Allah Muslim-Christian Controversy in Malaysia

The riots by some Muslims in Malaysia and attacks on Christian churches over a recent court ruling allowing Christians to call God “Allah” are as baffling and dismaying to me as to everyone else. I mean, there is a post-colonial dimension to these things. Malaysia was conquered by the British in the 19th century and ruled with an iron fist, and the British brought in a lot of Chinese laborers for the tin mines. When British Malaya got its independence as Malaysia and Singapore, Muslims were only a little over half of the population in Malaysia and many felt that they had been discriminated against in their own country by Christian British colonial policy. That the Chinese emerged as an economic elite did not help. It has nevertheless been a relatively successful multicultural society, mainly Muslim and Buddhist. Christians are 6% or so.

Whatever is driving these disturbances, the Malays are just wrong that the word “Allah” is especially Islamic. It is just a Semitic word for the divine, formed from the definite article al- and the root ilah which means ‘god’. It is cognate to the Hebrew Elohim, one of the words for God in the Hebrew Bible (ilah= eloh). The gods of the Meccan pagans were called ilah before Islam. Al-Ilah, or The God, became elided into Allah and was used by pagans to refer to a great distant creator-god, less accessible than the star-goddesses they worshipped. There were Christian Arab kingdoms before Islam, whose inhabitants referred to the God of the Gospels and the Old Testament as Allah.

The Qur’an itself insists that it is a restatement of the truths revealed by the one God, Allah, to previous prophets such as Moses and Jesus.

Arab Christians call God Allah every day.

So the word has no specially Islamic overtones and was not invented by or monopolized by Muslims. This linguistic history is one reason I think English-speaking Muslims who insist on saying Allah rather than just God are wrong. They are implying that the God of the Qur’an is not the God of Jesus, Moses and Abraham, whereas it insists that he is.

This Indonesian blog seems as confused as I am.

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23 Responses

  1. An unrelated question; Persians use the word Elahee for godess; so assuming "ilah/eloh's" semetic roots; and their masculin divinity, I wonder if "elaheh" is used in the same context (female god) in Arabic/hebrew cultures?

    A bit more related comment: I find Muslim's inferiority complexes are turning into dangerous post-colonial pathologies.

  2. As an American, I can't help but notice that when we refer to the god in an Islamic context, we also use the term "Allah", as if to respect any semantic distance that is supposed to exist between our god and theirs. It seems that the only difference is that in Malaysia, the law is being brought into the equation.

  3. Maybe Malaysia has blasphemy laws which they fear some miscreants will circumvent using argument that we are insulting "our" Allah not yours.

  4. There is no "Malaysia"/"our own country, before british.

    Malaysia is only hold together by british written constitution and UMNO coalition/Barnas.

    I suspect once BARNAS is destroyed, the constitution will be too weak to hold the country together. And Malaysia will revert to what it has before, a collection of sultanate.

    UMNO genius is to weakened the sultanate and its demand, basically continuing British policy of dissolving the sultanates.

    But UMNO is corrupt and they increasingly using religious populism to maintain popularity. And that will be the downfall of Malaysia.

  5. With all due respect to Dr. Cole, I do believe he is missing the point. His linguistic analysis of the word Allah is correct; however, that is not the issue at play in Malaysia.

    The real issue at hand is with respect to conversion to Christianity. The Malaysian newspaper in question, The Herald, is published by the Catholic Church. That newspaper is published in several different languages, but the paper written in Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, is only distributed to the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, on the island of Borneo. The problem as Malays in West Malaysia (the Malayan peninsula) see it is that the Malays and aboriginal people in East Malaysia are less educated, who lead simpler lives*, and they might become confused in reading a Christian newspaper that prints the word Allah, thinking that The Herald is a Muslim newspaper when it is not. This is a valid concern. IMO, the arguments made by The Herald are smoke screens, trying to hide the newspaper's ulterior motive which, indeed, is to convert people to Catholicism. This is what is making some people so angry that they are committing arson against various churches. As a Muslim, I don't condone this behavior, and I think the Malaysian government and political parties have responded properly to this situation. However, I do think the Catholic Church in Malaysia is being provocative and somewhat disingenuous. IMO, they share some of the blame for what has gone on so far.

    * In all fairness, the same argument (not well educated, simpler people) applies to many Malays in West Malaysia as well; however, between the two sides of the country, West Malaysia is more advanced.

  6. I rather suspect that there is a section of the population who dislike Christianity (or any other religion other than theirs) that any half-baked excuse to riot will serve.

