Balancing Arabization According to the Qur’an and Sunnah


Balancing Arabization SeriesPart I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII Part VIII Part IX

We are blessed with the only preserved revelation on Earth which has been proven to be the infallible word of God (exalted be He). The Holy Qu’ran is the miracle of miracles. Those who have been blessed with the knowledge of the living language in which it was revealed know the sweetness of it. On the other hand, the rest of the Muslims believe in this as a part of faith.

It was this amazing reality which led me to rigorously study the language of the Qur’an through a daily regimen for 5 years in the Middle East. Since then, I have been an avid reader of Islamic sciences according to the classic and contemporary works in the Arabic language and believe thoroughly that this is the only way to attain true scholarship of Islam. What I am suggesting is that once you have been blessed with that sacred knowledge, the next proper step is to make sure it is articulated correctly in the language of your homeland. This is the wisdom of God Almighty.

14:4

“We merely sent messengers preaching in their people’s native tongue so that they may clarify to them the guidance…” (Qur’an, 14:4).

In this article I want to analyze and attempt to correct—with God’s help—the confusion that has come as a result of the pride of the Arabs and the inferiority complex of the vast majority of Muslims who don’t know Arabic. This critical analysis will take many off guard, but it is in keeping with the Qur’an, sunnah (records of the sayings and actions of the Prophet ﷺ, peace be upon him) and practical experience. Anyone who has met Muslims, their leadership, and, even in many cases, their scholarship knows that we have a lot of work to do before we can assume that the way we are doing things is right and not up for debate.

In this article I will revisit some accepted norms among the Muslims in the west. I pray that the opinions presented are taken and respected for the evidences they are based on and not disrespected due to lack of popularity. The reason for this research is the same as the reason I do any Islamic research—to see if our rich tradition of understanding Islam can be presented more efficiently to the masses, Muslim and otherwise.

Issue #1 - Defining the Creator in English—God vs. Allah

The only real argument for seeing it as a must to keep the Arabic word ‘Allah’ to describe the Creator  in English is that He revealed and preserved the Qur’an and referred to Himself as الله.  The hole in this argument is that the Creator revealed other scriptures to other prophets who spoke other languages which came before Arabic (God willing we’ll talk about this later) or to another nation, most commonly the Jews (children of Israel). According to centuries of sound scripture and tradition ‘YHWH’ is the Hebrew equivalent to ‘Allah’ in Arabic. They also have ‘El,’ ‘Elohim,’ ‘Adonai,’ ‘Shaddai’ and many others. Are those prophets and their followers wrong for calling upon God in the language He revealed Himself? You might say fair enough, but still that doesn’t serve as evidence to call Allah (swt) ‘God’ since we know there was no revelation sent to people who spoke English. I mention this to broaden your horizons or de-Arabize our understanding of “the names of God.”

Now why should we call the Creator ‘God’ while speaking English? First of all because Almighty God said so in the Qur’an:

29:46

“Do not argue with the people of the book except with that which is better and do not argue with those who have oppressed you. Tell them, we believe in what was revealed to us as well as that which was revealed to you. Our God and your God is one in the same and we submit to Him” (Qur’an, 29:46).

Christian and Jewish Arabs have been calling God ‘Allah’ for centuries. They do this while believing polytheistic and un-Qur’anic ideas. It is part of our mission as Muslims to define God  according to His final revelation. This whole insistence upon using the word ‘Allah’ gives the wrong indication that we worship a different God than the One worshipped by the people of the scripture. That is counterproductive to the command in the aforementioned verse and it is against our fundamental belief that there is only one God! Yes, people define and worship Him differently, but our call is to teach everyone with love and compassion who God is and how He should be worshipped.

In driving home the point let’s make a linguistic comparison between the word الله and the word ‘God’. In Arabic ‘Allah’ comes from the root ء – ل – ه.This root refers to that which is worshipped or deified. When given the alif and lam (two Arabic letters corresponding to ‘a’ and ‘l’) for definitive recognition it means The Supreme Being Who created the universe, knows and has power over all. This is noted and seen as the correct view according to the great scholar Ibn Manthoor, author of the great Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab. Okay so what does God with a capital G mean? According to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary it means “The supreme or ultimate reality: as the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe.” If we go to the World English Dictionary we get, “The sole Supreme Being, eternal, spiritual, and transcendent, who is the Creator and ruler of all and is infinite in all attributes; the object of worship in monotheistic religions.” I ask you, who is this in Arabic?!

