Can we call God 'Allah'?

A Christian devotee prays at a church in Petaling Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Friday, Jan. 8, 2010.)AP

The language used in the Bible has long been the subject of contention – not least in Malaysia, where authorities ruled this week that non-Muslims cannot refer to God as 'Allah'.

A Muslim-majority country, many Malays believe that the national conscience must be firmly rooted in Islam, and therefore resent the influence of the Chinese Christian population who are active in evangelising among Malays.

However, Mark Beaumont, senior lecturer in Islam and mission at the London School of Theology, says that while there is controversy regarding the way that God and Allah are referred in Malaysia, in other parts of the world it's considered far less of a contentious issue.

"In the Arab speaking world there's no difficulty in calling God 'Allah' – they've been doing it in the Christian church and in the Bible for hundreds of years," he explains.

"In the Coptic Church in Egypt, the church in Syria, Jordan, Iraq and even Iran, it's always been the practice to call God 'Allah' using the Arabic form. Although the Arabic Bible wasn't translated fully before Islam came, it's obvious that people were reading the Gospels using 'Allah' before the rise of Islam.

"In the ancient history of the Middle East, 'Allah' is the equivalent of 'Elohim', the Hebrew word for God."

While it may be mostly Malaysian Muslims who are offended by the Christian use of the word 'Allah', many Christian believers also find it to be controversial. Most would agree that the Muslim and Christian understanding of God is very different, so how can we use the same language? Is it really possible to reconcile the name 'Allah' with the God of the Bible?

"Anything is possible! You just have to think about the person who is saying 'I believe in Allah,'" Beaumont insists.

"When I lived in Morocco, there was a Christian man who was being interrogated by the police. He had grown up as a Muslim but came to know Christ and became a Christian. He was told to confess his faith, and he said: 'There is no God but God, and Jesus Christ is my saviour and Lord'. He confessed it in Arabic, using the word 'Allah', and so he was quite happy to use the Muslim testimony of faith as a Christian because of course we also believe there is no God but God! He was able to affirm the basic statement of faith for Muslims – There is no God but Allah – but wasn't able to affirm Mohammed as God's prophet, which is the second part of it.

"It's helpful to show that there are people who have grown up in a Muslim context and then embrace a genuine faith in Christ who are still happy to use the Muslim word for God without difficulty, and that's true in many other countries," he continues.

"It's usually not that big a difficulty using the word 'Allah' and filling it with a Christian meaning. There are of course people in the West who worry about that – it makes some Christian missionaries feel uncomfortable, and I can understand that – but it's not my personal position."

Beaumont contends that it is not only just possible to use Islamic terminology while offering a Christian meaning, but it is, in fact, a vital part of helping Muslims to understand the message of Christ.

"I favour beginning where Muslims are, with what they understand, and trying to draw them into another way of thinking," he explains.

"Some people wouldn't want to do that because they say the starting point is all wrong, so you can't begin where Muslims are – you've got to proclaim the message of Christ as something completely new and rely on the Holy Spirit to speak to them, call them on and draw them to Christ. I respect that, but I also believe the Holy Spirit can draw Muslims to Christ from where they're coming from and I've seen it happen."

Beaumont also notes that the word 'God' doesn't actually feature in original Scripture, and yet modern Christians rarely refer to 'Elohim' or 'Yahweh'.

"The word 'God' came when the Bible was translated into Anglo-Saxon, and comes from a pagan name for a deity – it's a northern European understanding. So when Christians have strict view on using the word 'Allah' but are very happy to use the King James translation of the Bible, or even more recent, I smile to myself," he says.

"Language can take a word and change it – you can fill an old word with a new meaning, and that's what's going on here. Some people feel uncomfortable with that – they say 'you can't fill an old wineskin with new wine' but nobody says you can't use the Anglo-Saxon word for God.

"There's also a parallel with William Carey, who translated the Bible into Bengali and used the word 'Ishvara' – 'Ishvara created the heavens and the earth' – and that's the word Christians in India still use today.

"Ishvara is the God Hindus believe created the earth, and so Carey thought it would be best word for the Biblical creator – it's interesting to see how different translations use local deities to help explain the Bible, rather than 'Elohim'."

Beaumont concludes that to dialogue with people from different beliefs and understandings, it's important to speak using familiar terms. 'Allah', therefore, is a perfectly acceptable name for God in the context of the Arabic culture.

"In the real world, when you're engaging with cross-cultural communities with different ethnic and linguistic grounds, you've got to enter into their language and their thought world to have a genuine conversation," he urges.

"You can't go in with a megaphone speaking foreign language and hope they get it. Part of that is respect for people and their ethnicity – it's trying to clothe new ideas in older language."