Allah Is Not God

Featured, Social Justice — By on July 14, 2010 at 7:00 am

“Allah is not God.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this term. You may have even used it a few times.  But what does it mean? What do we really mean when such a catchy slogan jumps out?

In any grown-up conversation we should start with the basics; what is the literal agreed upon, dictionary definition of any given word, what are its origins and what was its original meaning and what has it come to mean?  Easy slogans say nothing – in fact they suffocate mature, intelligent discussion.

I had a student a few years ago in my college level English class who interrupted the flow of discussions with abrupt, barely relevant stock phrases.  He rarely, if ever, had a coherent or complete thought or any documentation for his opinions – he just made these (usually political) pronouncements.  He sounded like he had some kind of disability or brain injury – or something like Turrette’s syndrome. He was clearly unaware of the process of sustained, civil, adult conversation.  He just had slogans.  I found out later that he was, in fact, a very intelligent and charming young man.  He had somehow become enamored with the slogan- thinking, shout-down mentality of talk radio.  He could think and express himself coherently, he just chose not to.

“Allah is not God” is a typical slogan in that the user presumes that it is a statement of ultimate political (if not theological) truth. But what does it mean?  When we say “Allah is not God” I think we are attempting to say something like “The Muslim god is not the Christian God.”  We may agree or disagree, but what we are really saying with “Allah is not God” is “The Arabic word for God is not the English word for God.” That is clearly true, but not very insightful. After all, the Arabic word for “shoe” for example or any thing is not the English word for “shoe” or any other object.  Americans, especially American Christians it seems, are eager to seize any opportunity to display their ignorance.  This is no exception.

Here are a few facts as a reality check:

The Arabic language predates Islam.  The word “Allah” was in use centuries before Islam.

The apostle Paul, immediately upon his conversion experience, went to Arabia for three years  (see Galatians 1:16-18).  Arabs were among the first converts to Christianity (see Acts 2:11).

As of 2010 there are believed to be more than 40 Million self-identified Arab Christians worldwide.  In Syria, Christians made up just under 15% of the population (about 1.2 million people) under the 1960 census.  Current estimates put them at about 10% of the population (about 2,000,000).  Lebanon has the largest number of Christians in the Arab world in proportion to its population. They made up around 55% of Lebanon’s population before the Lebanese Civil War but their percentage today may be as low as 40% now (about 1,800,000).  About 75,500 Palestinians live in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.  The nation with the highest Muslim population is not in the Middle East.  It is Indonesia.

I have friends who rage against Shari ‘a Law.  These are Christian friends who miss the irony that virtually all of Shari ‘a law is Old Testament law.  To blur Islam/Arab/terrorist is an act of intellectual laziness that is not worthy of us.  Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines “Allah” by a link to “God” which they define as: “the supreme or ultimate reality: the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.”  Surely, with that crucial territory as common ground, we should be able to practice grace towards one another. What we have in common is far richer, deeper and enduring than what keeps us apart.

There are differences to be sure, between the religions “of the book,” but perhaps we could cross those divides, not with ignorance and implicit racism, but with wisdom, grace and discernment.  Perhaps then, and only then, might we know the Shalom that passes all understanding.

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    26 Comments

  • JamesW says:

    The “Allah is not God” statement is certainly worth debating. But regarding the corollary statement that you mention “The Muslim god is not the Christian God.”–are you saying that that statement consists of “ignorance and implicit racism”? Seriously?

    The position that the Muslim and Christian gods are not the same is a theological position, not a racial one. It’s insulting when people attach unfounded cries of racism to anything, as Jesse did last week when he said a basketball team owner whining about losing his best player was akin to a plantation owner losing a slave.

    The problem with accusations of racism is, they stick, no matter how groundless they might be. I’d suggest to you that you be more careful with statements like this, Morf. It’s unfair and in this case, untrue, because among those who believe the god of Islam and Christianity are different includes just as many Muslims as it does Christian. Why can’t someone simply take a position based on their understanding of Scripture, philosophy, economics or politics without it being about race?

    For someone who complained just two weeks ago about “those people” fanning the flames of division among people, you sure aren’t practicing what you preach here.

  • JamesW says:

    By the way, although I disagree with one of your statements which I described in the previous comment, I want to commend you on the general point you are making, best summed up when you said “To blur Islam/Arab/terrorist is an act of intellectual laziness that is not worthy of us”. You are absolutely correct here and it needs to be said that all people were made in God’s image, and His desire is to see Arabs, as well as people of every other race, come into a relationship with Him. Many modern American Christians often dismiss Arabs as a group, and that’s a terrible thing.

