WHAT’s in a name, especially the name of God?
The debate in Malaysia over the word “Allah” in Malay-language Christian texts is a current case in point. No matter what changes occur after the next general election, the issue looks likely to continue bubbling over thanks to politicians who barter religious opinions for partisan gain.
Indeed, the “Allah” issue is likely to spark partisan jockeying and deep division until we build consensus on a fundamental question. Is our national language of Bahasa Melayu — or is it Bahasa Malaysia? — the language of all Malaysians or does it just belong to those who profess Islam and practice Malay customs?
To translate or not to translate
I am not dismissing the theological, historical and legal complexities surrounding the “Allah” issue. But I believe the complexities of our linguistic identity are just as salient. Moreover, they may offer a broader basis for dialogue than some of the polarising statements of the last few weeks such as DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng’s Christmas message or the recent decision of PAS’s syura council.
If we want to resolve the “Allah” debate, we need to discuss the role of language, particularly, BM in Malaysia. Why? Because Muslims and Christians have highly divergent views about scripture and translation that may not create a platform for common ideals and a resolution.
These divergent views are apparent. In Islam, for example, the Qur’an is the culmination of all divinely revealed scriptures. Its perfection encompasses the richly literary Arabic in which it was revealed, such that even the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) Quraish dialect is preserved in the diacritics that indicate Qur’anic vowel pronunciation. The fact that Allah revealed the Qur’an in Arabic is emphasised in verses such as Sura Yusuf, aya 2; Sura Ash-Shu’ara, ayaat 192-195; and Sura Ash-Shuraa, aya 7.
Conversely, numerous passages in the Christian Bible indicate an imperative to translate God’s truth into all languages. Among these passages are the commission to “go and make disciples of all nations” in the gospel of Matthew; the miraculously multilingual Galileans at Pentecost in the book of Acts; and the vision of a kingdom from “every tribe and language and people and nation” in Revelation. The original text of the Bible itself was rendered in three different languages: Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.
For Christians, “the word of God” refers both to the revelation of God’s truth in human languages, and to the “translation” of Jesus Christ from God to man. And as God-come-down-as-man, Jesus spoke a dialect of Aramaic closely related to Arabic. For Muslims, “kalimah Allah” refers solely to the unique, indivisible Deity.
Small wonder then that some Muslims misunderstand why Christians translate the Bible into different languages, and some Christians misunderstand why Muslims value “Allah” above other translations of “God”.
Mutual understanding softens conflict. But the theological divergence remains, and it does not answer the practical question of whether Malay translations of the Bible should be allowed to call God “Allah”.
Legal arguments, historical arguments
Many commentators argue for or against the Christian usage of “Allah” in BM on legal or historical grounds. Justice Lau Bee Lan’s 2009 High Court judgement allowing the Herald – The Catholic Weekly to use “Allah” in its BM section is a masterful legal argument in this debate.
From the historical perspective, Kairos Research Centre research director Dr Ng Kam Weng makes a cogent case both from the etymology of the word “Allah”, and from traditional Christian practice in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Nevertheless, arguments based on freedom of religion and etymology have not been enough to end the “Allah” debate peacefully. Such legal and historical arguments have been put forth since the Herald controversy erupted in 2009. And they were probably presented in some form when the Barisan Nasional government, under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s administration, first banned the non-Muslim usage of “Allah” in the 1980s.
And in some ways, this debate is not about history. It is important and interesting to note the apparent lack of precedent for prohibiting other religious groups from using the term “Allah” in their worship – whether in early Islam or elsewhere in the world today. However, even if we could cite past cases of such prohibitions, this would not justify current attempts to ban non-Muslim BM usage of the word.
And even if the word “Allah” did not predate Islam, that could not legitimately deny the rich experiences of the many Malaysian Christians and Sikhs who have called God “Allah” for centuries, and still do so today.
This debate is also not essentially about the law. Laws change as apparent in the 1980s ban on “Allah” where before there was no such ban. But laws must draw their authority from shared principles if they are to be legitimate and accepted. Also, as the “Allah” issue has proved again and again, the letter of the law means little if the powers-that-be choose to ignore it.
Free to be us?
When someone makes a claim on someone else’s freedom, the onus is on the claimant to prove the legitimacy of their claim on common terms. In the public sphere, “Because I say so and because I’m the majority” is tyranny — whether that “I” is human, institutional or divine. Bald-faced tyranny is one thing. But tyranny masquerading as a multi-cultural democracy is quite another. I want a lot of things for Malaysia, and hypocrisy isn’t one of them.
In the “Allah” case, the onus should be on the government to prove the legitimacy of the ban on common terms – not terms purportedly drawn from the theological framework of a faith held by a portion of citizens, nor terms fabricated in a struggle for dominance.
Many non-Muslim Malaysians, and the Muslims who stand in solidarity with us, are waiting for explanations for lost rights. No such accounts are forthcoming. Instead, recent years have seen more losses: scriptures restricted; places of worship destroyed or raided; sacraments desecrated. And occasionally, we also see the implication that some religions are more equal than others. Or that we are a threat.
Perhaps the Malay-language translation of the Bible features regularly in this struggle for dominance because Islam is central to Malay identity in Malaysia. Hence, a challenge to certain interpretations of Islam in Malaysia can feel like a challenge to Malay-ness.
As much as Christianity may be fundamental to the different facets of my identity, my identity as a Malaysian is founded on a hope — the hope that accidents of history can bring together a rojak of people who struggle for each other’s benefit.
Only a naïve person would expect unanimous agreement on all aspects of national identity. But I choose to believe that most of us can work toward a general consensus on this question: when we say “bahasa jiwa bangsa” — language is the soul of the nation — do we mean Bangsa Muslimin Melayu, or Bangsa Malaysia?
Hwa Yue-Yi studied BM for nine years and Arabic for three. She now studies political science and tries to read the Bible every day.