Early Disciples Called God “Allah” – Or Am I Reading Scripture Wrong?

Allah

Okay, Whoa! Slow down. I’m glad the provocative title for this post brought you here. Breathe. Yeah, I can show you where I read it, but first it might be helpful to take a second and let you calm your emotions as I give you some background on why I’m writing about this topic.

I read an article this morning by my friend, Martin Accad, the director of the Institute of Middle East Studies at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He entitled his blog My Allah is More Authentic Than Your Allah! It’s a thoughtful treatment of the news of Malaysian lawmakers’ recent decision to disallow the Christian use of the Malay word that Muslims use for God.

The Patron God of Drug Dealers

Let me give you a real life scenario that seems similar to me, and see if it makes sense to you. Years ago I visited prisoners in the county jail and shared what I knew about Jesus with them. One day a guy told me that he felt fulfilled because God had made him the best drug dealer that he could be.

What do you say to that?

I could have told him that if he believed that God approved of dealing drugs then we weren’t talking about the same god. I could have further demanded that he not use my word to refer to his deity and refuse to talk to him unless he switched to some different name.

Hmmm. Isn’t the point of having words to fill them with meaning? Dictionaries and discussion help us to negotiate what they mean, and we talk about words to help us solve how we understand them.

So, really, we have two issues here. The first question is whether or not it’s appropriate to use the same word; the second is about the meaning we give that word.

Early Christians Worshipped Allah

Let’s start by proposing that followers of Jesus can feel comfortable using the word Allah to talk about God. Keep calm; the Bible itself says its okay. You can trust this. If you like, you can check what I’m going to say by turning to the second chapter of the book of Acts in the New Testament.

On the Day of Pentecost, there were Jews gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world, because it was one of the annual feast days where God required his people to offer a sacrifice at the temple. In verses 9 through 11, we get a list of all the nations represented in the crowd. Notice the last one?

Arabs.

The narrative relays how the disciples attracted a bunch of attention. The Holy Spirit enabled them to speak in the languages of the people present, but that they themselves did not know. When the Arabs heard them proclaiming the wonders of God in Arabic, what word do you suppose it came out as?

Allah. It’s the Arabic word for God.

How many people spelled God “g-o-d” on the Day of Pentecost?

High Percentage of Early Adopters Among Arabs

The passage goes on to say that 3,000 people believed that day and joined those in their previous number – effectively becoming the first 3,120 spirit-filled followers of Jesus on the planet.

Let’s do a little math, shall we? Just for the sake of simplicity, let’s say that there were equal numbers of people in the crowd from each of the fifteen listed nations. That means there were around 200 Arabs. Check my calculations (200/3,120 = 0.064).

I think this suggests that about 6% of the initial members of the first believers referred to Yahweh as Allah – over 300 years before Mohammed arrived on the scene.

The problem is not who owns the word. When Arab Muslims and Arab Christians each use the word Allah today, the real issue is that they disagree over the character of the one whom the name describes.

Does this idea impact how you’d relate to a Muslim coworker? How would you go about negotiating meaning in respectful dialog?

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Family Treachery and The Kingdom of God

WelcomeHomeMy children awoke one morning to find their daddy home after a business trip. While I was still peeling myself out of bed, one of them (whom we will name “Abel” to preserve anonymity) set to work on the alphabetical refrigerator magnets to spell out, “Welcome home Dad. I love you.”

As I came into the room, “Cain” (another pseudonym) was looking over Abel’s shoulder with a frowning face. They hadn’t seen me. As Abel bent down to look for another letter in the basket, Cain squeezed in between, scraping the letters that had already been placed on the fridge with a shoulder. Abel wailed. Cain was unrepentant; “You’re not even spelling it right.”

I didn’t feel welcomed home.

“Mind your own business, Cain,” I said sternly as I started making coffee. Abel resumed working with the critic still standing by. I was on the fourth scoop of coffee, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cain use both hands to swipe the letters down to the floor. Abel was crushed and wept with frustration.

The Heartbreak of Not Being Known

There was discipline, not commendation, given for Cain’s editorial skills.

I was disappointed–mostly from being misunderstood.

