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 of al-Ilâh.
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 of derivation
The lexicographers 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 important questions:
1. How did the passage from Ilâh to Allâh come about?
2. What is the origin of Ilâh and what does it mean?
The passage 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.
a. Ilâh 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.
This interpretation 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.
The above-mentioned 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 Me’.
In addition 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 the sun.
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
Ar-Razi tells 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 from hu.
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 not give.
Some people 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 whatsoever’.
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; Paris; 1988.
Fakhr ad-din ar-Razi: Traité sur les noms divins (2 vol.); Paris; 1986.