and            the Biblical Hebrew words ’eloh and
prominent among the Arabs in any way or       there were also many Arabic-speak-         ’elohim, meaning “God,” as well as to
that the crescent was used as the symbol of   ing Jews and Christians. It might          the Biblical Aramaic word elâh, so
a moon god, and Allah was certainly not       be recalled that there were Arabs at       regardless of the derivation, the word is
the moon god’s name.                          Pentecost (Acts 2:11), and Paul went to    related to the Biblical terms for God.
So if the crescent symbol does not            Arabia before beginning his ministry
represent an Arabian moon god,                among the Syrians and Greeks (Gal          Jewish and Christian Use
then where did it come from? The              1:17). There were Arab bishops at          of ‘Allah’
crescent had been a symbol used in            the Council of Nicea, and there are        However the term Allah came into
Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and          archeological remains of pre-Islamic       Arabic, we know from ancient inscrip-
was used on the flag of the Byzantine         churches in Yemen, in southern             tions that Arabic-speaking Christians
Empire, which proclaimed itself to be         Arabia (Najran), along the Gulf, and       were using the form Allah before the
Christian. Some of the ancient Turkish        in Jordan. Archeologists have found        rise of Islam. This is evident from
tribes also used a crescent-like symbol,                                                 inscriptions on tombs and from a
although it might have been derived                                                      pre-Islamic inscription in the ruins of
from the horns of a bull rather than the                                                 a church at Umm al-Jimāl, Jordan.7
moon. But when the Turks conquered                                                       The prophet of Islam claimed to
Constantinople and the rest of the                                                       preach a continuation of the mes-
Middle East in the 15th century, they                                                    sage of the Jewish prophets and of the
kept the Byzantine symbol of empire.              It is the term Jesus                   Messiah Jesus, so it stands to reason
In fact, they affixed crescent symbols                                                   that he would use the same names that
atop public buildings throughout their             would have used.                      Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians
empire as a symbol of their impe-                                                        were using. Some of the statements in
rial rule. It also figured in the flags                                                  the Qur’an reflect a situation in which
of their vassal states, even after the                                                   Christians are using the term Allah,
states became independent. Once the                                                      such as when they proclaim that Jesus
crescent no longer represented Turkish                                                   is Allah. This claim is rejected in the
imperial rule in its former colonies, it                                                 Qur’an, which says, “In blasphemy
was reinterpreted as a symbol of Islam,       inscriptions in cemeteries associated      indeed are those that say that Allah
which is its modern significance.3 So         with these churches. The proper names      is Christ the son of Mary” (Sura 5:17,
the crescent symbol has not been passed       found in these inscriptions are often      Yusuf Ali translation). The very next
down through Islam from a supposed                                                       verse in the Qur’an condemns Jews
                                              names compounded with Allah, (such
ancient Arabian moon religion but is a                                                   and Christians for claiming that they
                                              as ‘Abd Allah, servant of God) so Allah
symbol imposed by the Ottoman Turks                                                      are “sons of Allah” (Sura 5:18). So
                                              was clearly a name that Christians
for political reasons.                                                                   the term Allah seems to have been
                                              were using for God.4
                                                                                         in common use among the Jews
Origin of the name ‘Allah’                    Unfortunately the Bible was not            and Christians.
So where did the name Allah come              translated into Arabic at that time, so
from? To anyone who knows the                 although these pre-Islamic Christians      Even today, Allah is the Arabic name
Aramaic language and its history in           spoke Arabic, they used Scriptures         for God that is commonly used by
the Middle East, it seems obvious that        in the Aramaic language. One result        Jews and Christians. The standard
the Arabic name Allâh is an adapta-           of this was that they introduced           Jewish Arabic translation of the Torah
tion of the Aramaic word for God,             many Aramaic words and names into          was translated by the Jewish scholar
Alâh or Alâhâ. Prior to the rise of           Arabic, often transforming them in         Saadia Gaon before 1000 AD and has
Islam and for some time afterwards,           the process to fit the sound patterns of   been used by Middle Eastern Jews
Aramaic was the main language of              Arabic. It seems likely that this is how   until the present time. It was also used
Jews and Christians in the Middle             the Aramaic word for God came to be        by Christians until American mis-
East (apart from Egypt, where variet-         borrowed into Arabic as the name of        sionaries widely distributed an Arabic
ies of Coptic were used), and many            God.5 Especially revealing is the fact     version of the King James Bible in the
Aramaic words were borrowed into              that Allâh is pronounced in Arabic as      late 19th century. There were other
Arabic. The usual term for God in             it is in Aramaic, using the Aramaic        Jewish Arabic translations as well,
Aramaic was Alâh(â). It is the term           pronunciation of the second syllable,      notably the one made by the Karaites
that Jesus would have used. It is used as     even though this pronunciation is          at the same time as Saadia. All of
the term for God in the books of Ezra         unusual in Arabic.6 Muslim scholars,       these Jewish translations use Allah as
and Daniel, in the Jewish translations        however, do not like to admit that the     the name of God, using it to translate
of the Bible (the Targums), in the            Arabic of the Qur’an has loan-words,       both Elohim and YHWH. There are
                                                                                         multitudes of ancient Christian Arabic
International Journal of Frontier Missions
                                                                                                                    Rick Brown     81
translations of Scripture, from the
seventh century until now, and they
                                                       here is no inscription that identifies Allah as a moon
all without exception use Allah.8 So for               god or as a pagan deity. This contrasts with the
Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians,
the name Allah is the name of the                      Hebrew, Greek, Latin and English words for God . . .
