Was the Name ‘Allah’ used by Pre-Islamic Arab Christians?
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(see also: What about Allah? Why the change?)
It has long been assumed that the name ‘Allah’ was used by Pre-Islamic Christians in Arabia. If that were so, where is the hard evidence? This idea was popularized among Westerners by the noted author, Philip K. Hitti, in his 1937 book, History of the Arabs. Dozens of internet sites supporting the use of Allah quote this book. So let’s take a look at Hitti’s statements and see if they stand up to scrutiny.
Hitti’s writes, “Allah (allah, al-ilah, the god) was the principal, though not the only, deity of Makkah. The name is an ancient one. It occurs in two South Arabic inscriptions, one a Minaean found at al-‘Ula and the other a Sabaean, but abounds in the form HLH in the Lihyanite inscriptions of the fifth century- B.C. Lihyan, which evidently got the god from Syria, was the first Centre of the worship of this deity in Arabia. The name occurs as Hallah in the Safa inscriptions five centuries before Islam and also in a pre-Islamic Christian Arabic inscription found in umm-al-Jimal, Syria, and ascribed to the sixth century. The name of Muhammad’s father was ‘Abd-Allah (‘Abdullah, the slave or worshipper of Allah).” (History Of The Arabs, p. 96-101)
An Amazing Discovery –‘Allah’ is Absent!
In the first sentence quoted, Hitti assumes, as do many, that
(al-Ilaah) must be the same. But Edward Lane’s monumental work, An Arabic-English Lexicon, tells us that according to the best grammarians,
(Allah) is actually “a proper name…with the initial ?? being inseparable from the rest of the word…and not derived”. However, less authoritative grammarians simply assumed that the name
(Allah) was originally
(al-Ilaah = ‘the god’), yet somehow eventually morphed into ‘Allah’. Unfortunately, the second of these two ideas has become the unquestioned stuff of legend.
Furthermore, if the word ‘Allah’ simply meant ‘god’ rather than referring to the name of a specific Arabian deity, then how does its feminine counterpart ‘Allat’ (a proper noun) fit in? Many people are unaware that the Qur’an even mentions this feminine deity (Sura 53:19-20). The Nabataeans of Petra (in southern Jordan) had a temple dedicated to her worship. The name Allat clearly does not just mean ‘goddess’, for it is mentioned in the same verses with the named Arabian deities, Uzza and Manat. Allat is rather the personal name of a pagan Arabian goddess. Likewise is Allah a personal name.
Next, other than the so-called “Christian” inscription (which we will deal with in the following paragraph), Hitti does not refer to any Arabic whatever, but instead uses Minnaean, Sabaean and Lihyanite alphabetic inscriptions. While these may be Arabian languages (but not classical Arabic), is it not curious that there are no similar inscriptions in Arabic? Arabic was widely in use by the 5th century. Indeed, there are a number of pre-Islamic Arabic inscriptions, but none containing the name ‘Allah’. Further, Hitti disturbingly claims that the form H-L-H automatically becomes ‘Hallah’. But how can anyone simply assume the doubling of the middle L? Even if it were true, Hitti then assumes that Hallah automatically becomes Allah. In the early days of Near East scholarship, many orientalists would routinely assume huge leaps of “logic” in moving between various Semitic languages. Sometimes they were correct, but sometimes their leaps fell short! An embarrassing example of this comes from Strong’s Concordance, where he often referred to “unused roots”. It’s one thing to conjecture, but quite another to state it as fact.
Concerning the supposed Christian use of ‘Allah’, Hiiti cites the famous Umm al-Jimal inscription in “Syria”. Umm al-Jimal was a Byzantine town, located in modern-day Jordan, not far from the Syrian border. The inscription itself is on a basalt slab and was discovered by Enno Littmann in ,1904 at the so-called “Double Church” of the Umm al-Jimal ruins (I myself visited the site while on an archaeological dig in Jordan in 2004). This inscription is dated to either the 5th or 6th century AD. Shown here is a reproduction of the inscription:
The inscription was originally translated by Littmann:
Line #1 “Allah, grant pardon to ‘Ulan (‘Ulan was some guy’s name)…”
Line #2 “the son of ‘Ubaidah, the secretary…”
Line #3 “of al-‘Ubaid, the chief of the Banu…”
Line #4&5 “Amr (Littmann assumed the Banu ‘Amr was an Arabian tribe)! May he who reads it have notice of it!”
Notice the very first word (i.e. the word at the right of the top line of the inscription). Littmann presumes (mistakenly) the letters are A-L-L-H, and so translates it as ‘Allah’. This is where all the controversy comes in. James Bellamy from the University of Michigan, in his 1988 article in the Journal of the American Oriental Society, points out that the first two letters of that word cannot possibly be construed as ‘a’ and ‘l’ (the first two letters of Allah). To realize this, all one needs to do is compare them to the first two letters of line #3, which really are ‘a’ and ‘l’, (composing the definite article part of ‘al-Ubaid’). In addition, that first letter also has a diacritical mark (the dot underneath), which ‘alif, of course, never has. Bellamy suggests that the reason that Littmann was not able to to read the inscription correctly is that he was seeking parallels in other languages, and did not concentrate sufficiently on the Arabic. Bellamy’s translation of the first word is actually the verb ‘barrazahu’ (B-R-Z-H), rather than the proper noun ‘Allah’. The first letter should understood as a ‘B’ (with the characteristic dot beneath the horizontal stroke), the second letter an ‘R’ (it looks just a classical Arabic diagonal ‘R’), the third letter a ‘Z’ (‘Z’ has the same characteristic diagonal stroke as the ‘R’), with the last letter being an ‘H’ (this ‘H’ is a pronoun suffix, meaning ‘him’ or ‘it’). Bellamy transliterates this word as ‘barrazahu’ which means ‘they set it up’. Edward Lane tells us that this verb deals with setting up written text (such as this inscription). The pronoun suffix,‘it’, refers here to the inscription itself, and Bellamy points out that this usage of a pronoun without an antecedent, being a demonstrative, is classical Arabic practice, being found in the Qur’an itself (Sura 19:97 and in Sura 97:1). So the reading of Line #1should actually be rendered like this… “This (inscription) was set up by the colleagues of ‘Ulaiyh (lit: the colleagues of ‘Ulaiyh set this up)”.
The close-up of the inscription (below) shows the word in question, and also its transcription into modern Arabic script:
barrazauh (they set it up)
So what does all this mean? It means that there is no word ‘Allah’ in this supposedly Christian inscription! The word Allah never even appears at Umm al-Jimal. Littman himself admitted his struggle with his original interpretation, and in his last revision of 1949 said that he did not even “pretend to furnish a definite reading and translation”. This inscription therefore, does not, and cannot, prove the use of Allah. In fact, it turns out the word is never even used! Unfortunately, statements such as the following still predominate on the internet: “The Umm al-Jimal inscription… incidentally, refers to God with the word Allah, showing that Arab Christians’ use of the word predates Islam.” But as Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Another Amazing Discovery –‘al-Ilaah’ is Present!
Now, let’s look at another pre-Islamic Christian epigraph that actually does speak of God. This inscription, dated 512AD and shown below, was discovered in Zebed, Syria (south of Aleppo). The trilingual inscription includes Greek, Syriac and Arabic and was written on a lintel over the door to the shrine/burial place of St. Serge (a Roman soldier who eventually became a Christian martyr).
For clarity, the Arabic text (on the small lintel covering) is reproduced below:
Note that the Arabic does not translate the Greek, but simply lists six names. According to M.A. Kugener, this inscription reads: “With the help of God! (or: That God helps!) Sergius, son of Amat Manaf, and Tobi, son of Imroulqais, and Sergius, son of Sa`d, and Sitr, and Shouraih (or rather: Sergius)”.
The close-up below shows the word in question (the word on the right of the top line of the inscription), and its transcription into modern Arabic script:
al-Ilaahu (the God)
Notice that this pre-Islamic word in Arabic is NOT Allah, but rather al-Ilaah! Understandably, this inscription has been totally ignored by those who support the use of Allah, because it does not say Allah. Nearly every website that mentions this inscription tells us that it includes six names, but nearly all fail to point out that
(al-Ilaah) is used here. There is no way that this word could be twisted to say Allah. Even without the vowels, any educated Arabic speaker would tell you this word says ‘al-Ilaah’. This is yet another compelling reason why we use the word
(al-Ilaah) for God in ArabBible, rather than Allah.
What, if anything, does this evidence point to? It indicates that pre-Islamic Christians were using the word al-Ilaah, and not Allah! This is terribly important, because at some point after the arrival of Islam, the situation changed. It is quite possible that the translators of the first Arabic Bible may have been under considerable duress to employ the name Allah in the Scriptures, instead of the word already in use by Christians, al-Ilaah. The Mt. Sinai Arabic Codex 151 is the oldest existing Arabic translation of the Bible, translated during Ramadan in 867AD by Bishr Ibn as-Sirri, a Nestorian Christian living in Damascus. This was about 200 years after the advent of Islam, during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate. It’s well-known that the Abbasids distinguished themselves from the earlier Umayyad caliphs by attacking their secularism. So it is quite possible that this Bible translator, sitting right in the former capital of the Umayyad Caliphate, may have used the Islamic term Allah to either avoid persecution, or gain acceptance within the Caliphate, or both. As Sidney Griffith points out in his journal article, Anthony David of Baghdad, Scribe and Monk of Mar Sabas: Arabic in the Monasteries of Palestine, found in the journal Church History (Vol. 58, No. 1, March 1989, pp. 7-19) the Arabic language was being used increasingly by the Eastern Christian hierarchy, eventually replacing Greek. Apparently, even within the church, there was a major shift toward adopting all things Islamic. Migration toward the prevailing Arabic culture was in vogue (and safer too), as Arabic civilization came to be considered culturally superior to all others. Given the circumstances, it is not surprising to see the embracing of the term Allah.