Refutation of Muslim Scholars’ Arguments in the Allah Controversy. Part 1/3

Refutation of Muslim Scholars’ Arguments in the Allah Controversy.

Part 1/3 (Part One of Three Parts)

The Court of Appeal may appear tardy in taking up its review of the High Court decision that ruled in favour of the Catholic Herald (and Christians) concerning the right to use the word Allah. However, the government has been actively mobilizing its scholars to disseminate arguments to buttress its position of banning Christians from using the word Allah. Presumably, their arguments will influence judges to favor the government in future hearings in the Courts .
I shall focus only on the more significant Muslim scholars whose articles have been frequently posted in the Muslim blogs:

1) Dr. Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, Director General of Institute of Islamic Understanding (IKIM) and Dr. Mohd Sani b. Badron (Director, Centre for Economics and Social Studies (IKIM), “Heresy Arises from Words Wrongly Used” LINK

I shall also make reference to another article by Dr. Mohd Sani b. Badron, “Nama Khas “Allah”: Persoalan dan Penyelesaian ” published at IKIM Website LINK

2) Prof Madya Dr. Khadijah Mohd Hambali, Jabatan Akidah dan Pemikiran Islam, Akademi Pengajian Islam, University Malaya, “Perbezaan Penggunaan Kalima Allah Dalam Agama Islam Dan Agama Kristian.” LINK

3) Mohd Aizam bin Mas’od  (Department of Islamic Development, JAKIM), “Hujan Menolak Penggunaan Kalimah ‘Allah’ Oleh Kristian.”LINK

I begin by responding to the article that gives the most scholarly appearance (please see the text given at the end of this post).

Response to Dr. Tawfik al-Attas and Mohd Sani’s article:
Despite its scholarly appearance, the article does not contain much research. Of course, one reads  citations of medieval authorities like Peter Lombard, Jerome, Hilary of Poitiers, Augustine and John Damascene (St. John of Damascus). But the citations evidently do not arise from a firsthand familiarity with these medieval scholars. The writers merely paraphrase the words of Aquinas found in the Summa Theologiae ST Book 1, Question 13 and 31.

Their suggestion that we need to use words carefully is taken from Aquinas who in the context warns readers to beware of two opposite errors, that is, Arianism and Sabellianism.

Aquinas writes, “Thus, to avoid the error of Arius we must shun the use of the terms diversity and difference in God, lest we take away the unity of essence: we may, however, use the term “distinction” on account of the relative opposition.”He adds, “To avoid the heresy of Sabellius, we must shun the term “singularity,” lest we take away the communicability of the divine essence (ST Book 1.31.2).”

But Dr. Tawfik  Al-Attas and Dr. Mohd Sani themselves fail to maintain the balance. It is rather the case of misusing Aquinas when they cite his advice to Christians not to use the word ‘singular’. Indeed, they misuse of Aquinas to frame an unrelated argument which I have reconstructed to help the reader make sense of what is otherwise a very jumbled-up article.

1) Allâh refers to a singular God
2) St. Hilary of Poitiers and Aquinas advised Christians to avoid the term ‘singular’ God that takes away the notion of number of Divine Persons (triune God)
3) Christians are using Allâh for the triune God
4) Christians contradict Aquinas the foremost Western theologian of the Church
5) Christians are presumed to be in error in using Allâh when they contradict their foremost theologian.

Tawfik and Mohd Sani resort to equivocation and jumbling of Aquinas words to suit their argument.

A careful reading of the context shows that when Aquinas says we do not use the word ‘only’ (Latin unici), he is saying we cannot just reduce God to singularity or we do not use the word ‘singularity’ for a triune God, as there must be a delicate balance of unity and trinity when we refer to God. Aquinas precisely specifies the balance: “We do not say the only God….The term solitary is also to be avoided, lest we take away the society of the three persons.” The reason is that because in God distinction is by the Persons and not by essence.”

I give the full quotation of Aquinas so that the reader can follow accurately his careful analysis that maintains the fine balance between unity and trinity:

“To avoid the heresy of Sabellius, we must shun the term “singularity,” lest we take away the communicability of the divine essence. Hence Hilary says (De Trin. vii): “It is sacrilege to assert that the Father and the Son are separate in Godhead.” We must avoid the adjective “only” [unici] lest we take away the number of persons. Hence Hilary says in the same book: “We exclude from God the idea of singularity or uniqueness.” Nevertheless, we say “the only Son,” for in God there is no plurality of Sons. Yet, we do not say “the only God,” for the Deity is common to several. We avoid the word “confused,” lest we take away from the Persons the order of their nature. Hence, Ambrose says (De Fide i): “What is one is not confused; and there is no multiplicity where there is no difference.” The word “solitary” is also to be avoided, lest we take away the society of the three persons; for, as Hilary says (De Trin. iv), “We confess neither a solitary nor a diverse God (ST Book 1.31.2).”

