Monday, March 9, 2009

Long-drawn battle over one word

March 9, 2009

Back to square one on the use of the word Allah

By Elizabeth Looi

TALK about an almighty issue.

To Malaysian Muslims, Allah means God in the Islamic faith. To Christians, however, it simply means God in any faith. The Sikhs hold the same view.

And from this one word, a long-drawn battle has ensued. It started in 2007 when the Home Ministry revoked permission for Christian publications, the Bible included, to use the word. It wants them to use Tuhan (which also means God to Muslims but not Christians) instead.

The Catholic Church remained adamant, and after some public squabbling, it took the matter to court. The Sikhs, whose holy texts also use the word Allah, are attempting to join in the case.

The editor of the Catholic Church's publication, The Herald, Father Lawrence Andrew, said Christians could not use Tuhan as the word meant Lord to them.

'We have been using Allah in our prayers and worship. When this issue was highlighted by international media, someone from Bahrain sent us a copy of the bible in Arabic and pointed out that Allah is used in that. For the Church, Allah is a language that has been consistent,' Father Lawrence told The Straits Times.

The matter took a surprising turn on Feb 16 when the Home Ministry appeared to have relented, agreeing that Christian publications could use Allah, provided the words 'For Christianity' were published on the cover.

This move pleased no one. Some Christians deplored the restriction, arguing that it would circumscribe their use of the word in church. They also argued that it would be difficult to comply with the requirement for existing publications.

Muslims were even more upset.

Perak Mufti Harussani Zakaria expressed shock and objected to this conditional use of Allah in Christian publications, saying it would not be possible to differentiate God among the faiths. He added that Muslims use Allah to refer to God, unlike those in other faiths.

'Why the need to compromise in this matter? It is not allowed according to state Islamic department enactments,' he was quoted as saying in Utusan Malaysia.

The Syariah Lawyers Association also urged the government to revoke the gazette, as it could cause anxiety among Muslims.

'The decision is also against the Cabinet's orders made on May 19, 1986,' said association president Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar.

Penang Islamic Council chief Shabudin Yahaya asked for the decision to be reviewed as it involved Islam.

'This is dangerous and could bring confusion, especially among Muslims,' he said. 'The Herald case is still in the courts, so why should the gazette be released now?'

He added that the issue should not have arisen in the first place as Islam is the official religion.

The government has since rescinded permission, calling the move a 'mistake'.

Things are now back to square one, with emotions running high.

To some, including Christians, the Church is being unnecessarily sticky. But it does have a point in that the word Allah has no religious origins.

'For a start, the word Allah pre-dates 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,' political scientist Farish Noor noted in his article 'The origins of the word Allah' in 2007.

'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 has more to do with the development and evolution of Arabic language and culture, and less to do with Islam.'

However, in Malaysia, Allah - unlike Tuhan - has emotional connotations for many Muslims. They have tried to apply the same reasoning used by Religious Adviser to the Prime Minister, Mr Abdullah Md Zin. He did not deny that the word had existed in ancient days, but said that it had been used in the wrong context.

He said people in the olden days claimed that Allah had children, that angels were His daughters and that Allah had associations with the idols used then for worshipping.

'That is why Allah directed Prophet Muhammad to clear up the matter and declare that Allah is One, has no children, was not given birth to, and cannot be associated or likened to other things or objects in this world. That is why the word Allah cannot be used by non-Muslims to describe their God,' he said.

However, more is at issue than the origins of the word. The controversy is inextricably tied to the complexity of race relations in the country, and religion plays a major role for the Malays as it forms the core of their identity.

There is no doubt that race relations are not at their best, and that many in the majority community feel under siege. Rightly or wrongly, they feel they are being asked to give up their comfortable status quo - and this includes the special position of Islam as the official religion of Malaysia.

However, Muslim opinion on the use of the word by non-believers is quite divided, even within the conservative Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS). The party's revered spiritual adviser Nik Aziz Nik Mat felt it was not wrong for non-Muslims to use the word.

Kuala Selangor MP Dzulkifli Ahmad cited the Quran to show how the word was used by non-Muslims. He was supported by Shah Alam MP Khalid Samad, who argued that Allah means God in Arabic. Both MPs are from PAS.

But Baling MP Taib Azamudin, also from PAS, disagreed and said he wanted to protect the sanctity of the religion.

Umno leaders appear, in general, to be against the use of the word by non-believers. Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is in charge of Islamic affairs, said the government's stand is that Allah cannot be used by non-Muslims, citing state enactments and gazetted decrees by Islamic authorities.

The issue is now in the High Court for resolution.

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