In order to say ‘God’
there are two words in Arabic:
1. Allâh, which is reserved for the
unique God and is a proper name, which exists
only in the singular
2. Ilâh which is a shared (i.e. not
unique) name, which has a plural âliha
and thus is susceptible to refer to all
gods, although according to Islam there
is of course only One.
The two terms
have etymological connections; some lexicographers
say that Allâh is the contracted form
The two important
questions asked in this respect are what
is the origin of the name Allâh, which
is of interest to the lexicographers and
the other one is what is the meaning and
the definition of the word Ilâh, which
is primarily of interest to the people of
the spiritual path?
1. The philological
problem of the origin of the name Allâh:
The Arab lexicographers
have asked themselves is Allâh a proper
name instituted as such to refer to the
divine Being or is it a derived name and
then it must have an etymology.
a. In favour
are almost unanimous in their opinion that
this is the case, but they differ in regard
to the type of etymology. Most of them think
that Allâh is derived from the root
‘LH or WLH; others claim LWH as the
root and again others derive it simply from
the H of the third person.
In regard to
the first opinion, i.e. that Allâh
comes from al + Ilâh there are two
1. How did the
passage from Ilâh to Allâh come
2. What is the origin of Ilâh and
what does it mean?
from Ilâh to Allâh has received
two technical explanations. I will give
the first one only: the hamza being dropped,
then its vowel - the i - shifted to the
preceding lâm and it became alilâh.
Thereafter the first lâm no longer
got pronounced and it became assimilated
into the second one.
The second question
concerns the origin of the word Ilâh
and its signification. According to etymological
rules you can see in Ilâh a name based
on the fi’âl paradigm derived
from the verb aliha/ya’lahu or according
to others from waliha/yawlahu. There are
several possible interpretations.
is said to come from aliha/ya’lahu;
this verb signifies ‘seeking refuge
with’. God is al-Ilâh as He
is the One with Whom people seek protection
against misery, troubles, etc.
b. Certain people derive Ilâh from
waliha. Originally the name was wilâh,
but this name underwent certain transformations.
The sense is the same as under a, that is
according to certain interpretations.
c. But others understand waliha ilâ
as ‘desiring pasionately; longing
after’. The consequence hereof is
that God is called Ilâh because ‘the
hearts have the desire to know Him and passionately
love to pronounce His name’.
d. Starting with the original sense of waliha,
walah can also signify intense love. Ar-Razi
also writes about another interpretation.
Every intense love implies great joy when
the beloved is present and intense pain
in case of absence. This explains why God
is called Allah from the experience of joy
when one knows Him and the pain that is
there when He is hidden from you.
may be a sufi interpretation and it is only
to be found in the book of ar-Razi. He also
adds two accounts given by sufis. Yahya
ibn Mu’adh has said: ‘My God!
It is a big enough honour for me that I
am Your servant and there cannot be anything
more elevated than that You are my Lord’.
Shaqiq of Balkh once explained why he behaved
with such detachment (zuhd). One day he
saw a slave who was happy when everyone
was sad because of a famine. Shaqiq asked
him why he behaved in such a strange way.
The slave made it clear to him that his
master owned lots of property and that is
why he did not worry. Shaqiq then thought
over it: If someone with a master who is
a dependant being does not worry about means
of subsistence then why should I worry as
my Master is the Richest of the rich.
joy and pain is connected by ar-Razi to
the following statements: He who knows Allah
is not free from qabd (contraction) nor
from expansion (bast). These two states
are there for the travellers in the realm
of divine unity. He then mentions that John
the Baptist very often experienced sadness
and contraction and that Jesus experienced
happiness and expansion. Allah revealed
to them: ‘That one of you two is the
closest to Me who has the best opinion of
to the 4 interpretations as given above,
here are more possibilities:
e. It is also
said that Ilâh comes from aliha/ya’lahu,
but then as an equivalent of tahayyara:
‘being stupefied, being astonished’.
God is said to be called Ilâh because
of the fact that the hearts are stupefied
because of His immensity (‘azama).
f. Ilâh may come from aliha in the
sense of worshipping as an equivalent of
‘abada/ya’budu. Ilâh is
‘The One Who is worshipped’.
The Arabs before Islam called the sun ilâha
because they (or some of them) worshipped
g. A rather curious etymology connects Ilâh
with the sense ‘make a halt (at a
halting-place). God is called Ilâh
because He does not change, that is to say
His existence is eternal.
There is a different,
second hypothesis: Allâh comes from
al+ lâh. This second hypothesis is
much less popular. Allâh is derived
from the addition of the article al and
the name lâh (from a root LWH wherein
the wâw has been changed into an alif).
As for the meaning of LWH there are two
interpretations. Lâha may mean ‘being
hidden, being veiled’. God is then
called al-lâhu from the fact that
He is inaccessible to our regards. A second
meaning is ‘being elevated’
(‘alâ, irtafa’a) and al-lâh
would then mean the All-high
this anecdote: A group of astrologers made
the pilgrimage to Mecca. One of them said
that he kept something hidden and asked
what it was. Everyone gave the wrong answer
except for Abu Ma’shar al-Balakhi
who said that he kept the dhikr of Allah
hidden. This was the correct answer which
he explained as follows: ‘When I made
a (spiritual) flight I found myself at the
apogee in the middle of the heaven and nothing
could be discerned except for the traces
of the beauty (of the remembrance of God).
As this was the most elevated place of heaven
I knew then that you hid something the essence
whereof could not be seen and only the beautiful
effects could be discerned. The reality
thereof was the most elevated and only belonged
to Allah, glory to Him and may He be exalted!
Let us continue
with the third hypothesis: Allâh comes
First attention will be paid to the third
hypothesis: Allâh comes from hu.
Secondly there is an opinion of a minority
that there is no derivation of Allâh.
I’ll end by mentioning my sources.
The third hypothesis:
Allâh comes from hu. It is not a very
strong hypothesis, claiming that Allâh
comes from its final letter which refers
to the third person, the pronoun of absence.
It is said that people at first simple referred
to God by saying hu = He. They then attached
the lâm al-milk knowing that God is
the Creator and Master of all and it became
lahu. Then, because of veneration, they
once again prefixed the al to it while elongating
the alif. This theory by Khattabi is paralleled
by another one of Baghdadi which I’ll
oppose any derivation. They are a minority.
Mubarrad tells: ‘Allâh is a
proper name of God and is not derived of
anything; it does not signify any quality
In this name the al is always connected
to the rest of the word, which is not the
case in regard to the other names. You can
say yâ Rahmân, yâ Rahîm
(the article ar has been omitted) but you
say yâ Allâh.
Daniel Gimaret: Les noms divins en Islam;
Fakhr ad-din ar-Razi: Traité sur
les noms divins (2 vol.); Paris; 1986.