Muslims believe in God, but their name for him is Allah, which literally means “God” in Arabic. Since Christians also speak to and about God, is it right for a Christian to refer to God as “Allah?”
Names for God
In prayer and general conversation, Christians say “God,” “Lord,” and “Father” to which they might add “Almighty” or “Heavenly.” He is Elohim, and sometimes Yahweh or Jehovah. Writings about Jesus give us “Savior,” “King,” and “Immanuel,” and there is also “Spirit,” “Holy Spirit,” “Helper,” and “Comforter.” Since Christians believe in the Trinity, these are all names for God. Scripture does not, however, show Jews or Christians calling on “Allah.”
Each name for God describes an aspect of His character: Adonai (Lord, Master); Jehovah Jireh (The Lord will provide); and El Shaddai (Lord God Almighty). El Roi (King); Jehovah Raah (God as Shepherd); Abba (Father); and Jehovah Shammah (the Lord is there) are more intimate.
These names emerge during events where individuals experience God in precise, personal ways. When Gideon built an altar to the Lord where an angel had instructed him to make a sacrifice, he was afraid. “The Lord said to him, ‘Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die’” (Judges 6:23-24). Gideon named the location Jehovah Shalom or “the Lord is Peace. David, running from the murderous King Saul, still knew God as his protector, his “Shepherd” or “Jehovah Raah” (Psalm 23).
When Christians call on “God,” they call on all of the characteristics above and more besides. There are simply too few words in the English language to flesh out the fullness of God. “Allah,” however, lacks the same richness of meaning and also lacks the many positive connotations above.
Denotation vs. Connotation
The denoted meaning of a word is its superficial definition while its connotation requires context. If I mentioned my father in conversation to some friends, they would picture a man similar to their experience of “father:” loving and accessible or perhaps cruel and domineering. That word carries with it a connotation derived from personal history and observation. A dictionary definition of the male member of a household who contributes 50% of his children’s genes is inadequate to obtain a full picture of “father” as the speaker or listener sees him.
Mr. Daniel Janosik of Columbia International University makes an interesting point about word usage. “Allah” denotes “God” as far as definition goes — these words mean the same thing superficially. There is also a connotation to the word depending on context and speaker. A Christian living in the West would confuse listeners by referring to Yahweh as “Allah” because westerners associate Allah with Islam. According to the Muslim belief system, God is one being, “distant,” not relational. He is “arbitrary” and “is said to deceive people.” One cannot be assured of salvation as a result of Allah’s inconsistent use of power and his power is far more important than his love. He is not the Trinitarian God of Christianity; not helper, son, father; not friend, shepherd, or counselor. Muslims see Jesus as only a mortal man and a good moral teacher.
Yet, when Christians in Arabic-speaking countries cry “Allah,” they recognize the fullness of Father-Son-Spirit. “Arabic Christianity eventually took root among many of the Arab tribes in Syria-Palestine and flourished throughout much of Mesopotamia. Even after Islam emerged, many Arabs held tenaciously to their Christian faith and continue to do so today.” In other words, there are thousands of men and women calling on the name of Allah who speak to a loving Father through Christ the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. Their “Allah” is Lord, Savior, Comforter, Guide, and Friend.
Middle Eastern Christians know the difference between the two versions, but should they stop saying “Allah” and start calling Him “Lord?” “It’s important [...] to guard against dictating to non-English speaking persons what word or words they should use in their own languages to refer to God, particularly if the Westerners weighing in have no knowledge of the languages or cultures they’re critiquing.” God knows what His children think and feel when they say “Allah.” He also knows how risky it would be for one of these children to cry out “Jesus” or “Yaweh” in a country so hostile to Christianity.
Can Muslims Call on the Lord?
Muslim and Christian understanding of right and wrong is similar. They would both argue that modesty in dress is important; that people should not steal, commit adultery, etc., but Muslims fear they can never be good enough or do enough to please the arbitrary Allah. Christians know the Lord has forgiven all those who believe in the resurrected Jesus and trust in Him for salvation. They are saved by grace, not by works. These beliefs are opposed and our names for God are indicative of what we believe.
Muslims are not calling on the same God as Christians or, at the very least, they have a false and limited understanding of his nature. While Christians can call on Allah without blaspheming, Muslims cannot address the Lord by all of the monikers which describe his loving and close relationship to people without challenging their notion of God. They would not call on the Shepherd or Father. The Lord is not Peace (Jehovah Shalom) and He is not Shammah unless by “God is there” one means “way over there” rather than “He is there in our suffering.” He is certainly not “Immanuel,” “God with us.” Even Muslims in countries like the United States and Canada, known for religious liberty, would refrain from calling on Allah by any of these Christian names. They would not know this God, even though God knows and pursues them.
Christians, who understand the God they worship, think of a figure who is both powerful and loving. He drew near and remains close by His Spirit. Muslims do not believe that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave, victorious over death. Whereas we were once dead in our trespasses (Ephesians 2:1), we claim the power of His victory over our sin because His Holy Spirit lives and works in us to conquer the power of our flesh. He is close, intimate; not cold, inconsistent, and unreliable. As names go, Allah is one-dimensional and unapproachable. As Father, Son, and Spirit, He was made for relationship and has also made us for relationship with Him.
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