Who was ‘Allah’ before Islam? (2)

Evidence that the term ‘Allah’ originated with Jewish and Christian Arabs
Rick Brown, ((The author acknowledges with gratitude the helpful feedback received from a great many reviewers.)) 19 October 2007

The term allâh is most likely derived from the Aramaic word for God, alâh

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. ((According to Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Apostle of Islam (Guillaume & Ibn Ishaq 2002 [1955]: 85-86), when the walls of the Ka‘ba were demolished in preparation for rebuilding it and roofing it, the builders found a Syriac inscription on the cornerstone. A literate Jew read it to them as follows: “I am Allah the Lord of Bakka [an earlier name for Mecca]. I created it on the day that I created heaven and earth and formed the sun and moon, and I surrounded it with seven pious angels….”)) 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). ((While it is widely held that the Nabataeans spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, Macdonald (2000: 47) suggests that only those of northern Arabia (modern-day Syria) spoke Arabic, while those of Petra and the Sinai might have spoken Aramaic.))

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.

Many Aramaic names and terms were borrowed into Arabic in the pre-Islamic period

As one would expect, when speakers of Arabic wanted to refer to biblical concepts and names of biblical personages, they often borrowed them from the language in which they were hearing them, meaning Aramaic, Greek, and in some places Ethiopic. Woodberry (1996a: 173–174) cites a number of key religious terms that were borrowed into Islam from Christian usage, and the work of Jeffrey (1938) is well known. As with loan words in general, these words were made to conform to the sound patterns of Arabic, which used triconsonantal roots and had only three vowel qualities. For example, Greek diabol-os “devil” became iblīs, Greek and Aramaic euangeli-on “Gospel” became ingīl (and later pronounced injīl), and Aramaic sâtân-â “Satan” became saytān, later pronounced šaytān and šētān. Note that when words were borrowed from Aramaic into Arabic, the word-final morpheme ‘-â’ was regularly dropped. This morpheme had originally been a definite article in Aramaic, but by the fourth century it had lost this function in most varieties and had become redundant. So Aramaic words like alâh-â were usually borrowed into Arabic without the suffix, i.e., as alâh. Given the prevalence of Judaism and Christianity in Arabia, the term alâh-â would have been well-known, and one would expect them to have Arabicized it by dropping the final ‘-â’ vowel. Further evidence for this can be found in its pronunciation, which is unusual for Arabic.

The Arabic loanword has the low-back vowel and darkened el sound of its Aramaic source

Standard British and American pronunciations of English include both clear els and dark els, [l] and [ł], the choice depending on their position in the syllable or on the vowel that follows. (Irish, Welsh, and Minnesotan varieties of English have only clear els, and Australian English has only dark els.) The difference is that the dark el is “velarized”, meaning it is pronounced with the center of the tongue depressed and the back of the tongue raised towards the velum. The dark el can be heard in ‘pill’, which contrasts with the clear el in ‘lip’. Usually the clear el occurs at the beginning of a syllable and the dark el at the end. In American pronunciation either el can be found between two vowels, such that ‘elicit’ has a clear el and ‘illegal’ has dark els. More importantly for our purposes, the el is dark if it is followed by a low-back vowel, as in the American pronunciation of ‘ought’ [ɒt] (British [ɔt]). This vowel depresses the center of the tongue and moves the back of the tongue towards the velum, with the result that the el in ‘law’ is darkened and the word is pronounced [łɒ], with a dark el.

Standard British and American pronunciations of English include both clear els and dark els, [l] and [ł], the choice depending on their position in the syllable or on the vowel that follows. (Irish, Welsh, and Minnesotan varieties of English have only clear els, and Australian English has only dark els.) The difference is that the dark el is “velarized”, meaning it is pronounced with the center of the tongue depressed and the back of the tongue raised towards the velum. The dark el can be heard in ‘pill’, which contrasts with the clear el in ‘lip’. Usually the clear el occurs at the beginning of a syllable and the dark el at the end. In American pronunciation either el can be found between two vowels, such that ‘elicit’ has a clear el and ‘illegal’ has dark els. More importantly for our purposes, the el is dark if it is followed by a low-back vowel, as in the American pronunciation of ‘ought’ [ɒt] (British [ɔt]). This vowel depresses the center of the tongue and moves the back of the tongue towards the velum, with the result that the el in ‘law’ is darkened and the word is pronounced [łɒ], with a dark el.