God of the Bible, and Arab Christians
often respond with amusement and               bestower of all blessings, the sender of     a physical union with Mary to beget
dismay when Westerners “point out” to          all prophets and Scripture, then that is     Jesus. Jews and Muslims typically think
them that they shouldn’t use the name          what the term means for them, and not        of God as one and indivisible, without
Allah. Millions of Muslims have come           a moon god. Allah is God.                    distinctions of person, and without
to faith in Jesus, and they have not seen      Lexical meaning has at least two com-        being incarnate in any way as the
a need to stop using Allah in reference        ponents, called ‘sense’ and ‘denotation’.    Messiah, but Jews also conceive of God
to God, whom Muslims identify as               The denotation is the set of entities that   as preferring Jews over others, whereas
“the Creator,” “the Lord,” “the God of         are conventionally described by that         Muslims think of God as preferring
Abraham,”, “the God of Moses,” etc. If         word. The sense is the set of proper-        themselves to Jews.10 Like Jews and
they were using Allah in their lan-            ties that are typically attributed to        Muslims, Jesus-only Protestants
guage to refer to God previously, then         an entity when it is described by that       are anti-Trinitarian, but they view
they continue to do so after becoming          word. For example, the English word          Jesus as God. Liberal Protestants do
disciples of Jesus Christ.9                    ‘dog’ denotes the set of dogs and also       not view God as incarnate in Jesus
                                               expresses a set of descriptive proper-       but as revealing his characteristics
The Meaning of ‘Allah’                         ties that are typical of dogs. A speaker     and message through Jesus. Some
Suppose for the sake of argument                                                            Christians view God as punitive and
                                               might use the denotative power of a
that the ancient Arabs did worship the                                                      requiring regular propitiation through
                                               word to refer to some particular entity,
moon. This would have no bearing                                                            the sacrifice of the mass. Atheists
                                               as in “Look at that dog swimming
on the name Allah, for there is no                                                          typically share the concept of God as
                                               in the water,” or she might use the
inscription that identifies Allah as a                                                      judgmental and punitive but without
                                               descriptive power of a word, its sense,
moon god or as a pagan deity. This                                                          grace, and they conveniently add the
                                               to describe some entity, as in “That is a
contrasts with the Hebrew, Greek,                                                           property of non-existent. Deists view
                                               muskrat, not a dog.” (Most words actu-
Latin, and English words for God, all                                                       God as distant, uncaring, and unin-
                                               ally have several senses and denotations,
of which descend from words that were                                                       volved. And then there are evangeli-
                                               distinguished by their domains and
commonly used by pagans in refer-                                                           cals. All of these people use the same
                                               contexts of usage.)
ence to pagan deities. So the name                                                          word ‘God’ to refer to the same entity,
Allah is freer of pagan roots than are
these other names! Now suppose for
                                               Different Concepts of God                    yet they have different concepts of
                                               The sense of a word is the common            who God is. The significance is this:
the sake of argument that the ancient                                                       One cannot change a person’s concept of
                                               conceptualization of the entities that it
Arabs did worship some pagan deity                                                          God merely by changing the name he uses
                                               denotes. It is the concept that is evoked
under the name of Allah, whether the                                                        for God. Any name that denotes God
                                               when the word is used with that sense.
moon or something else. This would                                                          for someone will evoke that person’s
                                               As it happens, however, people do not
still have no bearing on current usage                                                      concept of God. What is required for
                                               always share the same conceptualiza-
of the term or even the usage in the                                                        reconceptualization is new information
                                               tion of something. Their concepts of it
Qur’an. The meaning of a word is a                                                          about God that will change the concept
                                               can be different, even though they use
function of how people conventionally                                                       itself, and that is the task of the Bible.
