The danger of paranoia
By Gwynne Dyer, For The Straits Times
IN THE late 1980s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. And there it was, surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep casual visitors and foreign archaeologists out. Experts who saw the site before it was closed said that the church was built by Nestorian Christians, and was probably used from the 4th to the 9th century.
Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. But it confirmed the assumption of most historians that Christianity was flourishing in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries before the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.
I mention this because the Malaysian High Court has struck down a three-year-old ban on non-Muslims using the word 'Allah' when they speak of God in the Malay language. The decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur last Thursday night. And last Friday, protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards reading 'Allah is only for us'.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has condemned the attacks on the churches, but the Malaysian government is appealing against the High Court decision, and in the meantime, the ruling has been suspended.
'We...have the right to use the word 'Allah',' said Reverend Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, whose use of the word in its Malay-language edition triggered the crisis. Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed that 'the term 'Allah' was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed'.
Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by 300 years, and what else were they going to call God? The word 'Allah' is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- and the noun ilah, which means God. In parts of ancient Arabia, it once referred to the creator-god (who was not the only god), but for a very long time it has meant the One God.
This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, which arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. Ethnic Malays are Muslim, but there are numerous Malay speakers, especially in north Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word 'Allah' for God.
What's the harm in that? Why are Malaysia's Muslims so paranoid? The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic.
Malaysia is an ethnic time-bomb that has turned itself into a peaceful and prosperous country by a huge effort of will. The original population was mostly Malay, but under British rule huge numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work in the mines and plantations. By independence, Malays were only 60 per cent of the population, and much poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present and the probable future.
After several bouts of anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and the Indians thrive in trade and commerce - and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, which is called Malaysia.
The state spends a lot of money to raise the living standards of the Malays, and gives them preference for university places and government jobs. They have not done badly out of this deal, but nevertheless they feel perpetually insecure. Since they are all Muslims, while few other Malaysians are, they also feel their religion is under threat. Some respond by being aggressively intolerant of minorities.
Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organisations, including the Islamic political party Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), have agreed that the other 'Abrahamic religions' - Christianity and Judaism - may call their God Allah in Malay. But the situation is getting ugly, and it is high time for the government to stop playing along with the extremists.
It should take a lesson from the early Muslims of Arabia. Both the archaeological and the textual evidence suggest that most Arabs in northern Arabia and along the Gulf coast had already been Christian for several centuries when Islam first appeared in the 7th century. They were swiftly conquered by Muslim armies, but they were not forcibly converted.
As in all early Islamic empires, Christians had to pay higher taxes, but they were allowed to keep their property and practise their religion. It is highly improbable that they were forced to change the word they used for God. They did gradually convert to Islam, but the last Christian churches in the region probably survived into the early 9th century.
The Christians, Hindus, animists and others who make up 40 per cent of Malaysia's population pay higher taxes, in the sense that they subsidise the poorer Malay-Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that gives its people a good life. It should not endanger it so frivolously.
The writer is a London-based independent journalist.
THE 'ALLAH' DEBATE
What makes a confident Muslim?
By Marina Mahathir
I FOUND by chance this article the other day, entitled Prophet Muhammad's Promise To Christians (see left).
Now, when that delegation from St Catherine's Monastery came to meet the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), I suppose it's fair to assume that they spoke Arabic to one another. And when they were conversing, surely the word 'God' must have come up - as in 'May God Be With You' and such like.
What word did the Prophet use for 'God', I wonder? And what did the delegation from St Catherine's use in return? For monotheists like them, was there a 'your God' and 'my God' type of situation, or did they understand that they were both talking about the same One?
While some idiots are mourning over the 'loss' of the word 'Allah' - and therefore basically telling the world that they are people easily confused by nomenclature - and others are predicting riots over what is basically a 'copyright' issue, let me define what I think a confident Muslim should be:
# A confident Muslim is unfazed by the issue of God's name. God speaks to all of humankind in the Quran and never said that only Muslims could call him by the name 'Allah'.
# A confident Muslim has 99 names to choose from to describe that One God. My favourites are Ar-Rahman (The All-Compassionate) and Ar-Rahim (The All-Merciful).
# A confident Muslim never gets confused over which is his or her religion and which is other people's. For instance, a confident Muslim knows exactly what the first chapter of the Quran is. And it's not the Lord's Prayer.
# A confident Muslim will not walk into a church, hear a liturgy in Malay or Arabic where they use the word 'Allah' and then think that he or she is in a mosque. A confident Muslim knows the difference.
