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A quick lesson on “allah”
Amer Zahr
by Amer Zahr
March 24th, 2015 (33 Comments)
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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.

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* Amer Zahr is a Palestinian American comedian, writer, professor and speaker living in Dearborn, Michigan. He is also the editor of "The Civil Arab."

Comments (33)
  1. Thanks for this. However, I think that any school that does the pledge or national anthem in a foreign language is just asking for trouble. I like the sentiment behind it, but let’s face it, there are so many idiots in this country it’s just not bound to go well. Schools should find some other way to celebrate diversity that won’t get people in an uproar or perpetuate stereotypes. How about some pop music after the pledge and announcements? A little Amr Diab would go a long way. :)

  2. Halina Minadeo ... March 25th, 2015 - 03:34

    Excellent point about the word “allah.” I cannot count the number of times that I have tried to explain that “allah” is not a moon god or a demon but simply the Arabic word for “god” that you will hear in Arab Christian churches, just as you will hear “dieu” in French, “theos” in Greek, “boh” in Ukrainian, etc. I also point out that the it would be better to stop using “Allah” in other languages, as it does make it seem that this is the name of some god. When a Frenchman speaks in English, the word “dieu” is not used, nor will a Greek say in English: “Theos has blessed me.” Honestly, using the Arabic word for “god” when speaking in another language is weird and has negative results. God bless you, my friend!

  3. Perfect.
    This one needs to go viral…

    D2

  4. Umm Yasmine ... March 25th, 2015 - 07:26

    Great blog once again, Amer!

    One small point. There are six official languages of the UN: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and, of course, Arabic.

  5. Amer. Your best piece yet. Educational, funny. It made me cry about the ignorance of people and for intentionally bungled history of Palestine and Arabia. But I laughed a lot and that is important. Thanks.

  6. People are so misinformed. You would think the principal or the teachers would have correctly explained the situation rather than issue an apology. Lack of common sense in this day and age. Ya Allah! Ya Rub! Please guide the misguided. :-)

  7. Fadi Greene ... March 25th, 2015 - 09:38

    Thank you, Amer, for explaining this. I imagine this is the kind of nonsense that happened to the Japanese around World Wat II, or at one point, to Chinese, Irish, or other races. Another one: I have to tell people that Iranians are not Arabs…at all (sometimes they say “But they’re basically the same, right?”)

  8. Yes this should go viral.
    Yes when Muslims use the English language, they should use the word “God”.
    Peace

  9. Have you ever looked into the linguistic history for the English word “god”? It has a much stranger past than “allah”. Thanks for your posts and insights–and the reminder of what Jesus really looked like!

  10. Basem Ra'ad ... March 25th, 2015 - 11:06

    Amer’s article on Allah is convincing and comprehensive.

    One point only I’d like to clarify: “Allah” in the Qur’an is not the same god as “Yahweh” in the Old Testament (Tawrah). Discoveries, including the Qumran or Dead Sea Scrolls and others, have shown that the common translations of the Tawrah do not reflect the situation of Judaism in the first and second centuries BCE and that the text has been altered or tampered with to make one god instead of several.

    “Elohim” is different from “Yahweh,” the latter being the god who became the god in Judaism and the one mentioned in the Old Testament throughout. “Elohim” is a generic term, but it relates to El, who was the chief of the council of gods (and is really the name which relates to “Allah”), whereas “Yahweh” is one of his sons. In other words, the Qumran text reflects polytheistic worship. In particular, a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (al-tathniyah in Arabic translation), verses 8-9 in Chapter 32, shows the fabrication. In the Qumran text, the chief god (El) distributes the earth to all his children or son gods, and he gives Yahweh to the sons of Yaqoub (or Israelites). That is, there are many sons who were given to other places and nations.

    The common confusion comes because the translations using “Lord” (er-rab in Arabic) for “Yahweh,” and thus the general misunderstanding that this “Lord” is the same as “Elohim.” (The only accurate translation that corrects the passage is the New Jerusalem Bible.)

