January 28, 2004

OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

My God Is Your God

By JOHN KEARNEY

 

Sunday is one of the most important holidays in Islam: Id al-Adha, the feast celebrating Abraham's faith and willingness to sacrifice his son to God. It would also be a good occasion for the American news media to dispense with Allah and commit themselves to God.

Here's what I mean: Abraham, the ur-monotheist, represents the shared history, and shared God, of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many Christians and Jews are aware of this common past, but seem to have a tough time internalizing it. Lt. Gen. William Boykin, a deputy under secretary of defense, made headlines last year suggesting that Allah is not "a real God" and that Muslims worship an idol. Last month in Israel, Pat Robertson said that today's world conflicts concern "whether Hubal, the moon god of Mecca known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah, God of the Bible, is supreme."

Never mind that Hubal was actually a pre-Islamic pagan god that Muhammad rejected. Mr. Robertson's comments, like those of General Boykin, illuminate a widespread misconception one that the news media has inadvertently helped to promote. So here's a suggestion: when journalists write about Muslims, or translate from Arabic, Urdu, Farsi or other languages, they should translate "Allah" as "God," too. A minor point? Perhaps not.

Last August the Washington Post Web site posed this question to readers: "Do you think that Muslims, Christians and Jews all pray to the same God?" One Muslim respondent wrote yes, each of the three major monotheistic faiths "pray to the God of Abraham."

Christian respondents, however, were equivocal or hostile to the notion. "Jews pray to Yahweh," one Virginia woman wrote. "As a Christian, I pray to the same God." But she insisted that "Muslims pray to Allah. Allah is not the God of Abraham." This woman might be surprised that Christian Arabs use "Allah" for God, as do Arabic-speaking Jews. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, God is "Allaha," just a syllable away from Allah.

Still, who can blame her? Earlier that month, NPR reported Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza City intoning, "there is no God but Allah." Last week, The Los Angeles Times mentioned mourners for a slain Baghdad professor reciting, "there is no God but Allah" at the university campus. In September, The New York Times reported an assassinated Palestinian uttering, "there is no God but Allah" before he died.

"There is no god but God" is the first of Islam's five pillars. It is Muhammad's refutation of polytheism. Yet to today's non-Muslims, the locution "there is no God but Allah" reads as an affront, a declaration that inflammatory Allah trumps the Biblical God. This journalistic rendition distorts the meaning of the Muslim confession of faith.

Of course, there are distinctions to be made between religions, which the press shouldn't shy away from. But there is no need to augment these differences artificially, especially at the cost of an accurate understanding of the origins of the Abrahamic faiths.

John Kearney is a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.