Bringing world renowned scholar Assoc. Prof. Dr. Reza Aslan down to size

When the lion bit more than he could chew

by Ibn Anwar BHsc (Hons)

I once had the greatest admiration and respect for Assoc. Prof. Dr. Reza Aslan (the latter means lion in Persian) for his academic prowess and courage to publicly challenge the presumptions of the likes of Sam Harris and Robert Spencer. I was confident in his ability as a qualified scholar of religion boasting several degrees in the field. Reading his books, articles and listening to many of his speeches and debates made me sure that he was well grounded in the mainstream academic discourse and the rigorous methodology that comes with it – its foundation being research and evidence for any proposition. Unfortunately, this mountain of approbation and veneration crumbled to pieces when I came across a radio interview with Business FM Malaysia that he had on a local Malaysian issue that has caused much confusion and bitterness between the majority Muslim community and the minority Christians in the country; that is, should Christians be allowed to use ‘Allah’ in their liturgical ceremonies, ecclesiastical practices and religious publications.

The radio show began by singing paeans to Aslan and lionizing his person by listing his impressive set of qualifications that include a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University, a Master of Theological Studies in the History of Religions from Harvard University, A Master of Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from the University of Iowa and a PhD in the Sociology of Religions from the University of California. No doubt, these would be the building blocks of a most laudable resume. What is sad about the whole affair is that Aslan completely put to shame those imposing degrees the moment he opened his mouth to comment on a question put to him, “What is your take on it?” Perhaps his erroneous thoughts were the result of overconfidence resulting from the golden platter of extolment that was royally presented to him by the radio talk show hosts. Whatever the reason was he came confidently to the fore and said the following:
“My take is the historical take on it. It is not an interpretation. It’s a historical fact (he pressed on the word fact to emphasise the claim). Allah is a construction of the word ‘al-ilah’. That is what the word is. ‘Al-Ilah’ means ‘the God’.” (words in parentheses are mine)


So his basic and most fundamental point is that the term ‘ALLAH’ is not one that has any inherent special value. His premise is such that it disallows any possible alternatives. He claims that it is a “FACT” that Allah is a contraction of ‘Al’ which is the definite article in Arabic and ‘ilah’ which is the nonspecific noun (ism nakirah) for ‘god’ in Arabic. Is this in fact a factual and historical position? No Dr. Aslan, it is most certainly not! Yes, while it is true that there are those among Arabic grammarians of the past and present, both Muslim and non-Mulims experts, who have identified ‘Allah’ as a contraction of ‘al’ and ‘ilah’, this is by no means an indefatigably unchallenged truth that is recognised and accepted by one and all. In fact, it is only one of several positions favoured by scholars hence Dr. Jacobus Adriaan Naude in his PhD thesis submitted to his professor in the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy at the University of Pretoria entitled ‘The name Allah’ which deals extensively on the subject states, “The etymology of Allah is disputed.” [1] Nevertheless, as we have already mentioned, there are scholars who do indeed favour the idea that Allah is derived from ‘ilah’ with the definite article ‘al’ prefixed to it creating ‘al-ilah’ which literally means ‘the God’. With regards to this, let us first refer to ‘Lane’s Lexicon’ (extensively put together by the British lexicographer Edward William Lane) which is without a doubt, the number one resource for students and scholars of the Arabic language of all levels of proficiency. Thus ‘Lane’s Lexicon’ on the contraction theory which was propagated by the Kufah school [2] has the following:

“…or it is originally إله, or إلاه, (Sb, AHeyth, S, Msb,) of the measure فعال
in the sense of the measure مفعول, meaning مألوه, (S, K, *) with [the article] ال
prefixed to it, (Sb, AHeyth, S, Msb,) so that it becomes الالاه , (Sb, AHeyth, Msb,) then the vowel of the hemzeh is transferred to the ل [before it], (Msb,) and the hemzeh is suppressed, (Sb, AHeyth, S, Msb,) so that there remains الله, or اللاه, after which the former ل is made quiescent, and incorporated into the other: (Sb, AHeyth, Msb: )the suppression of the hemzeh is for the purpose of rendering the word easy of utterance, on account of the frequency of its utterance.” [3]

