AL-ILAH = “the god;” ALLAH = ‘God ‘
“AL” is the Arabic definite article (“the”).
ILAH is the Arabic generic term for “deity” or “god” (with a small G). The feminine form is ILAHA, and the plural is ALIHA. The adjectival form is ILAHIYY (“divine”).
What does it mean? That is precisely what it means: god, or deity. It refers to nothing else, just as the English word “god” means nothing else, except by way of figurative use.
Where does it come from? Nobody knows with certainty, but the words for “god” or “deity” in all Semitic languages, extinct and extant, are all similar in that they consist of an initial glottal stop (represented by A, E, or I, when written in Latin letters), followed by the L sound, sometimes followed by the sound AH (or OH), variously pronounced. Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew cognates seem to derive from an ancient root, possibly pronounced EL, and thought to signify power.
ALLAH is the Arabic term that refers to the Jewish-Christian-Muslim notion of God (with a capital G). The word is used in the Arabic versions of the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Qur’an.
The Old Testament uses a variety of terms that reflect the evolution of Hebraic theology from polytheism to simple monotheism to more sophisticated monotheism. The different appellations also reflect the different attitudes exhibited at different times regarding the explicit uttering of the Hebrew Divine name, some times represented by the tetragram (or tetragrammaton), and at others by ADONAI (“Lord”). The Arabic Old Testaments, use the word ALLAH wherever the Hebrew version uses Eloh or Elohim, provided the reference is clearly to the God of the Bible. For instance, Genisis 1:1 states
في البدء خلق الله السموات والأرض
Likewise, in the New Testament, John 1:1 reads:
في البدء كان الكلمة والكلمة كان عند الله وكان الكلمة الله
The Qur’an is consistent with the same tradition, as in the BASMALA:
بسـم الله الرحـمن الرحيم
It is surmised by some that AL-RAHMAN was the southern Arabian name for God the Father, and that the BASMALA represented Islam’s recognition of the Father as the unique God, exclusive of the Son the Holy Ghost.
It is important to note that although ALLAH is used in reference to a unique being (and as such may be called a “name” or a “proper noun”), it is not a name in the sense that Dick and Harry are names. Dick and Harry distinguish their referents from similar members of the same species, whereas the referent that ALLAH signifies, in a sense, needs no such distinguishing name, since that being is not a member of a species. In a loosely analogous way, one can give a distinguishing name to a planet, like Venus, since there are so many planets, but not to the sky, since there is only one. In this sense, “The Sky” may be thought of as a name, but not in the same sense as Venus is a name.
Arab etymologists have often sought to explain ALLAH as a contraction of AL-ILAH (“the deity”). This is an attractive theory, but by no means certain or well substantiated.
From the very beginning of the Prophet Muhammad’s mission, he consistently used the Arabic word ALLAH, used by his Jewish and Christian contemporaries, in reference to the one true deity. His preaching and the scriptures that he mediated clearly identified this deity as the God of Abraham, worshiped by Jews and Christians. It is true that the Islamic conception of God vastly differs from the Christian conception (not so much from the Jewish conception), but that difference never impelled Muhammad to use a different name. Semiotically, this is understandable. We often have different conceptions of the same notion, but we continue using the same appellation. Those who thought the earth was flat still called it “the earth.”
Prior to modern European colonialism, Muslims have had no experience in talking or writing about Islam in European languages. European Orientalists, especially the British and French, sought to define Islam to their European readers as something different from, opposite to, and ultimately inferior to the Western culture as a whole, whatever “Western culture” meant. One of the means used to accomplish this end was verbal engineering, a process involving redefinition of terms, renaming of common notions, and the use of untranslated non-European terms (mostly Arabic) to drive home the notion that the “East,” as the realm of non-Europeans was insultingly called, could not be represented in “Western” vocabulary, because the two entities were mutually exclusive, despite appearances to the contrary. Islam was to be thought of as so entirely outlandish that a simple English word like “God” failed to represent anything Islamic (without actually saying that in so many words). Talking about Islam had to involve “foreign” sounding words to give the discourse a dreamy, exotic flavor, in support of the notion that the East was inscrutably mysterious. Today’s mass media use a similar technique to give their reports an aura of authenticity and high learning.
Muslims, especially in the Indian subcontinent, borrowed the style of writing about Islam in English from English Orientalists. They particularly bought the notion that when writing about Islam in English, one should use the term ALLAH. This practice spread throughout the Muslim world, and continues to be followed today by many Muslims, giving rise to the bizarre idea that ALLAH is the “name” of the Muslim deity.
As should be amply clear, ALLAH is Arabic, just as “God” is English, and “Gott” is German. ALLAH is no more Muslim than “God” is Christian or Jewish. Yet, many contemporary Muslims use the word ALLAH the same way some Christians speak of love: they think it is theirs alone.
For further online reading on the subject, try these links:
Works in field
Native speaker of: Arabic, English
PRO pts in category: 199