First Yahweh, Now Allah: The Elevation and Politicization of God’s Name

First Yahweh, Now Allah: The Elevation and Politicization of God’s Name January 25, 2015

Malaysian Christians have long used the name “Allah” when they speak of God.  No more, though–on January 21, Malaysia’s Federal Court ruled that a weekly Catholic newspaper may no longer use the word “Allah” to refer to God.  Muslims have been unhappy–according to Datuk Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, president of the Muslim Lawyers Association of Malaysia–because the word “Allah” was used to refer to a non-Muslim God.

An eight-year dispute between the Malaysian government and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur came to an end, as the higher court let stand an Appeals Court ruling which ordered the Herald not to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition.  The Herald‘s editor, Father Lawrence Andrew, expressed disappointment and added, “We hope the rights and faith of the minorities will not be oppressed.”

The Tablet explained that the court decision stops short of ruling that non-Muslims cannot use the word.  But lawyer and politician Gan Peng Sieu is disappointed that the Federal Court ruling failed to address constitutional rights of minorities.  He said:

“The people were expecting the Federal Court to do more as this is beyond politics; the duty of the Federal Court is to preserve and defend the Federal Constitution and the current state of the “Allah” issue will not do any good for the country.”

There is further evidence of a threat to religious freedom as Muslims demand that Christians stop using the word “Allah”:  AsiaNews reported January 22 that the High Court of Kuala Lumpur has authorized the confiscation of eight CDs belonging to Jill Ireland, a Christian resident of the Sarawak peninsula, because they contain the word “Allah.”

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The eradication of “Allah” from Catholic writing is reminiscent of another controversy a few years ago, when Catholics stopped using the title “Yahweh” to refer to God, in order to avoid possibly offending Jews.  The most visible example of the change was the popular song by Dan Schutte, “Yahweh, I Know You Are There.”  (The song still shows up in our parish from time to time, but the words have been changed to the politically correct “Oh Lord, I Know You Are There.”)  

Songwriter Dan Schutte, one of the founding members of the St. Louis Jesuits, explains on his website that the Vatican’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a directive explaining that the divine name “Yahweh” would no longer be used in the hymns and prayers of the Roman liturgy. 

Schutte described himself as a “20-year-old Jesuit-in-training” when he composed “You Are Near” in 1970.  He noted that the term was used in the Jerusalem Bible, which was published in 1966.  But by 1973, Catholics had developed greater sensitivity toward the Hebrew tradition, in which the name of God was not spoken or written.  Schutte explained:

 In my reading of the recent Vatican directive, the Congregation is encouraging us to approach the language we use in liturgy with both respect and sensitivity. When I and other composers decided to use the name “Yahweh” in the texts of hymns, we based our choice in the scholarly work and judgment of those who fashioned the Jerusalem Bible. As mentioned earlier, the intention of these scholars was to be clear and true to the original Hebrew scripture texts, to offer a translation that would exhibit both the meaning and flavor of the original.

Within a few years after the release of the Jerusalem Bible, many people became sensitive to the fact that our Jewish sisters and brothers might find our use of this name for God offensive. So after about 1973, you don’t find composers, including myself, using the name of “Yahweh” in our hymn texts. So the Vatican directive is really speaking to a practice initiated over thirty years ago. It’s just that we’ve continued to sing those particular hymns. And some of them have become beloved favorites among men and women of Christian faith.

Unless I’m reading it incorrectly, the directive from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments is inaccurate when it states that “Apart from a motive of a purely philological order, there is also that of remaining true to the Church’s tradition, from the beginning, that the sacred tetragrammaton was never pronounced in the Christian context nor translated into any of the languages into which the Bible was translated.” The Jerusalem Bible translation, mentioned above, did exactly that. And historically, the Jerusalem Bible was published as an official Roman Catholic translation, with full imprimatur, and used the name “Yahweh” in both its original French, and subsequent English, translation.

It is true that people of the Jewish faith frequently will not write or pronounce the name of God.  It’s common to eliminate the vowels, thus rendering the word unpronounceable.  For example, you may see a reference in social media to g*d or g-d or g!d.

About.com offers a very helpful explanation on its Judaism page.  There is a traditional practice in Jewish law of giving the name of God a high degree of respect and reverence.  While there is no stipulation that the name of God may not be spelled when translated into English, many Jews have accorded the same reverence to the name when it’s spelled in English.

About.com explains that over the centuries the Hebrew name for God has accumulated many layers of tradition in Judaism.

  • The Ancient Name of God: The Hebrew name for God, YHWH (in Hebrew spelled yud-hay-vav-hay), is never pronounced out loud in Judaism. When it appears in Jewish scripture or liturgy, the reader substitutes the Hebrew word “adonai” which means “my lord” or often just “the Lord.” Any book that contains this name written in Hebrew is treated with reverence. The name is never destroyed, erased, or effaced and any books or writings containing the name cannot be thrown away according to Jewish law. They are stored in a genizah (special gathering place in a synagogue) until they can be given a proper burial in a Jewish cemetery.

  • Adonai: Among many traditional Jews even the word “adonai” is not spoken outside of prayer services. Because “adonai” is so closely linked to the name of God, over time it has been accorded more and more reverence as well. Outside of prayer services, traditional Jews will replace “adonai” with “HaShem” meaning “the Name” or some other way of referring to God without using “adonai.”

  • Other Names to Refer to God: Because YHWH and adonai are not used casually, literally dozens of different ways to refer to God have developed in Judaism. Each name is linked to different conceptions of God’s nature and aspects of the divine. For example, God can be referred to in Hebrew as “the Merciful One,” “Master of the Universe,” “the Creator,” and “our King,” amongst many other names.


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