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33 Comments

  1. MW_m says:

    Was the article cut-off? There’s a heading issue #1 but there are no further issues discussed

  2. Noah says:

    Asaalam Walkum Br. Yahya,

    Wonderful topic. I have just started to understand the vast Classic Arabic language of the Quran. It truly makes the Quran move from black and white words to “Color” for myself.

    Yes, you did highlight that the Alif and Lam make it definitive since within the Quran there is the usage of the word “god” (LAA) in comparing to the word Allah.

    The other interesting note is that he word “god” has been watered down in our society. For example: in Titles of Computer Games, as close non-family member “god-mother, god-father”, etc.

    As you highlighted, in a discussion in interfaith talks using “God” and Allah interchangeably. Although in Muslim gatherings using Allah with the explanation of difference.

    Thank you again for the wonderful topic and I look forward to the upcoming articles.

    Peace

    • Abu Majeed says:

      And I pray the peace, blessings and mercy of God be with upon you br. Noah,

      I appreciate your comments while disagreeing with your assessment of what I am saying. I am not talking about in just interfaith settings. I am saying with the proofs mentioned that while talking Arabic you would say الله , but while talking English to anyone or anywhere you would say God. :)

      JAK

  3. Panopticon says:

    This article is perfect and pointed on so many levels.

    Probably one the largest impediments that Muslims face in non-Muslim nations is insisting on using Arabic terms in place of English (aqidah for theology, iman for piety, etc.) All other language is naturally in English, and when strung together seldom do imams get their point across when using such conceptualized terms; everything usually feels rather unnatural and clumsy.

    While that’s more of a personal annoyance, I feel what is definitively unacceptable is arguing that using Allah is superior to using God, and this often coalesces into a Arabic-over-English argument. The notion that English is somehow inferior to Arabic, that Arabic possess “divine” qualities is absurd beyond belief. Conversely, it leads to the undermining point that “God” is definitively inferior to “Allah”, and so on.

    Terrific article, though.

  4. Atif says:

    Assalamu’alaykum
    I think there is a distinction between speaking to Non-muslims and Muslims. When speaking to non-muslims I see the case that we should refer to Allah as “God”.
    However when speaking to Muslims, I don’t see why we should.
    I would prefer not to refer to Allah (‘azza wa jall) as “God”, because “God” is just a description and not a Name like the Divine Name Allah. I would rather refer to Him by His Name and not merely a description.

    This brings me to ask a question about the bigger picture (which I’m guessing you will address later): what’s so bad about using Arabic terms? Every science has it’s own definitions and terminology, and our Islamic science has it’s own terminology which happens to be in the Arabic language. We’ve seen throughout history that as Islam was spreading, Arabic words became integrated into the languages of those nations. This can happen with English inshaAllah as well.
    I also feel that some words are better left untranslated (they can’t be translated with one word, like taqwa for example). Finally, when Islamic speakers use Arabic words, this builds one’s vocabulary and helps in understanding the Qur’an.

    Sorry for the rant, this is just something I have thinking about lately. :) baarakAllah feek.

    • Abu Majeed says:

      May the Peace, blessings and Mercy of God be with you Atif,

      As for the first paragraph I would only answer to say- with all due respect- please ponder over the article again sentence by sentence and your question will be answered. I understand that you were raised to believe that this idea and many others we will- God willing- present in this series are just pure Islam to which there is no other way, but the understanding you have is not etched in stone truth from the Prophet (pbuh) it is a mere interpretation of widespread popularity. I am bringing a less popular, but just as- if not more- valid interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah.
      To add to this point I will remind you of a famous supplication said in witr prayer often especially in Ramadan which comes from an authentic hadith found in musnad Ahmad vol. 5 #267. It is a supplication which takes away depression and anxiety and in it God says أو علمته أحدا من خلقك which means whatever name you have taught someone from Your creation other than revealed in Your book.
      When we look at the meaning God is definitely one of those.
      والله أعلم

  5. Thank you for having the coureage to write about this somewhat controversial issue. Before reading this article I believed that the word God should not be substituted for Allah. However, after you defined the term God through the Merriam-Webster dictionary you really convinced me!

  6. Unfortunately, I could not agree with the article and have found it distasteful. I would like to make it clear in this regard that I am a fanatic proponent of saying ‘Allah’ in place of ‘God’ or any other words.

    One of the reasons for not using the word God is it can have feminine: like God and Goddess. However, when Allah chose His name, He chose a name that is neither masculine nor feminine, and this name is totally unique.

    Another reason, the word God can have plural: Gods. As one brother has pointed out, the word ‘God’ is thus reduced to a common noun which simply describes an entity who is worthy of being worship. God may thus refer to ‘ilah’. Allah on the other hand specifically refer to the God who the Muslims worship.

    At the end of day, while it is true that Muslims from various parts of the world can preserve their respective cultural traits as long as those traits do not contradict the any tenet of Islam, I personally believe that we Muslims are supposed to build one nation, and a nation cannot be united unless there is a common language, and every member of that nation takes pride in it. It is the sunnah of Allah that He chooses something over other. Like He has chosen Friday over other days as the day of worship. Among the months, He has chosen Ramadan. Among the languages of the world, He has chosen Arabic. Just like no other month can be equivalent of Ramadan, just like no other days cannot be equivalent to Friday, no other language simply cannot be equivalent to Arabic, since Allah has chosen Arabic as the language of His Best Book and His Most Honorable Messenger.

    • Abu Majeed says:

      السلام عليكم أخي

      Dear Brother, how do you feel about الله referring to Himself as الرب أو الكريم أو القدوس أو العليم إلخ. Was He teaching us about Himself by meaning or by special holy words which can only refer to Him??? Before answering remember that many of these titles/names/descriptions by which He refers to Himself are also titles HE uses to refer to other than Himself. BTW the word الله was around before the Prophets message and as I mentioned God refereed to Himself with other titles in other scriptures in other languages. Were those not His names??? When you go into a reading with your mind set then it will be hard to pay attention to anything that disagrees with your set ideas. It is a part of growth to read seeking truth based in evidences the best of which are the Quran and Sunnah.

      If indeed you did read the article, please read the article again pondering deeply over each point. Keep in mind this part of my intro-
      “I pray that the opinions presented are taken and respected for the evidences they are based on and not disrespected due to lack of popularity.”

      I think you will benefit on future parts of this series like “Is Arabic the language of heaven and did Adam speak Arabic?”

    • Abu Majeed says:

      In the dictionary the difference between الله و إله
      Is similar that of God and god with a lower case.

      • Sarah says:

        Also one shouldn’t forget that one of the idols that Quraysh worshiped was called Al-Lat, literally The Goddess.

        Allah literally means The God, so I don’t see why the word God shouldn’t be used. Personally when speaking English I tend to use both names.

    • su says:

      Dear brother or sister, in English there is a distinction between the capitalized proper noun God and the uncapitalized common noun god. The capitalized proper noun is not pluralized. When you see the word Gods it is still the common pluralized noun; the capitalization is either an error or a poetic/creative effect.

      I agree with you that Arabic is special and important to our faith.

      May the Eternal One, the All-Knowing, help us all to know better.

  7. N. says:

    The word God likely comes from the proto-Germanic gudan or the Sanskrit hu.

    Why do we use germanic or Sanskrit words when we speak English?

    I think these kinds of English/American purity articles really admit to the fact that being american, being from the west, speaking english means always to have been influenced at core by other cultures and languages.

    They also kind of hint at this american fear of other languages (when I was growing up there was a huge movement against spanish), especially compared to other parts of the world. In europe it is expected to speak several languages, whereas in america there is this really rough insistence on not only the primacy of english, but of english only.

    I think as americans (american muslims) we need to look at ourselves and see what we are bringing to the table culturally; at least as much as we have our microscopes out analyzing the immigrant cultures we encounter through islam.

    To the point. Difference attracts, inspires curiosity, opens, provokes movement to inquiry, and change. I think the Arabic language is a magnet.

    O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. (49:13)

    I use the word God sometimes, and I will sometimes say Khoda Hafiz to friends who use this (khoda is the word for God in Persian and Urdu) but I most frequently use the word Allah.

    This discussion is not new, I’ve heard its pros and cons many times since I accepted Islam. So maybe if the consensus shifted to using Allah, that was based on the merits and not merely the force of popularity.

    In any case, there are points on each side, and I think it shows respect to assume people are intelligent enough to listen, kind of digest it, and come to their own conclusions, while keeping open to reviewing from time to time.

    I don’t choose to mainly use the word Allah because of an inferiority complex or I’ve been hypnotized by Arab pride by the way.

    Jazakum Allahu khairan for sharing your opinions.

    • Abu Noor Al-Irlandee says:

      N.

      Absolutely beautiful comment.

