A page from the Dictionary of the Divine
“In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Most Merciful”. This is how the Holy Quran begins. Almost everyone now knows that ‘Allah’ is what we call ‘God’ in Islam. But where does it come from? In Arabic, it is the personal name of the One True God who is “Supremely Divine”. He is not a combination of ‘Al-‘ (‘the’) and ‘Lah’ (this word does not exist in the Arabic language). The ‘Al-‘ is an inseparable part of the word. There are words that may sound like “ilah” (“god”) and “ilaha” (“gods”) in Arabic or the root “el” (“god”) in other Semitic languages, but the noun “Allah” is truly unique and has no real parallel; contrary to the other words of this list, it is about a singular form without plural: it can logically designate only one Being and no other. The first book to use the word “Allah” is, of course, the Holy Quran (the first and oldest book in the Arabic language). ‘Allah’ is defined very precisely throughout the Holy Quran via hundreds of divine attributes which appear in the majority of verses. Naturally, therefore, the word is most often associated with Islam. However, it is also used by Jews and Arabic-speaking Christians to refer to the one true God of Abrahamic monotheism.
Arabic is closely related to Hebrew, which is the sacred language of Judaism, used in the Tanakh, the holy book of the Jewish people. Among many other words they have in common, Arabic and Hebrew have similar words for “divine beings”; in Arabic there is the word ‘ilaha’ (‘gods’/’things worthy of worship’) while in Hebrew the word for ‘God’ is ‘Elohim’. This word appears in the very first verse of the Tanakh: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” However, “Elohim” is not the most important word for God in the Tanakh. This distinction should go to the Tetragrammaton – a divine name written in English most often as “Yahweh”. Many Jews think it is blasphemous to say “Yahweh” out loud, so they say “Adonai” (“my Lord”) instead when reciting the Tanakh.
The Tanakh is also called the “Hebrew Bible” because it is the same as the Old Testament of the Bible in Christianity. You may have noticed that “In the beginning God created…” is also the beginning of the Old Testament of the Christian Bible. The New Testament, on the other hand, is written in a late form of Ancient Greek, called Koine Greek. The word for “God” in Greek is “Theos” where we get the English word “theology” (“the study of God”). It appears at the beginning of the first Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. Although ‘Theos’ is important to some Christians (e.g. Greek Orthodox), it is not emotionally very important to most Christians, as most sects do not use ‘Theos’ when praying. . Moreover, most Christians only study the Bible in their own language; they don’t tend to read the translation alongside the original, as Muslims do with the Arabic Quran, as Jews do with the Hebrew Tanakh, or as Hindus do with the Sanskrit Vedas .
The Vedas are the oldest scriptures in Hinduism, so old in fact that the language in which they are written is called Vedic Sanskrit to distinguish it from later forms of Sanskrit. Other categories of scriptures include Puranas and Ittihasas. The amount of Hindu literature is incredibly vast; tens of thousands of pages and many volumes. Unlike other religions, there is no single holy book in Hinduism. There are many different sects and traditions in Hinduism and many different gods and goddesses are worshipped. But even in Hinduism, there is one word that crosses all these different borders: “Bhagwan”. This word refers to One Universal God rather than to a particular local deity. The word “Bhagwan” can also be found in Jainism and Buddhism and sometimes also in Sikhism. Although Sikhs are strict monotheists, they prefer the term “Waheguru” (a combination of “wah” meaning “wow/wonderful” and “guru” meaning “teacher/wise/lord”) instead of “Bhagwan”.
Just as the word ‘Bhagwan’ is common in many different languages and localities in India, Christianity also had a word for God which was widely used in many different parts of Europe. The largest sect of Christianity today is Catholicism and Latin is still its holy language although it is less important now than it was before. The word for “God” in Latin is “Deus”, which is used throughout the Latin Vulgate Bible – the only version of the Bible authorized in most of Europe for over a thousand years. ‘Deus’ is also where the English word ‘deity’ comes from. It is also the source of the French ‘Dieu’, the Spanish ‘Dios’ and the Italian ‘Dio’. The Portuguese “Deus” is always the same. Latin was once the common language of Europe and the only language in which they believed prayers would be accepted by God. Thus, “Deus” was an emotionally significant word for many European Christians throughout history – in fact, for the majority of Christians around the world at one time.
