A recent book review in the Evangelical Baptist (March / April 2005, p. 20) on the book Ishmael: My brother – A Christian Introduction to Islam, contained the provocative statement, “from a biblical vantage point, Allah does not exist.” Such a claim is based on the reality that Allah is not viewed by Muslims as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, despite conflicting beliefs about the nature and character of God, evangelicals need to understand that the use of “Allah” to refer to the God of the Bible is both an appropriate and accepted practice.
“Allah” in Bible Translation
“Allah” is the Arabic word for God and most Arabic translations of the Bible reflect this. Joshua Massey in a recent article in EMQ (V 40, No. 3, July 2004, pp. 284-285) points out that the debate “Should Christians use ‘Allah’ in Bible translation? … ironically … doesn’t exist for Arab Christians.” Allah has been used in Bible translation from the 8th century to translate the biblical terms for God. Most scholars view the word to be an “Arab cognate of biblical Aramaic elah and Hebrew eloah [singular of elohim]” (ibid.). Moreover “Allah” is never used for a false god or idol in Islamic thought. It can only refer to the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This has made Bible translation in the Sindhi language difficult at times.
For example, in 2 Kings 1:3, Elijah asks why the king has consulted the “god of Ekron.” Is it because “there is no god in Israel?” In our Sindhi translation (1) we cannot use the word for God to translate the phrase “god of Ekron” because the name of God cannot be used for a false god. Instead we have translated “the worshiped one of Ekron,” indicating a false god. However the second phrase presents us with a dilemma because, while sarcastically asking if there is no “god in Israel,” by implication Elijah is making an oblique reference to the true God. If we simply translate “worshiped one,” this would imply that Elijah is not referring to the true God! Thus our translation lost the sarcasm but made the meaning plain by asking “Is God not in Israel?” referring to the one true God, who is understood by the Muslim audience to be Allah. However, the implied distinction is not explicit in the original Hebrew which uses elohim in both of these phrases.
Massey further explains that this understanding of “Allah” is affirmed not only by Christian translators, but also by Muslim scholars when they quote Bible verses and by Jewish scholars in their studies of Islamic literature.
Communication demands Acknowledgment
The argument that Allah is not God is impractical, unhelpful and illogical. It is impractical because all Muslims recognize the God of the Bible as the true God and they call him by the Arabic word for God, “Allah.” It is unhelpful because the argument that Allah is other than the God of the Bible would only reap confusion and cause unnecessary stumbling blocks for the sincere spiritual seeker. All former Muslims that I have met who have come to faith in Christ have not turned away from Allah, rather they have come to know him as the Father of Jesus Christ. It is illogical because the issue is not a comparison between two different gods, but a disagreement about the character and nature of the one God. To argue that Allah is not God is comparable to an argument that the word “rose” does not refer to the flower. If a person uses the word to refer to the flower, then the hearer is simply refusing communication by denying the speaker’s intent. The general use of “Allah” for God by both Christians and Muslims necessitates acknowledgment of this intention if we are to speak of God at all.
A further problem with such a blanket dismissal of Islamic forms, words and thoughts is that much of Islamic thinking has Jewish and Christian origins. Therefore introducing a new term for “God” or “Jesus” and ignoring commonly accepted historical usage because of differences in the teachings about the nature of God and Jesus will simply introduce unnecessary communication hurdles.
Allah as God the Father
The author of the review quotes John 8:42 as a proof-text that those who do not worship the Father of Jesus Christ, are not worshipping the true God: “The hostility of Moslems (sic) to Jesus Christ makes it clear they are not worshipping God the Father, else, when introduced to Jesus they would know him.” While Muslims, in general, would agree that they do not worship God as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, this claim by the author is given in support of the contention that “Allah does not exist.” However, this is a misapplication of the verse. Jesus is not claiming that the God of the Jews, Yahweh, does not exist. Rather he was saying that the people who claimed Yahweh as their God were actually not in an appropriate relationship with him as father. Jesus’ intention was not to deny the existence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His point was to correct their understanding of God because they were assigning inappropriate attributes to him from their own perverse imaginations, rather than submitting to him as the gracious and loving Father. In the same way the proper application of this verse to Muslims is not to deny the existence of the God of Islam, but rather to reveal the true nature of Allah as the Father of Jesus Christ.
The Jesus film was translated into Muslim Sindhi during our time in Pakistan. The translation was generally excellent as the film crew used the common language Muslim Sindhi Bible translation of the Pakistan Bible Society for most Scripture passages. However, imagine our frustration and disappointment when we discovered that instead of the Muslim name for Jesus, esaw, the common Christian term, yaysoo, was used. As a result many Muslims would watch the film and be moved by it, but fail to comprehend the identity of this “Yaysoo”! More than once I had to explain that this was a film about “Esaw.” Once they understood within the categories of their Islamic teaching that this film was referring to Jesus, they were able to interact with the message. A much more profitable approach is to use terms already present in Islamic theology and fill them with biblical meaning.
A more pertinent question for the cross-cultural ambassador of Christ to Muslims is to ask how the Muslim view of Allah can provide room for a relationship with God as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. This will be explored in the following article.
- (1) The Sindhi translation actually uses the Persian word for God, khuda, which is synonymous with the Arabic, Allah. Mark has been working on the Old Testament translation of the Sindhi Bible since 1989.