The Allah Controversy in Malaysia

In the Name of God, the Subtle, the Loving

This article was published today on Middle East Online.

I had to stop and read the headline a second time: Roman Catholics in Malaysia sued for the right to call God “Allah.” Speaking to Time magazine, Reverend Lawrence Andrew said, “We have been using the word for decades in our Malay-language Bibles and without problems.” Now, they wanted to use the word in their publications. The Home Ministry of Malaysia banned the use of “Allah” for their Malay-language editions in 2007. After suing, the court agreed with the Catholics and overturned the ban.

Many Muslims across the country were outraged. “Why are the Christians claiming Allah?” asks businessman Rahim Ismail in Time. “Everybody in the world knows Allah is the Muslim God and belong to Muslims. I cannot understand why the Christians want to claim Allah as their god.” Authorities claim that the Christians want to use “Allah” to confuse Muslims and help convert them to Christianity, a claim which the Catholics deny. The controversy, however, did not die. Tensions, in fact, have grown in the multiracial, multhiethnic country. Several churches were firebombed, and angry protests were held after Friday prayers, claiming that “Allah is only for [the Muslims].” The government has appealed the decision and has been granted a stay of the decision.  

This turn of events have made me terribly sad; I shook my head in disbelief when I read of the church attacks. Violence never should be the manner by which disputes or disagreements are resolved. Some political observers feel that this inter-ethnic and religious violence plays into the government’s hands. Main opposition figure Anwar Ibrahim said in an interview “This is the last hope — to incite racial and religious sentiments to cling to power. Immediately since the disastrous defeat in the March 2008 election they have been fanning this.”

I also shook my head in disbelief at the statements of some Muslims in Malaysia that “Allah is only for us” and that “We will not allow the word Allah to be inscribed in your churches.” Do they not realize the utter fallacy of their statements?

“Allah” is the Arabic name for God, and it indeed pre-dates Islam and even Christianity. The pagan Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula called God “Allah,” even though they worshipped hundreds of idols in addition. Christians all across the Arab World today use the word “Allah” for God, and if one were to read an Arabic Bible, he would find that God is indeed called “Allah.”

Beyond this fact, however, is that “Allah” is also the name that Jesus Christ called God. “Allah” is the Arabic equivalent of “Elohim,” which is Hebrew for God. The “im” is a plural appendage of respect, and so the word is “Eloh,” which is very similar to “Allah.” In addition, the Aramaic word for God is “Alaha,” and Aramaic was the language which Jesus himself spoke. Moreover, the word “Allah” is found in the English version of the Bible which we read today. In Matthew 27:46 we read: “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” The word “Eloi” is the Aramaic form of the Arabic “Allah.”

There are some who claim that “Allah” is not the Judeo-Christian God, but a false deity exclusive to the Muslims. Some have gone as far as claiming that “Allah” is the moon god of the pagan Arabs, which is utterly preposterous. Those who make such a claim want to exclude Muslims from their rightful place in the Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition. For Muslims to claim that “Allah is only for us” is incredulous as it is terribly inaccurate. “Allah” is the God of all of the Abrahamic faiths, whether it is Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

One would have thought that the Muslims in Malaysia would welcome the decision of the court to allow Christians to use the word “Allah” for God, as it would be a point of common ground. “Allah” is not some tribal deity that can be exclusively claimed; He is the God of all, and rather than finding more ways to divide Christians and Muslims, members of both faith communities should be working hard to find ways they can come together. Mutually calling God by the name “Allah” would be a great start.


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