Tan Sri Professor Dzulkifli Abdul Razak in his article in The Sun on Mar 11, wrote about the Christian Bible and its translation in Bahasa Indonesia (Alkitab). Unfortunately he manifested not only his lack of understanding in the specified field of bible translation but also an inadequate knowledge of basic Christian concepts. Hence we have asked Professor Dr. Fr. Martin Harun, OFM, a biblical scholar, to respond to his article. Fr Martin is a member of the Lembaga Alkitab Indonesia. Please note that we have not altered the original article of Prof Dzulkifli. The response of Fr Martin is indented beneath those statements that are inaccurate or which do not measure up to good scholarship.
Prof Dzulfikli Abdul Razak: The use of the term ‘Allah’ has captured the attention of the media again. Of late, even a newspaper from down south carried a commentary on the issue. The slant is usually political, and not religious, and does not throw any new light on the issue. It also does not appeal to the intellect; instead, it seems to border more on emotions that further confuse the issue.
[We disagree with the above sentence. In our response to what follows we challenge the subjective views of the author. Our statements are based on historical facts and intellectual objectivity. (Editor’s Note)]
To all Muslims the term ‘Allah’ is laden with the concept of Tauhid — that ‘Allah’ is “the One and Only” as defined in the Quranic language, which happens to be Arabic. ‘Allah’ cannot be understood without this concept of his oneness. Any attempt to do so will amount to a vulgarism of sort, and an affront to Muslims.
Prof Dr Fr Martin Harun: All Christians in the Arabic world and Indonesia and Malaysia who use the word ‘Allah’ for God, confess ‘Allah’ yang Esa. Christian Trinitarian belief is monotheistic, although not in the same sense as Muslim monotheistic belief. Each religion has of course its own specific definitions, as has been acknowledged by Muslims and Christians from the very beginning.
Prof Dzulkifli: Moving forward, let us briefly try and understand the reasons for Muslim misgivings by using the Bahasa Indonesia version which is translated from the English New King James Version and authorised by Konperensi Waligerja Indonesia (Edition, 2004). Let us randomly take The Gospel according to Luke, translated as Injil Lukas, to briefly illustrate the point.
Fr Harun: Alkitab Terjemahan Baru and Alkitab Bahasa Indonesia Sehari-hari both are translated not from any other modern language like English but from the original Hebrew and Greek text. When translating Elohim and Theos with ‘Allah,’ the translations follow an already long established translation tradition. Since the seventeenth century bible translations in Malay have used the word ‘Allah’ as the best word available in the Malay language to express the monotheistic concept of Elohim and Theos.
Prof Dzulkifli: In Luke, ‘God’ is generally substituted by ‘Allah’, whereas ‘Tuhan’ is commonly used to substitute ‘the Lord”. Note the article ‘the’ applies to ‘Tuhan,’ but not to ‘Allah’. Hence, where there is ‘the Lord God’ in the English version, it becomes ‘Tuhan Allah’. ‘The Lord their God’ becomes ‘Tuhan, Allah mereka’. Note the use of a comma!
Fr Harun: Alkitab is not translated from English, but from Hebrew and Greek. ‘Allah’ is not chosen as an Arabic word, but as an already Malay/Indonesian word that best expresses the meaning of Elohim and Theos in the biblical texts, and Tuhan best expresses the meaning of Adonai / Kurios in the biblical language. So every comparison with English and also Arabic is irrelevant and highly confusing.
Prof Dzulkifli: On some occasions though, ‘God’ is also translated as ‘Tuhan’, though ‘God’ in this example does not carry the article ‘the’ as in ‘the Lord’. So does it mean there is a time when ‘God’ is not ‘Allah’? Or that ‘Tuhan’ is ‘Allah’ after all?
Fr Harun: This happens only in the Old Testament, more often in the book of Ezekiel when the Hebrew text says Adonai YHWH (pronounced Adonai Adonai, harfiah: Tuhan Tuhan). In many bible translations in many languages, starting from the Latin Vulgate this repetition has been avoided by translating ‘Tuhan Allah’, ‘Dominus Deus’, ‘Lord God’, ‘Herr Gott’, ‘Seigneur Dieu’. The Indonesian Alkitab Terjemahan Baru follows this old use, but could also opt for a different way, e.g. ‘TUHAN Yang Mahatinggi’ (BIS), ‘like Sovereign LORD’ (NIV).
Prof Dzulkifli: Yet, on other occasions, ‘Allah’ is used as substitute for ‘the LESUS.’ But then, ‘the LESUS your God’ is rendered as ‘Tuhan, Allahmu’ — note again the comma!.
Fr Harun: There is no word as ‘the LESUS.’ Prof Dzulkifli may have meant ‘the Christ’ meaning ‘the Lord.’ The word ‘Allah/Theos’ is never used for Jesus in his earthly existence, but some times in liturgical contexts for either the preexistent Logos, Word (John 1:1) or the Christ (John 20:28) as Thomas said to the risen Jesus, “My Lord, My God”, ‘Tuhanku, Allahku’, so always in celebrating his unity with the One God.
