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Allah: A Moon-god? Or God of the Moon?

Thu 19 Jan 2017

Oleh admin@borneosabda.org

Allah: A Moon-god? Or God of the Moon? 

Examining the Hermeneutics of Robert A. Morey

By Edwin Sujono, Ph.D.

 

Opposition and problems can easily be stirred up by any translation of the Bible, particularly in the translation of the Hebrew divine names such as Elohim, Yahweh, and Adonai. A showcase example here in Indonesia is the use of the name/title “Allah” to translate the Hebrew term Elohim (God).  Although “Allah” is originally an Arabic term it has been widely used as a divine name/title throughout the Indonesian archipelago for hundreds of years.  Thus the Indonesian Bible Society (LAI) and earlier generations of Dutch missionary translators have consistently used this term since 1733 if not earlier.  This policy had never caused any real problems until the 1990’s. 

It was then that a group known as the Pemuja Nama Yahweh in Indonesia began to complain to LAI about using this term.  They claimed that Allah was originally a pagan Arabian deity, incompatible with the God of the Bible.  Around the year 2000 the Indonesian translation of Robert A. Morey’s book, The Islamic Invasion, with its sensational assertion that Allah was originally a moon god, enhanced local Indonesian Christian theories about the so-called pagan origins of Allah.  Furthermore the anti-Allah group insisted that using any “unbiblical” names such as Malay-Indonesian “TUHAN/Tuhan” or Batak “Debata” were confusing and unworthy names for the salvation that is only found in the name “Yahweh” (Joel 2:32; Rom 10:9, 13)!  Therefore Christians were urged to use the original Hebrew divine names, Yahweh, Elohim, Adonai and Yeshua. Anything else was tantamount to taking the Lord’s name in vain (Ex. 20:7) and endangered one’s salvation![1] 

The pro-Yahweh advocates felt so strongly about this that they decided to “create” their own Bible.  Did they made their own translation?  Not really.  Without authorization they took the electronic text of the Indonesian Bible Society, the Terjemahan Baru (TB) and deleted all references to Allah as well as “unbiblical” indigenous terms like Tuhan (Lord), and then replaced them with Hebrew names/terms: Elohim for Allah, Yahweh for TUHAN, and Adonai for Tuhan.  This new Bible was then published in 2000 as the Kitab Suci Torat dan Injil .[2]  Two years later a group calling themselves Umat Perjanjian Tuhan (Community of the Lord’s Covenant) launched a translation (Kitab Suci UPT-2002) that used identical means (hijacking LAI’s electronic text) and had very similar objectives, i.e., insisting on the use of the name “Yahweh” and replacing the name “Allah”. Then, to add insult to this injury, in 2008 a Christian pastor sued the Indonesian Bible Society (LAI) and demanded the removal of all references to Allah from Indonesian Bibles published by LAI! (google: " ‘Allah’ dalam Alkitab Digugat Oleh Pendeta ….”)

  Meanwhile in nearby Malaysia, we have seen a parallel movement emerging but for very different reasons and seeking opposite outcomes. In 2008 a Catholic publisher in Kuala Lumpur (Jakarta Post, 2008:11), and a Protestant group in Sabah, issued a law suit in the nation’s highest court for the right to use the name Allah!   Under pressure from radical Muslim groups, the government of Malaysia had forbidden the use of the term Allah in Christian Bibles or publications.  How ironic!  In Indonesia some Christians are fighting to delete the term “Allah” from the Bible while in Malaysia Malay speaking Christians are fighting for the right to keep the term in their Bibles!  It is also tragic that a small minority of Christians in Indonesia have brought so much confusion to their fellow believers. At least in Malaysia it has brought about unity among Christians. But in both cases peaceful relations with the majority religion have been damaged. For Indonesia readers should consult Fananie and Pramuko, The Islamic Invasion (Islam yang Dihujat), 2004 and google “Allah adalah dewa bulan” = Allah is a moon god and read tens of hits from 2004-2015 by angry Indonesian Muslims.

 

The Purpose of this Study

By now the reader will have noticed that the supposed connection between Allah and a pagan moon god has created a lot of tension and become something like the ideological weapon of choice for the Indonesian pro Yahweh anti-Allah folks. The main purpose of my paper is to respond to this by critiquing the theory of Robert A. Morey that Allah was originally an Arabian moon god.  Morey’s book, The Islamic Invasion, has become an important inspirational source for some Indonesian Christians to conclude that since “Allah” is a moon god, this name/term must be rejected as a translation for Elohim (God) in the Bible.  I will expose the fallacies in Morey’s argumentation and at the same time defend the use of the term Allah as an appropriate term for Indonesian and Malay Bible translation.  I think this is also an important topic for Malaysian Christians because the Pemuja Yahweh/anti-Allah ideology from Indonesia, especially from the writings and Malaysian posts of pendeta Yakub Sulistyo, has created some confusion among both Muslims and Bahasa Malaysia speaking Christians.[3]

 

Origins of the Concept: “Allah is a Moon God

For American evangelicals traumatized by the events of 9/11/2001, Morey’s  book, The Islamic Invasion (1992) provided a sensational ideological weapon which could be use to strike back at Islam—Allah is a pagan moon god!  The thesis was eagerly embraced by some but never examined as to its truthfulness.  For similar reasons (the 2002 Bali bombing, terrorism by the group Laskar Jihad, and the forced closing of hundreds of churches in the 1990’s) the book was enthusiastically welcomed by certain Indonesian Christians.  Sometime in the early 2000’s the book appeared in an Indonesian translation bearing the original English title on the cover.  Inside the cover it stated that the book could be purchased from a US source, Overseas Ministry, PO Box 484, Garden Grove, CA 92842.  Copies of the book were surreptitiously brought into Indonesia for distribution and vigorously promoted by a small but very vocal group of Christians especially in places like Jakarta and Surabaya. 

