One Word, Two Meanings

Posted on January 10, 2010


In light of the recent spate of attacks on churches in Malaysia, let’s get one thing straight. It is never, ever acceptable to commit violence against any religious house of worship. In peace or in war, respect must always be accorded to the sanctity of churches, synagogues, temples, shrines and mosques to those who worship in them. We see these kinds of attacks in other countries – most notably the mindless destruction of the ancient Buddha statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the Babri mosque in India by Hindu extremists, or the graffiti-stained synagogues in Europe by neo-Nazis. But I would never have imagined such senseless crimes being committed in a country like Malaysia, where churches, mosques and temples abound, a testament to the multifaceted religious beliefs of its people.

Such vile actions have no justification, but undoubtedly the court ruling allowing the use of the word Allah by The Herald, a Catholic newspaper, helped ignite the furore and confusion among most Muslims, and many non-Muslims alike. I, too, disagree completely with the decision, and I am appalled by the judge’s ignorance, or perhaps even arrogance, in upsetting the religious sensibilities Malaysians have worked hard to balance for decades.

Some people question what the fuss is all about. After all, Allah is just the Arabic word for God, isn’t it? Christians in the Middle East have been using that word for centuries, without any protest from their Muslim countrymen. What’s the big deal? Well, it may be perfectly acceptable for Arabs, regardless of their religion, to use that word because in the Arabic language, Allah simply means God. However, outside of the Middle East, Allah is a specific word which is inextricably linked to Muslims and Islamic practice. In the Malaysian context, it is not simply another word for God, but is one of 99 names of the Almighty which Muslims are enjoined to remember and reflect upon.

The Herald claims it merely wishes to translate Christian texts for the benefit of its non-English speaking congregation. Maybe they don’t know this, but there is already a common and perfectly acceptable Malay word for God, and that is Tuhan. It is used by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and due to its general meaning, is not likely to create any confusion as to which religion it belongs to. The word for God in the English Bible, believe it or not, is God, not Allah, so why is the newspaper so intent on borrowing the Arabic term? If the newspaper is suddenly fascinated by the Arabic language, which I must admit is a beautiful and elegant tongue, would it also then use solat to denote prayers, or jemaah for its congregation?

Supporters and sympathisers of the ruling argue that the word Allah has been used in the Bible in East Malaysia for decades, and this somehow justifies the recent ruling in West Malaysia. Well, an error left uncorrected does not excuse its replication. In the absence of a valid reason for using the Arabic Allah, rather than the Malay Tuhan, when translating non-Islamic religious texts from English to Malay, one can’t help but to question the real motive behind the move.

Posted in: Society