Allah – The Noun and the Name
The Root of Confusion*
Confusion continues to reign over some Malay Muslim scholars, as is evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah, because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic languages.
Definition of Proper Noun
Confusion begins when we learned in elementary school the traditional definition of a noun: a noun “refers to a person, place, or thing.” But this definition is inadequate as it excludes words like ‘explosion’, ‘moment’, thunder, etc.
Modern linguists therefore define nouns not in semantic (meaning-based) terms but in distributive terms, that is, how they are used in relation to other syntactic categories in the language. The English language has the convenient usage of the determiner ‘the’. Hence, ‘the explosion’, ‘the moment’ and ‘the thunder’ are recognized as nouns.
A further distinction is traditionally drawn between proper nouns (sometimes known as proper names) and common nouns.**
A proper noun is a noun representing unique entities (such as John, Lassie, Athens), as distinguished from a common noun which describes a class of entities (such as man, worker, star, city). Proper nouns refer to particular individual entities.
The relation between proper nouns and individuals is not necessarily one-to-one, however.
In the examples given above, John may refer to many different individuals having that name, e.g., John the Baptist, the Apostle John or the President of USA. Athens can refer to a city either in Greece, Ohio or Georgia. I call my dog Lassie, because I want it to have the qualities of intelligence and loyalty like the famous dog Lassie in TV.
Proper nouns function as pointers. A pointer can be used to direct our attention to different and unrelated items. Likewise, a proper noun can be used to refer to different and unrelated individuals. That is to say, proper nouns are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). In fact, proper nouns can refer to objects with different qualities. Newton can refer to an individual who discovered gravity, the writer of the famous hymn Amazing Grace or even to a town west of Boston.
Proper nouns are contrasted with common nouns grouped together by virtue of sharing certain (common) properties. Common nouns have intrinsic semantic contents and cannot be used arbitrary. For example, a dog is a dog and not a cat.
How do these grammatical insights apply to the controversy on Allah?
To begin, we hear the constant refrain from some Malay Muslim scholars who insist that the word Allah may be used only for Islam on grounds that Allah is a proper noun.
Pre-Islamic and Early Arabic Use of the words al-ilah and Allah
First, it should be noted that Allah comes from al-ilah (the god). I refer readers to my earlier discussions and shall only point out that the word ilah (Hebrew: eloah, Aramaic: elah in cognate Semitic dialects, etc is a common noun (god).
A pre-Islamic archaeological inscription (dated ca. 512AD) found in Zabad (60km south-east of Aleppo) shows the word al-ilah was already used by Christians:
[d] (k) r ‘l’-’lh bn’mt Mnfw w-Tlh’ bn Mr’ l-Qys w-Srgw bn S’dw w-Strw w-Syl [.] thw.
The initial clause is translated as “God remembers Serge son of Amat Manaf”…
This inscription shows incontrovertibly that al-ilah was used within a Christian context before the emergence of Islam.
Note here the use of the definite article with the generic term for god (ilah) was seen as suitable to denote the Christian God. The well-known linguistics scholar Toshihiko Izutsu concurs when he cites the poet AI-Nabighah writing a praise to his new patron, King Ghassan in the famous poem Ghassaniyyat. His praise of the Christian Ghassan says, “They have a nature, like of which Allah has never given to any other man, that is, generosity accompanied by sound judgement that never deserts them. Their Scripture’ is that of God (al-Ilah, the original form of Allah), and their faith is steadfast and their hope is set solely on the world to come”. See, God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Quranic Weltanschauung (Keio University 1964, reprinted by Islamic Book Trust 2002), p. 116.
We note here the simple grammatical rule – the word (ilah) that accepts a determiner is de facto is a common noun. Following the rules of grammar, adding the determiner ‘the’ to the word ilah (al-ilah) makes it a definite common noun. In the development of history, monotheists like Jews, Christians and Muslims used the generic word, common noun (ilah, eloah) in their confession of belief in the one and only God. In this monotheistic context adding the determiner ‘the’ to the singular common noun ilah (al-ilah = Allah) gives a denoting phrase to a specific individual and object or a proper definite description and allows it to function as a proper noun. In English, the noun may conveniently be capitalized as ‘The God’. Sometimes, as allowed in certain contexts, even the determiner may be dropped, as in the case of monadic (only one) nouns
I gave the example how an Englishman may simply say “God save the Queen”. That ‘the Queen’ is a proper noun referring to one individual called Elizabeth, or that the Englishman declares loyalty only to that one Queen does not rule out the fact that the word ‘queen’ is a common noun, and other people have as much right to declare allegiance to their own queens and other people respectively may call their queens as ‘The Queen’.