                                               the same words to refer to it. For exam-
use it to refer to things, not how it was
                                               ple, there are some traditional people       Fortunately God has designed the Bible
used in the past. Modern speakers of
                                               who think the moon is a disc in the sky      such that it builds and revises one’s
English, for example, say the names of
                                               or that it emits light of its own, rather    concepts of God and man, creation
the week without thinking that they
                                               than being a large globe that reflects       and destiny, sin and holiness, Jesus and
are honouring the Anglo-Saxon gods
                                               the light of the sun. Their concept of       salvation, etc. It is through reading or
after whom the days were originally
                                               the moon is different, but when they         hearing the Word of God, particularly
named, yet Quakers used to piously
                                               refer to the “moon,” they are referring      in one’s mother tongue, that one’s
avoid these names for that very reason.
                                               to the same object in the sky that I call    concepts and worldview are revised.
Most Christians happily use words like
                                               “the moon” even though their concept         This change in the concept of God may
‘enthusiasm’ without thinking about
                                               is different from mine. People also have     involve eliminating some properties
spirit possession, yet some Holiness
                                               different concepts of God. Even within       (such as capriciousness and dispas-
Christians avoid the term because it
                                               cultures that share a Christian heritage,    sionateness), adding new properties
originally had that meaning. The list
                                               sub-cultural conceptualizations of God       (sympathy and joy, consistency and reli-
could go on. The meanings of a word
                                               can be quite different. Mormons, for         ability), increasing the strength of some
are a matter of social convention. If
                                               example, think of God as a man who           properties (lovingness and holiness),
Muslims use the term Allah to refer to
                                               became a god, created the earth, joined      and decreasing the strength of other
the one and only God, the creator of
                                               with spirit women to beget spirits who       properties (vindictiveness), as well as
the universe, the sustainer of all life, the
                                               would be born as humans, and had             adding new information (incorporating
                                                                                                                   23:2 Summer 2006
82   Who is “Allah”?
Word and Spirit, incarnate in Jesus,         produced a wonderful new translation             propagated by Ditlef Nielsen in Der dreie-
purposeful in guiding history).11            of the Bible that suits the modern and           inige Gott in Religionshistorischer Beleuchtung,
                                             better-educated Turks quite well, but            Vol. 1 (Berlin, 1922); Vol. 2 (Copenhagen,
Complications of Rejecting                   the religious Turks refuse to read it,           1942). His claim was based largely on what
                                                                                              he thought was a crescent moon on a temple
the Name ‘Allah’                             even those who long to know what the             in Saba (Sheba), but further investigations,
There is another aspect to this ques-        Bible says. Why? Because the modern              cited in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, have
tion, and that is the social implica-        translation uses the Turkish word                shown that it is a bull’s head.
tions of using Allah. If I am speaking       Tanri for God, and the religious Turks                  2
                                                                                                       See Jer 8:2; 2 Kgs 17:16; 21:3; 23:5;
another language, the language of            associate this term with pagan gods.             Deut 17:2-3.
the people I hope to reach, and the          In their view, if a book does not use                   3
                                                                                                       See the entries for ‘crescent’ in Wiki-
normal word for God in that lan-             Allah for God, then it does not come             pedia, ‘crescent’ in Encyclopædia Britannica
guage is Allah, then any refusal on          from God. So the very group of people            2003, and ‘hilâl’ in the Encyclopædia of
my part to use that term will distance       who are most concerned about spiritual           Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1999).
me from the very people I am trying          issues are locked out of God’s Word by                    One would have to search many dif-
to reach, and it will distance them          the absence of the word Allah.14                 ferent journals and books to collect all of the
from the message. My insensitivity                                                            examples. The main journals are the Journal
to their preferences and taboos will         Summary                                          of Semitic Studies and Arabian Archaeology
                                             While the concept of God held by                 and Epigraphy (Blackwell’s, Oxford). There
signal a lack of genuine care for them                                                        is also a series of 54+ volumes called Proceed-
and a lack of respect for their culture      Muslims differs from that of biblical
                                             Christians, so does the concept of               ings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies.
and heritage. My rejection of their                                                                  5
                                                                                                       Pre-Islamic Arab Christians in
preferred terminology will signal a          God held by non-Messianic Jews.