    This is an important distinction. In fact, the Qur’an in a sense goes back to the original god of Ibrahim/Abraham, called Il or El. And probably Christ’s sentence on the cross mentioning “Elahi” goes back to this Chief God and not Yahweh. I give fuller details about this subject in Chapter 2 of my book Hidden Histories (at-tarikh el khafi), which is available in both Arabic and English.

    • I like this article a lot. Thanks for sharing. I want to address your comments. You need to check up on your understanding of Old Testament words and their meanings. “Yahweh” does not refer to “sons” as you claim and where does the Old Testament point to polytheistic worship?

      Here are some of the better-known names of God in the Old Testament using “Yahweh.”

      YHWH / YAHWEH / JEHOVAH: “LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:4; Daniel 9:14) – strictly speaking, the only proper name for God. Translated in English Bibles “LORD” (all capitals) to distinguish it from Adonai, “Lord.” The revelation of the name is first given to Moses “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). This name specifies an immediacy, a presence. Yahweh is present, accessible, near to those who call on Him for deliverance (Psalm 107:13), forgiveness (Psalm 25:11) and guidance (Psalm 31:3).

      YAHWEH-JIREH: “The Lord Will Provide” (Genesis 22:14) – the name memorialized by Abraham when God provided the ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac.

      YAHWEH-RAPHA: “The Lord Who Heals” (Exodus 15:26) – “I am Jehovah who heals you” both in body and soul. In body, by preserving from and curing diseases, and in soul, by pardoning iniquities.

      YAHWEH-NISSI: “The Lord Our Banner” (Exodus 17:15), where banner is understood to be a rallying place. This name commemorates the desert victory over the Amalekites in Exodus 17.

      YAHWEH-M’KADDESH: “The Lord Who Sanctifies, Makes Holy” (Leviticus 20:8; Ezekiel 37:28) – God makes it clear that He alone, not the law, can cleanse His people and make them holy.

      YAHWEH-SHALOM: “The Lord Our Peace” (Judges 6:24) – the name given by Gideon to the altar he built after the Angel of the Lord assured him he would not die as he thought he would after seeing Him.

      YAHWEH-ELOHIM: “LORD God” (Genesis 2:4; Psalm 59:5) – a combination of God’s unique name YHWH and the generic “Lord,” signifying that He is the Lord of Lords.

      YAHWEH-TSIDKENU: “The Lord Our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:16) – As with YHWH-M’Kaddesh, it is God alone who provides righteousness to man, ultimately in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, who became sin for us “that we might become the Righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

      YAHWEH-ROHI: “The Lord Our Shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) – After David pondered his relationship as a shepherd to his sheep, he realized that was exactly the relationship God had with him, and so he declares, “Yahweh-Rohi is my Shepherd. I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1).

      YAHWEH-SHAMMAH: “The Lord Is There” (Ezekiel 48:35) – the name ascribed to Jerusalem and the Temple there, indicating that the once-departed glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 8—11) had returned (Ezekiel 44:1-4).

      YAHWEH-SABAOTH: “The Lord of Hosts” (Isaiah 1:24; Psalm 46:7) – Hosts means “hordes,” both of angels and of men. He is Lord of the host of heaven and of the inhabitants of the earth, of Jews and Gentiles, of rich and poor, master and slave. The name is expressive of the majesty, power, and authority of God and shows that He is able to accomplish what He determines to do.

  11. Amer, when I’m talking about Islamic concepts with non Muslims I do use the word “God” but having studied in an Arabic college in Indonesia where the only word used for God by Muslims and Christians is “Allah” I’m not comfortable with using the English term with fellow Muslims or even with non Muslims from Muslim majority countries. “God” is not particularly English, we got it from the Germans and our language is very good at picking up words from other languages: cable from Arabic habl, algebra from al-Jabr, admiral from amir al-mu’minin and many others have made their way into English. As it becomes more and more common for people in English speaking countries to live side by side with Muslims the terms used by Muslims among themselves gradually get picked up by non Muslims. There are groups of nut cases here in Australia who talk a lot about halal and about shariah – admittedly only because they are crusading against these aspects of Islam but it shows how the terminology can get out there. All my colleagues at work know what halal food is. So let’s not be shy about using the Arabic word for Allah. One day it will be English.

