The Semantics of the Word ALLAH

Many thanks to friends for their encouraging response the article “Mengenali Kata Allah” written by a guest writer. You can now read the English translation given below:

The Semantics of the Word ALLAH

This article discusses the word “Allâh” from the point of view of linguistics. The word “Allâh” comes from two words: al, and ilâh. Al is a definite article (comparable to the in English), and ilâh means strong, god. In Semitic languages, this word refers to a power which is beyond the reach of human beings, a power that belongs to the gods. Already in the pre-Islamic age, al-ilâh were combined to become Allâh. In the religion of the pre-Islamic Arabs, the word is used to denote the highest god among the other gods who each has a name. But the word Allâh itself is not a name, as explained earlier. Therefore, the word Allâh was already in use before the arrival of Islam, i.e., even during the so-called ‘time of ignorance’ or the days of polytheism. The word is not a creation of the Muslims and its existence does not begin in Al-qur’ân Al-karîm. From the standpoint of linguistics, it is an ordinary Arabic word which is not specifically linked to a particular religion.

From the point of etymology and semantics, the word also appears in other Semitic languages such as the Assyrian and Babylonian languages, as well as the Phoenician Ugarit language. It is also found in Hebrew, Syrian and Aramaic which were widely used in the Middle East as far back as the 5th century BC, up to the time of the expansion of Islam and the spread of the Arabic language in the 7th century AD. The root of this word in these languages consists of two consonants: alif and lam (‘l); the pronunciation of the complete word with its vowels depends on the phonetic of each language, for example, ’el in Hebrew, and ’il in Arabic.

The corresponding word used in Hebrew and also in the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament (Tenakh of the Jews) is the word ’el in several forms: as ’el-elyôn, the highest god (cf. Genesis 14), ’el shaddai (the god whose power is mighty) and others; or as ‘’elôah (the length of its vowel indicates mightiness). Phonetically, ‘’elôah in Hebrew has the same form as ilâh in Arabic. The plural form of ’elôah becomes ‘’elôhim. ’Elôhim is most frequently used in the Old Testament, where the plural form points to God’s almightiness (pluralis maiestatis, or plurality of majesty or honours). Likewise, in Al-quran where the corresponding word Allâh appears, it is expressed in the plural as ‘we’: nahnu, kami).

Besides ’elôhim, the “tetagram” (YHVH, Yahweh) is also used, but this is the proper name of Allâh (Exodus 3:14ff.). Later, this name was no longer uttered aloud. Instead, in the oral reading of the holy text the tetagram was replaced by the word adônay (LORD) or the word sh’mâ (Aramaic, cf. Hebrew shêm and Arabic ism, which means “that name”). The word adônay or sh’ma is used only in oral reading; in the Hebrew text it is still written as YHVH. This practice invites misunderstanding among people who are unfamiliar with the custom. When vowels were added to the written Hebrew texts, the tetagram YHVH had the vowels from the word adônay incorporated in it, and this combination gives the impression that the word is read as “Yehovah”. This misconception is still upheld and defended today by several Christian sects (e.g. the Jehovah’s Witnesses) who are ignorant of the Hebrew method of reading the holy text. While YHVH is the proper name of Allâh which was later not uttered aloud, the word ’elôah, ’elôhim continued to be used in speech.

“Allâh” is not a proper name. In Islam, reference is made to the 99 most beautiful names of Allâh (al-asmâ’ al-husnà), but the word “Allâh” itself is not mentioned among them. It is only in tasawuf (mystical) Islam that it is sometimes said that “Allah” is actually God’s 100th name, which embraces all the other 99 names. But this is the language of piety or worship; it is not the language of the knowledge of Tauhid.

The translation of the Old Testament or the Tenakh into Greek (which is called the Septuaginta) was done around 200 BC by Jews who lived in Egypt. The Tetragram (i.e., the 4 letters YHVH) was changed to kyrios (which has the same meaning as adonay, Lord or rabb). From this point, the usage (kurios) was adopted by the Christians when they wrote the New Testament in Greek. Meanwhile the word ‘el, elôah or elôhim was replaced by ho theos, “the god” which also means al-ilâh or Allâh, and that was how it was used in the New Testament.

The apostle Paul in his sermon at the Areopagus in Athens avoided using the word theoi (the plural form of theos) to refer to the Greek gods. To describe the religiosity of the Greeks, Paul used the word deisidaimonesterous, which in Latin is translated as superstitiosiores, which means “strongly believe in the supernatural” (Acts 17:22). The word Paul used to describe the gods of the Greeks was daimon, that is, begu or leyak in some dialects in Indonesia, or jinn in Arabic. They are not gods, and the word ho theos is only used to refer to the true God. This point was not taken into consideration when the Bible was translated into Indonesian, for that Greek phrase was translated as: “yang sangat beribadah kepada dewa-dewa” (i.e., “worship the gods religiously”). This translation is not accurate. In the Bible, the terms used are meticulously chosen. The care shown in matters pertaining to the use of language is also evident in John’s Gospel. For instance, in the first two verses [John 1:1-2] the difference between theos and ho theos (ilâh and Allâh) was not taken note of in translations. The word (ho) theos refers only to the true God and is not used to denote the gods of the polytheist worshippers. From the academic or scholarly point of view, theology should be mindful of these differences.

Considering how meticulous the apostle Paul and other writers of the Bible were in their choice of words to refer to God, it is surprising that the word for ‘gods’ of the polytheist worshippers is translated as ‘allah-allah’ in the Indonesian Alkitab. This translation is wrong, whether from the standpoint of theology or philosophy. The word for ‘gods’ or ‘idols’ at most can be translated as “ilah-ilah” as a replacement for the plural form of âliha in Arabic. A better translation would be “dewa-dewa” (‘gods’ or ‘idols’). The spelling of “illahi” (with the double ‘l’) is also not correct.

The Old and New Testaments were translated into Syriac before the arrival of Islam. This language was a branch of the Aramaic and belonged to the group of Semitic languages. The translation was a competent piece of work done by the Jews and the Christians. The word used to refer to “Allâh” (God) is the word commonly used in the Semitic languages. It has its root in the word ’l, which in Syrian was pronounced as alâhâ (“the god”), which has the same meaning as ha-’elôah in Hebrew, ho theos in Greek and Allâh (= al-ilâh) in Arabic. So it is not surprising that the Muslims use the word Allâh (= al-ilâh) to refer to the true God, as did the Jews and Christians who had been using Arabic before the spread of Islam. Later Arabic was used all the more when their territories were dominated by the Arabs. Evidence for the usage of this word also comes from pre-Islamic Christian poems (syâ’ir-syâ’ir) and Arab-Christian writings after the arrival of Islam. At that time, there was no reason for the Muslims to bother with the language of the non-Muslims.

In summary, the word Allâh is one of the words that is rooted in Arabic and is generally used by anyone who speaks Arabic, irrespective of his religion. It was used by the Arabs in pre-Islamic time (often called ‘the age of ignorance’), and then by the Jews and Christians who used Arabic, and later by the Muslims. This happened because of the etymological background of the word itself; but its content and meaning depend on the users’ respective theological understanding, which differs one from the other.

Indeed, it is strange that the problem [i.e., the prohibition on using the word Allâh in Malaysia] should crop up in a territory where Arabic is a foreign language. Rightly, the ‘owner’ of a language should naturally be those who use it in daily living, both for general communication and in their religious life. The Arabs had no problem with other people using Arabic (including religious terms) when Islam spread beyond the Arabic-speaking territories. The different streams of religion which existed in the Middle East all used the word ‘Allâh’ according to its conventional meaning. The Arabic version of the Bible, along with the holy books of other religions, uses it based on a common treasury of the Arabic language. The word occurs in everyday language as well as in liturgies. Just how did non-Arabs arrogate the right to decide who may or may not use the Arabic language or words, when the Arabs themselves do not make an issue of it?

