Dec 19, 2018
A decade or so ago, my breakfast was darkened by the appearance in our local newspaper of a letter to the editor refuting an earlier letter that had happened to mention that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all worship the same God. The writer indignantly claimed that while Jews and Christians worship Yahweh—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—Muslims worship Allah, one of the many false gods and other forms taken by evil. The writer went on, rather more plausibly, to point out that the Christian view of sin and salvation is different from that held by Muslims (and by Jews and the Old Testament writers, although he did not mention that). He also mentioned that the Christian Messiah is Jesus Christ.
I wrote back to the newspaper pointing out that the claim that Allah is not God would startle Arabic-speaking Christians, who have always prayed to “Allah,” just like their Muslim neighbors. Allāh is the third word in the Arabic Bible. It would doubtless be a shock to Jesus himself, who would have used a closely related Aramaic form, Elāh. If he happened to be speaking Hebrew, he would have said Elōhīm, which is the plural of the same word and the third word of the Hebrew Bible. (Yahweh is normally translated as “Lord” in the Bible, following Jewish custom.) The Arabic word Allāh was almost certainly borrowed by early Arabic- speaking Christians from the Syriac (Christian Aramaic) word Alāhā. All this is helpfully confirmed by the Gospels of Mark (15:34) and Matthew (27:46), which quote Jesus’s despairing cry from the cross, “Eloi, Eloi [or Eli, Eli], lama sabachthani” and comment that it means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matthew gives the Hebrew form and Mark the Aramaic, but in both cases, a Greek translation is added, ho Theos, which is the Greek word used for “God” in the New Testament. Muslims, I added wearily, venerate Jesus as the Messiah (al-Masīĥ) and expect his return before the Day of Judgment.
Several years later, the attorney general of Indiana published an op-ed in our paper supporting his doomed lawsuit that “prayers that invoke God, Jesus, Allah, and other deities do not violate the First Amendment.” I wrote another letter to the editor to much the same effect, adding the details that in the Arabic Bible, John 1:1 reads, “The word was with Allah, and the word was Allah,” and that our word God is just an old Germanic word carried over from paganism.
All this made me a minor hero in the Muslim community in our town, which was gratifying, but why am I mentioning this now?
Many, many years ago, when I was first studying Islam as an undergraduate, I wrote to the mosque in Washington to ask for a copy of the Qur’an and was rewarded with a handsome copy of Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation. Yusuf Ali was a British Indian Muslim, a classical scholar, and a master of English prose whose translation was deeply influenced by the King James Bible and Anglican liturgical prose. Unfortunately, newer editions of his translation have replaced “God” with “Allah,” spoiling many of Yusuf Ali’s elegant English cadences. A quick internet search of the question “Should Muslims say Allah or God?” generates twenty million responses. Western translators of the Qur’an have unanimously rendered “Allah” as “God,” as did earlier Muslim translators and some more recent translators, as in The Study Quran. Most recent translations originating from the Muslim world, though, have tended to treat “Allah” as a proper name, as in Ansari’s translation of Mawdudi’s Tafhīm al-Qur’ān.