Politics begins with the way we use words, George Orwell reminded us. At a precarious moment for relations between Muslims and their others it is important to recall that Allah is not the name of the Muslim god; that God, Allah and Yahweh are different words for the same deity.
For as long as I can remember, and almost without exception, the dominant media has used the word Allah in place of God when reporting on, about, Islam or from a Muslim region. Let me get straight to the point, Allah is not the name of an Arabic or Muslim god. Allah in Arabic means God. Muslims, regardless of language race, ethnicity, or nationality have conventionally used this Arabic term to refer to God.
Therefore, to give the impression that Muslims believe in Allah while Christians believe in God is like claiming that Christians believe in God while Jews believe in Yahweh. Clearly, this statement completely ignores the fact that these are two different names for what is considered by these traditions to be the same God.
The question is not whether Islam is a different religion from Christianity, or Judaism; obviously it is. The issue is whether, despite doctrinal differences, Muslims, Christians and Jews worship the same God. They do! Without entering into more detail than necessary, it will suffice to be reminded that Muslim theology clearly accepts the God of Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. It sees itself as a continuation of that same Zoroastrian-Judeo-Christian tradition that started and evolved in the great culture centres of the ancient Middle East.
God, in this western (and thats another article in itself) religious tradition is and has always been known by different names or masks as Joseph Campbell has termed them. The masks in this tradition have historically included, but are not limited to, Elohim, Yahweh, Jehovah and Allah. As an interesting and slightly ironic historical twist the origin of the term Yahweh, according to the pre-eminent scholar, T.J. Meek, is itself not etymologically a Hebrew but an Arabic word. Furthermore, the word Allah is also etymologically cognate with the word Eloi which Jesus is said to have used when he uttered his last sentence on the cross:
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?)
If Eloi is left untranslated, if we follow the logic of those who confuse spelling with meaning, the Biblical passage becomes extremely confusing: has Jesus abandoned God for this Eloi character? I think my point is clear. But what is the point behind the point? Should this simple linguistic decision matter to anyone other than a religious historian?
All words are counted and charged
The reasons behind the misguided usage of Allah are complex. Often (I would suggest too often) we hear Muslims themselves continue the conventional tradition of using the Arabic word Allah even while speaking English. This habit is most often, though not always, encountered among Arabic-speaking Muslims as well as the recently converted. And so, it is by no means my suggestion that non-Muslims are entirely at fault.
Journalists who are eager to show an insiders understanding of the culture they are covering, may choose to use the native word. But to do so is implicitly to acknowledge the fact that words matter as they do, because they carry connotations and cultural, historical and emotional baggage.
George Orwell knew this, and he was not alone. In fact, he only articulated brilliantly what every schoolyard bully knows in his bones. The media, which makes its collective living from the skilful distillation of emotional connotations embedded in words and images, knows a great deal about this as well. It is a topic for debate whether the exoticisation of Allah is an intentional manipulation of language or an oversight borne out of historical innocence and perpetuated systemically by frequent repetition on all sides. But the damage is real either way.
It is one thing to hear a Frenchman exclaiming Mon Dieu! And it is certainly not uncommon to hear an evangelical Christian or an Orthodox Jew refer to Jehovah or to Yahweh. The difference is that, in these instances, the vast majority of us have been taught immediately to recognise that these words are synonyms. Not so with Allah. This misuse of language is a disservice to every western Muslim, as it serves to distance him or her, in the minds of Christian or Jewish neighbours, just a little bit further from the putative heart of the dominant culture. We all know that exoticising a group of people by relegating it to the category of other has often been a necessary first step in a process of dehumanisation.
In our postmodern world, the construction of group identity for good or bad is intricately tied up with a peoples conception and valuation of themselves and of others. It is of fundamental importance to every group that their beliefs and, by extension, their identities should not be mis-characterised. Muslims in the west, especially at this sensitive and difficult time, should not bear the burden of unnecessarily alienating misconceptions based on historically inaccurate information. The persistent tendency to use Allah instead of God is evidence, if evidence were needed, that orientalism is alive and well.
Words do indeed matter. This essay is, if nothing else, an attempt at clarification of a common misunderstanding at a time when such misunderstandings are particularly damaging. One would hope that individually as well as through our churches, synagogues, temples and mosques, people of good faith, and of all good faiths would do their part to correct this all too prevalent and dangerous misuse of language in popular discourse.