The el sound in Aramaic, written with the letter lâmad, is normally clear, but it is velarized to a dark el if it is followed by the vowel zqâpâ. ((This velarization of lâmad is confirmed in personal correspondence from Dr. Abdul-Massih Saadi, professor of Syriac and Arabic at the University of Notre Dame. This vowel is called qâmets in the Tiberian system, but since then it has split and merged with pataḥ and ḥolem.)) This is a slightly rounded, low-back vowel that was pronounced [ɒt] or [ɔt], depending on the dialect. Thus the Syriac word for God is pronounced as [ałâhâ], where [ł] represents the dark el sound and [â] equals the low-back vowel sound [ɒ]. The first vowel in this word is called ptâḥâ in Syriac. It is sounds something like the vowel in English ‘lap’. ((In the Western Syriac system of vowel diacritics, the ptâḥâ is represented by a Greek alpha and the zqâpâ by a Greek omicron. It seems that Western Syriac zqâpâ, Hebrew/Aramaic qâmets, and Greek omicron had a pronunciation at that time like the rounded low-back vowel sound in the British pronunciation of ‘law’, while in Eastern Syriac, the zqâpâ was unrounded, like the American pronunciation of ‘law’.))

Classical Arabic has only three distinctive vowel qualities, although it distinguishes two vowel lengths. It has the ptâḥâ vowel, which it calls fatḥa, but it does not have the zqâpâ vowel. ((Although Arabic has only one low vowel, the fatḥa, it can sound somewhat like the Syriac zqâphâ vowel if it follows a velar or pharyngeal consonant. So once the dark el has been learned, it is quite natural to follow it with a back-low variety of fatḥa.)) The el sound in Classical Arabic, written with the letter lām, it always clear, never dark. The one exception is the word for God, which is pronounced [ałłâh]. This one word has both the dark el and the lowback vowel sound that is found in the Syriac pronunciation [ałâh(â)]. This contrasts with the word ’ilāh [ʾilāh] “god”, which has a clear el and a low-front vowel. As Shehadeh (Shehadeh 2004: 19) points out, Arabic does not have a vowel with the “ought” sound of the Syriac ptâḥâ in alâh(â), and the only reasonable explanation for its presence in ałłâh is that the vowel was borrowed from Syriac along with the word alâh(â), “making the second vowel in ‘Allah’ unique.” Since the Syriac word ałâhâ would have been well-known to the Arabs and used by them when speaking Syriac, it is natural for them to use it in Arabic as well, in an Arabicized fashion. The presence of this Syriac vowel sound in the second syllable of the Arabic word ałłâh is unassailable evidence that the Syriac word ałâhâ was borrowed into Arabic as ałłâh. No other explanation seems possible.

It is normal for words to undergo some alteration when they are borrowed into another language. An obvious alteration in this case is that the el sound in ałłâh is doubled, whereas it is not doubled in Syriac. This suggests that when monolingual Arabs heard the dark el that had been borrowed into Arabic, they perceived it as longer than their own clear el and pronounced it as doubled. This lengthening of dark el happens in British and American English as well, although this is due in part to the position of the el relative to the syllable. For example, the dark el sound in ‘Bill’ and ‘Phil’ is longer in duration than the clear el sound in ‘billet’ and ‘Philip’.

Doubling of the letter lām and reinterpretation of allâh as an epithet

In Arabic, as in other Semitic dialects, if a consonant in a word is pronounced doubled, it is still written just once. In manuscripts the doubling is sometimes marked with a diacritic called the shadda, but not in inscriptions, especially ancient inscriptions. In the Zebed inscription there is a single letter lām in the word for God, but this does not reveal to us whether it was pronounced doubled at that time or not. Evidence for doubling can be found, however, in ancient Greek transliterations in which the Greek letter lamda is written twice. In the Greek-script Arabic translation of Psalm 78 [77 in LXX], the Greek term for God, ο θεός, is translated into Arabic as αλλαυ, showing that the el sound was pronounced long. In contrast the Arabic phrase al-’ilāh “the god” is written without doubling the lamda, as ελ ιλευ (Ps. 78:56). Note that this spelling indicates the difference in vowel quality as well. The doubled el sound is also indicated in some pre-Islamic Arabic theophoric names written in Greek characters, such as ουαβαλλας, which equals wahab allâh, “Gift of God”. ((See note 16 in previous article of this series))

With time, the doubled el sound on the lām was reinterpreted as two distinct letters, the first one belonging to a definite article, al-. Thus ałłâh was reinterpreted as consisting of two parts: al-łâh. As Shehadeh (2004: 19–20) points out, in dialogue with Christoph Heger, this reinterpretation of lām happened with other loanwords as well, such as the name Alexander, which was reinterpreted as al-iskander.

