Tiny Muskens, the Roman Catholic bishop of Breda in the Netherlands, says that Dutch Catholics ought to pray using the word Allah rather than God or its synonyms in Dutch. Muskens argues that it makes no inherent theological difference in which language one prays, and he notes that in countries where the word Allah is in common usage as a name for God, Christians already often use the word in their prayers. Adopting the word Allah , Muskens thinks, will eliminate "discussions and bickerings" between Muslims and Christians and so improve relations between the religions.
Muskens is right that, from a Catholic point of view, there is nothing inherently wrong in saying "Allah" for "God," just as there would be nothing inherently wrong in saying "Miny Tuskens" or "Tuny Miskens" for "Tiny Muskens." The problem, of course, is Tiny Muskens’ name is Tiny Muskens, and anyone who called Tiny Tuny or Muskens Miskens would be making fun of him. So, too, in theology; despite the conventionality by which strings of phonemes get their meaning, once names have been established, people who change them are doing so for a reason, and the nature of that reason counts in determining whether the change is reasonable or unreasonable, advisable or inadvisable.
In this case, even from a Catholic point of view, the name of God is not a pure triviality. When at the burning bush Moses asked God for his name, the Lord gave a very particular answer. "God said to Moses, I am who am. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations" (Exod. 3:14¯15). Many devout Jews treat this name, especially in Hebrew, with such reverence that they will not speak it aloud. And when Christ appropriated this name to himself (John 8:58), everyone understood that he was proclaiming his own divinity.
On the other hand, some Muslims believe that the phonetic string "Allah" is an especially appropriate name for God, in part because, in their understanding, "Allah" has no feminine or plural forms. Thus, even many non¯Arabic-speaking Muslims refer to God as "Allah" and do so for reasons of theological importance in Islam. Hence, it’s unclear what might be at stake theologically in the unlikely event that anyone were to take Muskens’ proposal seriously.
But debating the merits of Muskens’ suggestion misses the larger point here. Muskens makes it sound as if the problems in Muslim¯Catholic relations were merely silly arguments about semantics that distract from the truly important things on which we all agree. In fact, there is a serious, substantive problem dominating Christian¯Muslim relations at the moment, the same problem that dominates Muslim¯Jewish, Muslim¯Buddhist, Muslim¯Hindu, and Muslim¯Orthodox relations, and that problem is that Muslim fanatics keep murdering innocents of all faiths, including their own, in terror attacks.
In Muskens’ own Holland, for example, a Muslim fanatic killed filmmaker Theo van Gogh on November 2, 2004¯though killed does not quite convey the full meaning here, for the perpetrator shot van Gogh eight times, cut his throat almost to the point of decapitation, stabbed him in the chest, and left two knives plunged in his torso, one attaching a five-page note (text available here ) threatening the life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and railing against Western governments and, of course, the Jews. And then there were the train and bus bombings in London on July 7, 2005 (52 dead); the school massacre in Beslan in North Ossetia-Alania on September 1¯3, 2004 (334 dead, including 186 children); the train bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 (191 dead); and of course the spectacular atrocities in the United States on September 11, 2001 (2,974 dead). For that matter, just last week Islamic terrorists in Iraq detonated four truck bombs, flattening whole villages and murdering at least 250 Yizadis (the Yizadi religion combines elements of Islam and pre-Islamic Persian religions).
I realize that the many responsibilities of a bishop can make it difficult to keep up with current events, but I think Muskens must have heard about these things. It is puzzling, therefore, that he doesn’t see them as having the importance for Muslim¯Christian relations that most other people do. To be sure, there are other problems between Muslims and Christians, but anyone with a normal sense of morality recognizes immediately that such other issues pale in comparison with the wholesale slaughter of innocents. Muskens’ suggestion is thus strangely, even perversely, disconnected from real-world problems.
Worse, in saying that the things that divide Muslims and Christians are products of human invention, Muskens seems to imply that, on fundamentals, there is no difference between Muslims and Christians. The prevalence of Islamic terrorism refutes this simpleminded notion, but there is an even larger point here. Chesterton explained it well long ago:
There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: "the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach." It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, "Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing." The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing. An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided. So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.
That freethinking secularists can fail to see that there are critically important differences between religions is unsurprising; such people are notorious for their inability to understand any point of view other than their own. That a bishop of the Catholic Church, however, might make the same mistake is much more disturbing. Bishops are still expected to know something about theology.
Our blessed Lord told his disciples that he was sending them "out as sheep in the midst of wolves" and so they "should be as wise as serpents but as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10: 16). I am happy to acknowledge the innocence of Tiny Muskens, but he is exactly the kind of sheep who, if he ever met a wolf, would likely get eaten by it.
Robert T. Miller is assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law.