Ahmad Al-Jallad Profile picture
Aug 27, 2018 23 tweets 6 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
<Thread> Allāh is the word for ‘God’ in Arabic. But where did this word come from? Muslim scholars have several views. Some regard it as a basic noun, others the definite form of the word “lāh”, ‘lofty’ or ‘hidden’, but most see it as a contracted form of al-ʾilāh, = ‘the deity’
Islamic tradition holds that the pre-Islamic pagans worshiped Allāh beside other gods = shirk ‘association’. Are there examples of this in the epigraphic record? Yes, but before we get to those, the corpus of 6th. CE Christian Arabic inscriptions continues to grow...
New texts suggest that Allāh, in this exact form, was not the common Arabic name of the monotheistic god in the century before Islam. In the Zebed inscription, the Christian god is called al-ʾilāh 'the God'.
In a new Christian Arabic inscription from Dūmat al-Jandal (548/9 CE), God is called again al-ʾilāh. The text is a simple benediction: ḏakara al-ʾilāh Ḥgʿbw br slmh 'May God be mindful of Ḥgʿbw son of Salamah'. arabianepigraphicnotes.org/journal/articl…
Al-ʾilāh is attested in a 6th-7th c. ✝-ian Arabic text from Jordan, which states: ḏakara al-ʾilāh yazīd-w al-malik ‘may God by mindful of Yazīd the king’. See this article for more: academia.edu/35239575/Al-Ja…
In South Arabia, the monotheistic god was called Raḥmānān; sometimes he was referred to as ʾilāh-ān. The final ān is the definite article, so it is the equivalent of Arabic al-ʾilāh. "May God to whom belong heaven and earth bless king Ys¹f ʾs¹ʾr Yṯʾr, king of all the tribes"
al-ʾilāh in these early ✝-ian Arabic inscriptions appears to be a calque of the Greek ὁ Θεός. Does the form Allāh then derive from this usage? Probably not directly. As with most things Arabic, to find its origins, we need to go back to the Nabataeans.
The Nabataeans worshiped many gods but the primary deity of their state was ḏu-śaray (=Dusares), ‘he of the Sharay (mountains)’, the range near Petra. There is no direct evidence for the worship of Allāh (or al-ʾilāh). But their personal names contain references to him.
The divine name Allāh (written in Nabataean as (ʾ)lh or lhy and transcribed in Greek as αλλας) features in many Nabataean personal names: ʾaws-allāhi ‘gift of Allāh’, ǵawṯ-allāhi ‘help of Allāh’, ʿabd-allāhi ‘worshipper of Allāh’, saʿd-allāhi ‘fortune of Allāh’, etc.
Some have speculated that Dusares is the epithet of Allāh, but there is no evidence to support this. If the name Allāh existed in the late 1st millennium BCE, who worshiped him and what is its etymology? There are several prayers to Allāh in the #Safaitic inscriptions.
SIJ 293 contains a beautiful example: wa ʾaṣlaya wa ʾaqsama be-ʾallāh ḥayy la-hadaya ʿaẓīma ‘he made a burnt offering and swore by Allāh, who is living, that he shall command with greatness’
The vocative form Allāhumma is even attested. In the Hismaic inscription Jackobson D.3.A.7.b, the author invokes Allāh to curse the sons of ʿuray son of ʿaklam: hāllāhumma le-banī ʿoray ben ʿaklam boʾsa’!
Finally, at Qaryat al-Fāw, Allāh is invoked next to 2 other gods, a classic example of shirk ;) "and he placed it under the protection of Kahl, Allāh, and ʿaṯṯar of the East from strong and weak and purchase and pledge for all time".
Nevertheless, invocations to Allāh in the inscriptions are rare. There is no evidence that this was the proper name of the primary deity of any pagan cult. Let’s come back to our first Q: where does the word come from?
The best hypothesis IMO is that it is indeed a contracted form of al-ʾilāh, a dialectal feature that perhaps occurred in western dialects of Arabic, maybe in the southern periphery of Nabataea.
The same process produces Ram, as in Wādī Ram, from the original name ʾiram. A guess: al-ʾilāh > allāh was a way of referring to the most exalted deity, regardless of differences in time and cult, thus explaining the rarity of this general term in invocations to specific deities
This would have been the natural way speakers of western dialects of Arabic would have referred to the monotheistic god = 'the deity'. It is possible that Christians and Jews of the Ḥigāz used this form; we simply don't have the epigraphic evidence to confirm (yet).
Perhaps our earliest Christian Arabic use of Allāh for the name of God comes 7th c. CE. It is found in an amulet discovered in the excavations of al-Ḥīrah and states: barakah min allāh; ghafara allāh li-ʿabd al-masīḥ ‘blessings from God; may God forgive ʿAbd al-Masīḥ’
Conclusion: the term Allāh seems to be a contracted form of al-ʾilāh 'the deity'. This particular form was restricted to NW Arabia and southern Levant in pre-Islam. Allāh is relatively common in personal names but rarely invoked in the inscriptions.
6th c. Christian Arabic inscriptions use the term al-ʾilāh for 'God'. It isn't until the Islamic period that the contracted form <Allāh> becomes the general word for 'God' in all forms of Arabic and for all confessions.
Bibliography: Jumaili, Amir A. al-. “NaqshʿarabiGadīd Li-Tamīmah Mina L- Ḥīrah Li-ʿabd Al-Masīḥ Bin Buqaylah Al-Ghassānī Mina L-Qarn Al-Awwal Al-Higri.” Maǧallat Al-SiyāḥahWalĀthār 28, no. 1 (2016): 23–31.
Kiltz, David. “The Relationship between Arabic Allāh and Syriac Allāhā.”Der Islam 88 (2012): 31–50.
Winnett, Frederick Victor. 1957. Safaitic Inscriptions from Jordan. Near and Middle East 2. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
And as always, please forgive typos etc. -- always tweeting in haste.

