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One of the questions Christians in the West frequently ask is whether the Arabic word “Allah” should be used to refer to the God of the Bible. This question particularly concerns those involved in Bible translation and theological education, but it is also vital for the church as it seeks to proclaim the gospel in Muslim regions.
The most popular response goes something like this: “The Allah of Islam is not the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” While this statement is true on the face of it, the linguistic question surrounding the legitimacy of “Allah” in Arabic Bible translation and theological writing often gets entangled with the broader discussion concerning God’s identity in Islam versus Christianity.
Linguistic and Theological Question
To clarify some of the issues involved, it’s important to understand something of the history of Arabic-speaking Christianity. It’s also important to separate the linguistic question related to the legitimacy of using “Allah” to refer to God in Arabic from the theological question pertaining to the nature and character of the word’s referent. Some Western Christians may be surprised to learn that Arabic-speaking Christians (and Jews) have used “Allah” to refer to God since well before the emergence of Islam.
Historically, Arabic-speaking Christianity begins in the New Testament. On the day of Pentecost when the Spirit falls on those present and they begin proclaiming “the mighty works of God” in different languages, the final people group listed is Arabs (Acts 2:11).
Arabic Christianity eventually took root among many of the Arab tribes in Syria-Palestine and flourished throughout much of Mesopotamia. Even after Islam emerged, many Arabs held tenaciously to their Christian faith and continue to do so today.
Nevertheless, prior to the Islamization and Arabization that took place under Islam, Arabic-speaking Christians in the region used languages other than Arabic in their liturgies. This is due to the unfortunate absence of an Arabic translation of Scripture until well into the Muslim era. These Arabic-speaking Christians would have prayed primarily using Greek, Coptic, or Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic). But like their Arabic-speaking Jewish neighbors, they would have referred to God as “Allah” in their native language. Pre-Islamic inscriptions testify to this fact, as does the continued use of “Allah” by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews to this day.
Matter of Semitic Connections
When it comes to linguistics, it’s important to remember Arabic is a Semitic language closely related to biblical Hebrew and biblical Aramaic. The Arabic word for God, “Allah,” is closely related to its Semitic cognates El and Elohim in Hebrew and the definite form Elaha in Aramaic. Indeed, Christians need only look to the original language of Scripture itself for evidence of this connection. In Daniel 2:28 we see that the indefinite form of “God” in Aramaic is closely related to “El” in Hebrew and “Allah” in Arabic. The connection to the Arabic cognate is even more apparent when looking at the definite form in Aramaic, such as “the living God” in Daniel 6:26. Indeed, the Arabic form of God is often understood as referring to “the deity” (al-ilah).
These linguistic connections should allay any fears among Western Christians over using “Allah” in Arabic to refer to the God of the Bible, whether in a Bible translation or in theological writings and materials. It’s important in such discussions for Western Christians to guard against dictating to non-English speaking persons what word or words they should use in their own languages to refer to God, particularly if the Westerners weighing in have no knowledge of the languages or cultures they’re critiquing.
Issue of God’s Character
Christians can and should focus their energies on distinguishing the character of the Allah of the (Arabic) Bible from the Allah of the Qur’an. Theologically, when an Arabic-speaking Christian talks about Allah, there is a difference in the nature and attributes of the One to whom he is referring compared to his Arabic-speaking Muslim neighbor. Both believe in one God, and both use the same word to refer to God; however, Christians affirm trinitarian monotheism while Muslims advocate unitarian monotheism.
The situation is analogous in the English-speaking world to Christians who rightly differentiate their understanding of God from how Jews, Mormons, or Jehovah’s Witnesses (or even liberal Christians) understand God’s identity. For English speakers, we don’t use a different word to refer to God, but the nature of the One to whom we refer is different from the nature of the one to whom other groups refer.
Thus, Christians can and indeed should use “Allah” when speaking in Arabic to refer to the God of the Bible. In general, we shouldn’t refer to God as “Allah” in majority English-speaking contexts, since Christians and others would understand this as a direct reference to the god of Islam. However, if we’re speaking in Arabic, we must work hard to make our audience understand that the Allah we’re referring to is revealed to us pre-eminently in Jesus Christ and that saving revelation of him is found solely in God’s Word, the Bible.