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Sunday, February 28, 2021

An online Arab Bible has stopped using “Allah”

Why the Change?

We need to address a topic that is sure to come up when using ArabBible. The textual foundation for ArabBible is the venerable Van Dyck translation, completed in Lebanon in March of 1860. You are probably aware that the term used for “God” in the Van Dyck version is “Allah”. However, ArabBible does not use this word at all. Instead, the word “al-ilaah” has been employed (note: no other changes have been made to the Van Dyck text). Why the change? To answer this question we should look at several issues…

What’s in a Name?

Someone’s name is known as a “proper noun”; it refers to that person alone. A “common noun”, on the other hand, is a generic noun that can be applied to more than one. For example: I may call both Robert and Joseph a “man”. Since they are both men, I can call either one a “man”, and that is right and proper. So “man” is a common noun. However, I cannot call Robert by the name of “Joseph” or vice-versa. Each one has a unique name to which he answers. And even if there happened to be two Roberts in the room, “Robert #1” would not be the same person as “Robert #2”. If I talk about “Robert”, everyone would ask: “Are you referring to, Robert #1 or Robert #2?” They are distinct. That is why in virtually every culture of the world, people do not give their children identical names. Different persons having the same name would lead to terrible confusion. It seems simple enough to understand.

When it comes to God, what do we call Him? Various languages have a number of ways to deal with this. In English, for example, it is understood that “god” (with a lower case ‘g’) can refer to one of any number of supposed deities, while “God” (‘with an upper case ‘G’) refers to the unique creator of the universe. The capitalization of that noun is simply our culture’s way of dealing with it. However, it must be clearly understood that neither “god” nor “God” is a “proper noun”; rather they are both “common nouns”, referring to someone: in the case of “god”, to any deity; and in the case of “God”, to a specific deity. The common noun “man” is a way of referring to someone without using his name; likewise, using the common noun “God” is a way of referring to that unique One, without using His name.

If someone called a person “man” they would be correct, but generic. And if someone called him “Robert” they would also be correct, but personal. Now let’s talk about God….

When we refer to “God”, the term is true and acceptable. However “God” is not His name, just as “man” is not my name. I have a name by which those who know me can call me. To others, I might be referred to as “that man”. Names are more intimate.

The God of the Bible refers to Himself by a number of common nouns and by one proper noun. Please don’t misunderstand: the use of the term “common noun” when referring to “God” is not demeaning in any way, but is a linguistic term – God is anything but common! Some of the common nouns He uses when referring to Himself are: “God”, “Creator”, “Savior”, “Lord”, “Messiah”, “King”, etc. However, there is also a single proper noun that He uses to refer to himself. So what is that unique name? The following conversation occurred between Moses and God sometime around the year 1400 BC:

Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’
Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’
What shall I say to them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said,
“Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel,
‘I AM has sent me to you.’

God, furthermore, said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘The LORD (YHWH), the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is My name forever,
and this is My memorial-name to all generations.

Exodus 3:13-15

The same passage in the original Hebrew is shown below. The red boxes correspond to the red text above, and the green shaded areas to the green text above, for those who do not know Hebrew.

God clearly tells Moses what his personal name is: His name is YHWH in Hebrew. And He clearly says that this is His name forever. Remember, we’re not even to the translation issue yet; we are just establishing what God calls Himself. To further clarify, let’s look at the words in green: He identifies Himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Jesus himself quotes this verse when speaking to the Sadducees in the Gospel of Mark:

But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses,
in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying,
I am the God of Abraham,
the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob
Mark 12:26

The green shaded text again refers to the corresponding English text above, for those who do not know Greek.


So God identifies Himself as YHWH, and unmistakably clarifies things by identifying Himself as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

Now Let’s Talk About Islam

Islam deals with the god/God issue as well. The general term for a god is “ilaah”. This Arabic word is a common noun, and can either refer to any supposed god, or may also refer to the unique one. This is universally accepted among all Arabic-speaking peoples. Next, we can talk about the proper noun, or his actual Arabic name. The name universally accepted among Muslims that refers to the deity of Islam is “Allah”. There is a swirl of controversy these days about the linguistic origins of that name, but the fact remains that there is no controversy whatsoever about what Islam’s deity is named. “Allah” is his proper name, the name that he calls himself, and expects others to call him. If someone would like to contest this claim, let him consider the words of Edward William Lane, the sole author of the Arabic-English Lexicon. This eight-volume authoritative series not only took thirty years to compile, but is said to far surpass every lexicon ever produced in any language. Concerning the word “Allah”, Lane says that according to the most correct opinions of Arab grammarians, which are more than thirty in number, Allah “is a proper name”. Also, Abdul Mannan Omar, the editor of the Encyclopedia of Islam, and translator of the Qur’an into English, says directly that Allah “is not a common noun” and, like Lane, declares it to be a “proper name” (The Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an p.28, 29).

We immediately face a dilemma. The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that the eternal proper name of the one true deity is YHWH, while Islam and the Qur’an itself tells us that the eternal proper name of the one true deity is Allah. We must make a choice; it cannot be both. There is no room for fence-sitting here. The word “ilaah” is the universally accepted Arabic name for “a god”. That’s why it is called a common noun. However, our problem is not there, but rather in the decision of what proper name to use for the eternal deity. Remember, the Hebrew Scriptures clarify who this is: He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And the New Testament also reinforces the Old Testament revelation, that God still identifies Himself with these three men, by virtue of an eternal covenant. In fact, Jesus himself reminds the Samaritan woman that “Salvation is of the Jews” (John 4:22). How should we think about this? Could it be that when we talk about YHWH and Allah, we are actually talking about two different “gods”? One god who may identify himself with Abraham, but certainly not Isaac, and absolutely not Jacob (Israel); and the other who unquestionably identifies Himself as the God of all three. Their personal names with which they identify themselves are clearly different (note that YHWH is never even mentioned in the Qur’an); and it is likewise obvious that even their character and actions are different, so why do we insist that they must be the same?

Perhaps we are making more of this “Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” thing than we should? Perhaps God’s identifying Himself with all three of these men is not so important? But like it or not, this is what He calls Himself, and whether it’s in the Biblical Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Koine Greek of the New Testament, both clarifications makes sure that we do not mistake Him for the god of any other nation. It turns out that indeed this is a critical distinction, because in the Psalms, it tells us who the gods of all the other nations actually are:

For all the gods of the nations are (worthless) idols:
but the LORD (YHWH) made the heavens.

Psalm 96:5


It’s interesting that He contrasts His name, the proper noun YHWH, with the common noun “gods”. The God of Israel, in fact, utterly contrasts Himself with the gods of all other nations – all of them. YHWH stands apart from them all, including Allah, who never once identifies himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.

What to Do? Follow the Precedent!

What is the translator’s job when handling the Scriptures? It is to communicate as faithfully as possible, taking a word that is used in the source language, and utilizing its equivalent (if there is one) in the target language. It’s as simple as that. Or so it seems. First, let’s look at the situation with the Arabic Old Testament. Whenever the proper noun is utilized in the original text, we should mirror that in the target language. To do that is just being faithful. So whenever the word YHWH appears in the original Hebrew, we should translate with its equivalent. Remember, this is a name, a proper noun. In this case, since there is no equivalent, we had better keep it as is (note: the Jews never changed YHWH’s name to “Adonai”, meaning “Lord”. They simply substituted “Adonai” for it when reading aloud, initially out of not wanting to desecrate the sacred Name, but later out of tradition). Most English translations attempt to keep a sense of this unpronounceable name (called the Tetragrammaton) by translating YHWH as LORD (four letters, all being capitalized) throughout the Old Testament. We should never take liberties when dealing with the precious Scriptures.

Let’s take one diversion for a moment. The Septuagint is the Greek version of the Old Testament, translated from ancient Hebrew, somewhere around 280 BC. This is the version that most New Testament Jews were familiar with. The writers of the Septuagint faced a similar dilemma as other translators do now: how to translate words relating to God, both the common nouns and the unique proper noun. We believe they set a safe and acceptable precedent for the rest of us. The proper noun, YHWH, was translated as “Kurios”. This word means “lord” or “master”, and is the equivalent of the “substitute reading word” used by the Jews, i.e. “Adonai”. What about translating into Greek the common noun “God” (or “Elohim” in Hebrew)? How do we translate that? The Septuagint’s translators set another good precedent for the New Testament writers by using an equivalent common noun in the Greek, “theos”. The word “theos”, like its English counterpart “god”, can refer either to any supposed god, or it can also refer to the one true God. Remember that this is perfectly acceptable, because He is ultimately identified by name, rather than just by title. It is critically important to notice that neither the Septuagint’s translators nor the New Testament writers used a proper noun to translate a common noun. None of them ever translated the common noun “Elohim” by a proper noun (e.g. “Zeus”, “Baal”, etc.), but rather by the equivalent, generic common noun “theos”. The principle is this: that when referring to God, you may use the generic cultural word for “god”, but not the proper name of a specific god from that culture (e.g. Baal, Zeus, Allah, Thor, etc.) for “the Name” belongs to the Holy One of Israel alone.

So where does that leave us? We wish to follow this precedent as well. The word for “Lord” in Arabic is the common noun “rabb”. When referring to “the Lord” in New Testament passages, we can follow the New Testament’s precedent in using the common noun with the definite article, “al-rabb” (pronounced ar-rabb: the Lord). And this is precisely what has been already done by the translators of the Arabic New Testament. Let’s apply the same principle to the word for “God”. We want to translate the Greek generic common noun “theos” into Arabic (note: the word “theos” is never used as a proper noun, neither for a god nor for a human). So we can confidently use the equivalent Arabic generic common noun, “ilaah”. And just as the Septuagint’s translators did, and the New Testament writers also did, let’s attach the definite article to it, to refer to the one creator God. Therefore, just as “theos” may refer to any god, and “ho theos” (the god) refers to the one God of Israel, so we can use “ilaah” to refer to any god, and “al-ilaah” (the God) to refer to the one God of Israel.

What could be some consequences of using the common noun “al-ilaah” (the god) to refer to God? First, since the word “ilaah” is entirely Arabic, there is no introduction of some culturally confusing terminology. Every Arab knows this word can refer to a god. And when we add the definite article to it, it immediately narrows the field to a single god. But it will also cause Muslims to wonder why the Islamic term “Allah” is not used, while at the same time, help him to realize that “al-ilaah” is actually a perfectly acceptable Arabic word referring to God. This may indeed be an opportunity to share the fact that we worship different deities altogether. Certainly this is a radical idea for some, but just as certainly, there is a New Testament precedent for it. Paul, in Athens, told his listeners that he was about to tell them about “the God (ho theos) who made the world” (Acts 17:24). Remember, he did not use the actual name of a foreign god, and tell them that it was “Zeus who made the world”, even though it was Zeus whom Greek culture considered the creator and greatest god in the Greek Pantheon. In fact, he did not even bother mentioning Zeus (in case you were wondering, “theos” is not etymologically related to Zeus. The Indo-European root of “theos” is most probably *dhes-. The same root becomes fes- in Latin and so appears in words like ‘festival’). Likewise, Arabic-speaking people need to be told about “the God (al-ilaah) who made the world”, without even referring to Allah. Any Arabic speaker can immediately connect with “al-ilaah”. We just have to tell them the Good News of who this God is!

Finally, what about our precious Christian brothers and sisters who have been using the term “Allah” for years? Does this change leave them out, or make them less in our eyes? Absolutely not! There are many fine believers who use the name of Allah. This change is not meant to question or denigrate their genuine love for the true Savior, Jesus Christ. There is no hint of condemnation for them. This change is being made with an eye to the future. There are now many Muslims discovering Jesus, and we believe this will only accelerate in the monumental days to come. Following the Lamb of God and making a clean break with Islam will require a tremendous amount of painful sacrifice on the part of many believers. But there are some things worth suffering for.

“…and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them
they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus,
and let them go. So they departed from the presence of the council,
rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name

Acts 5:40-41

In summary, ArabBible uses the definite, common noun, “al-ilaah” to refer to God, rather than the Islamic proper noun, “Allah”. We believe this is based on good Biblical and linguistic precedents. Though this will certainly cause some shock waves…

“Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; His going forth is
sure as the dawn; He will come to us as the showers,
as the spring rains that water the earth.”

Hosea 6:3

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