RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS IN MALAYSIA
The origins of the word 'Allah'
By Farish A. Noor
Dec 28, 2007
CAIRO - I'M WRITING this in the company of my Egyptian friends who are Muslims, Catholics and Copts.
Eid al-Adha has come and gone, and I've been to several events which saw Muslims and Copts celebrating together, visiting each others' homes and feasting on copious amounts of food.
Now in the midst of Christmas, Muslims, Catholics and Copts are once again heading for the communal table and there will be much licking of chops, breaking of bread and merry making for everyone.
It is all simply too pleasant to believe, yet it is real and this is what life is like for many in Cairo, the 'Mother of civilisation' and home to more than 20 million Egyptians from all walks of life.
What is most striking to an outside observer like myself - though rather banal for the Egyptians - is the fact that in all these celebrations, the same word 'Allah' is used to denote that supreme and singular divinity, God.
Catholics and Copts alike exclaim Masha-allah, Wallahi, ya-Rabbi, Wallah-u allam, and of course Allahuakbar day in, day out, everywhere they go. The Coptic taxi driver blares out 'By Allah, can't you see where you are parking?' as he dodges the obstacle ahead.
The Catholic shopkeeper bemoans: 'Ya Allah, ya Allah! You can only offer me two pounds for the scarf? Wallahi, my mother would die if she heard that! Ya-Rabbi, ya-Rabbi!'
Yet Malaysia is now embroiled in another non-issue: the Malaysian Catholic Herald, a publication by and for Catholics in the country, has been told that it can no longer publish its Malay-language edition if it continues to use the word 'Allah' for God. Worse still, the country's Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum recently stated that 'only Muslims can use the word Allah', ostensibly on the grounds that it is a Muslim word.
The mind boggles at the confounding logic of such a non-argument, which speaks volumes about the individual's ignorance of Muslim culture, history and the fundamental tenets of Islam itself.
For a start, the word 'Allah' predates the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad and goes back to the pre-Islamic era. Christians had been using the word long before there were any Muslims. It is an Arabic word and thus common to all the peoples, cultures and societies where Arabic, in all its dialects, is spoken. It is also understood by millions of Arabic speakers to mean God, and little else.
One could add that as it is an Arabic word, it therefore has more to do with the development and evolution of Arabic language and culture and less to do with Islam.
It is hard to understand how any religion can have a language to call its own, for languages emerge from a societal context and not a belief system. If one were to abide by the skewered logic of the Malaysian minister, then presumably the language of Christianity (if it had one) would be Aramaic, or perhaps Latin.
The minister's remark not only shows his shallow understanding of Muslim culture and the clear distinction between Arab culture and Muslim theology, but also demonstrates his own lack of understanding of the history of the Malays, who, like many non- Arabs, only converted to Islam from the 13th century on.
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.
Surely this does not mean they were lesser Muslims?
The ensuing ruckus over the ban facing the Christian Herald in Malaysia forces observers to ask the simple question: Why has this issue erupted all of a sudden, when the word 'Allah' has been used for so long with nary a protest in sight?
Coming at a time when the Malaysian government is already getting flak from the protests by Malaysian Hindus who insist that they remain at the bottom of the economic ladder after 50 years of independence, it would appear as if the administration cannot get enough bad publicity.
The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi came to power on the promise that it would promote its own brand of moderate Islam - one that was pluralist and respectful of other cultures and religions.
But time and again, the Malaysian public - first Hindus and now Christians - have felt necessary to protest over what they regard as unfair, biased treatment and the furthering of an exclusive brand of Islam that is communitarian and divisive.
This latest fiasco over the name of God would suggest that Prime Minister Badawi's grand vision of a moderate Islam has hit the rocks, and is now floundering.
Just how the government is to regain its course is open to question, but what is clear is that some leaders should get their knowledge of their own religion in order first.
The writer is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the www.othermalaysia.org research site, where this article first appeared.