  • What do you propose is a better means to promote inter faith dialog?

    I agree with much of what you say. The existence of both Arab Christians and non-Arab Muslims make it very unwise to argue against Arab peoples from a theological standpoint. But, I also wonder why there needs to be a racial component to your argument just as James mentions.

    Shouldn’t we look at people and try to reach them as individuals rather than focus on the larger societal triggers that are largely rooted in international politics?

  • Matt says:

    It’s worth noting that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word “god” with a definite article (to indicate a monotheistic bent, basically) — literally, “the God.” Both Muslims and Arabic-speaking Christians use the word “Allah” when referring to “God.”

    • Matt says:

      I’d also note that the implicit racialization of equating “Allah is not God” with the statement “The Muslim god is not the Christian God” (which, as you deftly noted, ignores a whole swath of Arab Christians) is not necessarily limited to the word “Allah”, but is rather reflective of a wider trend of leaving particular Arabic words untranslated to highlight them as culturally and racially “other.” For example, the all-to-familiar panicked discourse concerning Middle Eastern “madrasas” systematically failed to recognize that the Arabic word “madrasa” simply means “school.”

    • annie says:

      Ok, I may be wrong, so if I’m not getting it I’d love more explanation.

      It seems like you explain the translation of Allah to the “the God”, and the statement “Allah is not God” to mean “The Muslim God is not the Christian God”. How does that ignore Arab Christians? If they are Christians, they are not Muslim, in the same way that not all Israelis are Jews, not all Chinese are Buddhists, and not all Hispanics are Catholic. (The racialization seems to come in the false equation of a person’s race with the religion generally associated with that race.)

      Does the lack of translation have to be racist, or can it simply mean that the two are not the same culturally or traditionally, and that we need different words to communicate about them? Maybe it isn’t a failure to recognize the meanings, but more an acknowledgement that translating words is inadequate as it sometimes applies to translating cultures (not to be confused with races, as the two are not inherently the same, although the are often in parallel).

      We could call all winter holidays Chanukuh and all places of worship cathedrals, but we recognize that though they may play similar roles in our lives, families, and cultures, they aren’t all the same. To refer to them as if they were would seem likely to hinder communication rather than to help it and to deny both the beauty and flaws in the individual cultures.

      I agree that the use of “Allah is not God” is often ugly, but I disagree that it is the statement itself, and rather is the fact that it is used as a political/religious grenade apart from appropriate relationship and conversation, that makes it distateful.

    • annie says:

      I suppose that was only partly in response to you, Matt, and partly in response to the whole thing.

    • Matt says:

      To be clear, I’m not 100% convinced that the whole “Allah is not God” is *racist*, but I would certainly argue that it is *racialized* — i.e. it brings race into the picture in a way in which may or may not be relevant, and may or may not be a step towards *racism*.

      That being said, what I meant to communicate above is this: For a large number of Christians, “Allah” *IS* God — in that the word “Allah” is what they use to refer to the “Christian God.” Thus, to equate the statement “The Muslim god is not the Christian god” with “Allah is not God” fundamentally ignores the Christians for whom Allah *is* God.

      Now, why might we consider this racialized? Simply because the distinction is made along social/linguistic/racial lines: Those Christians who regularly use the word “Allah” to describe what we regularly call “God” are, by and large, Arabs speaking Arabic — certainly racially and culturally “other” from a “mainstream white Western” perspective.

      Back to my “school” example: Again, I wouldn’t say that the lack of translation is *necessarily* racist — quite clearly there are instances in which certain words or phrases are idiomatic and are therefore best left untranslated — but that the lack of translation in instances in which translation could function very well seems to be motivated by particular ideological interests. “Madrasa” doesn’t really mean anything much different than the English word “school” — sure, in certain contexts it may mean “religious school”, but why not translate it to that? A believable reason seems to be that it is left untranslated to (artificially) heighten the difference between “us” and “them.”

    • Matt says:

      Had an extra “that” in the third to last sentence. It should end: “but the lack of translation in instances in which translation could function very well seems to be motivated by particular ideological interests.”

