Why is Allah never translated?

Mr friend Matteen wrote the following letter to the AP. I posted it here with his permission. It raises a question that a lot of us with some kind of limited awareness of the Middle East ask ourselves when we read the newspaper: When Arabs are speaking, why is every word translated except for “God”, which is always left as “Allah”? By the same logic, Israelis should be quoted as saying “Adonai” or “Yahweh”, Spanish people as saying “Dios”, etc. It all has the effect of reading a Tintin comic about Arabs. Not to knock Tintin, but it’s not known as being the most ethnically sensitive children’s book ever made. I expect a little more from the AP.

But enough of my rambling. Here’s Matteen’s much better written letter:

Dear Mr. Reid et al,
My name is Matteen Mokalla and I am a recent graduate of Columbia University where I obtained a graduate degree in Middle Eastern affairs. I am writing to you today after having just read your article about the man who threw his shoes at President Bush in Baghdad yesterday.
The article, which I read in the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle (Family: Shoe thrower hates both US, Iran role), had a quote from the assailant’s sister in which she is said to have said:
“I swear to Allah, he is a hero”  and  “May Allah protect him.”
It was those lines that have spurred me to write to you. These quotes and quotes like this in the English language press that use the Arabic word for God (Allah) have bothered me for a long time. It is my assumption that you are quoting the sister via translation. But if that is the case why do you not translate the Arabic word for God which is “Allah” back into the English word, “God?” The Associated Press did translate every other word in her statements after all.
By choosing not to translate “Allah” into the word “God” the AP is suggesting that people in Muslim societies worship a deity that is separate from the God of Jesus, Moses, Abraham etc. and that is not right. However, even if the AP does not believe that Muslims worship a different God than Christians and Jews, by choosing not to translate the Arabic word for God you are unwittingly playing a part of a US-European narrative on Islam, believed by a great number of Americans, that in its worst form suggests that people in Muslim societies are a part of a religion that is so different from Christianity\Judaism that they have gone so far as to pick a different (or even false) god named “Allah.”
Regardless, I would be really curious to know if the AP has a rule in its style guide for this issue. What does the AP do, for example, when it quotes an Iraqi Christian who talks about God, but naturally uses the Arabic word “Allah” when referring to the divine? Moreover, what does the AP choose to do when a Persian speaking Muslim from Iran or Afghanistan uses their word for God, which is khoda, in an interview? Does the AP then translate the word khoda (Persian) into the Arabic word “Allah?”
It is vital that English language readers throughout the United States understand that people in Muslim societies (despite difference in dogma) do not consider their God to be a different God than the one worshiped by both Christians and Jews. In not translating “Allah” into English, I believe your news service suggests otherwise, and I would like to know why.
I eagerly await your reply and thank you for your time and consideration.
Best Regards,
Matteen Mokalla

5 thoughts on “Why is Allah never translated?

  1. I have usually told non Muslim audiences that we all worship the same God. But I am now a bit more careful, ever since one Christian said, “You don’t worship the same God I do. You don’t worship Jesus!”
    It is quite obvious that the media uses the Arabic term in order to emphasize that Muslims are the “other”, but we are to blame for not challenging it at every point. The old way to make Muslims other was to call us “Mohammedans” but as we consistently challenged this term, it is now compleltely out of favor, al hamdu Allah.

  2. This has, for over 15 years, been one of my most outstanding, unanswered questions about American teaching and view of Islam. I have never understood why everyone who toils in the work of translations endeavor, sometimes rather painstakingly, to translate the Quran and other Arabic items – and each and every time, they keep Allah in place.

    I would also like to add onto this failure to translate that there should be some type of discussion on the idea of Capital and lower case G as a means to distinguish . . . for instance in the Shahada . . . There is no god but Allah ( a failed translation) There is no god but God (still a failed translation) when it should read . . . There is nothing worthy of worship but God or rather “There is nothing worthy of worship but The Most High” . . . as even the term God has a problematic definition when one looks at the lexicon and the etymology

    OK. That my two shiny pennies!

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  5. I have always been bothered by that. I found this article by typing the question on the title in Google. It always frustrated me, as a Muslim, that whenever the subject was Islam, the translations were always altered to emphasize the portrayal of Muslims as “Different”.
    And it is not something only present in American media. I often watch the French media (French being a foreign language I master better than English), and I can assure you the same applies to their media, and I am sure every western country.
    This can go from “innocent” translation habits like keeping “Allah” as is, to really vicious deliberate “carelessness”: The most frustrating one was in a documentary about Saudi Arabia where a man says “My family” and it was translated to “My wives”.
    Anyway, I was relieved to read this letter and see that someone else is also bothered by that, especially a non Muslim person (I venture to assume), as it assures me I’m not just being oversensitive.
    So my thanks to you and to your friend.

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