Today, I want to address a question which I have often heard put to myself or others, one that seems to cut to the heart of the world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam.
Is Allah the same as Yahweh?
Allah, the God to whom Muslims pray five times a day, whom they hold as the only true God, and around whom their religious lives are centered. Yahweh, the God of the ancient Israelites whose name is spelled with the consonants YHWH in Hebrew. Are these two supreme beings one and the same?
Scholars classify Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “Abrahamic” religions that are all branches of the same tree. All of them are monotheistic, and all of them worship the God who revealed himself to Abraham. Yet, in several conversations I have had with devout Christians here in the United States, they have insisted that Allah is not the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Why does the question matter? It matters because the followers of these three religions will surely view each other differently depending on whether or not they believe the other group is either 1) worshiping the true God in the wrong way, or 2) worshiping a false god.
(I skipped the capitalization of “god” there, because in the English-speaking Christian tradition in which I was brought up, that is how one differentiates the real God from other pretender gods: by denying the honor of capitalization. Some might not even like that I declined to capitalize “himself” in an earlier paragraph.)
For the purposes of this article, I am not so much interested in the religious implications of whether or not someone’s God is “true” or “false”, nor am I attempting to provide ammunition for one person to insult another in a game of religious one-upmanship. Rather, I want to take a serious, academic look at whether we can consider Allah and Yahweh to be the same God, first in terms of semantics, and then in terms of theology.
What’s in a Name?
Even when speaking about him in English, Muslims usually refer to God by the name Allah. That certainly makes it sound like a personal name and a separate identity from the God of Jews and Christians. However, from a linguistic perspective, Allah is very much connected to the God of the Bible.
“Allah” is essentially the Arabic translation of the English word “God”. It is not a proper name, but rather a title. A person could have a mother named Diane, but while they would likely refer to her as “mother”, “mom”, or “mum” (in the UK) most often, none of those are actually proper names. Nonetheless, these terms clearly identify who the child is talking about. As another example, we may refer generally to “the President” or specifically to “Barack Obama”.
Arabic (the original language of the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book) and Hebrew (the original language of the Jewish scriptures which Christians call the Old Testament) both belong to the Afro-Asiatic – or more specifically “Semitic” – language family. Although they do not look similar on paper since they use different scripts, the actual spoken words are very similar. The Arabic word “Allah” is closely related to the Hebrew words “El” and “Elohim”, both of which are used to describe God in the Bible. Note the presence of the suffix “-el” in many biblical names: Michael, Daniel, Samuel, Immanuel, etc.
Would it shock you if I said that Arab Christians refer to God using the word “Allah”? Well, it is true. This is not because they are confused, but rather because they understand that this is simply the Arabic word for God.
If you don’t believe me, consider what just happened in the country of Malaysia. The Catholic Herald newspaper was told by a court that it can no longer use the word “Allah” in its publication to refer to God. The decision was apparently brought about under pressure from extreme Muslim groups that were politically motivated.
The chief judge in the case stated that the use of the Arabic word by Christians was a dangerous attack on the sanctity of Islam. (The majority of Malaysians are Muslim.) Rev. Eu Hong Seng, the chairman of the Christian Federation of Malaysia, protested that, “The Bahasa Malaysia–speaking Christians have been using the word Allah before and after the independence of Malaya and the formation of Malaysia.”
In the book Building Bridges: Christianity and Islam, author Fouad Accad asks, “What about the 10 [million] to 12 million Arab Christians today? They have been calling God ‘Allah’ in their Bibles, hymns, poems, writings, and worship for over 19 centuries.” It seems that while some American Christians find the term off putting, Christians in other parts of the world are fighting to keep calling God by the same name they used for centuries before Islam showed up.
Of course, none of this explains why English-speaking Muslims should use an Arabic term. You might be asking, “Why don’t they just say ‘God’ like everyone else?” In order to answer that question, we would have to discuss how any word in the English language came into being. If you claim that you have never used Arabic words in English, then I suppose you are not familiar with the words algebra, alcohol, assassin, candy, chemistry, coffee, cotton, giraffe, guitar, and so on and so forth throughout the alphabet.
More to the point, Christians make use of Semitic terms all the time. Have you ever declared, “Hallelujah!” to something? Guess, what: that’s not English, but rather has a Hebrew origin. Have you ever referred to God as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah”? Well, I guess you don’t see the need to use English terms when referring to your deity either. Maybe at Christmas you talked about Christ being the Messiah? Yep, that comes from Hebrew too.
I think we can conclude that when it comes to the issue of semantics, there is no real case for a difference between Allah and Yahweh, except that the terms come from two different (but closely related) languages, and one is a personal name while the other (“Allah”) is more of a generic term.
