ALLAH Meaning & Definitions
Allah is the Arabic equivalent of the English word God, and is the term employed not only among Arabic-speaking Muslims but by Christians and Jews and in Arabic translations of the Bible. A contraction of al-ilah, meaning “the god,” Allah is cognate with the generic pan-Semitic designation for “God” or “deity” (Israelite/Canaanite El, Akkadian ilu) and is particularly close to the common Hebrew term Elohim and the less frequent Eloah. It is thus, strictly speaking, not a proper name but a title.
In the Islamic context, as in Jewish and Christian usage, Allah refers to the one true God of monotheism. This is how the term occurs in the shahada or “profession of faith,” the simplest, earliest, and most basic of Islamic creeds, in the ﬁrst part of which the believer afﬁrms that there is no “god” (ilah) but “God” or “the god” (Allah). However, the shahada itself seems to imply that Allah was already known to the ﬁrst audience of the Islamic revelation, and that they were called upon to repudiate other deities. And this is precisely the picture given in the Quran. “If you ask them who created them,” the Quran informs the prophet Muhammad regarding his pagan critics, “they will certainly say ‘Allah.’” (43:87; compare 10:31; 39:38). Pagan Arabs swore oaths by Allah (as witnessed at 6:109; 16:38; 35:42).
Pre-Islamic Arabs believed in supernatural intercessors with God (10:18; 34:22), for whom they appeared to claim warrant from Allah. Indeed, Allah seems (in their view) to have headed a pantheon of pre-Islamic deities or supernatural beings, not altogether unlike El’s rule over the Canaanite pantheon, and, like El, he seems to have been rather distant and aloof. While the data are fragmentary and open to some question, pre-Islamic Arabs seem to have paid more attention to Allah’s daughters and to the jinn (or genies) than to him. Even the Quran seems to concede genuine existence to a divine retinue (as at 7:191–195; 10:28–29; 25:3). However, just as the Canaanite gods are replaced by an angelic court in Israelite faith, Islam rejects the independent deities of pagan Arabia in favor of a very much subordinated “exalted assembly” (see 37:8; 38:69) that exists to carry out the decrees of the one true God, who is, says the Quran, nearer to the individual human than that person’s jugular vein (50:16). In this, as in other respects, Islam regards itself as a restoration of the religion taught by earlier prophets but marred by successive human apostasies (see 42:13).
The Quran identiﬁes Allah as the creator, sustainer, and sovereign of the heavens and the earth. (See, for example, 13:16; 29:61, 63; 31:25; 39:38; 43:9, 87.) Following the scriptural text, Muslims characterize him by the ninety-nine “most beautiful names” (7:180; 17:110; 20:8), which serve to identify his attributes. (Eventually, repetition of and meditation upon these names became an important practice in the tradition of Suﬁ mysticism.) They portray a being who is selfsufﬁcient, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, merciful yet just, benevolent but terrible in his wrath. The picture of Allah in the Quran employs distinctly anthropomorphic language (referring, for example, to the divine eyes, hands, and face), which, virtually all commentators have long agreed, are to be taken ﬁguratively.
Allah has revealed himself throughout history via messages to various prophets by means of both the seemingly routine processes of nature and the periodic judgments and catastrophes directed against the rebellious. He will reveal himself even more spectacularly at the end of time when, as judge of humankind, he pronounces doom or blessing upon every individual who has ever lived. The faith of Muhammad and the Quran is centered on absolute “submission” (islam) to his will.
The Quran describes God as “Allah, one; Allah, the eternal refuge. He does not beget nor is He begotten, and there is none equal to Him” (112:1–4). In subsequent Islamic Thought, such straightforward denial of divine family life (probably aimed at both the pre-Islamic pantheon and Christian concepts of God the Father and God the Son) was expanded into a much broader doctrine of the divine unity, denoted by the non-Quranic word tawhid (“uniﬁcation” or “making one”). Philosophers and theologians debated such Questions as whether God’s attributes were identical to God’s essence, or whether, being multiple, they must be additional and in a sense external in order not to compromise the utter and absolute simplicity of the divine essence. They debated how the undeniably manifold cosmos had emerged out of the pure oneness of God.
The issue of whether God’s speech (i.e., the Quran) was coeternal with him, or subsidiary and created, rising to political prominence in the second and third centuries after Muhammad. The overwhelming personality depicted in the revelations of Muhammad became the Necessary Existent (wajib al-wujud), and the obvious dependence of life on his will (particularly apparent in the harsh desert environment of Arabia) was taken to point to the utter contingency of all creation upon a God who brought it into being out of nothing. Perhaps not unrelated was the rise to dominance in Islam of a doctrine of predestination or determinism, which had obvious roots in the Quran itself (as, for example, at 13:27; 16:93; 74:31). In the meantime, though, while the philosophers were elaborating a view of Allah tending to extreme transcendence, Suﬁ theoreticians were emphasizing his immanence and experiential accessibility and, in practice, often breaking down the barrier between Creator and creatures—and occasionally shocking their fellow Muslims.
The famous “Throne Verse” (2:255) offers a ﬁne summary of basic Islamic teaching regarding God: “Allah!There is no god but he, the Living, the Everlasting. Neither slumber nor sleep seizes him. His are all things in the heavens and the earth. Who is there who can intercede with him, except by his leave? He knows what is before them and what is behind them, while they comprehend nothing of his knowledge except as he wills. His throne extends over the heavens and the earth. Sustaining them does not burden him, for he is the Most High, the Supreme.” The depth of Muslim devotion to Allah is apparent virtually everywhere in Islamic life, including even the use of elaborate calligraphic renditions of the word as architectural and artistic ornamentation.