Who was ‘Allah’ before Islam? (2)

Evidence that the term ‘Allah’ originated with Jewish and Christian Arabs

Dudley Woodberry stated that the term allâh is derived from Syriac, which was the form of Aramaic commonly used in literature and Scripture in the Middle East from the fourth to the ninth centuries. (Forms of Aramaic had been the lingua franca for centuries, but Syriac took on the role of a literary language.)

Kenneth Thomas (2006a: 171) supports Woodberry’s claim with the observation that “Western scholars are fairly unanimous that the source of the word Allah probably is through Aramaic from the Syriac alâhâ”. Arthur Jeffrey (1938: 66) wrote that “there can be little doubt” about this, and F. V. Winnett (1938: 247), an expert in Ancient Arabic, came to the same conclusion. Syriac-speaking Christians, most of whom speak Arabic as well, have had the same opinion, namely that the Arabic term allâh is a loanword from Syriac, and Imad Shehadeh (2004) has supported the argument from the perspective of an Arab Christian scholar. But since this statement runs contrary to the claims of both Muslim propagandists and anti-Muslim polemicists, whose views have been accepted uncritically by many others, it seems worthwhile to present a more comprehensive argument for it, which is what follows.

Aramaic was the language of Scripture and liturgy for most Arab Christians

For most of Arabia, the principal literary language was Aramaic, whether in Syriac script, Nabataean script, or others. From what we know of Jewish practice in the sixth century, the Scriptures would have been read aloud in Hebrew, followed by the recitation of an Aramaic translation of the passage and perhaps one into Arabic. (This practice was later codified into written triglot versions of the Jewish Bible.) As for the Arab Christians, although some of those in north-western Arabia were Greek Orthodox, the historical records indicate that many or most of the Arab Christians belonged to the Nestorian and Monophysite churches and that their liturgy and Scriptures were in Syriac, a variety of Aramaic.

Most of the common-era pre-Islamic inscriptions found in Arabia are written in varieties of Aramaic, although there are also inscriptions in Greek, Arabic, and South Arabian. When the Ka‘ba was being demolished and rebuilt in 605 AD, five years prior to the beginning of Muhammad’s mission, an Aramaic inscription was found on the foundation cornerstone of the Ka‘ba. In 570 AD the verse at Matthew 7:16 had been found on another stone, but it is not recorded whether it was in Aramaic or Arabic (Guillaume & Ibn Ishaq 2002 [1955]: 86).

A great many other pre-Islamic Aramaic (and Greek) inscriptions survive until today in Arabia, and many of them include names that are Arabic in form although written in Greek or Syriac scripts. So the Arabs were obviously using these languages for literary purposes. One of the Syriac scripts, Nabataean, was used by the Arabs of north-western Arabia in their Aramaic inscriptions, and it is thought that this script contributed to the later development of the Arabic script by Christians in Mesopotamia (Bellamy 1990).

In Aramaic, God is called alâh-â, where the final –â is removable. It is the same word that our Lord Jesus would have used when speaking Aramaic. It is found in the Aramaic portions of Daniel and Ezra, in the Jewish Aramaic translations of the Old Testament (Targums), and in the Syriac Aramaic translation of the whole Bible. It is cognate with the corresponding Hebrew term elōh.