Malaysia: The Word "Allah" Only For Muslims
by Mohshin Habib
In possibly the first time ever in the world's history of religion, members of a monotheist institution objected to another monotheist groups' using the same name for God that they use, as Malaysia's appellate court ruled on October 14th that Malay-speaking non-Muslims, especially the Roman Catholic community of the country, may not use the word "Allah."
"The term 'Allah' must be exclusive to Islam or it could cause public disorder," the high court said.
As an Abrahamic religion, Islam's texts consider that Christians, the children of Israel and Sabians as Ahl Al Kitab, which means the People of the Book -- although there are often many contradictions in the texts. These writings and teachings were reflected in the Muslim dominated Malaysian justice system, as well.
"The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity," said chief judge Mohammed Apandi Ali, who led a three member appeals court panel. "It is our judgment that there is no infringement of any constitutional rights. We could find no reason why the Catholic newspaper is so adamant to use the word Allah in its weekly."
At the time of the ruling by the appellate court, about 200 Muslims, led by a right-wing Malay Muslim rights group, "Perkasa," gathered outside it with banners that read, "Allah just for Muslims, fight, no fear."
The New York Times reports that one group, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, said those who disagreed with the decision could emigrate.
Judges of the country's appeals court overturned a 2009 ruling of a lower court that allowed the Malay-language edition of the Roman Catholic newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah. Shortly after the ruling, Malaysianchurches were subjected to vandalism and arson.
The government argued that the word Allah is specific to Muslims, and that the Home Minister at the time therefore decided to deny the permission that had been previously enjoyed by the Catholic newspaper.
In response, Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, said, "We are greatly disappointed and dismayed. This is unrealistic. It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities."
Malay is the official language of the country. Allah, a loanword from Arabic, is sometimes used as the equivalent to the English word God. Not only the Muslims, but also the other religions in Malaysia have been using the word for hundreds of years. The word 'Allah' is used by Arab Christians and it has been included in Malaysian version of the Bible for four hundred years.
Reverend Lawrence Andrew said that a Latin-Malaysian dictionary published in 1631 by the forerunner of the Congregation for the Evangelization of peoples, that translates "Deus" as "Allah," establishes decisive proof of the legitimate use of the word "Allah" by Christians.
The history of Christianity in Malaysia is long. Persian and Turkish traders of Nestorian Christian origins were in the region as early as 7th century. Currently, Muslims make up 61% percent of the country's 28 million people; Christians about 9.2%.
There are many sayings about the etymology of the word Allah. Historically, the word Allah exists in Semitic languages including Hebrew and Aramaic. In the Middle East, prior to Islam, Allatu was the prominent Goddess of Underworld. The Prophet Mohammad destroyed her shrine in 630 AD. The name Allah was used by Nebataeans. Moreover, the term Allah is used 37 times in Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Scripture.
Islam is the religion of the federation -- but the Malaysian constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
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