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CRUCIBLE: What’s in the Name – Allah?

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/11 January)– There are many times in Muslim society where it is faced with varying challenges; some new, some old, with few others recycled appearing quite different. This point has never been reflected in today’s controversy in Malaysia regarding the use of word “Allah.”

On the surface, the issue seems to be not worth of our time, but a deeper look into the subject strikes the core of Islamic thought. In fact viewed from a certain vantage point, the subject about God is the beginning and the end of Islamic thought.


This controversy in Malaysia started when the Home Ministry banned a Catholic newspaper – The Herald – the use of the word “Allah” in its publication. It ruled that it is only Malaysian Muslims that could use the term  “Allah.” The Herald went to Court as a result. Subsequently, the High Court came up with a ruling that allowed them to use the word “Allah.”  It practically rebuked the Home Ministry referring to its act as “illegal, null and void.”

But the ruling angered many Malaysian Muslims. They claimed the word “Allah” can only be used by them. The controversy has already led to violence as churches were burned in some parts of the country. Recently, the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of the High Court by disallowing the use of the word “Allah” among Malaysian Christians in their publication including the Bible. Few days ago, the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) ordered the confiscation of around 300 Bibles in Malaysian Bible publishing company.

The Home Ministry’s argument is that Malaysian Christians using the word “Allah” would create confusion amongst Malaysians notwithstanding the theological distance between Islam’s concept of Unity or Tauhid and that of Christianity’s doctrine of Trinity. It impresses the view that when Christians would use the word “Allah,” it is understood in the context of Trinity, which is a violation of Islam’s concept of Unity.

The subject would have not elicited much reverberation if it is simply a theological debate; but it is underpinned with questions of national security and the fact that Malaysia faces racial tension; so that, there is apprehension that the use of the name “Allah” would fan both religious and racial divide and would be used by both inside and outside forces for proselytization and undermine Malaysia’s security. Given the rather sensitive subject of race and the perceived penetration of Vatican’s supported programs and projects particularly in East Malaysia, Malaysian authorities took stringent position by coming up with policies reflective of national security state.

This is reinforced by the fact that there is also an increased Islamization in Malaysia heightening further the tandem between the State and some fundamentalist organizations; thus, the debate caused more intensified protest and violence. Again, this subject could probably be viewed as internal problem in a country like Malaysia. But it is actually pregnant with manifold implications as it strikes as, we said, the core of Islamic thought.

Trend and counter-trend

What makes the issue both new and old is the sharpening of contradictions that reveal multifaceted implications not only for Malaysia, but also on issues common to both Islam and Christianity. As observed, there has been long standing, albeit subtle attempt in certain quarters of Christianity to minimize and even extirpate any terms in the Bible like “Allah” so it would not create an impression that Christianity’s term of God is related to Islam’s word for God as “Allah.”

According to Ahmed Deedat, the Scofield Reference Bible, for instance, omitted in its translation the word “Allah” in the Genesis even if it is very much identified with Biblical terms like “Elohim,” “El,” “Elah,” “Alah.” Like other versions of the Bible, Rev. I.C Scofield, D.D relied heavily on Greek and Latin translation; hence, divorcing even more Christianity’s concept or term about God from original term used by Jesus in Aramaic as “Alah.” The film, “Passion of the Christ” has publicly revealed the Aramaic pronunciation of the word God in Jesus’s prayer: “Alah, Alah, lama sabachtani (Lord, Lord why did you forsake me?).

Yet, in Malaysia particularly the organized Christians took a different course by using the word “Allah” in their Bible. Instead in taking this positively, Malaysian authorities took reversed position by prohibiting the use of the term among Malaysian Christians.

A country like the Philippines, on the contrary, continues to connect to simply Latinized version of the concept of God called “Diyos” – a Latin term that has no connection with the concept of God as far as the original language of Jesus is concerned. Obviously, Jesus did not speak Latin. In fact, Filipinos have varying indigenous names of deities in such terms like Panginoon, Bathala, Anito and so on.

Incidentally, there is in Batangas a term related to God with Semitic origin. Unfortunately, it has already been relegated into insignificance understood simply as expression of awe or surprise – “Ala eh” similar to Tausug “Alla ah.” Obviously, both terms are nuanced of the word “Allah.” It suggests that early inhabitants in a place like Batangas has a concept of God related to Semitic term “Allah.” In our view, since it is Semitic with attendant Islamic undertone, Filipinos are uncomfortable of using it because it would legitimize Islam’s concept of God as Allah. It would also deconstruct Philippine history as it proved that the Philippines, at certain juncture, was not only heavily influenced by Islam as can be seen in predominance of Arabic foreign loan words in Filipino language, but it previously defined early Filipino concept of spirituality about God.

