Writing yesterday in the Los Angles Times, author and painter Rabih Alameddine calls for the dismemberment of the God/Allah distinction in modern English. In support of his argument, he briefly explains how English appropriates foreign words:
English, a mongrel from the start, greedily helps itself to foreign words more than any other. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 500,000 of them, whereas German has about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, according to “The Story of English” by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil.
So why does Allah continue to function in the capacity of “the Muslim God?” Alameddine thinks this need not be the case, he explains:
In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim deity. No one would think of using the word “Allah” to talk about any other religion. The two words, “God” and “Allah,” do not mean the same thing in English. They should.
The author stresses that his concern is not one of political correctness or language distortion, but rather one of unity. Who needs all this division in the world right now? Why should we continue to use “Allah” to refer to the Muslim deity and yet keep “God” as the designation for the deity of Christians and Jews? Isn’t there just as much of a difference between the Jewish God and the Christian God? Of course, Alameddine would stress that there is no difference. Indeed, he says that God and Allah are “one and the same.”
Whether he’s being completely forthcoming with his intentions or not, this argument gets rehashed every six months or so by someone in the Editorial section of a major newspaper. You also will hear something very similar to it if you ever discuss your faith with a devout Muslim. They will reassure you that you worship the same God; the God of Abraham.
But “unity” is a sticky concept. Christians desire unity, but specifically unity in Christ. Man-made forgeries of unity found in the form of political philosophies, ideologies, racial bonds, nationality, ethnicity, etc. are severely deficient and fake. I’m not saying that we should be divisive, being able to rally around a common cause or live peaceably with our neighbors is very important and something Christians should strive for. But there are certain things which are not prudent to compromise in the name of Alameddine’s conception of unity.
He may not be trying to distort language, but regardless of his intent he’s distorting theology. Allah and God are not one and the same. Give me two minutes with a Muslim and we can quickly agree on that point. Many Muslims believe that Christians and Jews, often called “people of the book,” who obey God will make it into heaven. However, I’ve never met a Muslim who didn’t think it was a supreme and unforgivable blasphemy to equate Jesus Christ with God. But if you don’t believe that, then you’re no more a Christian than you are a tree frog.
Words encompass semantic ranges and evolve over time, so Alameddine is correct to point out that languages are promiscuous and somewhat fluid (insofar as he doesn’t carry this over to meaning). However, the reality is that when two cultures mean something so radically different with one word, then wouldn’t it be better to have two words for that thing? That only makes sense. Allah may be Arabic for God, but Allah is hardly one and the same with what most people think about when they hear the word “God.”
That’s sufficient reason to leave the distinction alone, and stop wringing your hands over whether the “terrorists have won” or not. If they do win, it won’t be because we have two different words to describe two different concepts.