  12. Mahmood Sindhi ... March 25th, 2015 - 15:13

    Brilliaint…….

  13. Sabah beydoun ... March 26th, 2015 - 11:14

    Allah aleck ya habibi! Allah…Allah… Allah…how ignorance can deliberately destroys a culture!!! Next time I get caught singing or chanting Allah…Allah..Allah like we in the majority of our songs or use the Allah to express joy, praise or even concern I will be reported and get arrested for it. What a global village we are in!

  14. Great article Amer, thanks very much. It may help to add that it is not only mother tongue Arabic speakers who have no other word for “God” than “Allah”. In the Hausa language of West Africa (the third most widely spoken indigenous language in Africa) the word for God is Allah, and the translations of the Bible into Hausa used by Nigeria’s Christians is Allah. Christian preachers preaching in Hausa to congregations that come from many ethnic backgrounds, including non-Hausa will hear God referred to as “Allah” in this sermons because for many of Nigeria’s smaller ethnic groups there still is no complete Bible in their own language, so for the foreseeable future in Northern Nigeria, the God the Bible points to is named Allah. This does not change the character of God, as Christians understand God. There can be some very significant differences in the way people understand the character and nature of this “Allah”, but the name remains.
    In another regions, Malaysia, the government has banned the use of the term “Allah” in Christian worship and Christian Bible translations. This seems odd, I don’t know of other countries trying to do that, but you might know of some. On the whole though, I think the Hausa example, where the Arabic term has become the best equivalent word to use to translate God has become the norm for Bible translations in regions where there has historically been a significant Muslim presence.

    • I think we need to be sincere. As a muslim the belief among us is that Allah is a unigue name of the creator. Nor other name in any language could be used as a substitute because it is a name given by revelation to prophet Mohammed. To compromise by claiming that God or god in English mean Allah is unacceptable in Islam.

      • actually this is untrue historically. “allah” was not a unique name for God revealed to muhammad. how do you then account for the quite documented historical fact that pre-islamic arabic-speaking abrahamic monotheists used “allah” for the one, abrahamic god?

  15. The issue here is more than just semantics about God’s name in Arabic. It is about sensitivities around immigration and perceptions that certain groups (ironically, not American Arabs in this case) want to recreate their home country in America, including having their language dominate. Also, the reaction is related to terrorism (not all Muslims are terrorists, but why are just about all terrorists Muslim?), as well as the fact that the Muslim “Allah” is not God according to Christians or Jews (to be fair, many Jews – and Muslims – don’t believe Christians have the same God that they do; we are perceived as polytheists, having three “gods”).

    A final point about the article – you called Jesus’ boyhood home, “Nazareth, Palestine.” Palestine? That is a political term designed to de-legitimize the modern State of Israel. It is also factually incorrect. Jesus was born in Israel. “Palestine” didn’t exist as a geographical place until the Roman Emperor, Hadrian, re-named Israel “Syria Palaestina” (and Jerusalem “Aelia Capitolina”) in 135 A.D. He did this to rub salt into the wound of the defeated Jews. “Palaestina” was a derivation of “Philistine”, Israel’s ancient enemies (think Goliath).

    In modern times, Nazareth is in modern *Israel* (and has been since 1948) and isn’t claimed as part of a future “Palestinian” state. At least, it isn’t claimed in *English*. It certainly is in *Arabic*. A dead giveaway is the official map of this future “Palestine” – it includes *all* of the current State of Israel. Interestingly, it doesn’t include the country Jordan, which made up 75% of the Palestine Mandate. Funny, that.

