on Allah vs "God": It's School, Stupid
Saturday, April 05, 2008
[cannot wait to read his book. he gave us a taste of the novel at the RAWI
conference (May 2007 at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn,
this U.S. tendency always made me insane. I taught in Dearborn and my
colleagues kept talking about we should be inclusive of Muslims and their Allah
versus the Christian God.
whhhhhhhat? oyyyyy This reminds me of how American idiots say
"Madressa" with an ominious tone, butchering the pronunciation badly
is enough, but then making is seem like Madressa means Islamic fundamentalist
schools. hello, stupid. Madressa means school. neutral like house, dog,
whatever. no religion. it should be considered a secular word.
more shit talk,
"Using English to separate the two has become a dangerous practice."
Los Angeles Times
April 6, 2008 All living languages are promiscuous. We promiscuous speakers
shamelessly shoplift words, plucking bons mots and phrases from any tempting
language. We wear these words when we wish to be more formal, more elegant,
more mysterious, worldly, precise, vague. They flash on our fingers like gaudy
rings, adorn our hair, warm our necks like rich foreign scarves. They become
our favorite trousers, the shoes we cannot live without, our way of describing
illness to our doctors, declaring love to our lovers, formulating policies,
doing business. We believe we own them and are frequently astonished to
discover their original roots in another language.
English, a mongrel from the start, greedily helps itself to foreign words more
than any other. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 500,000 of them,
whereas German has about 185,000 and French fewer than 100,000, according to
"The Story of English" by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert
MacNeil. Give us your tired, your poor, your fabulous words yearning to be
free. We'll take them.
English has always had a special fondness for other European languages, a
neighborly soft spot -- perhaps because Britain has been invaded by speakers of
those languages from the onset of its recorded history.
But not so much fondness for the languages of non-neighbors. Despite huge
increases in immigration from Africa and Asia in the last 50 years, English has
resisted adopting words from these continents, except for the names of certain
foods. Think of Mandarin words that have come into the language. How about from
Tagalog? ("Kowtow," "shanghai" and "typhoon" from
Mandarin; "boondocks" and "yo-yo" from Tagalog.)
So whenever I come across an Arabic word mired in English text, I am
momentarily shocked out of the narrative. Of course, English has pilfered
numerous bits of Arabic -- "artichoke," "zero,"
"genie," "henna," "saffron," "harem,"
"tariff" -- but the appropriation was so long ago that few English
speakers know the words' origin. These dictionary entries were probably
introduced by the Moors into Spanish first, and then by the Spaniards into
What has Arabic done for us lately?
If we take away the familiar food pilferages ("hummus,"
"falafel"), words recently adopted from Arabic are all troublesome:
"hijab," "intifada," "fatwa" and
"jihad." For an English speaker, the first suggest humiliation, the last
In Arabic, the word "hijab" means any type of veil or cover. The
American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "the head scarf worn by Muslim
women, sometimes including a veil that covers the face except for the
eyes." In Arabic, "intifada" denotes rebellion, a throwing off
of shackles. Merriam-Webster's definition is an armed uprising of Palestinians
against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "Fatwa"
isn't simply a religious decree; it's an Islamic religious decree. Even though
a fatwa could be an exhortation by, say, a Moroccan cleric to raise literacy
for women, in English, it is used almost exclusively in reference to the
ignominious Salman Rushdie affair, in which former Iranian leader Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the death of the novelist because of Rushdie's
alleged blasphemy in his novel, "The Satanic Verses."
And "jihad" comes from the word "excel," juhd or ijtihad
in Arabic. It means a holy war or righteous struggle. Some schools in the
Middle East, religious and secular, will hold jihads -- or special intense
programs to get students to accomplish something -- to improve math scores and
raise reading levels. Although most English usage I've come across refers only
to an Islamic holy war, I have begun to see "jihad" as a synonym for
crusade (originally a Christian holy war, broadened now) and a vigorous fight
against something. In other words, jihad, this English word, might one day
encompass its full Arabic meaning.
English has yet to incorporate these words fully, and history suggests it might
never do so. The language is filled with words that are culture specific:
"sahib," "coolie," "effendi," "bey."
The word "emir" simply means prince in Arabic, but in English it is a
prince or ruler of an Islamic state. When my sister in Beirut tells her
daughter a bedtime story, the emir kisses the sleeping princess awake. No
mother in the U.S. or Britain would let an emir anywhere near a princess' lips.
No princess will ever sing "Someday My Emir Will Come."
That in some ways is how it should be. Language, after all, is organic. You
can't force words into existence. You can't force new meanings into words. And
some words can't or won't or shouldn't be laundered or neutered. Language
I bring all this up, however, to get to the word whose connotation I would love
to see changed -- "Allah."
Allah means God.
In Arabic, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians all pray to Allah. In
English, however, Christians and Jews pray to God, and Allah is the Muslim
deity. No one would think of using the word "Allah" to talk about any
other religion. The two words, "God" and "Allah," do not
mean the same thing in English. They should.
This isn't about political correctness; it isn't about language distortion.
Altered or incomplete usage of words is natural, even amusing. "Confetti"
in its original language means little bonbons or small sweets. And incomplete
usage is at times explainable and logical. The words "beef,"
"pork" and "mutton" arrived with the Norman invasion. They
refer solely to the meat, never to the animal, whereas in the original French
they refer to both (mouton is both sheep and mutton). That is primarily
because French was integrated into the language of the upper classes, which ate
the meat, and less so that of the farmers, who raised the animals.
God, however, is a big deal. The word for God matters quite a bit more than
what lands on one's table for dinner at night. We never say the French pray to Dieu,
or Mexicans pray to Dios. Having Allah be different from God implies
that Muslims pray to a special deity. It classifies Muslims as the Other.
Separating Allah from God, we only see a vengeful, alarming deity, one
responsible for those frightful fatwas and ghastly jihads -- rarely the
compassionate God. The opening line of every chapter in the Koran is "Bi
Ism Allah, Al Rahman, Al Rahim": In the name of God, the Gracious, the
Merciful. In the name of Allah. One and the same.
The separation is happening on all sides. This year, the Malaysian government
issued an edict warning the Herald, a weekly English newspaper, that no
religion except Islam can use the word Allah to denote God. No such edict, or
fatwa for that matter, is needed for the New York Times: a quick search through
the archives shows that Allah is used only as the Muslim God.
In these troubled times, creating more differences, further parsing so to
speak, is troubling, even dangerous. I suggest we either not use the word Allah
or, better yet, use it in a non-Muslim context.
Otherwise, the terrorists win.
One nation under Allah?
Rabih Alameddine is the author of the novel "The Hakawati," due out
nayj at Saturday,