What we could hardly understand however is that there is supposedly an indigenous term in the Malay world like “Tuhan” that refers to God. Yet, Malaysian Christians would not use it as they insist with the term “Allah.” “Tuhan” is probably of Mongolian and Taoist etymological origin, although it’s Austronesian or Polynesian underlay cannot also be dismissed. Malays generally used it as their concept of God. Until today, it is commonly used in Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Southern Thailand and Southern Philippines.

With the coming of Islam in the old “Nusantara” or Malay world, the term “Tuhan” has remained and subsequently substituted with the new term “Allah” followed with the injection of new conception about God that is different from pre-Islamic Southeast Asia. Yet, even if the Islamic term “Allah” has already become the general concept of God in Southeast Asia as far as Muslims are concerned, yet, locals in many parts of the Malay world, still refer to “Tuhan” as their indigenous term for God.

Indeed, linguistic, theological, historical, cultural implications of this controversy are very much at play. Instead of addressing this subject with passion, we should rather approach it with reason and wisdom.

Incidentally, a number of Muslim scholars already took critical position against the myopic policy of Malaysian government. They say that the term “Allah” is pre-Islamic and that there are many Christians in the Middle East that continue to use the word “Allah” with an equally popular word “Rabb” or Lord among Arab Christians. The position of Malaysian authorities is that by allowing Malaysian Christians to use the word “Allah” it would confuse, as argued, many Malaysians and would affect Malaysia’s national security.

Some Malaysian politicians and analysts look at the issue simply as deflection by the authorities from the issue of economic slump [facing the] country as it overshadows real problem of poverty and injustice particularly the marginalization of “Bumiputra” or indigenous people mostly in Sarawak and Sabah. Yet, we could not deny the fact that this subject reifies what is supposedly an old controversy appearing that it is something new. It also speaks of tension in Islamic thought in the past until today.


Many Muslim scholars positioned that indeed non-Muslims have some tradition in the use of the word “Allah.” No less than the Qur’an acknowledged it. In Suratu l-haj, the Qur’an says:

“They are those who have been expelled rom their homes in defiance of right – (for no cause) except that they say, “Our Lord is God.” Did not God check one group of people by means of another, there should have been pulled down monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure. God will certainly aid those who aid His Cause; for verily, God is full of strength, exalted in might, able to enforce His Will.”

Jaser Auda, a scholar of Islamic law based in Qatar raised this verse of the Qur’an to emphasize that even the Qur’an itself recognized that worshippers of God who belong to monasteries, churches, and synagogues also used the term “Allah.” This is also partly the position of Reza Aslan, Shamsi Ali and other scholars identified with Malaysia.    

The subject has attendant theological and historical underpinnings. It must be remembered that the institutionalization of understanding particularly in many parts of the Muslim world on the concept of God has been the subject of debate in the latter part of the 7th century until the 8th and 9th century onward. As we said, the term “Allah” has been present in pre-Islamic Arabia, but the conception about it is understood along the frame of shirk or polytheism. It has also been identified along with such names of idols like “Manat,” “Uzza,” and “Allat” and so on.

It could be assumed that previous prophets used the term “Allah” to mean God. But as time deteriorated and as men continuously rebelled, they imputed many views and interpretation about the term divorcing the frame of Unity on the concept of “Allah” and turned it polytheistic in succeeding centuries. This was the context in the advent of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in Makkah, the denizen of polytheism that time. Yet, the Prophet did not need to invent a new term for God but simply came up with a new conception about Allah – a conception reflective of previous teachings by earlier prophets.

As Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was around, no one would question the authenticity of his teaching – it was simplistic and easily understandable by the locals. For instance, the Prophet’s early followers undergoing persecution simply referred to Allah as the “ahad” (The One). But after the Prophet’s death, new issue cropped up especially on how to understand the concept of God already predominantly referred to as Allah. Thus, subsequent development in Islamic thought raised the subject of “conception” about God that enabled past Muslim scholars to institutionalize understanding about it.

In other words, early Muslim community from late 7th century until the 8th and 9 century was faced with an epistemological question – that is: how to understand God. This was shown in the debate between the Asharities and Mu’tazilites and other theologico-philosophical schools including the Sunnis, the Shiites, the Mautridis, the Tahawis, the Murjia, the Zahiris, and the Batinis, and so on. It was quite clear that Imam Ashari’s conception made strong imprint in Islamic epistemology of God and, in turn, became influential through Imam Maturidi, Tahawi, Ghazali, Baqilani and so on.

