Six months ago, Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister of Malaysia, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, (2/17/15) that "Over the first two weeks in February, arsonists and vandals in Malaysia attacked 10 Christian churches and Sikh temples. The attacks were provoked by a controversy over the use of the word "Allah" by Malaysia's Christian community, which numbers over two million, or about 10% of the population.
"In late 2007, the Home Ministry banned the use of the word Allah by the Herald, a Catholic newspaper, and later confiscated 15,000 copies of Malay-language Bibles imported from Indonesia in which the word for God is translated as 'Allah'. A Dec. 31, 2009 ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court overruled the earlier ban, asserting constitutional guarantees regarding the freedom of religion in Malaysia. Since then, an already tense situation boiled over, largely due to incitement by a few reckless politicians and the mainstream media."
So how did we get to the point where one people of the book; end up attacking houses of worship of other peoples of the book? In the days of Abraham, the religions of the Near East and India had hundreds of gods, and hundreds of different names for their different gods. Thus, The Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan contains over 2.500 entries of individual deities from ancient and modern cultures and societies.
Jordan even includes several entries of important spiritual teachers and miracle working humans who lived and died among their fellow humans, and were then in retrospect elevated into Gods like: Asklepios. Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama and Tin-Hau, a young woman who for more than a dozen years had many dream visions of sinking fishing ships that she was able to rescue.
Not long after her death at age 28, her story was inscribed on the walls of a sanctuary in Hangchiow (in 1228); and she was deified 50 years later by the Mongol emperor Kublai Kahn. So she became a Goddess.
But for those religions that trace their prophets back to Prophet Abraham, and his two sons Ishmael and Isaac, the many names of God simply describe different aspects or attributes of the one God's multifaceted personality.
For monotheists the many names of God are just appellations: titles and descriptions. Thus, to say that God is a King or a Judge describes one of many ways the one God acts; i,e, a job description. To say that God is the Merciful or Compassionate One is to describe one of many character or personality traits of the one God.
While most polytheistic Gods are personifications of specific objects or forces within the natural world; there are a Gods who are personifications of abstract cultural values like Maat, the Egyptian Goddess of truth, Vagisvara the Buddhist God of speech or Vac, the Hindu Goddess of the spoken word, hearing and sight; who also created the 4 Vedas.
While for monotheists each of the many 'names' of the one God is only one of the many appellations of the one universal creator of space and time; both Islam and Judaism also have one special Divine name that is always in the believer's heart and soul. Jews would never say that Zeus is a Greek YHVH; and Muslims would never say that Zeus is a Greek Allah. These names are not generic; they are very specific to the believers close loving relationship to the One. and only One, to whom they pray.
Because the Qur'an is filled with beautiful Arabic poetry; it is not surprising that the the Qur'an is also filled so many (99) names of the one God.
Because the Jewish tradition reaches back more than thirty five centuries; it is not surprising that Jews have used many additional names (70) for God over those many centuries.
The word God in English is not a name of the one God like Allah or YHVH. It is the generic term used for any and every deity, similar to the West Semitic root word EL as it is found in Sumerian and Akkadian Ellil-Enlil; Hittite and Hurrian Ellel, and Hebrew El-Elohim.
So too is a pre Islamic Goddess, one of three daughters of Allah worshiped in Palmyra as Allat and referred to by Herodotus as Alilat and worshiped as Allatu by North African Carthaginians.
The words El, Elah, Elohei and Elohim are all pre Abrahamic west Semitic generic terms for a God or for many Gods. In these various forms they appear almost 3,000 times in the Hebrew Bible.
But for Jews, the most important unique personal name of the one God is the name that God himself reveals to Moses at the burning bush: YHVH, which appears more than 6,800 times in the Hebrew Bible.
In Exodus 3:13-15, Moses said to God, "If I go to the Israelites and tell them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?'-what should I say to them?" And God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh".
Ehyeh is the verb "to be" future tense singular and means I will/could/might/may be/become Who I may/could/will/might be/become i.e. Ehyeh is The God of Potentialities, The God of Possibilities, The Living God of Becoming and Transforming, the One who can liberate Israel from bondage in Egypt.
Unfortunately, the Greek and Latin translations of this verse were influenced by the Greek philosophical idea that God was similar to a permanent ideal form (like an equilateral triangle) or an unmoved mover; and is not similar to a living personality.
Since the Greeks thought God must be a static unchanging being. they mistranslated "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh' as 'I am who I am' rather than its plain Hebrew meaning of 'I will be whatever I should be to redeem you" i.e. God Almighty
The Torah continues, "And God said, "You must say this to the Israelites, "I am" (the usual false translation for God's self revealed name) has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "You must say this to the Israelites, Ehyeh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob-has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and this is my memorial from generation to generation.' (Exodus 3:13-15)
When Jews speak of God in the third person, God's name is pronounced Yehyeh and written YHVH-- "the One who causes being and becoming, the One who brings potentials into existence."
This name was spoken publicly for a thousand years, from the time of Moses, throughout the centuries of the 1st Temple of Solomon, but it was replaced by Adonai (Lord) before the beginning of the 3rd century B.C.E., because God's actual Holy name was eventually considered too holy to speak audibly.
In later centuries even the substitution Adonai was considered too holy to utter; and the custom among pious Jews till this day is not to use any name for God at all (except in prayer); but to say HaShem- 'the name' (of God) when speaking about God.
The difference between the personal intimate name of God the believer uses in prayer and when reciting his or her holy scripture, and all other names; is a measure of the believers piety and love of the God of his or her own religion.
When Christian believers speak about Jesus they are referring to the "Divine Son of God" who connects them to God the father. When Jews or Muslims speak about Jesus they are referring not to God, but only to a man of God.
When Jews do not utter the name YHVH they are referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel, who made a covenant with their ancestors at Mount Sinai. Neither Christians or Muslims connect to God this way.
When Muslims use the word Allah they mean the one God they worship and adore; who sent Prophets, speaking their own language to every nation and tribe in the world, and sent Prophet Muhammad to proclaim the Qur'an in Arabic. This is the same one God; who sent Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and Moses to proclaim the Torah. As the Qur'an states: "Allah spoke directly to Moses" (Qur'an 4:164) This Allah is the same Allah that the holy Qur'an refers to. Neither Jews nor Christians connect to God in this very universal way.
Thus, for Muslims the word Allah is both a generic for the one God of all monotheistic religions; and a personal Islamic name when spoken with devotion and love by a Muslim.
As a neutral outsider, and an American Reform Rabbi, I can understand why many Muslims would object to Christians using the word Allah in the context of saying that Jesus is the son of Allah. Another word for Divinity is needed.
On the other hand, one could say that Allah spoke to Jesus as the Qur'an itself states, "Allah said: Jesus, I will take you back and raise you up to Myself . . . " (3:55)
If people of good will use the generic aspect of the word Allah only in a monotheistic context, and use another word for a Trinitarian or Polytheistic context, we all could have more light and less heat in our religious lives. But only Allah knows.