Discover Islam: Basic Concepts : Allah








Prior to the revelation of the Qur'n, the term Allh was used in Arabic as a proper name for God, as is borne out by the writings of poets before the Prophet Muhammad . It was never used in the sense of an attribute, although He was credited with numerous attributes. The Qur'n has but followed the usage:

"Allh has the beautiful names (attributes); so invoke Him by them." [Qur'n, 7:180]

Did the Qur'n adopt the term Allh merely out of regard for etymology, or was there any intrinsic appropriateness about it compelling adoption?

In the annals of ancient religious concepts, there was a period when man used to worship objects of nature. In course of time, this form of worship developed into the worship of demi-gods. As corollary to this development, different names in different languages came to be applied to the new deities, and as time went on, with the widening of scope in worship, the significance of the terms applied also widened. But since it was not agreeable to human nature to let the human mind ignore the concept of a Creator for the world, there lurked therein, alongside of the thought of demi-gods, the idea, in one form or other, of a supreme being as well. So, in addition to the numerous terms coined to designate demi-gods, a term also had necessarily to be invented to apply to this unseen highest being as well.

For instance, a study of the Semitic group of languages-Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Chaldean, Himyarita, and Arabic-discloses that a special style of word formation and of sound had been in vogue to denote the supreme being. The alphabets A, L, and H combined in varied form to constitute the term by which this supreme being was to be styled. The Chaldean and Syriac term "Ilhi," the Hebrew "Iloh," and the Arabic "Ilh" are of this category. It is the Ilh in Arabic which assumed the form of Allh and was applied exclusively to the Creator of the universe.

But if the term Allh is derived from Ilh what then is Ilh? Lexicographers have given different stories. The most plausible is that it is itself derived from the root lah, an ejaculation expressive of wonder or helplessness. Some lexicographers trace the term to walah which bears the same significance. Hence the term Allh came to be used as the proper name for the Creator of the universe in respect of whom man can express nothing except his sense of wonder which increases in intensity, the more he thinks of Him, only to admit eventually that the road to the knowledge of Allh begins and ends in wonder and humility. Says a poet:

Thou art beyond my speech and thought.
Woe be unto my specifications of you and my comparisons!

Now consider whether, of all the terms which man has used, there could be any better term than this (Allh) to apply to God. If God is to be called by any attribute, an endless number of terms could be suggested. But attributes apart, if God is to be given a proper name, what other term is there except this to designate a being which inspires nothing but wonder?

This is the reason why whenever anything was said in respect of the highest knowledge gained of God, it was to only admit that the utmost that man could say of God was simply to acknowledge the profundity of his ignorance about Him. The prayer of a gnostic has always been: "O God! Increase me in my wonder over what You are." Likewise the admission of philosophers has always been: "We know this much that we know nothing."

Since the term Allh is used as a proper name for God, it has necessarily to cover all the attributes that can appropriately be associated with His Being. If we visualize Allh in any particular attribute of His, as when we refer to Him as al-Rabb or al-Rahm, we confine our vision within the limits of the attribute concerned. We shall think of Him only as a being who possesses the attribute of providence or mercy. But when we refer to Him as Allh, our mind instinctively clenches the sum total of all the qualities attributed to Him, or which He necessarily must possess.

[Ml. Abul Kalam Azad, Tarjumn al-Qur'n, trans. Syed Abdul Latif. vol. 1, pg. 14-16]


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