We create an enormous barrier to communication if our starting point is, “You Muslims are worshipping a different god from the God we worship. We worship the true God; you are therefore worshipping an idol or something that doesn’t exist.” Even if we don’t state it quite as bluntly as this, if we assume it and communicate it, there is a huge barrier to overcome. How much better to start with…
Every language has its word for “God” which is used in translation of Scripture and within any particular culture and language. Allah is the Arabic word for the English “God” just as “Dios” is in Spanish. It is the word that has been used for centuries by Jews and Christians in the Middle East and actually pre-dates the founding of Islam in the seventh century. Bibles translated in predominantly Muslim countries into local languages such as Indonesian, Malay and Bengali use Allah as the biblical reference to the sovereign creator God.
To not use “Allah” for God would require the use of a foreign word that would not be understood in the local language. Ironically, the word “Allah” comes from the same root word of “Elohim” of the Old Testament, while our English word “God” has no etymological relationship to the biblical YHWH or Jehovah. In fact, it comes from the German “Gott” and was derived from the name of a pagan viking deity!
Use of Allah in Muslim literature refers to the God who created the world. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (and Ishmael), and other prophets known in the Old Testament. To introduce another identity than the monotheistic sovereign creator deity of the Bible and known as Allah by Muslims would create a formidable barrier to communicating biblical truth.
The concern is understandable that if “Allah” is used in Christian witness that the theological distortions of Muslim understanding will be carried over, resulting in syncretism or heretical concepts of God shaped by ones Islamic background. Certainly, this requires adequate teaching and discipling just as it does in our own culture. And we should be confident that when one comes in genuine repentance and faith to Jesus Christ that God is able to reveal Himself in spirit and truth to a new believer.
Is there more than one God? No, there is only one God, and He can be known only through Jesus Christ. We must not confuse cultural and linguistic bridges of communication in seeking to transcend diverse worldviews.
The Muslim World (TMW) is one of the leading academic journals covering Islam worldwide. Strange it would call its own history “bigoted”.
It was founded in 1911 by Samuel Zwemer, a founding father of Protestant missions in engagement with the oft-rival monotheistic faith. Now published by Hartford Seminary, like much of the Protestant mainline its original evangelistic fervor has faded. Still I was startled to read the concluding sentence of an informative historical biography TMW published in commemoration of their 100th edition:
“A century later, TMW has successfully broken ranks with religious provincialism and bigotry, and lives up to the present motto of the Seminary “exploring differences and deepening faith.””¹
Is this a fair account of all but TMW’s most recent scholarship…
Reza Aslan grew up in a nominally Muslim family in Northern California, and converted to Christianity at age thirteen. After two decades of rigorous research into the origins of Christianity he concluded he had previously been duped, and returned to Islam (xix). He now claims to be more devoted to Jesus than ever–a “committed disciple” (xx) of the “real Jesus”–not the “Jesus of faith.” Aslan thinks his portrait of Jesus, hidden behind layers of theology and centuries of interpretation, may in fact be more accurate than what the Gospels present (xxviii). His book is for the general audience with the express purpose of prying the historical Jesus away from the Christ of Christianity (120, 215-216).
Zealot shot to the top of the bestseller list due to a notorious interview on Fox News, where Lauren Green began by asking the author why a Muslim would write about Christianity’s founder. After that the discussion went downhill, recording the anchor’s ignorance (bias?) of Islam, and the author’s vigorous self-defense as scholar, who just happens to be a Muslim. Throughout the tense dialog, Aslan repeated his credentials three times: he has four degrees and is an “expert” in the history of religions. New Testament scholars would agree that he is a scholar on the history of religions, though not of early Christianity (his PhD is in sociology). But rather than question an author’s credentials, it is more helpful to discuss the contents of his work.
Having previously read the author’s No god but God, I was eager to purchase this book, but found it disturbing and unconvincing. It is poor scholarship in that the author confidently relies on outdated and untrustworthy sources. He does not seem interested in grappling with those who believe New Testament writers, like Luke, wrote with diligence and integrity. Finally, though some of the history is interesting, and the author engaging, there is little that resonates with how most Muslims see the prophet Jesus. Here, he is presented more like a failed Muhammad. A statement in the Introduction of Zealot seems to sum up the author’s own bias: “Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.”