Saturday, February 6, 2010

Allah by any other name...

The so-called Allah controversy in Malaysia is one of the more ridiculous ones even in these polarized and increasingly intolerant times.

In a nutshell, this is the dispute: certain right-wing Muslim politicians feel Malaysian Christians should not refer to God as "Allah," even in Bahasa Malaysia (the Malay language as spoken in Malaysia) - even though this is today the usual word for God in this language.

Does anyone imagine that God cares what word we use to address him or refer to him? Does God believe we should attack places of worship to fight over a devotee's right to address God in his or her own language?

Allah is a pre-Islamic Arabic word for God (or, in pre-Islamic days, for the highest deity). Over the past few decades it has made its way into Bahasa Malaysia along with many, many other words of Arabic origin. It has now, apparently, become the commonly used word for God in Malaysia.

But certain Malay "leaders" (read cynical politicians) have now decided that Allah is a word to be used only by Muslims. Does the Holy Qoran not tell us that there in no God but Allah? Why then do we need to look for other names for God? Surely none of us believe that each religion has a separate God holding court up in Heaven?

It is illogical and incorrect to ban non-Muslims from using a word in the language of their country that means God. On the other hand, now that this has become such a divisive issue, is there no other way around it?

Islam became an important Malaysian religion in the early 14th century when King Parameswaran accepted this faith, brought to his country by Arab and Indian traders. (He then also changed his name to Iskandar Shah).

But God and the Malay language had both been present in the Malayan peninsula long before that. So there must surely have been a word for God before the more recent import from the Arabic. How about using that original Malay word (or those words if there was more than one)?

It might also be interesting to check what happens in neighbouring Indonesia, which has a much larger Muslim population - both in number and as a proportion of total population - but also has a thriving Christian community? The language, once again, is Malay, although here called Bahasa Indonesia and with a few differences from Bahasa Malaysia. Much more than Malaysia, the 200 million people of Indonesia speak Malay. (Malaysia has two other languages spoken by its largest minorities: Chinese and Tamil.)

Indonesia has not banned the use of the word Allah to denote God and this is probably how most Indonesians commonly refer to God. At the same time, Christians also use another Malay word for God - literally, apparently, it means "Lord." And there is no burning of places of worship over this issue.

No comments:

Post a Comment