Sunday, January 31, 2010

'Allah' a Muslim term to the ordinary man

Jan 31, 2010

I thank Mr Janadas Devan for highlighting the excellent etymology of the word 'Allah' ('What's in a name?') last Sunday.

The Cobuild Series English Dictionary defines 'Allah' as 'the name of God in Islam', while The Reader's Digest-Oxford Complete Wordfinder refers to it as 'the name of God among Arabs and Muslims'.

The dictionary definitions would be the understanding of the word for the ordinary Ali in Bedok, Ah Lee in Beijing and Ally in Brooklyn.

The expression 'By Allah...' is commonly ascribed to Muslims everywhere. Does one connect the refrain to non-Muslims?

After the Sept11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Muslim leaders tirelessly reminded their flock not to blindly imitate the practices of their fellow Muslims in the Middle East.

Contextualisation, they emphasised, was critical. What may be suitable in the Arab countries may not be practical in the local environment.

The biggest concern must be at the grassroots level, with the strength of social fabric being the key indicator.

If the unity quotient has risen, then the status quo can and should remain.

But if it has plunged over time and become more porous and fragile, etymology is the last thing that policymakers will consider when undertaking a policy review.

Mohamad Rosle Ahmad

[I appreciate that this letter is well-written and puts the point of the writer across very well: that etymology aside, the question is what is the ordinary person's understanding of the term.

In other words, the common understanding of the phrase, at least in this part of the world is that "Allah" is commonly understood as to mean exclusively the Islamic God. And as to the point that even the Arabs do not claim exclusivity of the term, the writer counters that with the exhortation not to slavishly imitate the Arabs in the wake of 911, the reference to Arab practices smacks of hypocrisy: Don't follow the Arabs when it doesn't suit us, and follow when it suits us.

Here then are the problems with the claim of exclusivity of the term. Firstly "this part of the world" seems to mean only West M'sia and maybe Singapore. As Singapore is unlikely to officially support such an exclusivity, the only country, and even then only half a country (by land area if not by population) is M'sia and only W. M'sia. Indonesia and East M'sia does not have a problem. And even in W. M'sia it is not unanimous that all Islamic leaders are on the side of the claims of exclusivity. The genesis of this controversy seems to be politically motivated, and a gambit by UMNO to be seen as more "Islamic" than PAS. This is debatable and like the etymology of the word "Allah" may be irrelevant as the writer claims.

However, the etymology of the word may not be as irrelevant as the writer claims. There is two approach to this issue. One, make the claim to customary use and understanding and refuse to consider new facts (etymology) and learn new things, and claim that the status quo should be left well and good alone.

Or Two, open one's mind to new facts, consider these facts, argue about the facts and then decide the best way forward. A closed mind and defending the status quo by refusing to consider facts and history is a sign of a siege mentality.

In any case, the etymology of the word is not simply a matter of language evolution and word usage. It also traces the Abrahamic faiths, and the simple matter is that as Judaism-Christianity-Islam share the same origins, then the 3 faiths reference the same God, then how true or how correct is the position that the same God cannot be called by the same name?

The PAS leader took this position which is a learned position based on a correct understanding of the origins of Abrahamic faiths. The M'sian Minister's position is based at best on customary understanding and at worst on political motivation.

The position taken by PAS (which surprisingly is more moderate and backed by sound scholarly understanding) is that unless and until "Allah" is used to confuse, proselytise, or promote apostasy, Christians have as much right to use it as Muslims.

Marina Mahathir commented that Muslims are not so stupid or weak-minded as to walk into a church, see the cross above an altar, the pews, and a priest and the moment someone says "Allah", think that they are in a mosque.

And yes, the writer is correct to say that etymology or any kind of logic is the last thing politicians will consider in their policy review. Political mileage and political points will be their only consideration.

And that is sad, and wrong and will sow the seeds of future problems.]

No comments: