Is “Allah” God?
One of the questions I frequently encounter by Christians in the West is whether or not the Arabic word Allah can be used to refer to the God of the Bible. Many well-meaning Western Christians have sought to disassociate the God of Islam from the God of Christianity. In doing so they’ve focused their efforts on driving a wedge between the Allah of the Qur’an and the God of the Bible. “The Allah of Islam is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” is oftentimes the slogan. While on the face of it this is a true statement, unfortunately, the linguistic question surrounding the use of Allah in Arabic oftentimes gets entangled in the broader theological discussion related to the identity of God in Islam versus Christianity. In order to clarify the issues, it is important to understand something of the history of Arabic-speaking Christianity. Upon doing this, we’ll be better positioned to separate the linguistic question relating to the legitimacy of using Allah to refer to God in Arabic from the theological question pertaining to the nature and character of the word’s referent.
Related: The challenge and the promise of a Christian understanding of Islam — J. Scott Bridger
Historically, Arabic-speaking Christianity begins in the New Testament. On the day of Pentecost when the Spirit falls on those present and they begin proclaiming in different languages “the mighty works of God,” the final people group listed is the Arabs (Acts 2:11). Arabic Christianity eventually took root among many of the Arab tribes in Syria-Palestine and flourished throughout Mesopotamia until the advent of Islam. Even after Islam emerges, many of the Arabs held tenaciously to their Christian faith and continue to do so today. However, prior to the Arabization that took place under Islam, all of the Arabic-speaking Christians in the region would have used languages other than Arabic in their liturgies. This is due to the unfortunate absence of an Arabic translation of the Scriptures until well into the Muslim era. Thus, these Arabic-speaking Christians would have prayed primarily using Greek or Syriac (i.e., a dialect of Aramaic). But like their Arabic-speaking Jewish neighbors, they would have referred to God as “Allah” in their native language.
When it comes to linguistics, it is important to remember that Arabic is a Semitic language closely related to biblical Hebrew and biblical Aramaic. The Arabic word for God, Allah, is closely related to the Semitic cognates El and Elohim in Hebrew and Ela in Aramaic. Indeed, Christians need only to look to the original languages of the Scriptures themselves for evidence of this. In Daniel 2:28 one can see that “God” in Aramaic (אלה) is closely related to El in Hebrew and Allah in Arabic. The relationship of these cognates to Allah in Arabic (الله) is even more apparent when looking at the addition of the definite article to “God” as in the phrase “the living God” in Daniel 6:26 (אלהא חיא). Thus, if Western Christians remain unconvinced by the historical precedent for the use of Allah by Arabic-speaking Christians discussed above, hopefully understanding these linguistic connections will help allay any fears over using Allah in Arabic to refer to the God of the Bible.
Related: Find other resources on Islam at The Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam
Where all Christians can and should focus their energies is on distinguishing the character and nature of the Allah of the (Arabic) Bible from the Allah of the Qur’an. Theologically, when an Arabic-speaking Christian talks about God there is a difference in the character and nature of the ِAllah to whom he refers as compared to when an Arabic-speaking Muslim refers to Allah. Both affirm belief in one God, and both use the same word to refer to God; however, Christians affirm trinitarian monotheism while Muslims advocate unitarian monotheism. The situation is analogous in the English-speaking world to Christians who rightly differentiate their understanding of God from how a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness (or even a liberal Christian) understands the identity of God. For English speakers, we don’t use a different word to refer to God, but obviously the nature of the one to whom we refer is radically different than the nature of the one to whom Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses refer.
Thus, Christians can and indeed should use Allah when speaking in Arabic to refer to the God of Bible. However, if we’re speaking in Arabic, we must work hard to make our audience understand that the Allah we’re referring to is revealed to us preeminently in Jesus Christ and is known through the testimony of Scripture.
J. Scott Bridger serves as the Bill and Connie Jenkins Assistant Professor of World Religions and Islamic Studies. He also serves as the director of the Jenkins center for the Christian Understanding of Islam. You can follow Bridger on twitter at: @jsbridger.