Why would I demand spelling perfection from Abel after all the times that I had glowed over Cain’s own mispellings? How could my children not know that the thing I longed for most was to see them loving each other, whatever they created for me?

I’ve said again and again that my greatest desire is to have a family who cares for each other and is kind and generous. Cain has known me since birth and still didn’t know what would please me.

Applying The Parable

It dawned on me that God must constantly face the same disappointment.

I’d just heard from a longtime friend, whose situation didn’t seem too different from the conflict between Cain and Abel.

This friend has committed his life to deeply understand the Greek, Hebrew and Arabic languages. His goal is to accurately translate the Bible in a way that overcomes inherent linguistic difficulties that cause Muslims to misunderstand its meaning.

He told me of critics who had characterized his work as theologically inappropriate and attacked it in inflammatory blogs. The eyes of the world seemed stirred up against him, threatening to destroy his efforts.

Due to the intricate, technical nature of his work, it was difficult for him to express his defense adequately to those who’d already made up their minds and condemned him. I mourned with him over what soldiers would call “friendly fire.”

The Human Condition

There’s a Muslim saying that’s frequently quoted in the West: “My brother and I against our cousin. My cousin and I against the infidel.” We repeat this as proof that Muslims are hopeless warmongers, but the sentiment closely resembles our own tendency to attack each other when lacking outside persecution.

I think it would honor God much more to encourage each other’s efforts and learn to be a gracious family.

…Oh, by the way, I misspelled the word misspellings above on purpose. Did you judge me?

Meeting Muslims, Part 2 – Where Are They?

IdrissMosqueI took off my shoes and put them into a cubbyhole, just inside the front door of a mosque, in Seattle. Was this really happening? I shook off the haze of surrealism and strengthened my resolve.

In 1998, I was about to move to the Middle East. My knowledge of Lebanon was limited to a ten-day trip I had taken previously. My friend Bob questioned my lack of preparation.

“So Nate, how many Muslims do you know?” I had to admit to a goose egg. Zero.

He promised to connect me with an Iraqi Kurdish friend of his, whose family needed tutoring in Conversational English. That was a great start, but I understood that to avoid culture shock, it would be better to have a wider exposure. I summoned the needed courage to visit the one mosque I knew about. Where else could you go to meet Muslims?

Shoeless in Seattle

I was led into the basement of the building. Without having any idea of the Friday prayer schedule, I had arrived late, but just in time for the Qur’an study afterward. I was ushered into a room with fifteen bearded men seated around a long rectangular folding table – exactly like the tables in my church’s fellowship hall. The Imam welcomed me with a smile and bailed on the planned subject of the class in favor of exchanging theological points with me.

The two of us had an informative though somewhat defensive conversation. The others in the room observed silently, adding tension. I managed to escape the torment after an hour and a half and reclaim my shoes. I left with a Qur’an in hand, given as a gift.

Of course it was awkward. How could it be otherwise?

Artificial and Forced

In retrospect, I considered what it would be like to reverse the situation. What if a Muslim walking into church just in time for Sunday School? The novelty would create a host of questions. Is this guy here to try to disrupt our worship? Is he dangerous? Maybe he wants to convert? The emotions would range between fear, distrust, and defensiveness all the way to hopefulness and potentially excitement. But it wouldn’t be comfortable.

How would the pastor respond? Would he patiently explain the Trinity? Would he invite the Muslim to share about his beliefs? How many of the others attending the class would engage respectfully in the conversation?

Do you think it likely that such an exchange would end in friendship?

Alternatives to Mosque Hopping

In contrast, I think of Nabih and Omar. I met with them a couple times a week at the Lebanese restaurant where they worked. I’d drop in at 3:00 PM when there were no customers, and learn vocabulary words from Nabih. One time, Omar agreed to teach me the Lebanese national dance – the Dabke. We stood next to each other between the tables. With fingers interlaced, we moved counterclockwise. Left, right, left, right, left foot kick, stomp.

Playing soccer, shopping at international markets, and watching for cultural events are other great ways to connect. Intentionally deciding to be friendly and slowing down long enough to talk are key components too.

Where have you met Muslims in settings more conducive to friend making?