This is the fourteenth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.
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QUESTION # 14 – WHY DO SOME CHRISTIANS CALL GOD ALLAH?
IN JUNE OF 2014, hundreds of Malaysian Muslims rejoiced as their supreme court confirmed the illegality of Christians using the word Allah to refer to the Christian God. The Catholic Church had challenged the ban many times on the grounds that Malay Bibles had used the word Allah for centuries. Authorities argued in response that a Christian use of the term could cause confusion and entice Muslims to convert, a criminal act in twelve of its thirteen states.
For a time, the Church had succeeded in convincing the Malaysian government to lift the ban, but in response Muslims began firebombing churches, ultimately leading to a reinstatement of the ban in October 2013. Three months later, Muslim authorities confiscated hundreds of Bibles from Christians on the basis that they used the word Allah, and in June a seven-judge panel confirmed this hard line stance against Christians. Political pundits saw the ruling as a “vote-winner” for the government, appealing to Malay public with sentiments that are increasingly Islamic.
When the decision was announced, Muslims around the court started chanting “Allahu Akbar.” The phrase is called the takbir, and the Malaysians may have been reciting it simply in thanks to God and to give him praise. The slogan is versatile; it is used in daily prayers, upon hearing good news, during ceremonies, as an incantation before engaging in a difficult endeavor, or even in moments of general excitement. It is not primarily a war cry, as some believe.
So the Malaysian Muslims around the courthouse may have been chanting the phrase in celebration as many Muslims do. But if they knew the literal meaning of the phrase, they may have meant something more. For example, many people think that Allahu Akbar means “God is great” or “God is the greatest.” As a non-Arab Muslim, that is what Qureshi was taught the words meant. But the word akbar is actually in the comparative form, and the phrase ought to be translated “Allah is greater.” It implies that Allah is greater than something in particular. Some have speculated that the phrase was originally used to intimidate the enemies of Muslims in battle, by saying that Allah was a greater God than their alleged god. In his earliest biography, we find Muhammad reciting the phrase before attacking the Jews at Khybar. This etymology is not certain, though, as there is not enough evidence to support it.
What is clear is that many Malaysians see Allah as a proper name for the Islamic God, so when they started chanting “Allahu Akbar,” they could have meant that the Islamic God is greater than the Christian God. If they did, they might have been hearkening back to the original meaning of the term.
ALLAH: PROPER NAME OR GENERIC TERM?
Allah can indeed be used as the proper name for the God of Islam, but is also functions in most majority Muslim languages as the generic term for God. It is commonly believed that Christians used the term Allah to describe Yahweh even before the advent of Islam. Allah functions as a contraction of al-ilah, “the god.” So language and context matter when discussing the word Allah. When speaking in Urdu or Arabic, Qureshi tended to use Allah as a generic term, as do most speakers of those languages, but when speaking in English, he tended to use it as a proper name referring to the Islamic conception of God, as do most speakers in English. Qureshi said, “When it comes to suggestions for how others should use the term, I would simply enjoin them not to be quick to criticize.” The term can be used in multiple ways, and conversation is far better served by focusing on meaningful matters rather than proper use of a term that can be legitimately used in many ways.
Some Christians call God Allah because it is often the generic word for God in Muslim-majority languages. Qureshi sees some benefit to adopting this word or other Arabic terminology if it helps clarify matters or build bridges of discussion, so long as it is not perceived as deceptive or confusing. Language is a fluid tool designed to help people communicate, and we should not be overly critical when others do not use terms the way we do.
Thanks for reading.
Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #15 – How Does Jihad Compare With Old Testament Warfare? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.