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Meaning, Marriage, and Allah

June 24, 2014

For centuries, Arabic speakers, both Christians and Jews, have used the word “Allah” to refer to God. As I understand it, that is the apparent etymological meaning of the word’s morphemes: the god.

Recently in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, a court order declared that a Catholic newspaper may not use the word Allah to refer to God. This decision claimed the word “Allah” as distinctly and exclusively referring to the God worshipped by Muslims God as God is understood by Islam.

For centuries, English speakers in the West have used the word “marriage” to refer to a legally recognized relationship between a man and a woman, establishing a household.

The etymological meaning of this word’s morphemes is more obscure, and its semantic field is broader. But the relationship is presumptively and normatively sexual, monogamous, lifelong, and includes the birthing and raising of children.

In reality, none of these things have been universally true; there have always been marriages that did not include sex, that did not last lifelong, that were not monogamous, and that did not include children. Indeed, it is presumed that most marriage will include at least one substantial period without children, and will eventually enter a period during which sex is rare or entirely absent. (The reality may be otherwise, but the popular imagination is typically either amused or disturbed by the idea that elderly people are sexually active.) Over the last 50-100 years, with the destigmatization of divorce and the availability of effective birth control, “lifelong” and “intending children” can no longer be taken for granted, even though the norms persist. Increasingly, in this country, the meaning of marriage has come to indicate a legally recognized, presumptively sexual and emotional relationship between two adults that establishes a household. Increasingly, both the majority usage and the law are broadening to embrace such a relationship between either two men or two women.

Recently, a religious minority in this country has vocally claimed the word “marriage” as distinctly and exclusively referring to
the traditional meaning of marriage
relationships that conform to the church(es)’s definition of marriage
relationships between a man and a woman that can have children
relationships between a man and a woman.

Logically, there’s no reason to draw the line there, instead of somewhere else; doctrinally, this is actually a really poor place to draw the line, at least for Catholics. I’ve argued before that the Catholic church should willingly yield all claim to the word “marriage”, withdraw from civil discourse on the matter, and concentrate instead on teaching its flock the distinctly Catholic understanding of sacramental marriage, for which it might use the term “matrimony.”

The majority claim about “Allah” in Malaysia, and the minority claim about “marriage” in this country, both attempt to plant a flag on a particular hill in a word’s semantic field and claim that this hill is the one and only authentic, legitimate meaning of the word. But that’s just not how language works.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 24, 2014 11:59 pm

    That’s crazy. But the crazy are always more numerous, you know. Otherwise, there are a number of verses in Quran that show Allah himself gets the Christians, Jews and even pagans to call him Allah.
    Religious branding and patentization is so ridiculous, but those who do it feel purer when they commit this crime. Here in the sub-continent, they did the same with Mirza Ghulam Ahmed Qadiani, who was a scholar of Quran and Islam. They stopped his followers from using the word Muslim for themselves constitutionally! 😉

  2. June 27, 2014 1:04 am

    Stealing, borrowing, hijacking words. Nothing new here. Who owns the word Allah? Of course if we take a vote today, the Muslims will win as they did in Malaysia recently, at least for now. But once upon a time, Islam took the word from others who understood Allah in another way, maybe the god of the moon or something else, as did the Hebrews took from others the word Elah, to finally refer most importantly to their LORD that had no name. Of course it was from the Jews that the Muslims actually got their monotheistic definition of Allah. When Islam spread to Indonesia and Malaysia, the people there started to call their tuhan, Allah. So when later the Dutch tradesman, Albert Cornelisz Ruyl, translated the gospel of Matthew to Malay, this Alkitab (scripture) translated the word which the Jews had translated from Hebrew to Greek as Theos, to Allah. The word the Muslims had took from their polytheistic kinsmen, reinterpreted through the Jewish/Christian lens.

    The English word marriage has also a long history, but not until recently has its ownership become so sharply disputed. Whether the word in its Latin origin referred to mating, or grafting does not really matter now. Seriously, it is really not reasonable to try to limit the definition of marriage too narrowly anymore than it is reasonable to limit the meaning of Allah. Allah for some will be defined in one way, and for others in another way but all pointing to a similar direction.

    Ironically, even many of those who are rightfully arguing that the word marriage correctly describes the amorous union of homosexuals as well as heterosexuals, still want to limit the word too narrowly. How often have I heard those arguing for “Christian” monogamous same-sex marriage. Now isn’t this an odd limitation when from the Jewish/Christian heritage we certainly don’t have a clear picture of only the monogamous union of an adult woman and man. Perhaps they should consider the incestuous marriage of of their patriarch, Abraham, before they too make the same mistake as their right wing opponents. And finally, since the word “Allah” is acceptable to be used by Christians and Muslims alike, should we not also consider the practice of Muhammad when he married his third wife , the child, Aisha?

  3. June 27, 2014 12:26 pm

    Jay, it is my understanding that “Christian” monogamous same-sex marriage has a particular meaning, as all “Christian” marriage does– that is, a marriage based on ideas gleaned from the New Testament writings on marriage. This, of course, may take several forms depending on interpretation of the New Testament, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that people practicing Christianity might have a particular thing in mind when they talk about “Christian” marriage.

  4. Jay permalink
    June 29, 2014 11:13 am

    Krwordgazer, I would be interested as to how you define the limits of Christian marriage according to the New Testament.

  5. krwordgazer permalink
    June 29, 2014 3:53 pm

    Jay, I would have to say that I’m not sure. It seems that the New Testament envisions Christian marriage in terms of one husband and one wife, but does it intend to limit marriage to that? I’m still exploring the arguments on this matter– but I do find this blog post compelling:

  6. krwordgazer permalink
    June 29, 2014 3:56 pm

    I would add, though, that I think mutual self-giving, each placing the other’s needs first, is a clear New Testament model for all forms of marriage that would call themselves Christian.

  7. June 29, 2014 10:30 pm

    I think mutual self-giving, each placing the other’s needs first is a clear New Testament model for all forms of interpersonal relationships. However, when it comes to sexual relationships, the New Testament seems to have some additional concerns. The most common word that appears in this matter is the Greek word porneia. In the minds of the Jews of the New Testament this would most certainly be the Hebrew word zanah. Jesus spoke of this in reference to divorce and remarriage. Paul spoke of it in reference to prostitution and a son marrying his father’s wife. At a church council in Jerusalem, it was listed as one of the 3 or 4 behaviors the gentile Christians should abstain from. So here we see some restrictions, but it is not perfectly clear what they are. Polygamy, while perhaps not ideal, was never categorized as porneia. In the text in 1 Corinthians 5, if we assume the father’s wife was not his son’s mother, are we correct to assume that Paul is following the Levitcal law that among other things, forbids this kind of (pornea) incest? Does “Christian” marriage as we understand it today, forbid a loving sexual relationship between a step mother and a step son. Are people with bi-sexual orientation forced to choose the stronger orientation or is there room in Christian marriage for them to develop a mutual loving relationship in a polyomorous marriage. All of this comes back to the issue of this blog post. Do some have the right to claim the term marriage as only defining that of a man and woman, or is it only to be expanded to only monogamy except for incest, only for adults, except with parental permission…….


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