by Dr. Stephen M. Davis
Frequently when speaking on the subject of Islam, I’ve encountered opposition to the idea that Arab believers use the word “Allah” in referring to God. Most of the objections stem from a misunderstanding of the Arabic language and of the historical and cultural use and development of the word “Allah.” It is understandable that to untrained Western ears and in the midst of current world crises that the word “Allah” be almost exclusively associated with radical Islam. However, it is unacceptable for American Christians to insist that Arab Christians not use “Allah” and find another word for deity. How then should we respond to the question, “Is Allah the Father of Jesus?”
From my travels to the Middle East, I have seen and heard “Allah” used by Christians in their prayers, singing, and in reading Scripture. Whatever the origin of the word, it means “God” or “god” just like the English word. It is true that “Allah” does not specifically refer to the Christian God. Neither does our English word. Do we require more precision for Arab believers than we do for ourselves? Of course, as Christians we also use Jesus, Jehovah, Lord, etc. Arab believers do the same, but in no way does that negate the use of Allah. For example, John 1:1 in an Arabic translation reads “And the word was with Allah and the word was Allah.”
A recent suggestion that Arab believers use the phrase “God of Israel” does little to clarify the issue. Apart from reading “God of Israel” in the Bible, I do not think Arab Christians would regularly or publicly use this fuller name for God, especially in light of the current political situation. Yet even if someone says, “God of Israel” where “God” translates “Elohim,” it would still be “Allah of Israel.” It has been objected that since Muslims deny that Allah has a son that Arab Christians cannot proclaim that “Jesus of Nazareth is the son of Allah.” I have seen this argument bolstered by the declaration that the “god” of liberals is not the “God” of the Scriptures. Yet the fact that the god of the liberals is not the God of the Scriptures does not mean we no longer use the word “God.” Moreover, I must ask if saying “Jesus of Nazareth is the son of Allah” in Arabic is any more objectionable than saying “Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God” in English?” when many religionists use the word “God” to identify someone far removed from a scriptural description.
When a Bible-believing Christian says, “I believe in God” and a liberal says, “I believe in God,” there is historical and linguistic commonality with theological differentiation. Only deeper investigation reveals what someone means by using the general word “God” whether in Arabic or in English. It has been noted that in speaking of Allah, Muslims and Christians speak of the same subject but differ in the predicates they say about him. When Arab Christians say that Jesus is the Son of Allah, they are saying what no Muslim can say. But they can and do say it because Allah is the normal translation of the Hebrew “Elohim” and the Greek “Theos.”
It is wishful thinking to imagine that Arab Christians should find another word rather than Allah any more than Bible-believing Christians should stop using the word “God” since liberals use it to mean something else. Certainly there are words that are needed to fuller qualify the identity of “Allah.” Perhaps we should frame the issue differently and ask the question “Is the Father of Jesus the God of Mohammed?” rather than argue about what word to use. Muslims will not call Allah “Father,” but Arab Christians do (there’s a book written by a Muslim woman who converted to Christianity titled I Dared to Call Him Father). Additionally, we may be able to distinguish between “God” and “god” in English, but for spoken purposes there is no distinction in English, and in Arabic there is no capitalization.
We should not ignore the fact that historically Arab Christians used “Allah” long before Islam was founded as a religion. Islam hijacked the word, which represents two contracted Arabic words “il” and “ilah” (the god). Some have called for Arab Christians to clarify what is confusing for mono-linguistic English speakers who know of “Allah” only from a biased Western context. Why? It is not confusing to Arabic believers. When they say “Allah,” they know who they are referencing.
Obviously, in witnessing to Muslims in an English-speaking context, one might prefer using “God” to “Allah.” Regardless of what word might be used, the identify of God or Allah as the Father of Isa must be made clear, and that task presents a major stumbling block for the Muslim believer. What we must not do is attempt to impose on Arab Christians a burden we ourselves have not borne—to ask them to deny their history, their language, and their culture in order to appease the troubled minds of American Christians who recoil at the sound of “Allah.” Let Arab Christians declare “Allahu Akbar,” and we will respond in kind—“God is great!” In answer to our title question, we should respond in the affirmative. For Arab-language Christians, Allah is most certainly the Father of Jesus.
Dr. Stephen M. Davis is associate pastor and director of missions at Calvary Baptist Church (Lansdale, PA). He holds a B.A from Bob Jones University, an M.A. in Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando, FL), an M.Div. from Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA), and a D.Min. in Missiology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (Deerfield, IL). Steve has been a church planter in Philadelphia, France, and Romania.