The idea in Morey’s book that has generated so much heat is his sensational explanation that Allah is actually an ancient Arabian moon god.   Other sources in Indonesia and elsewhere have taken his idea and repackaged it.[4]  This moon god thesis is made attractive by Morey’s citations from scholarly sources and seemingly sophisticated arguments expressed in a popular style. It clearly needs a rebuttal.  Bambang Noorsena’s Indonesian work, History of Allah (2005:99-103), devotes a few pages to critique Morey but it is too brief.  If we go on the internet we will find scores of articles debunking Morey but almost all of them are written by Islamic sources, and thus not easily trusted by Christian readers. My article is the first lengthy critical analysis of Morey by a Christian. As a Christian apologist perhaps Morey has done some credible work in other topics  but in the arena of ancient Arabia paganism he is clearly out of his element.  How can I say this with such certainty?  Because in my own Ph. D studies at Fuller Theological Seminary I did a lot of background reading—precisely on this very subject.  

 

A Critical Look at Morey’s Main Thesis

Morey’s primary concern is to refute Islam’s apologetic claim that Allah is the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac and Jacob:

The historical background concerning the origin and meaning of the Arabian “Allah” reveals that Allah cannot be the God of the biblical patriarchs, the Jews, or the Christians.  Allah is merely a revamped and magnified Arabian pagan moon deity (p. 58).

Not only does Morey differentiate Allah from Yahweh/Elohim in a theological sense, he goes a step further by depicting Allah as a crude pagan Arabian moon god.  According to Morey, Allah was selected by Muhammad over other pagan gods, repackaged with new attributes and distinctives and then presented as the only supreme deity in his newly founded religion (p. 217).

Next, Morey maneuvers to negate an idea that could undermine his thesis:  namely that ancient Arabian Allah concepts might be rooted in indigenous monotheistic ideas, or possibly influenced by encounters with Jews and Christians: 

“As we shall see, the Islamic faith and the Quran itself can be completely and sufficiently [emphasis mine] explained in terms of pre-Islamic Arabian culture, custom, and religion (p. 36).

We need to pay close attention to what Morey is saying here, it is his basic assumption.  He believes that everything about Islam can be explained by its pagan past.  Pagan Arabian customs and religious concepts formed the decisive background, for early Islam’s understanding of Allah, as well as the content of the Qur’an and the shape of early Islam.  By making this claim Morey excludes any possibility of any significant Jewish or Christian influence.

Now this is a very important statement that requires some careful scrutiny.  It is true, as Frederick V. Peters points out (1994a:19), that many non-Muslim scholars regard things like the Meccan shrine (the Kabah) and its rituals as derived from ancient Arabian paganism.  But it is also true that at least some of these same scholars would acknowledge some signs of Judaeo-Christian influence.  There were large Jewish communities in places like Medina and Khaybar in northwest Arabia, and a large Christian community in Najran, South Arabia (Yemen).  Morey acknowledges Judaeo-Christian presence in Arabia but downplays their influence (pp. 43-44).  These communities had been present in Arabia for hundreds of years prior to Islam.  The French Islamic scholar, Alfred Guillaume says, “What is important to note is that the Jews of the Hijaz [Northwest Arabia, the heartland of Islam] made many proselytes among the Arab tribesmen” (1966:12). That being the case, it is virtually certain that Judaeo-Christian influence impacted at least some of the religious ideas of the ancient pagan Arabs.[5]  I only mention this to illustrate that Morey ignores statements by trustworthy scholars whose opinions seriously erode his underlying assumption, that Islam can be explained solely in terms of pagan Arabian sources. 

  

Misquoting and Distorting Scholarly Sources

Now does this mean that Morey never mentions the names and ideas of reputable scholars who actually might contradict him?  On the contrary.  After he states his central thesis Morey boldly lists the names of 12 prominent authorities (p. 36), including the likes of W. Montgomery Watt and  Alfred Guillaume, as if they supported his view point![6]  But in fact most of this scholarship refutes his thesis that Allah is the moon god!  For example, W. Montgomery Watt (1961:39) says, “the earliest passages of the Qur’an show that it stands within the tradition of Judaeo-Christian monotheism with its conception of God the Creator.” Whether the reader agrees with Watt or not is beside the point here. The question is, does Watt support Morey’s central idea that everything in Islam can be explained by ancient Arabian paganism?  Obviously not. 

Then on p. 50 Morey writes that “… many scholars, such as Alfred Guillaume, have pointed out that the moon god was called by various names, one of which was Allah!”  Well I followed up his footnote and this is what Guillaume actually said:

Some scholars trace the name [Allah] to the South Arabian Ilah, a title of the Moon God, but this is a matter of antiquarian interest. In Arabia Allah was known from Christian and Jewish sources as the one god, and there can be no doubt whatever [emphasis mine] that he was known to the pagan Arabs of Mecca as the supreme being (Guillaume 1966:7).

While Guillaume implies that some scholars have expressed theories that seem to support Morey, it is clear from his statement that he himself does not equate Allah with the moon god at all!  Here again Morey is guilty of either wanton carelessness or deliberate distortion.  Guillaume does not say what Morey claims he says!  As we shall see, Morey often misquotes, or quotes out of context,[7] and misuses factual evidence to advance his arguments.  The reader is now forewarned.  We need to be alert as we examine more substantial questions in Morey’s book such as:  how does he develop his arguments?  How does he use his data from the ancient historical past?  Does he use high quality and relevant data that was available to him, some of which is written in English?

 

Al-Ilah = The God = Allah = The Moon God

The reader has probably been wondering by now how Morey equates the moon god with Allah.  Morey does this by means of etymological association, an association founded on the historical relationships of certain terms:

The word “Allah” come from the compound Arabic word, al-ilahAl is the definite article “the” and ilah is the Arabic word for “god.”  It is not a foreign word.  It is not even the Syriac word for God.  It is pure Arabic.

Neither is Allah a Hebrew or Greek word for God as found in the Bible.  Allah is a purely Arabic term used in reference to an Arabian deity(pp. 47-48).

