By Khaled Diab
12 February 2010
Malaysia is often held up as an example of how different ethnic and religious groups can live side by side in peaceful coexistence. But this feted tolerance is being put under enormous strain and all, ostensibly, because of a word.
The word in question is ‘Allah’ and the controversy revolves around whether Malaysian Christians have a right to use it in their Bibles and liturgical services. Many Malaysian Muslims find it offensive and unacceptable that Christians use what they see as exclusively their own word for ‘God’, and a small number of extremists have taken matters into their own hands and firebombed three churches.
The Kuala Lumpur High Court has upheld the right of Christians to refer to God as Allah but the government, to its enormous discredit, is playing the populist card and is appealing the verdict, perhaps in a bid to prop up its popularity with the majority by positioning itself as some kind of ‘defender of the faith’.
The court’s decision is, of course, right, as anyone with a sense of history and a knowledge of semantics and etymology knows. After all, ‘Allah’ is simply the Arabic word for ‘God’ or ‘god’. That’s why it has always irritated me when translations of the Qur’an talk of Allah, not God, and certain western Christians claim that Allah is not the same god as the one they worship.
The word itself – which is a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the God) – predates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, the creator of the world and the giver of rain, who – along with his daughters al-Uzza, Manat and al-Lat – was venerated around the black stone of the Ka’aba.
With the advent of Islam, Allah became the only God, but he also acquired an additional 98 names, each referring to a different attribute of the single deity – or looked at laterally, the 99 attributes could be seen, like the Christian Trinity, as a form of light polytheism which survived the monotheistic purges.
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. For example, the ancient Egyptian gods are known as ‘allehet el-misriyoun el-qodama’ and Eros/Cupid is described as ‘illah el-hob’ (‘the god of love’).
For this reason, and the fact that the three main monotheistic faiths worship the same Abrahamic god (though they disagree on how they should worship ‘It’), Christians and Jews in Arab countries and other parts of the Muslim world 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).
So, what is behind the controversy? Is it simply about an article of faith or is there more to it? Part of the problem could simply be ignorance and confusion, since Malaysian don’t speak Arabic and so may not be aware of the broader uses of the word ‘Allah’.
Fellow Chronikler Christian Nielsen suggests that it may have something to do with the ideas of the ‘One Malaysia’ or ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ movement, which started life as an affirmative action programme to empower the country’s indigenous populations (50% of the population is Malay and 60% are Muslim). Ethnic Indians and Chinese – many of whose forefathers were brought in by the British to work the mines and plantations or bring in professional expertise – seem still to be viewed by certain Malays, who regard them as a by-product of colonialism, with some distrust.
Though the idea of One Malaysia originally sought to forge a coherent national identity and protect the rights of all of Malaysia’s ethnic and religious groups – Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Malay, Chinese and Indian – in recent times, it has spurred growing Malay nationalism and Islamisation.
So rather than build an identity that thrives on diversity, it seems the movement is moving slowly towards exclusion and jingoism. If action is not taken soon to transform Malaysia into a land for all its citizens, the country’s famed tolerance could be threatened and the diversity that has served Malaysia so well could further fracture ethnic relations.