Malaysia Takes God’s Name in Vain


Allah script in Edirne, Turkey

The Malaysian authorities’ refusal to renew the publication of the weekly Catholic newspaper The Herald unless it stops using the word Allah as the word for God in the Malay language is a demonstration of racism and linguistic ignorance, not religious purity.

According to Deputy Internal Security Minister Johari Baharum, “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,” he was reported as saying. “We cannot allow this use of ‘Allah’ in non-Muslim publications, nobody except Muslims. The word ‘Allah’ is published by the Catholics. It’s not right.”

But what Johari revealed was his ignorance of his own professed religion, of the Arabic language in which the Koran is written, and of the history and culture of Muslims throughout most of the world. God and Allah mean the same in different languages.

Muslims, like Christians, do not worship a person called Allah. They worship a single supreme being, which the Arabic language denotes as Allah. The very word Allah derives from the singular nature of the monotheistic deity. In the Arab world Allah has always been used by Christians (a significant minority) and Jews (a smaller but important minority until the creation of Israel) to denote the one God which the religions share. Ditto in Farsi.

In Indonesia 100 million Muslims have no problem with their Christian brothers using Allah to denote the supreme being in Bahasa Indonesia, the Indonesian version of the Malay language. So why should a United Malays National Organisation politician object to this, unless for some reason to ramp up prejudice against non-Muslims and reinforce the notion that all Malays are and always will be Muslim?

Likewise among the (Roman) Catholics, the word in Latin for God is Deus and is used without discrimination between Christians, Muslims and Jews.

The Johari version of the world displays the same kind of ignorance as is found among Christian fundamentalists in the United States and elsewhere who insist on saying that Muslims worship Allah rather than the God (an English word) that the two religions share. An English Koran uses the words “In the name of God the compassionate and merciful,” not “In the name of Allah the compassionate and merciful.”

If Malaysian Malays are confused about the distinction between Islam and Christianity because they use the same word to describe the one God, clearly there is a lot wrong with the educational system. But if a minister is so ignorant, how can the rakyat – Malaysia’s citizenry ­­- be expected to know better?

For Muslims, Jesus was a prophet of Islam, and the Koran represents the continuation of God's revelation begun in the Old Testament. For Johari to make this astonishing decision on the eve of the birthday of Jesus is an insult both to his own religion and to Christianity.