Saturday, January 2, 2010

Allah, Tuhan, Jesus - What's His name?

Since yesterday, the press, the internet and the blogsphere had been abuzz with the issue over the right to use the word 'Allah' in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the freedom of religion as laid down by the Malaysian constitution.

Yesterday Justice Datuk Lau Bee Lan held that the Herald, a Catholic weekly magazine had the constitutional right to use the word 'Allah' in its publication to propagate the Christian religion but not Islam. She said that pursuant to Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution, it was an offence for non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah' to Muslims to propagate their religion

A brief background to the case is as follows:

On Jan 7, the Home Minister approved the Herald's publishing permit for the period Jan 1 to Dec 31, 2009, on condition that the word "Allah" was not used in it and the words "Restricted" must be printed on the weekly's front page whereby it could only be circulated to Christians and at churches only.

In response, Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam filed for a judicial review on the usage of the word 'Allah' in the church's publicatons, naming the Home Ministry and the goverment as respondents.

Throughout the case, many arguments had been put put forth by involved parties to the issue, which make us realise how unique and complex our nation and its pluralism is. Suffice to say, this case certainly impressed upon my mind that the security, peace and harmony of the nation is well beyond the ambit of legal wranglings and cold letter of the law, even of the constitution. Beyond legal and constitutional quiblings, I dare say that we as a nation are in dire need of mutual respect, sensitivity and just plain old goodwill among the various segments of the population, of various cultural and religious traditions. The questions brought forth for judiciary review are very much part of our current political discourse even when divorced from their specific judicial setting.

It has been argued by non-Muslims mainly that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to the Muslims and predate the birth of Islam. For the Muslims, this is just stating the obvious as it is the basic teaching of their religion to enjoin mankind to return to the older monetheism brought by Abraham, long before the coming of Islam. So in the evolution of religion then, it was the conception and idea of God that was debated and not just the plain word 'Allah' or his name. Such evolution is furthermore in line with the dynamics of cultural change, which does not involve a whole culture changing overnight, but proceeds by gradual adjustment and adaptation. So the argument that the word 'Allah' is not exclusive to Muslims and predate Islam is not quite to the point.

Within the specific context of Malaysia, however, the word 'Allah' has assumed its contextual and specific meaning as understood and held by the religion of Islam and the Muslims.Now, the formulation, understanding and interpretation of laws has always been everywhere,and in history, a matter of context in response to specific requirements. Therefore in my humble opinion, the argument that the word has an earlier meaning in history, and for other groups elsewhere, should not carry that much weight in the contextual interpretation of our own laws.

Now, there is the question of the freedom of speech and expression under our constitution. I think we all know and understand that such freedom is conditional and not without qualification It is almost a cliche to say that freedom of speech and expression carries with it responsibilities and due regards for the sensitivity of others.

In fact in this case, the Honorable Justice had given due regards to this requirement of the law. Bound by the wordings of Article 11( 4), she had made it clear that the word 'Allah' is permitted the Herald only for specific use of Christian congregation and for the teaching of Christianity to Christians. It would be an offence if the word 'Allah' is used to propagate religion to Muslims.

This is of course the contentious point raised by many. If it is of such limited 'freedom of speech and expression' , amounting to some sort of 'internal' Christian use, why is the Herald bent on using the word 'Allah'? Why not 'Tuhan', or 'Jesus'? This of course gives ground for suspicion among Muslims of intention to convert Muslims to Christianity.On this score, of course, we would be moving into areas quite beyond the immediate case before the court. As we know, beyond formal question of law and jurisprudence,there is a broad area of living which is not quite amenable to the court standards of what is right or wrong.

For now the law has made its declaration, giving literal meaning to the words of the law and the constitution. Judging by its declaration, the court had confined its role to defining the extent and limit of the freedom of speech and expression, and the freedom of religion in this case. It has been careful to exclude the issue of implementing and policing the law. While granting the Herald the right to use the word ' Allah', it has also clearly defined the extent and limit of that use. While it is a right for the Herald to use the word 'Allah' within their fold for their particular use, it is illegal beyond this.