Tawfik and Mohd Sani both read Aquinas carelessly when they rely on partial quotations of Aquinas that violate his precise balance. It is an illegitimate attempt to co-op Aquinas for their argument (1) – (5). Aquinas is talking about maintaining balance between unity and trinity; he is not in anyway disqualifying Christians from referring to the one God .

The second part of argument by Tawfik and Mohd Sani I reconstruct as follows:

1) God is an appellative noun
2) Appellative nouns are common nouns
3) Allâh is a proper noun/personal name
4) Therefore God cannot be substituted with the word Allâh [Proper nouns have specific reference but common nouns have general reference (2) and (3) cannot go together]
5) Christians cannot call their God Allâh

Tawfik and Mohd Sani commit another error in misreading and misusing Aquinas. Obviously they fail to follow through the structure and logic of Aquinas’ writing. They cite St John of Dasmacus /Damascene to suggest the root word of God (Latin theo) merely describes divine action or activities. Citing Aquinas’ use of St. John of Damascus would certainly impressed Christians who look to the early theologians as authority in theology. Unfortunately, they simply got Aquinas upside down. They simply fail to do justice to the immediate context.

Here is how Tawfik and Mohd Sani again misuse Aquinas. They begin with a skewed quotation of St. John of Damascus:
Now, according to St John of Damascus, the term God in Greek as well as in Latin (theo) is a derivative, from either of these three root-words. It is either from a particular word which means “to cherish all things”, or from another word which means “to burn” (for the Christian God is “a consuming fire”, according to St John), or from another word which means “to consider all things”.
Marshalling his argument on that premise, Aquinas concluded that the name God in this context is not a proper noun. On the contrary, it is an appellative noun, or a title, for it signifies the divine nature in the possessor, either in the sense that He is the “Cherisher”, the “Taker of account of everything”, or the “Comprehender of everything”, and so on.”

Tawfik and Mohd Sani are right when they cite Aquinas as saying the name God in this context is not a proper name and it is an appellative noun. But their appeal to St. John of Damascus is simply irrelevant (which I assume is cited only to give an impression of scholarship). Aquinas is not using St John of Damascus to support his theological position.
The structure of discussion in the Summa goes as follows. First, Aquinas cites a) a series of objections from earlier scholars, usually including quotations from them; he then follows with (b) a short rebuttal and then (c) proceeds to give a point by point refutation of the earlier list of objections.

The alert reader would notice that Aquinas is citing St. John of Damascus in the section comprising (a) a series of objections; he then follows with (b) a short rebuttal.

How strange it is when Tawfik and Mohd Sani relies on part (a) to enlist Aquinas to their side when in fact Aquinas cites part (a) in order to refute it. Aquinas was in fact setting up St John of Damascus for a rebuttal (that is the normal structure of Aquinas’ argument/presentation).
First Aquinas gives the objection by St. John Damascus:
Objection 1: It seems that this name, “God,” is not a name of the nature. For Damascene says (De Fide Orth. 1) that “God {Theos} is so called from the {theein} [which means to care of] and to cherish all things; or from the {aithein}, that is to burn, for our God is a fire consuming all malice; or from {theasthai}, which means to consider all things.” But all these names belong to operation. Therefore this name “God” signifies His operation and not His nature.

Aquinas proceeds the rebuttal as follows:
On the contrary, Ambrose says (De Fide i) that “God” is a name of the nature.

I answer that, Whence a name is imposed, and what the name signifies are not always the same thing. For as we know substance from its properties and operations, so we name substance sometimes for its operation, or its property; e.g. we name the substance of a stone from its act, as for instance that it hurts the foot [loedit pedem]; but still this name is not meant to signify the particular action, but the stone’s substance. The things, on the other hand, known to us in themselves, such as heat, cold, whiteness and the like, are not named from other things. Hence as regards such things the meaning of the name and its source are the same (ST Book 1.8.8).

The moral of my analysis of Tawfik and Mohd Sani is – do not be mislead by appearance of scholarship. Check the original sources. Special care is needed when we engage such a sophisticated mind like Thomas Aquinas to ensure accuracy when presenting his definitions, analysis and arguments. Obvious, checking the original sources shows that Tawfik and Mohd Sani grievously misinterpret, mishandle and misuse Aquinas.

How could Tawfik and Mohd Sani who have good academic credentials get Aquinas so wrong? Perhaps they thought they could simply hijack Aquinas for their ideological purpose, that is, to give a superficial intellectual gloss over the ridiculous government action to ban Christians from using the word Allah. Unfortunately, the evident errors decisively undermine their spurious argument against Christians using the word Allâh.