Since the l of the definite article al- is always written separately in Arabic, this resulted in the letter lām in ałłâh being written twice, with the first lām belonging to the definite article. In other words, the spelling of the term changed from اله ałłâh to الله al-łâh. This process of reinterpreting and respelling the lām as a definite article can be seen in some of the early inscriptions. In the Zebed inscription of 512 AD the word ałłâh is written with a single lām. In a post-Islamic inscription on a tomb in Cyprus, dated 29 AH (649 AD), ałłâh is still being spelled with one written lām, as found in the word بسمله “in the name of God” (Grohmann 1971: 71). In a slightly later inscription, a prayer dated 46 AH (666 AD), the text begins by addressing God in the vocative as al-łâhumma, “O God”, spelled with two lāms ( اللهم ), yet when the supplicant writes his own name, ‘abdułłâh, “Servant of God”, he spells it the old way, with one lām: عبد اله (Grohmann 1971: 124) . Later inscriptions use two lāms.

This same process is seen in manuscripts of Jewish Arabic Bible translations. In fragments of an ancient, Hebrew-Aramaic-Arabic triglot that were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, the name of God was translated with one lamed as אלה ałłâh, but in the Bible translations done by Saadia Gaon and others in the tenth century the lamed was written twice, as אללה al-łâh. ((See, for example, the translation of Exodus 29:39 in the Cairo Geniza manuscript Taylor-Schechter B1.17, inwhich YHWH is translated as אלה)) So we can see a progression in Jewish sources from Aramaic אלהא ałâhâ to early Judeo-Arabic אלה ałâh or ałłâh to Classical Judeo-Arabic אללה al-łâh.

This reinterpretation of ałłâh as al-łâh was most likely prompted by an analogy with the Arab tradition of using epithets to refer to deities, since these epithets usually begin with the definite article, al-. ((By ‘epithet’ I mean a common-noun phrase that functions like a name, i.e., it is conventionally used for referring to a unique referent, even though it is not a proper noun. In the Greek New Testament, for example, ho kurios “the Lord” and (ho) christos “Christ / the Messiah” are common epithets for Jesus. In the Hebrew Old Testament, adonâi “my lords”, which is translated into English as ‘the Lord’, is an epithet for God, as is qdosh yisrâ’âl “the Holy One of Israel”. In Arabic, kalimat al-łâh “the Word of God” is a well-known epithet for Jesus.)) For example, the so-called “ninety-nine beautiful names of God” are all epithets; each of them begins with the definite article al- and continues with a noun that describes some characteristic of God. Examples are al-quddūs “the Holy One” and al-khāliq “the Creator”. Some of the traditional pagan deities had names that were epithets rather than proper nouns. The goddesses al-lāt and al-‘uzzā, for example, are named with epithets meaning “the kneader” and “the powerful (female)”, respectively. This tradition of using epithets for divine names would naturally incline people to reinterpret ałłâh as al-łâh, i.e., as the definite article al- plus a noun łâh.

This resegmentation of ałłâh into al-łâh made łâh a noun and the source of further lexical derivations. It also raised the question of what łâh meant. On this matter the Arab philologists were perplexed. According to D. B. MacDonald (1999a) and Arthur Jeffrey (Jeffery 1938: 66), some ten different derivations were suggested, most notably a derivation from the root LYH, meaning “to be lofty”. A few brave souls noted that the term ałłâh was actually a loanword from Syriac, but this was rejected by Muslim clerics. The reason is not hard to find: The Islamic doctrine of the primordial composition of the Qur’an in heaven would be falsified if it were admitted that the Qur’an contained contemporary loan words, especially if the main term for God Himself were a loan word. ((The Qur’an is held to have been written in heaven in the distant past in the language of God, which is said to be Classical Arabic, and then sent down to earth in stages. Islamic scholars recognized that this position could not be maintained if the Qur’an had loanwords in it.)) In the end, the explanation that was adopted most widely was that łâh was a special word that denotes the very essence of God, his unique and eternal divine nature, whereas the other ninety-nine epithets denote mere characteristic of God. Given this sense of the new word, Christian theologians derived from it the term lāhūt “the divine nature, the Godhead” and the term lāhūtīya “theology”. This resegmentation of ałłâh into al-łâh also made it possible to drop the “definite article” al- from the invocation al-łâhumma “O God” and to use łâhumma in its place, although this shortened form is rarely used.

In summary, we can see an historical progression among the Arabs from the use of Aramaic ałâh-â “God” to the use in Ancient Arabic of ałâh and ałłâh, which then developed into the Classical Arabic al-łâh. These are clearly stages in the history of the same word, and there is nothing unusual about the diachronic changes that it has undergone.

