On October 14, 2013, a Malaysian court ordered Christians and other non muslims to quit using Allah when referring to God. For Christians this included its usage in church services, worship songs and even scripture. The court added that only Muslims would be allowed to use Allah.
Islam is the predominate religion in Malaysia making up 61% of the population. It is also the country’s official religion.
The court case involved a Catholic publication called The Herald that used Allah to reference God in its articles — a policy Muslims aggressively opposed. In 2009, The Herald was taken to court to force it to stop using Allah. The Herald won that court challenge. However, the case was appealed and recently overturned. The Herald says it will probably appeal.
Most western Christians are shocked believers would use Allah to describe our Biblical God. But the issue is not as simple as it appears on the surface.
Malay-speaking Christians have used Allah to describe God for centuries tracing the word’s introduction back to the arrival of Arab traders in the region during the 14th century. Christian influences arrived in Malaysia as early as the 7th century.
And they are not alone. Today, about 12 million Arabic Christians use Allah to reference God as do approximately 30 million Javanese and Sudanese Christians, among others. These Christians pray to Allah, worship Allah and consider Jesus the Son of Allah. Even Arabic Jews use Allah.
The word Allah in Arabic means “supreme being.” There is even a hint the word has Jewish roots. Scholars believe it is derived from the Hebrew aramaic word “elah” and the Hebrew word “eloah.” The latter is the singular of elohim, the word translated God in the Old Testament. Elohim is a generic Hebrew word for God and describes both Jehovah and ancient gods.
For over 19 centuries, Allah has been used by Arab Christians and Jews to describe God. By the time Mohammed started Islam in 600 AD, Christians and Jews in the Middle East had used Allah as their word for God for over five centuries.
But the aggressive use of Allah by Muslims in recent years has complicated matters. Though these Christians continue to use Allah, they recognize there is significant differences between the character of God portrayed in the Bible and the one in the Qur’an.
Because of the growing tie between Muslims and Allah, a handful of Arabic Christians no longer use Allah primarily due to concerns Muslims may perceive Jehovah to be the same as the Muslim Allah. But for the vast majority, Allah is still used.
Bible translation issues
Not surprisingly, Bible translators wrestle with many of the same issues when trying to determine what word to use for God when translating scripture into other languages. They try to find a word that is not connected to a specific idol or god — more of a generic term.
Translators point to the word “Theos” used 1,320 times in the New Testament as the word for God. In Greek mythology, Theos did not refer to a specific god, but rather a group of gods, headed up by Zeus. You can see the word being used in that sense in the Book of Acts by people in the city of Lystra:
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they raised their voice, saying in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have become like men and have come down to us.” And they began calling Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. (Acts 14: 11, 12 NASV)
Though “Theos” had this connotation, it did not prevent the New Testament writers from using the word to refer to Jehovah. In the same way, most Arabic Bibles use Allah when translating Ehohim and Theos.
It’s a matter of faith
The issue is matter of faith. Personally, because of the strong association I have between Allah and Islam, I would struggle to believe the word refers to Jehovah. But for Arabic Christians and others who have done this for centuries, they have no problem believing Allah refers to the God of the Bible. I say good on them..