Allah = God

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In my previous post I suggested that the God of ancient Israel -- known to Israelites as Yahweh -- lived for centuries in a polytheistic milieu and may well have had a goddess wife named Asherah.

This seeming departure from Jewish and Christian orthodoxy led one commenter (Selbo) to challenge me: "Hey, Robert Wright. Let's see how brave you are. Write a column asking similar questions about Islam."

As two astute commenters -- Juan_Der_Meant and Xclamation -- pointed out, in raising this question about the Jewish and Christian God, I was raising a question about the Islamic God. After all, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace their God to Abraham's revelation. As Xclamation put it, adherents of all three faiths "worship the same deity, regardless of whether He is called Yahweh, God or Allah."

In the Koran, Muhammad states very clearly that the God of Muslims is the God of Jews and Christians. The Koran recounts a number of Bible stories from both the Torah and the Gospels, and says nice things not just about Abraham but about Moses, Mary, and Jesus (though it depicts Jesus not as the divine son of God but as a great prophet).

I wouldn't expect Muslims to be shocked by the scenario I was positing for ancient Israel -- a situation where common belief held God to be one of many gods, and only over time did people give up belief in the non-God gods. After all, that seems to be what happened in Muhammad's time. If you read the Koran, you don't see Muhammad trying to convince other Arabs that Allah exists; they already seem to believe that. Rather, Muhammad is trying to convince them that all the gods other than Allah don't exist. Muhammad is doing what some Jewish thinkers seem to have done, with equal success, around the sixth century BCE.

My guess is that "Allah" was the word used for God by Arab Christians and Jews in Muhammad's time. Even today, Arab Christians refer to God as Allah, and I'm told that Allah is one of the names for God used by Arabic-speaking Jews as well (though I haven't confirmed that via a written source).

OK, you can stop reading right here -- unless you want to get deep into the weeds on the question of the continuity between the Jewish God, the Christian God, and the Islamic God. In my book The Evolution of God I argue (contrary to a more orthodox view, accepted by such writers as Karen Armstrong) that the Abrahamic God may have first come to Mecca from Syria, via contact with Syrian traders. (Muhammad himself is said to have made commercial trips to Syria with his uncle as a boy.) I wrote:

Of all the reasons to believe that the Arabian god Allah had always been the Judeo-Christian God, imported from Syria, the most powerful is phonetic. The word Syrian Christians used for God is, depending on context, either allaha or allah. How likely is it that Syrians and Arabs had come to believe in two different gods who happened to have essentially the same name and to both be creator gods? That would be hard to believe even if Arabia and Syria were separated by an ocean; that they were nearby trading partners makes it only harder.

To be sure, scholars who embrace the independent-evolution scenario have an explanation for the phonetic likeness of the Arabian god Allah and the Christian God of Syria. In Arabic, the generic word for god -- for any deity -- was ilah, and the phrase for "the god" was al-ilah. Through contraction, they say, this phrase could have been compressed to allah.30 If this is indeed what happened, then the resemblance between the Arabic allah and the Syriac allaha has an explanation that doesn't involve direct transmission from Syriac to Arabic. After all, Syriac and Arabic are, like ancient Hebrew, Semitic tongues. So if you could precisely trace the history of the Syriac word allaha back a millennium or so, and you could do the same with the Arabic word ilah, the two lineages might well converge somewhere in the trunk of the Semitic-language family tree. Specifically, they might converge in the vicinity of a word that is enough like ilah and allaha in sound and meaning to suggest close kinship with them: Elohim, Hebrew for God (and for god--lowercase -- as well). Thus the phonetic resemblance between the Syriac word for God and the Arabic word for god could be the legacy of a common, distant ancestor, rather than signifying that the former gave birth to the latter.

The problem with this scenario lies in the next step: the idea that the name Allah arose as a contraction of "the god" (al-ilah) to refer to a god who was pre-Islamic and non-Judeo-Christian -- in other words, a god that dwelt among polytheists. How likely is it that Arabs would have been referring to a particular god simply as "the god" before they had come to believe that he was in fact "the god" -- before they had accepted that there was such a thing as the one and only god? A more plausible sequence of linguistic evolution is the more straightforward one: the Arabic Allah is descended from the Syriac allaha, and allaha's lineage, in turn, leads back to close kinship with Elohim. The names change--a little -- but the God remains the same.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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