The point that Morey wants to make clear is that “Allah” is a compound term derived from an indigenous double-termed Arabic title (al-Ilah) meaning “the god”—the god worshipped in a particular local realm.  Morey also wants to make sure that the reader understands that Allah is not a “biblical” term. It is pure Arabic.  This is part of his strategy to completely distance Allah from the God of the Bible.  But Morey himself uses the English term “God” which is also not a biblical name.  In fact it derives from the name of an ancient pagan Germanic deity, gott

As to Morey’s etymological explanation, al-ilah =  Allah, we concede that it  reflects the general viewpoint of the majority of non-Muslim scholars.  There are some who disagree, such as the late Frederick V. Winnett, eminent archaeologist and historian of ancient Arabia.  Winnett argues that the Aramaic term for God, ’elah  is the actual source for the name “Allah.”[8]  Yet Morey’s main problem is not false etymology, rather it is his use of a baseless analogy—what he actually does with al-ilah = Allah:

According to numerous inscriptions, while the name of the moon god was Sin, his title was al-ilah, “the deity,” meaning that he was the chief or high god among the gods. … The moon-god was called al-ilah, the god, which was shortened to Allah in pre-Islamic times (pp.215-216).

 

            Do you see the circular reasoning in Morey’s logic?  Since al-ilah is a term used for the moon god, and since Allah is a contraction of al-ilah, therefore Allah is the moon god.  This syllogism or circular argument  breaks down at two points.  First of all, it breaks down because Morey does not provide a shred of evidence that would actually prove his point, namely an archaeological inscription stating that “Allah” is the name of the moon god. Instead Morey mischievously says, “the moon god was called al-ilah, the god, which was shortened to Allah in pre-Islamic times.”  By claiming that the moon god’s title, al-ilah, was shortened to “Allah”, he implies that the ancient Arabs were actually calling their moon god, “Allah.” They may have called the moon god al-ilah but there is not a shred of evidence that they equated Allah with a moon god!  The only way for Morey to prove otherwise is by producing an archaeological inscription that reveals such a fact. Indeed, of the 20 ancient Allah inscriptions from both North and South Arabia that were discovered and translated by Frederick V. Winnett (1938:243-44), not one connects Allah to a moon god!   In my thinking this missing piece of evidence is fatal to Morey’s argument.

Secondly, what he does in his argument with the term al-ilah can also be done with the Greek term ho theos, which is equivalent to Arabic al-ilah and also means “the god/the (true) God.”   Now we could do all kinds of mischief with ho theos if we followed Morey’s line of reasoning.  For instance in John 1:1 God is called ho theos meaning “the (only true) God.” Interestingly, the apostle Paul also uses ho theos as a designation for “the god of this world”, namely Satan, in 2 Corinthians 4:4!   Following Robert Morey’s analogy, al ilah = Allah, would we be willing to accept that our concept of God (ho theos) is somehow related to Satan, the god (ho theos) of this world?  I seriously doubt there would be any takers for that line of argument! 

While al-ilah might have been the title used by at least some of the Arabian tribes for a moon god,[9] that fact does not prove that the pre-Islamic Arabs actually equated Allah with a moon god.  Let us now move on to examine Morey’s argument that the moon god cult had spread throughout the Arabian peninsula before the time of Islam to become the dominant cult.

 

South Arabian Gods Vs. North Arabian Deities

One of the features of Morey’s book that makes it so convincing to many readers are the drawings and photographs of a multitude of moon god deities in the Near East and certain parts of Arabia. Based on these pictures and other findings from reputable scholars like Carlton Coon (1944) and G. Caton Thomson (1944), Morey concludes:

“Evidence gathered from both North and South Arabia demonstrate that moon god worship was clearly active even in Muhammad’s day and was still the dominant cult” (p. 215). 

 

This cult was so extensive, says Morey, that the moon god became “the chief deity” at the Kabah shrine in Mecca (p. 215). But what the reader does not understand is that the data and the pictures that Morey culls from Coon (Southern Arabia) and Thomson (The Tombs and Moon Temple of Hureidha [Hadramaut in Yemen]) are all based on archaeological research in South Arabia, not the Hijaz region of Northwest Arabia, the heartland of early Islam. Thus Morey presents his material as if it were true for the entire Arabian peninsula. This is a gross distortion of the facts!  Morey ignores evidence showing that the worship of the moon god is not the dominant cult in the region of Arabia where Islam originated.  While archaeology reveals that the worship of  moon gods such as Sin or Wadd, may have proliferated in the pantheons of South Arabia, this was much less the case in a different cultural zone such as Northwest  Arabia and Mecca.[10] 

 

The Moon God Evidence in North Arabia and Mecca

We now must answer another crucial question: is there evidence that the moon god cult played an important role in Mecca and Northwest Arabia in ancient times?  To answer we would need to examine the kind of sources for North Arabia that Morey never consults, such as the archaeological surveys in Northwest Arabia done by Winnett and Reed (1970) and reliable ancient Arabian sources such as Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi (1952). 

It is instructive to note that in their detailed and academic archaeological surveys of Northwest Arabia Frederick V. Winnnett and William L. Reed (Ancient Records from North Arabia) found no inscriptions mentioning the moon god Sin,[11] the name that Morey so frequently mentions.  They did, however, discover three inscriptions mentioning the name of the  Minaean (south Arabian) moon god Wadd (1970:19, 81 n. 32, 118). These were located in the oasis of al-Jawf near Dumat al-Jandal (ancient Dumah) and at al-‘Ula (ancient Dedan).  Winnett and Reed list hundreds of references to other gods and Idols but provide only three references to a moon god.

For more references to Wadd in North Arabia we must consult the historical account of Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi, the Kitab Al Asnam or “The Book of Idols” written c. 820 A.D (Eng. trans. 1952).  Al-Kalbi wrote extensively on the names and types of deities worshipped by the pagan Arabs of the recent ancient past in Mecca and the Hijaz region.  In writing this work al-Kalbi braved fierce opposition from his fellow Muslims to research a topic that was considered taboo.  But as his translator, Nabih Amin Faris of Princeton University notes, “…his vindication has come from modern scientific research and archaeology, which have confirmed the greater part of his statements…” (1952: viii, x).

