Many in the West know that Muslims worship ”Allah.” Especially among Evangelical Protestants, though, some are under the misimpression that the term ”Allah” refers to a pagan moon deity from pre-Islamic Arabian mythology. Certainly, in their view, it has nothing to do with the God of Christianity. Muslims are, they claim, worshiping a false god.
But, in fact, ”Allah” is simply the Arabic equivalent of the English word ”God.” It’s a contraction of two words, the Arabic definite article ”al” (essentially equal to English ”the”) and the Arabic noun ”ilah,” meaning ”god” with a lower case ”g.” Arabic script has no capital letters, so attaching the definite article to ”ilah” serves the purpose. While ”ilah” can refer to a pagan ”god,” ”Allah” cannot. Instead, it designates ”The God”— the one true God of Abrahamic monotheism.
In its turn, ”ilah” is closely related to a much more familiar word from the Hebrew Bible: ”Elohim.” If the Hebrew masculine plural ending ”-im” is removed from it, ”Elohim” becomes ”Eloh,” which is plainly related to Arabic ”ilah,” much in the same way that German ”Gott” and its synonym, English ”God,” are related. (Arabic and Hebrew are linguistic cousins, from the same family of Semitic languages.)
Moreover, ”Allah” is the word routinely used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews to refer to their God. ”In the beginning,” reads the Arabic translation of the first verse of Genesis, ”Allah created the heavens and the earth.” ”In the beginning was the Word,” reads the Christian Arabic version of John 1:1, ”and the Word was with Allah, and the Word was Allah.”
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reading Joseph Smith’s account in its Arabic translation, the Restoration of the Gospel began when, ”in accordance with (his) determination to ask of Allah,” Joseph Smith ”retired to the woods to make the attempt (to pray)” (Joseph Smith-History 1:13). Arabic-speaking Latter-day Saints, reciting the first Article of Faith, testify that ”We believe in Allah, the Eternal Father.” Readers of the Arabic Book of Mormon are encouraged to ”ask Allah, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true” (Moroni 10:4).
It’s not at all clear that ”Allah” ever referred, principally or at all, to a pagan Arabian moon god. But, even if it once did, that would prove little. Islam teaches that Allah created the Earth in six days, placed Adam and Eve in the Garden, and sent Abraham, Moses and Jesus as prophets. This isn’t moon-worshiping paganism; it’s obviously closely akin to Judaism and Christianity.
Paradoxically, there’s probably no word for God available to us today that hasn’t been used, at some point in its past, to refer to a non-Christian god.
Our words ”deity” and ”divine,” for instance, descend from the same root as Latin ”dea” (”goddess”) and ”deus” (”god”), words that originally referred to only pagan Roman gods. Yet the same word, ”deus,” is used to translate the Hebrew ”Elohim” in the Latin Christian translation of the Bible.
We speak today of ”theology,” which is rational discussion (”logos”) about ”theos” or ”god.” Perhaps, one might therefore imagine, this Greek word will be free of pagan associations. But it’s not. Who were the original ”theoi” or ”gods” of Greece? Kronos, who was overthrown by his rebellious son Zeus, along with Hera, Athena, Ares, Hephaestus and Aphrodite.
The English word ”God” itself seems to derive from an ancient term for a libation or offering, and may have referred directly to the idol to which the offering was made. It comes out of the same general pagan Germanic background that, further to the north, gave us Odin, Thor and Loki.
Even the Hebrew word ”elohim” was sometimes used to refer to pagan gods (for example, Psalm 96:5). In Exodus 20:3, the biblical commandment reads ”Thou shalt have no other gods (‘elohim’) before me,” and uses the same term to refer to the other ”gods” that Genesis 1:1 employs for the God who ”created the heavens and the earth.”
Occasionally, some Evangelical preachers will claim that there’s no salvation in Allah. Thus, they ignorantly condemn roughly 20 million of their Arabic-speaking fellow Christians to damnation.
We’re grateful that we haven’t been asked to translate such a sentiment into Arabic, because it would be good cause for despair: If there’s no salvation in God, we’re all doomed.
Daniel C. Peterson (Ph.D., University of California at Los Angeles) is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at Brigham Young University and is the founder and editor-in-chief of the University’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. He has published and spoken extensively on both Islamic and Mormon subjects. Formerly chairman of the board of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and an officer, editor, and author for its successor organization, the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, his professional work as an Arabist focuses on the Qur’an and on Islamic philosophical theology. He is the author, among other things, of a biography entitled Muhammad: Prophet of God (Eerdmans, 2007). He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org. He blogs daily at www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/.
William J. Hamblin is Professor of History at Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah, USA), specializing in the ancient and medieval Near East. He is the author of dozens of academic articles and several books, most recently, Solomon’s Temple: Myth and History, with David Seely (Thames and Hudson, 2007). In the fall of 2010 his first novel was published (co- authored with Neil Newell): The Book of Malchus, (Deseret Book, 2010). A fanatical traveler and photographer, he spent 2010 teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center, and has lived in Israel, England, Egypt and Italy, and traveled to dozens of other countries.