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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.

Tags: allah, arabic, christianity, franklin graham, god, islam, pat robertson, pope, pope benedict, the god


  1. I went on pilgrimage to Christian and Baha’i holy places in Israel earlier this year. I prayed at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth.  The Roman Catholic priest, a Franciscan, greeted his congregation with “Bismillah” (In the name of God—in the name of Allah).  I recognized the cadence of the people saying the rosary—I was raised with it.  They were saying, all in Arabic of course, “Holy Mary, Mother of Allah, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, amen.”  Look for the Hail Mary in Arabic on YouTube, verify for yourself.  To all Arabic-speaking Christians—Evangelicals, Catholics, Coptics, Orthodox—Jesus Christ is Ibn’Allah—the Son of Allah.
    End of discussion.

  2. When I first started teaching Arabic at the University of Georgia, while we were talking about the word “Allah” once in class, a Freshman in my class from Griffin, Georgia (about 38 miles from downtown Atlanta), who happened to be an Arab Christian of Lebanese or Palestinian descent, stated the following: “I get really steamed when people say that Allah is the god of Muslims. That’s just wrong. We use “Allah” to mean God in our church!”

  3. Safi appears to contradict himself.  If “Allah” means “God,” then the Pope said: “May the blessing of God, the one and only god, be with you all.”  If you translate a sentence, then you need to translate the whole sentence.

  4. Regardless of translation, there is still immense symbolism in this gesture - not just to the Arab speaking world, but also to the Western world. Intentionally or not, The Pope has shown people that while Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others may have very different backgrounds and beliefs, we also have a number of similiarities and shared interests. And this understanding is as good a starting point as any for respect, tolerance, and acceptance of other faiths.

  5. The text and audio are now available, and it turns out that my report yesterday was based on a reasonable, though false assumption. The blessing was from “Al-Rab,” or “the Lord,” and translated by the initial reporters as the general word, “God.” I updated my post here:

  6. hi Michael, thanks for the clarification. I’ll make the appropriate changes.  I should, as you recognize, that even using al-Rabb still has significance for Muslims, because the opening lines of the Qur’an read: 
    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.
    So Rabb also does signal something powerful to Muslims as well as Christians.
    Omid Safi

  7. If the Pope had used the word Allah, it would’ve had enormous symbolism, but not necessarily only the kind you’re hoping for.  Islamophobes world over would point to it as proof that the jihad/caliphate/“Islamofascists” were taking over the globe, even the Vatican.  Linguistic nuances are lost on such a large scale.  The Pope realized the same point.  Al-Rabb was a respectful choice of words but did not _symbolize_ any kind of syncretism or acceptance of Islam—even though, as you point out, nothing of the sort would have been implied if people looked at the language alone.

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