So what does al-Kalbi have to say about the worship of the moon god Wadd in the area that later became the heartland of Islam?  In contrast to the extensive attention he gives to other gods, goddesses and idols of Mecca and Northwest Arabia, al-Kalbi only makes a few scattered references to Wadd but not to Sin. The first reference is laconic: “The Kalb (tribe) adopted Wadd (as their god, that was) in Dumat al Jandal” (1952: 9)—precisely the place where Winnett and Reed made a discovery of two Wadd inscriptions.  Later, al-Kalbi mentions that ‘Amr ibn Luhayy (a semi-mythological figure) found the idol Wadd in the sand near the shores of Jiddah (on the Red Sea), and then gave it to ‘Awf ibn-‘Udrah who erected Wadd in Dumat al-Jandal (1952:47).  From this we conclude that Wadd was a foreign god to this region. He was found on the shores of the Red Sea and ultimately taken to a location where Winnett and Reed later discovered two inscriptions referring to him.

Al-Kalbi also provides further information concerning Wadd which Morey could have used to his advantage:

He also named his son ‘Abd-Wadd , “who was the first to be so called, while ‘Awf was the first to give one of his children such a name.  Henceforth the Arabs named their children after Wadd” (1952:47).       

 

The last phrase, “henceforth the Arabs named their children after Wadd,” could possibly indicate that the worship of the moon god became widespread, even dominant throughout North Arabia.  But we must realize here that al-Kalbi tends toward hyperbole throughout his book. For example in his reference to the worship of the goddess Manah (Manat), al-Kalbi says, “All the Arabs used to name [their children] ‘Abd Manah” (1952:12), a statement nearly identical to what he said earlier about Wadd, in fact “all the Arabs” is even more inclusive than what he said about the adherents of Wadd.  Furthermore, al-Kalbi also notes that “the Arabs used to name their children after Allat and al-‘Uzza” (1952:16).  So which god or goddess would have been the most popular? Wadd, Manah, Allat or al-‘Uzza?  The reader can see that the phrase “the Arab's/all the Arabs used to worship” such and such a god/goddess is pure exaggeration, hardly indicative of which deity actually predominated.  From all this we could easily conclude that the phrase, “the Arabs named their children after Wadd” is not a very significant indicator of dominance or wide spread popularity.  Wadd would have competed with many gods and goddesses throughout North Arabia and would have surely lost out to Manah and also to Allat and al-‘Uzza who were revered as the daughters of Allah in Mecca during Muhammad’s time (see Surah 53:19-21).

 

Who Was the Chief Deity in Pagan Mecca?

So if the moon god Wadd did not play the major role in Northwest Arabia as Morey claims, can we determine which deity did reign supreme, especially in Mecca?   Now Morey claims, “the moon god was the chief deity.  Mecca was in fact built as a shrine for the moon god” (p. 215). But al-Kalbi expressly reports that Hubal—not  Wadd or any other South Arabian moon god—Hubal was the chief idol in Mecca during pre-Islamic times and in Muhammad’s day.  According to al-Kalbi his statue was placed in the Kabah, the Meccan shrine, thus indicating his prominence (1952: 23).  But Morey or others might try to claim that Hubal must have been another name for the moon god.  So let’s turn to a more trustworthy source to learn about Hubal, Hisham ibn al-Kalbi:

The Quraysh had also several idols in and around the Ka‘bah.  The greatest of these was Hubal. It was, as I was told, of red agate, in the form of a man with the right hand broken off. It came into the possession of the Quraysh in this condition, and they, therefore, made for it a hand of gold. … It stood inside the Ka‘bah … Hubal was also the same idol which Abu-Sufyan ibn-Harb addressed when he emerged after the battle of Uhud, saying: “Hubal, be thou exalted” (i.e. may thy religion triumph); to which the Prophet replied: “Allah is more exalted and more majestic.” (1952:23-24).

 

Other ancient Arab traditions state that Hubal was brought to Mecca from Moab or Mesopotamia by ‘Amr ibn Luhayy (the same person who introduced the worship of Wadd).  The only attesting reference to Hubal outside of Islamic sources (his name does not appear in the Qur’an) is an Arab Nabataean inscription written in Aramaic (Gibb and Kraemers 1953:140). This would suggest that Hubal was of northern origin, possibly an Aramaic deity. Nothing in the etymology of the name “Hubal” (ha-baal = The Master?) nor in the historical record suggests any connection between Hubal and the moon god.

It is truly amazing that Morey, in his “scholarly” investigation of this topic, totally neglects al-Kalbi’s essential and hugely important source.  Either he was ignorant of its existence or he realizes that al-Kalbi totally invalidates one of his more “ingeneous” explanations, namely, how Muhammad led the pagans away from the worship of many gods to the worship of one single deity, Allah:

Muhammad was raised in the religion of the moon god Allah. But he went one step further than his fellow pagan Arabs.  While they believed that Allah (the moon god) was the greatest of all gods and the supreme deity in a pantheon of deities, Muhammad decided that Allah was not only the greatest god but the only god (p. 217).

  

The Crescent Moon Symbol

But if the moon god is not the dominant deity in Mecca what should we make of the crescent moon symbol seen on the top of many mosques today?  According to Morey this is one of the proofs that the moon god reigned supreme in ancient Mecca (p. 51). Yet Morey makes no attempt to demonstrate that the crescent moon symbol was used by the early Muslims in Arabia. So how do we account for this symbol other than a connection to the moon god?  Rick Brown, a Middle East specialist for the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), who is fluent in Arabic and other Semitic languages, has done quite a bit of research on the subject of the moon god in Arabia.  Brown concludes that the crescent moon has nothing to do with a moon god in Arabia, rather its origins come from outside of Arabia:

The crescent had been a symbol used in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and was used on the flag of the Byzantine Empire, which proclaimed itself to be Christian. ... But when the Turks conquered Constantinople and the rest of the Middle East in the 15th century, they kept the Byzantine symbol of empire. In fact, they affixed crescent symbols atop public buildings throughout their empire as a symbol of their imperial rule. It also figured in the flags of their vassal states, even after the states became independent. Once the crescent no longer represented Turkish imperial rule in its former colonies, it was reinterpreted as a symbol of Islam, which is its modern significance. So the crescent symbol has not been passed down through Islam from a supposed ancient Arabian moon religion but is a symbol imposed by the Ottoman Turks for political reasons (Brown 2006:80; see also Hughes 1890: 63).   

