For Muslims, the word Allah is both a generic name for the one God of all monotheistic religions; and a special personal Islamic name when spoken with devotion and love by a Muslim believer.
Muslims know that the Qur’an states: “To Allah belong the best names, so invoke Him by them” (Surat Al-A’raf 7:180). Invoking Allah’s names means not just saying them in prayer, but always being aware of the wonderful qualities and character traits of the Holy One’s personality.
The many names of God are appellations: titles and descriptions. Thus, to say that God is a King or a Judge describes two of many ways the One God acts. To say that God is The Compassionate One, or The Appreciative One, is to describe two of many character or personality traits of the One God.
There are several verses of the Qur’an which speak of God as Al Shakur “appreciative”, for example: If anyone willingly does what is good, God is appreciative and cognisant (Quran 2:158).
While for monotheists each of the many names of the one God is only one of the many appellations of the one universal Creator of space and time; both Islam and Judaism also have one special Divine name that is always in the believer’s heart and soul.
Because the Qur’an is filled with what can be described as beautiful Arabic poetry; it is not surprising that the the Qur’an is also filled so many (99) names of the one God.
Jewish Traditions Around the Names of God
The Jewish tradition reaches back more than thirty-five centuries; therefore it is not surprising that Jews have used many additional names (70) for God over those many centuries.
The word God in English is not a name of the one God like Allah or YHVH. It is the generic term used for any and every deity, similar to the West Semitic root word EL as it is found in Sumerian and Akkadian Ellil-Enlil; Hittite and Hurrian Ellel, and Hebrew El-Elohim.
The words El, Elah, Elohei and Elohim are all pre-Abrahamic west Semitic generic terms for a God or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew name of God, El Shadai, means the God (El) who is (all) Sufficient. The El part is clearly generic. The Shadai part may have been used by others prior to Abraham , and it is rarely used after the time of Solomon. Although I very much like this appellation, it appears only 48 times, mostly in the oldest sections of the Hebrew Bible.
Thus: “Jacob said to Joseph, ‘El Shadai (God Almighty) appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and there he blessed me and said to me, ‘I am going to make you fruitful and increase your numbers. I will make (from) you a community of peoples, and I will give this land as an everlasting possession to your descendants after you'” (Genesis 45:3-4).
But for Jews, the most important and unique personal name of the one God is the name that God himself revealed to Moses at the burning bush: YHVH, which appears more than 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible.
In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses said to God: “If I go to the Israelites and tell them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’—what should I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”.
Ehyeh is the verb “to be” future tense singular and means I will/could/might/may be/become who I may/could/will/might be/become, i.e. Ehyeh is The God of Potentialities, The God of Possibilities, The Living God of Becoming and Transforming, the One who can and will liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt. The Torah continues, “God also said to Moses, ‘You must say this to the Israelites, Ehyeh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation’ (Exodus 3:13-15)”.
When Jews speak of God in the third person, God’s name is written YHVH– “the One who causes being and becoming, the One who brings potentials into existence”.
The name YHVH was spoken publicly for almost a thousand years, from the time of Moses, throughout the centuries of the 1st Temple of Solomon. But it was ultimately replaced by Adonai (Lord) before the beginning of the 3rd century B.C.E., because God’s actual Holy name was eventually considered too holy to speak audibly.
In later centuries even the substitution Adonai was considered too holy to utter; and the custom among pious Jews till this day is not to use any name for God at all (except in prayer); but to say HaShem–the name (of God) when speaking about God.
The difference between the personal intimate name of God the believer uses in prayer, and when reciting his or her holy scripture, and all other names; is a measure of the believers piety and love of the God of his or her own religion.
When Christian believers speak about Jesus they are referring to the “Divine Son of God” who connects them to God the father. When Jews or Muslims speak about Jesus they are referring not to God, but only to a man of God.
When Jews do not utter the name YHVH they are referring to the God who made a covenant at Mount Sinai with the descendants of their ancestors; Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. Neither Christians or Muslims connect to God this way.
When Muslims use the word Allah they mean the one God they worship and adore; who sent Prophets, speaking their own language to every nation and tribe in the world, and sent Prophet Muhammad to proclaim the Qur’an in Arabic. This is the same one God; who sent Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and Moses to proclaim the Torah. Neither Jews nor Christians connect to God in this very universal way.
Thus, for Muslims the word Allah is both a generic name for the one God of all monotheistic religions; and a special personal Islamic name when spoken with devotion and love by a Muslim believer.
The Names of Allah
Perhaps this is why the Prophet Muhammad used two ways of indicating the full number of Allah’s best names when he said: “Allah has ninety-nine names; one-hundred minus one, and whoever knows them will go to Paradise” (Sahih Al-Bukhari – Book 50 Hadith 894).
The 100 includes the one special name that echoes in the heart, mind, and soul, of a pious Muslim; that makes the generic Allah into the extra holy name of the Muslim who loves Allah.
As a neutral outsider, and an American Reform Rabbi, I can understand why some Muslims would object to Christians using the word Allah in the context of saying that Jesus is the son of Allah. Almost eleven centuries ago, the great scholar Rabbi Saadiah Gaon (d. 942 in Iraq) regularly referred to God as Allah in his Arabic commentary to the Torah.
No one at that time, or in any later century, objected to Rabbi Saadiah Gaon’s use of Allah because he referred to a unitarian God and not a trinitarian God. In today’s world it would be better for trinitarians to use another Arabic word for Divinity such as Al-Rakhman ‘the Merciful One’; which is exactly equivalent to the Jewish Aramaic word Rakhmana used by both Jews and Christians in the centuries after Jesus.
Thus, one could say that Allah spoke to Jesus as the Qur’an itself states: “Allah said: Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Myself…(3:55)” however, one should not say that Jesus is the son of Allah.
I myself follow the words of the Qur’an that direct Muslims to say: “We have believed in Allah and in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in what was given to Moses and Jesus and to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [submitting] to Him (3:84)”.
So, I believe that Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders should always try to harmonize differences between the Sacred Scriptures of Moses, David, Jesus, and Muhammad, and avoid claiming that only one Holy Book (ours) can be true.
I think of myself as a Muslim Jew i.e. a faithful Jew submitting to the will of God, because as a Rabbi I am faithful to the covenant that God made with Abraham – the first Muslim Jew, and I submit to the covenant and the commandments that God made with the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
As a Reform Rabbi, I believe that Jewish spiritual leaders should modify Jewish tradition as social and historical circumstances change and develop. I also believe we should not make religion difficult for people to practice. These are lessons prophet Muhammad taught 12 centuries before the rise of Reform Judaism in the early 19th century.
If people of good will use the generic aspect of the word Allah only in a monotheistic context, and use another word for a trinitarian or polytheistic context, we can have more light and less hate in our own religious lives.