                                                                                              southern Arabia also used the term Rahman
rejection of them personally and of          The Jewish concept of Elohim is
                                                                                              “the Merciful” for God the Father. See the
their community and kinfolk in gen-          not Trinitarian, just as the Muslim
                                                                                              entries for ‘Allah’ in the Encyclopædia of Islam
eral. Thus my attempt to draw them           concept of Allah is not Trinitarian.             (Leiden: Brill, 1999), in Wikipedia, and in
will in fact repel them because I reject     The Apostle Paul wrote about                     Encyclopædia Britannica 2003. See the entry
their way of talking about things.12         this in Romans 10:2: “For I testify              for ‘South Arabia, Religion of’ in the Anchor
And if a Christian tells a Muslim that       about them that they have a zeal for             Bible Dictionary.
he is worshipping the moon rather            God, but not in accordance with                         6
                                                                                                       The vowel is zqapha. In western Syriac
than the creator of the universe, then       knowledge.” Such is the case with                it is written with a Greek omicron. It’s sound
the Christian will be viewed as a liar       Muslims as well. If the name Allah               was much like the English vowel in ‘ought’.
and a blasphemer, and his testimony          were unsuitable because Muslims                           See Enno Littmann, Arabic Inscrip-
will have no credibility at all, because     have a non-Trinitarian concept of                tions (Leiden, 1949) and James Bellamy,
                                             God, then the name Elohim would                  ‘Two Pre-Islamic Arabic Inscriptions
the Muslims know that it is God                                                               Revised: Jabal Ramm and Umm al-Jimal’,
whom they fear and whom they seek            be unsuitable for the same reason.
                                             Muslims want to please God and                   Journal of the American Oriental Society,
to please.                                                                                    108/3 (1988). Bellamy disputes Littmann’s
                                             escape his judgement, but they lack
In the early sixties, most Western                                                            reading of Allah, but Bellamy’s read-
                                             the Biblical revelation of what God
missionaries were expelled from                                                               ing seems contrived, both in sense and in
                                             is like and his provision of salvation           decipherment, as if he were avoiding the
Sudan. One man instigated most of            through Jesus Christ. They have zeal             word Allah. In any event, it is significant
this by campaigning against the mis-         without Biblical knowledge. The                  that many pre-Islamic inscriptions record
sionaries and by arranging many false        problem is not their name for God but            “theophoric” names that include Allah, just
charges against them. In the seventies       their concept of God. The concept of             as many Hebrew names included El or Yah.
I had an opportunity to talk to this         a holy, loving, consistent Trinitarian                  8
                                                                                                       The author has personally examined
man and listen to him. It turns out          God comes from absorbing the                     microfilms and photographs of manuscripts
that what angered this Arab man the          worldview revealed in the Bible.                 representing the history and spectrum of
most was that the missionaries had           It is the Word of God, with the                  Arabic Bible translation, and they all use
pointedly rejected many of the normal        enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and             Allah. One of the earliest Christian Arabic
Arabic names for God and Jesus and           the testimony of the saints, that can            translations is the so-called Elegant Gospels
certain prophets, and he perceived this      lead Muslims to a fuller concept of              (Leiden 2378 / OR 561; Vatican Arabic 17
as a humiliating insult to himself and       God, regardless of the name they use             and 18). Like Saadia’s translation, it often
his people. The man’s name? ‘Isa.13          for him. IJFM                                    uses Allah to translate both Greek Theos
                                                                                              and Kurios. This practice has been resumed
Modern Turkey has two predominant                                                             in recent Arabic translations such as the
subcultures: modern Muslims and              Endnotes
                                                1                                             Sharif Bible.
religious Muslims. Modern Turks                      See entries for ‘Allah’ and ‘Hubal’,            9
                                                                                                       In many of the languages ranging
use a modern “Turkified” language            in the Encyclopædia of Islam (Leiden:            from Iran to Central Asia to northern
                                             Brill, 1999), entries for ‘Sin (mythology)’,
in which foreign words have been                                                              India, Muslims commonly refer to God as
                                             ‘Hubal’, and ‘Allah’ in Wikipedia, entries for
replaced with neologisms based on                                                             Khoda rather than as Allah, although they
                                             ‘Sin’, and ‘Arabian religion’ in Encyclopædia    use the latter form as well.
Turkish, while religious Turks retain        Britannica 2003, and especially the entry for           10
many Arabic and Persian loan-words,                                                                     For a comparison of a Biblical concept
                                             ‘South Arabia, Religion of’ in the Anchor
especially those pertaining to reli-                                                          of God and concepts held by many Muslims
                                             Bible Dictionary. The claim of widespread
gion. The Turkish Bible Society has          moon worship in the Arabian peninsula was        Endnotes continued on p. 86
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