    • JamesW says:

      Sorry, Matt, I don’t agree. Here’s why. While there’s no doubt that some who hold the opinion that Allah is not God have a racial component to their stance, it’s also a sure thing that many do not. When we issue a statement like Morf did, or your follow-up, we’re making a blanket statement about all who hold that position. In truth, many have come to that conclusion for non-racial reasons. Many, I’m sure, have thought it through, maybe done some research, etc. My point being that such statements of the “racialized” root of such a position are a pretty substantial accusation. To be a racist is to be a slimeball. To paint a group of people with that broad brush because some of them deserve it probably does more harm than good. In a way, it’s a cousin of racism, because it’s a prejudice of sorts. People would flip if someone said that all black people eat watermelon, even if it’s true for some. Why is it OK to say all people who hold a theological position about the name of God have racist reasons, even if it’s true for some of them?

      I guess I keyed on Morf’s mention of race, which is a small part of his post, because it comes on the heels of some high-profile accusations of racism which are likely groundless, but which put an unfair stigma on the targets of the accusations that they may or may not be able to shake.

    • Matt says:

      James, if I’m understanding you correctly, you seem to be making the interesting claim that for a statement to be racist or racialized, the intent of the person making that statement must be racist or racialized.

      My objection: When one ignorantly uses a racist term, it may not indicate that the person using it is racist — but does the person’s ignorance deprive the term of its racial nature? Certainly not. What is racialized is the discourse, not the intentions of those participating in this discourse.

      I don’t mean to claim that someone who says “Allah is not God” and means “The Muslim god is not the Christian god” necessarily has *racist* intentions or is a racist; what I mean to say is that such a statement, even if used in ignorance, participates in a kind of discourse that is subtly and negatively racialized.

      I completely agree that it would be foolish to label a broad group of people “racists” just because they use a certain phrase.

      (Of course, I’m rooting this argument in a particular philosophy of language — if we differ on the nature of language, then I’m afraid we’re more or less at an intellectual deadlock.)

    • annie says:

      Matt,

      I think I agree with you if what you’re saying is basically that the statement is racially insensitive because it can be taken as implicitly racialized, and therefore a poor choice for fostering dialogue.

      However, in regards to the original piece, implicitly racialized and implicitly racists are entirely different. The first is probably inevitable when pursuing anyone different. The second is a serious charge, involving specific intent on the part of the speaker, that is equally ugly and prejudiced when thrown out as a blanket statement.

      Racialization can be unintentional/accidental; it’s often part of the learning curve. Racism, by definition, cannot. The reason why is becomes problematic in a piece like this is because it introduces flawed logic as basis for desired result laid out in the piece at large.

    • JamesW says:

      Matt said: “if I’m understanding you correctly, you seem to be making the interesting claim that for a statement to be racist or racialized, the intent of the person making that statement must be racist or racialized.”

      No, I’m saying that people, in this case you and Morf, are saying something’s racialized when it isn’t necessarily so.

      In the case of this particular topic (whether Allah is God), I have had plenty of discussions about it over the years, as I have some very good friends who have gone to Middle East nations for church-related purposes. Not just one family, but several. So this very topic, of how to pray alongside a person from that area–do you say Allah?–has come up and been discussed at great length. There are many opinions, and of the people who advise them not to pray to Allah, there are different reasons they have come to that conclusion. For a few, it’s purely theological. I could go into that, but nobody reads these things when they’re too long anyway.

    • Matt says:

      James, I can’t help but feel that you’re fundamentally missing or misunderstanding my point — which is admittedly wrapped up in epistemological considerations that are as much problematic for me as they are for you.

      Put concretely, you said: “No, I’m saying that people, in this case you and Morf, are saying something’s racialized when it isn’t necessarily so.”

      The problem that I’m trying to get at is: How do you know that something “isn’t necessarily” racialized?

      Obviously, you can turn this around on me and ask me, “How do you know when something *is* racialized?” In which case, I’d answer with what I somewhat obliquely hinted at earlier — i.e. the ways in which power relations structure discourse, etc.

    • Matt says:

      To be clear: Thus far the only way that I’ve understood you to answer the question of “How do you know that something isn’t racialized?” is by an appeal to individual intentional states as determinate of the “racialized” status of a particular element of discourse — i.e. “my friends didn’t mean it that way, they were trying to express a theological position, etc” — which is exactly what I attempted to critique previously.

      (And of course, I don’t mean to put you on the spot for not adequately answering a question I hadn’t yet explicit posed. My response in itself is a request for you to clarify your position, so that I can determine if *I* simply misunderstood *you*, or if we simply understand language differently, and so on.)

