Of God and Allah

And finally this morning (a busy day for blogging after a bit of an hiatus) a Malay friend of mine has been emailing me with concerns about the opposition Christians in Malaysia are expriencing in regards to the new law forbidding the use of the name “Allah” in any context other than Islam.

It must be said from the get go, that this is a singularly parochial idea on the part of the Malaysian Muslims. It is not shared anywhere else in the world, as far as I know, by any other Muslim majority – not even in Indonesia, which has its fair share of Christian-Muslim troubles.

Why don’t the Christians in Malaysia just give up the use of the name “Allah” and use some other word for “God”? Well, just consider that wherever Christianity has been proclaimed and taught and celebrated in Arabic, “Allah” has been the word used for God. This is only obvious, since the original Arabic from which the name comes is “al-ilah”, ie. “the God”. It is the direct equivalent of the Greek “ho theos” used in the New Testament. In the Hebrew, the word used for God shows the same cultural borrowing: since the ancient cultures among which the Hebrew faith emerged only had a plural word for divinity – “Elohim” – they continued to use just this same word, but with singular rather than plural verbs and adjectives (see an example in today’s first reading at Mass, from 1 Sam 4, where the Philistines exclaim “Gods have come to their camp” – it could be translated also as “God” or “a god”).

And if you still can’t understand the predicament that the Malay Christians are in, imagine for a moment, even in English, let alone Arabic or Greek or Hebrew, trying to speak about or praying to the Trinity without using the name “God”. Pretty hard, eh?

I don’t know which way this one will fall in the end, but the Malay authorities are way out on a limb here.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Of God and Allah

  1. Peregrinus

    Why don’t the Christians in Malaysia just give up the use of the name “Allah” and use some other word for “God”? Well, just consider that wherever Christianity has been proclaimed and taught and celebrated in Arabic, “Allah” has been the word used for God.

    The think is, though, Arabic is not what they speak in Malaysia; they speak Malay and a variety of other languages, but not Arabic. I don’t know what the Malay word for “God” is, but I haven’t seen any reports that it is “Allah” and, since Malay is not a semitic language, it would surprise me if that were the case.

    Malay-speaking Muslims frequently us the name “Allah”, as indeed do English-speaking Muslims and other Muslims who don’t otherwise speak Arabic. It’s a mark of the profound influence which its Arab origins has had on Islamic culture.

    Arabic-speaking Christians also use “Allah”, and as far as I know this has never been a source of tension with their Muslim neighbours.

    Non-Arabic speaking Christians do not normally use “Allah” to refer to God. Clearly, though, there is some group of Malay Christians which has used the term, or which wants to.

    Something which none of the newspaper reports that I have seen has addressed is why this is so. What is the group trying to signify by adopting an Arabic word for God? How is the gesture understood by non-Christian Malays, and in particular by Muslim Malays?

    Unless we assume that Malaysian Muslims live in a hole in the ground – an assumption I am not prepared to make – they must be aware that there have always been Christian communities using the word “Allah”, and that Islam has never had a particular problem with this. I suspect, therefore, that objection is taken here because Christians who haven’t previously adopted the Arablic word and wouldn’t otherwise use it have chosen to do so. And I also suspect they feel that the Christians are staking some claim, or sending some message, by doing so.

    I’m certainly not defending or excusing attacks on churches, or on Christians. But I do think there’s an important dimension to this story which is not being reported, or explored in news reports or in any commentary that I have seen. And, without that, I don’t think we can really understand what is going on here.

    • The thing is, though, Arabic is not what they speak in Malaysia; they speak Malay and a variety of other languages, but not Arabic… Malay-speaking Muslims frequently us the name “Allah”, as indeed do English-speaking Muslims and other Muslims who don’t otherwise speak Arabic. It’s a mark of the profound influence which its Arab origins has had on Islamic culture.

      This is, I guess, precisely the point and the reason why “Allah” has come to be seen as the specific name for God for Muslims and not for Christians. If the entire culture were Arabic speaking, it wouldn’t be an issue.

      But possibly, like the pre-Hebrew cultures in Canaan, the native Malay’s did not have a word for God in the singular, but the Christian Malay’s did not follow the Hebrew example and, instead of using pagan names for “gods”, adopted the name in use by the Muslims around them to say “We mean this One God”. Really, this is no different from Muslims in our culture using the English word “God” for “Allah”.

      Clearly, though, there is some group of Malay Christians which has used the term, or which wants to.

      Actually, I think that most Malay Christians, including Catholics, use this term for God. I should check it out. I don’t think it is an isolated group, however.

      Unless we assume that Malaysian Muslims live in a hole in the ground – an assumption I am not prepared to make – they must be aware that there have always been Christian communities using the word “Allah”, and that Islam has never had a particular problem with this.