    • Abu Majeed says:

      Dear brother N. السلام عليكم,

      I appreciate your balanced comment and I pray you are blessed this Ramadan. I do have a couple issues with your comment. First the point about the origin of God being Germanic makes a lot of sense being that English is a Germanic language much more than Latin. In root. The German for God is Gott. Now the Sanskrit claim of hu being the root is far fetched. God is not a German word, but of Germanic root just as the whole of English is.
      We have a lot to offer culture wise to the west in our faith, morals, and character. I just don’t get why we seem to present ourselves as so monolithic and religiously proud about the language it was revealed in rather than the message we represent. We are being seen as foreigners and as long as that is the case our Da’wa will continue to fail.
      God in the English dictionary is the same meaning as الله in the Arabic dictionary. So why are we so stubborn especially considering the verses of the Quran mentioned in the article?
      In my experience it is Arab pride which is a result of an inferiority complex since now the west is the major influence of the world and has had partial to much control over the Arab world for centuries.
      I am not saying it is wrong to say Allah in English just redundant and stubborn to accept the truth. I leave you with the translation of Allah in the American heritage dictionary.
      Al·lah   [al-uh, ah-luh]
      the Supreme Being; God.

    • N,

      I did not say anything other than personal preference dictating your opinion. If you intended by your comment a refutation of the article, then I was hard-pressed to find where you refuted it point by point.

      That said, Europeans speak more languages than Americans by virtue of geography. Europe consists of several countries, many of them within a day’s drive of 3-4 other countries. I can drive for days and still be in America, and therefore have no need to speak a second or third language. You are comparing one country (America) with a continent (Europe) and as such, you are comparing apples and oranges.

      • Twenny says:

        Actually… America does take up nearly a continent, widthwise from Atlantic to Pacific ; and should you attempt that drive, you might just find that a second language, Spanish, comes quite in handy, especially as you head through the southwest. Your point was well taken but not quite illustrative of what you meant to say.

    • Reed says:

      “Why do we use germanic or Sanskrit words when we speak English?”

      English is a Germanic language and both German and Sanskrit derive from a common Indo-European ancestor. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-European_languages

  8. Chrysalis says:

    Salam Alaykum,

    Interesting article! I think this issue matters a lot specially when interacting with non-Muslims or new converts who may not be so used to the world ‘Allah’. I used to use the word ‘God’ with non-muslims, but did not look at it from the angle explained in the article. JazakAllah for that.

    Using the word ‘God’ with non-muslims might have a better effect, since they are familiar with the terms and have emotions attached to it.. whereas the name ‘Allah’, no matter how beautiful – is still meaningless to them [nonmuslims] and might be unconsciously taken as ‘some other god’. Pyschology & Emotions play a huge part in good da’wah.

  9. Mun says:

    Peace! (See how I translated “salaam” there? Haha.)

    Anyway, my mum was telling me that “Allah” is God’s NAME, and was hence different from calling Him “God”. So I’m assuming you disagree with that? Does God even have a name?

    Thanks and God bless. :)

  10. Abu Majeed says:

    May the Peace, Blessings and Mercy of our Almighty Omniscient Creator be upon you in this blessed month,

    He is known by many names and titles which all relate to meaning and many Prophets with different languages received revelations with different “names” and many people have made names for Him based upon those same meanings. Glory be to Him and the Praise is all His. God willing- In the next article we will look at why some people are adamant about this. :)

  11. Faraz Mir says:

    Masha Allah (What Allah willed), wonderful article Br Yahya. May Allah (God) give you the tawfeeq (Divinely inspired motivation?) to educate the Muslim masses and to spread His final revelation to non-Arabic speakers.

    I applaud this effort, but part of the difficultly in the translation of Arabic terms and concepts is the occasional difficultly in conveying the full meaning – and as a result, translations can sometimes appear quite cumbersome.

    This is in part due to our own lack of depth when it comes to the English language…which itself is very rich, having produced such literary and poetic geniuses as Shakespeare, Byron and Wordsworth….only problem is, most people no longer speak that kind of English any more…so we’re trying to translate a well preserved classical language into a modernised counterpart which has lost much of its richness.

    Still, a much needed endeavour. And essential if we are to make Islam seem more natural to our fellow countrymen in the West.

    Faraz Mir
    England

  12. Ruh says:

    Excellent article, can’t wait to see the rest. I am very happy that someone is raising this to teach us how to do better da’wah.

    I know that many Arab Christians use the word ‘Allah’ for God. Using ‘God’ with non-Muslims breaks down barriers straight away, speaking in the language of the people is extremely important.

    As Faraz said, we need to make the faith natural and easy to understand and interpret. This deen is for all of mankind, not just for the East.

  13. Maryam Amir-Ebrahimi says:

    Same responses and questions over and over! May God bless you, father of Majeed! Please keep them coming soon!