    • Dear “Sam Moorcraft”:
      1) sensitivities about immigration and perception” are shaped by (often nonsensical) political rhetoric. The kind of nonsense spewed by so-called “fair and balanced” MSM outlets that fear-monger about the impending threat of sharia law being established in the ‘states. Rest assured, no one is trying to dominate the United States, no one is attempting to recreate Saudi Arabia or Syria or Egypt or Palestine or wherever else in America, and no one is interested in making Arabic the dominant language in the U.S. That’s just how it is. If you actually knew Arabs in the United States instead of obsessing over them from afar, you’d know that. They’re too busy, and too happily, living the American dream to worry about maniacal plots to destroy America.
      2) Yes, not all Muslims are terrorists. Hell, it’s probably less than 1% that are and it also UNTRUE that “just about all terrorists are Muslim”. So, you’re wrong and well, you kinda sound racist but I’ll get back to that in a minute. Take a break here and check out this report by the Center for Research on Globalization in which qualitative and quantitative data indicates that NON-MUSLIMS CARRIED OUT 90% OF THE TERROR ATTACKS IN AMERICA. (http://www.globalresearch.ca/non-muslims-carried-out-more-than-90-of-all-terrorist-attacks-in-america/5333619)
      3) As a Palestinian-Christian, I can indeed confirm for you that Yes, “Allah” is the same Jewish and Muslim God but don’t take my word for it. There is plenty of evidence pointing to this fact. True Muslims recognize that they and Christians do share the same God. Where they differ is in the fact that they do not consider Jesus Christ as the “Son” of God but rather a Profit of God (Al Nabi Issa). The Quran refers to Christians and Jews as “People of The Book”. In fact, both religions are mentioned quite a few times. Have you read the Quran? No, probably not. You might want to do that. Don’t claim you know unless you’ve read.
      4) Palestine is not a “political term designed to de-legitimize the “modern” (that’s questionable; I don’t see anything about it) State of Israel”. It is indeed fact that ANCIENT Palestine wasn’t named Palestine until it was seized by Rome. However, Israel never existed as “Israel” until 1948. That is also fact. You also failed to mention that Palestine did exist in modern times and did encompass Israel and Jordan until it was divided by the British. Atlas, maps and history books referred to the land of Palestine up until it was forcefully conquered by Zionist Jews following World War 2.
      5) You can speculate why Hadrian “re-named” Israel (He didn’t; it wasn’t called “Israel”) but you cannot claim that as fact. Put plainly: you don’t know because there is no evidence to back this claim.
      6) Nazareth is indeed inside of the 1948 territory of Israel but it is also a part of HISTORIC Palestine, which is what Palestinians refer to when they draw the HISTORIC map of Palestine. Israelis on the other hand, have thus far, refused to show their map of the definitive borders of Israel. On the other hand, evidence shows us that they claim “Eretz Israel” as their own…which includes “Judea and Samaria” (the West Bank and East Jerusalem) and is evidenced by the continued (and illegal) settlement expansions into Palestinian areas. Couple that wit hthe fact that Netanyahu refuses to negotiate a 2 state solution and you can see that they are indeed working towards that goal. But hey, more power to them. I’m all for becoming an Isaeli-Palestinian following the inevitable 1 State Solution.
      7) “Interestingly, it doesn’t include the country Jordan, which is made up of 75% of the Palestine Mandate. Funny, that.” Ahhh, now I see you’re point. You’re one of THOSE people. You know, the Zionists who claim that the oPt should be ethnically cleansed and that Palestinians should be forced into Jordan? You’re an anti-Arab racist. Good deal.

  16. Lim in Chong ... March 30th, 2015 - 22:39

    I live in a country where non Muslims are forbidden to use the word Allah.

    • Dear Lim, it is not difficult to identify the country where you live. However, I believe you have been either misinformed or uninformed about the reason behind the decision by the govt to prohibit the use of Allah.

