Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What in God's Name

What’s God’s name?  If you’re Muslim, it’s Allah, a name that means “God” and has been used for thousands of years before the Prophet Muhammad lived.  At one time, Allah was one of 365 gods honored at the Kaaba shrine in Mecca long before Muhammad identified Him as the sole God.
Malaysian Supreme Court

This question arose because of a court case in Malaysia that ended this week.  There, the High Court refused to allow a Christian newspaper to use the name Allah to identify God.  That left the publication with "only" a few options.

The editors could call Him “Yahweh.”  That’s the name from the Bible.  Moses asked God for His name while conversing at the burning bush and was told “I am that I am.”  Actually, in Hebrew, that could also translate as “I will be what I will be” and a variety of other related options.

The name was so sacred that only the Jewish high priest could say it, and then only on the sacred holiday of Yom Kippur, in a back room of the Temple where no one else could hear.  Anyone else using it could be charged with blasphemy.  That prohibition disappeared with the end of the high priest position and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
Statue of the dying Adonis

There are other possibilities, too, such as Adonai, which is the Hebrew version of the Greek god Adonis; Elohim, which is Hebrew for “gods;” Ha-shem, which is Hebrew for “The name;” and many more.  The Bible contains a laundry list.

Editors could say Jehovah, but that’s an invented name stemming from translating confusion.  Jewish scribes didn’t copy YHWH in the sacred books, but used a couple of letters to indicate the holy name.  Later translator couldn’t fathom what the letters met and came up with what they thought was the proper translation.

The newspaper can’t use the name Jesus.  Muslims would be offended if God was given a clearly Christian identity in a country that’s predominately Islam.

Fr. Andrew
"We are in limbo," said Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the newspaper.  Ironically, he was using a specifically Christian term, a reference of the place where dead souls wait for their entry into heaven in unofficial Catholic beliefs.

Nevertheless, it’s an apt description.  The case started in 2007.  Fr. Andrew had to wait seven years for a verdict.

Malaysian authorities who threatened to revoke the newspaper’s license said they were concerned that if non-Muslim literature used the name Allah, Muslims could become confused and convert away from Islam, which is a crime in many parts of the country.

That’s a very odd claim.  After all, the Prophet Muhammad heard Jewish and Christian visitors to his hometown of Mecca use the word “Allah” as a generic term for God and apparently thought the visitors were referring to the god whose image was in the Kaaba.  He felt inspired then to combine the monotheistic religions in a single faith he called Islam, which centered on the one God already worshiped by Christians and Jews.

In essence, he was doing the opposite of what the Malaysian justices decided in what was widely considered a politically expedient decision.

Despite the ruling, the issue is not settled anyway.  "We need to fight this case to end, because we have to fight for justice when justice is derided or denied," Fr. Andrew told CNN.  "We have a moral obligation to champion the cause of minorities. We have a responsibility to uphold religious freedom."

Actually, the ban only affects the newspaper.  Malaysian Christians can legally say “Allah” in church, a government statement announced.   "Malaysia is a multi-faith country, and it is important that we manage our differences peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law and through dialogue, mutual respect and compromise," the statement said.

Sounds like semantics.

What else? The whole debate about God’s name is just that: a lot of hot air that, in Shakespeare’s words, is “signifying nothing.”  After all, it’s likely any god would know his//her own name regardless of what any human said or wrote.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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