Although Catholicism is still the largest sect of Christianity, it lost its dominant position in Northern Europe centuries ago; England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, etc. were all once Catholic countries, but have been Protestant nations for a very long time now, since the time of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. One of the significant changes brought to these countries by the Protestant Reformation was that people have started reading the Bible in their own language for the first time. In England, this meant that the English word “God” began to be used in the Bible for the first time. Similar words were used in Protestant countries whose language was related to English, e.g. German “Gott”, Swedish “Gud”, identical Dutch “God”, etc.
Few people know that Persian (the national language of Iran, also known as “Farsi”) is related to English. They are both Indo-European languages and have a surprising number of words in common, for example ‘mother’ and ‘madar’, ‘daughter’ and ‘dokhtar’, ‘brother’ and ‘baradar’, ‘thunder’ and ‘ tondar’, ‘door’ and ‘dar’, ‘mine’ and ‘man’, ‘name’ and ‘naam’, ‘I am’ and ‘am’, ‘is’ and ‘ast’ (English ‘is’ was originally ‘ist’ as in German) etc.
Ironically, there are two Persian words that look like English words (one is actually the same) but turn out to be unrelated. Interestingly, it is a pair of almost opposite words: the Persian word “bad” (meaning “bad”) and “Khuda” (meaning “God”). Curiously, it also turns out that the English word “God” has no relation to “good”, which comes from a different root.
The word “Khuda” comes from Old Persian “Xwaday” and was originally used to refer to Ahura Mazda, who is the god of creation in Zoroastrianism, the ancient faith of Persia. It is still practiced today by a small number in Iran and more in places like India, where the community is known as “Parsis”. Zoroastrians believe that Ahura Mazda is the good god who must fight an eternal battle against an equally powerful evil god.
Nowadays, the word “Khuda” is mainly used in Persian and Urdu (which borrowed it from Persian) by Muslims to refer to Allah.
I mention ‘Allah’ again because it is truly unique and special among the names mentioned so far. “Allah” is the only such name which (1) refers to a being who is the Supreme Being in charge of the Universe and (2) has only ever been used to refer to this One Being excluding of all other entities and (3) can never be logically used to refer to anything else because it is a singular form with no possible plural under the rules of Arabic grammar and can only be a personal name for One Being.
This can be difficult to understand, so a quick comparison with the name of God in other religions may be helpful. For example, the Hebrew word “Elohim” is actually the plural of “eloh” (“god”); it technically refers to many gods. Since the Jews believe in only one God, they explain this by saying that it is a royal plural (like how Allah often refers to himself as “we” in the Holy Koran). But the fact remains that ‘Elohim’ can refer to many gods and is the plural of a word that was used to refer to local gods in ancient polytheism. ‘Allah’, on the other hand, can only refer to one God and has never meant anything else; even when the Arabs were pagans and idol worshipers, they still believed in a Supreme Creator of the Universe and called Him ‘Allah’, a word reserved for Him alone.
Likewise, the Greek word “theos” could be used to refer to any of the “theoi” (“gods”) of ancient Greek paganism such as Zeus, Ares, Poseidon, or Hades (the plural is “theoi”); the same goes for the Latin “deus” which once referred to the many “dei” (“gods”) of Roman paganism, for example Jupiter or Mars. Similarly, the Sanskrit word “Bhagwan” can be used to refer to any local god or deity and has a plural form. “Khuda” originally meant any human “lord” or “master”; “Waheguru” comes from “guru” which has always referred to human beings and still does. The English word “god” can refer to almost anything; it must even be written in capitals so that we know who we are talking about. Even the special name of God in Judaism (“Yahweh”) was originally the specific name of the ancient Israelite god of storms and war.
This is why the name “Allah” is so remarkably unique: it is the only one that stands out as being a name that does not derive from any other word, never referring to anything else, cannot refer to nothing else, never referring except to the Supreme Being who created the Universe.
We have now come full circle to ‘Allah’. Incidentally, circles are a symbol of God’s unity in many religions because they have only one side and no beginning or end. But that’s a subject for another article.
وَمِنۡ اٰیٰتِہٖ خَلۡقُ السَّمٰوٰتِ rancid
‘And among His Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and your colors. In this there are surely Signs for those who possess knowledge.’ 
About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL with a BA in Ancient Languages.
 The Holy Quran 30:23