  7. the question here is : why does the catholic herald use the word Allah instead of "God" or "Tuhan"? which is well understood by the people of Malaysia.
    Muslims in Malaysia is not that narrow minded people who cannot understand academic arguments, we just confused by their sudden intention to use the word.

  8. if those muslim can read allah they can surely read "hanya untuk bukan muslim sahaja" (only for non-muslim)printed on the front page of the herald

  9. JDSg, YOU are missing the point.

    The government DID NOT act accordingly to sustain the safety of those churches. So he gave Metro Tabernacle Church RM500k for damages. Does that account for "sincerity"? As a responsible citizen, do yourself a favour and research more regarding this topic and issue. It will do you a world of good if you actually go to youtube and watch those protests and interviews with gov officials.

    If they're SO helpful, why is it that on Friday, after the first 3 churches were attacked, the gov said they have "everything under control" and MORE churches got attacked on Saturday and Monday? Nothing happened on Sunday because "Anugerah Juara Lagu" was on. After Friday, the IGP had nothing else left to say and pulled in Hishamuddin to answer reporter's questions. He keeps saying the same thing over and over again, as the number of attacked churches begin to soar. You know what else he said? "Do not believe the international media or the internet". Really now? So it's BBC, CNN, The Times UK, Time.com, The Malaysian Insider, The Nut Graph, The Edge Daily AGAINST the gov. Who would you rather believe, Hishamudin or them? Based on the events over the last few days, you know very well what my choice would be. And it will only be a matter of days before they change their spokesperson.

    So try NOT believe everything you read from mainstream newspapers and MAINSTREAM NEWS. A good balance would prove to be fruitful. You know very well that the Inspector General Police is corrupt and is a puppet by the government. He has no other choice, otherwise his job or worse, his life, will not be spared.

    Try enhancing your knowledge of the Qur'an by reading this:
    link to aljazeera.com

    Oh and by the way, do not flatter yourself by stating that Catholics are out to convert others. Get your facts right before making such idiotic statements like that.

    First and foremost, ask yourself which ONE religion makes it ILLEGAL to convert OUT of it, in Malaysia?
    Yup, Islam.

    And which religion MAKES IT COMPULSORY for non-Muslims who marry Muslims to CONVERT into Islam?
    Yup, Islam.

    So who's trying to convert who?

    All Catholic/Christian converts are done/conducted willingly.

    I'm sorry if you and your ancestors felt oppressed, maybe it's time you guys wake up and start being hardworking for once. Mind you, most of my close friends are practicing Muslims, but they have highly-educated and open-minded views and they read and speak Arabic, so they know EXACTLY what it says and do not interpret it to suit their whims and fancies; which is more than what I can say for 90% of Malaysian Muslims.

    To our international audience, I deeply apologize for this and I'm ashamed that yet again, negative news from M'sia made the international headlines. All non-Muslims here are as baffled (if not more) than you. But our religions have taught us that violence is not the answer.

    Here's how the minds of some fanatical Muslims work. This guy is affiliated to UMNO, a political party here. He's quite eloquent too, no matter how bigotted his opinions are.
    link to thoughtsintangents.blogspot.com

    Here's some good points that will definitely explain many things and answer many questions:
    link to thenutgraph.com

  10. JDsg, I reckon your opinion about East Malaysians being less educated is based on the evergreen presumption that they live on trees. IMHO, Malaysian Muslims have the upper hand here what with their 11 years of Islamic Education compared to the rest of the population who only had Civic Education. Even if Muslims wanted to convert to Christianity that is clearly not possible given the current law.

  11. The problem with ignorance is….
    The Malay speaking population in Malaysia has been using Allah hundreds of years.They pray to Allah. Problem is West Malaysians think they are superior but in fact are Ignorant if this. so there is no sudden intention to use that word. The herald has published the malay section for more than a decade. It is ONLY for Non Muslims.
    Why do Muslims think that their faith is so WEAK that it is so easy to convert them with a word. If they were confident of their religion , they would think that Christians would be confused and convert to Islam as it is in their magazine.

  12. JDsg…I presume you are UMNO Muslim who still thinks "West Malaysia is more advanced(than the East Malaysian)". You must have been totally indoctrinated in one of those BN camping trip! Well, You have the right to hold on to that narrow twisted extremist ideas of yours because comes next GE, you will be having a hard time adjusting to the real free world pilot by the PR…

  13. If you prevent others from calling Allah, which other gods would you like them to call?

    Is it not the duty of a Muslim to invite others to call or worship Allah instead compelling them to turn to other gods?

