Interview With Chandra Muzaffar on Malaysian Allah/God Controversy
by Yoginder Sikand
Chandra Muzaffar is Malaysia’s best-known public intellectual. A professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, he recently assumed the position of Chairman of the Board of Trustees of 1 Malaysia, a foundation set up by some concerned citizens to promote harmony between Malaysia’s various ethnic and religious communities.
In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about the ongoing controversy in Malaysia in the wake of a recent court ruling permitting the country’s Christians (and other non-Muslims) to use the term ‘Allah’, which many Malaysian Muslims fiercely oppose.
Q: Why do you think many Malaysian Muslims are so opposed to the use of the term ‘Allah’ by Christians?
A: I think among many Malaysian Muslims there is a certain degree of apprehension about Christians using the term because they feel that it is somehow exclusive to them. They also fear that some Christian groups deliberately want to use the term in order to mislead Muslims and gradually convert them to Christianity. Supporting these fears is the general Muslim mindset that sees Islam as special, as an exclusive claim to truth. Now, since Allah is the basis of Muslim doctrine, they feel that the term ‘Allah’ must be a Muslim monopoly.
Personally, I do not agree with this thinking, but you have to understand the general Malaysian Muslim response in the wider political context, in the context of how the Malays, who form the vast majority of Malaysia’s Muslims, feel about their position in Malaysia. This is linked to the perception that, historically, Malaysia was a Malay land and that, in the presence of large numbers of non-Malays who now live in Malaysia, and who are still economically strong, Malay identity needs to be protected and promoted. Islam is one of the major pillars of Malay identity, the other two being the Malay language and the Malay Sultans. Islam can be said to be an even more powerful pillar of Malay identity than the other two, the essence of which is the concept of Allah.
I think we need to deal with these fears about identity, and be careful not to dismiss them out of hand. We need to empathetically understand how many Malays feel about having once been a nation, living in a Malay land, and, then, with the advent of colonialism, being turned into an economically subordinate community in their own country. I think non-Muslims must appreciate these fears and concerns of many Malays.
On the other hand, we also need to educate the Malaysian Muslims, to convince them that there is nothing in Islam that forbids non-Muslims from using the term ‘Allah’. Unfortunately, that sort of public education has not been undertaken at all. We need to reach out to people and tell that that the Quran does not prohibit people of other faiths from referring to God as Allah. We need to explain to Malaysian Muslims that, historically, many non-Muslims have used the term ‘Allah’ to refer to the Divine, and that, in fact, the term Allah actually precedes the Quranic revelation. Even prior to the Prophet Muhammad there were a large number of Christian Arabs, and they, too, used the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. And when Islam began spreading across the Arab world, the Muslims never forbade the Arab Christians from using the word ‘Allah’, although, of course, Muslims and Arabic-speaking Christians understood the word in different ways. Yet, it never became a theological problem. True, there were conflicts between Arab Christians and Muslims over many issues, but the use of the word ‘Allah’ by the former was never a problem or a cause of any conflict. I think Malaysian Muslims need to be educated about this.
Then, again, we need to educate Malaysian Muslims that the Christians of Sabah and Sarawak, in East Malaysia have been using the term Allah to refer to God for over a hundred years. They have all along been using the Indonesian translation of the Bible, which uses the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. Of course, it is true that this translation, first made by Dutch Christian missionaries in what is now Indonesia, aimed at converting Muslims to Christianity, and so deliberately used the term ‘Allah’ instead of the Malay term Tuhan to refer to God. But, still, we cannot now tell the Christians of Sabah and Sarawak to stop using the word ‘Allah’. Their using that word has never caused any communal problem—in fact, in those parts of Malaysia there are numerous families that have both Christians and Muslim members, and relations between them have all along been fairly harmonious.
We also need to educate the Muslims of our country to understand that even other communities that live in Malaysia, such as Sikhs and some Hindus, also use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God, in addition to other names. The word ‘Allah’ occurs 46 times in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs.
Q: But non-Arab Christians generally do not use the word ‘Allah’, so why are some Christians in Malaysia making such a hue and cry about the reaction of Malaysian Muslims to the court ruling?
A: It may be that some of these Christian groups are indeed missionary in orientation and that they actually want to spread Christianity among the Muslims. I think we really must ask the question as to why, if the vast majority of Christians worldwide do not use the word ‘Allah’, these groups are insisting that they must have the right to do so in Malaysia.
Frankly, as I see it, the issue is not strictly religious. In fact, the controversy has become an ethnic one, and so you have many Hindus and Buddhists—people who generally do not use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the Divine—taking a position against the Muslims.
Q: What is your own personal position with regard to the controversy?
