There have been a couple of incidents (here and here) where a school has asked a Muslim (or perhaps just an Arabic-speaking student) to recite the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic. This has prompted some people to ask me if it’s appropriate to say “One nation under Allah” as part of the Pledge—that is, if it’s appropriate to use “Allah” and “God” interchangeably when speaking in English.
My point here is not to critique these schools’ policies or even argue whether the Pledge should be recited in English, Arabic, or any other language. Rather, I want to reply to a comment made by Ibrahim Hooper, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
In an attempt to calm people’s concern about the use of the word “Allah” as a reference to God, he said, “Obviously in Arabic, you would use the word Allah, but Christian Arabs would use the word Allah. It’s not necessarily specific to Islam and Muslims.” In other words, saying “Allah” is no big deal. It doesn’t necessarily imply the Islamic notion of God. It’s just a generic term.
I agree with part of what he said. Arabic-speaking Christians do sometimes use the term “Allah” to refer to God, and they don’t have anything Islamic in mind. It can be a general Arabic word for God.
I do something similar. As an Assyrian-speaking Christian, I use the term, “Allaha,” when I talk about God in my language (you can obviously see the similarity to the Arabic word since both are Semitic languages). I don’t imply anything Islamic when I say it, and my family doesn’t infer anything Islamic when they hear it.
That’s not the case, though, in English. When an American hears “Allah,” they reasonably conclude it implies the Islamic notion of God. Why? Because there’s a perfectly good term for God in English: God. That’s a word that can apply to deity in several religions.
Notice the context makes all the difference. “Allah” can be a general term for God when spoken in an Arabic sentence. “Allah,” however, implies an Islamic notion when spoken in an English sentence.
This is obvious whenever I’m in the Middle East. I notice that while Arab Christians sometimes say “Allah” when they’re speaking in Arabic, they’ll immediately change and say “God” when they speak in English. If it really were a general term, like Ibrahim Hooper suggests, then we’d expect Arab Christians to use it even in English. They don’t because they realize its obvious association with the Islamic notion of God.
This post might make someone wonder whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Check out my answer to that question here.