The Allah debate, a plea for restraint


The basis for arguing whether non-Muslims can use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God must rest on its context, etymology, and the relevant laws surrounding it. Political expediency should not and must not dominate the debate. Too much is at stake for it touches on the very heart, soul, and spirit of one’s belief and faith regardless of what one believes. I, therefore, urge those with differing viewpoints to exercise restraint, tolerance and goodwill. We must be reminded that we are indeed treading on Holy ground.

I also call on both the ruling coalition and the opposition to agree to a common moratorium not to use the Allah or Alkitab issue as political posturing for the forthcoming 13th General Elections. This is not to suggest that we must avoid discussing it at the appropriate forum.

Ten percent or slightly over two million of the population in Malaysia are Christians. Of this, about two thirds are Malay speaking bumiputra Christians mainly in Sabah and Sarawak. They rely on the Malay language or Indonesian Bible known as the Alkitab, which uses the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. The word is of Arabic origin, which predates Islam. Christians of other ethnic communities like the Ibans in Sarawak refer to God as ‘Allah Taala’ or God Most High in their Bible known as the Bup Kudus. Our Sikh brothers and sisters too use the word ‘Allah’ in their Holy Scriptures to refer to God.

But not all Christians use the word Allah to refer to God. They use appropriate words for it. For the English language Bible, the word, needless to say is ‘God’ and not ‘Allah.’ Likewise, the Chinese and Tamil Bibles use other words and not ‘Allah’ that are theologically appropriate and significant.

The context of the Malay-speaking world using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God rests on its etymology or the historical development of it. The first portion of Christian Scriptures translated into Malay was done in Indonesia for the Gospel of Matthew in 1612, four hundred years ago! This was one year after the authorised version of the Bible was translated into English known as the King James Version (KJV). The Malay translation was also the first non-European language translation of the Bible. Surely we can treasure this rare heritage as Malaysians.

Some have suggested that this is an East Malaysian problem and therefore the word ‘Allah’ can be used here while over in the peninsula, the word should be ‘Tuhan’. This proposition is misplaced as it suggests we have two Malaysias instead of 1Malaysia. This is dangerous for national unity.

We must also remember there are tens of thousands of East Malaysian Christians working in the peninsula as well as Orang Asli. Do we want to deny them their constitutional right to refer to God as Allah as they do back home?

East Malaysian Christians have been using ‘Allah’ to refer to God for generations. This has never caused confusion among Muslims before or after the formation of Malaysia in 1963. Why should this cause confusion now after half a century?

Our Rukunegara uses ‘Tuhan’ and not ‘Allah’ to refer to God just like the Indonesian Pancasila. In terms of common usage, this is a reasonable expression. However, in the Biblical context, the word ‘Tuhan’ refers to Lord and not God or Allah. It is, therefore, not acceptable to ask Christians to switch the two words and take them to mean what they do not mean in their liturgy and worship. One cannot force someone of another religion to change words in their Holy Scriptures simply to satisfy believers of another religion. This is wholly untenable.

It was three years ago on 31 Dec 2009, that the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled in favour of the Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur, who is the publisher of Herald, that even though Islam is the religion of the Federation, this does not empower the government to prohibit the use of the word ‘Allah’ in the Malay edition of the Herald. It also found that the word Allah was not exclusive to Muslims.

It must be noted that the said High Court decision was a decision made in the light of our religious rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution. The Government has appealed against this decision and the Court of appeal is yet to rule on the matter. But for now, the High Court has spoken clearly on the issue and in the circumstances, we should respect our legal system and allow the law to take its course.


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