By Mohd Alami Musa
Nov. 8, 2013
The Malaysian Court of Appeal in Putrajaya made a judgment on Oct. 14 that the term "Allah" cannot be used in the Catholic weekly The Herald. The court ruled that the word "Allah" isn't an integral part of the Christian faith.
The issue began in early 2009 when Malaysian Home Affairs Minister Syed Hamid Albar, issued an order forbidding The Herald from using the term "Allah." Subsequently, the Kuala Lumpur High Court allowed the Catholic archdiocese's application for a judicial review and lifted the government ban.
This latest Court of Appeal hearing was convened to hear the government's appeal, which was upheld.
The Catholic archdiocese intends to take the matter to the highest level -- the Federal Court of Appeal. The final decision may have far-reaching implications as the term "Allah" has been traditionally used for centuries by Christians in East Malaysia, even though assurances had been given that the judgment applies only to The Herald case.
In his book God is not a Christian, Desmond Tutu reminds Christians that "God is not the special preserve of Christians and is the God of all human beings, to whom He has vouchsafed a revelation of His nature and with whom it is possible for all to have a real encounter and relationship."
This is a timely reminder that all people of religion need to be embracing of each other. Furthermore God or Allah abhors those who hate and despise each other.
The use of the term "Allah" predates the coming of Islam in seventh century. Arab-speaking Christians and Jews referred to God as "Allah" long before Islam was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. As a religion, Islam has the unique characteristic of adopting pre-Islamic traditions or customs as long as they don't contravene its teachings. The existence of the term "Allah" in the Quran is one such example.
The Quran used terms that were familiar to Arab society then as a way of helping people understand its content. Another example is the reference to animals. The Quran mentioned animals that were familiar to the Arabs, like camels and ants but not tigers as they weren't found in Arabia.
Furthermore, the term "Allah" had been widely used in pre-Islamic Arabian society. This was evident because names of people were linked to Allah. For example, the prophet's father was Abdullah, which means the servant of Allah.
But the most telling indication that Allah is the God of more than just Muslims is the Quranic Verse 46 in the Chapter Al Ankabut (The Spider). Allah commanded Muslims to tell the Jews and Christians that "our God and your God is one and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)."
The late renowned scholar Asghar Ali Engineer alluded to this in his book "On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam." He said since the Quran states that Allah has sent His prophets to all nations, many Islamic thinkers, theologians and Sufi saints believed there are Allah's prophets in non-biblical communities.
The term "Allah" is also used in Sikhism. President of the Malaysian Gurdwara Council Jagir Singh said the term "Allah" is found numerous times in the Guru Granth Sahib, which is their holy book.
Conflict Resolution -- Not Through the Courts
Therefore, to borrow and adapt from Desmond Tutu's profound words, one can say that Allah isn't the special preserve of Muslims. He is the God of all human beings. Using the court of law to resolve such sensitive religious matters could lead to division in society. It is in the nature of the court to deliver cut-and-dry judgments. There will always be one party who will be aggrieved by the court's judgment.
Such religious differences should be resolved outside the court process. It has to be dealt with through dialogue -- beyond the public purview -- by religious leaders who can feel for each other and who have the wisdom to acknowledge that many points of disagreement may not after all be matters of principle but merely peripheral to the religion concerned.
When the controversy over the use of the term "Allah" surfaced in 2009, Muslim and Christian leaders in Singapore met to discuss it over tea at the Singapore Islamic Hub. In that meeting, the archbishop of the Catholic Church, the archbishop of the Anglican Diocese, the president of the National Council of Churches, the mufti of Singapore and the president of Muis ascertained that there was no issue about the use of the term "Allah" in Singapore. They resolved in a brotherly manner not to allow the matter to spill over into Singapore.
Building A Religious Harmony Infrastructure
This has been Singapore's culture in resolving conflict situations and averting possible conflicts involving religion. Religious leaders in Singapore enjoy a high level of trust and they speak to one another as servants of their faiths -- in humility and with fervent prayer that they maintain harmony in society. After all religions are meant to harmonize the social order and their leaders conduct themselves accordingly.
This has been the trademark of inter-religious relations in Singapore whenever religious leaders are confronted with situations of conflict. The religious leaders played their part to counsel the affected parties. They wisely resolved such matters without compromising their principles. This model of conflict resolution -- without the involvement of the courts -- has been effective.
This is a good way to prevent the emergence of a divisive society. Singapore's "religious harmony infrastructure" -- consisting of grassroots goodwill committees, inter-religious engagement platforms, conflict resolution mechanisms and legislation (which had never been applied) -- can avoid the undesirable outcome of having a winner and a loser in resolving religious conflicts.
Mohd Alami Musa is head of Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University