What’s in a name: Are God and Allah the same?
Malaysian Catholics recite this prayer in Malay daily at Masses across the country such as a recent one in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral in Keningau, a sprawling timber town in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island that Niluksi Koswanage visited for this feature about tensions between Christians and the majority Muslims.
Muslims object to Christians using the word “Allah” in their services and publications, even though it is the normal word for God in Malay. The Muslims say it could undermine Islam and aims to convert Muslims. The row over the use of Allah to describe the Christian God feeds into a long-running feud over conversions between the government of a country where all Malays must be Muslims, and other faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism that are practised by ethnic Indians and Chinese.
(Photo: Mass at St. Francis Cathdral in Keningau, Malaysia, 22 Feb 2009/Bazuki Mohammad)
It is illegal in Malaysia to convert from Islam to any other religion, although conversions to Islam are allowed. Malaysian Muslim activists and officials see using the word Allah in Christian publications including bibles as attempts to proselytise. Those concerns led to a ban on the main Catholic newspaper in Malaysia, the Catholic Herald, on using the word “Allah” to denote God. The government partially lifted the ban in mid-February, only to reimpose it later that month. The Herald is now suing the government to overturn the ruling.
Some leading Muslim scholars here say the issue is being blown out of proportion and that the risk of conversions among the 60 percent Muslim population is tiny. They see it, instead, as an attempt by the government that has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted for 51 years since independence from Britain to hold on to power by identifying ethnicity with religion.
That hegemony is now under threat after the opposition scored its best-ever election result in 2008 when it deprived the government of its two-thirds parliamentary majority and ended up in control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is now targeting the voters of Borneo in an effort to keep up pressure on the government and the first test will come in a state assembly by-election in early April. That may give a chance for voters in a constituency near St Francis Xavier to flex their muscles.
(Photo: Malay prayer sheet with words Allah (God), Injil (Bible) and Kristus (Christ), 22 Feb 2009/Bazuki Muhammad)
“If the government wants to be nasty and stop people from using Allah, it can,” said 28-year-old Teresa Palikat, a tailor, after attending Sunday Mass in Keningau district. “But it may not work here. It’s God’s country here.”
Or is it “Allah’s country”? Or does the word used to describe it make no difference at all?