The shared usage of the word Allâh was acknowledged in Al-qur’an itself when the prophet Muhammad used the word Allâh in his conversations with Christians and Jews. It is recorded in the holy book of the Muslims that the Jews and the Christians used the same word. It never became an issue in the Arabic-speaking Islamic tradition that both Jews and Christians used the same term as the Muslims to refer to Him who is the object of their worship and service. Even the Madinah Covenant which was drawn up by the Prophet after the ‘Hijrah’ (an event which refers to the Prophet Muhammad move from Mekkah to Madinah and marked the beginning of the Islamic new year) acknowledged that while the Jews (and the Christians) had different religion (dîn), they were still part of the people of the one Allâh (God), meaning that they were people who worshipped the true Allâh (God). This view was reiterated in the Hadith which recorded the incident when the Christians from Najran met with the prophet Muhammad in Madinah to discuss matters relating to dogmas where they differed from the prophet. The Christians were invited by Muhammad to use the prayer room in his house to conduct their worship, because there was no church in Madinah. The prophet acknowledged that the Christians worshipped the same Allâh (God) although their religion (dîn) was different. To question or deny the position taken by the prophet Muhammad is to oppose him and hence, to oppose also Al-qur’an and the prophet’s sunna. This would be regarded as bid’at (renewal, heresy).

In Malaysia, bid’at occurs, for example, in instances where non-Muslims in some states are prohibited from using the word Allâh and other Arabic words. The people who persuaded the government to pass this prohibition are actually ignorant about Islam and its teachings based on the Al-qur’an and the Sunna of the prophet Muhammad. Their ignorance may be viewed as their own personal problem. But it becomes an issue when they meddle with other religions which they do not understand. For instance, besides Christianity, the religion of the Sikhs is also affected, because their holy books also use the word Allâh. Hence, the government’s ruling also prohibits the Sikhs from reading their holy books in their own language which they consider sacred. When the ignorant impose their opinion that other religious groups worship gods (dewa) and not Allâh (God) their assertions not only contain false accusations/charges but also come across as an act of intimidation. Such conduct trespasses the bounds of civility and morality; it is behaviour that is unbecoming of religious persons as it poisons inter-faith relationships.

In Indonesia, there is a problem concerning the translation of the first syahada in Islam. The phrase la ilâha illa ‘llâh was translated as “tiada Tuhan selain Allah” (meaning ‘there is no Lord besides God’). This translation is not correct, because the meaning of ilâh is not ‘lord’ but ‘dewa’ (god), while “tuhan” (lord) is rabb in Arabic, and not ilâh or Allâh. This need not be a problem as long as each religious community abides by its own religious teaching which is in keeping with the text and intent of the first principle of the Pancasila (i.e., belief in one God). The problem only arises when the followers of one particular religion take it upon themselves to re-interpret the teaching of another religion and instigate its adherents to depart from their own beliefs. The Christians acknowledge Jesus Christ (‘Isa al-Masih) as Lord (rabb) based on their understanding of God’s Word that reveals His nature and His will as the Trinity. Therefore to call Jesus Christ “Lord” – bearing in mind the background of that word in the Bible which is YHVH or the name God uses to identify himself in his revelation – is to emphasize that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the one God. It is impossible to deny Jesus Christ as the revelation of God or to separate Jesus Christ from God who reveals himself in Christ. At the same time God reveals himself as power through his Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of the Triune God who is one and the same, as revealed through His own revelation in three different expressions.

It is common knowledge that some Muslims accuse Christians of believing in three gods, where God is separated from Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, or even Mary. In the light of this accusation, the title Lord (Tuhan) for Jesus Christ can give the impression that He is worshipped alongside God or besides God. If this allegation is accepted as true, then Christians may be charged as having departed from the Pancasila and its principle of Belief in One God, and therefore also having departed from monotheism. This view is a misinterpretation of the Christian teaching, but it continues to be spread and cherished by those who do not understand Christianity and enjoy throwing false accusations at others. By venerating the Lord, they worship the One God.

This fact ought to challenge Christians themselves to always re-examine the language of their theological teachings and confessions of faith, so that they themselves do not give cause for misunderstandings. Flaws in the language of faith must be avoided. Say, for instance, that the Apostles’ Creed is formulated as follows:
I believe in God, the Almighty Father …………etc,
And in Jesus Christ ………etc,
And I believe in the Holy Spirit ……etc,
This would naturally give the [wrong] impression that God and the Father is the same, while the other two expressions of God (Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit) are different. Instead, the Creed should be stated in the following manner:
I believe in God:
1) the Almighty Father …, and
2) Jesus Christ …. and
3) I believe in the Holy Spirit …..etc.
Points 1 to 3 lay out clearly that God is One, and explain who He is and what He does. This “explanation” of God couched in theological language is an expression of divine revelation. That is to say, the teaching concerning the Trinitarian God is not the result of human wisdom; it is the expression of what God has revealed about Himself. This is the Christian’s understanding of God.

