Skip to content

Foreigner’s God.

February 8, 2015

This is a pet hate of mine, which I’m bursting to rant about: when people, speaking in English about Islam, refer to God as Allah. Yesterday, I went to see a play, set in the Mughal period in India, and listened to some interesting theological debate. Great stuff! Yet I was inwardly distracted every time actors, who mainly spoke in Received Pronunciation (BBC English), inserted Allah whenever the word God was referred to. Why?! If this was a play translated from French, you wouldn’t have actors break into preposterous statements like ‘I swear by Dieu of my loyalty!’. Now, as far as I’m aware, Allah is the Arabic word for God. Simple. Arabic speakers of all Abrahamic faiths use this word, amongst others, when referring to their Creator. This may be in everyday language, if say a Christian Arabic speaker says insha’llah/ ان شاء الله (God willing)، or even in a church service given in the Arabic language. All too often I hear the most common Islamic declaration of faith: la-ilaha ila’llah mistranslated to ‘there is no God but Allah’. When the correct translation, which I’ve checked out with both historian and linguistic scholars, should be: ‘There is no god, but God’, referring to the superiority of a monotheistic God over polytheistic deities [for now, let’s not unpack the meaning of the latter statement, just the language!]. Some scholars believe the word Allah/الله is broken down to definite article ‘Al-’/ ال (the) joining ‘Alih’/اله (deity/god), so ‘the god’, which in English is best translated with a capital letter, hence, Allah equivalent to God. The historical context for this refers back to the earliest Islamic conquests within the Arabian peninsula, when the main battles were fought against polytheistic Arab tribes. Before the birth of Islam, the Byzantines (Christian Romans) and Sassanians (Zoroastrian Persians) were desperately trying to win support from Arab tribes (South in modern-day Yemen, North in Syria and Central in Saudi Arabia). Christian missionaries, for instance, were sent over to try and convert, and there are records of Christian Arabs before Islam [yes, Christian Arabs existed way before Muslim ones!!]. However, Arab tribes were only loyal to those who paid the most, and stayed disparate until they were united by Islam. Another point to mention, according to its own historical narrative, Islam saw itself as a continuation of monotheistic religions, including the two mains, Judaism and Christianity. Islam did not see itself as a brand new religion, but an all-improved version, a reversion to the original faith Abraham set-up. More reasoning that Allah is just the Arabic word for God, no more and no less. I do not undermine the importance of language, especially Arabic in the context of Islam. Muslims believe that the words in the Qur’an were transmitted from God to Prophet Mohamed (peace be upon him) via Archangel Gabriel, through a series of revelations. This means that each word in this Holy Book is sacred. The Sufis, for example, believe that reciting words from the Qur’an or God’s 99 Names, is in itself transformative, as this taps into God’s mystical powers. No need for literal understanding, conformist ritual nor middle men; God’s word straight to the heart! And yet, when I hear people communicate in the English language about Islam or Muslims, then I question the need to use the Arabic word instead of the English one. I believe this is to exclude and alienate a religion, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to instate difference over similarity. This is why I am ranting about this here. I’ve heard British-Muslims chant ‘there is no God but Allah’, and this, to me, is not simply incorrect, but dangerous, as the implication is: Islam draws on a different God to Christians and Jews, which it doesn’t. I do not deny differences, and a large portion of my community work is dedicated to exploring and connecting through our difference. Still, this is more reason to be specific, inclusive and to acknowledge when we can in fact speak the same language, literally.

From → Community, Random

  1. Nadia Mohammed permalink

    interesting observation, and quite true. By using the Arabic name “Allah”, the result will be alienation of subject from the language spoken, English, and thus, creating and stressing the concept of Muslims as “Others”! In literature, the use of foreign words serves only for this purpose of alienation and otherness. Unfortunately, some Arab and Muslim institutions refuse the translation, and consider the word “Allah” as a holy name of the Creator and they insist on using it as it is in all languages, unaware of the pragmatic consequences of this usage.

  2. Mariam permalink

    what an observation! It does say a lot about the way other cultures see Islam. Though the true reason I’m commenting is because I would like to get in touch. Now this is weird I know, I’ve stumbled across your Instagram while going through art accounts and I’ve realized that you could be a major help for me. I am seventeen and I’m in the process of writing a book about a Conservationist Arab mother dealing with the modern life her daughter is exposed to. The family lives in London and here I am in Beirut trying to get concrete information, I was hoping you could tell me more about the Arab community in London. I hope you get the chance to see this.
    Thank you,
    Mariam El Mir

    • Hi Mariam, sincere apologies for this delayed reply !! I would be happy to have a chat, if you send me your email I’ll reply (more promptly). Also, check out my last blogpost, as it may be relevant to the theme of migrants in London. Best, Tara (Starakin)

Leave a Reply to Nadia Mohammed Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: