Saturday, December 16, 2017

What's in a Name?

Last year I authored a Letter to the Editor of LNP (the Lancaster, PA, daily paper) in which I stated that Allah is simply the Arabic word for god and is used as such by Arabic-speaking members of all three Abrahamic faiths.  Some months later I was challenged on this by an acquaintance who insisted that Allah refers only to the god of Islam, who is not the same as the god of Christians and Jews.  Despite my best efforts in a rather lengthy conversation, I was unable to explain adequately the difference between a word for something and the name of something.  My letter made a statement about language usage; my interlocutor was making a statement about faith.
This exchange has set me to reflecting on how people of faith use language in reference to their deity or deities.  The subject has proven to be much more complicated than one might first imagine.  To begin, in English the word “god” functions as both a common and a proper noun, that is, as a general reference to any deity and as the name of a particular deity.  We recognize the difference depending on context and usage, and in print on whether or not the word is capitalized.  Determining what god is referenced when God is used as a form of address requires knowing the faith of the speaker or writer.
At some point in our schooling most of us probably learned the names of a number of gods.  For polytheistic faiths, those which worship more than one god, it is necessary for each deity to have a proper name.  Thus in ancient history, for example, Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea, Mars is the Roman god of war, and Loki is the Norse god of fire.  A major polytheistic faith of current times is Hinduism, which recognizes many gods while also stating that, at a fundamental level, all gods are aspects of the One.
Monotheistic faiths, the belief that there is only one god, developed later than did polytheistic beliefs.  One of the earliest records of monotheism is that of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (r. 1353-1336 BCE), who imposed on his subjects worship of Aten as the only true god.  This change in their religion was not well received by most Egyptians, who reverted to polytheism upon Akhenaten’s death. 
The history books of the Old Testament record how the ancient descendants of Abraham came to a strict monotheistic belief.  There are two prominent words/names used throughout the Old Testament to refer to this singular god of Abraham. One is Elohim, which appears first in the creation story beginning in Genesis 1:1.  Like the English word “god,” it serves a dual purpose, referring in the singular to the Israelite God and in the plural to the gods of other tribes and peoples. 
The other is the holy name יהוה (YHWH, pronounced Yahweh), revealed to Moses when he recognized God’s voice speaking to him in the burning bush. (See Exodus 3:13-15)  Unlike Elohim, Yahweh is always a proper name, often translated into English as I Am Who I Am.  Sometime after the seventh century BCE it came to be regarded as too sacred to pronounce, so the term Adonai, meaning “my Lord,” was substituted when scriptures were read aloud.
The Christian doctrine of the Trinity makes determining a single name for God to be difficult.  I have heard it asserted that the Christian God’s personal name is God-the-Father-God-the-Son-God-the-Holy-Spirit, which is rather unwieldy, to say the least.  The word “God” by itself is usually thought of in connection with the creator, that is, the first person of the Trinity. The second person has the proper name “Jesus,” but that name rarely, if ever, is understood to refer to the complete godhead.  Jesus called the first person “Abba/Father,” which is a title rather than a personal name.
“Holy Spirit” is also a title or attribute rather than anything we would recognize in English as a personal name.  References to God’s Spirit (ruah in Hebrew) appear throughout the Bible.  Ruah can mean “breath” or “wind,” but can also be expanded in richly varied images of the life-giving essence of the deity moving among humankind.  Christians in worship and hymnody today use dozens of different words and phrases to refer to and address their triune God.
Unlike Christianity, which began as a movement within Judaism, thus having monotheism as a natural part of its doctrine and faith, Islam originated among tribes which were primarily animist in their beliefs.  That is, there was a multiplicity of gods animating all of nature.  The Prophet Muhammed’s message was a return to the single God revealed to Abraham and preached by the prophets of old, including Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.  Thus Islam established a very strict monotheistic belief, while at the same time developing a devotional practice honoring the ninety-nine names of God.
First on that list of names is Allah, the Greatest Name.  According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and other scholarly sources, the most likely etymological source of Allah is a contraction of the Arabic al-Il­āh, meaning “The God.”  Its origin traces to early Semitic writing, long before the founding of either Christianity or Islam, where it shares a root (-il or -el, meaning “god”) with the word Elohim found in the Hebrew texts, as described above.  And it is closely related to the Aramaic elah/eloi, which is familiar to Christians as Jesus’ cry from the cross, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani? / My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In both historic and current usage, Allah is a term used for God by Arabic speakers of all three Abrahamic faiths – Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.  It is also used by members of the Bahá’i faith and several other smaller groups. In Arabic it has the same dual function that God does in English as both general term and proper name. As a common noun it has no theological content beyond that of denoting a deity, the object of one’s worship.  It gives no answer to the entirely separate question of whether the God, the Allah, being worshiped by any one faith community is the same as or radically different from that being worshiped by another. 
It is unfortunate that confusion about this usage exists today.  And it is doubly unfortunate that the confusion is manipulated by those who foment bigotry against followers of Islam.  Education is necessary so that everyone can use the language of their faith without being subjected to harassment and contradiction.


  1. This illustrates the agility of a theologian/author in that one must be a linguist as well. Clarity of presentation on a multi-layered theme is important, Marian, and you have achieved it! Blessings on your work and your holidays!!

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