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How We Can Know What Each Person Means by the Name “Allah”

October 29, 2010

We can bring order out of confusion by carefully listening to understand what each person means when he or she uses important terms, such as, “Allah.” This is true with other big words, such as “Christianity,” or “liberal government,” or “liberty,”; carefully explain and listen, because we do not all mean the same thing.[1] This is not to say that words have no meaning; they do, or that we have lost the ability to achieve agreement on what a thing means; we can achieve agreement on what things mean.

 If we talk and listen carefully we will reduce the considerable confusion that now exists and finally achieve the goal of understanding. When we understand, then we can say more confidently, “I disagree with you”; or, “I agree with you.”

Here’s a little story to explain what I mean. The English word “orange” derives from the Spanish “naranja,” and before that from the Arabic “naranj,” and from the Persian, “narang.” Pull the string and all these words lead to a citrus fruit in the Middle East. But here is the puzzle: Arabs today use a different word, “portugal”,” for orange. Turks and Persians and Kurds also use the word “portugal.” What gives? Here is what happened. The Arabic “naranj” is a large, bitter orange, used for flavoring, but by itself it is quite inedible. Sweet oranges came from China[2] to Europe, and were unknown in the Middle East until Portuguese merchants brought them to Arabia. So the Arabic word for this new edible orange is, “portugal.” You can make things clear if you use the word “portugal” to describe what you want to buy in Arabia; but you will confuse Arabs if you simply use the word “orange.”

Just saying the word, "orange" without context can lead to misunderstanding. Trying to equate "Allah" and "God" can be equally as misleading.

It’s somewhat slow going to carefully define your terms, like driving around a curvy road; but proceed carefully and you will arrive at your destination, which is to be able, with respect, to agree or disagree with another person; but only after you have done the work of defining your terms.

After thinking for a long time about the Allah who is described by Mohammad and by his earliest Companions, I have decided that this is not the same deity described in the Bible. The Allah of Islam is unknowable; in fact, Allah’s inability to be known is presented by Muslims as one of Allah’s virtues. Does Allah love us? We don’t know. Will we see Allah when we die? No; Allah does not live in the afterlife where Muslims hope to go. How different from the God who reveals Himself in the Bible; a mother may forget her nursing child, but the God of the Bible will not forget His promises to His people (Isaiah 49:15). And we will see Him face to face and live with Him forever.

Sometimes we hear a person say that the God of the Bible is the same as the Allah of the Qur’an. But this is not true; they are different, like a “portugal” is different from a “naranj”. When a Muslim describes Allah for several hours, it is clear that the Muslim is describing a different deity, not the God who loves us and calls us His children.


[1] In a speech in Baltimore in 1984 Abraham Lincoln said, “We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.” Someone has even made his speech into music. http://www.bachlund.org/We_all_declare_for_liberty.htm

[2]We have a variety of sweet oranges which still has a Chinese name, the mandarin. The German word for sweet orange is apfelsin, meaning “apple from China.”

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