Prof Dzulkifli: Just from these few random examples, one can already sense the complexity and confusion in the use of ‘Allah’ in the translated version. To make matters even more confusing, the biblical name ‘Mary’ is rendered as ‘Maria’ — when the Quranic equivalent would have been ‘Maryam’; And ‘John’ as ‘Yohanes’ instead of ‘Yahaya.’ Or for that matter ‘Gabriel’ is not even translated but kept as it is. The Quranic ‘Jibrail’ as an equivalent is not even considered! How about ‘Jesus’ himself? Why is this rendered as ‘Yesus’, rather than ‘Isa’? In the Quran both are the sons of Mary or Maryam.
Fr Harun: Names are a different question. They are not translated, but can be transliterated from the original language in different ways according to the use of the receiving language group. The confusion is 100 per cent created by Prof Dzulkifli himself who keeps on forgetting the Bible is not translated via English or Arabic, but from Hebrew and Greek direct into Malay/Indonesian language. Not knowing Hebrew and Greek Prof Dzulkifli should not judge any translation from those languages, as I myself not knowing Arabic would not dare to judge any Indonesian translation from Arabic.
Prof Dzulkifli: If the worry is that the use of the word ‘Isa’ in the Quran is limited only to him being the son of man and not of ‘Allah’; unlike what is understood for the biblical ‘Jesus’ — then should not the same consideration and sensitivity for Muslim feeling be shown when ‘Allah’ is used in the translation, without any concern for the Quranic Tauhidic concept. This inconsistency, indifference and arrogance is rather obvious when it comes to the biblical ‘the Son of God’ and the use of ‘Anak Allah’ as an equivalent in the translation — something which is conceptually outright not acceptable to Muslims. In fact, it tantamounts to the denial of the concept of ‘Allah’ as explained in the Quran, Surah Al- Ikhlas 112: 3 that “He begets not, nor was He begotten. And there is none co-equal or comparable to Him”.
Fr Martin: In any language the same common word for God is filled with different concepts, since the users of this same language have different religious convictions. These differences are to be respected, without anyone claiming monopoly to the common language. The more so in this case, since the use of the word ‘Allah’ in early Christian circles precedes its use in the Quran.
Prof Dzulkifli: The consequence of this translation will be that Muslims will be confronted with blasphemous ideas that ‘Allah’ has a son; that ‘Allah’s son was born in the manger; that ‘Allah’s son was crucified; that ‘Allah’s son died for all of us. This may have public order implications under section 298 of the Malaysian Penal Code which forbids the wounding of religious feelings.
Fr Martin: Such a statement could amount to forbidding the presence of Christianity altogether. Prof Zulkifli forgets that Bible and Biblical Literature are intended for Christian readers.
Prof Dzulkifli: As it stands, the use of ‘Allah’ the way it is can only arouse suspicions as to why an Arabic word is used for an Indonesia- Malay translation of the Gospel. Why not use the Hebrew or Armenia (Should it not be Aramaic? Editor’s Note) equivalents, instead?
Fr Martin: In a bible translation Hebrew and Greek words have to be translated, and — as said — the best and most enduring translation for the concept of Elohim and Theos has been the Malay/Indonesian word ‘Allah’. In our language ‘Allah’ is no longer an Arabic word with Arabic grammatical and syntactic rules, but has already for centuries become a Malay/Indonesian word that listens to our own language rules. E.g. we can say “Tuhan, Allah kita” which is impossible in Arabic.
Prof Dzulkifli: To add on to this suspicion is why there is no insistence that examples in the fore-mentioned names be substituted with the Arabic equivalent, including places like ‘Jerusalem’ which is substituted by ‘Yerusalem’ which is not the name in Arabic either.
Fr Martin: Once again, our bible translation is not a translation from Arabic or into Arabic.
Prof Dzulkifli: On the contrary, there are biblical names that are readily rendered to the equivalent Arabic in the translation. The examples are numerous, for instance: David as Daud; Zacharias as Zakharia; Aaron as Harun; Joseph as Yusuf; Moses as Musa; law of Moses as Taurat Musa (though, more appropriately it should have been ‘hukum Musa’, since there is the specific term ‘Torah’ for ‘Taurat’).
Fr Martin: Malay and Indonesian languages are enriched by the influence of many languages, Sanskrit, Portuguese, Arabic, Dutch, English, bahasa daerah, etc. Any of these originally ‘loanwords’ or name transliterations can be used by the translating community if it sounds familiar to them and is an adequate rendering. There is no rule that all should be taken from one background, or none from another. Language is a living and always developing mixed reality. The community itself has to decide about choices that fit best. Translation cannot be decided by outsiders with rigid consistency rules.
Prof Dzulkifli: The final straw is when the patriarch ‘Abraham’ who is the fountain head for Judaism, Christianity and Islam is also not rendered to Arabic ‘Ibrahim’ — but left as ‘Abraham’. Here, the inconsistencies, inaccuracies and insensitivities in the use and misuse of the word ‘Allah’ become even clearer. And this must be the concern of all.
Fr Martin: Abraham is a close transliteration of the Hebrew and the Ancient Greek (Abraam). No need for intervention from transliteration in a third language, and no dictionary forbids one language to have several ransliterations that function in different communities or subcultures.
Originally published in The Herald on April 3, 2009. Republished with formatting modifications with permission from the copyright holders.