By Nick Gier

“Fee al-badi’ khalaqa Allahu as-Samaawaat wa al-Ard . . . ”

—Genesis 1:1 in the Arabic Bible

There are about 12 million Arabic speaking Christians in the world. They live as substantial minorities in Lebanon (35 percent) and Syria (10 percent) and in lesser numbers in Iraq, Palestine and North Africa.

Millions of Arab Christians are good citizens in dozens of nations throughout the world. One of the first people I met as a graduate student in Denmark was a Palestinian Christian.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Arabs living in the U.S. are Christians, not Muslims.  Ralph Nader, for example, comes from an Arab Christian family.

A majority of the refugees from Iraq are Arabic speaking Christians, who have come under great pressure since the U.S. invasion gave rise to Muslim extremism. Osama bin Laden condemned Saddam Hussein for his secularism and for the fact that his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian.

For at least 1,200 years Arab Christians have read their Bibles with the Hebrew and Greek words “elohim” and “theos” translated as “Allah.”  The oldest extant Arabic Bible (parts of the New Testament) was produced in AD 867 and was found at St. Catherine monastery on Mt. Sinai.

Jews and Christians prayed to God as “Allah” long before the prophet Mohammed, who himself acknowledged that Arabian Jews and Christians of his time used the word Allah for God.

The Charter of Medina (AD 622) guaranteed freedom of religion and while recognizing Judaism, Christianity and Islam as different religions, it assumed that their Arabic speaking followers worshipped the same God Allah.

In 2007, under pressure from Muslim fundamentalism but going against two millennia of tradition, the Malaysian government decided to ban all Christian publications that translated God as Allah. Government leaders said that they did it because they did not want members of the Muslim majority (60 percent) to be confused and to be misled into converting to Christianity, a punishable offense in Malaysia. Last month a judge for that nation’s highest court ruled the prohibition violated the principle of religious freedom. Judge Lau Bee Lan declared that Malaysian Christians “have a constitutional right to use Allah.”

Thousands of Malaysia’s Muslims have been protesting the high court decision and the government has appealed the ruling. Since Jan. 7, 10 churches, a convent and a Sikh temple have been fire bombed by militants on motorcycles.  No one has been hurt, but the first floor of one church was destroyed. The Sikhs have been targeted because they have always used Allah for God.

The 2.5 million Malaysian Christians are primarily Chinese and Indian immigrants, and Hindu Indians, who have also been attacked, joined these Christians in candle light vigils at the churches in Kuala Lumpur. To their credit the government and Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks on churches and temples.

Laying out a detailed linguistic explanation, Malay Christian scholar Ng Karn Weng informs us that “allah is an ordinary Arabic word which is not specifically linked to a particular religion.”  The word is composed of two parts “al-ilah” literally meaning “the strong God.”

The root word Il is exactly the same as the Canaanite El, which appears many times in the Old Testament as El Bethel (God at Bethel) and El Shaddai (God of the Mountain).  (Do you think that the Canaanites led protests yelling: “El is our God not yours”?) The plural form Elohim is the most common word for God in the Old Testament.

Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language from Syria. There are at least a dozen phrases in the New Testament where the authors have transliterated Jesus’ Aramaic words or sayings into Greek.

Trying to be as authentic as possible in his film The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson has his Jesus speaking Aramaic and praying to Aalah, Western Aramaic for God.

Malaysian Muslims have proposed that Christians choose the Malay word Tuhan, which means Lord, for the Christian God, but Malaysian Christians still insist that Allah is more accurate and they are supported by Muslim authorities all over the world.

When Roman Catholic missionaries produced the first Chinese translation of the Bible, they chose the Chinese phrase Tian Zhu, which means “Lord of Heaven.” Coming much later Protestant missionaries were not satisfied with this, and a great controversy arose about this issue. They finally agreed, very reasonably, on the Chinese word Shen, a generic term for deity just like Allah and Elohim.

Here are the key Chinese words in the translation of the first verse of John: “In the beginning was the Dao and the Dao was with Shen, and the Dao was Shen.” Never once did anyone hear a murmur of protest from Daoists or Confucians that the Christians had stolen these Chinese religious words.

When I taught the existence of God in my philosophy classes, the conclusion, if any the arguments are valid, was that there is one God not many.  That conclusion could be expressed in any number of languages as Allah, Elohim, Deus, Dios, Dieu, Gott, or Gud, but of course it would be absurd for believers to insist that only their word for deity is the legitimate one.

Malaysian government action on this issue is particularly regrettable because of the success of the “Common Word” movement initiated by 130 Muslim scholars and clerics in 2007, and to which Jewish and Christian have responded favorably.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.  Read about the Common Word and Gier’s other columns on Islam at www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/IslamPage.htm.