The word "Allah" is derived from the Arabic language and simply means God. As it first received currency as the name for the deity in the Qur'an in the seventh century c.e., the term has always been associated with the religion of Islam, and continues to be used mostly by Muslims or by groups that are offshoots from Islam. Thus, although it is a fairly widely known term, it still tends to be associated by non-Muslims with foreign exoticness, which leads to the mistaken notion of some that Allah is fundamentally a different deity than the Christian or the Jewish God. However, this is inaccurate, for Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews also call God Allah, and God is called Allah in Arabic Bibles. Indeed, Christians in America from Arabicspeaking countries, to the extent that they still use Arabic, continue to refer to Allah. Also, when the Qur'an itself speaks of the Jewish and the Christian conceptions of Allah, it is obviously speaking about the Jewish and Christian God (4:171; 5:18, 64; 9:30). Nevertheless, the claim by some American Christians that because Muslims use the term "Allah," they worship a different deity than the Christians do, remains part of some anti-Muslim Christian polemics.
The History of Allah in America
Still, it is true that Allah originally occurs in English strictly in the context of writings about Islam; its first appearance is dated to 1584. Thereafter, as British and, later, American relations with the Muslim world grew, Allah continued to refer exclusively to a usage of exotic foreigners, inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire and the British colonies, never Europeans or native speakers of English. Interestingly, the term was little used in English, as books on Islam, including all early English-language Qur'an translations, continued to refer to the Muslims' object of worship as God.
Native speakers of English first began to embrace Islam at about the same time that Muslim immigrants began to arrive in English-speaking lands, mainly after 1900. Both natives and immigrants shared an ambivalent attitude toward using Allah as opposed to God for the name of the deity. The word "Allah" appealed to authenticity: It was the original Arabic term in the Muslim scripture, had been cultivated throughout the past history of Islam, and had always held a dominant position across many different Muslim linguistic groups. On the other hand, the term "God" seemed to offer better chances for the acceptance of Islam as a normal part of the spectrum of religion in America by being more assimilationist. Generally, Muslims in the old Muslim countries insisted that the deity should be referred to exclusively as Allah in Muslim English-language publications and discourse. Thus many Muslim Qur'an translations, starting with the first by Muhammad 'Abd al-Hakim Khan in 1905, use Allah, whereas no translation by a non-Muslim used Allah until that of Bell in 1937. But among Englishspeaking Muslims in non-Muslim countries such as the United States, the term "God" frequently continued to be preferred. The split remains to this day, as about half of the English-language Qur'an translations by Muslims use God, while the other half use Allah. There also tends to be a liberal versus a conservative element to these usages, the more conservative favoring Allah, the more liberal God. But this is not absolute, as the very conservative Tafseer-e-Usmani uses God, for example.
While some immigrants, such as the East Indian Ahmadiyyah missionaries who began to arrive in 1920, always preferred using Allah to using God, the rise of native Muslim movements among African Americans undoubtedly gave great impetus to the spread of the use of Allah. This is because of the non-Christian authenticity that was perceived to reside in the term. Probably the African-American usage of Allah began in the 1920s and thus may have been influenced by the Ahmadiyyah missionaries. The earliest definitely dated use of the term "Allah" among African Americans in a publication seems to be in The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of 1927, although it had likely been in use also some time before that. In the Moorish Science Temple's writings, the term "Allah" appears alongside "God." But with the foundation of the Nation of Islam by W. D. Fard in about 1930, Allah began more completely to displace God in the usage. This culminated in the Nation of Islam under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad, who presided over it as the "Messenger of Allah" from 1934 to 1975. Indeed, the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad undoubtedly exerted a crucial influence in popularizing the usage of Allah for God among African Americans and in making that usage more familiar to the rest of the population as well, especially through the media exposure of Elijah Muhammad's chief spokesman, Malcolm X, from 1959.
Though recognition of the term "Allah" thus became much more widespread in America in time, the concept of Allah as received by the people has varied widely according to the doctrines of the groups utilizing the term and according to the degree of knowledge of individual Muslims about Islam. Generally, in the earlier part of the twentieth century, American Muslims were not yet well informed about traditional Muslim concepts, while immigrant Muslims, having no support for their religious practice in America and lacking traditionally trained religious leadership, tended as well to be poorly informed, making them subject to assimilation. Because of these conditions, both groups possibly were influenced by Christian conceptualizations of God. This is particularly manifest in the incarnationist doctrine taught by Elijah Muhammad, who elevated W. D. Fard to the level of Allah in the flesh. Such a belief in the possibility of divine human beings, in itself quite antithetical to mainstream Sunni Muslim belief, still manifests itself among many heterodox groups, such as the Five Percenters, who teach that all male Five Percenters are Allahs. It should be noted, however, that beliefs in divine incarnations in human form have occurred frequently in Muslim history and have been shared as well to some degree by Druzes and Baha'is, neither of whom originated in America.
