A battle of words is looming in the courts over the controversial use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. The Roman Catholic Church fired the first salvo and has just won round one on 5 May 2008 when the High Court of Kuala Lumpur ruled they can go ahead and sue the government for prohibiting them to use the word.
The second broadside came in rapid fire when the Sabah Bumiputra Borneo Evangelical Church (Sidang Injil Borneo-SIB) also filed a suit over prohibition of usage of the same word. Meanwhile, the Attorney General is trying to sue for peace in this case by offering what looks like an olive branch to settle out of court but SIB members think it’s a bluff.
The fight, meanwhile, has spilled over from the courtroom onto the public square. Perlis Mufti Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, writing in his column in Mingguan Malaysia (27 April), said many have urged him to comment regarding the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims especially Christians, but he has been curt to say that this is not an Islamic issue.
“But why is it that only the Bahasa Malaysia Bible that uses the word ‘Allah’ and not the English edition? Is there a hidden agenda?” he wondered.
He went on to quote from the Qu’ran to argue that the Qu’ran itself does not object to non-Muslims identifying Allah as the Sovereign Creator. The objection is when non-Muslims associate Allah with other deities instead of upholding the oneness (tauhid) of Allah.
PAS Member of Parliament for Shah Alam Khalid Samad in addressing members of the Shah Alam Roman Catholic Church following his election to the Lower House recently, said in response to a question that he sees no reason to object to non-Muslims using the word Allah.
But Dr Syed Ali Tawfik Al-Attas, the director general of the government’s Institute of Islamic Understanding in an article in Mingguan Malaysia (6 Jan) took offence to Christians insisting on using the Allah word in their Bahasa Bibles. He said when he read an article (The SUN 24 Dec) about such claims, it annoyed him and even made him really mad.
“Let me say it clearly about their (Christians’) claims of not intending to hurt the feelings of or to confuse the Muslims (by using the word Allah). By raising the issue itself has (hurt) the Muslims,” he said.
Problems started when the Internal Security Ministry (now Home Affairs) refused to renew the annual publishing permit of the Herald—The Catholic Weekly—published by the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, Datuk Murphy Pakiam, unless they stopped their Bahasa segment. The church refused and the government conceded saying it can have the permit if they stopped using the word “Allah.” Again, the church refused and said it would go ahead to publish regardless.
Things came to a head and Bernard Dompok, who is a Roman Catholic and one of the two ministers charged with handling Christian affairs, intervened by bringing the matter to the Prime Minister Pak Lah Badawi just before last Christmas, a few days before the permit expired. Dompok said the government should allow the use of the word Allah and not to restrict it to Islamic usage. He told The Sun (28 Dec) that, “The bumiputra Christians have been using Allah in reference to the Almighty for a long time.”
A letter was then hand delivered to the church informing them that its permit has been renewed without any conditions just as the last Sunday service for the year ended.
However, on one week later, the Cabinet decided that restrictions on the use of the word Allah still stand and the Herald therefore cannot use this word although its licence is renewed. The church immediately filed a suit against the government claiming that the decision is both illegal and null and void.
Following the filing of the suit, the church received and unsigned letter from the Internal Security Ministry dated 12 Feb stating the condition that the Herald is prohibited from using the word “Allah.”
In the SIB case filed by its president, Pastor Jerry Dusing, a former engineer, is also suing over prohibition of the word “Allah” but the circumstances are different. The approach is also different. An attempt was initiated by the Attorney General’s Office to settle it out of court, hence although its case was filed earlier than the Herald’s, hearing has been was adjourned a few times to allow “outside parties” to resolve the matter.
The case hit a snag when in the midst of all this, Maximus Ongkili, the other minister charged with Christian affairs and who was also formerly a SIB leader in Sabah, told a local paper that the matter has been resolved and that some parties were confrontational in trying to resolve the dispute.
Pastor Jerry Dusing then told the SIB ketua daerah (district superintendents in all the 34 districts in Sabah) that the matter is still in court. “It is the policy of SIB to resolve any dispute with any party amicably through reasoned persuasion and amicable means. But, in this instance, all other means have been exhausted without any resolution,” he said in a pastoral letter to the SIB leaders.
The inter-denominational Sabah Council of Churches has thrown their weight behind the SIB in its suit against the government. So has the umbrella Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM). SIB is a component of the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship of Malaysia which is part of the CFM.
“The case affects the fundamental right and freedom of the practice and expression of our faith, and ministering of the fundamental sacraments of our religion as well as our liturgy, worship and teaching of our Scriptures. Therefore, SIB is seeking a redress from the court,” Dusing said.
SIB claimed that on 15 August 2007, three boxes of its Christian educational publications from Indonesia to Sabah were unlawfully detained on transit at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) at Sepang by a customs officer.
Subsequently, the matter was taken over by the Internal Security Ministry which claimed that the grounds for its action was because the publications contained the word “Allah.” They then gave SIB 14 days to return the publications to its point of origin in Indonesia, failing which the officers would destroy them.
The SIB church then appealed on several occasions to the relevant authorities but without any success.
The books have since been returned to SIB as part of the out of court effort to resolve the dispute but it is still seeking leave from the court to apply for a judicial review of the government’s decision to stop them from bringing in Christian books containing the word “Allah.”
According to Jerry Dusing, “The SIB is the largest Christian denomination in Sabah and its members are mainly Bumiputra Christians of various ethnic groups using the Alkitab—the Bahasa Bible—as its principal Scripture. The portions of the Alkitab has been translated into Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia as early as 1612 where the word for God is translated as ‘Allah’ and the word for LORD is ‘Tuhan.’ This word is of theological import and has long been associated with our liturgy, prayer, worship, sermons and religious education of our members and their children. In short, it is our cultural heritage as Sabah Christian Bumiputras.”
The High Court has set two days from Aug 7 to hear an application by Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) and its president for leave to quash a government decision stopping them from importing Christian books containing the word “Allah”.