Do Malaysian Muslims understand what ‘Allah’ means?
By Farish A. Noor
At the time of writing this, I am in Cairo in the company of my Egyptian
friends who are Muslims, Catholics and Copts. Eid has passed and I attended
several dinners and celebrations where Muslims and Copts celebrated
together, visiting each others’ homes and ate til we could not eat any
further. What is worse, Christmas is upon us and so once again Muslims,
Catholics and Copts will be heading for the communal table for the communal
feast and there will be much licking of chops, munching of bread, gobbling
of sweet deserts and drinking for everyone. It is all simply too pleasant to
belive, yet it is real and this is what life is like for many in Cairo, the
‘Mother of civilisation’ and home to more than twenty million Egyptians from
all walks of life.
What is most striking to the outside observer like me - though rather banal
for the Egyptians themselves - is the fact that in all these celebrations
ranging from Eid for the Muslims to Christmas for the Catholics and Copts
the 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, cant you see where you
are parking??” as he dodges the obstable 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 in Malaysia at the moment yet another non-issue has been brewed to a
scandal for no reason: The Malaysian Catholic Herald, a publication by and
for Catholics in the country, has been told that it can no longer publish
its Malaysian language edition if it continues to use the word “Allah” to
mean 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 “Allah” is a Muslim word. The mind boggles at
the confounding logic of such a non-argument, which speaks volumes about the
individual’s own 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 way back to the pre-Islamic era. Christians had been using
the word long before there were any Muslims, in fact. Furthermore the word
is Arabic, and is thus common to all the peoples, cultures and societies
where Arabic - in all its dialects - is spoken, and is understood by
millions of Arabic speakers to mean God, and little else. One could also add
that as “Allah” 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 Minister
concerned, then presumably the language of Christianity (if it had one)
would be Aramaic, or perhaps Latin.
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?
The ruckus that has resulted thanks to the threat not to allow the
publication of the Malaysian language edition of the Christian Herald
therefore forces observers to ask the simple question: Why has this issue
erupted all of a sudden, when the word Allah was used for so long with narry
a protest in sight? At a time when the Malaysian government is already
getting flak as a result of the protests by Malaysian Hindus who insist that
they remain at the bottom of the economic ladder despite fifty years of
independence, now it would appear as if the Malaysian government cannot get
enough bad publicity.
The administration of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi came to power on
the promise that it would promote its own brand of moderate Islam 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. The latest fiasco over the non-issue that is the name of God would
suggest that Prime Minister’s Badawi’s grand vision of a moderate Islam has
hit the rocks, and is now floundering. Just how the ministers and elite of
this government is to regain their course is open to question, but what is
clear is that some Ministers should get their basic knowledge of their own
religion in order first.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and historian based at
the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin; and one of the founders of the
http://www.othermalaysia.org research site.
Update - see also: