Human history, one might conclude from the Bible and Quran, is an ongoing struggle against the human tendencies towards evil and polytheism. The late Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah censures his people for (among other transgressions) sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molekh. Much earlier, such child sacrifices are already condemned in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus 20:3 describes this ritual as profaning (חַלֵּל) God’s holy name. The Hebrew root for ‘profaning’ H-L-L, has an Arabic cognate, which is found in a Quranic verse (5:2) warning believers not to profane (تحلوا) God’s religious symbols, days, rituals and devotees. A famous Biblical prohibition against taking God’s name in vain (although it uses different wording) has been interpreted in various ways, many of which prohibit associating God’s name with sinful acts (be they lies, idolatrous rituals or anything else sinful). So, God’s name can be profaned by both explicit and implicit association with evil.
A famous hadith says that, “Any matter of importance that is not begun with God’s name is defective,” and observant Muslims are in the habit of reciting God’s name at the beginning of prayer, before eating, and when about to undertake any major action – provided of course the act is something religiously lawful. The hadith’s specification that the teaching applies to matters of importance implies that trivial matters should not be started with God’s name, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Name by not taking it in vain. Clearly, then, the name of God should not be recited before sinful actions, and in fact to do so is considered an act of blasphemy and apostasy by Muslim legal scholars. (They make an exception for someone who says it out of habit, without presence of mind, because he did not consciously intend to associate the name of God with the sin. In Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin stops at Lucrece’s door to pray before entering to rape her, “As if the heavens should countenance his sin.” “But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,“ Tarquin realizes:
The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact;
How can they then assist me in the act? )
If the Hebrew prophets of yore were to witness our times, they would likely inveigh against the many social and ethical ills of today. And while child sacrifice is (thankfully) no longer prominent, there is a bane of our times that is evocative of its horrific disdain for the sacredness of life. Of course, I am referring to the acts of wanton killing and terrorism that (sadly) appear to be increasingly common. Major sins, like rape and murder, are certainly an act of implicit profanation of God’s name, and if someone (God forbid) explicitly utters God’s name upon it, the profanation becomes even greater.
When Caliph `Ali heard the Kharijites chanting the slogan, “Judgment is only God’s,” he is reported to have said, “It is a statement of truth by which falsehood is intended.” So, if a murderer shouts “Allahu Akbar” / “God is Great” / “Elohim Gadol” over his murder, those who truly understand God’s teachings might well shake their heads, and respond much as Caliph `Ali did. Yes God is indeed greater; greater than to defile His name by your profane sin of murder; greater than to not hold murderers responsible. We will not allow criminals to appropriate our sacred language. God is truly Great.