As for the Home Affairs and the goverment, it remains for them to make a more convincing case in its appeal against the decision on the ground of national security and the confusion it might engender among Muslims by the use of the word 'Allah' by non-Muslims.It is their failure to make a convincing case that forced the court to fall back on the constitutional provision itself in the first instance. In addition, it is very much the responsibility of the Home Affairs and the goverment to implement, police and wisely manage what the court has decided. I suspect an inherent difficulty in its exercise of duty would be determining what constitutes 'propagation to Muslims' in this age of mass communication, including publishing,with its free flow of ideas, including religious ones.


  1. Sir, I am of the opinion that one name referring to two absolute and infinite opposites is definitely confusing and most definitely a ready-made brew for chaos and antagonism among already segregated populace.

  2. Interesting posts you have, though I think Christianity is dead and will be redeemed and brought to fruition and perfection through Thelema. Check out my blog at if you will. Love is the law, love under will. ;)

  3. Dal,


    Tks for your comment on an important subject indeed. Even from the point of view of everyday classification or categorisation of things,naming two different things by the same term is bound to be confusing, what more in the case of theology. Your point is certainly valid.


    Thanks for visiting.I will certainly visit your blog in due course.

  4. Pakiam and his gang have succeeded in:-

    1. increasing suspicious feelings among Muslims & Christians

    2. earning less or no even a single respect from Muslims any longer

    3. creating chaos throughout the country

    Congrats pakiam! Did you get the blessing from the Pope? Or this is just about Malaysia? Why dont you seek the 1st tenet of Rukun Negara be ammended to read "Kepercayaan kepada Allah'? What say you, Buddhists, Hindu, etc?

    Lau Bee Lan:-

    1. Should involve expert opinions from both (majlis agama) Islam & Christians. Majlis Agama was barred from direct involvement in this case before? At least, people would not see the judgement was lopsided from a christian judge.

    2. Should seek advise from YDP Agong before making any judgment pertaining to Islam (especially when it involves the core of Islam, that is Allah). Institusi DiRaja is another branch of separation powers and clearly the branch to oversee and protect the offcial religion of this country as per the Constitution.

    3. Why the Judiciary "encroached" the Institusi Di Raja in this case? Corrupt practice? Lopsided justice?

    "Negara Ini Negara Berdaulat"

  5. First of all a Judge need not seek the Majlis Agama opinion for something that is OBVIOUSLY not a Islamic matter. Our Constitution is very clear on what falls under Islamic issues and what is not, and this is most definitely NOT an Islamic issue.

    Secondly, in Mahathirs own words:

    "I accept the term ‘Allah’ had been used in Sabah and Sarawak before the two states joined Malaysia but it is difficult to stop them from doing so now... but in the peninsular, we have not heard of such practice"

    The Status Quo in Malaysia is that Christians have been using the term Allah for over a century and it is the GOVERNMENT that is using it to stir the hornets nest.

    Catholics are fighting for upholding the rights of the East Malaysians who have used the term Allah for over a century. We are fighting for the status Quo, and it is the Government that is seeking to change things.

  6. pakpandair,

    For the love of Allah, I don't understand why the local Christians insist on the use of the word Allah when the word Tuhan is sufficient for them.

    That they may have used the word in Sabah and Sarawak for a long time, largely unnoticed by the Muslim community here, is not a valid argument. What is important is that when the Muslims noticed them and protested, they should have taken due cognizance of that fact and react in a responsible and reasonable manner.

    Yes, the Arab Christians in the Middle East use the word Allah but it's because Allah is an Arabic word. Tuhan is the Malay or Bahasa Malaysia word. Allah in Malaysia is an Islamic or Muslim word. Why encroach on that?