The grammarians, scholars and sources cited by Lane for the above interpretation include Sibaweh, Abul Haytham, al-Sihah and al-Fayumi from his ‘al-Misbah’. Similarly, the western scholar Zeki Saritoprak favours this view and writes the following:
“The root of the name is al-ilah, meaning ‘the god’. The word ‘ilah (pl. ‘aliha) in Arabic is used as a general term for deities. In order the ease the usage Arabs usually contract the words based on certain grammatical rules. Therefore, the two words, al and ilah, were contracted into one and became Allah.” [4]

It should be noted that there are no grammatical rules that can be furnished to explain the eradication of the letter ‘hamzah’ by putting it into the letter ‘lam’. Such a phenomenon is only to facilitate ease of use as is the claim and has no specific grammatical descriptors. In fact, as we shall see, this Kufah theory is actually in opposition to standard grammatical rules of Arabic. One of the same sources that is supplied by Lane for the above position, Al-Fayumi in his ‘al-Misbah’ along with the great Arabic scholar Ibn al-Arabi and the magnum opus work on Arabic vocabulary Taj al-‘Arus, make an opposing fact clear, “(Ibn-El-Arabee, TA; )the ال being inseparable from it: (Msb:) not derived:” [5] If this is true then it means that the definite article ال is part and parcel of Allah, and it is an inseparable component of it which then renders the claim that Allah is a contraction of ‘al’ and ‘ilah’ erroneous as this position relies on the possible separation of the definite article from the nonspecific noun, ‘ilah’.

The idea that Allah was originally ‘al-ilah’ – being a combination of two vocabulary items, ‘al’ and ‘ilah’ – after which the contraction took place to facilitate ease of use whereby the ‘hamzah’ is elided into the ‘lam’ is in reality contrary to classical Arabic grammar. This fact is mentioned by Naude. Though he may favour the contraction theory (as one might call it), he nevertheless candidly admits the following:
“In spite of our critical approach in the preceding pages there is in our opinion only one serious obstacle for this derivation of the name Allah, namely the elision of the first consonant of ilah, which is alif al-qat. In classical Arabic hamzat al-qat cannot be elided.” [6]

Strange as it may seem, he tries to discredit what he himself emphatically states about the impossibility of eliding “hamzat al-qat” by furnishing some examples of its elision in the Qur’an. Thus he writes, “From the root l’k we have the noun mal’ak ‘messenger, angel’, also
known from Hebrew, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Ethiopic. But in the Koran the hamza was suppressed and its vowel transferred to the preceding lam so that malak remained.” [7]

Firstly, even if one were to agree to the phenomenon of elision with its example given above, it has little to no bearing on whether or not Allah is truly derived from ‘al’ and ‘ilah’ for the simple reason that ‘malak’ is not a contraction of two or more words. ‘Mal’ak’ is a word in and of itself that cannot be broken up into meaningful separable individual units. Thus the comparison fails and the amelioratory effort to disqualify his own emphatic admission thereby vindicating his favoured position (al + ilah = Allah) is symptomatic of one who has entered into the realm of confusion. Secondly, Naude’s emphatic admission that “In classical Arabic hamzat al-qat cannot be elided” renders his “critical approach in the preceding pages”, wherein he tries to provide as much basis as possible for the contraction theory, completely moot. If it is true that standard and conventional Arabic grammar does not permit such elisions, then anything else contrary to that are but musings of little worth. Grammar is the mechanism by which one describes and to an extent prescribe the manner by which words, phrases, clauses and sentences are constructed. In the absence of a valid grammatical component to explain any given word, phrasal, clausal or sentence construction makes it erroneous in conventional language use. Supposed examples that Naude supplies to mirror the alleged contraction of ‘al’ and ‘ilah’ to produce ‘Allah’ do not detract in any way the truth value of his own candid admission that classical Arabic grammar disavows such a process. Further more, the point that he admits to is corroborated by the authoritative Arabic grammarian Abu Ali al-Nahwi who states that the first letter of ‘ilah’, which is the ‘hamzah’ can never be dropped. [8] Because the ‘hamzah’ of ‘ilah’ cannot be dropped, the process of elision when ‘al’ and ‘ilah’ are put together to produce Allah can never occur.