      I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised if they do in fact “live in a hole in the ground” in this regard. Most Western Christians, for example, are in a similar “hole” regards their awareness that Eastern Arabic speaking Christians also use the name “Allah” in their liturgy.

  2. Mike

    I was taught Indonesian by brothers of a Catholic order. Indonesian is very similar to Malay, to the point that you can converse quite fluently in one if you know the other. I believe their religious language is similar (though probably constrained somewhat by the law we’re speaking of here, which has been in force for some time).

    We were taught the Hail Mary in Indonesian, which starts “Salam Maria penuh rakhmat” and the second verse starts with “Santa Maria, Bunda Allah”. This is what Catholics use daily over there. It’s interesting to see both the Latin and Arabic influences in that, but they are certainly there and well established. Probably because Muslim traders/missionaries got there before the Christians made such an impression.
    Similarly, I recall that the “Agnus Dei” at Mass is “Anak Domba Allah”, and I heard many free-form Christian prayers include the interjection “Ya, Allah”. Often the word “Tuhan” is used where we would use “Lord”, and certainly the direct equivalents of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are used.
    When speaking of pagan and traditional indiginous religions, I think they use “dewa” a lot to mean “god”. Not sure if this was used in Malaysia or just Indonesia.

    Loads of other words in Malay/Indonesian have Arabic origins, especially (but not only) words relating to religion. So I think it’s quite well established, and that this is not some small and fringe group wanting to use the word. Certainly, Catholics are prominent among those challenging the law.

    • Wow! “Allah” in the “Hail Mary”! Thanks for that “from the ground” information, Mike. Very helpful to the conversation.

      • Lance Eccles

        It’s worth noting the beginning of the second half of the Hail Mary in Maltese too. (They spell Allah without the h.)

        Qaddisa Marija, Omm Alla

        • Peregrinus

          Yes, but you’d expect that. Maltese is a semitic language.

          I’m interested in what Mike says. I suppose it’s possible that if Malay culture lacked a concept of a unique transcendent God, the Malay language lacked a word for the concept, and a loan-word had to be employed once the concept was imported. Since Islam made an impact before Christianity, the term might have come from Arabic, and “Allah” could be the ordinary Malay word for “God”.

          The question then arises why this dispute only crops up now. Islam was brought b traders, but Christianity was brought by colonial powers who were seekign political and cultural domiance – first the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. It may well be that Malay Christians were encourage to embrace not only Christianity but European culture, including language, with the result that for a long time there was little, if any, Christian discourse in Malay, and “Allah” was used exclusively by Muslims. (This would also help to explain why Christians, despite official support, remained a tiny minority while the great bulk of the population embraced Islam).

          I get the impression that Islam came to be seen as authentically Malayan, while Christianity was associated with the colonists. Hence postcolonial Malay culture may tend to stress the authenticity of Islam, and to see Christianity as something foreign, imposed through the vicissitudes of history. Belated moves by Christians to reclaim “Allah” may be resisted on cultural-national grounds, rathe than religious grounds, in much the way and for much the reason that a certain subset of American Protestants are vociferous in their insistence that Muslims worship a different God from Christians. Religious, national and political identity have become intertwined.

          • Kiran

            Dewa is Sanskrit in origin. So, it would exist wherever the Indian Empire existed in what would be the Western Early Middle Ages. So, you have a third borrowing there. The interesting thing is that the plural is indicative of respect. So, where I was born, so far as I know, at least common talk in my mother tongue about God would use the plural, not indicating plurality, but exaltedness of person. What makes it even more complex, of course, is that the Indian Empire was succeeded by the Moghul, muslim empire, which in turn borrowed and gave out words.

            As to the dispute only cropping up now, I think it has to do with the introduction of democracy (or the move away from colonial government) and the way in which it functions in quite a large part of Asia (including India). Religion is a very potent political force. Hindus who lived quite peacefully with Christians. I was taught bird-watching by a Jacobite Christian for instance, and in primary school had a protestant teacher whose husband was a carpenter named Joseph, and friends who were protestants). Over the course of my life time, and largely due to political pressure, that has changed, I understand.

            All of which supports my view that it is not religion that causes conflict. It is “politics”.

            • Any connection between Dewa and Deus / Theos, by any chance? Sanskrit seems to be at the back of many European languages. All just shows the greatness of God’s answer to Moses: “I am who I am”.

              • Lance Eccles

                Sanskrit Dewa and Latin Deus are related, but Greek theos, in spite of the resemblance, is not. The Greek cognate of Deus is Zeus.

                Incidentally, it’s possible that Arabic Allâh is, like many other Koranic terms, borrowed from Syriac: Alâhâ. That would make it a Christian word.

          • Yes, but if this is the situation, Perry, you would expect the same situation to crop up in Indonesia, wouldn’t you?

            The real irony of the whole thing is, as you say, the argument about whether or not the Muslim and Christian God is the same God – or not. It seems that local politics – whether in Malaysia or in the US – has an effect on the answer given!

