Gizem Yarbil, a producer at Worldfocus, writes about the controversy over the use of the word “Allah” in Malaysia.
Malaysia has long had a reputation for being a secular Muslim nation. But recent events are threatening its moderate image.
Nine churches have been attacked with Molotov cocktails or vandalized since last Friday following a court ruling on New Year’s Eve that overturned a government ban on the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims.
The court was ruling on a lawsuit filed in 2007 by the Catholic newspaper The Herald. Authorities told the newspaper it could no longer use the word “Allah” to refer to God as it was specifically a Muslim term. The government and many Malaysian Muslims contend that the use of “Allah” by Christians could cause confusion among Muslims and encourage them to convert to the Christian faith.
Many critics of the ban accuse the government of inflaming this controversy for political purposes to gain the popular support of the majority ethnic Malay Muslims. The population consists of 62 percent Muslim Malays, while Christians make up nine percent.
Critics argue that the word “Allah” predates Islam and Christians had been using the word for generations, long before the Muslims even existed. The word is Arabic and has been used by various cultures and societies where Arabic is the main language.
In his post “Allah – The Word” on the New York Times “At War” blog, Anthony Shadid writes about how the word is commonly used by non-Muslims in the Arab world in daily cultural exchanges:
“Inshallah, God willing, everyone says about everything in the future tense, from an appointment the next day to the sun rising in the east. The same goes for In Allah rad, if God wills it. The word Allah infuses virtually every salutation, greeting and condolence, spoken upon departure and arrival, and at birth and death, a centuries-long refinement of mutual social exchanges that ensures almost no moment is awkward. Kater khair Allah, a Christian in Hikmat’s town would say to his Muslim neighbor.
To him, a shared God, the God of Abraham, has a shared name, Allah.”
In a wide-ranging article written for The American Muslim in 2008, right after the word “Allah” became a controversial subject, Dr Farish A. Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian, writes that Malaysians did not even refer to God as “Allah” when they first converted to Islam:
“The Minister’s remark not only demonstrated his shallow understanding of Muslim culture and the clear distinction between Arab culture and Muslim theology, but it also demonstrated his own lack of understanding of the history of the Malays, who, like many non-Arabs, only converted to Islam much later from the 13th century onwards. Among the earliest pieces of evidence to indicate Islam’s arrival to the Malay archipelago are the stone inscriptions found in Malay states like Pahang where the idea of God is described in the sanskrit words ‘Dewata Mulia Raya’. As no Malay spoke or even understood Arabic then, it was natural for the earliest Malay-Muslims to continue using the Sanskrit-inspired language they spoke then. Surely this does not make them lesser Muslims as a result?”
– Gizem Yarbil