Published on 2nd February, 2014, in The Mid-Day.
In Malaysia, everyone who spoke Bahasa, the local Malay language, always used the word Allah to mean God. This included the Muslims and the non-Muslims. It was assumed that God is one and approached differently by followers of different religions.
But this practice is now being resisted with sections of the government and some religious groups wanting to restrict the use of the name Allah to Muslims. A priest in a Church cannot use the word Allah, when referring to God, even if the entire service is in Bahasa. It can becomes a serious office if the word Allah is printed in a non-Islamic context.
The problem is one of nomenclature and meaning, and of course, politics.
The word Allah comes from Arabic. It is a contraction of two words: al meaning the, and ilah meaning deity. So it literally means ‘the God’, referring to its absolute singularity and monotheistic nature. From the same roots comes the word Elohim used in Hebrew texts to refer to God. In fact, English translations of Hebrew texts use the word God for Elohim while Arab translations use Allah.
Despite the use of capitalisation, it is not a proper noun. It is a common noun. The declaration of faith reads, “There is no god but the God.” Now, when spoken the two words sound similar. But when written they are different because of the use of the capital G. Capitalisation is a peculiar feature of the Latin script and not found in Arabic or Indian or Chinese scripts. This use of common nouns as proper nouns is common in many religions. In Islam there is the notion of the ninety-nine names of Allah. These names are attributes and adjectives that are treated as proper nouns. For example, Al-Rahman, which means the Merciful, is one of the names of God.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, Moses does ask God what is his name and God replies, “I am what I am!” From this reply comes the Hebrew word Yehovah or Jehovah which becomes the name of God in many Christian sects. Many Arab Christians use the phrase Allah Al-Ab, God the Father, to distinguish their understanding of God.
Despite the violent clashes between them, Islam is part of the Judeo-Christian continuum that can be traced back to Abraham. Judaism believes that the final messiah who will rescue the Chosen People of God is yet to arrive. Christianity believes he has already arrived through Jesus Christ who is not just a prophet but the son of God. Islam does not regard Jesus as son of God but as one of the many prophets of God. In Islam, the final prophet is Muhammad. Shia Muslims also value the role of the Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali. The difference is not so much in the destination as it is about the medium.
Before the arrival of the Prophet Muhammad, the tribes in Arabia worshipped many gods. They were also aware of the God of Abraham and the many prophets after him. Muhammad declared that he was the final prophet of that God, and demanded no other god be worshipped but Allah.
With demand to restrict the word Allah only to the Muslim context, the question is raised whether the name refers only to God of Muhammad, or also to God of Abraham, and perhaps to everyone’s God. Allah is mentioned over a dozen times in the Granth Sahib of the Sikhs, for example. Not everyone seems to appreciate this idea.