Malaysia, Allah, and God
by Sheila Musaji
Back in 2007 when Malaysia The Malaysian Catholic Herald, a publication by and for Catholics in the country, was told that it could no longer use the word “Allah” to mean God because Allah was a “Muslim” term for God, The American Muslim (TAM) published a number of articles about this ridiculous non-issue: — Backgrounder on the word “God” in Arabic and English, Joachim Martillo — Do Malaysian Muslims understand what ‘Allah’ means?, Farish A. Noor — Do Malaysian Muslims understand what ‘Allah’ means? Part 2, Farish A. Noor — Islamic Marcionism in Malaysia: Is Allah Equivalent to God?, Joachim Martillo
Now, in 2009 this sad saga has a new chapter - The publisher of the Malaysian Catholic Herald has been told that it cannot challenge the home minister’s prohibition on the use of the word “Allah” in its publication, the High Court heard today. It is amazing that both Muslim extremists and Islamophobes hold the same beliefs on so many issues including this one. It seemed likely at that time that the government of Malaysia would be so embarrassed by the world reaction to this ban that the case would be dropped. It is difficult to believe they do not understand:
“And dispute not with the People of the Book but say “We believe in the Revelation which has come down to us and that which came down to you…our God [Allah] and your God [Allah] is One, and it is to Him we bow” (Qur’an, al-Ankabut, 29:46)
“Say (all of you): We believe in God and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes of Israel and what was given unto Moses and to Jesus and what was given to all the prophets from their Lord. We draw no distinctions between any of them, and we are a people who submit themselves (willingly) to God.” Qur’an 2:136
“To you have we given the scriptures, just as we have given scriptures to people before you. We have protected your scripture [the Qur’an] in its entirety. So, judge among people from what knowledge has come to you, and do not be carried over by your vain desires. Unto every one of you We have appointed a [different] governing system of law (shir’ah) and a [different] way of life (minhaj). If God had so willed, all humanity would have been a single community. God’s plan is to test you in what each one of you has received [in both scriptures and inspiration]. So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of all people is to God. God [alone] will tell you the truth about matters over which you dispute.” Qur’an 5:48
It is worth repeating what Joachim Martillo wrote in 2007:
Some Christians claim that Muslims do not worship the same god as Christians do even though Arab Christians routinely use the following terminology:
الله الآب, Allah al-Ab, i.e., God the Father,
الله الابن, Allah al-Ibn, i.e., God the Son,
الله الروح القدس, Allah al-Ruh al-qudus, i.e., God the Holy Spirit.
Allah, which is a God-name like Yahweh, is not exactly equivalent to God, which is the English word for god generically.
To be specific, the phrase “the God” is perfectly normal English but an Arabic phrase like al-Allah or a Hebrew phrase like ha-Yahweh is neither normal Arabic nor normal Hebrew.
English and most other European languages do not have a native God-name equivalent to Allah or Yahweh.
The generic Arabic word for god is ilaah (إله or إلاه ), which is comparable to Hebrew eloah or to Aramaic elah (אֱלָה) or to Syriac alah (ܐܰܠܳܗ).
אֱלָהָא is the determined form in Aramaic
ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ is the determined form in Syriac.
Targum Onkelos (Jewish Aramaic translation) for Psalms 18:32 contains the phrase:
Leyt elaha (אֱלָהָא) ela Yahweh.
La ilaaha illa allahu (لا إله إلاَّ الله) is the Arabic equivalent.
Thus, the first half of the Islamic Statement of Faith (the Shahada), “There is no god but God (Allah),” is, in fact, Biblical.
[Leyt (Aramaic for existential negation) requires a determined nominative where la (Arabic for not) requires an undetermined accusative.]
The Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) says it supports the Catholic Church’s fight to overturn a government ban on the use of the term ‘Allah’ to describe God in Christian texts. “I personally believe and PAS as well believe the way forward for a mutually respecting religious relationship, especially in a plural, multi-racial and multicultural society like Malaysia, is not to deny the right of others to use the name of Allah,” Zulfikar Ahmad, a PAS official, said.
According to the Wall Street Journal the Malaysian high court has struck down the ban. “The court overturned a three-year-old government ban that prevented the Catholic Church from using the term Allah as a translation for God in its local-language publications. The Arabic word has been used by various faiths in this predominantly Muslim nation for centuries, and the Church argues that it is the only suitable translation for God in the Malay language.”
According to the Wall Street Journal this battle isn’t over yet. “Government spokesman Tengku Sharifuddin Tengku Ahmad said Sunday the government will file an appeal against the ruling. Among other things, the verdict potentially upholds the constitutional right of the Church’s Herald newspaper to refer to Jesus Christ as the son of Allah—something that might inflame many Muslims here and set back Prime Minister Najib Razak’s efforts to bring Malaysia’s different religious groups closer together.”