            • Peregrinus

              Yes, but if this is the situation, Perry, you would expect the same situation to crop up in Indonesia, wouldn’t you?

              Indonesia is different, though. While there are similarities with the Malay experience, there are also important differences, one being that Islam in Indonesia never acquired the cultural dominance that it did among the Malays. Hinduism retained a significant presence.

              Whether for this reason or for others, anti-colonial sentiment in Indonesia never identified itself as Islamic, or envisaged an Indonesian culture which would be characteristically Muslim. Indonesia has the largest muslim population of any country in the world, but political nationalism in Indonesia is pretty firmly wedded to religious pluralism, whereas the truly authentic Malay is expected to be Muslim, in much the way that a “real” Irishman is supposed to be Catholic, or in the way that the term “Aussie” is used to mean “white”.

              The real irony of the whole thing is, as you say, the argument about whether or not the Muslim and Christian God is the same God – or not. It seems that local politics – whether in Malaysia or in the US – has an effect on the answer given!

              I don’t know that the objectors in this case are saying that Christians worship a different God. They may simply be saying that Christians are attempting to co-opt or claim a share in a distinctively Islamic form of discourse about God, and they may see this as a from of proselytism, or of cultural imperialism.

              But, yes, it’s politics, adopting the garb of religion. As an Irishman, though, I’m not really in a position to be too self-righteous about that. And I wouldn’t assume that it’s only the Muslim side of this dispute that has a fundamentally political or cultural motive.

  3. Fascinating discussion. I’ve browsed a couple of English-language sites with comments from Malaysians – passions are running high!

    Here’s a paragraph from an article about the original courtcase:

    ‘From extensive documentation compiled by the Catholics in recent months, it clearly emerges that Christians have used the word “Allah” for more than four centuries. A Malay-Latin dictionary printed in 1631 demonstrates that for the Latin word “Deus” (“God”), the Malay word is “Allah.” This means that use of the term was widespread well before the publication of the dictionary. According to some Catholics, “the word ‘Allah’ is not a new word in the theological vocabulary of the Christians since the time of the Sultanate of Malacca [16th century], of the Straits Settlements [1826], of the Federation of Malaya [1948], and later of Malaysia [1963].” It is only in 1992 that a Malay dictionary appears defining the word “Allah” as “the God of Islam.” ‘ (source: http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=14574)

  4. Mike

    Thanks Joyful Papist, for a good scholarly contribution. I’m pretty sure it’s not simply a belated move by Christians to claim the word Allah but I think there is some truth in that same paragraph of Peregrinus’s. I believe in Malaysia it is pretty much expected that Malay = Muslim, and it is illegal to convert to another religion. But there are, and have been for decades, Malay Christians.

    (Note to the confused: Malaysian = citizen of Malaysia; Malay = the race of the “original” inhabitants)

    The (Catholic) Herald in Malaysia has been part of this story from the beginning. See this article in which they explain that it was a ruling in 1986 which restricted it to Muslims only – and the different levels of enforcement of this rule.
    http://www.heraldmalaysia.com/news/storydetails.php/%E2%80%98Allah%E2%80%99-not-only-word-banned/3817-0-1

    This is somehow related to the “Control and Restriction of the Propagation of Non-Islamic Religions Enactment 1989”

    I suspect David’s Malaysian friend, with whom this thread started offline, could add much more clarity than the rest of us on this topic. I know that there are many Malaysian-born Catholics in Melbourne, so we could get a much better idea if any of them chimed in.

    • I welcome any comments from any Malaysians or even Malays (thanks for the distinction, Mike!) reading this blog. Your comments will need to be moderated first, but don’t let that put you off submitting one.

  5. Collin Nunis

    I’ll be in Melbourne city today until Tuesday arvo. I leave for Malaysia shortly after that for a month’s holiday before I head back to Perth for what will be my final semester. I plan to head to Melbourne or Sydney for my MDiv program shortly after. Please keep me posted if you’d like to catch up for a cuppa. My shout. You know how to track me. I’ll tell you some dirty secrets about the story behind the Allah story and why it came up in the first place.

    Cheers mate.

  6. Perry’s nitpicking aside, surely the point is that the Malaysian Muslims are being a pack of jerks.

    • Peregrinus

      Somebody’s being a jerk, yes, and Christians are being jerked around.

      But before we name-and-shame “Malaysian Muslims”, we should reflect on this. The Allah-ban isn’t an intitiative of any Islamic religious authority, or religious group, or even of some privately-organised Islamic movement. It was the government which, about three years ago, introduced this ban. It was politicians. And, while they may have been Muslim polticians, we shouldn’t assume that this particular measure is motivated by Islam. Based on what we know of Islam and its understanding of God, this looks to me like an attempt to assert Malay cultural dominance, and to co-opt Islamic sensibilities for that purpose. My guess is that this is nationalism, not religion.