[ See my earlier discussions:
The Semantics of the Word Allah LINK
Allah is Not a Personal Name LINK ]
The Englishman cannot forbid people of other nationalities from expressing loyalty to his/her ‘Queen’, ‘The Queen’ (e.g., the case of Denmark or Sweden). Likewise, even though Christians in England have been praying to the Christian deity as ‘God’ for 1400 years, there is no law in England to prohibit Muslims from using the word ‘God’ in their prayers or religious discourse; a fortiori, Muslims have no justification to prohibit Malay speaking Christians from using the word Allah, especially when the Christians were already using the word (Allah, al-ilah) before the emergence of Islam.
Confusion between proper noun and personal name
Muslim scholars who appeal to the word Allah as a proper noun to claim exclusive use of Allah are trapped in the old linguistics which views words as isolated, self-defined semantic (meaning-based) units. But modern linguistics has exposed this approach as inadequate and misleading. Instead, for modern linguistics the meaning of a word is concretely derived in relation to other syntactic categories in the language.
As discussed above, the relation between proper nouns (proper names) and individuals is not necessarily one-to-one and proper nouns are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). “A proper name [is] a word that answers the purpose of showing what thing it is that we are talking about” writes John Stuart Mill in A System of Logic (1. ii. 5.), “but not of telling anything about it”. Mill’s description of proper name is still accepted, albeit with some qualifications in the context of contemporary debates in linguistic philosophy. In the parlance of contemporary modal logic, Allah is not a rigid designator which designates (picks out, denotes, refers to) the same thing (person) in all possible worlds in which that thing (person) exists (re: Saul Kripke). In common language, Allah is not a personal name.
David Kiltz after carefully analyzing the pre-Islamic archaeological inscriptions and early Arabic writings concludes that Allah is not a personal name.
“So what was understood in Arabia by the use of allah? Firstly, the word seems to be employed to denote a specific god as in the Qaryat al-Faw inscription, invoked next to other gods. Also, it would appear that it can be understood as ‘the specific god in context’, i.e. the one whom I worship or who is related to a certain sanctuary or the like, as perhaps proper names like Nabûllah ‘Nabû is the god’ suggest. Even Wahballah may be interpreted that way. i.e. allah could not only be taken to refer to a god named allah but also as meaning ‘gift of the god’, scil.[to wit], ‘of the god whom I worship’. In this case allah would function as a generic term [emphasis added]. This interpretation would also account for the high number of personal names that contain the element Allah against the scarcity of the word occuring in isolation… That means that in actual inscriptions, the name of the god invoked is mentioned, whereas in names a particular god is only implied but simply designated as ‘the god’.”
Kiltz finds support for this use even from the Quran (43:87, 10:31 and 39:38) and concludes,
“These verses seem to address ‘polytheists’ rather than Christians or Jews. Hence they would seem to suggest belief in a supreme creator God among ‘pagan’ Arabs. In brief, we find the use of allah denoting either ‘the god’ in a specific context or an individual god who might have been viewed as a ‘high god’ before Islam. The term was also used by Christians to denote their God.”
“To sum up, Arabic allah denoted a specific god, in the sense of ‘the god in question’ or an individual god who, at least at some point, had assumed the role of a ‘high god’. The word was therefore, on the one hand, suited to be taken over into Syriac as a generic term for ‘god’, especially so, because in the receiving language the Arabic definite article did not necessarily manifest its determining character [emphasis added]. On the other hand, in Arabic and on the Arabic peninsula, it was understood as ‘the god’, and thus lent itself to the designation of the monotheistic God, as, next to Judaism and Christianities, ‘pagan’ henotheistic or even monotheistic tendencies were already present.”
Taken from David Kiltz, “The Relationship between Arabic Allah and Syriac Allaha” Der Islam bd 88 (Waler de Gruter 2012), pp. 33-50.
To conclude, comparative philology and historical linguistics of the cognate Semitic languages suggest the word Allah, al-ilah is not a personal name that refers exclusively to a unique individual or that it refers only to the supreme deity of Islam. Morphologically the word Allah is a proper noun [assuming we accept the capitalization, since capital letters do not exist in Arabic and ﷲ in a manner of speaking could well be allah , ALLAH or Allah]. An English speaking Muslim is at liberty to use the word Allah (capitalized) as a proper noun which is a noun representing unique characteristics. In reality what determines if something is a proper noun or name is the context. For example, in the sentence, “My favorite uncle is Uncle Tom”, the first ‘uncle’ is a common noun, but the second ‘Uncle’ is part of a proper noun. It is possible to turn a common noun into a proper noun/name ,”Muslim gathered the second most important collection of hadiths for Muslims.” The proper noun/name (Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj is used together with the common noun, “Muslim”.
[Additional note added on 4 March 2014 – Malay readers will understand how the following words which originally were either common nouns or adjectives have been adopted/transformed into proper nouns/names for newborn babies:
Ahmad (praise, commendable), Megat (great one), Rayan (gate of heaven), Danish (clever, merciful), Haziq (skillful, intelligent), Ashraff (benevolent or honorable), Iman (honorable).