A: I think religious bigots and exclusivists who insist that only Muslims can use the word ‘Allah’ themselves pose a grave danger to Islam. They have absolutely no justification for their claim from the Quran. In fact, the Quran very explicitly mentions, without any disapproval whatsoever, non-Muslims also referring to God as Allah. Thus, in the Surah Hajj (22:40) God says:
Those who were unjustly expelled from their homes just because they said, “Allah is Our Lord”; and had Allah not repelled some men by means of other men, the abbeys, churches, synagogues and mosques - in which the name of Allah is profusely mentioned - would definitely be demolished; and indeed Allah will assist the one who helps His religion; indeed surely Allah is Almighty, Dominant.
God certainly does not prohibit people from calling Him by any decent term, including ‘Allah’, so, as far as I am concerned, I think everyone—Muslim or other—has the right to call God by that name. But what I object to is the misuse of the term in the public domain, because then it becomes a problem. You cannot stop anyone from referring to God as Allah, but his or her misuse of the term in the public domain can be made punishable.
Q: And how would define ‘misuse’ in this context?
A: Although the term ‘Allah’ predates the Quran, it is a fact that the concept of Allah that we are familiar with has been shaped through the last fourteen hundred years by the Quran and the Islamic tradition. So, if the term ‘Allah’ is sought to be given an interpretation that goes against this concept, and if that interpretation is sought to be articulated publicly—as opposed to privately—then surely that could be controlled.
To come back to my own position, I have been pushing for the setting up of a National Consultative Council for Religious Harmony, as an official body or mechanism to promote dialogue between the different religious communities in Malaysia. Such a council can deal with issues like this ongoing controversy. While some inter-faith dialogue initiatives do exist in civil society, there is nothing of the sort at the government level, although it is extremely crucial. Lamentably, the muftis of the different states in Malaysia have consistently opposed the setting up such a council, on the specious grounds that it would mean Islam being treated at par with the other religions although Islam is the religion of the Malaysian Constitution. Their argument is actually quite fallacious, because I have stressed that the proposed council would naturally operate within the ambit of the Malaysian Constitution, which reserves a special place for Islam.
Q: What do you think of the way the Malaysian Government has handled the controversy?
A: I think the police have acted admirably. When some non-Muslim places were attacked, they rushed to the scene. So did the Prime Minister, who roundly denounced the attacks. In some other multi-ethnic and multi-religious country such attacks might have led to rioting, and so I think it is to the credit of the Malaysian government and the police that nothing of that sort happened.
The Government has taken a largely law-and-order approach to the issue. But, I do not think this law-and-order approach is enough. The government has not dealt with the theological issues involved, and, as a result, it is the Islamic muftis associated with the ruling establishment that are now setting the tone. Sadly, they have all adopted a very conservative, bigoted and exclusivist position—to the effect that the term ‘Allah’ is a Muslim monopoly. Very cleverly, they have resorted to the Sultans, who have the last say on Islamic matters, and who have largely endorsed their stance. It is a pity that the muftis are reflecting such a superficial, shallow understanding of the Quran. Their understanding of the Quran appears to be very shallow and superficial, and even worse.
I think the Prime Minister may be more inclined to our own position, the 1Malaysia position—which is that we cannot prohibit non-Muslims to use the term ‘Allah’ but that we should prevent its misuse—but I guess he cannot say so openly because the vast majority of Malaysian Muslims do not agree. The issue is a veritable political minefield, and so I think the government is simply trying to delay taking any decision.
I must add here that a number of Malaysian Muslims strongly condemned the attacks on the churches and a Sikh gurdwara that took place in the wake of the court ruling. Some Muslim NGOs also set up voluntary squads to guard non-Muslim places of worship in some parts of the country. So, I think, there is ample good sense among ordinary Muslims, who, like ordinary non-Muslims in this country, want and value inter-communal peace. There is always this great fear in Malaysia of an ‘ethnicquake’—inter-community violence—and I think ordinary Malaysians, Muslims and others, know that this is something that we just can’t afford.
Q: The way the Western media reported the controversy, it was as if Malaysia was on the verge of civil war in the wake of the violence following the court ruling. How do you see the way the Western media handled the issue?
A: I think their projection was wide off the mark. They made it out to be as if Malaysia was on the verge of destruction. They seemed to relish the thought of that actually happening. I think this has much to do with the way the West wants to see itself—as supposedly ‘civilized’, compared to the non-Western world, particularly Muslims, who are depicted as the mirror opposite, as intolerant, violent, barbaric, primitive, fanatic and so on. I think, therefore, that the Western media’s reporting was really most unfortunate, although not entirely unexpected.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at the National Law School, Bangalore.