Actually there has never been a disagreement between Muslims and Christians concerning the first shahada in Islam: there is no god besides “Allâh” , i.e. “the God”. However, there is disagreement concerning the second shahada: I testify that Muhammad is the apostle of God (rasûl Allâh). This confession is the distinctive mark of dîn al-Islâm. But there is a statement in the Madinah Covenant that allows for differences: The people of Allâh (God) is one people (ummatu ‘llâh ummatun wahîda) but to the Jews their own religion (din) and to the Muslims their own dîn (Li-l-Yahûd dînuhum wa-li-l-Muslimîna dînuhum). This is the view and position of true Islam: one people because of one God (Allâh), but the dîn is different because the two groups have different prophets (nabi). This being so, how will those who try to instigate enmity between God’s people (ummat Allâh) stand before the prophet of Islam himself?

Based on the etymological background and traditional beliefs among religions which in the Islamic tradition are called “heavenly religions” (al-adyân as-samâwiyya), the Muslims who now live among Christians in Europe or America and speak European languages, have long demanded that they be allowed to translate the word ‘Allâh’ into European languages and consequently, Allâh has been translated as God, Gott, Dieu, etc. Initially, they were prohibited from doing so by some church officials who alleged that “Allâh” is a god other than the one known in Europe. But the Muslims’ claim could not be rejected, because “Allâh” is not a proper name. God (Allâh) is one; the differences exist only in beliefs (or religious understandings resp. religions). The Europeans could have followed the example of those who level false accusations against others, and in like manner prohibit Muslims (as well as followers of other faiths) from using certain European words. This was a possibility because at the back of their minds was the idea that “Allâh” is the name of a god worshipped only by Arabs and Muslims, and therefore cannot be uttered in the European languages. Ironically, the European prohibition would amount to an accusation the other way round, that is, Europeans imposing a restriction of the use of Allâh to Muslims alone.

But it is certainly strange when a government deems itself to have the right to meddle in other people’s beliefs and religions. What would happen if the Buddhists in Malaysia or Indonesia decide they want to prohibit Muslims from using terms and phrases which originated from the Sanskrit but were subsequently incorporated into the Malay language? Before the arrival of Islam, during the period of the Sri Wijaya empire, the Buddhist tradition brought in words like dosa (sin), karunia (gift), manusia (human), syurga (heaven), duka (sadness), suka (joy), rasa (feeling), cita (desire) along with many other words which have religious connotations.

Language is a communication tool among human beings. If we want to convey something accurately, then we must be accurate in our usage of words. Three world religions acknowledge Abraham (Ibrahim) as the ‘forefather’ of their faith. These religions share many similarities, but there are also differences. To explain their respective beliefs, they often use the same language or ‘words’ although these words may bear different meanings in accordance with the tenets of their beliefs. The Arabic-speaking Muslims brought to South-East Asia the language of monotheism. This language was adopted by the Malay Muslims, as happened in North India (Urdu) and even in Persia. The Christians who spoke Malay and who were also monotheistic defended the language along with other Arabic words because they found many familiar connotations as a result of a shared history in the development of their religions in the Arabic-speaking Middle East. When the Bible was translated into the Malay language in the 17th and 18th centuries the same words were used. Meanwhile the Malay language became the national language of both Indonesia and Malaysia, so it is not exclusively a ‘religious language’. Therefore freedom to access and use the linguistic treasury of the Malay language today is the right of the whole nation, not just one section of it. To deny this is to raise questions not only about religious issues but also about national issues, for this is an attempt to create conflicts among the people groups.

No doubt there is a problem. But the problem has to do with dogmas or ‘aqida’ because the three heavenly religions have different dogmas concerning the same God (Allâh), whether pertaining to His reality, His revelations or His actions. But dogmas are one thing, and language as a communication tool among men is another. A philosophy or a particular religion cannot set the boundaries for the usage of a language. This also applies to the Arabic language which is man-made (by the Arabs). Even supposing God (Allâh) – as the Muslims believe – chose the Arabic language to give His final revelation, the language is still human language, not a sacred language. As a means of communication, the language may be freely used by anyone who wishes to use it to communicate with others.

