Allah is Not a Personal Name
It is bad enough when the Malaysian government bans Christians from using the word Allah. It is worse when some misguided Christians (granted it is a small minority) agree that Muslims have sole proprietary rights to the word Allah, even though this capitulation amounts to surrendering their centuries old usage of the word Allah for worship and spiritual instructions.
Perhaps this capitulation results from a misunderstanding of Arabic grammar, that is, the view that Allah is a personal name. Allah, as such, refers solely to the individual Supreme Being whom Muslims (and no other believers) worship. Accepting this misunderstanding would give grounds to the Muslim’s (still contestable) demand that only they have the right to use the word Allah and its related terms.Such a capitulation must be vigorously resisted seeing how the Malaysian government unrelentingly prosecutes its ban against Christians using the word Allah. It is imperative that we analyze and correct this misunderstanding.
Fortunately, a recent comment responding to an earlier article, The Semantics of the Word Allah LINK provides a fitting opportunity for us to demonstrate why the view of Allah is a proper name is grammatically flawed. I have decided to post the discussion from the comments section the article on The Semantics of Allah LINK as a regular post since most readers are not likely to visit this comments section. The significance of the contested issue is simply too important to be missed:
To begin, a reader by the name of Kristian Sugiyarto posted the following comments:
Allah is a proper noun (proper name). It is never found to be plural, and no possessive suffix such as, my/your/their/his/… – Allah as to be the case in all proper nouns, istead of “my Ilah” etc. Thus it is never found to be construct form such as Allah of Abraham/Ishak/Yakub, but “Ilah” of Abraham/Ishak/Yacob.
If the word “Allah” comes from Al + Ilah, then we should be able to change that word in any sentence; in fact we never can do that. E.g. We can’t change the word (Arabic) “Allahuma” into “Al-Ilahuma”, or “Ya Allah” into “Ya Al-Ilah” but “ayuha Al-Ilah”. Thus the Theory Allah = Al-Ilah is certainly nonsense. Ilah in English is God (for the true one) or god (for the false one).
Here is our response:
Kristian Sugiyarto’s Understanding of Grammatical Rule is not Quite Right
Obviously Kristian S. says just the opposite of what the article says, but I stand by what I wrote based on my understanding of Arabic grammar.
Allah is not a personal name. It is a generic word and therefore follows the grammatical rules of other generic words in Arabic as whenever it becomes connected to some determinator (e.g., personal pronoun, “mudaf ilaihi” ) determinating a second noun like “the father’s house”. Where the second word, house, is determined by the first word it loses its article; you cannot say: “the house the father’s”, or “the father’s the house”. It is bait al-âb and not: “al-bait al-âb”.
Now consider the case of Allah = al-ilah: in: “Abraham’s God”, God (”the God”, “Allah = al-ilah” is determined by Abraham and therefore has to lose its article as well. This means Allah is used without the article, that is, ilah: ilah Abraham. As such, “Allah Abraham” is impossible, or grammatically incorrect. You will not find it in any Arabic translation of the Bible or elsewhere.
There is a plural form of ilah(god): âliha, “gods” or with the article: al-âliha. However, “al-ilah” is only contracted in the singular form.
The standard Arabic grammar book, A Grammar of the Arabic Language by W. Wright 3ed., revised by Robertson Smith and M.J. Goeje (Librairie Du Liban, 1974), vol.1 confirms our position.Arabic Proper Nouns_Article and Pronomical Suffixes Annotated
I can think of a similar rule in the Hebrew language which is a cognate/Semitic language with Arabic –
The word in the construct state never takes the article. When the compound idea is definite, it is (not the word in the construct but) the genitive (following it) which takes the article, thus we have:
´îš-´élöhîm 1Samuel 9:6 – A man of God.
´îš hä´élöhîm Deuteronomy 33:1 – The man of God. It’s not hä ´îš hä´élöhîm
More immediately related to the present dispute is the case of el/elohim. We find in the Hebrew Old Testament the following construct state,
´élöhê ´abrähäm and not ha ´élöhê ´abrähäm – Genesis 31:42, Exodus 3:6 and Psalm 47:9 – ´élöhê being masculine plural construct
Similarly we find,
yad hä´élöhîm 1Samuel 5:11 and 2 Chronicles 30:12 – The hand of God
In the simplest form of the noun, the feminine singular and masculine plural change their forms. However, the masculine singular and the feminine plural do not change externally (forms) but they are recognized as constructs by the maqqeph accompanying them.
Further discussions on the syntax of proper names can be found in GKC or Gezenius Hebrew Grammar edited and enlarged by E. Kautazch and A.E. Cowley (Clarendon Press, 1910, reprinted 1983), pp. 401-403.