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More from @Safaitic

Oct 6, 2018
"Life is worthless", write Diomedes the Lyrist and Abchoros the barber in a Greek inscription found far out in the desert of eastern Jordan (at Jathum). The two went out into the desert with a Roman military unit, stationed at a place called Σιο(α) Αβγαρ 'the cairn of Abgar'.
Coming from the bright lights of the Decapolis, the Basalt desert must have seemed like the end of the world. This text comes to mind as I complete edits on 2 pprs on new Greek-Safaitic inscriptions from Jordan. Teaser: we have a small new example of Old Arabic in Greek letters!
The editio princeps of the cited inscription can be found here: A Greek Inscription at Jathum in Transjordan. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 132 (Dec., 1953), pp. 34-41 (8 pages). Here is Mowry's translation of the entire text.
Read 4 tweets
Oct 5, 2018
< Part 1 – the Fals, of Tweet Mini-Series: The archaeology of the Book of Idols> Let us begin with the more obscure deities. The idol called al-Fals was associated with the well-known N. Arabian tribe of Ṭayyiʾ. Their territory was located near 2 mountains, Agaʾ and Salmā.
According to al-Kalbi, al-Fals was a red rock in the shape of a man located on the black mountain of Agaʾ. Its sanctuary offered immunity to men and beasts. What do we learn about Al-Fals from the epigraphic record? answering-islam.org/Books/Al-Kalbi…
Tribespeople of Ṭayyiʾ left few inscriptions. Only one text in Safaitic was clearly composed by a man of Ṭayyiʾ. BS 767 is by a man named Wāʾil son of Wammām, who calls himself haṭ-ṭāʾiyy ‘the Tayyite’. The text does not contain an invocation to a deity.
Read 19 tweets
Oct 5, 2018
<Tweet Mini-Series: The archaeology of the Book of Idols-Introduction>: Hisham ibn al-Kalbi was an Arab antiquarian born in Kufa (737–819 CE), interested in folklore re: the ancient Arabs, genealogies, and pre-Islamic Arabian religion. Pic: Nabataea.net
His work kitāb al-Aṣnām ‘the book of idols’ is one of the earliest Islamic-period sources on pre-Islamic Arabian religion. Relying on folklore and quotations from poetry, Ibn Al-Kalbi lists the gods of the ancient Arabs and associated rites.
While some of these gods, such as Allāt, are known from the Qur’ān and other ancient sources, others are far more obscure, such as Yaʾbūb and Nuhm. You can read the English translation of this book here: answering-islam.org/Books/Al-Kalbi/
Read 6 tweets
Oct 1, 2018
On the topic of inscriptions of mourning, I've reached the S's and here is one of the saddest Safaitic inscriptions I know. It is by a man mourning the senseless murder of his brother by Nabataeans while he was working as a hired man, pasturing the animals of two great tribes.
I translate the text as follows:
'he grieved for his brother Nūr whom the Nabataeans killed while pasturing the livestock of ʿwḏ and Ḍf so, O Allat of Mʿmn and goddess of Deṯan and Gaddoʿawīḏ and Gaddoḍayf...
...may he have vengeance against him who has committed this act, and he was continuously distraught with a broken heart for his brother, his beloved forever'. The Old Arabic reads as follows:
Read 4 tweets
Sep 30, 2018
#Safaitic dictionary edit updates. At the N's, and this text it worth tweeting: Author of MAHB 2 states: wagada ʾaṯra ʾaśyāʿ-oh fa-naganna 'he found the traces of his companions and went mad (from grief)'. #Safaitic naganna <ngn> is the equivalent of #Levantine inžann...
The sense is of course to be Jinn possessed. There is no direct evidence for a belief in #Jinn among the pre-Islamic nomads, but this word could suggests that insanity was associated with being possessed by the supernatural creatures. There's more: related to this lemma is ...
the word <ʾtgnn> =ʾatgannana, is attested in an identical context: BS 880: wagada ʾaṯra ʾaśyāʿ-oh fa-ʾatgannana 'he found the traces of his companions and went mad (from grief)', this one similar to Classical Arabic taǧannana, same meaning.
Read 5 tweets
Sep 27, 2018
Hikma History asks whether there is historical evidence for #Mecca in the 6th CE or earlier. A fantastic question. Outside historical sources don't seem to mention the town. @iandavidmorris examines this material masterfully in this blog: iandavidmorris.com/mecca-before-i…
But what about pre-Islamic Arabian sources? Do they give evidence for Mecca as a pilgrimage center? Most pre-Islamic texts from central Arabia are short, undated inscriptions containing personal names and enigmatic phrases. No toponyms are attested in these and therefore,..
They are not very useful for answering our question. The long and detailed texts from Ancient Yemen, however, do not mention any place called Mecca. Although numerous pilgrimage sites are attested, they all seem to be located in South Arabia.
Read 11 tweets

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