# A confident Muslim is generous, inclusive and doesn't think that his or her brethren is made exclusive through the use of a single language. The confident Muslim is well aware that, in the Middle East, all services of any religion are in Arabic because that's what they all speak.
# A confident Muslim knows that the basis of his or her faith are the five pillars of Islam, and will not be shaken just because other people call God by the same name.
# A Muslim believes in only One God. Therefore it makes sense that other people should call God by the same name because there is no other God.
'Art thou not aware that it is God whose limitless glory all (creatures) that are in the heavens and on earth extol, even the birds as they spread out their wings? Each (of them) knows indeed how to pray unto Him and to glorify Him; and God has full knowledge of all that they do.' (Surah Nour, Verse 41)
So I would ask these people demonstrating against (the Malaysian High Court's decision to allow a Malaysian Roman Catholic publication to use the word 'Allah' for God): Have you no pride? Are you saying you're easily confused?
And here's something interesting. In 2007, the Majlis Agama Negeri Perlis, which is a large majlis filled with people very learned in Islamic religious knowledge, discussed the question of the use of 'Allah' by non-Muslims. Their unanimous decision?
They issued a fatwa to say that there is absolutely nothing wrong with non-Muslims using the word at all.
Are we now going to excommunicate the whole of Perlis?
The writer is a Malaysian activist and blogger. The article above first appeared in rantingsbymm.blogspot.com on Jan 2, before the attacks on churches in Malaysia. Since then, Datin Paduka Marina has been at the forefront of efforts to support the churches and restore good relations between Muslims and Christians in Malaysia.
Prophet Muhammad's promise to Christians
MUSLIMS and Christians together constitute more than 50 per cent of the world and, if they lived in peace, we will be halfway to world peace. One small step that we can take towards fostering Muslim-Christian harmony is to tell and retell positive stories and abstain from mutual demonisation.
In this article I propose to remind both Muslims and Christians about a promise that Prophet Muhammad made to Christians. The knowledge of this promise can have enormous impact on Muslim conduct towards Christians. Muslims generally respect the precedent of their Prophet and try to practise it in their lives.
In AD628, a delegation from St Catherine's Monastery came to Prophet Muhammad and requested his protection. He responded by granting them a charter of rights, which I reproduce here in its entirety.
St Catherine's Monastery is located at the foot of Mount Sinai and is the world's oldest monastery. It possesses a huge collection of Christian manuscripts, second only to the Vatican, and is a world heritage site. It also boasts the oldest collection of Christian icons. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1,400 years under Muslim protection.
The Prophet's promise to St Catherine: 'This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
'Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
'No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses.
'Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
'No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
'No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).'
The first and the final sentences of the charter are critical. They make the promise eternal and universal. Muhammad asserts that Muslims are with Christians near and far, straight away rejecting any future attempts to limit the promise to St Catherine alone. By ordering Muslims to obey it until the Day of Judgment, the charter again undermines any future attempts to revoke the privileges. These rights are inalienable. Muhammad declared Christians, all of them, as his allies and he equated ill treatment of Christians with violating God's covenant.
A remarkable aspect of the charter is that it imposes no conditions on Christians for enjoying its privileges. It is enough that they are Christians. They are not required to alter their beliefs, they do not have to make any payments and they do not have any obligations. This is a charter of rights without any duties!
The document is not a modern human rights treaty but even though it was penned in AD628 it clearly protects the right to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work, and security of the person.
I know most readers must be thinking, so what? Well the answer is simple. Those who seek to foster discord among Muslims and Christians focus on issues that divide and emphasise areas of conflict. But when resources such as Muhammad's promise to Christians are invoked and highlighted, it builds bridges. It inspires Muslims to rise above communal intolerance and engenders goodwill in Christians who might be nursing fear of Islam or Muslims.
When I look at Islamic sources, I find in them unprecedented examples of religious tolerance and inclusiveness. They make me want to become a better person. I think the capacity to seek good and do good inheres in all of us. When we subdue this predisposition towards the good, we deny our fundamental humanity.
The writer, Dr Muqtedar Khan, is director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware and a fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
[I hope that this presents an opportunity for Malaysia to realise that they have gone down the dangerous slope and it is not worth it. I hope it means that UMNO and other political opportunists come to their senses and realise that this road leads to perdition. But I am not hopeful. The Malaysian leaders have shown little evidence of maturity, confidence, sincerity, and just plain commonsense to fill me with faith or hope that they can turn this around reasonably. So while I hope, I fear.]