My immediate purpose in part 1/3 is to focus on how Tawfik and Mohd Sani misuse Aquinas.

The second part of their article is premised on the debatable claim that Allah is a proper noun. I shall give conclusive evidence and a strong demonstration in the part 2/3 for the case that Allah is not a proper noun, much less a personal name. That being the case, Tawfik and Mohd Sani are wrong when they assume that when God is used an appellative noun, it cannot have a specific reference. The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines an appellative as follows, “a common noun, such as ‘doctor’, ‘mother’ or ‘sir’, used as a vocative.”

That is to say, even though the word God is not a proper noun, it can have an appellative function that goes beyond general description and provides a direct reference. Indeed, the word Allâh may be used in an appellative sense.

Both Mohd Sani Badron and Khadijah (whose article will be dealt with later) are confused when they appeal to a subjective meaning (connotation) to override the primary meaning of Allâh as a common noun. At best they may claim that Allâh can subjectively connote a specific reference, but objectively the word denotes just a supreme God without any exclusive reference or exclusive description.

More to come in Part 2

Full text of article by Datuk Dr. Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas/ Dr. Mohd Sani b. Badron

Heresy Arises From Words Wrongly Used
Datuk Dr. Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas/ Dr. Mohd Sani b. Badron
Mantan Ketua Pengarah/ Fellow Kanan
Published at IKIM Website on the 20th February 2008 LINK