Lord, Have Mercy
It is also worth considering whether there are any theological differences between the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian understandings of God that are so vast that they effectively mean that Yahweh and Allah cannot be the same thing. I would never try to make the case that there are no important differences between these religions, because some of the beliefs that their adherents hold are in direct logical contradiction to one another. Example: Christians say Jesus was divine, but Muslims and Jews (other than Messianic Jews) insist he was not.
However, just because Muslims believe different things about God does not necessarily mean they believe in a different God. These three religions are all classified as monotheistic, meaning that they all believe in one God. (Of course, a lot of Muslims will insist that Christians really worship three Gods because of the whole Trinity concept, but that could be a long discussion by itself.) Muslims accept the Old Testament prophets, and unlike most Jews, they believe that at least portions of both the Old and New Testament were divinely revealed scripture – they just add that these works were perverted over time and the Qur’an is the pure and final revelation.
When I have heard American Christians asked to contrast their version of God with that of Islam, the one term they seem to jump to the most is “mercy”. The Christian God is merciful while the God of Islam is wrathful, they tell me. This says a lot about how Christians view not only Muslims, but also themselves. Furthermore, it says something about the lack of knowledge most Americans have about Islam.
Just for kicks, I opened up my copy of the Qur’an – yes, I own one, just like Thomas Jefferson – and turned to the first page. The book is divided into “surahs” which are similar to “books” in the Bible. Here is the first and most famous surah:
In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah,
The Cherisher and Sustainer of the Worlds;
Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
Show us the straight way,
The way of those on whom
Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
Those whose (portion) is not wrath,
And who go not astray.
When you read this, try substituting the word “God” for “Allah” in the first two lines. Does this sound like it could have come from the King James Bible? I would have to answer “yes”. It makes mention of God’s mercy and grace multiple times. Much like the Christian scriptures, the Qur’an is a long book that talks about both God’s wrath and his forgiveness. Thus, it would not be correct to form an opinion of the God of Islam from these few lines alone. Still, when you have a book that starts out talking about how God is gracious and merciful, I think it is wrong to say that Allah is not a merciful God at all.
I think the fact that Christians tend to view Islam as unmerciful comes from their understanding of the concept of personal salvation. Islam, they often say, is about trying to do a lot of good things to pacify the wrath of God over the bad things you have done. Christianity, they insist, is about God substituting himself in our place and taking the burden on his own shoulders for our sin. Thus, Yahweh is merciful and Allah is not.
Well, you could interpret it that way, but also consider this: Christians believe that Christ had to die for humanity’s sins or God could not forgive anyone, no matter what good things they have done. If I understand correctly (and I hope I do), Muslims believe that it is up to God to decide when and how he will extend mercy. You cannot ensure that he will forgive you just by being good, but ultimately he makes a choice based on his own merciful nature to grant forgiveness.
In some ways, you could say that this is actually a more merciful view of God than exists in Christianity, where the understanding of justice is so strict that not without a blood sacrifice could the Almighty extend mercy. My sense is that mercy can trump wrath in Islam, while in Christianity justice must also be satisfied in order for there to be mercy.
As for some of the harsh forms of law we see in Muslim countries today, you will find upon closer examination that they very quite a bit depending on where you are. This proves that rightfully or not, the principles of Islamic law are clearly open to interpretation.
Additionally, though I may hate to say it, the punishments prescribed in the Qur’an or other Islamic writings (for both God’s enemies and society as a whole) are really not any more severe than the laws given to the ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. In fact, my personal feeling has always been that Islam looks an awful lot like a reinterpreted form of classic Judaism. I am not saying this to excuse abuses that we see in some Muslim countries, but I think it is important that we get our facts straight.
So are these theological contrasts so important that we cannot say Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians? I am afraid that that might ultimately be a matter of personal opinion. For me, if I have someone tell me they are praying to the God who appeared to Abraham, Moses, David, etc., I am going to take them at their word. Yes, they may have a different understanding about just who that God is and how they ought to relate to him, but I think it is a bigger error to say that we don’t worship the same God than to say that we do.
Whether or not God accepts the worship of all these different people is a question for another time and place. While I do not claim that Allah is a “false god”, “evil spirit”, “demonic trick” or anything like that, I do believe that it would be impossible for me to be a Christian and yet accept all the tenets of Islam: it would simply be either logically inconsistent, hypocritical, or both.
I would not want to do either religion that disservice. And while I do believe that the view of sin in Islam is actually less severe than the one in Christianity, I think that the message of Jesus Christ is still one of love and mercy, and it is the one that I choose to accept. I simply hope that this post has helped to explain that while there are certainly many ways in which these religions are different, there are also some ways that they are similar. I am sure those who disagree with me will be happy to let me know.
The Qur’an quotation found in this article comes from a popular English translation by the late Abdullah Yusuf Ali. It is The Meaning of the Qur’an, Eleventh Edition put out by Amana Publications in Beltsville, Maryland in the year 2004. This version includes the original Arabic text in one column and English text in another.