By Samuel Gonzalez
“Allahu Akbar!” “La ilaha illa Allah!” “Mashallah!” These are but a few Arabic words that have been on the rise in the Western hemisphere. For Muslims, these are basic terms that are built on the foundations of Islam – we recite them everyday in our prayers and in our supplications. However, just like the English word “God” the Arabic term “Allah” is one that is filled with controversy, confusion, and not-so-good connotations. For the Westerner, to think of God may conjure up images of an old bearded man in the sky, wrathful and judgmental; but for the Muslim, Allah is an all-powerful, all-knowing being with no face. But there is more to this word than what a first glance may provide. To learn what this word means, keep on reading, we will break it down for you!
The word “Allah” appears thousands of times in the Noble Qur’an as the most basic form of the name of God. As simple as it is, for non-Arabic speakers it might be a little bit challenging to get it right, the reason being its English transliteration, which does not do the word any justice. To get the pronunciation just right, it is essential to break down the four components of the Arabic word into English: الله
- ا : ‘Alif,’ the first letter of the two-syllable word is pronounced as a light a (as in the word ‘at’ or ‘astronaut’)
- ﻝﻝ : ‘Double Lam,’ pronounced as a strong, brusque, and hard l (as in ‘luck’ or ‘loser’)
- ه : ‘He,’ pronounced as a breathy, light h (as in ‘ah’)
- The tiny diacritical mark positioned directly on top of the double lam is called a ‘shadda,’ which looks like an English ‘w’ but is actually meant to be the figure of the Arabic letter shin, which stands for shadda. Its function in Arabic grammar is to indicate a lengthened consonant – it was designed for poets and orators, who would stop and emphasize certain words in particular ways. It is this diacritical mark which indicates the hard pronunciation of the double lam in الله.
Hence, it can be broken down and simplified into the following two-syllable word: [AL] + [LAH]. Please keep in mind that there are several ways of pronouncing the word, based on one’s country of origin, background, and primary language. The pronunciation provided in this article is the simple American form of pronouncing it. In Arabic, the ending syllable may take on one of three different sounds depending on the letter that precedes the word Allah; the vowel that precedes Allah may also affect the way the double lam is pronounced; however, for the sake of simplicity, relatability, and universality, the standard American pronunciation has been provided here for the reader.
According to Muslim scholars and theologians, the name Allah is better defined as “the proper name of the One who is necessarily existent in himself and who deserves all praises.” This dense definition encapsulates several of the most important attributes of the Creator and nuances the term to mean so much more than just ‘god.’ Furthermore, it appears that the name has its root in Semitic languages, with variations on the divine name for god being il, el, or eloah. As centuries passed and religions began mixing and blending and adapting, adopting different forms, the Semitic roots branched out and transformed into their own words as languages such as Aramaic, Arabic, Amharic, and Maltese flourished and took root. Allah still preserves a trace of its cousin-language.
Facts About the Arabic Title ‘Allah’
- The names Allah and al-Rahman were evidently used by pre-Islamic Jews and Christians to refer to God, and the Qur’an (5:17-18) even criticizes Christians for identifying Allah with Christ and for turning Him into a Trinity.
- Allah is the standard Arabic word for God and is used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews as well as by Muslims. The association of the word specifically with Islam is the result of the Qur’an’s original revelation being in Arabic.
- Current English usage of the term has the unfortunate tendency to restrict the corresponding English term “Allah” to Islamic contexts, with the term having equivalents in Spanish and French (Ala and Allah respectively).
- Biblical writers identified the Canaanite supremely powerful deity El with the Jewish YHWH, even though he originally presided over a large pantheon of lesser deities. Fragments of this divine council may still be seen in the Scriptures of the Jews and Christians, but the closely related plural form elohim is used more often in the Jewish Torah, but both derive from the same Semitic root as Allah.
- Several Islamic phrases which include the name Allah have made their way into Muslim-English vernacular (i.e. Alhamdulillah, Mashallah, Inshallah).
