War of words over Allah

Category: Asia, World Affairs Topics: Malaysia Views: 5668

In countless tourism adverts, Malaysia asks the world to see it as "Truly Asia". In the past days and weeks, its government's bid to portray the nation as a harmonious multicultural society has gone up in flames.

Since its high court lifted a three-year embargo that prevents non-Muslims from using the Arabic word Allah in their prayers and literature on 31 December, detractors firebombed several churches and vandalized others across the nation. While there were no casualties, several churches have thus far been hit, with one so severely damaged that its members had to conduct their service elsewhere. Eight of the attackers have now been arrested.

Despite these attacks, Malaysia's Christians, who make up about nine percent of the 27 million-strong Southeast Asian nation, are insisting that the use of Allah is not exclusive to Muslims, who account for some 60% of the population.

Last February, Malaysia's Catholic archbishop, Murphy Pakiam, publisher of the Herald newspaper, filed for a judicial review against the ban that was first enforced in 2007 by the then home affairs minister, Syed Hamid Albar, against the Catholic weekly for using Allah to refer to God in its Malay language version.

The rationale behind the Catholic church's appeal was that Allah is a generic word for God that preceded the spread of Islam. After all, the word Allah, when translated from Arabic, comprises the definite article al, and the noun ilah which means God - connoting a singular deity, a belief common to adherents of the Abrahamic faiths.

Indeed, Biblical scholar Kenneth J Thomas outlined evidence in a 2001 research paper suggesting that Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Arab world have used Allah when citing and translating the Bible since the first centuries of Islam.

In Malaysia, its use by Christians developed along similar lines. Since Christianity became widespread there in the 19th century, primarily through the missionary efforts of English colonizers, Allah has been used extensively by Malay-speaking Christian indigenous peoples of the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

When juxtaposed against the fact that Malay-speaking Christians in neighboring Indonesia have long used Allah in their worship to no complaint, it is understandable that Malaysia's church attacks have been viewed with much chagrin.

Observers have rightly argued that the rumpus is tied to Malaysia's ethnic-based political landscape. To be more precise, it arises from the form of Islam nurtured by a segment of the nation's Malay political elites.

The country's constitution not only makes Islam the official state religion but also specifies that a "Malay" must be a "Muslim". With ethnicity tied so closely to religion, defending the purity of Islam against corruption by foreigners has become both a religious duty and a matter of national pride.

This dogma has been fostered by the nation's ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (Umno), whose popularity is partly derived from its status as a defender of Malay rights.

This would explain Umno's ambivalent stance on the issue. Even as prime minister Najib Razak decried the church attacks as heinous, his Umno colleagues in government had filed an appeal against the high court decision to overturn the Allah ban. Home affairs minister Hishamuddin Hussein even went as far as to allow demonstrations against the Allah ruling in mosques across Malaysia after Friday prayers on 8 January.

Christians were not the only group targeted by adherents of exclusivist Islam following the fallout from the ruling. On 13 January, the country's Sikhs became the latest to suffer attacks when vandals threw stones at a temple in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. The Sikhs, who number approximately 120,000, also use Allah to refer to God in their worship.

Even the Hindus are not exempt from this kind of discrimination. Last September, a group of Muslim protestors stamped on a cow's severed head to protest at the building of a Hindu temple in a Muslim-majority neighborhood.

Yet there is some encouragement to be had in the fact that not all Malays subscribe to this form of exclusivist Islam. Respected Muslim scholar Asri Zainul Abidin, a former state mufti, backs the use of Allah by non-Muslims. Surprisingly, this is the same stance taken by the opposition Islamic party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia, which had advocated the full-blown implementation of Sharia laws in past campaigns.

There are even voices of dissent coming from within Umno itself. Veteran politician Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah, who has always been something of a maverick, condemned his party's reactions following the ruling. For Malaysians to stop warring in God's name, this emerging inclusive Malay-Muslim voice must drown out the rallying cries of the divisive vandals. Insha'Allah.

 

Nazry Bahrawi is an independent journalist whose socio-cultural and political commentaries have been published in Asian newspapers. A former Chevening scholar from Singapore, he is now pursuing a doctoral degree in comparative literature.

Source: Guardian


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  10 Comments   Comment

  1. Ibrahim Rasheed from Maldives

    The Arabic word Allah, All Mighty Creator is unique and just Al ilahu. The word Allah cannot be associated with Jesus (PBUH) who Christians claim to be God. the son of god. The Christians has the name Jesus so why antoganize Islam by doing it?

  2. mth from malaysia

    Salaam all,

    Dear Kirana,

    While I respect your view that the ALLAH row here in Malaysia is a matter of law & language, I would suggest you read the article "What is His Name" by the late Islamic scholar Ahmad Deedat [email protected] http://www.islamawareness.net/Allah/wihn.html as a 2nd deep thought.

    However, on the surface itself, blaming others due to differences in opinions on what happened in Malaysia from their views/comments around the globe via muslim website might loose people's respect & discourage sharing of knowledge.

