I wrote this post in 2014 for a now defunct blog run by PhD students in linguistics at the University of Cambridge.

In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote the following famous lines:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
by any other name would smell as sweet.

There are many linguistic aspects that one could highlight about these two lines, and many ways in which one could answer Juliet’s question. I want to highlight a recent story that raises many linguistic issues with respect to the use of proper names, and has far-reaching consequences for the lives of certain people.

This issue is a news item that I read a couple of months ago. This June, the highest court in Malaysia apparently settled a question that it had been dealing with for some time: the question was whether the Catholic Malaysian newspaper Herald could use the word Allah when referring to the Christian god.

The legal battle had been going on for a couple of years, and the issue seems to go back to at least 1984, when “the use of the word ‘Allah’ was prohibited in the Bahasa Malaysia version of the publication of the Herald newsletter” (source).

From what I understand, the reason for the conflict is the following: people who are in favour of the ban argue that Allah is an Arabic word that refers to the Muslim god, whereas Malaysian Christians argue that the word has been used for a long time in Malay, meaning ‘God’, and not (just) referring to the Muslim god (see e.g. this Aljazeera article).

The linguistic issue, as I see it, is the following. There is a term in Arabic, Allah that some people understand to be a proper name, i.e. a linguistic expression that refers to a particular individual (setting aside certain obvious questions here). In this sense, when speakers of Malay use this term, they refer to that entity. Since that entity is the Muslim god, the argument seems to be that the name cannot be used in a Christian context, as it could be misleading to certain people. Indeed, Al Jazeera wrote that “authorities say using ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim literature could confuse Muslims and entice them to convert, a crime in Malaysia” (source).

Catholics contend, however, that in Malay, Allah can also be used to refer to the Christian god.

How is that possible? What is, after all, in a name? Well, the use of a linguistic expression determines its reference, to a certain degree. Names are special in some ways, however, and they have been argued to be “rigid designators”; this means that across all possible worlds (basically, whatever one could imagine the world to be like), a proper name refers to same entity in all of them.

Some philosophers (for example, Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege) argued that names signify properties of the people they refer to; Frege writes in his Über Sinn und Bedeutung (On sense and reference) that Aristotle could be understood as the person of whom the pupil of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great holds.

Philosophers who argue in favour of rigid designation, however, point out that properties like the pupil of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great are contingent; they can in principle be true or false. Imagine that for some reason, Aristotle didn’t teach Alexander the Great, but someone else did. The property the pupil of Plato and the teacher of Alexander the Great could not refer to Aristotle any more, yet all other things being equal, the name Aristotle would still refer to Aristotle. So while a list of properties like the pupil … can change across situations that one can imagine, philosophers like Saul Kripke argue that the reference of names doesn’t: a name is a rigid designator. Aristotle refers to Aristotle, whatever the circumstances (of course, this is an extremely simplified account of the matter; a lot of the discussion here is based on Abbott 2010, Chapter 5).

OK, so does this help us with analysing the issue? Proponents of the ban on Allah might seem to hold the view that Allah is a rigid designator that always refers to the Muslim god, independently of whether it is used in Arabic or in Malay, or in a Muslim or a Christian context. Are they not right, if proper names refer in this way? In a way, they are — but at the same time, when Malay Catholics use the term Allah, they do not intend to refer to the Muslim god, but to their own god.

It looks like we have two names that sound the same: let’s call them Allah-1 and Allah-2. These are two linguistic expressions, both of which might even be rigid designators, but that refer rigidly to two distinct entities (this opens many questions that I have to ignore here; some people would argue that given the close connection between the monotheistic religions in question, the two terms actually refer to the same entity; some people would argue that they do not refer at all, etc.). And it seems that people in favour of banning the use of Allah-2 seem to be of the opinion that there can only be one and only one such linguistic expression (arguably for the same reason that there can only be one and only one relevant deity). People who use Allah-2 regularly beg to differ, I bet.

Why do we get this confusion with something like Allah but not with Aristotle? For one thing, you might not have too many friends who are called Aristotle, causing relatively little confusion. But it might also be instructive to look at the expression Allah in some more detail. While it can be used as a name, it seems clear that even in Arabic, Allah (or rather الله) does not only refer to the Muslim god, but it can also mean ‘god’ or ‘deity’. In fact, if one looks at the Bible in Arabic, Allah or الله is all over it, corresponding to god in the English version (thanks a lot to Sarah Ouwayda for the screenshot showing this). الله itself is a contraction of the Arabic definite determiner اَلْ ‘the’ and the common noun إلٰه ʾilāh meaning, as you might guess, ‘god’.

الله ‘god’ highlighted in a bible passage.
Fig. 1: الله ‘god’ highlighted in a bible passage.

So the origin of the proper name Allah was at some point the phrase meaning the god, which of course, being a definite description, refers to a single entity. The reference of a definite description like the god, however, can easily change from context to context. As such, a Muslim text could use the god and refer to the Muslim god, whereas a Christian text could use the god and refer to the Christian god. (In other words, definite descriptions are not necessarily rigid designators.)

I am describing only one scenario here, in which both sides possibly have a Kripkean perspective on proper names; as Luca Sbordone points out, one could also imagine that each side subscribes to a different theory of referring. For example, Russellian Muslims could argue that Allah refers to the entity that has all the attributes that the Quran ascribes to it. Now if Catholics claim that Allah has all kinds of other properties as well, one can see how these views clash.

Summarising, from a linguistic point of view, there are a couple of levels to this story. Given that proper names are often held to pick out one and only one referent, the reasoning in the court’s decision might have involved that Muslims would be confused if a Christian text ascribed certain properties to an entity (the Muslim god) that doesn’t have them. Catholics would contend that the proper name that they use has a different reference. What makes the issue even more complicated is that it’s difficult to decide out of context which of Allah-1 or Allah-2 is used, as they sound the same.

Finally, this issue of ambiguity arguably doesn’t arise with a name like Aristotle because it has always been a name and thus a rigid designator. On the other hand, Allah, coming from the god, became a proper name in the course of the expression’s history and people have used it to refer to different entities at different times and different places (and in different languages).

In a follow-up to this post, I will mention somewhat similar cases, in which, entities referred to by proper names fear that their names are “deteriorating” to mere common nouns, a kind of inverse to the situation discussed here.


Abbott, Barbara. 2010. Reference. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frege, Gottlob. 1892. Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik 100(1): 25–50. You can find the original here and a translation here.

Sources for Arabic



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