The riots by some Muslims in Malaysia and attacks on Christian churches over a recent court ruling allowing Christians to call God “Allah” are as baffling and dismaying to me as to everyone else. I mean, there is a post-colonial dimension to these things. Malaysia was conquered by the British in the 19th century and ruled with an iron fist, and the British brought in a lot of Chinese laborers for the tin mines. When British Malaya got its independence as Malaysia and Singapore, Muslims were only a little over half of the population in Malaysia and many felt that they had been discriminated against in their own country by Christian British colonial policy. That the Chinese emerged as an economic elite did not help. It has nevertheless been a relatively successful multicultural society, mainly Muslim and Buddhist. Christians are 6% or so.
Whatever is driving these disturbances, the Malays are just wrong that the word “Allah” is especially Islamic. It is just a Semitic word for the divine, formed from the definite article al- and the root ilah which means ‘god’. It is cognate to the Hebrew Elohim, one of the words for God in the Hebrew Bible (ilah= eloh). The gods of the Meccan pagans were called ilah before Islam. Al-Ilah, or The God, became elided into Allah and was used by pagans to refer to a great distant creator-god, less accessible than the star-goddesses they worshipped. There were Christian Arab kingdoms before Islam, whose inhabitants referred to the God of the Gospels and the Old Testament as Allah.
The Qur’an itself insists that it is a restatement of the truths revealed by the one God, Allah, to previous prophets such as Moses and Jesus.
Arab Christians call God Allah every day.
So the word has no specially Islamic overtones and was not invented by or monopolized by Muslims. This linguistic history is one reason I think English-speaking Muslims who insist on saying Allah rather than just God are wrong. They are implying that the God of the Qur’an is not the God of Jesus, Moses and Abraham, whereas it insists that he is.
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