The more I learned from our guest speakers about Islam last Sunday, the less vulnerable I felt to prejudice as I hear accusing and hard things said about Islam, which is all of the time. Exactly what did I learn? Eighty percent of Muslims are not Arabic and don’t speak the language of the Quran. So when someone wants to twist things out of context, making the personal struggle of jihad into holy wars, all Muslims are vulnerable. That is a problem and I don’t know how to fix it. But remember it next time you hear our theologians debate doctrine and orthodoxy.
People often say of theological doctrinal debates, “it just doesn’t matter. Being a Christian is all about being a nice person, and that is all God wants or needs.” If only it were that simple! But it is not. Words and concepts have power. As they fail to resemble the intentions of those who articulated them, ideas gets warped. We all know folks who twist our sacred texts to their agenda instead of hearing a theological concept for what it truly means, and being transformed themselves.
That exchange on Arabic and the Quran made me grateful to Biblical translators, especially those who put their well-being and lives on the line to get our Bible into the languages of the people. Figures like Martin Luther and William Tyndale were hated and persecuted for this very thing, making the Word clear and transparent.
Did you know the Bible has been translated into 438 languages? And the New Testament has been translated into an additional 1,168 languages? Sometime visit Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, find the Gutenberg Bible and thank God.
Exactly how did I feel prejudices melt within me? Take, for example, the phrase, “There is no God but Allah.” It sounds imperialistic, exclusivistic, and superior, right? But if what our speaker said is true, that Allah is simply the Arabic word for God, like Dios in Spanish, or Dieu in French, that changes everything. First of all, “There is no God but Allah” is a mistranslation. The Arabic words “la ilaha illa’llah” can be translated, “there is no Allah but Allah.” Or, “there is no God but God.” But translating the one word “Allah” two different ways in one sentence is misleading.
“There is no God but Allah,” leaves me cold. “There is no God but God,” makes all of sense in the world to me, as a pastoral theologian. People make success into a god. People make money into God. Or thinness or SAT scores or sports.
Sorry, everyone. There is no God but God! It is a great rejoinder to idolatries. And that is probably why Mohammed said it. Oh, Moses and Jesus would agree.
“There is no God but God,” reminds me of the Bible’s oldest confession of faith, the Shema, Deut. 6.4-9. It begins, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone…” That not at all unlike, “There is no God but God.” I am not claiming all religions say the same thing. That is an ignorant statement. I do claim that as my ignorance gets enlightened, my prejudices vanish. That feels good and holy.