    Many times, we want others to understand us first, but equally fail to respectfully prove our deep understanding on the issue.

    May ALLAH forgive us & bring our hearts together.

  3. Kirana from Malaysia

    The articles addresses the surface issues that are uppermost in the minds of the masses, when actually the issue is a matter of law and language. there are a number of words defined specifically under the printing presses act, one of which is the word 'Allah'. the constitution includes an exception for its freedom of religion clause to be subject to general laws related to preserving social order, of which the printing presses act is one. the legal challenge should be viewed in this light. i, for one, do not want biased judges legislating from the bench. the law, if it should be changed, should be changed by elected representatives. legally speaking, the judgement should have been the opposite, but the christian judges displayed bias.

    Why have precise definitions in the first place, and whether that should be changed, is a different story. people should discuss this. maybe it will be removed. for sure, christian and muslim arabs use the word 'Allah'. but before christian missionaries came very recently, the _malay language_ has always termed 'Allah' as being the given name for a monotheistic God of the islamic religion. we already have a word for a generic god, i.e. 'Tuhan'. the christian missionaries who came were european, at a time when europeans would never use 'Allah' for the God of the Bible. it must therefore be a recent innovation that christians refer to God as 'Allah' _in the malay language_ as this was never its use historically.

    Even if it was not its use historically, it may still be that it should not be disallowed in future. again, that is a matter for discussion, but untrue historical 'facts' should not be allowed into the discussion. beware of this tactic.

    Anyway, considering mosques get burned down in europe, i hardly think a couple of fizzled firebombs is a tragedy. no one mentions the muslims who help to patrol churches now. no one cares about them, not even other muslims on a muslim website, it seems. shame on islamicity.

  4. Malik from USA

    God states in the Quran, for us to common terms and that at least say we worship the same God, even if there are theological differences. Most Christians believe "ALLAH" is the God of muslims, or something totally different than what they believe. At least having same verbage will make us closer to dialogue.

  5. Maya V from AK

    I believe in coexistence. However, if this argument is sincere, why don't Christians first tell in the Christian majority countries that Allah means the only God. There they say something else. Biblical verse says 'be a wolf and a sheep the same time'. For Muslims such thing is hypocrisy, may be for them it is something else and this argument is a demonstration of it. Muslim leadership should be smart enough to use their claim and show how eager Christian church is to accept Allah.

  6. Hajjah Alaisa Mukasa from Uganda

    Assalaam aleikum to the respondents. I am so pleased with the way you wrote. If the non-muslims want to use Allah instead of God, let them, they will eventually get to the truth, may be they will soon want to accept that Allah has no equal, pray five times a day and use the Quran as their Holy Book!

    Doesn't it just make you wonder why they want our ways and not the other way round?

    May Allah keep us on the Straight path as He Wills. AMEEN

  7. mth from malaysia

    Salaam,

    If the Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs etc refer their respective God as ALLAH, logically, their differences originate from one similiarity. The same, the one & only ALLAH. There must be one true religion. My plea is pray directly & honestly to ALLAH to show us the right one to follow. For ALLAH loves the truth & will answer & guide the truth seekers, Insya ALLAH.

  8. Harun from Singapore

    Please refer to this article if it is appropriate - Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, "it is inappropriate for Christians to call God "Allah" based on irreconcilable theological differences associated with the name "Allah" and core Christian beliefs.The key condition behind calling the Christian God "Allah" is that "Allah" must refer to the same God as the one in the Bible. However, this requirement presents "a huge problem for both Muslims and Christians," contends Mohler.The theologian pointed out that the Qur'an explicitly denies that "Allah" has a son, and Islam considers the idea of a triune God to be blasphemy. "Thus, from its very starting point Islam denies what Christianity takes as its central truth claim - the fact that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of the Father," wrote Mohler on his web blog Wednesday. "If "Allah" has no Son by definition, "Allah" is not the God who revealed himself in the Son. How then can the use of "Allah" by Christians lead to anything but confusion ...and worse?". Unquote -Would the Christians like to change God to Allah in their bible?

  9. Khalid from USA

    First all, you muslims must limit your so called tolerant towards no muslim especially christians. They are taking advantage of this to contain you. Onthe other hand, since the muslims believe Allah simple means God, it shouldnt be an argument. You see now that christians are no contend with their faith, they wanna use Allah to sway muslim youths into believing thier faith. All you people have to do is go back to the Quran where it says " the people of the Book will not comtempt with you until you leave your relgion(for theirs)". Thats their plans.

    Some chrsitians have disagree many times that Allah cant be God of christianity, so why now they using Allah? is that a deception?

  10. Yahaya K. from Nigeria

    Hey! Islam is all about peace. If other religion choose to call their God, Allah, let it be. My words for the Muslim Brothers and Sisters in Malaysia are that they should not by ounce deviate from the Quran and the teachings of our Noble Prophet Muhammed, may peace be upon him. May Allah support and brings peace among Islamic communities all over the world.