 

Morey’s assumption that the crescent moon symbol derives from the moon god is highly debatable.  Brown plausibly argues that its origins are linked to a political symbol, first used by the Christian Byzantine empire and then later by their successors, the Ottoman Turks.

After looking at all the evidence from sources like Winnett and Reed (1970) al-Kalbi (1952) and Brown (1980) we can readily see that there is no proof that the moon god played any major role in the region which gave birth to Islam, especially in Mecca.  It is also significant to note that al-Kalbi makes no reference to the Meccan pagans erecting an idolatrous statue to represent Allah.  This coincides with the 20 ancient Allah inscriptions compiled by Frederick Winnett.  None of them identified Allah as an idol or a moon god (1938:243-244).[12]  There was a very good reason for this as we shall see from the facts below.  They will help us come to a true understanding of who Allah actually was in the pagan Arabian consciousness.

 

What the Ancient Arabs Believed about Allah

We just witnessed the way Morey neglected the testimony of Hisham Ibn al-Kalbi regarding the limited role the moon god played in Mecca and Northwest Arabia.  Another important source that Morey overlooks is the Allah beliefs of the pagans as recorded in the Qur’an.  Now the Qur’anic data on this topic bears the marks of authenticity for this simple reason: the references to the pagan Arab concept of Allah are incidental comments made in passing and reflect Muhammad’s sense of frustration with the pagan opposition to his message.  Thus the data betrays no evidence of being contrived or artificial, rather it appears to be natural and authentic.  By itself the Qur’an data seriously undermines Morey’s thesis that the Arabs in pre-Islamic times equated Allah with the moon god.  The salient passage is found in surah 29:61-65: 

If indeed thou ask them [the pagans of Mecca] who has created the heavens and the earth and subjected the sun and the moon (To His Law), they will certainly reply, “Allah.”

 …  And if you ask them who is it that sends down rain from the sky, and gives life therewith to the earth after its death, they will certainly reply, “Allah.”

 …  Now if they embark on a boat, they call on Allah making their devotion sincerely (and exclusively) to Him. But when He has delivered them to (dry) land, behold, they give a share (of their worship to others). (adapted from A. Yusuf Ali’s translation). 

 

The Qur’an contains several other references similar to this one (Q. 6:136, 10:18, 23:84-89, 39:3, 43:87), but the above passage makes some points that are most relevant for our concern.  First of all, when Muhammad asked the Meccans who created the heavens and the earth and who subjected the sun and the moon to ([His law], i.e. regulating their rising and setting), they quickly replied, “Allah.”  The response of the pagan Meccans here indicates that in their understanding Allah was far more than a moon god.  Rather, he was the God of the moon and everything else in the created universe!   In other words Allah was the one and only Creator, unrivaled in this respect by any other Arabian deity.  They even prayed to Allah for safe passage in hazardous seas, realizing that Allah’s authority and power exceeded that of the other gods who had limited and localized authority. But in spite of this theological conviction once they reached the safety of land they returned to idolatrous worship.    

From these facts we can conclude that the Allah worshippers of Mecca were not really polytheists in a pure sense of the term. They believed in only one Creator, but they certainly weren’t pure monotheists either!  They acknowledged Allah as Creator but they refused to honor Him as the only Deity. By definition this would make them henotheists:  those who believe in only one Creator but who also resort to other deities.  Yes, the ancient Meccans had a defective, warped concept of God.  But they did retain one essential element in common with the Bible: Allah was the invisible and sole Creator of the heavens and the earth and the sun and the moon. 

In addition to this important testimony from the Qur’an we can also add Carl Brockelmann’s research (1922) on Allah concepts found in the surviving remnants of pre-Islamic Arabian poetry.  Brockelmann points out that some of the poets depicted Allah not merely as Creator but also as Lord over his creation.  Others described Allah as the Eternal One, the Lord and King.  Furthermore, they considered Him omniscient; all things were determined by him (1922:107-108).  They concluded from this that if God is the Lord of humanity then all are his servants, whom he punishes and rewards according to their deeds. This demands that mankind fear him and praise him (1922:115-116).  From these facts Brockelmann makes the following conclusion: the pre-Islamic Arabs adhered to a concept of God similar to that of the patriarchal concept of El ‘Olam (The Eternal) and El ‘Elyon (The Most High) in Genesis 14 (1922:118-119).[13]     Here in the Qur’an and the pagan poetry of ancient Arabia we find some important common ground between Allah and Elohim.  Sadly, Morey seems to be unaware of this important data.

 

The Arab Christian use of “Allah”

            So we now see from scattered references in the Qur’an and in the poetry of the pre-Islamic Arabs that Allah was viewed as a “high god,” invisible, the sole Creator of all.  He is never depicted as an idol.  These ancient Arabian descriptions of Allah resemble those for the Germanic Gott­ (God), the Karo Batak (Dibata), and the Korean (Hananim).  These terms designated creator high gods in their respective cultures.  We can assume that the worship of these European and Asian pagans was no more biblical than the worship of the ancient Arabian pagans.  If we grant that Germans (and the English), Karo Bataks and Koreans can use their ancient term for their high god in their Bibles today, why would we deny that the ancient Arabian high god, Allah, is a legitimate term to translate Elohim for the Creator God in the Bible? 

Actually Arabic translations of the Bible have always used Allah for God.  This is also true for many Christian minorities living in Muslim majority countries.  But Morey conjectures that Arab Christians didn’t dare use another name because they might be persecuted.  According to Morey Muslim fanatics would not allow the Christians to use another terms “… because they believed that the Allah of the Quran was the God of the Bible” (p. 64).[14]  Morey’s assertion here is contradicted by the current situation in Malaysia today. The majority Muslims do not want Christians to use Allah in Bible translations or publications because the   Malaysian authorities have chosen to distance Allah from the God of the Bible.

