Joseph Massad on orientalist English translations from Arabic saying “Allah” instead of “God”

Scholar Joseph Massad has a clever, and also enlightening, joke in a lecture he gave in 2015 based on his book Islam in Liberalism.

Massad discusses the orientalist tendency of some English translators to leave the word “Allah” in Arabic when translating, instead of just writing “God.”

Massad points out that the Arabic word for God, “Allah,” is used by Arabic speakers of all religions, including Christians, Jews, and others.

He also notes that “Allah” was used in Arabic before Islam even existed. Muhammad’s father, for instance, was named Abdallah.

The professor then jokes that he has always wanted to publish an article in Arabic about American Christians, where he writes everything normally in Arabic but leaves the word “God” untranslated. Or, if the article is about French Christians, it is all in Arabic except with the word “Dieu” instead of “Allah.”

Massad proceeds to laugh at “the absurdity of that invocation.”

What this insistence on not translating the word “God” does is encourage the notion that Arabic speakers, and Arabic-speaking Muslims in particular, are somehow different, and are even worshiping a different God — not the same God of Christians and Jews, even though Muslims consider these adherents to other Abrahamic religions to be fellow “people of the book.”

Professor Massad also observes that the Arabic word “jihad,” which is used by average people to mean “struggle,” is a common name, even among Lebanese Christians. Extremists of course frequently use the term, and call themselves “mujahideen” (jihadists), but it also has a secular meaning.

The full lecture, which is titled “Islam and the Choice of Liberalism,” can be watched below. (The joke begins at around 23:00 in the video.)