But there is one aspect in the development of Islamic thought especially with the rise of Orthodoxy particularly amongst the four madhahib (schools of thought). With their insistence on literal understanding of sacred text, question like how to describe the Arsh or God’s sitting on the Throne was viewed to be bid’a or innovation. Imam Malik, for instance, simply adopted the idea of bila kayf: it is prohibited to ask how.

It took quite a long time before Muslim scholars were able to lock the bull by its horn so to speak until the rise of kalam or scholasticism that clarified what the Orthodox could hardly resolve. It is this latter development particularly the epistemology of God that influenced many Muslim communities including those in Southeast Asia through the works of Imam Ashari, Ghazali, and to a lesser extent Shafi’i, and others.

Primacy of mercy and multiculturalism

To say the least, if the refusal of Malaysian authorities to allow Malaysian Christian to use the word “Allah” as it may cause controversy, as underscored, there was similar controversy in early period of Islamic thought. Due to relentless harnessing of reason, right judgment, and wisdom, early Muslim community was able to harmonize their positions, while enriching and broadening the frame of Islamic thought in subsequent centuries.

Perhaps, if the fear is that the controversy may create confusion, it is incumbent for concerned authorities and institutions to help in the clarification of the issue so that proper information and understanding would be made available to both Muslims and Christians in Malaysia.

There is a Hadith Quds a narration through Abu Hurayrah that Prophet Muhammad (SAW) told a story of two Israelites. To cut the story short, there were two persons: one a pious one and the other a sinner. Accordingly, when both of them died, they were assembled in the presence of Allah. Allah would say to the one constantly absorbed in worship: “did you know My Will?” “Did you have authority over in My Control?” Allah would then say to the sinner: “go and enter Paradise through My Mercy.” And He would say to the Angels for the other: “take him away to fire.” Also, the one who is absorbed in prayer said to the other whenever he saw him committing: “refrain from that.” The other said: “leave me to My Allah. Are you my guardian?”

The point we would like to raise is, God’s Mercy permeates in all creation. In fact, if we may ask: isn’t the recognition of the person who is able to recognize the Divine Name (Allah) – even if it is just the name – while his understanding or conception about God is somehow different imply at least recognition of the Name?

At least, in the case of Malaysian Christians they have identified the name of God as Allah even if their conception is not in accord with Islamic tenets. But compare this to many groups of people who call God in different names and who have different conception far from Islamic tenets. What would Malaysia’s Home Ministry attitude toward such people? If the envelope is pushed further, could we imagine what it means to the modern world given today’s worsening religious bigotry?

In terms of grade therefore, the affinity of Malaysian Christians is much closer to Islam, at least, as far as their recognition of the name of God as Allah compared to others. Should not Malaysian authorities be in fact more accommodating to Christians in their country and address their perceived fear of confusion on different level? By prohibiting Malaysian Christians to use the term “Allah,” Malaysia is erecting a barrier while closing the door to people in calling to their God named “Allah” – whether they “properly” know Him or they have their “own” conception of Him. Do we need to be continuously reminded that “nearest among them in Love to the Believers wilt thou find those who say, “We are Christians (Maidah: 85)?”

One anonymous author refers to the policy of Malaysia in prohibiting the use of the term “Allah” as “Malaysia Inquisition” – a policy reflective in medieval history when Muslims including the Jews were flushed out from Al-Andalus as Ferdinand and Isabela effaced all signs of multiculturalism and carried strong hatred against anyone affiliated with Islam particularly the Moors in the whole Iberian Peninsula.

There is a need for Malaysian authorities to recognize the fact that while they have legitimate issue as far as their national security is concerned, they have to be reminded that Southeast Asia has been home to a long tradition of multiculturalism. She has been honed with centuries of influence from varying cultures and civilizations including Islam and Christianity.

The trend of neo-fundamentalism that gripped the Muslim world these days should not be replicated in Southeast Asia. In fact, Southeast Asia is in the position to evolve or raise a model of multiculturalism where varying peoples with varying origin and nationality could live harmoniously. It is unfortunate that the rising tide of fundamentalism in Malaysia has already taken a picture like that in the Middle East and other violence-prone regions. Indeed, passion and fanaticism have no place in building a new model of cultural pluralism.

In sum, we rather take a perspective that ups the ante. As shown in various phases of history anyway, the more controversy amongst Muslims is raised, the more the teachings of Islam are made to surface. Sadly though, by taking a reversed position, Malaysia fails to transform the present controversy into opportunity. Sheer parochialism is made to reign as authorities continue to adopt policies inimical for the formation of multicultural society.

[A Friday Khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines, Diliman, Quezon City on 11 January 2014.  MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines].

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