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Sunday, April 13, 2014

My God Is Your God

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 who wrote this post is a student at the 
Columbia University
Graduate School of Journalism.
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