The Concept of Allah
All Muslims across the globe believe in one singular, all-powerful, all-knowing deity who has created the heavens and the earth, the day and the night, the seen and unseen realms, and everything that lies in between. The Islamic phrase ‘la ilaha illa allah,’ the first part of the statement of faith, may be translated simply in the following manner: ‘there is no deity but God.’ This very important foundational statement is repeated by Muslims throughout the day in their daily prayers, in the call to prayer, and in various other spiritual practices (i.e. in the recitation of God’s beautiful names, in the remembrance of God, and in the reading of the Noble Qur’an). To believe in One God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Yakub, Elijah, Jesus Christ the son of Mary, and Mohammad constitutes the central belief in Islam. Unlike other deities like Zeus, Vishnu, or Krishna, Allah, who has ninety-nine beautiful names which appear in the Noble Qur’an, is the same God revealed in Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity.
The Nature of God
To discuss the nature of God at length would be to go above and beyond the scope of this article. However, if one studies the nature of God from a Quranic standpoint, the etymological and linguistic nuances become ever so clear in light of the content that has been covered thus far. Many theologians (even within the same religious tradition) have had varying understandings of the nature of God, which has produced its own share of controversies, debates, and problems. However, the Honorable Prophet Mohammad taught: “Think about the bounties of Allah, but do not think about the essence of Allah, otherwise you will vanish.” The essence of Allah cannot be understood by the limited human mind, nevertheless, knowledge of God ought to be the first thing that enters a human’s mind.
Whatever comes to your mind about the nature of God, writes one poet, God is different than that, for God is unique, unlike all of Creation, and nothing is like unto Him. Yet the most subtle bounty of God bestowed upon all of Creation is that of breath and life. Take a moment to take a few deep breaths in and a few deep breaths out. Inhale and exhale. That is Allah. As you breath in, it is almost as if your body inhales the essence of the first alif in the name of Allah – (Aaaaaaaaaa)llah; and as you breath out, your body exhales the second syllable of His Name – A(llllllllaaaaahhhhhh).
While we cannot comprehend the nature of God, we can at least comprehend and attain knowledge of God through the signs of this worldly life, the reflection of God’s Beautiful Names, or through the study of the life of the Prophet and the Noble Qur’an. Nevertheless, this limited knowledge of the divine becomes a measure for human beings to imagine, to create, and to contemplate the unlimited knowledge of God – I have been the recipient of innumerable works of Arabic calligraphy, all showing the unlimited ways that an artist can adorn the simple, four-letter word Allah; I’ve seen countless prayer mats with countless designs, yet another testament to the creative potential of the human being. So much has sprung out of the revelation of this name: entire cultures and civilizations, religious movements, works of art, poetry, tomes and encyclopedias, philosophies, and customs- the nature of God is to create and sustain, and so long as our Creator instills in us the breath of life, the mark of His existence, so, too, will humans create and nurture until they take their last breath.
In this article, we’ve broken down the pronunciation of the Arabic word Allah, which has made its way into the English language through various means. We discussed its Semitic roots, though some scholars are of the opinion that the word is thoroughly Arabic in its origin, though this author differs. Its etymology has proven that the term is thoroughly universal in scope, and that it underlies the very fabric of reality itself, as it implies a first-mover and an active, dynamically sweeping force with the entire universe under its supervision and direction. The implications of the word’s meaning extend beyond its Arabic definition and actually manages to transcend language when one looks at it from a Quranic perspective, and the limitless breadth, width, and depth of God’s nature point towards the creative potential of the human being.
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Afsaruddin, Asma. “Allah”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Apr. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Allah.
McGill, C.S. “Allah.” https://www.cs.mcgill.ca/~rwest/wikispeedia/wpcd/wp/a/Allah.htm
Saritoprak, Zeki. “Allah.” The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Routledge, New York City, NY. 2007.