by Joshua Massey
Issues of terminology for God are highly convoluted when working with Muslims in non-Arabic-speaking lands where Christians use alternate terms for God.
The question of translating “God” as “Allah” is hotly debated in non-Arab lands, where many sincere Christians are convinced Allah is a false god. Ironically, this debate doesn’t exist for Arab Christians, who have continually translated elohim and theos (the primary terms for God in biblical Hebrew and Greek) as “Allah” from the earliest known Arabic Bible translations in the eighth century till today.
Most scholars agree that “Allah” is the Arabic cognate of the biblical Aramaic elah and Hebrew eloah, which is the singular of elohim, a generic word for God used throughout the Old Testament. In fact, it is nearly impossible for linguists to determine which of these three terms appeared first in the Ancient Near East, or if they all derived from a hypothesized proto-Semitic language.
Though precise origins of the three terms are uncertain, ancient usage is not. As in English, the Bible uses elah and elohim for both the Most High God and false gods—English uses an upper or lower case “g” to distinguish between these two. In contrast, Muslims never use “Allah” to refer to a false god, but only the one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Muslim writers have been using “Allah” in their quotations of the Christian Bible since the ninth century. Jewish scholars have also been translating elohim and elah as “Allah” since the earliest known Arabic translations of the Torah in the ninth century until today. So despite the apparent differences in how God is understood according to biblical and Qur’anic content, Arabic-speaking Jews, Christians and Muslims together have been addressing God as “Allah” over the last fourteen centuries.
Nonetheless, many sincere missionaries who strive to be biblical tend to reject all Muslim terminology, culture and religious forms which they construe as “Islamic”—even elements rooted in biblical Jewish and Christian origin. Issues of terminology for God are highly convoluted when working with Muslims in non-Arabic-speaking lands where Christians use alternate terms for God. Although millions of Arab and non-Arab Christians (e.g., thirty million Javanese and Sundanese Christians in Indonesia) worship God as “Allah,” other non-Arab Christians may strongly oppose using “Allah” for God when unaware of its history and broader usage in the body of Christ. Misunderstanding any foreign term is all too easy when we do not know the language or its wider context.
Similarly, it is equally easy to gloss over the sordid history of many non-Arabic terms Christians use for God. The English word “God,” for example, comes from the pagan Germanic Gott, a proper name for the chief Teutonic deity Odin, who lives on top of the world-tree and created the first humans with his wife Freya, a blonde, blue-eyed goddess of love, fertility and beauty.
Should English speakers therefore discontinue addressing the Most High as “God”? In spite of its pagan origin and present use for both false deities and the Most High, “God” (when capitalized) is generally understood by English-speakers as the God of the Bible, and therefore perfectly acceptable to English-speaking Christians. “Allah,” in contrast, shares the same Semitic roots as biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, is not presently used for false deities, and is clearly understood by all Arab Christians and Muslims as the God of the Bible. “Allah” is therefore an acceptable term for Arabic-speaking Christians and Muslims.
Although using “Allah” is a non-issue for Arabic-speaking Christians, many non-Arabic-speaking Christians have difficulty separating the term from its meaning as defined by Islamic teaching. If we don’t use a new term, we believe Muslims will misunderstand God’s nature in the Bible.
Christian advocates for using “Allah” amongst Muslims in non-Arabic-speaking lands counter that introducing foreign terms for God will create immense communication hurdles, perhaps even guaranteeing that a truly indigenous church planting movement will never occur. The task, they say, is not to discard such easily redeemable terms, but to fill them with biblical meaning. The more a Muslim’s understanding of “Allah” is informed by the Scriptures, the more biblical his or her theology of God will become.
From the beginning the church has wisely filled familiar words with new meaning, rather than tossing them aside as irreparable. For example, pagan stoics have long used logos (the Word) to describe “the divine soul of the world.” Like elohim and elah, non-Jewish usage of the Greek theos did not denote a specific deity in the first century but a polytheistic totality of gods—Zeus was the father of gods and men, as Scripture testifies (Acts 14:11-12). Nonetheless, New Testament writers did not shy away from using logos (John 1:1,14) or theos, which occurs 1,343 times in the New Testament and is translated as “God” 1,320 times.
Therefore, if the translator aims to render the Scriptures in a way that Muslim readers receive them as “good news,” the solution to this linguistic quagmire is not necessarily to avoid the term “Allah,” no matter how vehemently some non-Arabic-knowing Christians may oppose it. “Allah” has been an acceptable term in Bible translation to millions of Arab and non-Arab Christians for more than a millennium, and remains so for Muslim readers today.
Joshua Massey is a cultural anthropologist, linguist and missiologist, who has been laboring among Asian Muslims since 1985. He is currently coordinating the development of contextualized evangelistic and discipleship literature for Muslim followers of Jesus in Asia.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 3, pp. 284-285. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.