The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) has issued a statement on this issue:
ISNA Commends Malaysian Court Ruling that Affirms Religious Freedom of Christians
(Plainfield, IN – January 4, 2010) The Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) commends the landmark ruling by a Malaysian Court on December 31, 2009, that affirms the religious freedom of Malaysian Christians. The ruling asserts that Christians have the right to use the word “Allah” to translate “God” into Bahasa Melayu, the Malaysian language. It strikes down a government ban that was placed in 2007 on the use of the term in Christian literature.
The opponents of the use of the word Allah in reference to God have argued that the term “God” is usually translated by Malaysians who follow faiths other than Islam as “Tuhan” in Bahasa Melayu, not “Allah.” They insist that “Allah” should only be used to refer to God in Islam. This argument is contrary to both Islamic understanding and practice.
The Qur’an is quite explicit that Muslims worship the same God recognized by Christians. The Qur’an commands Muslims to declare that the God they worship and the one worshiped by the followers of revealed books, including Christians, is one: “… and say: We believe in that which has been revealed to us and revealed to you, and our God and your God is One, and to Him do we submit.” (Qur’an 29:46)
With regards to actual and historical practices, Christian Arabs have been using the word “Allah” to refer to God in their religious sources since the inception of Islam, and have never been challenged by private Muslims or Muslim governments on this ground. Islamic law is clear that followers of the Christian faith have the right to practice their religion according to their own religious teachings.
We call on the Malaysian government to uphold the religious freedom of Christians and to let the court ruling stand. We also urge Muslim NGOs to respect Islamic teachings and long-held Islamic traditions, and to withdraw their opposition to the use of the word “Allah” by their Christian compatriots.
UPDATE January 11, 2010
It is tragic that this story only gets worse. According to the AFP: “Two Malaysian churches have been attacked, leaving one badly damaged, in an escalating dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. ... The ground floor of the three-storey Metro Tabernacle church, part of the Assemblies of God movement, was destroyed in the attack. ... Several hours later, the Catholic Church of the Assumption in Kuala Lumpur’s southwest was targeted, parish priest Philip Muthu said.” Reuters is now reporting that four churches have been attacked. The PAS Islamic Party has condemned the attacks. I pray that they go beyond just condemning, and that the perpetrators of these crimes are prosecuted, hat Muslims help the victims to rebuild, and that the Muslim leadership in Malaysia works hard to educate people on the meaning of Allah, and of Islam. If there are Muslims in Malaysia who do understand Islam, they should be protecting every church in the country. Such actions are crimes against fellow human beings, against fellow citizens, and against Islam. This is hirabah and terrorism.
It has now been reported that “Eight churches have been attacked over three days amid a dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, sparking fresh political instability that is denting Malaysia’s image as a moderate and stable Muslim-majority nation.”
In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim has issued a Statement on Malaysian Church Bombings. And, Marina binti Mahathir, who is the daughter and eldest child of the 4th Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Mahathir Mohammad, has a petition online, that now has more than 600 signatures. (Note: only Malaysian citizens can sign.)
UPDATE January 14, 2010
Demonstrate your desire to reclaim Islamic values and to promote the true spirit of Islam by protecting all houses of worship.
Go to http://www.cair.com to donate securely to the “CAIR Spirit of Islam Fund.” One hundred percent of the donations will be turned over to the Malaysian embassy for use in repairing the churches.
Checks may be made payable to “CAIR” and mailed to: CAIR Spirit of Islam Fund, 453 New Jersey Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 20003 (Put “Spirit of Islam Fund” in the memo area of the check.)
Muslim groups in Malaysia are offering their help to prevent any further attacks on Christian places of worship amid a spree of attacks on churches in the multi-ethnic, Muslim-majority Asian country, The Star reported on Sunday, January 10. **
UPDATE March 16, 2011
The government of Malaysia this month impounded a shipment of 35,000 Malay-language Bibles because they used “Allah”. It is amazing, and morally repugnant that they have continued to press this non-issue. It was reported yesterday, that they have now released the shipment.
Rev Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia, welcomed the government’s decision to release the Bibles, but said more needed to be done. “We maintain the position that it is an inalienable right for Christians to read their scriptures in any language,” he said, adding this was a “basic human right”.
He is certainly correct.
This Malaysian effort has clearly been condemned by traditional mainstream Muslims, and yet, it is being used by Islamophobes to further their message that it is Islam itself that is bigoted, not just some Muslims. See Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer: “Allah” and “God” for details on this issue.
Charisma News reports that “The Vatican’s first envoy to Malaysia [Archbishop Joseph Marino] has opened a storm of controversy by apparently supporting the use of the word “Allah” by Christians, prompting a rebuke from the government and condemnation from nationalist Malay groups in the majority-Muslim country.”
A Malaysian Insider article Christian Federation calls on Malaysians to reject efforts to rouse fear and hatred notes: “The Court of Appeal will start hearing the Putrajaya appeal on September 10 to declare that the word “Allah” belongs exclusively to Muslims.”
It seems that it is time again for concerned Muslims to contact Malaysian Embassies and let them know that this is totally unacceptable behavior, and that we totally agree with Archbishop Joseph Marino.