As the twentieth century wore on, however, the mainstream Muslim concept of Allah became more prominent in American Islam, owing to many factors. More Sunni and Shiite Muslim immigrants arrived after 1950, principally coming from South Asia and the Arabic-speaking world. These included a higher proportion of well-educated people who were less marginal in their original societies than earlier immigrants had been. Likewise, these later immigrants included a higher percentage of religious Muslims, especially after about 1970, when a widespread Muslim religious revival began in the Middle East and elsewhere. Also, a few traditionally trained religious leaders began to arrive.
Meanwhile, Americans who had embraced Islam began to study Arabic, and a traditionalizing Islamization started among them, too. Both immigrants and natives were influenced by the increasingly cheap and easy communication with the ancient centers of Islam, both via telephone and air travel. This facilitated numbers of Americans going to study abroad in traditional or conservative religious academies, especially in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Senegal, as well as more Americans being able to make their pilgrimage to Mecca, which put them in touch with masses of traditional Muslims. Perhaps the pioneer in this regard was Malcolm X, whose conversion to Sunni Islam in 1964 had, and continues to have, a major impact. Later, the change in the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad's son and successor, Warith Deen Muhammad, to Sunni Islam in 1975 had an even broader effect. All these factors led to a greater standardization of Muslim belief among the largest number of Muslims. By these means the traditional Muslim understanding of the transcendent and incorporeal Allah had become unquestionably dominant by the end of the twentieth century and had even begun to influence such consistently heterodox groups as the revived Nation of Islam of Louis Farrakhan.
Muslim Theological Understanding of Allah
The traditional theology of the Sunni community teaches that Allah is above all one, unique, transcendent, creator, distinct from creation, eternal and permanent, and worthy of worship. Allah has, according to Sunnis, seven essential attributes: life, power, knowledge, will, hearing, sight, and speech. Of these attributes, power means absolute omnipotence, while knowledge, hearing, and sight indicate omniscience. Omnipresence is not stressed to avoid confusing Allah with His creation. Some of the more mystical trends in Islam have emphasized His nearness and presence everywhere (Qur'an 50:16; 57:4), causing others to accuse such mystics of pantheism. The traditional Sunni position explains verses referring to Allah's nearness as meaning He is everywhere near in His knowledge (6:59, etc.), not that He is immanent in His creation.
Apart from Allah's knowledge of His creation, He also relates to it in its past, present, and future stages. In the past, He originated the universe as the prime mover (10:4, etc.), so that all things owe their existence to Him. In the present, He remains active, answering the prayers of those who call on Him (2:186, etc.), generally maintaining the world (35:41) and providing for all creatures (11:6). Most important, in the future on Judgment Day, He will individually judge all human beings and jinni, assigning each eternally to heaven or to hell under His rule, according to their actions in this life.
In some of its descriptions of Allah's actions, the Qur'an suggests a material picture of a celestial court, but all actual imagery of Allah Himself is completely avoided, even though Allah is said to have a hand (3:73, etc.), to come with the angels (2:210, etc.), and to be established over His throne (7:54, etc.). Apart from the mention of the heavenly throne, storehouses (6:50, etc.), and angels, there is little elaboration of the picture and no really descriptive imagery. This trend continues in the Hadith, which contains some further details but offers no possibility of a complete material picture. It also extends to the law, where the portrayal of Allah, the angels, the prophets, and the companions of Muhammad is strictly prohibited. On this point Islam corresponds with Judaism but contrasts sharply with much of Christianity.
Although the nonrepresentation of Allah in any form other than the written word became a solidly established principle of the law, the material terms used in describing Allah in His relation to the world have long been problematic and continue to be the locus of the main continuing theological controversy in Islam. One party, which could be described as Salafi or neo-Hanbali, favors literalist interpretations of texts and has greatly grown in the twentieth century through modern mass education and mass literacy, which encourage the newly educated to read and interpret texts for themselves. The other party tends to look to various forms of traditional authority and seeks figurative interpretations of material expressions such as "the hand of Allah." Such disputes have even appeared in the discourses of African-American Muslims in inner cities. Whether this type of conflict seriously threatens the unity of Muslims in America or not, it at least points to the continuing diversity of conceptualizations of Allah held by different individuals both inside the Sunni majority and outside it.
Muslim Devotion to Allah
While various views of Allah's exact nature may be entertained, it is no doubt true that for most Muslims, Allah remains simply God, Whom they worship and call on in prayer. All Muslim religious practices are primarily directed to worship of Allah. First among these is the five-times-daily worship ritual known as salat, in which the worshiper bows and prostrates with face on the ground in the direction of Mecca in Arabia, where the Ka'bah represents Allah's inviolable sanctuary. In the local mosques the direction is indicated by a niche in one of the walls. The niche contains only empty space, reproducing the emptiness of the Ka'bah, for Allah cannot be confined or defined by space or time. In the salat worship, which may be performed individually or in rows in a congregation, each worshiper repeats Qur'anic verses and other formulas in Arabic and is in a state of direct communion with Allah. In the salat and outside of it, the believer is encouraged to offer individual, private prayers or supplications as well. By these means, as well as by charity payments, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca, a Muslim is kept in constant awareness of Allah, providing a certain unity in Islam in spite of all the diversity of individual understanding and experiencing of Allah that exists.
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Khalid Yahya Blankinship
Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the English word God, and is the term employed not only among Arabic-speaking Muslims but by Christians and Jews and in Arabic translations of the Bible. A contraction of al-ilah, meaning "the god," Allah is cognate with the generic pan-Semitic designation for "God" or "deity" (Israelite/Canaanite El, Akkadian ilu) and is particularly close to the common Hebrew term Elohim and the less frequent Eloah. It is thus, strictly speaking, not a proper name but a title.
In the Islamic context, as in Jewish and Christian usage, Allah refers to the one true God of monotheism. This is how the term occurs in the shahada or "profession of faith," the simplest, earliest, and most basic of Islamic creeds, in the first part of which the believer affirms that there is no "god" (ilah) but "God" or "the god" (Allah). However, the shahada itself seems to imply that Allah was already known to the first audience of the Islamic revelation, and that they were called upon to repudiate other deities. And this is precisely the picture given in the Qur˒an. "If you ask them who created them," the Qur˒an informs the prophet Muhammad regarding his pagan critics, "they will certainly say 'Allah.'" (43:87; compare 10:31; 39:38). Pagan Arabs swore oaths by Allah (as witnessed at 6:109; 16:38; 35:42).
Pre-Islamic Arabs believed in supernatural intercessors with God (10:18; 34:22), for whom they appeared to claim warrant from Allah. (See, for example, 6:148.) Indeed, Allah seems (in their view) to have headed a pantheon of pre-Islamic deities or supernatural beings, not altogether unlike El's rule over the Canaanite pantheon, and, like El, he seems to have been rather distant and aloof. While the data are fragmentary and open to some question, pre-Islamic Arabs seem to have paid more attention to Allah's daughters and to the jinn (or genies) than to him. Even the Qur˒an seems to concede genuine existence to a divine retinue (as at 7:191–195; 10:28–29; 25:3). However, just as the Canaanite gods are replaced by an angelic court in Israelite faith, Islam rejects the independent deities of pagan Arabia in favor of a very much subordinated "exalted assembly" (see 37:8; 38:69) that exists to carry out the decrees of the one true God, who is, says the Qur˒an, nearer to the individual human than that person's jugular vein (50:16). In this, as in other respects, Islam regards itself as a restoration of the religion taught by earlier prophets but marred by successive human apostasies (see 42:13).
The Qur˒an identifies Allah as the creator, sustainer, and sovereign of the heavens and the earth. (See, for example, 13:16; 29:61, 63; 31:25; 39:38; 43:9, 87.) Following the scriptural text, Muslims characterize him by the ninety-nine "most beautiful names" (7:180; 17:110; 20:8), which serve to identify his attributes. (Eventually, repetition of and meditation upon these names became an important practice in the tradition of Sufi mysticism.) They portray a being who is self-sufficient, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, merciful yet just, benevolent but terrible in his wrath. The picture of Allah in the Qur˒an employs distinctly anthropomorphic language (referring, for example, to the divine eyes, hands, and face), which, virtually all commentators have long agreed, are to be taken figuratively.
Allah has revealed himself throughout history via messages to various prophets by means of both the seemingly routine processes of nature and the periodic judgments and catastrophes directed against the rebellious. He will reveal himself even more spectacularly at the end of time when, as judge of humankind, he pronounces doom or blessing upon every individual who has ever lived. The faith of Muhammad and the Qur˒an is centered on absolute "submission" (islam) to his will.