Alquran accepts the plurality of religions (din). God alone is the ultimate judge of which religion is true and which is false. Meanwhile, believers of all persuasions are invited to compete in doing good things (al-khairât; Sura al-Mâ’ida 5:48 and elsewhere: “so strive as in a race in all virtues”). To make false accusations and provoke people of other faiths is not included in the list of virtues, or al-khairât.


  1. Dear Mr.Weng,

    As you may had access to early Arab Christian and jewish writings, What is the word they use to translate Syriac Aloha (ܐܠܗܐ) or Hebrew Elohim(אלהים)?
    As your writings, I expect that they use the word Elah(اله) to translate the above two words. Is that true?
    So when they used the word Allah(الله) in their writings?
    As my knowledge Maimonids used the word Allah(الله) wherever he wanted to mention YHWH(יהוה)
    Please guide.

    Many thanks about your treasure knowledge!

    Sepehr Mohamadi

  2. Kristian Sugiyarto says:

    Allah is a proper noun (proper name). It is never found to be plural, and no possessive suffix such as, my/your/their/his/… – Allah as to be the case in all proper nouns, istead of “my Ilah” etc. Thus it is never found to be construct form such as Allah of Abraham/Ishak/Yakub, but “Ilah” of Abraham/Ishak/Yacob.
    If the word “Allah” comes from Al + Ilah, then we should be able to change that word in any sentence; in fact we never can do that. E.g. We can’t change the word (Arabic) “Allahuma” into “Al-Ilahuma”, or “Ya Allah” into “Ya Al-Ilah” but “ayuha Al-Ilah”. Thus the Theory Allah = Al-Ilah is certainly nonsense.
    Ilah in English is God (for the true one) or god (for the false one).

  3. Kam Weng says:

    Kristian Sugiyarto’s Understanding of Grammatical Rule is not Quite Right

    Obviously Kristian S. says just the opposite of what the article says, but I stand by what I wrote based on my understanding of Arabic grammar.

    Allah is not a personal name. It is a generic word and therefore follows the grammatical rules of other generic words in Arabic as whenever it becomes connected to some determinator (e.g., personal pronoun, “mudaf ilaihi” ) determinating a second noun like “the father’s house”. Where the second word, house, is determined by the first word it loses its article; you cannot say: “the house the father’s”, or “the father’s the house”. It is bait al-âb and not: “al-bait al-âb”.

    Now consider the case of Allah = al-ilah: in: “Abraham’s God”, God (“the God”, “Allah = al-ilah” is determined by Abraham and therefore has to lose its article as well. This means Allah is used without the article, that is, ilah: ilah Abraham. As such, “Allah Abraham” is impossible, or grammatically incorrect. You will not find it in any Arabic translation of the Bible or elsewhere.

    There is a plural form of ilah(god): âliha, “gods” or with the article: al-âliha. However, “al-ilah” is only contracted in the singular form.

    I can think of a similar rule in the Hebrew language which is a cognate/Semitic language with Arabic –
    The word in the construct state never takes the article. When the compound idea is definite, it is (not the word in the construct but) the genitive (following it) which takes the article, thus we have:
    ´îš-´élöhîm 1Samuel 9:6 – A man of God.

    ´îš hä´élöhîm Deuteronomy 33:1 – The man of God. It’s not hä ´îš hä´élöhîm

    More immediately related to usage of el/elohim we have
    ´élöhê ´abrähäm and not ha ´élöhê ´abrähäm – Genesis 31:42, Exodus 3:6 and Psalm 47:9 – ´élöhê being masculine plural construct

    Similarly we find,
    yad hä´élöhîm 1Samuel 5:11 and 2 Chronicles 30:12 – The hand of God

    In the simplest form of the noun, the feminine singular and masculine plural change their forms. However, the masculine singular and the feminine plural do not change externally (forms) but they are recognized as constructs by the maqqeph accompanying them

    Of course, we cannot change the word Allah in any sentence as we like it. We have to follow the grammatical rules! In the case of Allahumma, there is no personal suffix added, but it is given an emphatic expression, and therefore Allah remains. The same goes with Yah ‘llah! God is called at, but this is not given a different grammatical position.

