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Let’s not muddle our minds when it comes to the term “Allah” being used to refer to “God” by people of other faiths. Some politicians and religious figures seem to exploit this issue without looking into the theological doctrines and the various historical facts.

The term “Allah” has been used by Christians in the Malay Archipelago to refer to God in Malay for more than four centuries (since the early 17th century) without any objection by the authorities.

In 2007 the government of Malaysia barred the use of the term “Allah” in any other context but a Muslim one. Understandably, the ruling against it must have been based on religious sensitivities in a multireligious society where the term “Allah” can be manipulated to confuse the Muslims.

After a legal scuffle that lasted more than a decade, the High Court on March 10 granted a Malaysian Christian the right to use the word “Allah” in her religious practice. The ruling quelled a three-decade government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their religious publications.

Malaysian Muslims in general and Christians do not speak Arabic and it would have been more appropriate if the “Allah” issue had not been brought to court but discussed amicably among the concerned parties – taking into consideration both the theological reasoning and the sensitivities of the people in a multi-religious society.

What’s more significant is that Muslims have to be edified on the use of the word “Allah” in the Arab world, which includes the days of Pagan Arabs to the advent of the Abrahamic faiths. “Lah” or “ilah” simply means God in Meccan Arabic and Hebrew as well.

And “Allah” in Arabic means “The God”.

Apparently, there is no lack of Islamic religious education in the country and yet some Muslims seem to be ill-informed on the use of the word “Allah” in the Abrahamic faiths as well as in many other religions. It’s the religious education system that has failed to disentangle minds in bondage.

Muslims should be edified that the word “Allah” (root word “ilah”) or its other derivatives were used long before Islam by the pagan Arabs, Christians and Jews.

Morphologically the term “Allah” is derived from a contraction of the Arabic definite article “al” (The) and “ilah” (God). Just emphasise to the Muslims that this “notion of God” is not the same among that of the pagan Arabs, Christian theology and Islam. The concepts associated with the term “Allah”, however, differ among religious traditions and the Muslims in the country can be enlightened on this only through proper religious education.

Hebrew and Arabic are closely related Semitic languages, and that “Allah” (root, ilah) and the Biblical Elohim are cognate derivations of the same origin. Going beyond the Semitic race, for instance in the Sanskrit language, Allah, Amba and Akka are synonyms. The term “Allah” also forms part of Sanskrit chants. It’s therefore no surprise that the term “Allah” is also found in Bengali and many other languages in the Indian subcontinent.

In fact, the origin of the root word “iiah” can be traced back to 2000 BC when it was used by the Arabs for pagan worship.

Learned Muslims and religious scholars in the country should stop politicising Islam but get to the study of the actual etymology of the word “Allah” as used in Islam and other cultures and religions.

This is not the issue or tussle between Muslims and non-Muslims or among political parties but of great educational significance to all Malaysians. Educate the masses on the universal acceptance of the term “Allah” and its cognates to refer to God and stress that theologically they may have different meanings to every religion or culture based on an individual’s perception of the Creator.

Explain to the masses

It would be more appropriate here to explain to the masses that “Allah” is the Arabic word for “the God” and “Al-“ is a definite article in Arabic; the word “Allah” or its derivatives are used in more than 60 main languages in the world to refer to “The God” and the word is notably used by Muslims, Arab speakers, Arab Christians, the Mizrahi Jews and later by the Christians in the Malay Archipelago since the 17th century. The Christians in the Malay Archipelago have inherited this term since then to refer to God. Bible translations into Malay were only published in 1733.

Christianity and Judaism came before Islam. Many Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, had long used the word “Allah” or its cognates to mean God.

In the context of Indonesia, Sabah and Sarawak, the term “Allah” has been in use for the past four centuries by those who profess Christianity. This is not something new to them, so there cannot be any coherent reason why they should stop using the word “Allah” in their translated Bibles now.

The first dictionary of Dutch-Malay by AC Ruyl, Justus Heurnius, and Caspar Wiltens in 1650 (revised edition from 1623 edition and 1631 Latin-edition) recorded “Allah” as the translation of the Dutch word “Godt”. Since then, the word “Allah” has been used to refer to God by the majority natives who profess Christianity in the Malay Archipelago.