Some Malay parents may decide to call their son “Hakim (judge)” since they have high regard for justice. They have a right to use the common noun “hakim” as a proper noun/name “Hakim”, but by the same token, they cannot deny the right of other people to the customary usage of the word “hakim” as a common noun. Likewise, some Muslims (in this case, only some Malaysian Muslims in contrast to Indonesian Muslims and the Arabic world) may decide that “ﷲ ” for them is a proper noun/name. Still, by the same token, they cannot deny other people the customary usage of ﷲ as a common noun (whether in reference to god in general or to the One High God)].
Our discussion of Allah in the Semitic context shows that the actual word usage (when the word is not viewed in isolation, but in relation to the other syntactical categories in the inscriptions) allows for a generic or a range of meanings depending on the deity referred to in different contexts. This brings to mind the revolutionary dictum of James Barr that meaning of a word is not its etymology but its contextual usage. The generic function of the word Allah aptly illustrates the linguistic principle mentioned above: Modern linguists therefore define nouns not in semantic (meaning-based) terms but in distributive terms, that is, how they are used in relation to other syntactic categories in the language.
Confusion arising as the Malay language (Bahasa Malaysia/Melayu) has no definite article.
Confusion continues to reign over some Malay Muslim scholars, evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of the definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic language.
In the Arabic language the definite article is quite clearly denoted as “ta’rîf”, the one which makes known or which defines, and a word standing in an undefined position (in English either “a” or nothing at all) is “nakira”, the “unknown”.
Allâh, coming from al-ilâh, clearly is defined by the article, the “ta’rîf” “al-” (English: the) which has to go whenever the word is determined by another word. The presence of the determiner also confirms that Allah is not a name as every name is determined by itself, e.g., we have “Muhammad” and not al-Muhammad.
Note – Similarly, Quirk and Greenbaum authoritative Grammar points out that in English, “We may therefore draw a distinction between a proper noun, which is a single word, and a name, which may or may not consist of more than one word. A name normally functions as a single unit with respect to grammar. This means that, even if a composite name has an internal structure that is grammatically analysable (eg as King’s College is analysable as genitive noun + head noun), that structure cannot normally be varied by the insertion of words, by change of inflection, etc.” (p. 288).
The word that can be determined (and consequently morphologically inflected in the case of Semitic languages) is not a name. For example, the al- disappears when Allah is determined by another word, e.g., The God of Abraham (Ibrahim) becomes ‘ilah Ibrahim’ and not ‘Allah Ibrahim.’ Conversely, names are not inflected or modified as a result of their syntactical relations in the sentence. In short, the modification of the words ilah and Allah confirms that Allah is not a personal name.
Summary: Proper nouns/personal names are pointers to individuals without themselves defining the semantic content (qualities etc). That is to say, proper nouns/personal names are just labels applied to some individuals in specific contexts. The context determines whether something is a proper noun/personal name.
Regardless, our discussion has demonstrated that the word Allah has no rigid designation. It is not a personal name. The semantics of the word Allah as a proper noun (properly nuanced) shows that there is no justification that the word be used exclusively for the supreme deity of Islam.
Additional note – Being context specific, personal names are not translated between languages. Muslims may claim they are consistent when they use Allah as a personal name and declare in English, “there is no god except Allah”. But they will have to stick to the word “Allah” and render it unchanged as “Allah” in English. Otherwise, they are contradicting their claim that ﷲ is a personal name when they use Allah ﷲ as a universal concept referring to “the god”, “God” or “the one and only God for all mankind”.
Confusion continues to reign over some (otherwise intelligent) Malay Muslim scholars evident from their fumbled handling of the semantics of Allah because there is no definite article in the Malay language. It would be helpful for them to reconsider the significance of definite article in the Arabic and other Semitic languages.
For an authoritative, exhaustive (and exhausting) discussion on nouns see, “Nouns and Determiners” in Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum etc, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, chapter 5, (Longmans 1985), pp. 241-331.
* The meaning and role of proper names is recognized as one of the most recalcitrant problems for modern analytical philosophy. This problem is compounded when our discussion shifts between languages – Arabic, Hebrew, English and Malay. This article seeks to clear some ambiguities that remained in some of my earlier articles – See, “The Semantics of Allah” and “Allah is not a Personal Name”. My basic position remains unchanged.
** Note: Proper names are distinguished from proper nouns. A proper noun is a word-level unit of the category noun, while proper names are noun phrases (syntagms) (Payne and Huddleston (2002), p.516). For instance, the proper name ‘Jessica Alba’ consists of two proper nouns: ‘Jessica’ and ‘Alba’. Proper names may consist of other parts of speech, too: ‘Brooklyn Bridge’ contains the common noun ‘Bridge’ as well as the proper noun ‘Brooklyn’. ‘The Raritan River’ also includes the determiner ‘the’. ‘The Bronx’ combines a determiner and a proper noun. Finally, ‘the Golden Gate Bridge’ is a proper name with no proper nouns in it at all. See “Names”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Note: Some minor revisions were added on 23/10/2013 to clear possible misunderstanding.