Xikwembu? Apo Jesus
Since Christianity became the most widespread religion in the world, Bible translators and local Christians encountered a tedious problem regarding the most appropriate name or names they should use for YHWH who is different from any tribal god under the sun. In the last two centuries, many Western missionaries left their comfort zones and headed for little known overseas tribes to share the Good News with them; theirs was an era of less cultural sensitivity when “Western”, “Christian”, and “civilization” were interchangeable. Most of these well meaning missionaries also took with them their unique cultures and worldviews and forced them on the nationals mistaking them for biblical principles. One example of this is how missionaries of what is know Kenya instructed the local converts to use “Jehovah”, a German corruption of Yahweh, for YHWH. Though the Kalenjin tribe had a word for a supreme Creator, their word was seen unredeemable for Christian use. Decades later, the Kikuyu Christians of Kenya were allowed to use “Ngai”, a Kikiyu word for God, for YHWH. The unfortunate Kalenjin still use “Jehovah” for YHWH.
In this paper, I will examine the words six languages employ for YHWH. One of these words is “Allah” which I will give especial emphasis as it is the primary reason for writing this paper. The other five words will be used as a background for “Allah”.
1. EL: is a semitic word for God which means the mighty one. The Cananite god, El, was the father of people and also gods whom Baal is one of the most well known. Elohim, the majestic plural form of El, was the common Hebrew name for YHWH. El “was an immoral and debased character. It is a tribute to the high quality of the God of Israel that when the Hebrews took over this name and applied it to Him, it lost all its evil connotations.”1 Elohim occurs in the Old Testament 2570 times and Eloah 57 times 41 of which occur in Job. Simply put, the Hebrews baptized El for YHWH.
2. GOD: Needless to say, “God” is not a proper name for YHWH but a pagan term applied to him. One of the definitions of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary for “god” (lower case) is “a being of more than human attributes and powers; esp: a super human person....An artificial or natural object (as a carved idol or an animal or tree) that is thought to be seat of divine powers.” This huge 2662 page dictionary also attributes “God” (Uper case) YHWH like attributes but the difference is that of a case. “God” is derived from the Germano-Teutonic “gott” which means “to call, invoke” (Ibid). Saint Anskar (or Ansgar) (801-865), a native of Flanders cut down the oak tree that the Germanics were worshiping referring to it as gott. The devout Germanics told Anskar that their gott, the oak tree, will fall down on him and kill him if he cut it. Saint Anskar, filled with the Holy Spirit cut down what they called gott, and lo! It did not kill him. It is there where saint Anskar preached to the pagan Germanics pointing at the oak tree and told them that what they were worshiping was not gott but a mere tree. He pointed them to heaven and told them that the true Gott has his throne there. It is interesting that saint Anskar did not invent a new word for the people, he simply used their old word, and filled it with Christian meaning. To this day, German Christians worship Gott, not an oak tree though but YHWH!
Some Yahwists suggested that it is possible that the fortune deity, Gad (Hebrew, Gd) of Isaiah 65:11 is related to god; “But you are those who forsake the LORD, who forget my holy mountain, who prepare a table for Gad, and who furnish a drink offering for Meni.” (NKJV).
3. EGZIABHER: This is a classical Ethiopic (Ge’ez) word used for YHWH until today. The first recorded usage of this word is the 4th century when St. Frementius started translating the Bible into Ge’ez. The translation work started by this siant was later completed by the nine saints from Syria who moved to Ethiopia in 480 during the Chalcedonian crisis. It is however, interesting to note the pagan background of the word ”egziabher.” Before this word was claimed for YHWH, the Ethiopic people used to refer it to a sea god they used to worship. In fact the word is composed of two distinct words crudely joined: “egzia” which means “lord” and “bher” which means “sea.” The cult of the lord of the sea used to be popular in the red sea area of what is now Eritrea. Eriteria succeeded from the rest of Ethiopia in 1991. The thirty million Ethiopian Christians, whether orthodox or protestant, use “Egziabher” for YHWH without any difficulty. This is one instance that local Christians redeemed a pagan word for YHWH.
4. WAAQ: This is a Cushitic sky god widely worshiped in the horn of Africa as late as the 19th century. The Somalis and the Oromos, among other Cushitic tribes, worshipped this sky god before Islam. Waaq was still a powerful deity in the Oromo territory of the present day Ethiopia as late as the 19th century. The waq cult disappeared among the Somalis but is still practiced by many Oromos. The Oromo Bible which was first translated by Onesimos Nesib (1855-1931) using the Amharic script uses “Waaq” for YHWH. The current modern (Latin) Oromo translation also uses “Waaq” for YHWH. However, it will be insane to assume that the Oromo Christians worship a sky god! There is a difference between, and rightly so, when an Oromo Christian uses ” Waaq” and when a pagan Oromo uses the same word for his or her deity.
