Jan 15, 2010

The Word 'Allah' in Malaysia

By Maria Zain
Freelance Writer- Malaysia

On December 31, 2009, the High Court of Malaysia approved an appeal for a Church (located in East Malaysia, Borneo), to use the word "Allah" as a substitute for the word "God" in their publication called The Herald. The court ruling was met with strong objections by several Muslim-founded non-governmental organizations around the country and immediately became the hottest debate in the mainstream media.

What followed were unfortunate attacks on various Churches in the country, some involving explosives, instigating a violent dispute between religious lines, which in Malaysia, also translates into racial tension. Before we can even begin to solve such disputes, we must have a strong understanding of the situation, its socio-cultural background, and its root causes.

The explanation outlined below is not to justify the violence that occurred, but rather to provide a background so that the root causes can be better understood and dealt with. Despite their anxieties, those who resorted to violence should not have done so. The traditions of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) strictly forbid attacks upon Churches, Synagogues, Monasteries, and other homes of worship, or upon those who seek refuge within their grounds, even during times of war.

The Situation

The backlash movement by some segments of the Muslim community revolves around the notion that the name of Allah belongs solely to Islam, and thus may not be used by followers of other faiths, even if their publications only circulate within their own communities. The Malaysian government has picked up on the societal strain and has announced that they themselves will appeal for the ruling to be overturned.

It is not uncommon to hear Christian Arabs use Islamic terms such as inshaAllah (if Allah wills).
Opposition leaders, however, beg to differ. Nik Aziz Nik Mat, spiritual leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, welcomed the use of the name Allah by the Church, stating that Muslims and Christians should celebrate their similarities in faith, especially when the Quran has special recognition of Christians and Jews as "Ahl al-Kitab" (literally meaning "People of the Book").

Many other Islamic scholars have concurred, saying the name Allah does not belong to followers of Islam alone. Nevertheless, some express their concerns that this ruling may be abused. Although many Muslims believe that the Church will continue to use the name Allah with dignity and respect, some fear that this will set a precedent for opportunists to freely use the Holy Name for other reasons.

For example, there is concern regarding the potential printing of the word "Allah" on merchandise such as apparel, shoes, house decor, or jewelry that can easily be used and discarded. Activities such as these could be carried out by anybody who does not respect others' beliefs, regardless of the faith they follow.

This is similar to the demeaning depictions of the Christian cross on pieces of irresponsible garments or adornments widely seen in the West. Even Prophet Jesus (peace be upon him), whom most Christians view as the son of God, is often represented in the West in lieu of disrespectful jests.

Background on the Word "Allah"

In Malaysia the racial divide stems from British colonization, where the implications of the divide-and-conquer rule continue to exist among certain communities.
The name of Allah is recognized by Muslims worldwide as the proper name of God. More than 85% of the Muslim world comprises of non-Arabs, but all communities, regardless of their language, refer to God as Allah. The importance of this word to the Muslim faith stems from the fact that, contrary to popular belief, Allah is not actually a direct translation of the word "God".

The name "Allah" can only be spelled with a capital letter – as compared to the generic word of "god". It carries no gender association, unlike god and goddess. It cannot be made into a plural noun, unlike gods or goddesses. Allah is One, and only One – the Superior Force of the Universe, the Creator of everything. He bears no child and has never been begotten. This is a key concept in the Islamic creed.

Nevertheless, the religions of Islam, Christianity and Judaism all contain the name "Allah" in their original scriptures. Furthermore, unbeknownst to many non-Arabic speakers, the Arabic Bible and Torah used by Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews today use the word Allah. It is not uncommon to hear Christian Arabs use the same expressive terms that Muslims around the world do, such as inshaAllah (if Allah wills) and alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah).

Even before the advent of Islam, pagan Arabs believed in Allah as the Superior God, over all of their other idols of worship. These Arabs were descendants of Prophet Ibrahim (through his son Ismail), and the roots of monotheism lived on, although distorted by idolatry. A verse in the Quran narrates that the idolators explain:

{We only serve the idols in order that they may bring us nearer to Allah.} (Az-Zumar 39:3)

Additionally, a small community of Christians, who still followed the Bible religiously, lived amongst the idolators. When Prophet Muhammad began to question his sanity upon initial receipt of his revelations, it was an elderly priest – a relative of Prophet Muhammad's wife, Khadijah binti Khuwailid – who assured the Prophet that his revelations were from Allah, the Superior Creator of the Universe.

This shows that the name of Allah is not foreign amongst non-Muslim Arab communities. However, it is an Arabic word, and while its use by non-Muslim Arabs is logical (as Arabic is their mother tongue), its use by non-Muslim non-Arabs is more difficult to understand.

The Root Causes

The Island of Borneo is home to two Malaysian states, Sabah and Sarawak, both generally known to have rather weak Islamic knowledge. Over the years, many Muslims have converted to the growing faith of Christianity. Unlike the general demographic structure seen in Peninsular Malaysia, Muslims and Christians in Sabah and Sarawak share the same language of Bahasa Melayu (the national language). The use of the name of Allah in the Church’s publications, including the Bible, may have aided in the conversion of some Muslims on this Island to Christianity, and the concern is that the new ruling may cause further confusion or even incitement of Muslims by the Church to convert to Christianity.

The different races also carry their own languages and therefore the name of Allah and accompanying Arabic expressions of laudation and praise (such as mashaAllah and alhamdulillah) become very much part of the Muslim Malay culture and language, and not so much part of the other cultures in other parts of Malaysia. So, for the name of Allah to be adopted in a Christian community carries very alien connotations, especially when the Bible in Malaysia is either written in English or Bahasa Melayu, and not Arabic[r1] . The main concern within some Muslim communities in Malaysia is that the Church's desire to use the name of Allah stems from missionary purposes. This, of course, is unacceptable and has caused rage among some Muslims.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia the religious divide is coupled with a racial divide that stems from British colonization, and the implications of the divide-and-conquer rule continue to exist among certain communities. The two go hand in hand, whereby Malays are predominantly Muslim, Chinese are Buddhists, Indians are Hindus, and a small segment of Chinese and Indians (and other minority ethnicities) are followers of Christianity.

This divide, combined with a social contract whereby religious issues cannot be questioned effectively, closed doors for individual communities to celebrate their similarities and discuss their differences.


The court ruling opened opportunities for Muslims and Christians to become better acquainted with each others' faiths, rather than reacting based on illogical and unfounded emotions. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) did not take criticisms of Islam lightly, but he always pursued amiable relations, patience and perseverance in spreading the good name of the faith through its most turbulent times.

Instead of religious leaders stepping up in harmonious tolerance to deal with the controversy, which would have been the perfect opportunity to curtail further disagreements and to establish guidelines on the use of the name Allah, they failed to provide the necessary leadership.

Malaysia has a long way to go in dealing with similarities between brethren of faith. Instead of being clouded by racial or religious myopia, the simple act of instilling vigilance in the selection of reading material and understanding one's own scripture before analyzing that of others would have brought this dispute to its demise. Religious hate crimes have no place in Islam and it is only through the lack of education and understanding that these types of crimes are left to occur.

-Maria Zain is a freelance editor and writer living in Malaysia. While her evenings and nights are spent supporting different Muslim communities through her work, she shares her life with her husband and three busy little children below the age of five, whom she homeschools during the day.

Source: http://www.readingislam.com/servlet/Satellite

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