Another argument that can be put in opposition to the contraction theory is the simple fact that Allah is uniquely “genderless” in Arabic which is a trait unshared by every single vocabulary item in the great corpus of Arabic vocabulary. The word ‘ilah’ on the other hand is inherently masculine (mudhakkar) in Arabic. Additionally, the word ‘ilah’ may also morph into its feminine form namely ‘ilahatun’ and from being a singular (mufrad), it can become a dual namely ‘ilahan’ and a plural namely ‘aalihah’. Thus ‘ilah’ together with the definite article prefixed to it can take the following forms:
1. Al-ilah
2. Al-ilahatun
3. Al-ilahan
4. Al- aalihah
Allah as a vocabulary item, if it is in fact a mere vocabulary item, cannot take any other form. It remains uniquely unchanging without gender or plurality.
Also, the name Allah is historically used only to refer to the invisible creator of the universe unlike the term al-Ilah which may and have been used to refer to all kinds of gods including idols. This good point is noted by Lane who cites Ibn Barri:
“but IB says that this is not a necessary inference, because الالاه applies to God (الله ) and also to the idol that is worshipped; whereas الله applies only to God…” [9] Finally, if we were to address Allah with the vocative ‘ya’, the name Allah remains intact without any reduction in letters or alteration in form. This is a significant point when one understands that according to the standard rule of Arabic grammar once the vocative is introduced to a specific noun whereby the definite article is present, the definite article ‘al’ is necessarily dropped. Therefore, in ‘Ya Rabb’ we see the elimination of ‘al’ from Rabb. Originally the name of God there is ‘Al-Rabb’ (the Lord) but with the introduction of the vocative the ‘al’ must disappear. If the case were as Aslan would have it, that Allah is but a contraction and combination of ‘al’ and ‘ilah’, then once the vocative is introduced to it Muslims should begin to say ‘Ya Ilah’. Is that the case though? Of course not. Muslims haver forever declared and shouted ‘Ya Allah’ and never ‘Ya Ilah’ in place of ‘Ya Allah’. Thus Lane rightly records that, “…in using the vocative form of address, one may say, يا الله [ O God ], with the article ال And with the disjunctive hamzeh; but one may not say, يا الإلاه either with the disjunctive or with the conjunctive hamzeh:” [10]

In the absence of any real example to reflect this unique contraction phenomenon Aslan so confidently champions as the only possible route to appreciate the term in question along with clear grammatical rules that proscribe any such contraction, one may well ask what the basis of this position is, if any exists at all. If it has no basis, why champion it? In fact, considering the preponderance of arguments in the foregoing discussion, we find overwhelming evidence against the contraction theory. This exercise is not actually meant to prove one position over against another. It is simply to illustrate that the position that Allah comes from ‘al’ plus ‘ilah’ is hardly incontestable hence Aslan’s bravado at the onset of the radio interview in declaring the contraction theory a “historical fact” was the crucial point where the veneer of scholarly erudition that he exuded started to peel away.

His less-than-pedestrian take on the subject does not end there. He couldn’t help himself but say the following:
“Allah is not the name of God. Frankly, anyone who thinks Allah is the name of God is not just incorrect but going against the Qur’an itself. It’s almost a blasphemous thought to think that God has a name. Allah is just a word that in Arabic means God. It means every God. In fact, we know for a fact that Christians and Jews in the Arabian Peninsula before the time of the Prophet Muhammad referred to their God as Allah. Why? Because they spoke Arabic, that’s why, not because Allah meant a specific God but because it is nothing more than the Arabic word for God. That is not an opinion. That’s a fact.”

Again, he declares his pronouncement a “fact”, leaving no room for discussion or alternatives. I was completely gobsmacked at literally every single sentence he uttered and was completely astounded when he concluded by unceremoniously declaring the whole nonsense a fact!
Where do I begin? What universe is this “Assoc. Prof.” living in that it is “almost a blasphemous thought to think that God has a name” in Islam?!?
Lane’s Lexicon completely blows Aslan out of the water in the following:
“ الله [written with the disjunctive alif الله , meaning God, i.e. the only true god,] accord. To the most correct of the opinions respecting it, which are twenty in number, (K,) or more than thirty, (MF,) is a proper name, (Msb, K) applied to the being who exists necessarily, by Himself, comprising all the attributes of perfection; (TA;) a proper name denoting the true god, comprising all the excellent divine names…” [11]