Morey’s argument that Arab Christians were forced to use the term Allah is further undermined by a crucial point: before the coming of Islam Christian Arabs commonly used the name Allah in discourse and worship and in their personal names like Abdullah = servant of Allah (Hitti 1951:101; Trimmingham 1979:74, n.67, 298; Brown 2006:80). We also have the testimony of the Qur’an in surah al-Hajj (22):40, which makes a passing reference to the common and frequent Jewish and Christian usage of the name Allah in Muhammad’s time. Without any hint of surprise or negative comment, the Qur’an reports of the “monasteries, churches, and synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God [lit. name of Allah, fihasmulaahi] is commemorated abundantly” (The Qur’an, Yusuf Ali Translation).  If these Arab Christians and Jews who were very likely ethnic Arabs, had previously understood that Allah was a moon god rather than the Creator they would surely have thrown out this name and adopted another, perhaps the Christian Aramaic term, ’elah. Trimmingham points out that the Aramaic language and its forms of Christianity strongly impacted the ancient Arab Christians (1979:308-311).  A divine name closely related to Allah (see footnote 5 above) was readily available to them, but they continued to use Allah as their distinctive term for the God of the Bible. 

 

The Apostle Paul’s Divine Name Fitness Test

So far I have pointed out that Morey’s thesis—Allah is the moon God—is baseless and unsupported by historical evidence.  I have also shown that the ancient Arab pagans of Muhammad’s day understood Allah to be a high god, the sole Creator, even though they also worshipped lesser deities.  Many other peoples and cultures have similar beliefs and practices, and they have various names for their high god.  Furthermore, we have seen that Bibles in the Arabic language and Muslim majority nations use the name Allah.  But now we must ask, is  this practice of using high god names is biblically justifiable?  The apostle Paul provides some guidelines that will help us answer that question.

  In Romans 1 Paul paints a picture of the decadent gentile world.  It is fascinating to see that his description of the gentile understanding towards God parallels what I described earlier about the pagan Arab concept of Allah.  First, Paul notes that gentile idolaters knew about the eternal power and divine nature of God through what they could observe in creation (1:20). Similarly, according to Qur’an 29:61, the solar and lunar observations of the pagan Arabs caused them to acknowledge that it was Allah who governed the rising and the setting of the sun and the moon: “If indeed you ask them … who has subjected the sun and the moon (to His Law), they will certainly reply, ‘Allah.’”  

However, Paul also states that those same gentiles suppressed the truth about what nature taught them about God (1:18).  They exchanged the truth about God—He is the sole Creator, He alone is worthy of worship—with a lie by worshipping and serving idolatrous creatures rather than the Creator (1:25).  Thus they knew who God was but they did not honor Him or give thanks to Him (1:21).  Like the pagans described in Romans 1, the pagan Meccans also refused to give praise and thanks to Allah: “Say, praise be to Allah!  But most of them understand not” (Q. 29:63).  Instead they resorted to other gods.

Paul tells us very plainly that the nations knew essential truths about God, but he does not mention what name or names they used for Him as the Creator. We can assume that they each had their own name for the Creator.  I believe that in Paul’s mind the matter of divine names was an area of freedom.  Even as a Jew Paul used Greek terms like theos and kurios to translate divine Hebrew names. 

On the other hand Paul implicitly suggests that not all names representing “high gods” are appropriate for biblical usage.  The moon gods, Sin or Wadd from South Arabia, would be one example because they were clearly connected with idolatry.  Paul used a philosophical Greek term like theos but notice that he never used the name of the Greek high god, Zeus.  Idolatrous images of Zeus and corrupt  pagan myths concerning him disqualified Zeus as a candidate for Bible translation.  But there was no image representing theos and there were far less erroneous mythologies attached to this name.  What Paul implicitly suggests therefore, is that some divine names from non-Hebrew cultures do not pass the fitness test for Bible translation.  Names that are inseparably linked to idolatrous practices and hopelessly corrupted by mythologies cannot be used to translate the divine names in the Bible.  By this standard the term Allah passes Paul’s fitness test.  The ancient Arabs never made an image to represent Allah.  While some ancient Arabs ascribed three daughters to Allah (Q. 53:19-21), others said, “O Allah (deity) without offspring” (see Allah inscriptions in Winnett 1938:243).  All acknowledged that he was the sole Creator. Therefore, according to Paul’s guidelines Allah could easily qualify as a translation for the divine name Elohim. Robert Morey’s book is a pathetic and misplaced effort to shake the truth of that conviction.   

 

A Final Word

I have shown that the use of the term Allah is appropriate to translate the word God or Elohim in the Bible.  I am not suggesting here that Allah in Islam today and the God of the Bible are identical.  There are many formal similarities  but there are also many ways in which the two concepts are very different in terms of perception as to God’s character and his plan of salvation, including the Trinity, the divinity of Christ and the Crucifixion.  Yet these differences are not severe enough to disqualify the term Allah for translation.  If we disqualified the term Allah on the basis of these differences then on the same kind of grounds we would have to disqualify the translation of  Elohim as “God” in the English Bible, Hananim in the Korean Bible and even theos in the New Testament.  None of these pagan based terms originally contained reliable and pure perceptions as to God’s character and salvation in their original historical contexts.

 

CREDITS

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REFERENCES CITED

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Brown, Rick

     2006       “Who Is Allah?  International Journal of Frontier Mission.  23(2): 7986.

 

Coon, Carlton

     1944       Southern Arabia.  Washington, DC:  Smithsonian.

 

Fananie, Husnan Bey, and Pramuko, Yudi, eds.

     2004       The Islamic Invasion (Islam yang Dihujat) / Robert A. Morey. Bekasi, INA: C.V. Focus Muslimedia.    

 

Fletemier, Curt

     2003       Christianity and Islam: The Son and the Moon.  Belleville, Ontario: Guardian.

 

Gibb, H. A. R. and J. H. Kraemers

     1953       Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

 

Guillaume, Alfred

     1966       Islam.  Baltimore, MD:Penguin books.

 

Hawting, Gerald R.

     1999       The Idea of Idolatry and the Emergence of Islam: From Polemic to History.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

 

Henninger, Joseph

     1981       “Pre-Islamic Bedouin Religion.”  In Merlin L. Swartz, Studies on Islam.  

                   New York: Oxford, pp. 3-22.

 

Herlianto

     2001       Siapakah yang Bernama Allah itu? (Who is the One Named Allah?)Jakarta: BPK Gunung Mulia.     

     2002       “Kitab Suci 2000: Suatu Evaluasi.” Majalah Gracia 06/II/Peb: p. 8.