    Surely Christianity teaches moderation, goodwill and harmony. When there is opposition by a significant number of people representing the majority of the country, why be adamant? When you could just quietly fizzle the issue out and maintain the existing state of goodwill and harmony, why drag it to the Court? What are you trying to prove by doing so? What do you get doing so? Religious expansionism of the type of the Crusades and the Knights of the Round Table have long gone. This is the 21st Century, for goodness sake.

    Heterogeneous Malaysia has all sorts of other problems to face and solve. We do not need a religious one. And the Archbishop is a Tan Sri, bestowed upon him surely partly in recognition of his sense of responsiblility as a leader of a religious community in this country. Why the intransigence?

    Now KDN and PM's Dept are readying an appeal. If appeal and counter appeal goes on right to the highest level of the Federal Court, a lot of sour taste and angry feelings would have consumed a significant size of the population, irrespective of the outcome of such appeals. Their persistence in the face of opposition suggets a sinister motive in wanting to use the Muslim word Allah. The risk of a physical conflict is there.

    Let's appeal to the Archbishop to re-think his stand in the light of the potential disaster his court action may bring to this country. We'll hold him responsible if non-action on his part in removing the source of the problem precipitates and leads to religious disturbances physical in nature.

    Let's remind him that the Bahasa Malaysia word Tuhan is sufficient for the Christians to use and that the word Allah is an Islamic or Muslim word.


  7. Semerah Padi

    Tks for your comments.Judging by their content and tenor, it is obvious that you feel strongly for your religion, a sentiment which I highly admire and respect.Of course there are differences too reflected in your comments. Despite the differences,all of us seem to agree that religious harmony and goodwill depends much more on our higher ideals and sentiments towards each other, and less on the law and other formalities.

    I beg to decline commenting in terms of prescriptive measures in the handling of the issue as I consider it more the prerogative of the court, the Home Affairs and the goverment.

    I am pleased to publish your views as they are most instructive for readers on our chalenging task of nation building.

    Let us pray that good sense and wisdom prevails in the end

    Best wishes to all

  8. Allah is not a muslim word. It is an Arabic word as are many Malay words. In Indonesia, Allah (with Indonesian pronunciation) is used by Christians, while Allah (with Arabic pronunciation) is used by Muslims. Forbidding Christians to use their traditional word for God would require them to rewrite the Bible. That is absurd isn't it? Besides are Christians and Muslims really referring to two different gods? Aren't they both following the monotheistic tradition of Abraham and referring the almighty god, ruler of the universe using different traditions to do so? That is the official Indonesian interpretation of this age old debate.

  9. Anonymous,

    Although 'Allah' is not a muslim word, it has been long recognised in SEA as referring to the Islamic God.The Islamisation of SEA has been going on for thousand of years, given the close cutural,economic and religious ties with the Middle East. As to your reference to the Indonesian usage, bahasa Indonesia has got a different history and background Bahasa Indonesia is a sense a new creation of the Indonesian revolution of the 20the century, hence it accomocates many recent modern development and usage.

    Your point about word being Arabic, it is precisely the arguement of many of your would be critic. They argue to use bahasa Malaysia, the word is really 'tuhan' and not 'Allah'.

    Your point about, the controversy seems to suggest or recommend a rewriting of bible is not accurate. The discussion is on the use of one specific word 'Allah' and i think it is reasonable to say this is not a demand 'to rewrite'.

    As your point abotu 'the common God', it is reasonable to say that preently Muslims and Christians do differ in their conception of God, the one being uncompormisingly monotheistic as compared to the other by way of formulation and symbolism:)

    Best regards

  10. Anonymous 9 Jan 10.11 PM,

    pakpandair has commented on the use of the word Allah in SEA, its BM equivalent in Malaysia and its incompatibility with the Christian concept of the Trinity - The father, The Son and The Holy Ghost. Let me comment on the origin of the use of that word in this in this region, Nusantara, and this country, Malaysia.