    • JamesW says:

      Matt, this blog post dropped off my radar because it no longer appears in the section on the right. I did re-read your comment and I think I understand a little more clearly. You apparently are saying that one need not intend to be racist, or even have racial issues in mind, when coming to a conclusion or making a statement of some sort, and it could still have racial undertones. And my response to that is: maybe, maybe not. That is, in some cases, perhaps. But my problem with Morf’s original statement was that it appeared to be a blanket statement, and I think it’s more of a case-by-case thing.

      Now, if you are saying that that conclusion itself (the Allah thing) is racial of itself, regardless of whether its adherents mean for it to be, then I completely disagree. Intent is important. More importantly, when one decides to make a proclamation that such a position is somehow racial, then it becomes an unfair accusation that sticks.

  • Jo says:

    You said, “Surely, with that crucial territory as common ground, we should be able to practice grace towards one another. What we have in common is far richer, deeper and enduring than what keeps us apart.”

    Topic I love myself. I don’t know how much I agree with all you wrote (rarely do with anyone on every finer point) but beyond those finer details, I LIKE what you are exploring and going for and agree with the overall concept (if I got it right). I just covered similar topics recently myself and will share some.

    I believe translations goes deeper than words. For instance, we all can unite in our ideology of Jesus, or what is our idea of “good” and “wisdom”, but to be united with Him (rooted in Him) is where we find our translation. He IS Perfect, Good, and Wisdom (Father in Him, He in Father, us in Him).

    Unfortunately, we try to unite on surface when God wants us to go deeper to matters of the heart, at foremost his heart. That is the unveiling of the Old Testament, unveiled in Jesus. I believe in natural laws, but I believe they take a backseat to spiritual laws. Jesus reigns over Spiritual laws, and we work out what has been worked in. Not the other way around.

    There is a common ground we all share. Where I see our common ground is at the cross of Jesus Christ that tells us we have all fallen short of the glory of God, and in the fraility of our emotions that stem from our hearts (sorrow, joy, pain, love, grief, lust, hate, etc). We all know that language and in our humanity it is tranlated the same. A baby that hasn’t spoken its first words, and those labeled as mentally insane know the language of joy, sorrow, pain…etc. It has nothing to do with intellect or words. It is a whole different level of speaking. At core, we are all broken and frail claypots in need of the Potter’s touch.

    But this isn’t it yet. I do believe God uses our humanity to break up the hard ground of our hearts, to help us see ourselves as we are apart from Him and in our fellowman and even appealing to us some at that level. But uniting in our humanity WITHOUT Jesus is just another Tower of Babel. We have to keep digging until we reach the Rock from which Oil springs, and build our homes on it. God’s emotions that stem from his Heart are way beyond ours and no human effort or uniting can reach that height. It is found in Christ.

  • Steph Niko says:

    Would we say: Yahweh is not God?

    • annie says:

      No, because Yahweh is the God, by nature of timeline, of all religions of “people of the book”, and both major religions that are subsequent claim Yahweh, though not each other’s subsequent forms of deity. However, if I was Jewish or Muslim, I would certainly say Jesus is not God or Yahweh.

  • Jo says:

    Hi again, I do like what you are exploring and wanted to add this before, but trying to work within length margins.

    From this view what I perceive regarding that statement is that it is a “black and white” statement that does very little (if anything) to appeal to me at a deeper level.

    Sort of sounds like, “I am right and you are wrong.”

    I think we may be seeing things differently on this point but to me I do see it as an intellect statement. I’m not advocating tossing out a piece of the puzzle. I find that most, if not all, do have their home in Christ (just need to know where and how it fits in).

    I believe it is “black and white”, WHEN IT COMES TO MATTERS OF THE HEART. I think at times we perceive “grace” as “grey” but I don’t see it the same. Grace I see as a tool.

    Bear with me for a moment more…

    If we got confident in our knowledge, and leaned on it more than Jesus, I believe God can take a statement like that and do wonders to make a point that we are to unite inside his heart found in Christ, and lean on and trust in Him (Romans 11). I believe He changes the surface landscape to get us to go deeper into his heart. I see the surface wonderfully diverse with the stable ground as our Rock Jesus.

    It was important for me to elaborate on that because to me it sounds like a “black and white” surface statement that does little to appeal to me at a deeper level. That “to me” was what I saw as a larger issue. BUT I DID NOT FEEL I COULD LEAVE IT THERE and felt obligated to elaborate because EVEN SO, I know God can turn it around for his good purposes. I would feel like I was helping mislead others if I didn’t elaborate so thank you for your patience and time.

    Do you have an email addy? Wanted to share something with you (not that long, really). But if you don’t care to share no worries. I really like the topic though so thank you for bringing it up and the wonderful offerings you brought forth.

