Monday, March 2, 2009

On the Christian Use of the Name "Allah"

One small facet of the discussions in the past year over deceptive or syncretistic approaches to Moslem evangelism has dealt with the use of the name "Allah" to refer not to the false god worshipped by Moslems but to the One True God who has revealed Himself in the Bible. Many have demonstrated that, in Arabic, no other good word exists by which to refer to God, and that Arabic Christians have long employed the name "Allah" to refer to the True God.

I have repeatedly stated that I have no problem with the employ of the name "Allah" in those contexts, so long as differentiation is clearly made to ensure that the hearer knows that we as Christians reject the false Islamic deity promoted by the false prophet Mohammed in the false scripture the Qur'an. We are sometimes led to believe that, of course, this is always done and that nobody anywhere would ever conceive of trying to blur the lines of distinction in order to bait-and-switch potential Moslem converts.

But, as I have given the matter more thought, I find that I have a question nagging me. I can see why, in an Arabic-speaking place like Saudi Arabia, missionaries might have few good choices other than to employ the Arabic name "Allah" when speaking of the Christian God. But a great deal of Moslem evangelization takes place in areas other than Arabic-speaking countries. In fact the book The Camel itself reminds us that not only is Arabic not the first language of many Moslems, but that an innumerable population of Moslems don't even speak Arabic at all.

So, in a non-Arabic-speaking population that has no linguistic limitation requiring the use of the Arabic name "Allah"—populations in which the word "Allah" is no less a loan-word from another language than the English word "God" would be—what good reason, other than trying to confuse Moslems and blur the distinctions between the Christian God and the Moslem god, would there be for bypassing the "heart-language" words available to describe God in favor of the foreign word "Allah"?

30 comments:

Bob Cleveland said...

Bart,

I don't think there's a generality that gets too far in this; when talking to a muslim, I'd suppose I'd be speaking for the spiritual profit of the listener, not my own. My guess is I'd use what terms for God would be most likely to lead to the listener's understanding of the one true God.

But I doubt I'll ever actually have to do that.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

I agree that we should use the heart-language word for the Creator. As you have said, the overwhelming majority of the Islamic world is not Arab. Therefore, there are viable alternatives... though I might temper that somewhat in saying that Islam has had quite an effect on many of these areas and, in some cases, the term "Allah" has taken on the meaning of the one true God, Creator of the heavens and earth.

I am not an advocate for rules in these situations, but for much prayer, Scripture searching, listening to locals understanding(s) of these different words and dependence upon the Spirit's leading with a focus on proclaiming Jesus in a way that is understandable to the hearer. As Brother Bob said above, let's use the word that most clearly communicates who God is.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Bart Barber said...

Certainly, I'm in no position to be setting "rules" myself, being in no position of authority whatsoever. But I do see a profound risk of confusion arising from the attempt to co-opt one religion's name for their god and use it as the name of the One True God.

I want to listen carefully when people say that they really have no other choices, for the language compels them to risk the confusion in order to communicate at all.

But given the profundity of the risk of confusion, and the high stakes involved in the risk, it seems to me that the missionary with a great many alternatives ought to accord some value to the choice of a word (out of many available alternatives) that presents a lessened risk of confusion.

If I felt that I had no choice but to employ a foreign word, I think that I might just go with Yahweh before I would employ Allah.

Todd Benkert said...

Bart,

Way to remove the clutter and get to the real issue -- good job there -- our past conversations ended up confusing the merits of the Camel method with the merits of contextualization itself. Contextualism is valuable if the goal is clarity and not confusion. The goal is for the gospel to be understood. All human barriers to the gospel should be removed, but not at the expense of the gospel itself.

Blessings,
Todd

John D said...

Bart -

I hear the struggle you have with this, and agree that we should use language that is most likely to lead people to understand the one true God.

But at the same time I have a hard time seeing the use of the term "Allah" in an Arabic context as an attempt to co opt the term and make it Christian.

To put this discussion into a context we are more likely to encounter, how would you tell a Mormon about God and Jesus? Would you avoid the english terms God and Jesus? Or would you use them from a biblical context?

Bart Barber said...

Todd,

It is hard for me to clear it all away and boil it all down. I'm a ponderer, not a quick thinker. Mentally, I'm very slow. I have to chew on it for a long time. I've been chewing on this one for a long time.

Bart Barber said...

John D,

In your proposed illustration, am I the Mormon? Because that's the equivalent here. What the Mormons are doing to orthodox Christian terminology, some Christians are attempting to do to Islamic concepts.

I do think that one of the great benefits of this conversation has been the reinforcement in my own heart of the need to strive for clarity in presenting the gospel in any context. Yes, sometimes it will be important to make careful explanation.

In choosing terminology, I should look for words that decrease, rather than increase, the risk of misunderstanding. The experts tell us that sometimes, in countries where the native tongue is Arabic, the word "Allah" is the name that poses the lowest risk of misunderstanding, because it is really the only option in the Arabic language.

So, when witnessing to Muslims who speak a language other than Arabic, that difficult situation is no longer in place. We now have the chance to choose other words, none of which will pose any risk of being misconstrued as referring to the false god promoted by the false prophet Mohammed in the false scripture of the Qur'an.

Jonathan said...

Bart,

It appears that some Islamic countries are addressing your question from the other side: How do we stop Christians from confusing us by using Allah?

Malaysia has just ruled that Christians can use "Allah" in publications, but must print "FOR CHRISTIANITY" in large type on the cover. http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2009/03/malaysia-will-permit-christian.html

Ron Phillips, Sr. said...

Bart,

I work for a large corporation that employs people from all parts of the world. Many have come to work here in the U.S. in our various locations. My office building is very diverse in nationality and religion. I do not believe that the Muslims that I have attempted to witness to, would understand the usage of "Allah" by me, as a reference to the LORD God of the Bible. Quite the contrary, they would think I was speaking about the god of the Qur’an. When I have spoken of God, I have always said "God", and they clearly understood I was speaking of the God of the Bible.

If I have the opportunity, I will ask the following:

1. If I were to be talking about my beliefs as a Christian but used the name "Allah" in reference to the Creator, would you think I was talking about the god of the Qur'an or the God of the Bible?

2. I will further inquire if they would have reached that conclusion before they came to the U.S.

Blessings,

Ron P.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

This is an interesting question to ponder... one I have been able to avoid by sticking with Arabic speakers. A few thoughts/questions come to mind in considering the options:

Using the term Yahweh might only confuse them into thinking we believe in the Jewish god, which, if we are consistent, would also be an idol or false god, it seems. Now I'm beginning to wonder exactly where we will find a word in any language that does not have some serious pagan baggage to go along with it! Further, would the new word be considered, by our Muslim friend, a god among gods if polytheism or paganism existed before the coming of Islam to his area. In this scenario, it seems we may have to chose the word of lesser "evil" so to speak! Hhmmm. Seems there is a lot to ponder when moving outside of my little world of Arabic!

Maybe this will encourage me to venture out among non-Arabic speaking Muslims from time to time and figure out where they are coming from!

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

You said:
In your proposed illustration, am I the Mormon? Because that's the equivalent here. What the Mormons are doing to orthodox Christian terminology, some Christians are attempting to do to Islamic concepts.

I must be missing something here. Is the Arabic language excluded in your assertion?

Peace to you my brother,
From the Middle East

Bill said...

This is anecdotal, but I suppose so is everyone's experience. I teach at a University. I can't say it comes up often, but the few times I've spoken with Muslims about spiritual matters, they have always, as far as I can remember, used the word "God."

I guess the bottom line should be: use the word you think is wisest in the situation.

Bart Barber said...

FTME,

The "some Christians" is a reference, for example, to those who might pursue a C5 approach, and is an analysis irrespective of the linguistic conditions prevailing in the country.

To help achieve clarity, allow me to elaborate.

Why might one choose to use the name "Allah" to refer to the Christian God? On the one hand, one might choose to use that name as a deliberate attempt toward "injection" of some Christian concepts into the Islamic faith, creating a syncretistic hybrid.

On the other hand, we hear that in an Arabic-only-speaking context one might choose to use the name "Allah" not as a part of any larger strategy to camouflage Christianity, but simply because one has no better alternative in the language. Thus, for example, even a C2 congregation might choose to employ the name "Allah" for such reasons.

Same outcome: ("Allah" employed). Two different strategies that got you there.

The first of those strategies—the syncretistic one—I'm saying is the equivalent of what the Mormons are doing, regardless of the languages spoken or not spoken in that people group.

Now, as to the use of the name "Yahweh," although you are correct in noting that one might possibly even misunderstand that term (is this the entity extolled by Benny Hinn? Jim Jones?), the word has one enormous positive factor going for it that commends it to us above all other choices—this is the name that our God has chosen for Himself. And since He, at least theoretically, is the drafter of missiological strategy, some measure of respect ought to be paid to His opinions.

Could I go back to the days of Boniface and before, I'd commend Yahweh as a good choice to put before the Germanic tribes, and we might have something other than "God" in English. And yet, even as it is, I'm happy to note that we have zero history of "Oden" or "Thor" being used to identify our Lord.

Bart Barber said...

Jonathan,

A brilliant catch, and one that will be the subject of a forthcoming post somewhere. And because there's more coming on this subject, I was hoping that this bit of news would not make it into our discussion.

I should never bet against the capabilities of my intelligent and well-read band of readers here!

Bart Barber said...

Ron P and Bill,

These are excellent first-hand observations that contribute greatly to our discussion!

Bart Barber said...

You know, one thing worthy of mention here is that The Camel, promoted by the IMB and endorsed by Jerry Rankin, was not developed in an Arabic-speaking context, but elsewhere.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

Your "intent" theory makes sense to me. Thanks for the clarification.

One note of interest is that it can be argued, effectively, that Islam was a syncretism of Christianity (at least what was present on the Arabian Peninsula), Judaism and assorted other concepts present in 7th century Arabia. A peculiar amalgamation of Jewish Law, monotheism, morality, etc was the result. Regardless, in Brother John D's illustration above, I would compare Muhammad to the Mormon as he is the one who borrowed the word "Allah" from Christians and Jews around him.

Rick Brown has an excellent article on the topic here if you have not already read it.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

Apologies for taking up so much of your comment stream here, but I forgot to mention that not all Muslims use the term Allah all the time. If I am not mistaken, Persian Muslims often use the terms Allah and Khuda interchangeabley... as Khuda is the Farsi word for the Supreme Creator.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

John D said...

FTME -

You made just the point I was thinking of. In their relation to Christianity, Islam and Mormonism are very similar. Christianity was present for many years before them, and when these two religions began they both co opted Christian terms and twisted them to their own designs. The only difference is that the Muslims did it 1500 years ago, so in our modern, western minds the term "Allah" seems Muslim, when it is really a highjacked Christian term.

Myself, I'm just not willing to conceed the term Allah to the Muslims any more than I'm willing to conceed the terms God and Jesus to the Mormons.

Bart Barber said...

FTME,

Thanks for reminding us all of the syncretistic origins of Islam. I'm not sure how that is precisely relevant. It is quite possible, both in biology and in theology, to have a hybrid of a hybrid that is still not in possession of the same genetic code as the original.


John D,

But I'm not talking about conceding the use of the word "Allah" in those places that were employing "Allah" pre-Islam. I've specifically and directly said quite the opposite. I'm just wondering why we would use the word "Allah" in a place where it has no history of usage to refer to the Christian God—where it has exclusively come into the culture along with Islam?

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

The relevance of the syncretistic origins of Islam was stated above as:
I would compare Muhammad to the Mormon as he is the one who borrowed the word "Allah" from Christians and Jews around him.

Apologies for my poor use of English in communicating that. However, you have answered that you are in support of using the term "Allah" to Arabic-speaking peoples and further clarified this in your comment to Brother John D so, ultimately, it is irrelevant!

The only major concern I have with this post and the comments, upon further refection, is to encourage those working among the vast majority of Muslims who do not speak Arabic to not simply refuse the term "Allah" for the first available word in the local language. Rather, an understanding of the implications of all the words needs to be present before deciding one way or the other. No word, in any language, has the full biblical meaning and ultimately, any word used will need to be explained through biblical stories so that the nature and character of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures, is proclaimed. But we need to be careful that we understand how what we say is understood by those hearing us. Upon that we agree!!

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Troy Skora said...

Bart, you asked what good reason there would be among non-Arabs to bypass heart-language words and use the foreign word "Allah." Your question is problematic because, for many non-Arabs, "Allah" is not foreign. After several centuries it has actually become part of the heart-language. So what's the good reason to use "Allah"? It's the clearest term, and the term with the least baggage.

All available terms have baggage that would hinder clarity for non-Arab Muslims:
--Other heart-language words are associated with animistic deities.
--Western words are associate with a non-indigenous god who endorses homosexuality and all forms of fornication.
--"Allah" is associated with a god whose greatest prophet is Muhammad.

All terms require clarification, but "Allah" is often the easiest term to clarify. Even among non-Arabs, "Allah" is often THE heart-language word for the supreme Creator God. Tell a non-Arab Muslim a few Bible stories using the word "Allah," and he'll see the contrast with the "Allah" of the Qu'ran.

Bart Barber said...

Troy,

Certainly, "Allah" is not foreign to their religion (which we want them to forsake), but if they do not speak Arabic, then they are no longer in a cultural situation in which "Allah" is the only good choice. And that changes the algebra of the equation a great deal from the argument that we sometimes hear ("Using 'Allah' is the only choice we have!"). Furthermore, I don't see how any of your objections would foil the use of the word "Yahweh" (no more a loan-word to them than "Allah" would be).

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

You said to Brother Troy:
if they do not speak Arabic, then they are no longer in a cultural situation in which "Allah" is the only good choice

Maybe. Maybe not. We should remain open to both camps to see which word has the closest relationship to the Creator as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

You also said:
I don't see how any of your objections would foil the use of the word "Yahweh" (no more a loan-word to them than "Allah" would be)

While Yahweh may be a loan-word as well, it also comes with no less baggage than Allah or the name of some pagan deity of old. If you have not read A Parable, it might be helpful as you process through how to approach a new people who have options for the name of God.

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

Troy Skora said...

Bart, "Allah" may be a loan-word for non-Arabic speakers, but sometimes those people don't see it as a loan-word at all. For many generations it has been the only word in their language for the Creator God. So, due to acculturation, "Allah" is the only good choice in their cultural situation. "Yawheh" is a loan-word with baggage; "Allah" is, from their perspective, an indigenous word with less baggage.

Of course, the bottom line is that we EXPLAIN to the people the meaning of whatever term we use.

Bart Barber said...

FTME,

Our previous differences over whether Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same god cannot be ignored in this context. That difference makes your parable less than helpful here. I was tempted to retort in kind at the time, but in a rare demonstration of restraint and sensible self-control on my part, I did not (nor will I now).

But for you and Troy I concede that, if you believe the Moslem god and the Christian God to be the same entity, then there is dramatically less tension here. In such a case "Allah" certainly does have much less baggage than "Yahweh" or anything else.

if, on the other hand, you believe that the common meaning of "Allah" is a false god, then it has an enormous amount of baggage with it. And "Yahweh" is never understood polytheistically, and always in the Bible refers to the One True Creator God, and happens to be the name that our God has chosen for Himself. It seems to have every one of the benefits of the name "Allah" that FTME has elsewhere extolled (monotheistic creator) plus the benefit of having been the name that God has chosen for Himself, but without any of the negative baggage associated with "Allah" (the prospects have never worshipped any false god named "Yahweh"; therefore, their use of "Yahweh" poses virtually zero risk of leading to syncretism)

Troy Skora said...

Bart,

1. If you can allow room for Christians in Saudi Arabia to use "Allah," you should allow room for Christians in parts of Southeast Asia too. These people don't speak Arabic but view the term "Allah" in the same way as Arabs, for all practical purposes. "Allah" is completely ingrained in their language. And they can understand as well as Arabs that there's a distinction between Allah as revealed in the Qu'ran and Allah as revealed in the Bible.

2. Using "Yahweh" in Southeast Asia is unhelpful just like using Bill Gaither-style music. Neither foreign language terms nor foreign musical styles pose any risk of syncretism. But the negative baggage of the term "Yahweh" lies in its own foreignness. "Yahweh" does refer to the One Creator God -- but this is not beneficial in Southeast Asia because the term is completely foreign and no one knows what it means till you tell them. "Allah" on the other hand is already commonly associated with the One Creator God. Missionaries can teach Muslims who Allah truly is according to the Bible, without syncretism or deception.

3. I'm not sure what to think about your point that the Lord chose the name YHWH for himself. Paul seemed more concerned about communicating the Lord's nature than about communicating the Lord's personal name YHWH. Acts 17, etc.

From the Middle East said...

Brother Bart,

While I had hoped that my status as a proclaimer of a false gospel would not cause my thoughts to have less weight in this discussion, I do understand how our previous conversations factor into this one.

Nevertheless, in addition to Brother Troy's thoughts above, I would to add a couple of thoughts.

First, I do not think there is a one-size fits all in these varying situations. This being the case, I would encourage you to, while working in areas where Muslims speak languages other than Arabic, listen carefully to those who do have language and cultural understanding (possibly missionaries who live there, possibly Muslim-background believers).

Second, next time you are in Afghanistan or the northern part of Pakistan, please let me know what the local perception of the term "Yahweh" is. I am quite curious ;^)

Finally, the question, it seems to me, is not what a word in another language means in the Holy Scriptures - we are all clear that this must be taught as they do not have an adequate understanding at this point. Rather, the question is what does the word mean TO THE HEARERS and what is the best way to go about explaining who God is, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures TO THE HEARERS. The word "Yahweh" does not have a monotheistic, creator connotation in most languages in the world, because it ain't a word in most languages. The biblical model is to start with what is understood and build upon that when proclaiming the Good News. Which leads this comment back to my first thought above... we should listen to our brothers and sisters who speak the language and have insight into the culture. If none are present, we should ask questions and listen, listen, listen to what Muslims have to say before opening our mouths!

Peace to you brother,
From the Middle East

beth said...

"Troy,

Certainly, "Allah" is not foreign to their religion (which we want them to forsake), but if they do not speak Arabic, then they are no longer in a cultural situation in which "Allah" is the only good choice. And that changes the algebra of the equation a great deal from the argument that we sometimes hear ("Using 'Allah' is the only choice we have!"). Furthermore, I don't see how any of your objections would foil the use of the word "Yahweh" (no more a loan-word to them than "Allah" would be)."

But, Muslims learn prayers and recitations in Arabic, not in their heart language. Arabic is considered the true language of Islam. That's why one goes into a mosque in Indonesia or Bangladesh or India and hears prayers in Arabic or hears the call to prayer in Arabic, not in the local language.

Cassandra said...

First, I'd like to thank everyone for this interesting discussion, and for Mr. Barber, and his wonderful blog.

Second, I'm living in a culture where, in order to share my faith, I need to choose which term for "God" I want to use. I won't share that process with everyone here, but just know that it's been a long process, and the Father is still teaching me more about it each day.

Third, something that has not yet been discussed is the use of "God" in our culture (America) when we talk with unbelievers. I was raised in an unbelieving household, and when I first began attending church at age 12, everyone used "God." Coming from darkness, my concept of "God" was one where God created the world and in the end, would grant good people to get to heaven. It was not the God of the Bible, but that was my perception.

However, as my friends/pastor continued to talk about this God, my ideas began to change. I realized that he was Jesus Christ incarnate, who had to die in order for my sins to be pardoned and so I could be counted righteous before God. After months of repeatedly hearing these truths, I repented and trusted Christ.

My point is this: if they wanted to clarify the God of the Bible vs. the God of America, they should have used a different name. But, because they were faithful in always linking the God I had in my head with Jesus and the Holy Book, I was able to hear the truth and the Father saved me.

Similarly, if we feel the need to use "Allah," we need to make sure we always clarify who the true Allah is, and explain that he is not the one distorted by Muhammad.

But that's just the way I see things.

Thanks again for helping us work through these issues. :)