5. THEOS: This is a Greek pagan word which simply means “god.” The Greek New Testament uses this very word for Yahweh. Needless to say, apostle Paul used this very word, theos, for YHWH. It is obvious that the NT writers and translators filled a pagan word with Christian meaning. A good example is Paul’s Areopagus Speech where he talks about the unknown god by identifying it with YHWH! “For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.” Acts17:23 (NIV). The Apostle did not coin a new Greek word for YHWH, he simply used an already existing one used for idols! It is therefore interesting to note that though Paul rejected the unbiblical concept infested with the word “theos” he did not disown the word itself but kept it after pouring biblical meaning into it. Paul certainly threw out the bath water but fortunately kept the baby!
6. ALLAH: Many believe that this name comes from the Aramaic/Syriac word which means “God” or “the God” which is alaha. This school of thought believes that the definite article, final “a”, in the word was dropped off when the word was barrowed into Arabic. Another school of thought teaches that the word “Allah” comes from the Arabic, “al Ilah” which means “the God.” Arab Christians always used “Allah” for YHWH and still continue to refer to him as “Allah.
Needless to say, Muhammad did not coin the word “Allah” and the word itself is pre Islamic in nature. Muhammad’s father was called “Abdallah”, which means the servant of Allah, though he was a pagan from a pagan family. The polytheistic Arabs adopted “Allah” as one of their numerous deities. It was only after the fortieth birthday of Muhammad that the prophet of Islam rehabilitated the word to be used only for the true God whom Muhammad learned from the Jewish and the Christians.
Abd Al-Masih, the famous German writer on Islam, says “Satan met Muhammad, disguised himself using the old Arabic name for God, ‘Allah’ and demanded from him total submission and worship.”2 Abd Al-Masih only accuses Muslims of worshipping “the wrong Allah” (ibid). It is interesting that Abd Al-Masih does not raise any objections against the use of “Allah” for YHWH. He certainly did not want to upset the fifteen million Arab Christians who daily refer to YHWH as “Allah.” Nothing could be unkind than to say that these persecuted but faithful Christians worship a false god. In fact, Fouad Elias Accad, the great Christian scholar from Lebanon, says that “offshoot Christian sects such the Nestorians sent missionaries throughout the Arabia during the sixth and the seventh centuries A.D. During this same time period, there was the appearance of Bedouin seekers after the one true God, truly monotheists, who were called “Hanifs.” These people were the first to use the term Allah for the one God.”3
The late prominent Al Azhar scholar, Dr. Abd al Ati, gives the Muslim understanding of “Allah” in his own words: “Finally, the word Allah in Islam simply but most emphatically means the One and the only Eternal God, Creator of the universe, Lord of all lords, and King of all kings.”4 It is also note worthy that Islam teaches that People of the Book (Jewish, Christians and Muslims) worship the same God! The Qur’an bears witness to this in the most emphatic way possible:
Sura 29:46 "We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)."
Sura 22:40 “Did not Allah check one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of Allah is commemorated in abundant measure.”
Sura 2: 136. “Say ye: ‘We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam)."’
Sura 3:3 “It is He [Allah] Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).
Sura 21:22 “If there were, in the heavens and the earth, other gods besides Allah, there would have been confusion in both! but glory to Allah, the Lord of the Throne: (High is He) above what they attribute to Him!
Sura 59:22-24 "Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;- Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;- the Sovereign, the Holy One, the Source of Peace (and Perfection), the Guardian of Faith, the Preserver of Safety, the Exalted in Might, the Irresistible, the Supreme: Glory to Allah. (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”
I fully realize that the Muslim understanding of Allah falls short of the Arab Christian understanding of the term. I say this because the Qur’an denies crucial Christian doctrines like the incarnation, the Sonship of Jesus and his atoning death, among others. It seems wise to me to help Christians from Islamic background to understand Allah through Christian glasses which will not be hard for them. If we Christians rehabilitated the 102 words on the cover page of this paper for YHWH as is evident in the translations of the Bible in these languages, we can certainly polish “Allah” for YHWH without much effort. Unless one is strict Yahwist who believes that to call the true God by any other name but Yahweh is blasphemy, there is nothing that prevents us from baptizing proper names for YHWH as Bible writers did repeatedly. To be honest, “Allah” is a much closer word to “YHWH” than many words like El, Theos, God, Egziabher and Dio, to name a few. Finally, since Jesus spoke Aramaic, he certainly referred to YHWH as “Alaha” which, as I said earlier, is related to “Allah”.
1. Bryant, T. Alton (ed.). The New Compact Bible Dictionary, (Special Crusade Edition). Minneapolis: The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association; 1967, (p. 144).
2. Abd Al-Masih. Islam Under the Magnifying Glass. Villach , Austria: Light of Life;
n.d., (p. 50).
3. Accad, Fouad Elias. Building Bridges: Christianity and Islam. Colorado Springs: Navpress; 1997, (p. 40).
4. Hammudah Abd al Ati. Islam In Focus, (3rd revised edition), Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications; 1998, (p. 11).