We witnessed earlier that Saritoprak may be regarded as an ally to Aslan on the contraction theory, but he would certainly disagree with Aslan on the claim that Allah is a ‘name’ and that it is nigh to blasphemy to take it as that. His following statements show how misguided Aslan’s claims are:

“According to Muslim theologians, the name Allah can be defined as ‘The proper name of the One who is necessarily existent in himself and deserves all praises’. Indicating the oneness of God, the word has no plural form and no one can be named with it except God.” [12]

In the above quotation, Saritoprak exhibits awareness of the standard Islamic declaration as posited by Islamic theologians on Allah which completely shatters Aslan’s anathema.

Similarly, Gerhard Bowering who also favours the contraction theory would nevertheless rebuke Aslan’s error on Allah being a name for God in the house of Islam. Citing none other than the premier orientalist Watt Montgommery, he writes, ““Allah,” the name for God in Islam, is generally taken to mean “the God,” God plainly and absolutely (Watt, The use, 245-7).” [13]

It should be noted here that even though Saritoprak and Bowering may agree with the contraction theory, they certainly do not state it in such a way (as Aslan does) so as to make it appear to be the only acceptable factual view.

It is truly amazing that an English Christian missionary based in Peshawar, India (now in Pakistan) more than a hundred years ago had a better appreciation of the rich interpretations that existed with regards to ‘Allah’ as a term in Arabic than our Harvard-trained, supposed expert of religions and Islam, Reza Aslan. Thomas Patrick Hughes in his ‘Dictionary of Islam’ has the following under ‘God’:

“The name of the Creator of the Universe in the ‘Qur’an’ is ‘Allah’, which is the title given to the Supreme Being by Muhammadans of every race and language.
‘Allah’ is supposed to be derived from ‘ilah’, a deity or god, with the addition of the definite article ‘al’ – ‘Al-ilah’, “the God” –or, according to some authorities, it is from ‘lah’, i.e. ‘Al-lah, “the secret one.” But Abu Hanifah says that just as the essence of God is unchangeable, so is His name, and that Allah has ever been the name of the Eternal Being. (See Ghiyasu al-Lughah).” [14]

Arabic scholar, Dr. Abdullah Abbas Nadwi, in no uncertain terms write:

“الله The proper name applied to the Being who exists necessarily by Himself. واجب الوجود comprising all the attributes of perfection. The word has neither feminine nor plural and has never been applied to anything other than the UNIMAGINABLE SUPREME BEING.
The word الله has no corresponding word in English or in any language of the world.” [15]

It is common knowledge among Muslims that Allah has traditionally been described as having eternally 99 names (the so called asma’ al-husna, meaning the ‘beautiful names’). Among the 99 names, Allah is the crowning name that begins the list. It has always been accepted in traditional circles (ahl sunnah wal jama’ah) that Allah is necessarily ‘qadim’ (beginningless) and so are his names. If that is true, then Allah as a name has no beginning and cannot be broken into parts and pieces. There is no doubt in Sunni and even Shi’a Islam, that Allah is the divine name of God. The following are excerpts from the infamous ‘Tabaqat al-Shaf’iyya al-Kubra’ translated by Sheikh Dr. G. F. Haddad, which is an important manual for Shafi’I scholars that was compiled by the great Shafi’i scholar Ibn al-Subki:

“24. The divine Names are not obtained by making up surnames (talqiban) nor by analogical derivation (qiyasan).
25. Neither the Names nor the Attributes are created.” [16]

It is akin to blasphemy to think of god as having names in Islam? How can anyone who has but an ounce of knowledge of the Qur’an make such a claim is beyond comprehension. Methinks Aslan has not an ounce or even a fraction of an ounce of knowledge of the Qur’an. The Qur’an itself rebukes Aslan’s absurd view by declaring the following:

“The most beautiful NAMES belong to Allah so call on Him by them.” (Qur’an, 7:180)
“Call upon Allah or call upon al-Rahman. By whatever name you call upon Him, for to Him belongs the most beautiful NAMES.” (Qur’an, 17:110)
The above verses are self-explanatory inasmuch that they renounce Aslan’s esoteric views and faulty “factual” claims.