  14. S.I. says:

    Assalamu alaikum, thank you for bringing this topic to light. I have always found myself gravitating towards using God, esp. in public discourse and communication/social media outlets. I think the Arabic language is unique, and Quranic language should be studied by any Muslim trying to gain a deeper access and appreciation for our Faith. And I will admit that no word translated from its original language (whether Arabic or Spanish or Farsi etc.) can convey the same depth of meaning as the original. However, God is not a translation, but as its English definition beautifully illustrates, God is Allah. Allah is God. I like using Lord as well, for instance when translating duas ill say my Lord, when referring to Rabb. Lord, God, are instantly associated with the One Supreme Being. When I talk about God, despite my hijab on, my co workers consider my words relevent to them, they don’t have to think twice about whether or not my words pertain to them and THEIR God… And they’re much more willing to partake in the convo. I can instantly connect with anyone, from any racial/cultural/religious bg. Every culture has a name for God, I.e. as someone mentioned, “Khuda” in Farsi/Urdu. Islamic scholarship in the Urdu language has frequently used the term Khuda. So it is not giving up the special place of Arabic in our religion, if we call the One God, the God of all of humanity, the Lord of all the worlds, God. I think our own unwillingness to use a common language of discourse is a reason our dawah tends to attract other Muslims instead of appealing to a huge portion of our communities who are sincerely searching for the truth. Our pride, insistance on using that which is most comfortable or “normal” or will make other Muslims happy, and refusal to think outside our comfort zones, is detrimental. May Allah, God, protect us from intolerance and lead us to acceptance of the Truth, Haqq, wherever it may be and in whatever form. Ameen!

  15. Joey says:

    Salamu Alaykum Brother Yahya. A Christian freind of mine read your article and gave this comment: “”One thing I would point out is that YHWH doesn’t translate the same as Allah. YHWH translates directly as I AM, which is what we take God’s proper, self-given name to be, although we most often call Him “God” as a title-name. It is El or Eli, not YHWH, which is the Hebrew equivilant of Allah in terms of directly translating as “God” or “the God.”””

    Any response? Thanks!

    • Reed says:

      Eloah would be the equivalent of Allah if you’re thinking about the topic etymologically. But if you’re thinking in terms of names, then Yhwh and Allah can be considered equivalent.

      On a side note, Yhwh is an imperfect (not present tense) verb that can also be translated as “I will be” or “I shall be” or even “I was.”

  16. Veandercross says:

    YHWH when translated and expanded is Ya Huwa in Arabic (Oh He). So in that literal sense, it doesn’t translate to Allah like say “God” would but it refers to His Majestic Title of “Oh He”. In other words, it’s referring to the same entity.

    • Reed says:

      Related to my comment above, Yhwh is the first person imperfect (in English: “I was” or “I am” or “I will be”), so there is no “he” in it. This is a Hebrew word not Arabic.

  17. Fatima says:

    I am not from the West, but I would argue that much of Western culture is quite contrary to Islam, so why fight so hard to be a part of it or assimilate into it and search for similarities between it and Islam? If you believe in Islam, you shouldn’t need to. We non-Arabs of the East also have high regard for Arabia, because the Quran was revealed there in their language and it remains the center of Islam, but the regard is far from an inferiority complex. I think this article relates only to the West and maybe only to America, where Arab immigrants and other Americans (immigrants, reverts) interact on sometimes equal and sometimes unequal footing.

    I wouldn’t use the word God where it matters (eg to teach my children), as it is now used by polytheist faiths (Christian trinity) and can refer to Jesus, too; or Ishwar in Sanskrit as it originated from a polytheist faith (Hinduism) and may refer to any incarnation of ‘God’ as they believe. I would use Khuda, as it comes from Persian and later Urdu language which was born in Islam.

    • SI says:

      You are not from the West, which makes your comment understandable. Had you been born and raised a practicing Muslim in the West sister Fatima, I think you would have had a very different opinion of the people and their ‘culture’ which is not as contradictory as the television and radio stations make it look. I would argue that we are not trying to give up our faith, rather we are living up to the true principles of Islam which came as guidance for English speakers and Urdu speakers and Turkish speakers and speakers of every other language on this planet. subhanAllah. And the word God is not referring to the Christian God, it is an ancient word that was used even before the advent of Christianity… But Allahu Alim. And God knows best.

  18. Awesome says:

    I’m Arab and I Always thought about it the way you mentioned.
    I usually use the name Allah only when I speak arabic but when I speak english I say “God” most of the time instead of Allah because I believed that “Allah” -which is a beautiful name that has a nice rhythm in Arabic- does not rhyme well with English. At least, That’s my opinion.

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