No Allah After All for Malaysian Christians
The Malaysian cabinet’s decision late last week to reinstitute the
cancellation of a Roman Catholic newspaper’s publishing license for using the
word “Allah” interchangeably with “God” in its Malay-language section has
little to do with theology and a lot to do with Malay fears that Christians may
be secretly converting members of the Islamic faith.
“They believe that Christians in Malaysia, as in much of the rest of
the Asian world, are on an evangelical mission,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based
Muslim with access to the thinking of government leaders. “There are Asian
missionaries attempting to convert actively in Malaysia, and confusing Muslims, so
the word ‘Allah’ has been banned. The churches have been trying to use Bahasa Malaysia (the
Malay language) and attribute the one God in Islam as Allah in Christianity, so
as to pull more Malays into the church.”
Sensitive politicians suspect the Catholic church of spearheading the
campaign to use the word “Allah” interchangeably with “God” in the belief that
the verbal sleight-of-hand could make Malay Muslims more receptive to
The Kuala Lumpur-based Catholic Herald, which prints reports in English,
Bahasa, Tamil and Chinese, was first notified that it would no longer be
allowed to use the word “Allah” on October 18 and November 1. But after informing the publication of the
decision, a representative from the Internal Security Ministry delivered a
letter dated December 28 with the permit to print without restrictions, the
publication’s editor, Father Lawrence Andrew, told the media in Kuala Lumpur.
Non-Muslims have also been barred by the order from using the words solat (ritual prayer), baitullah (the house of God) and kaabah (the holiest shrine in Islam),
according to Abdullah Mohd Zin, minister in the prime minister’s department,
who told reporters that Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi told him to
clarify the matter so the public would not be confused.
Despite the fact that according to the CIA World Factbook Muslims make up
some 60.9 percent of Malaysia’s population of 27 million, the country’s Muslims
– and particularly the leadership of the United Malays National Organisation,
the leading ethnic party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition ‑ remain
hugely insecure about the Christians in their midst. Christians make up a relatively
small 9.12 percent of the population, many of those concentrated in the north
Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, where a protestant church is suing
Malaysian authorities for banning the import from Indonesia of six titles for Sunday
school classes using the word "Allah” for “God.”
Proselytizing Muslims in Malaysia
can and has guaranteed a quick air ticket out of the country for foreign missionaries.
Showing a Christian Bible to Malays, who are required by syariah law to be
Muslim, has been known to stir near-riots. There are rumors, most likely
exaggerated or untrue, of entire Christian churches for Muslims in the southern
state of Johor, which abuts the majority Chinese (and largely Christian) Republic of Singapore.
Undeniably, there are Malay Christians, although most keep their religious
affiliation well hidden. For instance, the Malaysian website Alternatif-net in 2006 interviewed a
Malay Christian woman identified only as Kamariah, who said she and a 34-year-old
friend named Natasha were the only ethnic Malays in the international church
“Many Malay Christians hide themselves and meet secretly,” she told the
website. “The only way to get legally married is to marry a Malay Christian who
is also still on paper a Muslim. But then our children will also be Muslims on
paper, and their children, and the circle is never broken. But if we want to
change our identification cards, it won’t happen without problems. The syariah
court can decide to put me in prison.”
Concerns have grown on both sides. Christian apprehensions about Muslim
dominance also have grown over the last two years. Two or three celebrated
court cases have raised fears among Chinese and Indian Christians that the
social contract ‑ and constitution ‑ that has allowed religious tolerance since
independence in 1957 is being frayed.
Last week the Chinese Christian husband of a dead Malaysian woman sought to
stop Islamic authorities from giving her a Muslim funeral amid a dispute over
whether she converted to Islam before her death. The court ultimately granted a temporary
injunction to prevent the Federal Territory Islamic Council from claiming the
body, which lies in a Kuala Lumpur hospital morgue, until January 18, when the
case is due to be heard in a civil court.
The dead woman’s husband claims she was a Christian at the time of her
death. In a 2005 case, an ethnic Indian
was buried as a Muslim over the objections of his Hindu wife after a syariah
court ruled he had converted to Islam.
Also, in late December the Federal Court threw out a bid by a 28-year-old
Indian woman who took her estranged husband to court in an effort to prevent
him from converting the couple’s 2-year-old son to Islam. While the court ruled
against the woman on a technicality, one of the justices said Malaysia’s
syariah, or religious court, would have primacy in the case.
In May, the high court ruled that a 43-year-old Kuala Lumpur woman who renamed herself Lina
Joy had in effect lost a 12-year fight to change her religion on her identity
card from Islam. She had become a Christian more than a decade earlier; however,
the court ruled that the syariah courts had jurisdiction over whether Joy’s
religious status would remain Muslim, which was tantamount to denying her
Only once in history have Malaysia’s
syariah courts ruled to allow anyone to change religious identity and that case
involved an 89-year old woman named Nyonya Tahir who converted to Buddhism in
1936. Her decision was accepted 69 years later in 2006, after she was dead.
As to the Catholic Herald controversy, most religious scholars outside Malaysia agree that
Muslims worship a single supreme being that the Arabic language denotes as
Allah and that English calls God. The word Allah derives from the singular
nature of the monotheistic deity. In the Arab world Allah has always been used
by Christians and Jews to denote the one God which the religions share. The
same is true in the Farsi language. In
Indonesia Christians use “Allah” to denote the supreme being in the Indonesian
version of the Malay language. For
Muslims, Jesus was a prophet of Islam, and the Koran represents the continuation
of God's revelation begun in the Old Testament.