A rose by any other name…?

red-roseCatholic Bishop Martinus “Tiny” Muskens of the Netherlands — a uniter, not a divider — has suggested that we could bring the world’s three major religions closer together if everyone used the Islamic name for God — Allah.

Allah is a very beautiful word for God. Shouldn’t we all say that from now on we will name God Allah? … What does God care what we call him? It is our problem. — Roman Catholic Bishop wants everyone to call God ‘Allah’

If, as some suggest, Jews, Christians and Muslims all really worship the same being, Bishop Muskens’ idea makes sense.

What’s in a name?

Language is a human invention. The attributes we ascribe to God, including his name, are descriptive, not literal. Thomas Aquinas said that we can’t speak literally about God because our languages fail us. Language can’t perfectly capture the infinite and timeless God precisely because language is a product of the material and temporal.

Are our words meaningless, then? Not at all. God has in fact revealed himself to us — we know a good deal of truth about God, despite our limited ability to fully understand — or describe — the Almighty.

Therefore, Aquinas said we talk about God in analogies, making comparisons between what we know in the world around us and that which we wish to illuminate about the nature of God.

In speaking about God, we use words which are normally employed with respect to things in the world. But, insofar as we speak truly, we will be latching on to something [about God] whose way of being what we say it is differs from that of anything else we describe in the same manner. — Brian Davies, The Thought of Thomas Aquinas

Words are symbols for real things. The names of God in the Bible symbolize some of the true things we know about the living God.

Elohim is the name given to God in Genesis 1. It’s a compound word meaning something like “strong-faithfulness,” or “mighty and faithful.” Elohim is a plural noun. Christians interpret that as a hint about the trinity, God as a single being whose essential nature is expressed in three individuals: God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jehovah or Yahweh is the name given to God in Genesis 2:4, the name often rendered Lord in English Bibles. Scofield says this word means “the self-existent One who reveals himself.”

This God wants to be known. This God is relational and created a world full of beings with whom he can have a relationship.

Jehovah is frequently compounded with other Hebrew words to create a series of beautiful analogies to God’s character: Jehovah-jireh (the Lord provides); Jehovah-rapha (the Lord heals); Jehovah-nissi (the Lord is our banner); Jehovah-shalom (the Lord is our peace); Jehovah-ra-ah (the Lord is my shepherd); Jehovah-tsidkenu (the Lord is our righteousness); Jehovah-shammah (the Lord is present).

Bishop Muskens is sadly mistaken. It does matter what we call God, not because God cares, but because these names benefit us. They were given to us by the “God who wants to be known” to illuminate our dim minds and to help us imagine the unimaginable.

So then, it’s fair to ask the question, what does “Allah” mean, and what does it reveal about the character of God?

The answer, unfortunately, is very little.

According to Wikipedia, Allah is “a contraction of the Arabic article “al” and “ilah” to al-lah meaning “the [sole] deity, God.”

Not much is revealed to us in that name, Allah. It would seem that the God of Islam holds his cards very close to the vest.

The God of Israel, by contrast, is comparatively flamboyant with language, painting vivid word pictures designed to reveal himself to his creation.

There’s quite a striking contrast here. In fact, such a huge contrast that it raises legitimate questions about this very ill-informed notion that we all worship the same God.

Words mean something. Allah and Jehovah are not interchangeable, not by a long shot. Bishop Muskens could use a theology refresher course.

(For another take on the importance of names, see What’s in a name?.)

Photo credit: Lars Burgstaher, stock.xchng

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  1. Interesting points. I rolled my eyes a bit when I first read the article about the Dutch bishop. But I’ve not been entirely opposed to the idea. I believe etymologically the word “Allah” has the same roots as “El” and “Elohim”, the other Hebrew words for God that appear the the OT. Sure they don’t necessarily have the same theological richness of the divine name YHWH, but they are part of the original texts. When Arab Christians open up their Bible’s they read “In the beginning, Allah created the heavens and the earth”.