It is to be taken as a fundamental rule, that the determination can only be effected in one of the ways here mentioned; the article cannot be prefixed to a proper name, nor to a noun followed by the genitive, nor can a proper name be used in the construct state. Deviations from this rule are either only apparent or have arisen from a corruption of the text…Real proper nouns, as being the names of things (or persons) only once met with, are sufficiently determinate in themselves. Such names, therefore, as יהוה, דָּוִד, יַֽעֲקֹב, כְּנַ֫עַן, סְדֹם do not admit of the article, nor can they be in the construct state. [The Hebrew names here are Yahweh, David, Jacob, Canaan, Sodom]
Of course, we cannot change the word Allah in any sentence as we like it. We have to follow the grammatical rules! In the case of Allahumma, there is no personal suffix added, but it is given an emphatic expression, and therefore Allah remains. The same goes with Yah ‘llah! God is called at, but this is not given a different grammatical position.
Maybe Mr. Kristianto should read the Arabic Bible. If he thinks that “ilah” in English is “god”, this is only partly correct. It is “a” god, without determining article “the”. If you mean “the” (true”) god and not any god, then in Arabic you must also use the article as determinator, again as long as ilah is not terminated by another word of suffix.
I shall give some further clarifications since the original context of the article dealt with the translation of the word Allah in the Malay/Malaysian/Indonesian language.
The translation of Allah with “Tuhan” or “Lord” is not correct. Tuhan, in Arabic, means rabb, in Hebrew adonay, in Greek kyrios, while Allah is (ha-)elohim or (ha-)eloah, or ho theos. God (Allah) and Rabb (Tuhan, Lord) are quite different words with their own semantics. And if someone wants to extend the problem and includes that of the proper name, then the proper name of God in the Old Testament is YHVH.
Now take the case when we call a human being whose name is Ali. We call him Ali and not manusia or adam which in Hebrew means “human being”, although he is of course manusia, or adam. God’s proper name in the Old Testament was read aloud from the Hebrew text for theological reasons – lest it be pronounced wrongly and as such would amount to an abuse of God’s name. The word YHVH was substituted by adonay for the oral reading of the Hebrew text. It bears repeating: YHVH was substituted in the text by reading (not: writing!) adonay while the words related to elohim etc. remained untouched as they were, in reading and in writing.
Since YHVH which was given the equivalent adonay in Hebrew was translated by the word kyrios in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), it was natural to use the word kyrios as the equivalent of YHVH in the New Testament.
The confusion/problem with the translation of the word Allah and its cognates in the present controversy arises simply because Malay is not Arabic. While for any Arab – and Arabic is their native language, be they Muslim, Christian, Jew or what else – Allah is clearly perceived as a generic word following the grammatical rules. But for non-Arabic speaking people these unfamiliar terms may lose their original meanings and become a kind of enigma. Hence they understand Allah and its cognates as something of a proper name. This is, linguistically speaking, a misunderstanding of the Arabic words.
The understanding of “Allah” as a proper name reminds us of the perception of the Europeans when they first became acquainted with Islam. Because of their inadequate knowledge of Arabic they considered Allah “to be the name of the idol worshiped by the Mohammedans”. Every Muslim would, of course, feel offended by such an expression.
Unfortunately, such a misunderstanding persists precisely because some people continue to those hold the view that”Allah” is a proper name.
When these misunderstandings become inculturated in the new culture (in this case Malay), there arises additional difficulties when one tries to point out the original meaning given the sensitivity associated with the use of the word in religious discourse. Nevertheless, we should not perpetuate such misunderstandings by avoiding sensitive religious disagreements. It is important that proper instruction pertaining to the linguistics/semantics of the words be given to clear up the misunderstanding.
It is significant that because Allah is only one, he needs no other name. Saying “the” God (Allah) makes it clear who is meant. If he would need a proper name to distinguish him from other gods (âliha) then he would not longer be perceived as the only true one. If Allah is considered to be a proper name, this would imply that there are other gods with comparable proper names.
Such would be the case among human beings: All are human, but all have their proper names because there are many. If there were only one human, it would suffice to call him just Adam (= human being). This one human then does not need a proper name.
[It should be instructive to note that in the Greek language – whether a noun is definite or indefinite is not merely settled by the presence or absence of the article. This is particularly true for monadic – one of a kind – nouns like theos (God). I will post a discussion on this interesting grammatical issue later]
It should be stressed that sensitivity about religion is not the sole prerogative for Muslims. Muslims should also take into account the religious sensitivity of other religionists. Imposing a linguistic taboo that bans the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims is an act that offends the sensitivity of non-Muslims. The ban is even more unacceptable given the fact that the use of Allah is a long established linguistic phenomenon in the history of these Arabic speaking communities – long before even Muslims appeared on the stage of history. One may liken the present Muslim act to make it a taboo to use the word Allah as a magic symbol since it attempts to nullify a concrete historical tradition and render it non-existent by a decree/mantra.