The Qur˒an describes God as "Allah, one; Allah, the eternal refuge. He does not beget nor is He begotten, and there is none equal to Him" (112:1–4). In subsequent Islamic thought, such straightforward denial of divine family life (probably aimed at both the pre-Islamic pantheon and Christian concepts of God the Father and God the Son) was expanded into a much broader doctrine of the divine unity, denoted by the non-Qur˒anic word tawhid ("unification" or "making one"). Philosophers and theologians debated such questions as whether God's attributes were identical to God's essence, or whether, being multiple, they must be additional and in a sense external in order not to compromise the utter and absolute simplicity of the divine essence. They debated how the undeniably manifold cosmos had emerged out of the pure oneness of God. The issue of whether God's speech (i.e., the Qur˒an) was coeternal with him, or subsidiary and created, rising to political prominence in the second and third centuries after Muhammad. The overwhelming personality depicted in the revelations of Muhammad became the Necessary Existent (wajib al-wujud), and the obvious dependence of life on his will (particularly apparent in the harsh desert environment of Arabia) was taken to point to the utter contingency of all creation upon a God who brought it into being out of nothing. Perhaps not unrelated was the rise to dominance in Islam of a doctrine of predestination or determinism, which had obvious roots in the Qur˒an itself (as, for example, at 13:27; 16:93; 74:31). In the meantime, though, while the philosophers were elaborating a view of Allah tending to extreme transcendence, Sufi theoreticians were emphasizing his immanence and experiential accessibility and, in practice, often breaking down the barrier between Creator and creatures—and occasionally shocking their fellow Muslims.
The famous "Throne Verse" (2:255) offers a fine summary of basic Islamic teaching regarding God: "Allah! There is no god but he, the Living, the Everlasting. Neither slumber nor sleep seizes him. His are all things in the heavens and the earth. Who is there who can intercede with him, except by his leave? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, while they comprehend nothing of his knowledge except as he wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth. Sustaining them does not burden him, for he is the Most High, the Supreme." The depth of Muslim devotion to Allah is apparent virtually everywhere in Islamic life, including even the use of elaborate calligraphic renditions of the word as architectural and artistic ornamentation.
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Rahbar, Daud. God of Justice: A Study in the Ethical Doctrine of the Qur˒an. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960.
Watt, W. Montgomery. Islamic Philosophy and Theology: AnExtended Survey. 2d ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985.
Williams, Wesley. "Aspects of the Creed of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal: A Study of Anthropomorphism in Early Islamic Discourse." International Journal of Middle East Studies 34, no. 3 (2002): 441–463.
Daniel C. Peterson
In the Qurʾān, Allah is described by many epithets, contributing eventually to the ninety-nine beautiful names of God. Controlling all are the two descriptions (occurring in the basmala) rahmān (merciful) and rahīm (compassionate). In later Islam, fierce arguments developed: about the status of the attributes of God (too much status would confer ontological, or truly existent, reality on them, thus converting them into something like independent parts of God); about anthropomorphic statements (e.g. the Qurʾān says that God sits on a throne: to take this literally would limit God in space. This particular issue was resolved agnostically by saying that he does so, bilā kaifa wa lā tashbīh, without knowing how and without comparison, SC. with our way of sitting; and also by tanzīh); and about the power of God to determine all things. This last issue is focused on the term qadar. The Qurʾān emphasizes the absolute power of God to determine all things, which suggests strong predestination (as held e.g. by the Jabriya); in that case, how can humans be held accountable for their deeds and be judged accordingly (the question raised e.g. by the Muʿtazilites)? The eventual solution (at least for the Ashʿarites (acquisition) was formulated in the doctrine of iktisāb, see AL-ASHʿARI).
Theological and rational reflection on God is complemented, in Islam, by the direct and immediate relation of the believer with God, above all in salāt: to everyone, God is closer than the vein in the neck (50. 16). This close and direct relation to God led into the cultivation of the experiential awareness of God, which culminated in Sūfism.
For the controlling and all-important Sūra of Unity (112), which, if a Muslim says it with conviction, leads to the shedding of sins as a tree sheds its leaves in autumn, see TAWḤĪD.
The Arabic equivalent of the English word God.
A likely etymology of the term is that it is an ancient contraction of al-ilah (Arabic for "the god") and was probably first used in Arabian cosmologies before Islam to refer to some kind of high deity who may have been considered the progenitor of a number of lesser divinities. The word Allah is best known in the West as the name Muslims ascribe to the one and only God, whom they believe to be the transcendent and partnerless creator, lord, and judge of the universe. It is important to note that according to Muslim teaching, Allah is not only the God of the prophet Muhammad but also the God of Moses and Jesus—and is therefore identical to the divine being of Jewish and Christian sacred history.
While Muslim tradition recognizes Allah to be the comprehensive name of God encompassing all the divine attributes, it also ascribes to the deity an additional ninety-nine "beautiful names" (al-asma al-husna), each of which evoke a distinct characteristic of the godhead. The most famous and most frequently referenced of these are "the Merciful" (al-rahman) and "the Compassionate" (al-rahim).
see also islam.
Guillaume, Alfred. Islam. London: Cassell, 1963.
Al·lah / ˈälə; ˈalə/ the name of God among Muslims (and Arab Christians).