    Also worthy of note is that our English word “God” has its root in the Germanic “Got”, who was a pagan diety. Language is dynamic, it changes with changing contexts.

    All that said, I’m still pretty sure this Bishop is a bit off here.

  2. Not to be argumentative, but I don’t believe the multiple names of God benefits most people. Nor do I believe that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all referring to God as Allah is going to “bring them closer together” (I am interpreting that the Bishop means in a peaceful co-existing state, not in the sense of having a religion comparison chart) And if he means the latter, that would be against the principle ideals of ANY evangelical religion, to be comparatively the same. There for it is a contradictory thought.

    But, back to the idea of God’s nature being revealed in his names…I don’t know any people that typically refer to God as Jehovah-jireh or Jehovah-nissi, nor do I know anyone that has had a divine revelation due to those names being spoken. Personally, God’s character to me is revealed through the beautiful stories in the bible, through friends, nature, philosophy, astronomy, etc. In moments of divine appreciation or praise I may pray or worship God and personally voice my viewing him as my provider, my guide, etc. Which is what I think was happening when those names were etched into the Bible.

    Does that make any sense? I just wanted to be able to contribute to the cool conversation topic here. I hope i wasn’t trite.

  3. Charlie,

    As I understand it, Allah is just a generic name for the Muslim God, while his nature is said to be expressed in 99 other names.

    BTW, I think it’s ironic how that line from Shakespeare is so often used to imply that names don’t matter, when the whole play hinges on the fact that they do (whether they should or not…). Does the bishop really think that merely changing terms is going to bridge the massive theological and cultural gap between Christianity and Islam?

  4. I was somewhat surprised by the Bishop’s idea. What ancient manuscript does he have that has Allah in it? Seems to me I don’t remember that in the original Hebrew.

    And, not to be pedantic, but Jehovah (or YHWH) is usually rendered LORD, in order to differentiate it from “adonai” (lord). Which once again proves your point: it is important.

  5. For another Catholic’s point of view, consider Dominican J.A. DiNoia, O.P. I think DiNoia charts a better way through the Scylla of exclusivism and the Charybdis of inclusivism than Bishop Muskens. (Dutch Catholicism has been more edgy than mainstream Catholicism).

    In “Jesus and the World Religions” (FIRST THINGS, June/July 1995, he gives a succinct discussion of salvation, and how pluralist theologies of religion do not address the real disagreements between religions, but rather explain them away,

    His “The Diversity of Religions: A Catholic Perspective,”published by Catholic University of America Press in 1992 is longer, a magnum opus. See the Amazon site for a review.

    Bottom line: all truth is God’s truth; but Jesus Christ is the fullest, finest, and final expression of that truth.

  6. He needs his head read. Really. Allah is not the same God as the true God, who is fully expressed in Jesus. It may be a nice academic exercise in the Netherlands, but it is something else for the Korean hostages held by the taleban right now.

    The etymological arguments don’t hold for me – Allah is one of trio of false gods, another being Allat. Mohammed’s famous “Satanic verses” were of course originally allowing polytheism, and Allat, a female deity to the male Allah, was allowed to be worshiped.

    People have died because they refused to forsake the true God and say the shahadah. i.e. they refused to name Allah as their God. William Levi was tortured to try and make him convert in Sudan during the time that 2 million of our brothers and sisters were martyred.

    If the bishop could perhaps consider the blood of the martyrs and spend less time being the latest synergistic messenger of universalism that would be a step in the right direction.

    I’m back.

  7. Pat Slomanski says

    The god of the Muslims, Allah, is NOT the God of the Judeo-Christian heritage. The name is not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures. When Moses asked God about God’s name, the Hebrew is translated “I AM WHO I AM.” Of course, there are other names given to God within the Scriptures. You have mentioned them, but Allah is not one of them. Jesus Christ, God in the Flesh, is the only founder of a world religion who has conquered the last enemy – death. Mohammed didn’t. Buddha didn’t. Confucious didn’t. And neither did the others. Thanks be to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!!!