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Thursday, February 11, 2010 

In the Name of Allah

Malaysia rules that Allah is the Arabic, not just the Islamic, name for God

By Gwynne Dyer

IN THE LATE 1980s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. There it was, surrounded by a chain-link fence intended to keep casual visitors and foreign archaeologists out. Experts who saw the site before it was closed said that the church was built by Nestorian Christians, and was likely used from the fourth to the ninth century.

Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. But it confirmed the assumption of most historians that Christianity flourished in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries preceding the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.I mention this because at the end of December, the Malaysian High Court struck down a three-year-old ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah when they refer to God in the Malay language. The court’s decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur and at Friday prayers protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards that read, “Allah is only for us.”

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on the churches, but he supports the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in Malay and is appealing the High Court decision.

“We [...] have the right to use the word ‘Allah’,” said Reverend Lawrence Andrew, editor of The Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, whose use of the word in its Malay-language edition triggered the crisis. Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed, “The term ‘Allah’ was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed.”

Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by 300 years, and what else were they going to call God? The word Allah is simply the definite form of lah, which means god. In parts of ancient Arabia it once referred to the creator-god (who was not the only god), but for a very long time it has meant ‘the One God’.

This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, who arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. Ethnic Malays are considered Muslim under Malaysian law, but there are numerous Malay-speakers, especially in northern Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word Allah for God.

What’s the harm in that? Why are Malaysia’s Muslims so paranoid? The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic.

Malaysia is an ethnic time bomb that has transformed into a peaceful and prosperous country by an effort of sheer will. The original population was predominantly Malay, but under British rule vast numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work the country’s mines and plantations. When Malaysia achieved independence in 1963, Malays accounted for only 60 percent of the population. Economic disparity added to the tension, as Malays were considerably poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present and the probable future.

After several bouts of savage anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and Indians thrive in trade and commerce — and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, one called Malaysia.

The state spends significantly in order to raise living standards for the Malays and gives them preference for university placement and government jobs. The Malay community has certainly benefitted from the arrangement but, nevertheless, feels perpetually insecure. The Malay population is Muslim, unlike most other Malaysians, and they therefore feel that their religion is also under threat. Some have responded with aggression and intolerance toward minorities.

Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organizations, including the Islamic political party, commonly known as PAS, have agreed that the other Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Judaism, may call their god ‘Allah’ in Malay. But the situation is deteriorating, and it’s time for the Malaysian government to stop playing along with the extremists.

It should take a lesson from the early Muslims of Arabia. Both the archaeological and the textual evidence suggest that most Arabs in northern Arabia and along the Gulf coast had been Christian for several centuries when Islam first appeared in the seventh century. They were swiftly conquered by Muslim armies, but were not forcibly converted.

As in all early Islamic empires, Christians paid higher taxes but were allowed to keep their property and practice their religion. It is highly improbable that they were forced to change the word they used for God. Over time, most Christians in the region converted to Islam.

The Christians, Hindus, animists and others who compromise 40 percent of Malaysia’s population pay higher taxes, in the sense that they subsidize the poorer, ethnic Malay Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that offers a good life to its people. It should not endanger it so frivolously. et

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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