According to the people Rolling Stone talked to, the most religious thing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ever said was, “Don’t take God’s name in vain.” It’s a little curious that Tsarnaev, a Muslim, should have piously paraphrased the King James version of the Third Commandment (though Quran 2:224 conveys a similar injunction). The bigger question is, what name of God was he referring to?
Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Vatican’s new man in Malaysia, Archbishop Joseph Marino, got into trouble for saying that non-Muslim Malaysians should be able to call God “Allah.” (Today, he apologized.) Of course, in America, where Marino hails from (Alabama, to be precise), there are conservative Christians who also insist that Allah is no name for their God. Last year, one of them even claimed that Muslim-Americans were preparing the country for theocracy by stamping “In Allah We Trust” over “In God We Trust” on dollar bills. Whatever.
Just to be clear about this, “Allah” is the word for God (or “The God”) in Arabic. And Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians use that word as a matter of course when they refer to God. But Malaysians speak Malay, not Arabic, and the fear seems to be that when Malaysian Muslims hear non-Muslims speaking about Allah, they will imagine that Jews or Christians (or Hindus or Buddhists) are just talking about another way of worshiping the God of the Muslims. Which some of them may be.
At least in the Abrahamic tradition, I’m afraid we Jews started this whole thing off by acquiring a God that had a personal name, represented by the Hebrew letters yod-hay-vov-hay (יהוה). That’s the name that’s not supposed to be taken in vain. Over time, not taking it in vain came to mean not pronouncing it at all. So instead we substitute terms like Adonai (“Lord”) or Ha-shem (“The Name”). And these days, Orthodox Jews go further, spelling “God” G-d, as if “God” were the name of God.
Which, in a way, it is. That’s why we capitalize the word — so as to differentiate a particular being (however conceived) from a generic one. As for Allah, well, we capitalize that word too. Does Allah = God? In Arabic, the answer is clearly yes. In other languages, it’s a little murkier.