Last week, in upstate New York, many residents of a small town got all bent out of shape. Pine Bush High School decided to celebrate National Foreign Language Week by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a few different tongues. The plan was to have students narrate the pledge in Italian, Japanese, French, Spanish, and… yes, Arabic. Well, on Wednesday, an Arabic-speaking student took to the school’s intercom and pledged allegiance to the flag in her heritage’s language.
And exactly what you imagine might happen happened. Some students started hissing and booing, and a number of parents called the school in protest. By the end of the day, the principal announced an apology over the school’s intercom system. I guess these kids texted their parents. When I was growing up, we didn’t have cell phones. The only way your parents heard from you in school was if you got sick, got in trouble, or faked that you got sick.
Without getting too much into the whole fiasco, I think it is enough to say that had the school decided to kick off this celebration of diversity by reciting the pledge in just about any other language, we probably would not have seen such an uproar. Arabs and Muslims are racism’s flavor of the week, and any and all bigotry against us is fair game. It goes unpunished, under-punished, or inversely punished, with those who exhibit the discrimination sometimes even getting an apology from a school principal.
Much of the uproar revolved around that all-important passage of the pledge: “One nation under God.” When translated into Arabic, “God,” as all Americans know, with much thanks to Fox News, becomes “allah.” I thought this would be a good opportunity to give a little linguistic/history lesson on the word. Now, I’m fairly qualified to engage in this, as I’m fluent in Arabic and hold a master’s degree in Middle East studies. I also hold a law degree, so you can safely believe everything I’m about to tell you.
1. The word “allah” is broken down in Arabic quite easily. It is a combination of the article “al” meaning “the” and the word “ilah meaning “god” (lower case g). So, it quite literally means “the god,” or “the one god,” or as we would say in English, “God” (upper case G).
2. Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use the word “allah” when referring to God. That is because “allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.” (see point #1)
3. The Arabic language predated the advent of Islam and the prophecy of Muhammad. That means the Arabs who followed the monotheistic Abrahamic faiths of Judaism and Christianity used the word “allah” before Muslims even came about. That is because “allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”
4. Those same Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews populated much of the Middle East before Islam came about. In fact, when we read history books, we learn that early Muslims dealt directly with their Arabic-speaking Christian and Jewish neighbors in 7th-century Yemen, Arabia, Syria, Palestine, and Iraq. All of these groups would have used the word “allah,” the Arabic word meaning “God.”
5. Islam sees itself as the culmination of the Abrahamic tradition, worshiping the same god as Christians and Jews. So it would make perfect sense that the first Muslims, who spoke Arabic, would use the word “allah,” as it is simply the Arabic word meaning “God.”
6. The Arabic language is closely related to both Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Hebrew Bible, the name used for God is “Elohim.” In fact, it is used over 2500 times to refer to the God of Israel. In Aramaic, the word for God is “elah,” or sometimes “alaha.” For instance, when Jesus, who spoke and spread his word in Aramaic, was on the cross, he cried out, “elah, elah, lama sabachtani!” (“God, God, why have you forsaken me!”) Elohim, elah, alaha, allah. Do you hear the connection?
7. Oh, and on another unrelated note, despite the beliefs of many Americans, Jesus didn’t speak English. In fact, no one spoke the English we know until around the 1400s. Oh, and Jesus didn’t have blond hair and blue eyes. He was an olive-skinned man from Nazareth, Palestine. So, the next time you are paying for your gas and the bearded Arab man takes your money, look at him closely. That’s what Jesus looked like.
8. If you live near a major American city, there is most likely an Arab church nearby (About 60% of America’s Arabs are Christians, by the way). Go to its Arabic-language service when you have the time. You will hear “allah” over and over. Don’t ask the priest for an apology.
9. Arabic is not an obscure language. At least 300 million people use it natively, making it the fifth-most spoken language on Earth. It is also one of the six official languages of the United Nations. In America, it is spoken widely in many locales, including in Dearborn, Michigan, where English is optional.
I could go on, but I hope I have cleared some things up. To quickly review, “allah” is simply the word for “God,” the same God of the Old and New Testaments. Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews use it. Since the Arabic language predated Islam, the word “allah” did as well. People were saying “allah” way before Muhammad was even born. Other Semitic languages use very similar words for “God.” Finally, Jesus didn’t look like Brad Pitt. He looked like Tony Shalhoub.
Much of the misunderstanding surrounding the word “allah” is the fault of Muslim Americans. When speaking or writing about Islam in English, they frequently use the word when they could just as easily say or write “God.” So, to the Muslims of America, please do what you can to stop confusing your fellow countrymen. And, for Allah’s sake, start loving America like the rest of us!
Next time, we will talk about numbers. That’s right, those numbers I used to make my list are called “Arabic numerals.” I probably shouldn’t have said that. Those parents in Pine Bush might start complaining about math class too.