      Firstly, the prohibition is in relation to the Bible translated into the local language. Secondly, in the process of translating the Bible, references to God and Jesus were translated as Allah. Although Jesus is mentioned in the Koran 26 times (as compared to Muhammad 4 times), both are prophets of God. Thus, when Jesus is translated as Allah, I would certainly consider that as misleading.

  17. Albert harp ... April 2nd, 2015 - 22:13

    Amer: You are an educator “par excellence”!

  18. I agree with all except one point. I will not stop saying Allah, that is my preference and others being to misinformed, prejudice or ignorant is not my main concern. I love America and the buety is i can call God “God”, “Allah”, “my Wali” or what ever else i want and someone who is not stupid will simply ask me what it means if they do not know.

  19. Great!

  20. asSalaamu’alaykum Amer, your article is excellent, but somehow l think l have some opinions for #1 and #5. lf l may state them,
    #1. You are correct when you break the word al-ilaah that means god, yet my opinion is that, it can’t be meant as the one god, since Allah, the One God, introduced himself to Moses peace be upon him (Thoha:14). So when referring to the One God, the name/ word Allah can’t be break down into “al” and “ilaah” since that is His name.
    #5. To tell you the truth, l feel a bit confuse, if just you have a little time to email me, whom do you mean with “the first muslim”? :)

  21. The statement is made above: “There are six official languages of the UN: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and, of course, Arabic.” It is also stated that: “Elohim” is a generic term, but it relates to El, who was the chief of the council of gods (and is really the name which relates to “Allah”), whereas “Yahweh” is one of his sons. In other words, the Qumran text reflects polytheistic worship. In particular, a passage from the Book of Deuteronomy (al-tathniyah in Arabic translation), verses 8-9 in Chapter 32, shows the fabrication. In the Qumran text, the chief god (El) distributes the earth to all his children or son gods, and he gives Yahweh to the sons of Yaqoub (or Israelites). That is, there are many sons who were given to other places and nations.

    The common confusion comes because the translations using “Lord” (er-rab in Arabic) for “Yahweh,” and thus the general misunderstanding that this “Lord” is the same as “Elohim.” (The only accurate translation that corrects the passage is the New Jerusalem Bible.)

    So, if there is that difference, then what are the names of “Elohim” and “YHWH” in each of those languages?
    In Sanskrit we have names like Rudra in the Vedas. Today in Bali, Indonesia, Rudra is one name for the Godhead. Brahman is another. But there are other names for the “germanic” (not just deutsche) word “Gott.”

  22. My word! An excellent and detailed explanation. This article is a powerful slap across the face of dumb and ignorants as well.

  23. saleem parvaiz ... April 13th, 2015 - 23:27

    MashaAllah…..thanks brother for sharing this. The muslim world today needs some persons like you to clearify the major misunderstandings…. .
    And the God is absolutely one i.e ALLAH

  24. Great one Amer, always a favorite argument of mine. I would also the word “Madrassa”. Anyone in any Arabic speaking country or “School” would have a certificate that would say on “The Madrassa of…”. So, as you guessed from above logic: Madrassa == School.

  25. Siobhàn Victorian ... April 14th, 2015 - 05:50

    One will also find that the Vatican uses Arabic and the word Allah in Mass. So, when I see American ”Catholics” trying to shame Muslims with the word Allah I try to point that out along with, as you stated…Allaha that Jesus said in Aramaic…which if a person is Coptic or Assyrian still use that word. One more point, a lot of english speakers do not realise that when speaking Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, etc. the words are phonetically spelled to the latin letters that I am typing now.

  26. I have read other articles where the Muslim author contents that no true Muslim can do without the term “Allah”. In other words, your call for Muslims to use “God” instead of “Allah” wouldn’t be acceptable. Also, and despite all the mentioned connections with other middle-Eastern languages, remember that many Muslims consider Arabic as a divine language, precisely because the Koran was written in that language.

  27. Why Muslims KILL, MURDER, KIDNAP and RAPE all in the name of such a god? What does it give you, all this human suffering Muslim people are causing??


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