It was reported that Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences recorded the following concern of Jerome, on “heresy arises from words wrongly used”.
Those remarks by St Jerome of Stridonium (d. 420), who was regarded as the most learned of the Latin Fathers, clearly reflected how paramount the importance of language was for him, particularly in relation to theological matters.
The fact is, that there is a profound connection between language and reason, as words and terms connote what is conceptualized or understood by the mind.
To quote Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’s latest work Tinjauan Ringkas Peri Ilmu dan Pandangan Alam (Penang: USM, 2007), “bahasa merupakan alat akal fikri yang sekaligus juga mempengaruhi pemikiran si penggunanya.” That is to say, “language is the instrument of reason which influences the reasoning of its users.” For one may well ask, what is the purpose of language if not to make true meanings of words become intelligible to the mind? And as such, what is the fundamental purpose of language if not to project the worldview of its users in a faithful manner?
Because using language correctly is a cognitive action, it is imperative for its users to be meticulous in its “correct usage” as well as in the pursuit of its “authentic meaning”.
As far as fundamental religious matters are concerned, to use language incorrectly introduces confusion to the minds of its users. Words wrongly used will inevitably impinge upon semantic change in theological concepts and the way one views reality and truth. Hence the pressing need to exercise constant vigilance in detecting erroneous linguistic usage.
In the Christian context, it is in order to avoid such heresy arising from the erroneous use of words and terms that St Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) said this in his Summa Theologica: “when we speak of the Trinity we must proceed with care”. As if anticipating detractors who would argue that the quest for right words in divine matters is “toilsome”, Aquinas insisted that it was well worth the effort. St Augustine (d. 430), who was arguably the most important Christian thinker after St Paul, said that in comparison to the wrong usage of words in theology, “nowhere is error more harmful”.
Following another eminent doctor of the Western Church, St Hilary of Poitiers (d. c. 367), Aquinas advised Christians to shun the term the “singular” God, as that would exclude their notion of God whose essence is common to the three distinct Hypostases.
Likewise, Aquinas advised Christians to avoid the term the “only” God, as the adjective “only” (Latin unici) would take away their notion of the number of Divine Persons. In Aquinas’s words, “We do not say ‘the only God,’ for Deity is common to many”; referring to their belief that Deity is common to the three co-eternal Persons: the Father, the only-begotten Son, the Holy Ghost.
Naturally, I find that there are many contradictions between what was advised by Aquinas, who was the foremost Western theologian of the Church, with the concerns of a few Malaysian Christian leaders recently highlighted in our media.
While Aquinas advised his co-religionists to exclude from God the idea of “singularity” or “uniqueness”, a few Christians in Malaysia (or in any country for that matter) insist on translating their notion of triune God using the term Allah.
But there is a fundamental issue they have to address first without confusing themselves and creating linguistic anarchy, because among the firmly integral purports of the term Allah are al-Ahad (the Absolute One), al-Wahid (the Absolute Unique) and al-Witr (the Absolute Singular, the Sole, the Unequalled) Who has no son, nor father, nor partner, nor likeness. These purports have been mentioned by way of describing who Allah is in the Qur’an as well as in its interpretation by the authentic traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, who is, for that matter, considered by experts as the most eloquent of the Arabs.
In order for us to see how those two worldviews are contrasted to each other, and hence to be careful in our translation, it is sufficient to compare the abovementioned statement on God by Aquinas with the following.
Commenting on the meaning of al-Wahid al-Ahad, Muhyiddin Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240) had simply this to say in his Futuhat Makkiyyah: “Allah is the Unique, the Absolute One with respect to His godhead, there is no God (Ilah) except He.”
As far as the authentic meaning and correct usage of the term Allah throughout the ages are concerned, the Tahdhib of al-Azhari (d. 980) and the Lisan al-‘Arab of Ibn Manzur (d. 1311) have documented that, excepting Allah, there is no being to whom the purports of al-Wahid and al-Ahad are applicable together, or to whom al-Ahad is applicable alone. “Verily, I,-I alone-am Allah: there is no God (Ilah) but I: therefore worship Me” (the Qur’an, Ta Ha, 20: 14).
That is why the term Allah is a proper name which is never shared by others throughout the history of language. The term Allah is not “communicable both in reality and in opinion”, if we want to use Aquinas’s technical terminology.
On the contrary, such terms as Ilah (God in Arabic), Tuhan (God in Malay) or God (in English) are communicable, and have indeed been used to others. Earlier, we have noted Aquinas’s assertion that the term God is common to the three Persons of Trinity; now we will study another crucial passage in his Summa Theologica which explains the statement by an Arab Christian Yahya ibn Mansur al-Dimashqi (d. 749), who was an eastern theological doctor of the Greek and Latin Churches.
Now, according to St John of Damascus, the term God in Greek as well as in Latin (theo) is a derivative, from either of these three root-words. It is either from a particular word which means “to cherish all things”, or from another word which means “to burn” (for the Christian God is “a consuming fire”, according to St John), or from another word which means “to consider all things”.
Marshalling his argument on that premise, Aquinas concluded that the name God in this context is not a proper noun. On the contrary, it is an appellative noun, or a title, for it signifies the divine nature in the possessor, either in the sense that He is the “Cherisher”, the “Taker of account of everything”, or the “Comprehender of everything”, and so on.
Aquinas also corroborated his significant conclusion by the fact that the term God has a plural (Gods), as in the Biblical text “God presides in the heavenly council; in the assembly of the Gods he gives his decision…I have said, You are Gods” (Psalms 82.1,6).
Here, the argument on the right to translate a common noun God using the proper noun Allah crumbles; it is only correct to translate God using Tuhan. As far as the proper name Allah is concerned, it has absolutely no plural, reflecting the notion of the One and Only God whose Essence absolutely excludes the purport of consisting of three distinct co-eternal persons, whether in the imagination, in actuality, or in supposition. “Do not say: ‘Trinity’. Desist [from this assertion] it is better for you! Allah is but the Only God (Ilah Wahid); Glory be to Him-that He should have a son!” (the Qur’an, al-Nisa’, 4: 171).
Furthermore, the fact that it is a proper noun alone renders erroneous the critical assumption that the term Allah belongs to a national language and is an Arabic derivative. Indeed, for those who care enough to check the truth, such an absurd claim has long been debunked as inconsistent with the rules of the Arabic language itself by authorities like Ibn al-Barri, al-Layth and al-Khalil (in his Kitab al-‘Ayn).
Al-Zabidi, in his Taj al-‘Arus, remarked that “the most sound view on the name Allah is that it is a proper noun given by the Essence, the Necessary Being. The name Allah combines the attributes of Perfection altogether, it is a non-derivative word.”
Then, al-Zabidi (d. 1790) quotes the authority of Ibn al-‘Arabi, who stated that “the term Allah is a proper name denoting the real and true God (al-Ilah al-Haqq), a denotation that comprises all the Unique most beautiful Divine Names.”
Last but far from least on the “correct usage” and “authentic meaning” of the term Allah, al-Tahanawi (d. 1745), in his dictionary of technical terms relating to metaphysics, the Kashshaf Istilahat al-Funun, stated that “it is inspired to His servants that the name Allah is a proper name of the Essence….The verifiers (al-muhaqqiqun) hold that the name Allah is a non-derivative word; indeed, it is an extemporized proper name (ism murtajal) as it can be described but does not describe.”

5 thoughts on “Refutation of Muslim Scholars’ Arguments in the Allah Controversy. Part 1/3”

  1. While on a holiday in Indonesia, I asked my Tour Guide who was rather religious for stopping to pray while guiding. I asked him how the the name for God is used in Indonesia. He said muslims and christians use the word Allah for God, because they believe their Allah is the Creator of Man and animals, Heaven and Earth. The Bhudha and Hindhu do not believe in creation, so they call their gods Tuhan. Ithought that was brilliant coming from a Tour Guide. He should teach in Malaysia to the muslim scholars.

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