The Malaysian Court of Appeal has ruled recently that the word “Allah” falls unreservedly within the Muslim faith, precluding the Catholic Church in the country from using the term in its newsletter, The Herald.
The appeal, which was led by the Attorney General of Malaysia on behalf of the Malaysian Government, emanated from a 2009 decision of the High Court wherein The Herald had called for a judicial review of the power of the Home Minister to place conditions on the use of the word “Allah” before renewing its publication license. The High Court had held in favour of The Herald, and while the decision was generally lauded for its liberal appeal, it sparked off numerous attacks on churches and mosques.
The Chief Justice of the Court of Appeal, reversing the 2009 decision opined that, “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. The usage of the word will cause confusion in the community.” This demarcation of so-called Muslim jurisdiction over the word “Allah” is not only deeply flawed but also antithetical to the term’s etymological origins. Notwithstanding the divergence of opinion among scholars with respect to the word’s Syriac, Hebrew or Aramaic roots, the word “Allah” has been used to denote a supreme being since pre-Islamic times. Archaeologists have discovered inscriptions on tombs and in the ruins of churches in the Middle East where Aramaic and Arabic speaking Jews and Christians lived, with proper names often being compounded with “Allah.”
Moreover, since the first centuries of Islam, Jews, Christians and Muslims alike have routinely employed “Allah” in their citations and translations of the Bible. The term “Allah” has been used not only in Arabic translations of the Bible, but also in other languages across the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia. The first Malay rendering of the Bible dates back to 1629, when a Dutch tradesman translated the Gospel of Mathew into Malay, using the word “Allah” to denote God.
Thus, Malaysia’s usurpation of the term “Allah” runs deeper than a mere linguistic spat and epitomizes an insidious political and religious ideology that pervades the Malaysian political and constitutional fabric. The Government’s eagerness to appeal the High Court’s 2009 decision demonstrates that Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ailing coalition that suffered its worst result in more than half a century in power in elections this May, has used the divisive “Allah” issue to re-solidify its political stronghold among Sunni Malays, which constitute two-thirds of the country’s population.
Malaysia’s path towards initiating a religio-lexical crusade masquerading as protecting public discord and the interests of Islam bears an uncanny semblance to Pakistan’s treatment of religious minorities, notably the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (a minority Muslim sect (also referred to as Qadianis) deemed heretical by mainstream Muslims). The Supreme Court of Pakistan in 1993, in a controversial decision, imposed restrictions on the community’s use of the terms “Azan” (meaning the call for prayer) and “Masjid” (an Urdu term used to denote a mosque), ruling that such terms were peculiar to Islam. The apex court went so far as to hold that these terms formed part of Islam’s intellectual property and that the State could prevent their usage by other religious communities.
In choosing a path that echoes Pakistan’s deepening sectarian tension, the Malaysian court’s decision signals the increasing dilution of its multicultural society. A state-sanctioned affirmative action programme according special rights to ethnic Malays has already been in place since the 70s that has led to the marginalization of Malaysia’s minorities. Pertinently, the ruling, aside from appropriating a term that is not Islam’s birthright from the country’s Christians, raises vexed questions with respect to what it entails for Ahmadis in Malaysia, who have routinely had their mosques and buildings raided and their villages ransacked. A council-erected sign outside one of their buildings reads, “Qadianis are not Muslims.”
This rising global trend of impudence and intolerance on the part of Muslim jurists and scholars is deeply disconcerting. It is a trend that finds its home not in terrorist hotbeds but in malignant political and religious ideologies. The world’s preoccupation with militant Islam has brushed to the periphery the pervasiveness of such ideologies that are becoming increasingly rampant in countries such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh. These countries are pursuing a dangerous path towards a divinity winged with paradox. They can learn from Pakistan’s example that has spiraled into national anarchy at the hands of the oxymoron of this divinity, and work towards constructing a more inclusive multicultural and multi-religious fabric before such ideologies run wild.
Ayesha Malik is a Contributing Editor of islawmix, a project aimed at bringing clarity to Islamic law in the news incubated at the Berkman Center at Harvard University, and the Sub-Editor of the Review of Religions Magazine. She is a graduate of Harvard University and blogs at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/aneternityofdiscourse