    The word Allah has been used by the Muslims in Nusantara since the 13th Century. It started in Acheh, north Sumatra, and spread to the other islands, as well as to the Malay Peninsula, such that by the time of the Malacca Sultanate, it was very much used by the Malays who became Muslims when the ruler adopted Islam as a religion.

    Malays during the Brunei Sultanate, whose rule covered large parts of Sarawak and Sabah, also adopted Islam as their religion. There were a lot of commercial and cultural contacts passing through the Straits of Malacca and the seas off Sarawak and Sabah, bringing the word Allah right through to the Sulu and the Palawan Islands of the Philippines and the islands of presnt day Indonesia.

    Christianity came to the area only later. The local Malays were already using the word Allah denoting the Muslim god when the Christian missionaries came to this region. The Christian missionaries could not convert the Malays largely, I think, due to the fact that the Malays believe in Allah as the one and only god whereas the Christian god took a different form in the Trinity of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit.

    Of course it was convenient for the Christian missionaries to use the word Allah to refer to their God when carrying out their missionary activities. But it didn't mean that the word Allah was correct or suitable, particularly in reference to the concept of the Trinity. But because of its convenience, it came to be used in the translation for the Bible used in Indonesia.

    But, as far as Malaysia was concerned, I believe that the Muslims were, by and large, unaware of it being used among Christians in Sarawak and Sabah. The Christians were mainly successful in converting those who lived in the interior parts of the states. Hardly known to the Malays who mostly lived in the coastal areas, no serious objection was raised. Not much was known in the Peninsular, too. However, when many Muslims became aware and began to object in recent times, particularly the use of the word in print, the Christian leaders should give heed. Christian religious
    materials using the word Allah in printed form may reach the hands of Muslims who may read them, get confused and become susceptible to being won over to another faith. The law does not allow Malays to be converted to another faith.

    What 1-2 people said about Muslims being "confident" and not get confused is utter rubbish. Those people are ignorant of the level of education, the mentality and general disposition of the average Malay/ Muslim in this country.


  11. Anonymous,

    Although you say that the word 'Allah' is not a 'muslim' word, it has been long recognised in SEA as referring to the Islamic God.The Islamisation of SEA has been going on for thousand of years, given the close cutural,economic and religious ties with the Middle East. As to your reference to Indonesian usage, bahasa Indonesia has a different history and background. Bahasa Indonesia is in a sense a new creation of the Indonesian revolution of the 20the century, hence it accomodates many recent modern development and usage.

    Your point about the Malay language having many 'arabic' words is not entirely accurate in the sense that all languages of the world do contain borrowed words from other languages. but in time integrated it with their idiom and meaning to make them their own. In this respect, mamy of these so-called 'arabic' words are really 'Malay' words by now with the passage of history.

    And then there is your point about the word 'Allah' being Arabic, it is precisely the argument of many of your would- be-critics. They argue that in bahasa Malaysia the word for 'God' is really 'Tuhan' and not 'Allah'.

    Your point that the controversy seems to expect a rewriting of the bible is not entirely accurate. The discussion is on the use of one specific word 'Allah' and I think it is reasonable to say this is not an expectation 'to rewrite'the entire bible.

    As your point about 'common God' for both Christian and Muslm, it is reasonable for me to say that currently Muslims and Christians do differ in their basic conception of God, the one being uncompromisingly monotheistic as compared to the other by way of concepton and symbolism:)

    Best regards

  12. Maju,

    I agree with your very informative posting on the process of Islamization, I am inclined to think it is very possible that islamization started much earlier than the 13th century. This is because Islam was revealed in the 7th century, and within a century it spread throughout the Arabian peninsula. Now it is most unlikely that Islam was not brought to SEA soon after, considering the prevalent trade and cultural ties between the Middle East and SEA, though it was only much later that the ruling class officially embraced Islam.
    Thank for your enlightening comment.

    Best regards