 

Hitti, Philip K.

     1951       History of the Arabs.  5th ed.  New York: MacMillan   

 

Hoyland, Robert G.

     2001       Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam. London: Routledge.

 

Hughes, Thomas Patrick

     1994/1890  Dictionary of Islam.  Chicago, IL: Kazi Publications.

 

Hussaini, Adian

     n. date    “Perbezaan Kata ‘Allah’ di Indonesia dan Malaysia” Majelis Dakwah Negara, no date, http://www.mdn.org.my/?p=851

 

Ibn al-Kalbi, Hisham b. Muhammad 

     1952       The Book of Idols: Being a Translation From the Arabic of the Kitab  al-Asnam By Hisham Ibn Al-Kalbi.  Nabih Amin Faris, trans. & ed.  Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press.

 

Iskandar, Jahja. Mengapa Nama Yahweh Semakin Populer? (Why is the Name Yahweh Increasingly Populer?). (n.d.). Global Pustaka Online.

    

Jakarta Post

     2008       “What’s in a Name?  Malaysia Catholic Paper Could Close Down in ‘Allah’ Row.” Dec. 18, p. 11.

 

Katsch, Abraham

     1954       Judaism in Islam: Biblical and Talmudic Backgrounds of the Koran and its Commentaries: Surahs II and III.  New York: Bloch.

 

Morey, Robert A.

     1992       Islamic Invasion.  Las Vegas: NV: Christian Scholars Press. 

 

Noorsena, Bambang

     2005       History of Allah. Yogyakarta: Andi.

 

Peters, Frederick E.

     1994a     Mecca: A Literary History of the Muslim Holy Land.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

     1994       Muhammad and the Origins of Islam. Albany, NY: SUNY.

  

Rubin, Uri

     1990       “Hanifiyya and Ka‘ba: An Inquiry into the Pre-Islamic Background of Din Ibrahim.”  Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 13:85-112.

 

Shahid, Irfan

     1989       Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fifth Century.  Washington, D C:  Dumbarton Oaks

 

“Siapakah yang Bernama Allah itu?” (“Who Is the One Named Allah?”)

     c. 1998   Jakarta: Bet Yesua Hamasiah.

 

Sulistyo, Yakub

     2004       Nama Tuhan.  Untuk Kalangan Sendiri

 

Thompson, G. Caton

     1944       The Tombs and Moon Temple of Hureidha.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

 

Trimmingham, J. Spencer 

     1979       Christianity Among the Arabs in Pre-Islamic Times.  London: Longman.

 

Waldman, Marilyn Robinson

     1986       “New Approaches to ‘Biblical’ Material in the Qur’an.”  Studies in Islamic and Judaic Traditions.  William Brinner and Stephen Ricks, eds.  Pp. 47-64.  Atlanta: Scholars.

 

Watt, W. Montgomery

     1961       Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman.  Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

 

Wellhausen, Julius

     1897       Reste arabischen Heidentums (The Remains of Arabian Paganism). 2nd edition.  Berlin.                                                                                                                                                                                  

 

Wilhelmina

       2013     “Pendeta Dr. Yakub Sulistyo; Teks-“Allah Hanya Untuk Umat Islam”. Fortuna Dream.com. 28 Oktober. https://helmysyamza.wordpress.com/ 2013/0/28/pendeta-dr-yakub-sulistyo-teks-allah-hanya-untuk-umat-islam/

 

Winnett, Frederick V.

     1938       “Allah Before Islam” in The Moslem World., Vol. 28(3): 239-248.

     1970       “The Arabian Genealogies in the Book of Genesis.”  In Translating & Understanding the Old Testament: Essays in Honor of Herbert Gordon May.  Harry T. Frank and William L. Reed, eds.  Pp.171-196.  Nashville, TN: Abingdon.

 

Winnett, Frederick V. and William L. Reed

     1970       Ancient Records From North Arabia.  Toronto, ON, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

 

Woodberry, J. Dudley

     1989       “Contextualization Among Muslims: Reusing Common Pillars.” In The Word Among Us: Contextualizing Theology for Mission Today. Dean S. Gilliland, ed. Pp. 282-312.

 

Zwemer, Samuel M.

     1946       “The Allah of Islam and the God revealed in Jesus Christ”, The Moslem World 36(3): 306-318.                     



[1] This is what I learned from a very enthusiastic Pemuja Yahweh pastor attending a seminar I taught at a synodal meeting of the Gereja Kristus Jakarta in November 2010 where I taught on the divine name issue.  He also cited Exodus 3:15, LAI translation, as a proof that “Yahweh” is the only proper “sebutan” for YHWH: “itulah nama-Ku untuk selama-lamanya, dan itulah sebutan-Ku turun-termurun”, or “My title “for generations upon generations.” This is an unfortunate translation by LAI and gives a lot of unwarranted leeway for the  Pemuja Yahweh to put a shallow emphasis on the divine name as a mere “sebutan.yang diharuskan”.  In fact the Hebrew here is zikri  or “My memorial [name] from the Hebrew word zakar to remember and not My “sebutan”.   The English Standard Version has the best translation of this verse: “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered [zikri] throughout all generations.”  So the emphasis is not on a “sebutan” or saying the name in exactly the right way but rather on remembering the deeds and character of Yahweh in corporate worship.   Compare the same nuance zikrika  “Your memorial” in Ps. 102:12: But you, O LORD are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.  Psalm 105:5 show how Yahweh is to be remembered in corporate worship: “Remember [zikoru]  the wondrous works that He [Yahweh] has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered …”   

[2] The Christian apologist, Herlianto exposes the blatant linguistic inconsistencies that resulted from such a simplistic search and replace methodology ( 2002:8). For example the KS 2000 made no effort to determine whether El/Elohim/Eloah are personal names or titles.  In fact a meticulous examination of each term’s context is needed to obtain an accurate translation Thus one could say “Elohim created the heavens and the earth” but it would be strange to say that Yahweh is “my Elohim”or “the Elohim of Israel” . Natural translation would require Yahweh “is my God” or “the God of Israel.”  The KS UPT-2002 recognized this problem and did a better job than KS-2000, thus making a greater effort to nuance the use of Elohim  when it appears as a personal name then “Tuhan” when Hebrew Elohim is used in context as a title..