    Maybe Mr. Kristianto should read the Arabic Bible. If he thinks that “ilah” in English is “god”, this is only partly correct. It is “a” god, without determining article “the”. If you mean “the” (true”) god and not any god, then in Arabic you must also use the article as determinator, again as long as ilah is not terminated by another word of suffix.

    I shall give some further clarifications since the original context of the article dealt with the translation of the word Allah in the Malay/Malaysian/Indonesian language.

    The translation of Allah with “Tuhan” or “Lord” is not correct. Tuhan, in Arabic, means rabb, in Hebrew adonay, in Greek kyrios, while Allah is (ha-)elohim or (ha-)eloah, or ho theos. God (Allah) and Rabb (Tuhan, Lord) are quite different words with their own semantics. And if someone wants to extend the problem and includes that of the proper name, then the proper name of God in the Old Testament is YHVH.

    Now take the case when we call a human being whose name is Ali. We call him Ali and not manusia or adam which in Hebrew means “human being”, although he is of course manusia, or adam. God’s proper name in the Old Testament was read aloud from the Hebrew text for theological reasons – lest it be pronounced wrongly and as such would amount to an abuse of God’s name. The word YHVH was substituted by adonay for the oral reading of the Hebrew text. It bears repeating: YHVH was substituted in the text by reading (not: writing!) adonay while the words related to elohim etc. remained untouched as they were, in reading and in writing.

    Since YHVH which was given the equivalent adonay in Hebrew was translated by the word kyrios in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), it was natural to use the word kyrios as the equivalent of YHVH in the New Testament.

    The confusion/problem with the translation of the word Allah and its cognates in the present controversy arises simply because Malay is not Arabic. While for any Arab – and Arabic is their native language, be they Muslim, Christian, Jew or what else – Allah is clearly perceived as a generic word following the grammatical rules. But for non-Arabic speaking people these unfamiliar terms may lose their original meanings and become a kind of enigma. Hence they understand Allah and its cognates as something of a proper name. This is, linguistically speaking, a misunderstanding of the Arabic words.

    The understanding of “Allah” as a proper name reminds us of the perception of the Europeans when they first became acquainted with Islam. Because of their inadequate knowledge of Arabic they considered Allah “to be the name of the idol worshiped by the Mohammedans”. Every Muslim would, of course, feel offended by such an expression. Unfortunately, such a misunderstanding persists precisely because some people continue to those hold the view that”Allah” is a proper name.

    When these misunderstandings become inculturated in the new culture (in this case Malay), there arises additional difficulties when one tries to point out the original meaning given the sensitivity associated with the use of the word in religious discourse. Nevertheless, we should not perpetuate such misunderstandings by avoiding sensitive religious disagreements. It is important that proper instruction pertaining to the linguistics/semantics of the words be given to clear up the misunderstanding.

    It is significant that because Allah is only one, he needs no other name. Saying “the” God (Allah) makes it clear who is meant. If he would need a proper name to distinguish him from other gods (âliha) then he would not longer be perceived as the only true one. If Allah is considered to be a proper name, this would imply that there are other gods with comparable proper names.

    Such would be the case among human beings: All are human, but all have their proper names because there are many. If there were only one human, it would suffice to call him just Adam (= human being). This one human then does not need a proper name.

    It should be stressed that sensitivity about religion is not the sole prerogative for Muslims. Muslims should also take into account the religious sensitivity of other religionists. Imposing a linguistic taboo that bans the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims is an act that offends the sensitivity of non-Muslims. The ban is even more unacceptable given the fact that the use of Allah is a long established linguistic phenomenon in the history of these Arabic speaking communities – long before even Muslims appeared on the stage of history. One may liken the present Muslim act to make it a taboo to use the word Allah as a magic symbol since it attempts to nullify a concrete historical tradition and render it non-existent by a decree/mantra.

    Response from the writer of the article

  4. […] Fortunately, a recent comment responding to an earlier article, The Semantics of the Word Allah LINK provides a fitting opportunity for us to demonstrate why the view of Allah is a proper name is […]

  5. […] further discussion see my earlier posts: “The Semantics of the Word Allah” LINK and “Allah is not a Personal Name” […]