After having listened to Aslan’s comments on the issue of using Allah’s name by Christians, no thinking man can simply ignore the clear aberrations that he made. One then is compelled to rethink Aslan’s credentials and whether he is in fact qualified as a commentator on Islam.

References:

[1] Naude, J. A. (1971). The Name Allah. Pretoria: University of Pretoria. p. 33

[2] Ibid. p. 34

[3] Lane, E. W. (1982). Arabic-English Lexicon. Lahore, Pakistan: Islamic Book Centre. p. 83

[4] Saritoprak, Z. (2006). Allah. In Oliver Leaman (ed.), The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Abingdon: Routledge. p. 34

[5] Lane, E. W. Op. Cit.

[6] Naude, J. A. Op. Cit. p. 38

[7] Ibid. pp. 38-39

[8] Abu Ali al-Nahwi. Mukhtarul Sihah, Vol. 1, p. 9

[9] Lane, E. W. Op. Cit.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Saritoprak, Z. Op. Cit.

[13] Bowering, G. (2002). God and his Attributes. In Jane Dammen McAuliffe (ed.), E-Q Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an, Vol. 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill. p. 316

[14] Hughes, T. P. (1885). Dictionary of Islam. India: Ahad Enterprises. p. 141

[15] Abdullah Abbas Nadwi (١٩٨٦). قاموس الفاظ القرآن الكريم: عربي – إنجليزي .شيكاغو: مؤسسة إقراء الثقافية العالمية
p. ٤٢

[16] Ibn Abd. al-Salam (1998). The Belief of the People of Truth (Gibril Fouad Haddad, trans.). Fenton, Michigan: As-Sunna Foundation of America. p. 61

The radio interview:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t74kp4YZUvo

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8 Responses to “Bringing world renowned scholar Assoc. Prof. Dr. Reza Aslan down to size”

  1. riaz says:

    akhee salaam

    akhee, this question is about christian missionary misuse of ayah from the qur’aan

    have you addressed the crosstian claim that there is no guarantee /ta1keed of jannah in the quran?

    which ayahs do they normally misuse?

  2. Salih says:

    Salam,

    Great exposition on the etemology of the arabic name of the Eternal Being.

    May Allah reward you with jannatul firdaus. Ameen.

  3. Tridax says:

    Good exposition. Ibn Barri’ point and your point regarding Allah being genderless whilst other derivatives are either masculine or feminine sounded the death knell to Aslan’s irrational arguments. You surely made him look an intellectual lilliputian for sure. Masha Allah . Great job. May Allah grant you further success.

  4. REG says:

    did yhwh have a father called EL?

  5. Mustafa Akber says:

    As usual, a very extensive and detailed overview , which requires more in-depth reading and contemplation on my part. That being said, i have no problems if Christians use the word Allah(swt) in their holy scripture or in their prayer.

    After all, didn’t the Mushrikeen of Makkah, despite their polytheism, call their central God, Allah(swt)?
    Moreover, if this was a point of contention during the Prophet’s(saw) time wouldn’t he have addressed it.

    Perhaps in Malaysia this objections stems from political reasons as opposed to genuine religious concerns.

    And Allah(swt) knows best!

  6. Chocoboy says:

    Salaam Bro,
    A very fantastic one i must say.Informative and precise as usual.Though disagree with a thousand and one of your dogmas,really got no solid knowledge to stand you in a debate…..A heavyweight you are and one you shall continue to be.
    Wondering if you can write a rebuttal to Andrew Vargo’s inanic and……article on the much disputed samaritan of moses.I’d added the nonesense to my favourites list(i.e saved it) not because of the points therein but because of the amusement it provides(i often spend long hours laughing after reading it).Surprisingly however,not even a single islamic site has deemed it fit to publish a refutation even after some 8 months of its publication.Perhaps you can change the trend and prove to Mr Vargo that remaining a photographer(as i read on his biography) seems a better job than making a clown of himself.
    Regards
    Abdul Ganiyu A Mumin (Nigeria)

  7. Chocoboy says:

    Will appreciate if you can follow that up with another rebuttal of another pitiably hillarious article of his discussing the historicity of the ‘Haman’ in the quran (an article which was supposed to be a response to Islamic awareness’ BIBLICAL HAMAN

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