Malaysia Catholics allowed to call God 'Allah' again. Why the fuss?

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, worships the God of Abraham. So why is Malaysia's government trying to prevent Catholics from calling God 'Allah?'

By , Staff writer

After a three-year battle, the Roman Catholic church in Malaysia won back the right to use the long-standing Malay-language word for God: "Allah."

A judge, responding to a suit filed by the editor of The Herald, a Catholic weekly distributed primarily to Catholics in the Malaysian portions of Borneo, found that an earlier government restriction allowing the term only to be used by Muslims was unconstitutional.

But the freedom to use what is commonly understood to be the generic word for the God of Abraham – in both Malaysian and in the closely related language of Indonesian – may not last long. On Jan. 4, the government said it would appeal the ruling. The official state news agency Bernama reported that "the Home Minister had justified the ban on grounds of national security and to avoid misunderstanding and confusion among Muslims."

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The government's sensitivity on the issue seems to have less to do with linguistic precision and more to do with the complicated role Islam has come to play in Malaysia's political life. The country is about 60 percent Muslim, with most adherents belonging to the ethnic-Malay majority. But a sizable number of ethnic Malays on Borneo are Christian, both members of the Catholic church and various Protestant groups. A large portion of the country's ethnic-Chinese minority are Christians as well, with a smaller group of its ethnic-Indian population adhering to the faith.

The Malay word for "god" has been "Allah" for centuries, reflecting the strong Arab linguistic and cultural influence on the Malay Peninsula and the sprawling string of Islands in the area once known as the Malay Archipelago but now mostly controlled by modern Indonesia. Arab traders came to dominate the important Malacca Strait in the 13th and 14th centuries, which linked the markets of Asia to the Middle East and Europe, leading to both the spread of Islam and of Arabic influence on local languages throughout the islands.

"Allah yang maha kuasa," or "almighty God," is a phrase that is typically heard in Catholic churches in Sarawak, Borneo, and in Protestant churches on Sumatra in Indonesia. The word "Allah" of course, is also voiced to the heavens by Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem at Christmas and is used by the Eastern Orthodox Christians in Egypt, commonly referred to as Copts.

That this use of "Allah" is largely uncontroversial in the Arab world, which has plenty of religious conflicts of its own, points to the unusual nature of the Malaysian government's effort.

Political Islam has become a more important force in Malaysian society in the past 30 years, and Malaysia operates under two sets of law – one for Muslims, and one for everyone else. Alcohol is freely available in much of the country, though it's technically illegal for Muslims to drink it. That distinction led to a Muslim woman, who had ordered a beer in a Kuala Lumpur restaurant, to almost be caned last year. Malaysia also has a number of casinos, but national identity cards are checked at the door to keep Muslims out.

The most militant of Malaysia's Muslims have warned of efforts to "Christianize" the country and alleged at the time the government banned the Catholic use of the word "Allah" that its use was deliberately confusing and could be used in an effort to win converts. The Catholic church in Malaysia has argued that it was simply using the word best understood by its parishioners.

The Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is the most powerful group pushing for Islam to have greater influence over Malaysia's political life, and currently has 23 seats in the national Parliament. PAS has favored the ban in the past, and in a statement on Monday said it was "disappointed" with the high court ruling but urged followers to stay calm.

"PAS is worried that allowing the use of the name Allah in this publication will create confusion among Muslims, especially among converts and those wanting to draw closer to Islam,'' the Party said in a statement. The party said restrictions on use of the word are important to "close the door to wickedness for the Muslim community" and added that "it needs to be stressed that PAS is not opposed to freedom of religion."

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