Contextualization is a popular word in missiology (though neither word is very popular with my spell checker). This is rightly so. Contextualization in the context of missiology is the process of taking the gospel message from the context of the Hebrew and first century New Testament world and relaying it in terms that is understandable to present day cultures, especially as it relates to cultures foreign to our own.
Now how does this relate to the terms Allah ( الله ) and Elohim (אֱלהִים)?This past week, we were in a missions conference and we were discussing dialog between Christians and Muslims. It came to me that the root for Allah, the Muslim term for the One God, has its roots in the ancient semitic term for god “El” which is expressed in the Hebrew term for the One God as Elohim. Al and El the main stem of those two terms may seem very different to English-speaking people, but those who know different languages may recognize that difference depends more on who is pronouncing them. Have you ever heard in the deep South “tire” that sounds a lot like a drawn out “tar”? I asked one missionary about this relation and he told me the following story.
Because Israel lay within the trade routes many travelers would pass by the region. One such traveler entered a synagogue and was so impressed with the significance of Elohim that he repeated it the whole way home to remember it. However in the process of repeating it, it eventually morphed into the term “Allah”.
Now I am not sure how accurate the story is, but for the Eastern mind that may not be the significance of the story. This story expresses the family relationship of these two terms. Both terms are probably best translated into English as simply “God”. Of course no translation is perfect, but it is sufficient for our understanding. The question is, “Can the term Allah be used as a general term referring to God in Arabic and other languages that use this term?”. If the base meaning is God which finds its roots in Elohim then it could be used in reference to the God of the Bible. On this basis there is sufficient reason to use this terms to contextualize the Gospel message.
There are however some reasons in which this may not be the right thing to do. The etymology of a word is only part of understanding its meaning. Sometimes the etymological root is total lost in the present meaning. In language the real issue is not what a word meant sometime ago, but what it means right now. That is, its present day usage which includes the associations that go along with it. To use the term “gay” as a happy frame of mind may be excusable for a 90 year old person or a book from the 19th century, but presently that meaning doesn’t have much currency in today’s vernacular. The term Allah is associated with the God of Islam, so there is some difficulty in trying to use this term in contextualizing the Gospel. Despite this, the meaning of Allah is “the sole God” and thus corresponds to the Judeo-Christian concept of the One True God. Christians living in Islamic-dominated nations have used the term in reference to the God of the Bible (as described in Wikipedia). Even recently, Christians in Malaysia won a court judgment that allows the use of “Allah” in Christian literature to refer to God. Of course that has upset some and resulted in church burnings.
Over all, it appears that the use of “Allah” as part of contextualizing the Gospel is a valid application, but some care should be used and the context must be understood. Either way, we should be careful due to our preconceived notions to not judge too quickly others’ use of the term. Likewise, I believe we should resist the temptation to quickly accept something as a practical means of achieving a goal (which is pragmatism in missions) without thinking through the theological and future implications of a such a course.