  • Dori says:

    In Lebanon people frequently insert two words into conversations,
    “Hamdullah (Thanks, God)” or “Inshallah (As God wills . . .).” Having lived there for three years, I have found it refreshing to be able to openly acknowledge God’s sovereignty and interest and concern for my life and the people with whom I come into contact–whether they are colleagues, friends, shop owners, etc. etc. Nobody is ever offended. When others use the words (Muslim or Christian), I can nod in agreement. Usually they know that I am a Christian even though I am using Arabic words. I think there is something to be said for looking for common ground. It’s where we have to start if we are going to be able to share the good news of Jesus Christ with those holding different beliefs.

  • JamesW says:

    Just read an interesting quote that addresses this. He says it much better than I did. The link is http://vinothramachandra.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/the-death-of-argument/

    “Accuse someone of being ‘prejudiced’ or ‘narrow-minded’- the only permitted universal evils- and you feel justified in shutting out her viewpoint from discussion. This is the new repression behind that masquerades as ‘open mindedness’ and ‘tolerance’.”

  • Jo says:

    James, I see this “masquerading” so often on a variety of topic discussions in many places I go (and welcome the Lord to illuminate it in my life too). It leaves me with the unction of not growing confident in myself. Not sure how the racism aspect brought up applies to the article as I didn’t explore that aspect more, but wanted to share this in regard to what James said and feel it also fits into the article.

    I know I used this example before but think it is worth repeating. I call it coming out of one neighborhood and going into another that on the exterior looks different and the cause may seem more noble, so we think we have gone higher, but it is more of the same ole, same ole. I think it can even be worse if from this other neighborhood we then start looking down at our neighbors and start throwing stones.

    One time the Lord implanted these words in me, “The gospel in its simplest form is the most powerful” (which I mainly see in John 3). I see it in places and discussions, no credit to me. We need to get beyond this “sides” thing. Maybe we are not meant to fully blend in together yet (probaby more of an individual thing until God does his thing for a corporate move), but this seeing our portion as the whole and looking down at the other side needs to stop, and it begins with each of us.

    Anyway, I do feel recently the Lord gave me two portions of some things that I think are helpful to the conversation (not saying it was specifically for here, don’t know, but I see how it can help). And don’t take my Word for it, I’m on a progressive journey too and we need to go to our Sheperd for confirmation with second-hand items brought to us. Anyway, the details are wonderful and insightful but I realize this isn’t necessarily the place to stretch my wings so I will just give the two main points I feel He was revealing.

    On the first: Relates to the mote and beam story. Beam I feel can represent the condition of the heart. The mote may be stuff like surface details. The condition of the heart (FROM WHAT I SAW AND REPRESENTED TO ME IN WHAT I SAW), if wrong, was demonic.

    The second: Theme appeared to revolve around 1 Corinthians 3 and 13. The topic of bad gas being let out in air was explored (we in this section had previous training) and signs were smell and coughing…more and it was again, quite insightful but the main message appeared to speak of how at times the floor in our gathering places is not adequate to withstand the fire raging below it and the need to discern when to exit, and even stuff like burdens to go back in to help rescue others.

    But anyway, main point I got from scriptures it reminded me of is how those unseen essentials of the Lord’s Spirit (fruits), especially his Love, is what withstands the fire. The wood and hay will perish.

    That’s all I intend to say on this as I am getting these thoughts in my head now with others going “Oh, oh, where’s her leash. Who let her loose?” Hee, hee.

    No worries, no worries! I’m off…no worries.
    I got company coming and staying for awhile so…try not to miss me too much. Hee hee.

  • Jo says:

    Seriously though, I hope it helps. It helps me to see the funny side of things at times, otherwise I may spend my life crying. You gotta be able to laugh at yourself too.

  • JamesW says:

    Matt, you said

    “The problem that I’m trying to get at is: How do you know that something “isn’t necessarily” racialized?

    Obviously, you can turn this around on me and ask me, “How do you know when something *is* racialized?” In which case, I’d answer with what I somewhat obliquely hinted at earlier — i.e. the ways in which power relations structure discourse, etc.”

    To put it politely: that’s ridiculous. To take that position is to decide that nobody can come to certain conclusions without being labeled a racist. No, Morf’s sentence didn’t call anyone a racist. Jesse also didn’t call the owner of the Cavs a racist. He just called him a plantation owner. And the result is that now a guy who was venting over losing a player is being looked at very differently in the eyes of many people in the general public. All because Jesse decides to throw certain words his way.

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