Tan Sri Prof. Dzulkufli Abdul Razak, Vice Chancellor of University Science Malaysia wrote an article on the use of ‘Allah’ in the Malay Bible, Alkitab (Bahasa Indonesia version) in theSun on 11 March 2009.
It would have been easy just to dismiss this article since its premise is flawed from the word go: He compares the Malay translation with the New King James Version when the base text of the Bahasa Indonesia version has never been any English version. Indeed the Alkitab makes it clear that it is based on the Biblia Hebraica text for the Hebrew/Aramaic Old Testament and the Nestle Aland text for the Greek New Testament.
Nevertheless Dzulkifil’s article provides an opportunity to inform Muslims why they cannot help but fail to understand the Bible since they invariably look at the Bible piecemeal in proof-text fashion. Their lack of hermeneutics is evident from the way they try to read the Bible (where the historical and literary context iis often clearly given) in the same way they read the Quran (where the context is often not evident). Without an appropriate hermeneutical framework it is no wonder they end up misreading the Bible and hitting at strawmen.
My response to Dzulkifli was published in theSun on 17 March 2009. The original unedited response is reproduced below :
Consistent and Sensitive Translations of “Allah”
– Dr. Ng Kam Weng
Christians harbor the hope that Muslims who express their views on the ‘Allah’ issue will focus on the academic issues rather than rely on emotional rhetoric. That we now have a contribution to the ‘Allah’ controversy from the Vice-Chancellor of USM, Tan Sri Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak, is indeed most welcome. However, with due respect to the learned professor, I beg to differ with his views for the following reasons:
First, Prof. Dzulkifli violates Aristotle’s dictum that one should critique a text on its own terms and that benefit of doubt should be extended to the text. He does so when he rejects the Christian use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God simply because he considers Christian usage insensitive and shows no regard for Muslim teaching about the Quranic Tauhidic concept. His judgment begs the question. But why should people of other faiths be dictated by an alien text (in this case, the Quran) in their use of their Holy Scriptures? It is surely an inept academic exercise to impose Islamic teachings onto the Bible or to impose Christian teachings onto the Quran.
Second, Dzulkifli’s stricture is indefensible in the light of history. Indeed, if legitimacy is to be accorded to the first user of the word ‘Allah’, then Muslims should not be allowed to call their God ‘Allah’. After all, the pre-Islamic Arabs and speakers of Arabic cognate languages (like Syriac and Nabatean) had already been calling their God ‘Allah’ (with equivalent cognates), and the Muslims who came later used the term ‘Allah’ in a sense that deviates from its historical usage.
Third, Dzulkifli’s stricture is irrelevant. Christians have never pretended that the Bible is an Islamic book. Although Christians and Muslims both believe in the same Creator God, nevertheless they have different understandings of his attributes and his gift of salvation.
Dzulkifli’s criticisms fail to carry weight because he has not undertaken both a diachronic and synchronic analysis of lexical terms used in the original texts. Without this prior exercise he has no grounds to justify why he cannot accept certain translations of Biblical terms, which are based on objective principles of linguistics.
Dzulkifli’s criticism of how Christians use the word ‘Tuhan’ and ‘Allah’ in describing ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ shows that he has prejudged how Christians should translate their Scriptures even though he displays no knowledge of the original Hebrew and Greek languages. Biblical translators chose the word ‘Allah’ to translate the word ‘God’ since the word was originally used in Arabic as a generic designation for God. But for Christians this God has specifically revealed himself as ‘Yahweh’ (YHWH), a term that emphasizes his eternal existence and unlimited power when used in the original context. The semantic range of the word ‘Lord’ allowed Jews and Christians to apply the word Kurios (Lord) to Yahweh in the 3rd century BC Greek translation of the Bible, called the Septuagint. A careful reading of the Malay Bible will show that the translator consistently translated ‘God’ as ‘Allah’ and ‘Lord’ as Tuhan. It is interesting to note that the Quran also uses two words ‘Allah’ and ‘Rabb’ to describe God as ‘Allah’ and ‘Lord’.
There is then a semantic overlap and yet difference between ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ in the Hebrew and Greek languages. For Christians both terms may apply to the Creator God and to Jesus Christ on account of the Christian belief that Jesus is God’s manifestation for salvation of mankind (Titus 2:13). It is only natural that Christians, who from the very beginning understood Jesus as God, also apply the term Kurios (Lord) to Jesus. Thus Jesus is referred to as ‘My Lord and My God!’ (John 20:28) – rendered in Bahasa Malaysia as Tomas menjawab Dia: “Ya Tuhanku dan Allahku!”
Dzulkifli’s manifest confusion in his reading or rather misreading of the Bahasa Bible could easily be avoided if he just follows Aristotle’s dictum and attempts an internally coherent reading of the text on its own terms. In the light of this fundamental error, Dzulkifli’s gripe about how other names should be used are minor issues – like Jerusalem/Yerusalem (which is actually a small matter of phonetics), Torah/Taurat Musa/Hukum Musa or Abraham/Ibrahim (which is a matter of transliteration and there are no absolute rules governing how languages are transliterated from one language to another). It is not surprising that Dzulkifli’s criticism of Christian translation of the Bible strayed into these secondary issues since he violates the basic dictum of literary and linguistic criticism right from the start.
It becomes evident that so long as Muslims like Dzulkifli insist that the meaning of words be strictly restricted to a historically contingent usage found in one particular text (the Quran), they will fail to understand, much less empathize or accept that people of other faiths have as much right to address their God as they see fit. Indeed, at best, Dzulkifli comes across as only seeking to cast aspersions that question the competence of Christians to translate and read their very own Holy texts in their mother tongues. At worse, his discussion amounts to an attempt at linguistic imperialism.
This was originally published by Dr. Ng Kam Weng in his blog, Krisis & Praxis. It is reproduced here with his permission.