Do Malaysian Muslims understand what ‘Allah’ means? Part 2

Farish A. Noor

Posted Jan 12, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Do Malaysian Muslims understand what ‘Allah’ means? Part 2

by Farish A. Noor

Islam, if it is to be the universal religion that it is, does not need an official language or uniform. Nor does it need to claim copyright to universal signifiers that are, after all, part of the common currency of public language

It has been a month now since Muslims and non-Muslims alike have gripped Malaysia in one of the most obscure and arcane of controversies over the use of the word ‘Allah’. This must seem odd to foreigners for elsewhere in the world Muslims (such as the Muslims of Egypt) have no problem with their Coptic friends and neighbours using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. Why, even during the Coptic Christmas on 7th January the Coptic Pope delivered his Christmas sermon with phrases like ‘Bismillah’ time and again. So why are the Muslims of Malaysia so obsessed with the idea of claiming a singular word for themselves?

For those who have studied the fundamentals of rational metaphysics in Islam, one of the first themes that is covered is often that of semantics and semiotics. Odd that many courses on rational metaphysics begin with the most fundamental of subjects itself: meaning and the relationship between the Signifier and the Signified, but then again as any scholar will alert you, one cannot even begin to embark on the social production of knowledge without the ground rules of meaning and signification established in the first place.

The startling thing that the student learns soon enough may seem commonsensical, but crucial nonetheless: that signification is a socially determined, historically conditioned, relative and subjective phenomenon. Words mean what they do simply because the rules of signification have come to be settled by convention over time. There is no essential reason why the idea of a tree has to be referred to with the word or symbol ‘tree’; but once that association is made then the rule for that sign is set (not necessarily in stone perhaps) and we stick to it. Otherwise even the most basic of conversations beginning with the word ‘hello’ would not get off the ground, and we wouldn’t get very far, would we?

The real difficulties arise, however, when we embark on discussions on loftier, more abstract matters like virtue, aesthetics, divinity and, of course, God. Here is where rational metaphysics gets sticky to a point.

For hundreds of years the Muslim world has witnessed the on-going polemic and contestation between the verificationists-positivists and the nominalists: in plain English, this refers to the dispute over how one reads scripture and how the mortal human mind interprets divine revealed knowledge. On the one hand there are the positivists who insist on empirical referents to everything that is said or signified, and who hence argue that complex concepts like virtue and beauty are, literally, meaningless. Then on the other hand there are the nominalists who take the view that words mean what they do as we intend them to, and while empirical referents are not necessarily close at hand, the words nonetheless have meaning because they are understood in a determined social context.

The Sufis or Muslim mystical philosophers who belong to the age-old tradition of Muslim metaphysics honed this principle to a high art, and in the lyrical ruminations and speculations of Maulana Rumi and his peers, we find the concept of divinity interrogated, explored, laid bare, adorned, embellished, dissected — all for the sake of trying to get to the truth of the matter which the human mind, with its limited faculties, cannot encompass in its entirety. That is why, as the Sufis will remind you, there are so many names of God: from ‘Allah’, to ‘Gamal’, ‘Rahim’, ‘Rahman’ and so forth, each of which points to a singular attribute of a divinity that is infinite.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic names of God is ‘Hu’; which during the dzikrs (recitations) of some Sufi mystics such as followers of the Naqshbandiyya Order is pronounced ‘who’. The Naqshbandis do not merely pronounce the word ‘Hu’, they even exhale and empty their lungs completely in a rhythmic sequence, again and again, to signify that even speaking the name of God entails totally emptying — thus negating — your human self in the process; as if to suggest that God is all and the human is nothing.

With such a rich and complex history that points to an obvious understanding that the word ‘Allah’ is merely a symbol or sign and not the thing itself, why is it that the Muslims of Malaysia still demonstrate an understanding of normative Islam that is not only shallow, but also parochial and exclusive? To suggest that the word ‘Allah’ can only be used by Muslims as some of Malaysia’s leaders have done would suggest that God requires a copyright, and that God would not be understood if you cannot get the name right.

Yet Islam, if it is to be the universal religion that it is, does not need an official language or uniform. Nor does it need to claim copyright to universal signifiers that are, after all, part of the common currency of public language.

Once again, despite claims to being a ‘moderate’ Islamic state, the Malaysian government (or rather some of its leaders) has demonstrated a third-rate understanding of the subjects it is wont to prattle about. That this doesn’t say much about their understanding of Islam, linguistics and philosophy is bad enough, worse still is how this reflects on Malaysia’s vainglorious ambition to present itself as a model Muslim state for others to follow. Perhaps the leaders of the country should get back to the basics, and focus more on the ABC of religion once again.

Part 1

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the research site