Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Word 'Allah'

In the comments to an earlier post, Fr. Andrew asks:

Would you be willing to do a post on the history of the Arabic Orthodox Christian use of Allah to refer to the One True God? When was that word first used by Arabic-speaking Orthodox? What is its pre-Christian and pre-Muslim history?

and then adds:

The issue came up recently on an email list I'm on—a poster claimed that Allah as a word was somehow tainted due to its association with Islam and pre-Christian, pre-Islamic Arabic paganism.

Of course, the argument on that email list is nonsense, because all the words we have for God, whether it's God, Theos, Deus, Bog, or what have you, all have pagan backgrounds and are used in modern times to describe non-Christian gods. Arguing that the word for God should be untainted by other cultures would put you in company with the darker side of 16th century Catholicism.

Leaving that aside, the history of the word Allah is rather prosaic. The generic Arabic word for 'a god' is ilah. This is cognate to the most common Semitic word for a god and is thus related to the Hebrew Elohim (and possibly El), the Syriac/Aramaic Alaha, and the Old South Arabian 'lh-- so basically all the Semitic languages outside of Ethiopia. Ilah is used by Christian Arabs in compounds like walidat al-ilah (the Theotokos) and ilahu abaina (God of our Fathers).

The Arabic word for the one God, in the use of any Arabic-speaking religion, is of course Allah. This word either comes from a contraction of ilah with the definite article, al-ilah, or is a borrowing from the Syriac Alaha (the latter opinion is sustained by early 20th century scholars like von Gruenbaum, Cheikho, Mingana, and Jeffery). It could just as easily be the mutual influence of the two, as the line between borrowings and cognates among Semitic languages is notoriously hard to determine.

Allah was of course used by the pre-Islamic pagans of Arabia, at least those whose cult center was Mecca. For them, Allah was the supreme god and was worshipped at the Ka'ba with his three daughters Allat (fem. of Allah), Manat, and 'Uzza. As far as I know-- and I say this without having the labyrinthine works of Irfan Shahid in front of me-- we do not have any extent literary or epigraphic texts from pre-Islamic Christian Arabs.

We do have pre-Islamic poems composed by poets from Christian tribes and transmitted orally until written down in the early Islamic period. (And whose authenticity, of course, has been much-debated). They make very rare mention of any religious theme, but do sometimes use the word Allah.

However, we can turn to the Qur'an as evidence for pre-Islamic use of the word Allah by Christians and Jews. That is, the Qur'an was not composed in dialogue only (and I would argue even chiefly) with the pagans of Mecca. Rather, Muhammad was much more interested in delivering his message to the Jews (primarily) and to some degree Christians. Since Allah is used of God in Qur'anic passages like Surat al-Ikhlas* which are addressed specifically to Christians, it seems that Muhammad assumed that the Christians he was addressing would understand Allah to mean their own God, since it was almost certainly the word they used themselves for Him. (A possible case where the Qur'an actually does co-opt a foreign word for a god is the epithet 'al-Rahman', which was likely the name of the chief god among the South Arabians).


At no point in the literary history of Christian Arabic am I aware of any word other than 'Allah' used for God (that is, where Greek would use ο θεος). Nor am I aware of it having been controversial among Christian Arabs or non-Arab Christians who came in contact with the usage. After all, Byzantine refutations of Islam talk about what the blasphemies Muslims say about ο θεος, not what they say about αλλα........


*German scholar of the Qur'an and (incidentally) Orthodox Christian, Angelika Neuwirth argues that Surat al-Ikhlas is a point-by-point refutation of the first part of the Nicene Creed.

8 comments:

Eric Jobe said...

A brief note on the philology:

The Proto-Semitic word was probably something akin to the Ugaritic 'īlu and the Akkadian 'īlum. It was realized in later West Semitic languages with an expanded variant 'īlahu much like the Hebrew word for father 'ab, but in the plural, 'abahot. In Akkadian, it is the general word for a god, and may also be used as such in Ugaritic, though there is also a specific god named 'īlu. Both the original 'īlu and the expanded form find their way into Biblical Hebrew under the guise of El and Elohim. Aramaic (incl Syriac) makes do with the expanded form 'Elaha, as does Arabic with 'ilahun. With my limited experience with comparative Semitics studying at the University, of Chicago, I would come down on Allahu being a syncopation of al-ilahu, given that a preformative aleph regularly elides in Arabic with preceding case vowels. But, I am not an Arabist, only a Hebraist and Aramaist.

Fr. Andrew said...

Thank you very much for this! This is wonderful!

Samn! said...

Hi Eric,

Thanks for the help with the earlier Semitic philology... I'm not really comfortable with anything before about 500 AD....

The problem with Allah being a syncopation of al-ilah is that there are two types of alif, one that can be elided with a previous vowel(case or otherwise),and one that cannot. The former is found in the definite article 'al' and at the beginning of some derived verbal forms while the latter includes all alifs (actually in Arabic the hamza, as alifs don't always denote a glottal stop) that are part of the root. So, the normal kind of elision could give us the form *ibnu-lilah (Son of God). However, the initial alif of 'ilah' is radical (except for those ancient scholars who derived it from w-l-h) and it never falls before a vowel when it has the definite article before it. This is what led most of the rockstars of the golden age of Semitics to see Allah as a Syriac borrowing. The derivation from al-ilah alone was in the past mostly only supported by Muslims (though not several of the most ancient authorities), for whom the idea of foreign words in the Qur'an is blasphemous, though today it's put forward by some westerners largely I think out of some kind of cultural sensitivity...

AramaicScholar said...

Thanks for this post. I agree that the Hebrew El, Eloah (plural Elohim); Aramaic Alaha, and Arabic Allah are all related linguistically. When the Muslim conquests came, Aramaic was the spoken language of the Middle East until Arabic supplanted it, and so Allah was an easy step for Aramaic speakers to take.

Ken Rank said...

Greetings. We have done a similar study and have come to the same conclusion. So while I personally will not refer to the God of Abraham as Allah, it certainly does not appear to be the "all evil" word that so many armchair linguistics have made it out to be.
Brakhot!

Ezzah said...

This is great. I have quite a few Syrian Christian friends who use phrases such as "insh allah" (sp) and other "bism allah" (sp) without a second thought. Living in S.E. Asia most of the Christians won't use "Allah" in order to stand apart from their Muslim counterparts. We used "khoda" which was for G-d and would say "khoda hafiz" rather than "allah hafiz" when parting. I am no linguist and never studied to know if they were essentially saying the same thing, but culturally the Muslims know the difference there. Thank you so much for this blog post, I look forward to passing it on.

Samn! said...

Ezzah,

That's really interesting about southeast Asians using "Khoda", since it's a borrowing from Persian, and so presumably also a result of contact with Islam. "Khoda hafiz" is the normal way of saying "goodbye" in Iran--- the people who, relatively recently, have started saying "Allah hafiz" are trying to identify themselves very strongly with the ideology of their current regime...

Anonymous said...

ehm, hi im Ara im lived in Indonesia, 3 years ago in Indonesia and Malaysiak, this issue become headline in public, the question is is possible in Alkitab (bible verse Indonesia) use word of Allah in our bible, finally our schlolar and priest (pendeta or pastor in Indonesia) enlighment us that christain people possible saying Allah cos based on historical and languange that word have source in Aramic and Hebrew languange, sometimes we have to fight for our right, Gbus, Amen :)