No one Religion can Monopolize or Copyright the Term 'Allah
by Dr Ng Kam Weng
The controversy arising from the government’s stated policy to prohibit non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the supreme God or Creator is a fast developing story. The latest news is that the government has alllowed the Catholic Herald to renew its annual publishing permit without insisting that the Herald stop using the word ‘allah’.
The government’s decision should be welcomed. However, it can amount to no more than a temporary reprieve from a harsh policy that evidently threatens religious freedom in the country unless the fundamental assumptions that inform the policy makers are addressed. Until then, be rest assured that the ‘little Napoleans’ in the government departments will now and then resume their harassment. There will be further confiscation Christian literature (including the AlKitab) now and then. As happened before, Christian publishers will be required to refrain from using ‘allah’ (and who knows what other alleged exclusive Islamic terms) if they want their publishing permit (PP) or KDN to be renewed.
As such, I am making available online my article since it continues to be of value for public education. Hopefully, because we know the facts of history we will not compromise in resisting unjust restrictions on our religious freedom. Indeed, if we compromise in matters of Scripture our ability to remain faithful to our Christian identity is fatally undermined.
The Logical, Historical, Cultural and Constitutional Case for the Right of Everybody to use ‘Allah’
The Deputy Minister of Internal Security, Johari Baharum, recently declared that only Muslims may use the word ‘Allah’ to describe the God they worship. He was reported as saying, “The word ‘Allah’ can only be used in the context of Islam and not any other religion ….Only Muslims can use ‘Allah’. It’s a Muslim word, you see. It’s from (the Arabic (language). We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people.”
That an official of such high standing can make such a declaration is disturbing. Not surprisingly, there have been some emotional responses from the public to the Deputy Minister’s declaration. But it is important that we go beyond emotional responses and offer a firm, rational and clear rebuttal to the flawed rationale that underlies the Deputy Minister’s declaration.
The declaration is questionable for the following reasons: 1) its logic is flawed 2) it omits of historical facts 3) it shows disrespect for cultural identity and 4) it disregards Constitutional rights of Malaysian citizens.
1) Flawed Logic
Looking at the declaration, the Deputy Minister’s logic is as follows:
(1) If x is Arabic then x belongs to Islam
(2) x = ‘Allah’ is Arabic
(3) Therefore ‘Allah’ belongs to Islam
The problem with this reasoning is its flawed premise (1). The logic outlined above just cannot be applied to linguistic terms that were in use in pre-Islamic Arabia. In particular, the term ‘Allah’ was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam existed. The evidence for this is supported by many authoritative reference works including the following:
“That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammad, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allah – “the ilah” or the god, if the form is of genuine Arabic origin; if of Aramaic, from alaha, “the god” – seems absolute certain” (Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, ed., H. A. R. Gibb & J. H. Kramer, p. 33).
“The cult of a deity termed simply “the god” (al-ilah) was known throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia in the days before Islam… It seems equally certain that Allah was not merely a god in Mecca but was widely regarded as the “high god,” the chief and head of the Meccan pantheon,…Thus Allah was neither an unknown nor an unimportant deity to the Quraysh when Muhammad began preaching his worship at Mecca” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito, p 76-77).
The Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu remarks that it is precisely because the name Allah was common to both the pagan Arabs and the Muslims that gave rise to the heated debates that arose between Muhammad and his adversaries. Likewise, Muhammad addressed his adversaries in the name of ‘Allah’ without bothering to explain what this name meant given their common understanding of ‘Allah’ as referring to the supreme God (God and Man in the Quran, Toshihiko Izutsu, pp. 100-117).
These pertinent observations of the common usage of ‘Allah’ by Arabs before Islam also found confirmation among archaeologists. One may consult the archaeological report by the great German scholar Julius Wellhausen who gave an exhaustive list of inscriptions referring to ‘Allah’ in pre-Islam Arabia. Wellhausen’s observation is confirmed by W. Montgomery Watt in his work Muhammad’s Mecca (Chapter 3: Religion in Pre-Islamic Arabia) that affirms the thesis that belief in a high or supreme god was common throughout the Semitic Near-East in the Greco-Roman period. Watt, quoting Javier Teixidor, says “The epigraphical material reveals that the worship of a supreme god coexisted with that of other minor gods…. But the increasing emphasis on such beliefs is evidence of a trend towards monotheism, namely towards the exclusion of other gods’ existence.”
The historical evidence suggests that Quranic Arabic was a subset of Arabic language and literature in the Middle East at that time. It is also beyond dispute that ‘Allah’ was widely used by all monotheists in pre-Islamic Arabia. Hence the premise –
(1) If x is Arabic then x belongs to Islam
is clearly wrong especially if x (the Arabic term ‘Allah’) was common currency before Islam. In short, it is a fallacy to conclude that just because it was referred to in Arabic; ‘Allah’ belongs exclusively to Islam.
