Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is Allah for everyone?

There was a SAPA-AP report in the Cape Times of 04 January 2010, entitled “Malaysia awaits ruling on whether Allah is God to Muslims only”, which I found interesting. Apparently, the government of Malasia is set to challenge a High Court ruling that Christians have a constitutional right to use the word Allah to refer to God. The High Court ruling struck down a government ban on non-Muslims translating the word “God” as “Allah” in their literature. Mild protests apparently followed.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit, filed in 2007 by The Herald in its Malay language edition. The Herald is the Roman Catholic Church’s main publication in Malasia. The problem seems to be that some Islamic commentators agree with the government position that the word “Allah” is an Islamic word, which should be used exclusively by Muslims and that its use by other religions is misleading. Naturally, there are also other Islamic scholars, who say there would be no problem in the use of the word by non-Muslim people, seeing it, simply, as a translation, and nothing more.

Now, this raises some interesting questions. If the word is, in fact, nothing more than a simple translation of the word “God” into Arabic, then it seems to me that any kind of restriction on the use of the word is going to be difficult at best and nonsensical at worst. How would one control it?

Would one need to substitute another word in its place (pretty much as the Jews do, so as to protect the sacred tetragrammaton YHWH with other words and circumlocutions such as “Jehovah”, or “Elohim”?) My suspicion is that it is this sense of reverence which is some of the motivation behind the attempt to protect the word “Allah”.

On the other hand, it could be the view that any use of the word by non-Muslims, particularly in the context of Christian evangelism, is somehow a deliberate attempt to blur the distinctions between the two religions. I have no doubt whatsoever, in a strongly proselytizing environment, that this could well be the motivation. In which case, I suppose, there really can be no rules of engagement!

But the bigger question would be this: If only Muslims can use the word “Allah” because, somehow, that word is connected to Muslim people, what would be the relationship of “Allah” as an entity, to non-Muslims? Is there hidden in this view, the understanding that there is a different God, called “God” for non-Muslims, and “Allah” for Muslims? Because that would be extremely strange in a monotheistic environment.

Some time ago, my eldest son, aged 7, asked me whether the name of God was Allah. I said yes, it was. Then I had a moment’s thought. I said, “But Christians also call God...” I thought some more, and came up, ingeniously, with “God!” I wonder, now, was I wrong?


  1. How appropriate that you should ask the question on the feast of the Epiphany. Not a new question, just differently formulated. Previously it was posed as: Is God for Gentiles as well is Jews? Is God for gays as well as straights? etc etc ad nauseum. And again we will reduce Him to fit into our litle moulds, to suit our prejudices.

  2. It is interesting that in the litugies of the Greek Melchite Church (which is part of the Roman Catholic Church, but uses a Byzantine rite for the Eucharist and other liturgical rites, but uses Arabic as its language)God is referred to as Allah.