Do Muslims have an exclusive monopoly on the use of the word “Allah,” in describing God?
Malaysia is grappling with that linguistic question, and Muslims in that country are enraged because a court has given its answer: No.
An ethnically divided country comprised of Malay Muslims (who make up about 60% of the population), non-Muslim Chinese, Indians and other minorities, Malaysia is bracing for violent demonstrations called by Muslims outraged over a ruling this past weekend that allows the country’s 850,000 Roman Catholics to use the word Allah to describe God.
Malaysia’s Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum explains the Malaysian Government’s opposition to the ruling:
Only Muslims can use ‘Allah’. It’s a Muslim word, you see. It’s from (the Arabic language). We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people. We cannot allow this use of ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim publications, nobody except Muslims. The word Allah’ is published by the Catholics. It’s not right.
It all started back in 2008 when the Malaysian Government, on the grounds of “national security,” told the editors of The Herald, a Roman Catholic weekly, to stop the use the word Allah when referring to God in their newspaper. The paper had been translating the word for God as Allah in order to reach certain Malay-speaking indigenous tribes who had converted to Christianity decades ago.
The Arab word Allah has been used by Malay-speaking Christians for centuries, much as it is used by Christians in Arabic-speaking countries or in certain parts of Indonesia. Sikhs use the term in their religion in referring to God. In fact, use of the term pre-dates Islam itself. The word was used by the citizens of Mecca as a reference to the supreme deity in pre-Islamic Arabia. Hebrew, Aramaic and other Semitic languages all contain cognates of Allah used to describe a deity.
The semantic conundrum facing the Christian Churches in Malaysia, according to Rev. Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, is that there is no other appropriate term for God in the Malay language.
So The Herald sued, claiming that it had a constitutional right to refer to God as Allah, as it was using a term already in common usage by Christians and was in no way attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity. The Malaysian High Court agreed. In a decision over the weekend, Justice Lau Bee Lan issued a ruling allowing The Herald to continue to use the term:
Under Malaysian law, Christians have “a constitutional right to use [the word] Allah.
Muslim rage was almost immediate.
An influential mufti (Sunni Islamic Scholar), Harussani Zakaria, called the verdict “an insult to Muslims in this country.”
Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad predicted a violent Muslim backlash:
What I am afraid of is that the term ‘Allah’ might be used in such a way that could inflame the anger of Muslims, if [non-Muslims] were to use it on banners or write something might not reflect Islam.
Immediately after the ruling, as many as 10,000 Muslim protesters had signed onto a Facebook group page calling for the government to appeal the decision, while calling moderate Muslims who agreed with the decision (including opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim), as “traitors to Islam.”
The government has made it quite clear that it does not agree with the ruling and has announced that it will vigorously appeal the decision.
In the meantime, the anti-Christian backlash has begun, with the The Herald being the first casualty: its website was shut down by hackers yesterday.