2) Omission of Historical Facts
The standard lexicons on the Arabic language point out that there are linguistic similarities between ‘Allah’ in Arabic and other references to God in the cognate Semitic languages – for example, °§l¹h in Aramaic and ilu in Akkadian. ‘Allah’ certainly bears linguistic affinity with the Hebrew el, with the root meaning “to be strong”, or eloah, the singular form of elohim. Allah could be derived from ilah meaning a deity or god, with the addition of the definite article al- Al-ilah, “the God”.
It is because of the linguistic affinity between the term ‘Allah’ and other Semitic terms that Christian Arabs called the supreme God ‘Allah’ centuries before the appearance of Islam. Arab Christians continue to use ‘Allah’ today. It is also true that historically, Christians in South East Asia have used ‘Allah’ to refer to the supreme God they worship. The earliest Christian writing in Malay, Kitab salat as-sawai (Christian prayers) was printed in Arabic type 1514. Christian catechisms in Malay were published around 1545. ‘Allah’ was used in the printed version of the Gospel of Matthew in Malay (1629) and the complete Malay Bible (1731-1733).
‘Allah’ as such has been used in the liturgy, prayers and worship among the Christian native peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak from the very beginning when these churches were first established generations ago. The fact of the centuries-long usage of ‘Allah’ among native Christians bears importance significance to what is perhaps an unexpressed charge behind the Deputy Minister’s declaration, “We cannot let other religions [the context refers to Christianity] use it because it will confuse people.” That is to suggest that there is a hidden agenda when Christians use ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures, that is, to confuse Muslims.
But Malay-speaking Christians have already been using ‘Allah’ for centuries and there was never any suggestion that in using the term ‘Allah’ Christians were at any time confusing Muslims. Indeed, it may be argued that the existence of a common term ‘Allah’ facilitates communication and promotes mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
The Malayan Declaration of Independence (1957) provides an outstanding example of how common usage of ‘Allah’ builds mutual understanding. The Declaration of Independence begins with the phrase “Dengan nama Allah yang Maha Pemurah lagi Mengasihani, segala puji bagi Allah yang Maha Berkuasa.” The Declaration continues to affirm an agreement between the Queen and the Malay Rulers whereby Malaya was granted Independence. Obviously, the Declaration assumes that both the Queen of England (who is the head of Christianity in England) and the Malay Rulers could appeal to the same supreme God (‘Allah’) to ratify their agreement. The Deputy Minister ought to take note that there was no hint of any confusion regarding the Independence granted to Malaya.
3) Disrespect for Cultural Identity
It is vital that due respect and freedom be given to Malaysian natives in their desire to continue their centuries-long practice of referring to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures, liturgy and songs. That is to say, their expression of faith in God (‘Allah’) and their prayers to God (‘Allah’) in their mother tongue – the soul-language that frames their linguistic and emotional matrix – is foundational to their religious and cultural identity.
For this reason, any attempt to prohibit Christian natives (and for that matter any Malaysian, since Bahasa Malaysia has become their primary language of proficiency) from using ‘Allah’ amounts to a blatant disrespect of their cultural identity and cultural freedom.
It is recognized that religious identity transcends national boundaries. Thus, Muslims in Malaysia proudly identify with Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. By the same token, Malaysian Christians also share a wider religious identity with Christians in other countries. An important factor in this transnational religious identity is that both Malaysian natives and other Malay-speaking Christians refer to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ along with fellow-Christians in Indonesia, India, the Middle East and Africa. It is when they worship the same supreme God (‘Allah’) together that they have a sense of oneness in their religious identity.
That being the case, the Deputy Minister’s declaration to prohibit Christians from referring to God as ‘Allah’ amounts to a disregard for their religious identity and religious freedom.
4) Disregard for Constitutional Rights of Malaysian Citizens.
Article 11 of the Federal Constitutions defines freedom of religion to include the following:
(1) Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it.
(3) Every religious group has the right –
(a) to manage its own religious affairs
(b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes…
In the light of these provisions, the prohibition of Christians from referring to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ results in denying their children to be educated and instructed about matters of Christian faith in their mother tongue. It is a fact that the authorities periodically seize Christian literature written in Bahasa Malaysia, as well as the Malay Bible (Alkitab). Such acts by in effect prevent Malaysian natives and Malay-speaking Christians from professing and practicing their faith in their mother-tongue and hence it is a violation of their religious freedom enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.
It is our sincere hope that the arguments given above will persuade the authorities to accept the right of every Malaysian Christian to refer to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ in the profession and practice and propagation of religious faith.