The Origin of the name "Allah"

From: (Dr. Christoph Heger)
Subject: "Allah" from "alaha" or: How to understand surah 4:125?
Date: 1998/12/26
Message-ID: <763gh5$1g2$>
Newsgroups: soc.religion.islam

Greetings to all,

In my posting of 20 Dec 1998 in the thread "Moon God?" I promised to present 
some additional evidence for the etymology of the word "Allah". I'm now going to 
fulfil my promise as kind of Christmas gift. As I stated before, it is the 
Syriac (Syriac = Christian Aramaic) word "alaha" (or "alah" since the "a" at the 
end only denotes the grammatical "status constructus" and is to omit in other 
circumstances, the "a"s being long ones) for the Christian God, a bit arabicized 
during later orthographic reforms in the development of writing Arabic.

Let us proceed in four steps:

	1. Alif MaqSoorah now and in early-Islam times
	2. Writing of "ilaah" with Alif MaqSoorah
	3. Ambiguity between "ilaah" and "aalaah"
	4. The evidence of surah 4:125

1. Alif MaqSoorah now and in early-Islam times

As it is well known to all who have some knowledge of Arabic, the orthography of 
Classical Arabic recognizes the rendering of the long wowel "a" (or as I often 
may transcribe "aa") by the letter Yaa' (in texts with vowel signs and 
diacritical points: after the vowel sign FatHa for "a") -- but only at the end 
of a word, like in dhikraa, kubraa etc. This is termed an Alif MaqSoorah. 
Traditional Qur'an orthography (as represented by the Cairo Qur'an), however, 
retains the Yaa' even if the "aa" is not in a final position, but is shifted 
into a "medial" position by the addition of a suffix to the word, e.g. in 
ra'aahu. The usual explanation of this phenomenon is that it is still to be 
considered as an Alif MaqSoorah for etymological reasons, since these words are 
derived from verbal forms like ra'aa e.g. with the vowel "aa" at their end.

Actually now there are a number of old Qur'an manuscripts under scrutiny the 
oldest of which possibly go back to the early 8th century or even the end of the 
7th century, though it is uncertain whether they really will enable us to regain 
a text form of the Qur'an earlier than Uthman's Qur'an redaction. I may term 
them "Hijaazi manuscripts", because they are written on parchment in the Hijaazi 
style of script. They are (of course) without diacritics, not vowelized etc and 
often show "defective" writing of long vowels. But they also show the 
Alif-MaqSoorah writing of "aa" in many more instances than would be correct 
according to the traditional Qur'anic orthography or even the orthography of 
Classical Arabic.

2. Writing of "ilaah" with Alif MaqSoorah

Especially, these Hijaazi manuscripts occasionally write the word ilaah "god" 
with the rasm (i.e. approximately: consonantal script) "'lyh" or 
"Alif-Laam-Yaa'-Haa'" instead of simply "Alif-Laam-Haa'", as in the Cairo Qur'an 
and as it is usual. The letter Yaa', no doubt, is used as an Alif MaqSoorah, but 
without any etymological justification like in the cases mentioned above.

For the experts I add: We have good reasons to reject the idea that this Hijaazi 
orthography represents the variety of an Imaalah-pronounciation of the 
"classical" sound of "aa". Thus we are to deduce that the Alif MaqSoorah for 
writing the long vowel "aa" was one of three or four options the Arabs had at an 
early time, whether there were etymological justifications or not: the oldest 
being the "defective" writing without any sign for the long vowel, the youngest 
and succeeding one being the "plene" writing with Alif, partially in use till 
today is the writing with Waw and and intermediate one being the "plene" writing 
with Alif MaqSoorah, i.e. Yaa'.

3. Ambiguity between "ilaah" and "aalaah"

The spelling (rasm) "'lyh" was even involved in finding the ultimate orthography 
for God's name "Allaah" in Arabic. It is hard to believe that "Allaah" goes back 
to Arabic "al-'ilaah", as Edward William Lane summarizes the traditional 
theoretical efforts of the Arab grammarians in his Arabic-English Lexicon. The 
derivation from Syriac "alah" is much easier from the phonological point of view 
(For the discussion of this aspect see Arne A. Ambros "Zur Entstehung der 
Emphase in Allah", WZKM 73 (1981), p. 23-32). It remains to realize the problems 
the Arabs had in those times to express the name "aalaah" in Arabic script.

The genuine Arabic word for the generic denotation of (any) god is "ilaah". A 
close transcription of Syriac "aalaah" into Arabic therefore resulted in 
exactly the same spelling as "ilaah". The only differentiation could then be 
achieved by the pronounciation or by analyzing the context. Both would allow for 
a longer period of an identical expression in script of "ilaah" and "aalaah". 
Actually, the early Hijaazi Qur'ans due to their older orthography hardly 
contain any verse without an ambiguity in script. The elimination of blunt 
ambiguities like "ilaah"/"aalaah" certainly was an urgent part of a general 
orthographic reform which, in this case, resulted in the later usual, a bit 
complicated writing for "Allah".

4. The evidence of surah 4:125

For this orthographic substitution at least one case of an indirect evidence can 
be adduced. In surah 4:125 there are both grammatical and exegetical reasons to 
assume that the word "Allah" had better not been substituted for a previous rasm 
"'lh" or "'lyh", meaning "ilaah" or "aalaah". Richard Bell's interpretation of 
this verse, which follows the line of the traditional understanding, is:

A	Who is better as regards religion than
B	he who surrenders himself to Allah, doing good meanwhile,
C	and follows the creed of Abraham as a Haneef?
D	Allah took Abraham as a friend.

The main disadvantage of this understanding is that it postulates a change of 
the grammatical subject, from "who" (as in A, B, C) to "Allah" (as in D), 
although D is of a construction exactly parallel to C:

C	wa-'attaba`a millata Ibraheema Haneefan
D	wa-ttakhadha llaahu Ibraheema khaleelan

Thus, for syntactical reasons -- restoring the parallelism between "llaaha" and 
"millata" --, the rasm "'lh" or "'lyh", standing for "ilaah" or 
"aalaah", would fit perfectly instead of "Allah"! The translation would then be:

C	and follows the creed of Abraham as a Haneef
D	and takes the god of Abraham as an ideal.

The "god of Abraham" (or the "god of Moses") is not an unknown expression 
elsewhere in the Qur'an (e.g. 2:133, 20:88, 28:38), perhaps even opposed to the 
Biblical phrase "God Abraham's, Isaak's and Jacob's". Changing the translation 
of "khaleel" from the traditional "as a friend", which Bell had followed, to "as 
an ideal" is correct in view of the same meaning the word has in the two other 
verses in the Qur'an where it occurs in very different contexts (17:73 and 

To repeat my permanent appeal to Muslims and non-Muslims: What is urgently 
needed are a critical edition of the Qur'anic text and an etymological 
dictionary of the Arabic language -- instead of always ruminating medieval 

Kind regards,
Christoph Heger

The name "Allah"
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