By Khaled Diab
Monday 7 October 2013
Malaysia is quite literally embroiled in a holy war of words – and the word in question is “Allah”. The government there wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word which should be used only by Muslims.
In 2008, the government threatened to revoke the publishing licence of the Catholic Herald, if the newspaper did not stop referring to God as Allah. This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible, and the local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to “the Lord”.
Fortunately, Malaysia’s high court displayed more sense and ruled in the newspaper’s favour. Unfortunately, the authorities insisted on throwing sensibility to the wind and launched an appeal, which the appeal court began hearing in September, and is due to deliver a verdict on in October.
As is so often the case, the dispute is the symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but they walk cohesion,” as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.
In addition, though it is perhaps the world’s longest-ruling party, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindle in recent years. In May, Barisan, whose three race-based parties play on sectarian grounds outside of elections, gained less than half of the popular vote.
Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, Prime Minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. In addition, the Malaysian government has been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.
But is there any validity to the case for limiting Allah to Muslims? Absolutely not.
The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is exclusively Islamic.
But they are mistaken. “Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for “God”, or even “god”.
The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – pre-dates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.
With the advent of Islam, Allah topped the list of the 99 names of God. But even under Islam, the word “Allah” has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shehada, or Islamic creed, tells us that: “La illaha ila Allah”, or “There is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, ‘alleha‘, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.
It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).
The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.
This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.
But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.
That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “That which is invoked”.
But some conservative Christians will invoke in their defence that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is nonsense of the highest order. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.
In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith, as has been suggested by numerous scholars and writers. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.
This article first appeared in The National on 3 October 2013.