The use of the word “Allah” by Christians has been conspicuous in Indonesia, Sarawak and Sabah. Stopping it after it has been in use for the past four centuries will be too impetuous a step and even defeats the purpose in this era of technology.

Of note, translated Bibles these days come in the form of e-books and can be downloaded free from the Internet. No law can stop this and instead of coming up with rules or decrees against the Christians using the term “Allah”, thus wisely, Muslims should be educated to see the differences in usage of this term in the various concepts of theologies and cultures.

Matter of semantics

The Christian community in the Malay Archipelago are used to the term “Allah” and its extension such as Allah al-ʾab (God the Father), Allah al-ibn (God the Son), and Allah ar-ruh al-quds (God the Holy Spirit). Herein lies the controversy between Christians and Muslims.

This aspect of usage by Christians may be seen as confusing to Muslims and it cannot be accepted by them. Muslims in the country can be educated to that fact that this is not theologically accepted in Islam, but solely for the consumption of the Christian community.

Arab Muslims who speak a common language with their Christian brothers and sisters are indeed aware of these lexical and religious nuances and it is a non-issue to them. A Muslim is taught about the monotheistic aspect of Islam. If the reason for objecting to their request to continue using the word “Allah” and other Arabic words is that it will confuse the Muslims this cannot be accepted. It may only reflect on the weaknesses of the Muslims.

For instance, an Arab Christian may invoke the word “bismi-llah” (in the name of God – a term also used by Muslims) to the concept of Trinity in their religious discourse. The Muslim bismi-llah reads: “In the name of God, the Compassionate, and the Merciful.” Whereas the Trinitised bismi-llah reads: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God.” Despite invoking the same term bismi-llah by both Muslims and Christians before performing any rites or rituals every Muslim should be taught to recognise the difference in approach to the concept of “Allah” in Islam and “Allah” in Christianity.

The deeper structure and the semantics differ according to one’s belief and religious awareness, and this is what matters more in faith. Are Muslims so pathetic that they are not able to discern the various concepts of theologies in other religions? If they are, then they have not been taught enough about Islam.

It is as simple as telling the Muslims that to them, “Allah” (God) is the Sustainer of this universe, He upholds everything in existence, He cannot be associated with any other being, and humble submission to His Will, Divine Orders and Decrees is the hinge of the Muslim faith.

Too sensitive an issue

It was once reported that an Islamic religious body issued a statement pointing to the fact that the use of the word “Allah” by other religions will bring harm to Islam. It was said that the position was based on a decision of the National Fatwa Council in 2008. This, I suppose, must be another defeatist stand made by a Muslim authority.

The Malaysian Gurdwara Council was reported to have argued that it was unconstitutional to ban anyone from using the word “Allah”, insisting that the National Fatwa Council’s decree on the word could not apply to non-Muslims.

In a statement by the MGC president, he pointed out that the council does not have direct jurisdiction over non-Muslims and could not issue a fatwa to bar the community from using a specific word in their sacred books.

An Islamic cleric was reported to have told non-Muslims who insist on using the word “Allah” to convert to Islam if they refuse to accept that the word belongs only to Muslims. The contentious cleric also indicted the Christian community of deliberately provoking Muslims by pressing on with their demand to use “Allah” in their Holy Book. This avowal apparently sounds weird and to an extent ridiculous coming from a so-called “learned” cleric.

Stuck in mental servitude, he has missed many issues relating to Islam and other religions. He has missed the core semantics and theological issues relating to the word “Allah” when he says the word only belongs to Muslims.

Instead, the ecclesiastical should educate the masses on religion, stop politicising it; only with an open mind will common sense prevail when it comes to tolerance and freedom of religion. This is important if religious harmony is what Malaysians hope for in the country.

The Qur’an evidently says: “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book (who covenanted with Abraham), except with means better unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong: but say, We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we submit.” (29:46) “And indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so submit to Him. That is a straight path.” (19:36).

To surmise, lexically and theologically the word “Allah” can be used by all – Muslims and non-Muslims – but abusing or exploiting the word for some ulterior motive or in an ungodly manner to confuse the masses should be discouraged, as this would lead to religious disharmony in a society where religion is too sensitive an issue and when the people are not well-versed with religious doctrines. - Source Free Malaysia Today (Opinion)

From Moaz Nair

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