Ignorance, Translated

There’s a story that hit the media this week that has a lot of American Christians up in arms. The story’s about a public high school in Colorado that had a student lead the school in the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic, including using the word “Allah” for God. The furore and uproar this has caused is almost as great as the ignorance driving it.

For the record, then:

I’ve been to the Middle East. I’ve been to Israel, to Lebanon and to Egypt, and I can even say a half-handful of words in Arabic. In addition, I can do background reading and I know a little bit about how translation works, which is apparently more than anyone else in the American church.

There are lots of Arabs who are Christians. The Egyptian and Syrian churches go back almost two millennia. There are Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel and Palestine, in Jordan, in Iraq, in other countries as well.

Care to guess what word is used in the Arabic-language Bible to refer to God? That’s right. Allah.

You don’t have to be a Muslim for Allah to be your normal native-language word for God. And this isn’t a “modern corruption”; the Arabic Bible has been around for centuries. They have always used “Allah” to refer to the God of the Bible.

Now, I don’t know whether the student was a Muslim or a Christian. In one sense it doesn’t matter; this is about ignorant people freaking out about a word.

Many people today teach that the Allah of the Qur’an is not the God of the Bible. There are two schools of thought about that. Certainly there are crucial differences of character between the Allah protrayed in the Bible and the Great I AM of the Bible, most notably in the areas of God’s Fatherhood, Triune nature and loving concern. But on the other hand, both the Allah of the Qur’an and the Elohim of the Bible are shown as the self-existent, all-powerful, all-knowing, One who created the universe and will judge the living and the dead at the end of time. There’s a good case to be made for saying that Muslims worship the same Being that we do, just with an incomplete understanding of who He really is.

That’s not to say, as many American Chrstians seem to hear that as saying, that Muslims don’t need to be saved. No, they need to truly know God and receive His gift of righteousness through Jesus Messiah, just like a Jew who doesn’t believe that Messiah has come needs to. The question of whether Allah is the same as Elohim is separate from the question of whether Muslims need to be saved. Perhaps we need to distinguish between the Allah of the Qur’an and the Allah of the Bible.

Put in another way, the Pharisees and Sadducees believed different things about the character of Elohim than what Jesus taught. Were they worshipping the same God or not?

What’s in a name?

The English word “God”, when it comes right down to it, was originally a word used by the pagan Germanic tribes to refer to any of their gods, particularly the chief god Woden. Woden was the god they made human sacrifices to by slicing open the victim’s back and pulling their lungs out through the hole. He was bloodthirsty, cruel, limited, and finite in power and knowledge, and they expected him to be defeated in the Twilight of the Gods which heralded the end of the world. The Allah of the Qur’an has far more in common with the God of the Bible. Yet the first Christian missionaries among the Germanic tribes thought it appropriate to use the pagan term “God” to translate the God of the Bible.

Similarly, the word “Theos”, which is used in the New Testament itself as the primary translation of the word “Elohim” in the Old Testament, was a word that referred to any of the Greek pagan gods, and when it was used on its own as a proper name, if you were a pagan, chances are that the Theos you were meaning was not Elohim but Zeus.

Even the name “Jesus” is an Anglicised version of the Greek “Iesous”, which was how the Greeks translated the Hebrew name Yeshua (separately Anglicised as Joshua). So even the name we call upon for salvation isn’t His “real” name, if you want to get picky.

The name “El” (root of the Divine name Elohim) was used by the Canaanites as the name of one of their pagan gods. All of these were pagan words that the church, and the nation of Israel before us, felt justified in appropriating and imbuing with new meaning to communicate the one Creator God whom they worshipped.

The question of whether he ought to be reciting the Pledge in another language is a separate one, but one on which there’s almost as much ignorance. America has no “official language”. Blackfoot and Cherokee and Cantonese and Vietnamese and Spanish and Gaelic are just as much “American languages” as English – what’s different about Arabic? Oh, right. They’re all Muslims and we’re at war with Muslims.

Um, no. We’re at war with terrorists who happen to be Muslims. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have killed far more Muslims than they have Americans. And Arabic-speakers are not all Muslims.  See above.  As a once-off thing to help the students realise that just because you’re ethnically Arabic or even a Muslim, it does not automatically make you unpatriotic or opposed to America, it’s a reasonable, nay, honourable motive.

And if he’s justified in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a language other than English, what other word was he supposed to use? There is another Arabic word that’s translateable as “God”… but the usual meaning of it is “pagan idol”. Not helpful.

He was speaking Arabic. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a language other than English, and he used the normal word for God in that language. Which happens to be Allah.

Maybe we need to stop acting like ignorant morons and not freak out over what word another language uses for God.

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One thought on “Ignorance, Translated

  1. Pingback: Allah and the God of the Bible | The Word Forge

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