[3] See, Adian Hussaini, “Perbezaan Kata ‘Allah’ di Indonesia dan Malaysia” Majelis Dakwah Negara, no date, http://www.mdn.org.my/?p=851 ; Wilhelmina, “Pendeta Dr. Yakub Sulistyo; Teks- “Allah Hanya Untuk Umat Islam”, Fortuna Dream.com, 28 Oktober, 2013, https://helmysyamza.wordpress.com/ 2013/10/28/pendeta-dr-yakub-sulistyo-teks-allah-hanya-untuk-umat-islam/.

[4]The main Indonesian promoters of “Allah is a moon god” appear to be Pastor Jahja Iskandar of the Bethel Tabernacle Church (GBT), Mengapa Nama Yahweh Semakin Populer (n.d), and Pastor Yakub Sulistyo, Nama Tuhan (2004).  Curt Fletemier’s, Christianity and Islam: the Son and the Moon (2003) clearly bears the mark of Morey.  Fletemeier translated and promoted his book in Jakarta and attended a seminar that I taught in 2005 at the Jakarta International Christian Fellowship. He insisted that moon god worship was the dominant cult throughout ancient Arabia. Siapakah yang Bernama Allah itu? (c. 1998—Who Is the One Named Allah?) also concludes that Allah is a pagan Arabian god.  Herlianto (2001) has refuted its arguments.     

[5] Thus for example, the Jewish historian, Uri Rubin, provides very interesting evidence to support the fact that at least some of Muhammad’s early opponents during the Meccan period had already been associating the Kabah with a religion of Abraham and Ishmael for a lengthy period of time (1990:85-86). Moreover, Western scholars, secular, Jewish and Christian, also point out the striking similarity of many narrative stories in the Qur’an and Islamic tradition to Old Testament passages and ancient Jewish and Christian legends (Waldman 1986; Katsch1954; Woodberry 1989:282-312). These stories had been circulating in Arabia before the rise of Islam.

[6] Morey also mentions the name of Julius Wellhausen. Out of fairness to Morey we need to note here that Wellhausen (1897:215-224), like Morey, argues that Allah is a contraction of al-’ilah. But contra Morey Wellhausen also argues that Allah was not a personal being in pagan Arabian thought.  Rather, “Allah” represented a collective abstract personification of Hubal and other ancient pagan deities).  This does not directly support Morey’s moon god thesis but it doesn’t particularly refute it either. The problem for Morey is that later generations of secular scholarship have rejected the details of Wellhausen’s Allah thesis (see G.R. Hawting 1999:26-28).   

[7] One example showing how Morey often quotes sources out of context is when he states that Samuel Zwemer, the famous Protestant missionary scholar, completely differentiates Allah from the God of the Bible (pp. 57-58). While the source he quotes does indeed point out the major differences between Islam’s concept of God in comparison to the God of the Bible, Zwemer also takes pains to argue that Allah and God are not two different deities, as seen in this quote from Zwemer: “… monotheism in Arabia is far older than the days of Mohammed.  The Prophet did not proclaim a new deity but fought Arabian pagan idolatry and called the Arabs back to the worship of one living God (Zwemer 1946:68-69).

[8]See also J. Spencer Trimmingham for a similar theory 1979: 251, n. 14).  Readers should note  the etymological similarity between Hebrew biblical terms, ’elohim,’el,’eloh,’eloah, along withAramaic elah/’elaha to the Arabic ’ilah and Allah (al-’ilah)—a point which Morey flippantly dismisses by saying, “It is a far cry to go from ‘Eli, Eli’ (“My God, my God” in Ps. 22:1) all the way to ‘Allah, Allah.’ It simply cannot be done.” (p. 63). It can be done if we look at other names  besides El  in the original languages. The Hebrew terms such as ’eloh and ’eloah along with the Aramaic term ’elah contain the consonants aleph, lamed and he (a,l,h).  The Arab consonants for ’ilah = Allah)  contain alif, lam and ha (a,l,h).  Thus the original languages reveal a close etymological affinity between biblical and Arabic divine names. Morey seems unaware of this important fact.

 

[9] In his classic account of ancient Arabian paganism Julius Wellhausen (1897:215-224) asserts that the pagan Arabian tribes used the term al-ilah for their own chief deities.

[10] Linguistic, cultural and religious differences, including the worship of different deities, divided the geographical regions of ancient Arabia. Robert G. Hoyland’s superb survey of the pre-Islamic history of the entire Arabian peninsula demonstrates this point very clearly (Hoyland 2001:11,139-166; see also Hitti 1951:49-86).

[11] On the other hand Hoyland (2001:62) does refer to the fact that in the 6th century B.C. the Babyonian king, Nabonidus, a “fervant devotee of the moon god, Sin …” left Babylon and set up a palace in the North Arabian oasis of Tayma perhaps because he wished “… to escape opposition at home and to promote Sin abroad.”  If in fact he did promote Sin to the Arabian inhabitants there the impact was slight or non existant because Winnett and Reed did not find a trace of Sin in Tayma (1970:88-112) or any other North Arabian oases.

[12] Winnett admits that he found nothing really remarkable about these inscriptions, they were very general and could have been said of any god, except for two which said, “O Allah, (god) without offspring” (1938:243).

[13] Brockelmann’s research into the pagan Arabian poetry led him to conclude that before the time of Islam some of the Arabs adhered to an indigenous Arabian monotheism. Hawting 1999:30 is skeptical re Brockelmann’s conclusion and use of source material.  But the Christian Arab scholar, Irfan Shahid (1989:432-58), provides some indirect supporting evidence on the Arabian poetry from the 5th century A.D.. and Peters (1994:107-112) seems to be in essential agreement with Brockelmann’s general conclusions.

[14] Morey’s fans in Indonesia offer a different explanation for their context: the Dutch missionaries used Allah in Bible translation and then deceived (membodohi) the Indonesian Christians into accepting it. Let readers judge for themselves as to the truth of this statement.