With the spread of Arabic and Islam, the term ‘Allah’ has been borrowed into many other languages as the name of the Supreme Being, just as Arabic borrowed it from Aramaic. Thus a term which our Lord Jesus Christ used to refer to God has been disseminated to a variety of languages.

Previously: Who was ‘Allah’ before Islam? (1)

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11 Replies to “Who was ‘Allah’ before Islam? (2)”

  1. Dear Sir, dear Madam,

    Congratulations to the author Rick Brown! I am fairly flattered to read my name in this fine article (which I am going to forward to Luxenberg, Puin, Luxenberg and others).

    Now I would like to contact the auther Rick Brown to share some additional information with him.

    Can you give me an e-mail address by which I could contact Rick Brown?

    Many thanks in advance
    Christoph Heger

  2. Every Muslim believe that Adam and Eve are boths Muslim and all the prophet of the Israel including Jacob, Solomon, Moses, John the Baptist are Muslim. Islam was not founded by Prophet Muhammad but he is the seal of the prophets.

    # 21:6 (Asad) Not one of the communities that We destroyed in bygone times [7] would ever believe [their prophets]: will these, then, [be more willing to] believe? [8]

    # 21:7 (Asad) For [even] before thy time, [O Muhammad,] We never sent [as Our apostles] any but [mortal] men, whom We inspired – hence, [tell the deniers of the truth,] “If you do not know this, ask the followers of earlier revelation” [9]


  3. This paper deals with etymology not epistemology. You either start from the position that we agree to disagree or there’s really not much room to go forward.

  4. Allah means one God.Christians the fundemantalist,not the gnostics, have three Gods. Therefore Christian should not be using Allah.They should be using Trillah or Rab the right Arab word for God that is general.
    Read more “The monopoly of Allah Trillah and Islam” at..


  5. Pak Yehy, using your own logic, why don’t you lead the way and start using Rab first?

  6. Enlightening article, and suggestion for Rick Brown (please forward to him) to discuss the Qur’anic verse 22:40 in which Muhammad accepted the name ‘Allah’ worshipped in sinagoges and churches as in mosques during his lifetime when Islam religion was just been born. Maybe discussion on ‘Allah’ of the Hanifs (Ibrahimiyah & Ismailliyah) who worshipped ‘Allah of Abraham’ will be beneficial.

  7. My religion is “Love, sincerity, trustworthy,kindness,..”, you may sum it all in one name, be it anything, I DONT care! For that matter, NOBODY , NO HUMANKIND Should care !

  8. NOT a single “word” from the 9 Heads ? Busy laundering or whatever? Queing up for best lots in latest national 6 foot site?

  9. Very interesting article especially regarding the origin of the word allah. I am not a scholar, however the author builds his case on the dark L by giving the uniqueness of the dark L in the word allah. This is both accurate and inaccurate. as you may know or may not know the Quran has several readings. In its most popular reading that of Hafs which was promoted by the Ottomans, the case of the uniqueness of the L in allah is correct, however if we take the Warsh reading which is the native reading of the Quraish, then you are mistaken. Warsh uses dark L for most if not all of the Ls present in the Quran. Please explain.


  10. For the Zebed Inscription, it written الاله, I wonder how it can be pronounced as al-illah? The first abjad ا(alif) is the definite article (ma’rifat). The second one is a ligature لا which currently pronounce la (lam + alif), however, it was most properly read as al (alif + lam) at that time (early 6th century AD) in Syria, where the Arabic writing system was not yet standardized as after the establishment of Islamic empire. If it was read as ‘lam+alif’, then لاله would be lalah, what is that? In Persian and borrowed to Arabic as the flower ‘tulip’. That is impossible.

    Thus, the only possible reading for لاله should be allah (alif-lam-lam-ha), and الاله as l-allah. That definite article become redundant and dropped in latter usage, and that was what the Arabian Christians and Muhammad used and read as Allah.


  11. This is certainly a COMPLICATED-CONFUSING article.

    In fact the word “Allah” is always treated as PROPER NOUN (PN) and NEVER Common Noun (CN)in Arabic speaking/text. Thus, this leads MISCONCEPTION in bible since there is only YHWH/YH as PN in Bible. Thus, the CORRECT usage of Arabic term for God/gods ia ILAH and NOT Allah.

    Moreover, the manuscript of Greek majuscule text and Arabic translation of Psalm 78:20-61 Violet, Bruno. 1901,in fact is NOT pre-islamic manuscript BUT is dated to be Late 8th cent. CE.

    Thus the analysis of author is NONSENSE.

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