Did Jesus Worship Allah?

The Malaysian Government Bans Christian Use of Allah

by Nick Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho

There are about 15 million Arabic speaking Christians in the world. They live as substantial minorities in Lebanon (35%) and Syria (10%) and in lesser numbers in Iraq, Palestine, and North Africa.  A good portion of them live as good citizens in dozens of nations throughout the world. Contrary to popular belief, 63 percent of Arabs living in the U.S. are Christians, not Muslims.  Ralph Nader, for example, comes from an Arabic Christian family.

Most of the refugees from Iraq are Arabic speaking Christians, who have come under great pressure because the U.S. invasion of that country gave rise to Muslim extremism. Osama bin Laden condemned Sadaam Hussein for his secularism and for the fact that his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was an Arab speaking Christian. Because of the war, about half of the one million Iraqi Christians, no longer live in their own country.

For at least 1,200 years Arab Christians have read their Bibles with the word God translated as Allah.  The oldest extant Arabic Bible (parts of the New Testament) was produced in AD 867 and was found at St. Catherine monastery on Mt. Sinai. In Sednaya, Syria a Greek Orthodox Church, founded by Emperor Justinian in AD 547 after having a vision of the Virgin Mary, one can view a mosaic of Mary holding an Arabic text.

Jews and Christians prayed to God as Allah long before the prophet Muhammed, who himself acknowledged that Arabian Jews and Christians of his time used the word Allah for God.  In the Covenant of Medina (AD 622) recognized Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as different religions, but it stated that their Arabic speaking adherents worshipped the same God as Allah.

In 2007, mindful of the growing power of Muslim fundamentalism but going against two millennia of tradition, the Malaysian government decided to ban all Christian publications that translated God as Allah. Government leaders said that they did it because they did not want members of the Muslim majority (60 percent) to be confused and to be misled into converting to Christianity, a punishable offense in Malaysia.

Last month a judge for the nation’s highest court ruled that the prohibition violated the principle of religious freedom. Judge Lau Bee Lan declared that Malaysian Christians “have a constitutional right to use Allah.”

The great irony is that Arabic is not the language of Malaysia, and Allah is a loan word in the Malay language, but its leaders have still arrogated the right to decide about how the word Allah is to be used.

Thousands of Malaysia’s Muslims have been protesting the high court decision and the government has appealed the ruling. Since January 7, nine churches, a convent, and a Sikh temple have been firebombed by militants on motorcycles.  No one has been hurt but the first floor of one church was destroyed. The Sikhs have been targeted because they also use Allah for God.

The 2.5 million Malaysian Christians are primarily Chinese and Indian immigrants, and Hindu Indians joined these Christians in candlelight vigils at the churches in Kuala Lumpur. In August 2009, 50 Muslims had staged a protest at the site of a new Hindu Temple, and they brought in the severed head of a cow and stomped on to show their dislike for their Hindu compatriots. To their credit the government and Muslim leaders have condemned this incident and firebombing of churches.

Commenting on the many delays in prosecuting the charge, Malay Christian scholar Ng Karn Weng states: “I think the government knows that its policy of banning the use of the word ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims is intellectually untenable, legally indefensible, and morally embarrassing.”

Laying out a detailed linguistic explanation, Weng informs us that “allah is an ordinary Arabic word which is not specifically linked to a particular religion.”  The word is composed of two parts “al-ilah” literally meaning “the strong God.” 

Il as God is the same as the Canaanite El, which appears many times in the Hebrew Bible as El Bethel (God at Bethel) and El Shaddai (God of the Mountain).  (Do you think that the Canaanites led protests yelling: “El is our God not yours”?) The plural form Elohim is the most common word for God in the Hebrew Bible.

Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language from Syria, and to be as authentic as possible Mel Gibson has Jesus speaking Aramaic in his film The Passion of Christ. Speaking Aramaic Jesus would have prayed to God as Aalah, the Aramaic spelling.

There are at least a dozen phrases in the New Testament where the authors have transliterated Jesus’ Aramaic words or sayings into Greek. One of them is rather famous: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Some argue that Allah is a superior word for God because it is genderless and cannot be made into a plural. In the Old Testament Elohim is sometimes found with a plural verb (Genesis 1:26). I agree with Muslims who are concerned that the Trinity undermines the unity of God and the Christian claim to monotheism. Read about evidence of Hebrew polytheism at nfgier.com/hebrew-henotheism.

Allah and Elohim are not names of God; rather, they are Semitic words for deity in general. When the Quran lists the 99 names of God, Allah is not among them. Only the Sufis believe that Allah is the 100th name of God.

One could argue that Yahweh/Jehovah was a unique divine revelation to Moses and therefore special to the Judeo-Christian tradition.  However, in his book The Early History of God, Mark Smith has discovered that Yahweh has an earlier appearance as a warrior-god in religious traditions of the Midianites and Edomites.

In 2015, the Georgia Department of Education removed a teaching guide for world history. Parents in Walton County were protesting the way Islam was being taught, especially the claim that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same God. Some parents were fearful that their children had actually become Muslims, because they had been forced to memorize the Five Pillars of Islam.

When I taught the existence of God in my philosophy classes, the conclusion, if any of the arguments are valid, is that there is one God not many. Deity could be expressed in any number of languages as Allah, God, Dieu, or Gott, but of course it would be either arrogant or ignorant for believers to insist that only their word for deity is the legitimate one.

Nick Gier taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. Check other articles on religion at nfgier.com/religion. Email him at ngier006gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *