Allah = God: Video Evidence!

Two weeks ago, in an Atlantic theological treatise titled "Allah = God," I made a point that is uncontroversial among scholars of Islam but would surprise many Americans: Muhammad, in using the term "Allah" in the Koran, was referring to the God of Christians and Jews as well as Muslims.

I also suggested that Christians and Jews in Muhammad's vicinity understood this -- and indeed, I conjectured, they probably themselves referred to God as "Allah." As evidence, I noted that modern day Arab Christians refer to God that way, and I said that I had heard, though not confirmed, that modern Arabic-speaking Jews also use "Allah" as a term for God.

Well, confirmation -- or at least corroboration -- has arrived! And, as is so often the case, we have YouTube to thank.

A commenter named Ira Tick directed me to a scene from an old and apparently classic Israeli movie called Sallah Shabati. It's about Jews who have immigrated to Israel from an Arab country. Here's the clip (conveniently subtitled in English) that Ira highlighted, followed by some exegesis.

Though the song they're singing contains repeated mention of "Allah," the song itself is in Hebrew. So for analysis I turned to my go-to Hebrew expert, Kevin Osterloh, an historian at Miami University (Ohio). And it's a good thing I did, because it turns out that not every instance of "Allah" in this song reflects the speech patterns of Arabic-speaking Jews. Kevin wrote:

So, is there "Allah" here? You bet!, and in more ways than one. We find 1) Allah yode'a (= "God/Allah knows") & 2) Inshallah ("If God/Allah wills it"), both of which are cases of Arabic in common use in modern Hebrew (Inshallah is, of course, also a VERY common phrase in Arabic, and it is entirely in Arabic; whereas Allah yode'a, has Arabic: Allah, with the Hebrew: yode'a = "he knows"). We also find: 3) Allah yevi' lo mazal tov (= "Allah will bring him Good Luck", with only Allah in the Arabic and the rest in Hebrew: yevi' lo mazal tov = "will bring him good luck), and finally 4) Shevakh le-Allah ("Praise be to Allah", again with only "Allah" in the Arabic and the rest - Shevakh le ("Praise to") - in Hebrew, this is apparently a Hebrew version of the very common phrase in Arabic: al-Hamdu lil-Lah = "Praise be to Allah/God" with the initial "A" of "Allah" here changed to "i" due to the Arabic preposition "li" = "to").

So, I posed Kevin with this follow-up question: Though examples (1) and (2) might appear in the speech of any Hebrew-speaking Israeli, could examples (3) and (4) be taken as evidence that Arabic-speaking Jews do use "Allah" as a term for God? He said that, though he couldn't be "100 percent certain," this was indeed a "plausible way to read the evidence." He continued:

The song Mashiakh ha-Zaken (= in Hebrew, "Old Mashiakh," or "Mashiakh the Elder") would *seem* to be a traditional Mizrakhi-Jewish folk song (Mizrakhi = "oriental/eastern Jews" from Arab-speaking lands), or perhaps more specifically of Moroccan-Jewish origin, which was produced orally most likely (but perhaps also in writing) at some point before the large-scale immigration (or "aliyah") of Mizrakhi Jews from Morocco and elsewhere (e.g. Yemen) to Israel in the late 1940s and 1950s. If that is true, and one sees the filmmakers either accessing an early translation of the song to Hebrew, or perhaps even commissioning a translation for the sake of the movie, and their concern was to make a faithful translation, then yes, this would suggest that sayings #s 3 and 4 are un-translated or half-translated remnants of the former song originally composed in a Judeo-Arabic vernacular and now carried over into the present Hebrew version, in each case with only "Allah" left un-translated.

So there you have it! Who'd have thought that the thesis that Allah and God are the same would ever be substantiated by video evidence?

Of course, there are other sources we could examine, including some that are much closer to the time of Muhammad. Kevin suggests going back to the texts of "the great medieval Jewish rabbi philosopher Sa'adiyah Gaon," who wrote in Arabic. Naaah... YouTube is more fun!

Presented by

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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