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Wednesday, 11 November 2009

The use of the word 'Allah' by Christians in history and today

The late Metropolitan Elias of Tripoli and Koura blessing the choir of the Institute of Theology of the University of Balamand on the Feast of St John of Damascus, December 2004

The Catholic authorities in Malaysia are appealing against a decision to prevent the import of Bibles that use the Arabic word 'Allah' with reference to God on the ground that this is exclusive to Islam. The bishops contend that it is in common use among the population, Muslims and others alike, as the word that simply means 'God'.

It is, after all, the word used for God in Catholic Malta, where the language is closely related to Arabic. Perhaps more importantly, it is used by the Arab Christians of the Middle East and belongs no less to the Syriac Christian tradition, as well as tracing its history to before Mohammed.

Follow this link to YouTube for a video of the Trisagion in the Divine Liturgy at the Monastery of our Lady of Balamand (Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch), served by the late Archbishop Elias Kurban of Tripoli and Koura, on the feast of St John of Damascus, in December 2004. It is sung in Greek (Hagios ho Theos) and Arabic (Kudouson Illah).

The excellent new blog, Notes on Arab Orthodoxy, goes into further detail:

"In the comments to an earlier post, Fr. Andrew asks:

Would you be willing to do a post on the history of the Arabic Orthodox Christian use of Allah to refer to the One True God? When was that word first used by Arabic-speaking Orthodox? What is its pre-Christian and pre-Muslim history?

and then adds:

The issue came up recently on an email list I'm on—a poster claimed that Allah as a word was somehow tainted due to its association with Islam and pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Arabic paganism.

Of course, the argument on that email list is nonsense, because all the words we have for God, whether it's God, Theos, Deus, Bog, or what have you, all have pagan backgrounds and are used in modern times to describe non-Christian gods. Arguing that the word for God should be untainted by other cultures would put you in company with the darker side of 16th century Catholicism.

Leaving that aside, the history of the word Allah is rather prosaic. The generic Arabic word for 'a god' is ilah. This is cognate to the most common Semitic word for a god and is thus related to the Hebrew Elohim (and possibly El), the Syriac/Aramaic Alaha, and the Old South Arabian 'lh-- so basically all the Semitic languages outside of Ethiopia. Ilah is used by Christian Arabs in compounds like walidat al-ilah (the Theotokos) and ilahu abaina (God of our Fathers).

The Arabic word for the one God, in the use of any Arabic-speaking religion, is of course Allah. This word either comes from a contraction of ilah with the definite article, al-ilah, or is a borrowing from the Syriac Alaha (the latter opinion is sustained by early 20th century scholars like von Gruenbaum, Cheikho, Mingana, and Jeffery). It could just as easily be the mutual influence of the two, as the line between borrowings and cognates among Semitic languages is notoriously hard to determine.

Allah was of course used by the pre-Islamic pagans of Arabia, at least those whose cult center was Mecca. For them, Allah was the supreme god and was worshipped at the Ka'ba with his three daughters Allat (fem. of Allah), Manat, and 'Uzza. As far as I know-- and I say this without having the labyrinthine works of Irfan Shahid in front of me-- we do not have any extent literary or epigraphic texts from pre-Islamic Christian Arabs.

We do have pre-Islamic poems composed by poets from Christian tribes and transmitted orally until written down in the early Islamic period. (And whose authenticity, of course, has been much-debated). They make very rare mention of any religious theme, but do sometimes use the word Allah.

However, we can turn to the Qur'an as evidence for pre-Islamic use of the word Allah by Christians and Jews. That is, the Qur'an was not composed in dialogue only (and I would argue even chiefly) with the pagans of Mecca. Rather, Muhammad was much more interested in delivering his message to the Jews (primarily) and to some degree Christians. Since Allah is used of God in Qur'anic passages like Surat al-Ikhlas* which are addressed specifically to Christians, it seems that Muhammad assumed that the Christians he was addressing would understand Allah to mean their own God, since it was almost certainly the word they used themselves for Him. (A possible case where the Qur'an actually does co-opt a foreign word for a god is the epithet 'al-Rahman', which was likely the name of the chief god among the South Arabians).

At no point in the literary history of Christian Arabic am I aware of any word other than 'Allah' used for God (that is, where Greek would use ο θεος). Nor am I aware of it having been controversial among Christian Arabs or non-Arab Christians who came in contact with the usage. After all, Byzantine refutations of Islam talk about what the blasphemies Muslims say about ο θεος, not what they say about αλλα........

*German scholar of the Qur'an and (incidentally) Orthodox Christian, Angelika Neuwirth argues that Surat al-Ikhlas is a point-by-point refutation of the first part of the Nicene Creed."

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