    Is it not blasphemous?

    What kind of a Muslim are you?

    A true Muslim or a Malay Muslim?

  14. The best joke is that the term "allah" is also used in the peranakan chinese (straits born chinese) patois to refer to the Taoist deities, they worship. FYI, the peranakans arose out of Chinese and Malay intermarriages. Don't think the peranakan chinese even thought of converting the malays! Only conclusion from UMNO/Malaysian minister brushing aside centuries old usage of the word "allah" and its etymology is that UMNO think the Malay Muslims are stupid and therefore need to claim the word "allah" as special to Islam. As for protecting the population of Eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, the joke is that Muslims form the minority in the Eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak, despite the mass conversions of indigenous folks and the total trampling of the 20 points agreement between the federal govenment and the states of Sabah and Sarawak. …Oh well I suppose we cannot expect much rationality or fairplay from the only country in the world where affirmative action exists for the majority Malay muslims!

  15. asr, thanks for proving yourself as what you deny to be.
    You might be an Islamic school teacher, but your "Muslims in Malaysia is not that narrow minded people who cannot understand academic arguments, we just confused by their sudden intention to use the word" gives you away as someone who lacks basic knowledge of the country and its history: The word 'Allah' has been used indiscriminately for centuries. Only one and a half years ago, the next Home Minister, trying to play to the galleries after a rather devastating election outcome for the ruling coalition, spontaneously decided that this century-old tradition would have to stop immediately. All inter-faith dialogue proposals were brushed aside by the government, until the paper saw no other alternative than to go to court to get that decision overturned.

  16. @Juan: my sentiments exactly. I have a Bible here in the US, that a Christian preacher was handing out. It has one sentence in multiple languages and in the Arabic version Allah is used for God.
    In fact the Quran explicitly asks Muslims to emphasize to the "people of the book" that their Gods are one and the same:

    29:46 And do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner – unless it be such of them as are bent on evildoing and say: “We believe in that which has been be stowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that We [all] surrender ourselves.”

    It is ironic that Malay Muslims take offense at their God being recognized by Christians as their own, while Muslims in the west would love for Christians to come to that realization.

    @JDsg: Whatever ulterior motives maybe involved, wouldn't you agree that educating the "less informed" Muslims would be the right thing to do? Especially since their premise holds no logical basis and is in direct contradiction of the Quran.

    @Naj: Elahe to my understanding is Elah [god as in لا اله الا الله] plus "he" [تای تانیث] which is used to denote the female version of things in Arabic. So to my understanding its a 100% Arabic word. الهة in Google Translate returns Goddess.

  17. Well, try this for a "egoistic" behavior. Indonesian Council of Islamic Ulama (leaders in religion) can declare which action is sin (haram in indonesia/malaysia word).

    In the recent meeting of a group of islamic schools want to propose this to the council that
    - bonding hair for single woman is a sin, woman must not look pretty since it might aroused male to conduct sin.
    - pre-wedding picture also a sin for both the couple and the photographer, since promote closeness between non husband and wife (touching is not permitted before married).

    Although this is only a proposal, i just feel it absurd.

    Smoking is still in debate, although everyone know smoking will kill.

  18. JDsg…with regard to your comments on East Malaysia, you are probably not aware of the 20-point agreement/memorandum made between the state of Sabah (then North Borneo) with what would be the federal government of Malaysia prior to the formation of Malaysia in September 16, 1963, and Point 1 is "Religion: While there was no objection to Islam being the national religion of Malaysia there should be no State religion in North Borneo, and the provisions relating to Islam in the present Constitution of Malaya should not apply to North Borneo". A similar agreement was made between the state of Sarawak and the federal government but with certain differences in their 18-point agreement.

  19. In Malaysia, the word for lord in Malay is "Tuhan" but not Allah. Standard has been set long time ago.

    Weird.. In 2007, One of the roman catholic bishop argues that it is inappropriate for Christians to call God Allah based on irreconcilable theological differences associated with the name Allah and core Christian beliefs.

    Muslim in Malaysia did say Christian share the same god as Muslim and it was ok to use the word Allah but the Christian in Malaysia rejected it saying Allah don't have a Son. Now, they want to use it again.

    So, make up your mind whether want to use it or not.

    Please don't involve religion with politics.

  20. @just me…
    facts please, make up your mind and no fiction please…

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