No God but Allah?
This is Bishop Martinus Muskens of Breda in the Netherlands, who has suggested that Christians should refer to God as Allah as it would promote better relations with Muslims. “God doesn’t mind what he’s called,” he said. “Someone like me has prayed to Allah yang maha kuasa (Almighty God) for eight years in Indonesia and other priests for 20 or 30 years. In the heart of the Eucharist, God is called Allah over there, so why can't we start doing that together?”
Bishop Muskens admitted that he did not think his suggestion would be welcomed readily and that it would take about 100 years before Catholics would feel comfortable calling God ‘Allah’.
Cranmer is not sure that Western Roman Catholics will ever ‘feel comfortable’ with the proposal, but at this rate calling God ‘Allah’ may eventually have a degree of compulsion to it, and it is not going to take a century to get there. There is an acutely political dimension to the Bishop’s comments, not least because the Netherlands is only a few decades away from a Muslim majority, and Bishop Muskens is simply doing his John-the-Baptist act and making straight the highway.
But does God mind what he is called? What’s in a name?
Firstly, Cranmer notes that Martinus Muskens is also known as Tiny Muskens, so there may be something there which is indicative of his intellect or theological understanding. But the name of God is rather more significant, and in that revelation it is manifest that God does care what he is called.
And God spake all these words, saying, I am the LORD (Heb. ‘YHWH’) thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me (Ex 20: 1-3).
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you… this is my name forever, and this is my memorial to all generations (Ex3:14f).
The Bishop is right to point out that Christians throughout Arabia would use the name ‘Allah’, not least because it has come to be simply the Arabic term for God. But this was not revealed to Mohammed: the term predates his era and that of the Qur’an. Allah was in fact a Babylonian moon god, one of a pantheon of gods. Over the centuries he came to be the chief god and then the only god. Of course, most Muslims refute this, but they are largely ignorant of etymology, the evolution of language, cultural history, and textual criticism. And those who dare to delve into such areas as the ‘satanic verses’ either lose their heads or end up with a fatwa on their heads.
The use of ‘Alla’ for Arab Christians has always been as natural as ‘Dieu’ is for the French or ‘Gott’ is for the Germans. But ‘God’ is a job description, not a name. For Jews and Christians the name of God is revealed and he has made himself known; for Muslims he is unknown and unknowable. For Jews and Christians God is immanent and is their Father; for Muslims he is transcendent and not intimately related. For Christians God is revealed in Jesus, the Son of God; for Muslims God is one and has no partners.
Unfortunately, this Roman Catholic bishop who would have spent three years studying philosophy and a further four being steeped in theology (they train longer and much more thoroughly than the Anglicans…), completely misunderstands or chooses to entirely ignore the missio dei expounded so clearly in the New Testament. The entire story of the Early Church is dominated by the profound difficulties inherent in communicating a Hebrew messiah to a Greek audience. The modern Western world lives with the consequences of fusing Greek philosophy with Christian theology, which is why Jewish Christians tend to have a very different christology from Christians in the West. Christianity adapts to culture, but its central truths are immutable.
For Christians in the West to call God ‘Allah’ is nothing but dhimmitude. And what of reciprocity? Might we ask the Muslims to call Jesus the Son of God? No, of course not: the compromise is one way. And the problem is that ‘Allah’ does not now simply mean ‘God’: it has come to symbolise a distinct theology, and a particular doctrine of God. The connotations are salvation through works by adherence to law, absolute and unquestioning submission, and a complete absence of grace. Islam is intolerant of other faiths, and insensitive to cultural diversity. For many in the West, Allah is vindictive, oppressive, and his name has become the battle cry of terrorists and murderers. For Christians to use the term in a Western context would therefore be what St Paul termed 'foolishness to the Greeks'. If the gospel is already foolishness to those who are being lost, the use of 'Allah' to reveal the saving grace of Jesus would be a further hurdle to overcome, an offence, a stumbling block. Here, where nomenclature is so important, it clearly matters what one calls God, and to get the term wrong is to risk the salvation of souls.
Our Father in Heaven, the one who asked that we call him Abba, Father, is manifestly not of the same ontology as the Allah of the Qur’an. One might just as well propose that churches be called mosques, Christians be called Muslims, and pretend in a pluralist Hickian kind of way that it doesn’t really matter because God is really an elephant and no-one sees the whole creature - Muslims have a leg and Christians have a tusk and Jews have got the trunk, but the greater truth is in the whole, which no-one sees.
Except, of course, for Bishop Muskens, who appears to have grabbed hold of the penis.