Malaysian Religious Communities Embattled Over What To Call Their God

by
Sameera Ehteram
In an uncharacteristic move, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known for his religious tolerance, said it would not hurt local Christians if they did not use the word 'Allah' (Arabic name for God) to refer to their God.

In an uncharacteristic move, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, known for his religious tolerance, said it would not hurt local Christians if they did not use the word 'Allah' (Arabic name for God) to refer to their God.

In Malaysia, people of all faiths use the word ‘Allah’ in Malay to refer to their Gods. Christians argue that the word entered their language from Arabic and has been used for centuries. The country’s current PM and other Islamic elements beg to differ.

Muslims across the world generally use Allah but there are other Islamic countries like Iran and Pakistan where the words ‘Khuda’ or ‘Mabood’ are also used.

Would it make a difference if it was God, Allah, Mabood, Khaliq, Khudawand, Ilahi, Lord or Deu? Isn’t God in any language just that - God?

History remembers Mahathir as an autocratic ruler but an extremely sensible politician as well who transformed Malaysia into an Asian economic tiger. When the country’s PM Najib Razak pledged to defend the word ‘Allah’ as being the exclusive right of the Muslims a few months ago, there was criticism and his words were taken as that of a man who didn’t know better.

But the fact that a political stalwart like Dr. Mahathir Mohamad would support Razak’s intolerance is both shocking as well as disappointing. 

He said that people from various religions have peacefully lived together and the continued use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians, which has offended certain Islamic groups, could lead to disharmony and clashes between the two communities.

One can understand Mohamad’s concerns over the issue because of the current dispute between the Catholic Church and the government over the use of the word ‘Allah.’ The heated debate began in 2009 when a court ruled in favor of a Christian newspaper that was told by the government that it could not use ‘Allah’ in its Malay-language edition to describe the Christian God.

Today, the editor of Catholic Church weekly, Herald, Father Lawrence Andrew, is currently being accused of treason for saying that Catholic churches in the state would continue to use the word “Allah” in their masses. His statement was made despite a recent court ruling this past October that stated that non-Muslims cannot use the word Allah to refer to God, even in their own faiths.

Police reports were lodged against Andrew, demanding that he apologize.

Mohamad’s fears regarding potential rifts between communities are not baseless, as dozens of churches and a few Muslim prayer halls were attacked and burned in the wake of the 2009 ruling (in favor of the Herald).

According to Mahathir Mohamad, ‘Christians and Jews know very well that in all their bibles, the Old Testament and the New Testament, and in the King James and other versions the word Allah had never appeared as the name of God. It is only after Islam and the Quran that the world became acquainted with the word Allah for God.

In their effort to spread Christianity in the Malay speaking world the Christian missionaries used the word Allah for reasons best known to themselves. Whatever, the word Allah for God is not derived from Jewish or Christian sources.’

He went on to say, ‘Religious confrontations can lead to very serious consequences. It can lead to violence and killings even. This peaceful country will not be peaceful anymore if we have religious violence.’

He agreed it was against freedom of expression but that, ‘freedom even in a liberal democracy have limits if we really want democracy to work.’

Malaysia is a religiously diverse country where people can generally follow their own religion even though Islam is the official religion. Malay Muslims make up almost two-thirds of the country's population, but there are large Hindu and Christian communities.

Given that the country has served as a good example of a Muslim society where different religious communities live in harmony, the current divide over the use of ‘Allah’ is worrying.

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