You know when you hear something that just kind of gets under your skin but it’s happened so many times that you just don’t have the energy to respond to it ? Well, this sort of thing seems to happen to me a little more often than I would like. I don’t know, maybe I am just too irritable to be a coffee drinker. The most recent case in point occurred last night, while I was sitting outside my favorite Santa Monica Cafe. I was trying my best to mind my own business when I overheard a conversation at the next table.(In case your wondering, this was not due to my being overly nosy but more a function of the slightly too intimate proximity of tables at the cafe). Anyway, the couple at the table next to me seemed to be having your basic ‘first date, what a cosmopolitan city we live in’ chat. I won’t bore you, or violate their privacy by divulging there whole conversation…except for a small part. The Man ( no doubt trying to impress the woman with his multicultural sophistication) mentioned in passing that Moslems believe in Allah. I don’t know how often I’ve had this conversation with people but it has recently occurred to me that explaining this mistake to friends or strangers one at a time is not exactly the most efficient use of my time and energy. I should also point out, for the sake of disclosure,and before I start my rant, that although I have Moslems in my family, I am actually an Agnostic and not a Moslem myself. Having gotten that off my chest, let me explain what bothered me and what I suggest ought to bother all Americans in that couples’ innocent conversation about Allah and Moslems last night.
First of all, Allah is not the name of an Arabic or Moslem god. Allah in Arabic means God. And Moslems of all races, ethnicity’s and nationalities conventionally use this Arabic term to refer to God. Saying that Moslems believe in Allah while Christians and Jews believe in God is as inappropriate as saying that Englishmen believe in God but the French believe in “Dieu”. Now, I know that you may be thinking to yourself that this analogy is not quite right, because in the one case we are talking about the same religion and in the other we are not. Perhaps a more accurate analogy then, would be to say that Christians believe in God while Jews believe in Yahweh. To do this would be to ignore the fact that these are two different names for what is considered by these traditions to be the same God. Moreover it should be remembered that we are not discussing whether or not Islam is a different religion from Christianity, or Judaism; obviously it is. The question is whether Moslems, Christians and Jews worship the same God. They do! With out getting more detailed than necessary, it will suffice to say that Moslem theology clearly accepts the God of Abraham, and Moses and Jesus and sees itself as a continuation of that same Zoroastian/Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition that started and evolved in the great culture centers of the ancient Middle East. God in this tradition is and has always been known by different names or ‘masks’. These names or “masks” have historically included but are not limited to ‘Elohim’, ‘Yahweh’, ‘Jehovah’, and ‘Allah’.
As an interesting and slightly ironic historical twist; the origin of the term Yahweh, according to the preeminent scholar, Professor T.J. Meek, is itself not etymologically a Hebrew but an Arabic word:
“The name [states Professor Meek] was foreign to the Hebrews, and in there attempted explanation of it they connected it with the word hayah, “to be”, just as the Greeks, who did not know the origin and exact meaning of “Zeus” connected the name with a Greek word meaning (Italics mine) to live, whereas it is derived ultimately from Indo-European dyu, “to shine.” The contention that Yahweh was of Arabian origin is clearly in accord with the Old Testament records, which connect him with the Negeb and with southern sanctuaries like Sinai-Horeb and Kadesh….The most probable [origin of the name] in our opinion is … from the Arabic root hwy, ‘to blow.’*
Furthermore, the word “Allah” is also etymologically cognate with the word ‘Eloi’ which Christ is said to have used when he uttered his last sentence on the cross, ” Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?”** which translated into English means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me”? If we were to follow the reasoning of the those who would confuse words with there meanings then instead of thinking of why God had apparently forsaken Christ, we might instead be wondering at this point why Christ had confused “God” with this “Eloi” character.
Now call me paranoid, but whether its a conspiracy, or (much more likely) just an innocent piece of misinformation that is perennially perpetuated by ignorance is not the main point here. Why should this simple logical mistake matter to anyone other than a religious historian? Because the myth is not only factually incorrect but pernicious and damaging to all Moslem-Americans whom it serves to distance just a little bit further from the mainstream of American culture in the minds of both Christians and Jews. And this is not because of any legitimate difference but rather the erroneous belief that “their” God and that of Islam are conceptually and historically separate entities.
In a society where the construction of group identity (for good or for bad) is so tied up with peoples conceptions of and valuations of themselves and of others, it is of vital importance to every group that they be able to identify themselves through their own definitions.
Exotifying a group of people by assigning to them the label of “the other”, has always been a necessary, and essential component in the process of dehumanizing a group of people. Exotification of people, of course, can never be justified but it is important to make at least one distinction. Exotification can be comparatively harmless when it aims simply to show cultural differences from what might be called the anthropological point of view. For here the underlying assumption is that all cultures are simply actors in the play of man, who himself is a part of the larger pageant of life. The vital element in this attitude is that it does not make the mistake of confusing the inherent independence and adaptability of individual ‘persons’, or “selves” or “souls”, with the altogether arbitrary and transient trappings of culture, which is almost always a function of where and when one is born (presumably not a choice). This is not the case with the second and more pernicious variety of exotification. This second variety implies not just a superficial difference in appearance or culture but rather, an innate, fundamental, qualitative, and irrevocable difference about whole groups of people.
In conclusion, the intent of this essay is not only to give voice to ‘Moslem Americans’, who, like any other group, should not have to bear the brunt of alienating attitudes based on historically inaccurate information. Rather, it is an attempt to speak for all Americans who see the value in finding commonalties to help us through the natural and inevitable contentiousness of a true democracy. One would hope that both individually as well as through our churches, temples, and mosques, etc., Americans of good faith, and of ‘all good faiths’ would strive to counter this all too prevalent and potentially harmful misunderstanding in our popular discourse.
Arash Kamali is a writer, film-maker and analyst based in California.