Asked if Muslims worship the same Almighty as Jews and Christians, President Bush replied some months ago, "I believe we worship the same God." The Islamic deity, known as Allah, in other words, is the same Supreme Being to whom Jews and Christians pray.

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Asked if Muslims worship the same Almighty as Jews and Christians, President Bush replied some months ago, "I believe we worship the same God." The Islamic deity, known as Allah, in other words, is the same Supreme Being to whom Jews and Christians pray.

The president's statement provoked widespread dismay among Evangelicals; one poll found 79% of their leadership disagreeing with this view. Pat Robertson pungently explained why, observing "the entire world is being convulsed by a religious struggle. … whether Hubal, the Moon God of Mecca, known as Allah, is supreme, or whether the Judeo-Christian Jehovah, God of the Bible, is Supreme."

Muslims at times agree that God and Allah are different. Irshad Manji has recounted how her teachers at a madrassah in Canada taught her this. And a Jewish scholar, Jon D. Levenson, finds the claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God "if not false, then certainly simplistic and one-sided."

This debate plays out at many levels. In the American scouting movement, Muslims promise "I will do my best to do my duty to God"; their British counterparts instead do their "duty to Allah."

This might seem like a minor semantic quibble, but the definition of Allah has profound importance. Consider two alternate ways of translating the opening line of Islam's basic declaration of faith (Arabic: la ilaha illa-la). One reads "I testify that there is no God but Allah," and the other "I testify that there is no deity but God."

The first states that Islam has a distinct Lord, one known as Allah, and implies that Jews and Christians worship a false god. The second states that Allah is the Arabic word for the common monotheistic God and implies a commonality with Jews and Christians.

The first translation is 40 times more common in a Google search than the second. Yet, the latter is accurate. Mr. Bush was right. There are several reasons to use the translation that equates Allah with God:

Scriptural: The Koran itself in several places insists that its God is the same as the God of Judaism and Christianity. The most direct statement is one in which Muslims are admonished to tell Jews and Christians "We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you; our God and your God is One, and to Him we do submit" (E.H. Palmer translation of Sura 29:46) Of course, the verse can also be rendered "our Allah and your Allah is One" (as it is in the notorious Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation)

Historical: Chronologically, Islam followed after Judaism and Christianity, but the Koran claims Islam actually preceded the other monotheisms. In Islamic doctrine (Sura 3:67), Abraham was the first Muslim. Moses and Jesus introduced mistakes into the Word of God; Muhammad brought it down perfectly. Islam views Judaism and Christianity as flawed versions of itself, correct on essentials but wrong in important details. This outlook implies that all three faiths share the God of Abraham.

Linguistic: Just as Dieu and Gott are the French and German words for God, so is Allah the Arabic equivalent, a word older than Islam. In part, this identity of meaning can be seen from cognates: In Hebrew, the word for God is Elohim, a cognate of Allah. In Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, God is Allaha. In the Maltese language, which is unique because it is Arabic-based but spoken by a predominantly Catholic people, God is Alla.

Further, most Jews and Christians who speak Arabic routinely use the word Allah to refer to God. (Copts, the Christians of Egypt, do not.) The Old and New Testaments in Arabic use this word. In the Arabic-language Bible, for instance, Jesus is referred to as the son of Allah. Even translations carried out by Christian missionaries, such as the famous one done in 1865 by Cornelius Van Dyke, refer to Allah, as do missionary discussions.

The God=Allah equation means that, however hostile political relations may be, a common "children of Abraham" bond does exist and its exploration can one day provide a basis for interfaith comity. Jewish-Christian dialogue has made great strides and Jewish-Christian-Muslim trialogue could as well.

Before that can happen, however, Muslims must first recognize the validity of alternate approaches to the one God. That means leaving behind the supremacism, extremism, and violence of the current Islamist phase.

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June 28, 2005 update: For the larger context of this discussion, see my article from 1981, "The Jewish-Muslim Connection: Traditional Ways of Life."

Aug. 14, 2005 update: For a Pakistani addendum to this discussion, with the replacement of Khuda with Allah, see the fascinating commentary by Ejaz Haider, "Khuda Hafiz ka Allah hee Hafiz," Daily Times.

Sep. 21, 2006 update: I pursue this topic further at "Is Allah God? - Continued."

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