The debate over Malaysian Christians using the word “Allah” for God is in the court and on the streets of Malaysia. In the starting of this year, Malaysian court over ruled the 2007 ban on Malaysian Christians from using the word “Allah” when translating their Christian English Newspaper (or magazine) Herald to Malaysian languages and using “Allah” for God in the Bible Translations. After 3-4 days of overrule by the court, the Home Ministry of Malaysia appealed the court’s decision. The public uproar and worst, the sad result of 9 Churches either being burned, or cocktail bombed is just pathetic.
So what is this issue of “Allah,” why some Malaysian Muslims are claiming that Allah is a “Muslim God”, and why Malaysian Christians want to use the word “Allah” for God??? It is necessary to understand the importance of the word “Allah,” its understanding in Islam; and the Malaysian history regarding Christians and Muslims and the way this debate has become a point of tension.
Back in 2007, the Malaysian Home Ministry banned Christians (& any non-muslim) from using the word ”Allah.” In May 2008, Catholics in Malaysia decided to fight back this ban in the Malaysian Supreme Court. On December 31 , 2009, the Malaysian Supreme Court overruled the ban on the basis that Malaysia grants freedom of speech and religion and people may use any word they want to. On January 4, 2010, the Home Ministry of Malaysia appealed the Court and the debate over the usage of the word “Allah” has taken a toll of 9 Churches burned, or cocktailed bomb since then.
The court in its decision said that Home Ministry is in no legal position to ban the citizens from using any words. The Home Ministry in its responsive appeal to the court’s decision is standing on the ground that this is an emotional issue, and thus beyond the authority of the Supreme Court. The Ministry has said that by the usage of the word “Allah” for God by Catholics, it would affect the peace in the society.
Why Do Malaysian Muslims Support the Ban?
Malaysia has gone through many racial and religious tensions, and the government has lately tried to unify the people by different methods. The region has faced brutal clashes, riots and ethnic wars (including different religions) and the Malaysian State has taken intensive efforts to keep peace in the country because of its leadership role as an East Asian Economic hub and the role Malaysia plays as the leader of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC).
The concern of the government and the Malaysian Muslims is:
The government says Allah is an Islamic word and its use by others would mislead Muslims, implying it could be used to convert them to other religions.
Efforts by Christians to use Allah in Malay-language literature have been perceived by some Muslims “as a plot to convert Malay Muslims to Christianity,” Anas Zubedy, a popular Muslim blogger on social and political issues, wrote after the court verdict, adding his support of the ruling. The Ary News
Why do Malaysian Catholics want to use the word “Allah” :
According to the Times Magazine:
Lawyers for the church argued that the word Allah predated Islam and was commonly used by Copts, Jews and Christians to denote God in many parts of the world. They argued that Allah is an Arabic word for God and has been used for decades by the church in Malaysia and Indonesia. And they said that the Herald uses the word Allah for God to meet the needs of its Malay-speaking worshippers on the island of Borneo. “Some people have got the idea that we are out to convert [Muslims]. That’s not true,” the lawyers said on behalf of the Herald.
Catholicism Vs. the Muslim World:
For centruries Catholic Church in the West believed that Muslims believed in an idol Allah. They couldn’t comprehend that Islam is monothiestic and firmly believes in the Onness of God in the most simple and clear way. They called Muslims- Muhammadans, thinking that Muslims believe in Prophet Muhammad as some divine personality. Its just half of a century ago when there was a shift of this centuries old perspective from Western Christianity, but the remnant can still be found in some American Christian Evengelical movements in America.
Eastern Orthodox Vs. the Muslim World:
The Eastern Orthodox Church in the middle east, on the other hand, used the word “Allah” in their Arabic Bible and their writings. They had slight variations to differentiate their believe in Trinity. Being Arabic speakers, there has never been a tension between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims on the words like Allah, Isa, Maryam etc. Because in Arabic, Arab Christians use mostly the same terminologies as of Muslims, because Muslims believe in all the major Biblical Prophets.
So when Arab Christian and Muslims never had this problem, why Malaysian Christians and Muslims are having it ??
Allah vs. God-Tuhan-Khuda-Dios
It is a known fact that every language has one or more terms that are used in reference to God and sometimes to lesser deities. This is not the case with Allah. Allah is the personal name of the One true God. Nothing else can be called Allah. The term has no plural or gender. This shows its uniqueness when compared with the word “god,” which can be made plural, as in “gods,” or made feminine, as in “goddess.” It is interesting to notice that Allah is the personal name of God in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and a sister language of Arabic. WAMY Series: on Islam # 9.
It is because of this that the word Allah has superceded for God in all the native languages of non-Arab Muslims. Muslims use their native language’s word for God and the word “Allah” interchangeably. Probably the most famous example of this is the South Asia (Persian and Urdu) parting phrase “Khuda Hafiz” which means “God be with you” which in Pakistan has evolved into “Allah Hafiz” which means literally ”Allah be with you.”
This issue is absurd because if the problem is conveying the message of the Bible to the local Malaysian Christians, who do not understand English but speak their local languages, then the word “Tuhan” should be used which means in Persian and Urdu “Khuda” and in English “God.” Just like South Asian Christians use Khuda in Urdu/Persian for God and not Allah, Malaysian Christians should use the actual translation of God in their language. Just like “Dios” is used by Spanish speaking Christians, “Tuhan” should be used by Malaysian speaking Christians.
What is more problematic to me is, for centuries it was the Catholic Church that had an Anti-Islamic stance. The Church innovated new terms, called Muslims “Muhammadans” and preached wrongly that Muslims worshipped an idol “Allah” and believed that Muhammad is the son of that idol.
It is not until the end of British Colonialism, that the Catholic Missionaries realized that all of these teachings were just wrong and that Muslims don’t believe in any idols. British Colonialism ended in 1947 in South Asia! and they were of these opinion when they left. So if the problem is of translation, they the English Bibles should be translated into the local language with Tucan instead of Allah, because in English Bibles it says God, not Allah!
This is a local Malaysian matter, and Malaysian Islamic Scholars should take a step ahead and invite Malaysian Catholic Leaders and should make the problem clear. On ther other hand, Malaysian Catholic Leaders should understand the difference and should resolve the issue peacefully without pushing it any further. The more this issue will be played in the hands of politicians and media, the ugly it is going to get, which might lead to a useless violence between Malaysian Christians and Muslims. This issue needs to be resolved in private room on a table. 9 Churches vandalised or Cocktailed bomb is just sad, and it shows that the ignorant and extremist elements will be given opportunity on both sides.
I end with the words from the contract of Prophet Muhammad, peace & blessings be upon him, which was agreed upon by the Christians of Najran (today’s Yemen):
“Najran has the protection of God and the pledges of Muhammad, the Prophet, to protect their (the Christians’) lives, faith, land, property, those who are absent and those who are present, and their clan and allies. They need not change anything of their past customs. No right of theirs or their religion shall be altered. No church leader, monk or church guard shall be removed from his position.”
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