Question: I heard a Christian teacher say the other day that the name Allah is the name of a demon, not God. Not being a Muslim or an Arabic speaker, I was wondering if there’s any truth to that?
Response: Well, I also am not an Arabic speaker... so like you I have to rely on what other people tell me about this subject. And what other people tell me is often confusing!
For example, a Muslim scholar I read said that Allah stems from the Arabic verb “ta’allaha” , which means “to be worshiped”. Thus in Arabic, the word “Allah” means “The One who deserves all worship”. They also made the point that Allah is fairly close to the Hebrew "El" and "Elohim" which usually refer to the one true Creator God... The difference there is that Elohim can be pluralized (Allah cannot) and so can be used for "gods" or when the context demands it, the God, where it’s usually rendered "God of Hosts". So it's possible that Arabic, having derived semantically from Aramaic would have derived it's meaning for Allah from "El". When I was in Israel, I worshiped with some wonderful Arabic Christians whose Arabic translation of the Bible often used "Allah" for "Elohim".
On the other hand, if you look farther back than 6th century Arabia where Islam developed, the etymology (word origin) of "Allah" does seem to harken back to dark pagan roots - and this is how the teacher you heard made his assertion about Allah being the name of a demon. For example, the Encyclopedia of Religion says Allah derives from pre-Islamic times, from Babylonian "Bel" which means "Lord". The ancient Phoenician and Canaanite deity also carried this title, Ba'al, meaning Master, or Husband. And so other Christians I know in Muslim lands specifically avoid the use of Allah for Muslim converts - because of these pagan connections.
Not this cuts to the chase of the great question in our day with Islam in the news every night: Is Allah the same God that Christians and Jews worship? Well, many Muslims take great pains to defend the notion that they worship the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. This assumption can be approached from the macro to the micro. At the macro level of broad Theism, I think they are correct: Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are Theists who believe in one, personal, all powerful Author of the universe. Which means we are fixated on the same Being, even if we hold to different details about His being and character. Muslims and Christians use the same arguments for God against atheists, for example.
It would be like two groups of scientists studying the Sun, one from Southern hemisphere, one from the north. Some of their observations are different and some might even be irreconcilably different, but it's not unreasonable that despite these differences they are both studying the same entity, since so many observations match exactly: the big, hot, glowing orb that appears in the Eastern horizon every morning.
But the devil, as they say, is in the details. And because the image of the Christian God and Allah are so different in the details, Christians often resist the idea that we are worshiping and praying to the same God. At the micro level of the details of God's character and being, vast and irreconcilable differences appear between Allah and the God revealed in Jesus. And so to pray or worship one is to dishonor the other by affirming that which is not true of God.
But if we understand all this, then word etymology (which might have been a big deal to the teacher you heard) is really much less important than what's going on in the person's mind who uses the word, Allah. It is finally, just a word. So on one hand, we mustn't think the word is "cursed" or that Muslims who use term Allah are unknowingly honoring or worshiping Satan. That's immature. For the word "god" after all, was never the name for the one, supreme all powerful Creator of the universe and the Christian Faith UNTIL the Roman missionaries saw the Germanic and Saxon pagans using some version of "gott" and they redefined it for them. There is nothing inherently orthodox/beautiful/truthful about the word "God" – the way my pagan ancestors in ancient Europe used the word originally, it likely was the name of a demon! (More on that in a second) Yet the word was infused with NEW meaning as Roman missionaries decided it was the best word to render the Greek word "Theos" or the Latin "Deus".
But what about those differing details? If the image of God (whatever word we use for Him) is deficient because, in our fallenness, we suppress the knowledge of God, we are guilty of idolatry. That is, we have made up a different god (Rom 1:21-28) and projected ourselves onto it. Well, from a Christian perspective, all idols are nothing at all, but behind every deficient view of God in the mind of the worshiper, represented by his idols, are real spiritual powers hostile to the true God. Hence, demons. (This is Paul's argument in 1 Cor 10:20).
And so as a Christian I do believe that the differences between Allah and the Lord are vast, and at that mirco level in the heart of the religious adherent, to worship and serve Allah is to serve a power other than the one true God - even if you believe many true things about God along with Christians. If a person thinks this is a harsh thing to say to all Muslims, didn't Jesus think this about everyone who rejected his Messiahship? (John 8:44)
What are the critical micro differences between Allah and the Lord? The one Muslims are most exercised about is God's Triune nature. When I traveled to Israel, the Muslims in downtown Nazareth had a giant banner hung in the street in front of the Church of Mary - "Allah has no sons!!" Subtle. But the difference that might be even more significant in our world is this: Allah loveth not his enemies, nor the unbeliever. You can find the phrase, "Allah the merciful and compassionate" on many pages of the Koran, but in doctrine and practice, this Deity does not love the unbeliever and has no compassion on his enemies. In complete contrast to this, the God of Christianity died for us in Christ while we were his enemies. (Romans 5:8-9) The very fabric of Christian salvation and ethics are built on this stunningly different vision of God.
So while the claim is that Muslims worship the God of Moses and Jesus, and in the big picture they are Theists, when we press deeply this Deity is nothing like the God revealed in Jesus Christ. And while it may be inflammatory to say so, every Christian believes (as every Muslim also believes) that those who do not see God as revealed in their religion is under some kind of spiritual deception. We don't for that reason hate those with a different view, any more than the agnostic/atheist must automatically hate all religious people.
When it comes to the actual words for God used, if a Muslim is converted to Christ, he make look back on his use of the word Allah and say, much of what I thought about Allah has been changed by Jesus Christ, and i see Satan blinded me and much that I worshiped was a lie. But he may also say, I had some truth, i believed in one, true, good creator God - that hasn't changed. In either case he may not stop using the word “Allah” to refer to God, and I would have no problem if he did not drop it. We of European ancestry can be thankful that the word “God’ itself was redeemed from paganism to carry the honor of the one true Maker of Heaven and Earth, enfleshed in the Word who was with God and WAS God. Should one of Arabic descent feel differently about the word “Allah”?