January 30, 2008
What’s in a Name? The Great Debate over Allah..
My early January article on Bolehland..
The Great Debate Over Allah
Never has God been more viciously fought over than now, where His Name is akin to a prized possession that two sides of the religious front seem to be warring over. The issue of the word “Allah” as exclusive for the Muslim God has been raised in Malaysia previously, but was later resolved amicably, with the permission granted to continue its usage within Malay Bibles. This has become a hot topic once again in recent months over the saga of a Catholic publication.
In Malaysia, publications need to be granted permits, which in turn need to be renewed, and many times publications need to exercise a level of self-constraint in not angering the powers-that-be for fear of rejected renewals. The Herald, a Catholic newsletter, was one such example recently, whose publication permit would not have been renewed if it did not remove the word “Allah” in reference to God. As feared, although given its renewal, the Cabinet decided on Thursday 3rd January 2008 that it would not be allowed to use Allah in the future. There are several ways to respond to this, some of which are explored below.
The first is through a constitutional legal lens. In response, several Christian groups have applied for judicial review against the Internal Security Ministry, seeking a declaration that they have the constitutional right to use the word “Allah” in their religious publications and practices. Based on Article 11 that guarantees freedom of religion, it certainly stands true that citizens are free to profess and practice their respective faiths, and this includes using the language that they are most conversant in. Article 3(1) also guarantees the right of all religions to be practiced in peace and harmony. Constitutionally, it seems only fair that the Herald, and other Christian publications, are free to exercise the rights they already have as outlined legally.
The reason given by the Deputy Internal Minister, Johari Baharom, is that the word Allah can only be used in the context of Islam and not any other religion, and only Muslims can use “Allah”. Further, he stated that it is a Muslim word because it is from the Arabic language.
The second way to examine the recent ruling is to look at historical facts from the Arab world itself. Prolific writer Dr. Ng Kam Weng has provided one of the more comprehensive arguments by using theoretical bases and references. Simplifying his arguments, which are worth repeating here, the premise used by the Internal Minister can only be considered logically false. He argues that if ‘X’ is Arabic, then ‘X’ belongs to Islam. This is untrue because the Arabic term “Allah” was used prior to Islam. The references are reproduced here from his article “No one Religion can Monopolize or Copyright the Term ‘Allah’”.
“That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammad, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allah – “the ilah” or the god, if the form is of genuine Arabic origin; if of Aramaic, from alaha, “the god” – seems absolute certain” (Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, ed., H. A. R. Gibb & J. H. Kramer, p. 33).
“The cult of a deity termed simply “the god” (al-ilah) was known throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia in the days before Islam … it seems equally certain that Allah was not merely a god in Mecca but was widely regarded as the “high god,” the chief and head of the Meccan pantheon, … Thus Allah was neither an unknown nor an unimportant deity to the Quraysh when Muhammad began preaching his worship at Mecca” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito, p 76-77).
If the term ‘Allah’ was already being used prior to the ministry of Prophet Muhammad, then surely it cannot be said to be exclusive to the Muslim faith. Further, historical facts show that the term ‘Allah’ has been used in the liturgy, prayers and worship among Christian natives of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak for generations. Their usage of the word has never been with the intention of “confusing” the public, another claim made by the Minister. It has always been within their honest desire to worship their God using the term of their own cultural identity. Finally, the Malaysian Declaration of Independence begins with the phrase “Dengan nama Allah yang Maha Pemurah lagi Mengasihani, segala puji bagi Allah yang Maha Berkuasa”, which uses a common word Allah to establish an agreement between England (referring to their Christian God) and Malay Rulers (referring to their Muslim God), accepted by all.
Thirdly, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in his statement said that the issue should not be made a public debate, which would give the impression that there is no freedom of religion in the country. I hope he understands what is meant by the term “freedom of religion” itself, because any act of restricting dialogue and debate are in themselves reflective of the lack of freedom, completely opposed to one in which open and frank discussion (yes, even on the topic of religion) should be encouraged.
It is in the interest of national unity and harmony that public discourse should be encouraged on an issue such as this. It is unavoidable in our multi-religious country. In fact, international development of inter-religious dialogue and conversation shows that there are increasing ties between Muslim and Christian leaders. Muslim leaders last year sent an important document entitled “A Common Word” which outlined common values and principles of both faiths, including the worship of God, the unity of God, the love of God, along with numerous scriptural references. Representatives of Islamic Higher Councils around the world, including those within Palestine, Jordan, Kuwait, and the UAE, have signed onto this document. Different segments of the church have also equally responded with a message of friendship, affirming fundamental similarities and upholding a theology of one God.
If only Malaysian leaders are willing to listen carefully to the interfaith interactions that are happening away from home.
Whilst there is some potential danger in making the debate on “Allah” public (with arguments ensuing on both sides of the fence, each wanting to lay claim to that which they believe is wholly theirs), I strongly believe this is a turning point for both Muslims and Christians. In uncovering such historical and anthropological truths, it takes self examination for individuals to move towards an understanding that these faiths were birthed from the same source.
The great debate over Allah must be having God in His high seat laughing comically at His citizens on earth, we who argue over who has ownership over Him when really, He has ownership over us (stated with great apologies to my atheist and agnostic friends). Whether it is a constitutional, historical, anthropological or logical argument, all seem to point towards the fact that Allah should be allowed in Christian publications. It is my hope these debates stimulate the public intellect and woe betide those who slide down the slippery slope of hurling insults at the other.
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