Allah and Culturally Relevant Bible Translations

Wycliffe Bible Translators has been accused of producing “Muslim friendly” translations of the Bible in which Allah is used as the name of the Supreme Being and Creator of all. Critics point out the blasphemy of implying that Muslims and Christians worship the same Supreme Being. They claim that Allah, as described in the Qur’an, matches many of the descriptions of Satan in the Bible.

IslamTrue, but it’s not the whole story. Consider these facts:

  • Although the Allah described in the Qur’an falls far short of the description of God in the Bible, the Allah as described in the Bible matches 100% the description of God the Creator and Father of our Lord Jesus.
  • The name Allah does not belong to Islam. It was used in writing more than a thousand years before Mohammed was born.
  • Many, if not all, ChristianArabic translations of Scripture since the 8th century have used the term Allah for God.
  • There are 35 distinct Arabic languages in the world today. Many of them use Allah as the primary term to describe the Supreme Being.
  • Christianity arrived in Malaysia and Indonesia at least 300 years before Islam arrived there and Allah was the name used to describe the God of the Bible.
  • In Bible translations and other printed material in the Malay and Indonesian languages the word Allah has been used continuously since the 1600s. Allah was used in the first printed edition of Matthew’s gospel in Malay in 1629, only eighteen years after King James Version of the English Bible was published.
  • Allah was used in the complete Malay Bible published in 1733, two-hundred years before the founding of Wycliffe Bible Translators.
  • Millions of Christians in many countries like Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and other areas in Africa and Asia whose languages are in contact with Arabic people, have been using the word Allah as Creator God and the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ for many centuries.
  • When in 2009 the Muslim dominated government of Malaysia passed a law prohibiting Christians from using the term Allah for Creator God, Christians went to court and won the right to continue to use the word Allah on the basis that they had been using it long before Islam came to their country.

Even with this long history of widespread usage by Christians, many people still question the actual origin and meaning of the name Allah. This mystery vanishes, however, when you understand the way in which Arabic joins words together. The word Allah is a simple contraction of the Arabic article al- “the” with a second word -ilah “god”. When combined, they form the name Allah meaning “the God” – that is, the one and only creator God of the universe. Allah is therefore the Arabic linguistic equivalent to the English word God.

Bible and CrossSo, how do translators select a word for “God” that is culturally relevant, while remaining true to the full meaning of the Scriptures? In general, there are three ways Bible translators choose a name to use for the Supreme Being in their translation of the Bible.

  1. Use the name of the local high deity – the creator god. This was the method used when the gospel was brought to northern Europe. All the Teutonic/Germanic languages used the word Gott to describe the local deity. Gott was in common use and everyone knew what was meant although not all the attributes of the Creator described in the Bible were present in the term Gott.Wherever the local indigenous name for the high deity was adopted and then filled with all the true attributes of the God of the Bible, Christianity has flourished and God is worshiped as Gott, God, Tupan, Hananim, Magano, Imana, Yala, Koro, Io, Kalunga, and many hundreds more.By the way, Gott comes from the Teutonic tribal name, Ghu-tio; which comes from the old Germanic Tiw, (the name of the ancient German deity for which Tuesday was named); which comes from the Latin Deus; which comes from the old Latin, Deiw-os.
  2. Use a name already in use in neighboring languages. This was done when the gospel was brought to southern Europe. All the Romance languages, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese, etc. used the word Deus or Dios from the Latin/Greek words Deus/Theos, which stems from the old Latin, Deiw-os, which comes from the ancient Indo-European word Diw-os meaning “to shine”, the term used to refer to the chief sky-god, that is, the sun.So both the words Deus and God trace back to the name of the same pagan deity, the sun god.
  3. Use a name transliterated from one of the Semitic languages of the Middle East. In languages like Hebrew, Aramaic and all the other northern Semitic languages the word El is used to describe the Supreme Being. Often this word is combined with a Hebrew adjective to describe some specific aspect of God.For example, El Olam: Everlasting God; El Roi: God Who Sees; El Elyon: Most High God; El Shaddai: God Almighty; El Gibhor: Mighty God. The word Elohim (simply translated as God in English) occurs 32 times in the first chapter of Genesis: Elah is the Aramaic word for God used by the prophet Jeremiah. Lastly, all the southern Semitic languages, like Arabic, use Allah as the word for God.

When my wife and I needed to choose a word for God to use when we translated the Bible for the Canela people of Brazil, we studied their creation myths. We found that the Canelas believed that they had been created and then had been abandoned to fend for themselves as their creator left to go up into the sky and shine as the sun. They called him Pahpam, meaning “Our Father,” since he created them.

Obviously the meaning of the term Pahpam was sadly lacking, but as we translated part of the Old Testament and most of the New Testament into Canela, we took this nearly empty sausage skin of a term and stuffed it full of the solid meat of truth about God. The result is that now the Canela know that far from abandoning them, their Creator loves them and sent His Son to die in order that they might become true sons of God and live with Him forever.

So did we translate a “Canela friendly” Bible? Yes, of course we did. That is the whole point of translating into another language and culture! Are Pahpam to the Canelas and God to us the same Supreme Being? Yes, they are now, though at first Pahpam certainly was not.

That is the beauty of God’s plan: to guide translators to produce language and culture-friendly translations of His Word so that all the peoples of the world can understand His message of life and hope.