Several news agencies are reporting that after his visit to Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI included Arabic in the languages that he blessed and prayed in, stating in Arabic: “The pope prays for all people who speak Arabic. May the Lord bless you all.”
Initially, there were a few sources (including this one!) that had been led to believe that the Pope used the phrase Allah in Arabic. If the Pope spoke in Arabic, the only word for God (Capital-G, “The God”) is Allah. What the Pope would have said in that case would have been: "Baarak Allah fi-kum." ("May the blessing of Allah, the one and only God, be with you all.") Or as we say down South, “May the blessing of Allah, the one and only God, be with y’all.”
It turns out that the Pope had actually used al-Rabb, meaning "The cherishing and sustaining Lord".
May the Blessing of the Lord (al-Rabb) be with you.
Even the term al-Rabb is a powerful reminder of the connection among Jewish, Christian and Islamic conceptions of God
Indeed, the Qur'an begins with this phrase:
Bism Allah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Alhamdulilah RABB al-‘alamin
In the name of God, All-Merciful, Compassionate
All Praise Belong to the cherishing and Sustaining Lord (Rabb) of all the Universes.
But let's spend a moment on the original assumption: What if the Pope had said Allah? Would that have been such a major surprise?
It is a simple point, really. “Allah” is not a proper name. It is simply an Arabic word that is the contraction of al-ilah. “Al” is the Arabic designation like Le or La in French, making something into a definite noun. Ilah is the generic word for a deity. So Al+ilah means “The” god, the one and only God. "The God” that we all know what we are talking about. The One God of the whole cosmos. In other words, well, God.
Allah is not somehow the Islamic God to the exclusion of others. It is simply the word for God spoken by anyone who speaks Arabic. Arabic speaking Christians use the word Allah in their language, as do Arabic speaking Muslims.Even Arabic speaking Jews (there are thousands all over Morocco and North Africa) would use the word Allah.
Want more? Jesus said Allah. (Almost.) To the best of our knowledge, Christ spoke Aramaic. The Aramaic word for The God? Elah or Alaha. See the etymological similarity to Allah, al-ilah? Alaha (Aramaic), Allah (Arabic). Nor surprising, given that they are both Semitic languages.
In other words, saying “Allah” does not make someone a Muslim, or a believer in “the Islamic God.” It only means that one is speaking Arabic. In the same way that in English we use “God”, in Persian “Khoda”, or in German “Gott.”
Saying “God” doesn’t make you Christian or Jewish or Muslim, it just makes you an English speaker. Likewise saying Allah doesn’t make you Muslim, it just means you are using an Arabic word. And Arabic does not equal Islam. More than 80% of the world’s Muslims are not Arabs. Not all Arabs are Muslims.
Really, these are basic points. We shouldn’t have to keep going over these basic points, but obviously not everyone is getting the memo.
We still hear from Christian fundamentalists who somehow see “Allah” as an Islamic deity, in distinction to the Jewish and Christian god. One example is Pat Robertson, in whose strange universe Muslims (adamant monotheists) are moon-worshipers: “The struggle is whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah God of the Bible is Supreme.”
Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, has said: “Does bowing down to Allah mean the same thing as worshiping the God of the Bible?”
So as long as there are religious leaders who are either terribly mis-informed and ignorant or deliberately obfuscating the truth, we have to keep explaining.
And thanks to the Pope, we have a teaching moment.
May God bless y’all, indeed.
In any language you speak.