It is hard to believe that the group in Malaysia promoting this shameful effort to claim ownership of the word “Allah” for Muslims only are not deeply ashamed of their behavior. They have continued their battle, and recently the Malaysian court upheld this shameful ruling.
Muslim scholars in Malaysia and across the world are speaking out against this, as the Malaysia Insider reported. Here in the U.S. as noted above, many have spoken out strongly, and most recently, Reza Aslan added his voice to the chorus of mainstream, traditional Muslims who are opposed to this travesty. Aslan said, in part:
... “This notion that Malaysian Muslims need to be protected by the court because you can’t think for yourself, you can’t make decisions on your own. We are laughing at you. That you can control people’s ideas, their behaviour, their faith and their minds simply by trying to control the words that they use, is absurd. It is an embarassment to a modern, constitutional, democratic and deeply Muslim state like Malaysia. ... A Taliban put a bomb in the Quran and took it to a mosque in Pakistan, where Muslims were slaughtered on one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar. You want to talk about threats to Islam? That’s a threat to Islam. ...
Tariq Ramadan has also spoken out. He said: “Only Muslims with an “inferiority complex” would monopolise the use of “Allah” when the Arabic word for God is not exclusive to Islam” He also wrote in a series of tweets: “Why do we get emotional when others use the word #Allah?” Ramadan asked on his Twitter account, @TariqRamadan handle. “There is only one God. My God is your God. Allah is not just the God for Muslims,” he wrote. He added: “It is because of an inferiority complex that the word #Allah is monopolized. How about monopolizing good deeds instead?”
The Allah-God controversy in Malaysia, Eric Munir Winkel http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/the_allah_god_controversy_in_malaysia/
CAIR Establishes Spirit of Islam Fund to Help Rebuild Malaysian Churches http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/cair_establishes_spirit_of_islam_fund_to_help_rebuild_malaysian_churches/0017843
Can Allah Be Monopolised By Any Community?, Asghar Ali Engineer http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/can_allah_be_monopolised_by_any_community/0017853
Church Bombings in Malaysia: The Politics Behind the Dilemma, Dr. Robert D. Crane http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/church_bombings_in_malaysia_the_politics_behind_the_dilemma/0017842
Combating Muslim Intolerance, John L. Esposito http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-l-esposito/combating-muslim-intolera_b_417319.html
Erasing “Allah” In Churches And Mosques, C.M. Naim http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/erasing_allah_in_churches_and_mosques/
Interview With Chandra Muzaffar on Malaysian Allah/God Controversy, Yoginder Sikand http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/interview_with_chandra_muzaffar_on_malaysian_allahgod_controversy/
Let “God” be “God”!, Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. and Lucinda Mosher, Th.D http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/let_god_be_god/
Malaysia, Allah, and God, Sheila Musaji http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/malaysia_allah_and_god/
Malaysia, Allah, and God, Part II, Dr. Robert D. Crane http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/malaysia_allah_and_god_part_ii/
Malaysia Catholics allowed to call God ‘Allah’ again. Why the fuss? http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2010/0104/Malaysia-Catholics-allowed-to-call-God-Allah-again.-Why-the-fuss
Malaysia: Government Appeals Ruling on ‘Allah’ Use http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/05/world/asia/05briefs-Malaysia.html
North American Muslims Determined to Counter Violence and Terrorism, Sheila Musaji http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/north_american_muslims_determined_to_counter_violence_and_terrorism/0017836
Persecution of Christians shames Muhammad’s legacy, Craig Considine http://theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/persecution-of-christians-shames-muhammads-legacy/0020000
Protecting Houses of Worship a Duty for Muslims, Sheila Musaji http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/protecting_houses_of_worship_a_duty_for_muslims/0017844
Statement on Malaysian Church Bombings, Anwar Ibrahim http://www.theamericanmuslim.org/tam.php/features/articles/statement_on_malaysian_church_bombings/0017840
Zaid calls for inter-faith council in wake of church attacks http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/malaysia/49169-zaid-calls-for-inter-faith-council-in-wake-of-church-attacks-
Our Responses to Extremism Section has the following listing on incidents in Malaysia: — Malaysian judge ordering Christian paper to stop referring to God as Allah -  (Ali Eteraz) -  (Farish A. Noor),  (Sheila Musaji),  (Eric Winkel),  (Dr. Robert Crane) — Malaysian Bible confiscation incident  (Farish A. Noor). — Malaysian decision to enforce Shariah punishments on non-Muslims also who are involved with mixing of the sexes with Muslims  (Farish A. Noor). — Malaysian fatwa against Yoga ,  (Farish Noor). — Malaysian sentencing of Kartika Sari Dewi Shukarnor to a fine and lashes for drinking beer  (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf), [ 2] (Farish Noor) 3] (Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf) — Malaysian church bombings 1 (Anwar Ibrahim) — Malaysian Muslim ‘cow head’ demonstration against Hindu Temple  condemned by Malaysian lawmakers,