Malaysia would be misguided to ban Arabic word for God

The legal argument over the use of the word "Allah" by Malaysian Christians overlooks an important fact.

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Malaysia is embroiled in a holy war of words. The government wants to ban Christians from using what it regards as a word that should be used only by Muslims.

In 2008, the government threatened to revoke a publishing licence from the Catholic Herald if the newspaper did not refrain from referring to "God" as "Allah". This would be problematic, as it would force the newspaper to misquote the centuries-old Malay version of the Bible. The local alternative, Tuhan, is used to refer specifically to "the Lord".

Fortunately, Malaysia's high court ruled in the newspaper's favour. The authorities, however, have appealed the verdict.

The dispute is a symptom of deeper troubles. Despite the fact that Malaysians, in their kaleidoscope of religious and racial diversity, tend to “talk conflict, but walk cohesion”, as one academic put it, the country has been experiencing rising tensions between its various groups.

Though it is one of the world’s longest-ruling parties, Barisan Nasional (the National Front) has seen its support base dwindling in recent years. In May, Barisan – whose three race-based parties operate on sectarian grounds outside of elections – gained less than half of the popular vote.

Despite statistical evidence to the contrary, prime minister Najib Razak blamed the erosion on a “Chinese tsunami”. The Malaysian government has also been under growing pressure from Islamic parties, and this has led the government, as has occurred elsewhere, to play the piety card and engage in identity politics.

But is there any validity for limiting the use of "Allah" to Muslims?

The controversy is partly fuelled by confusion. Most Malaysians do not speak Arabic and so some of the Muslims among them may be under the false impression that “Allah” is an exclusively Islamic word. But they are mistaken. “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God”.

The word itself – which is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-illah (the god) – predates Islam. It was used by the Arabs to refer to the chief god of Mecca, whom they believed to be the creator of the world and the giver of rain and was venerated around the black stone of the Kaaba.

In Islam, “Allah” is one of 99 names of God. And the word still has not lost its general sense. For example, the beginning of the shahada, or Islamic creed, states that: “la illaha ila Allah”, or “there is no god but God”. The word is also used in the plural form, “alleha”, to refer to the Egyptian and Greek pantheons, for example.

It should then come as no surprise that Arabic-speaking Christians and Jews have, for centuries, referred to God as Allah. In Egypt, for instance, Copts say “Allah mahaba” or “God is love” and I have met Christians whose name is Abdullah (Servant of God).

The fact that Arab and Maltese Christians worship “Allah” while Malaysian Christians have gone to court to defend their right to do so is likely to confuse many conservatives and anti-Muslims in the West.

This is reflected in the controversy in January when a Colorado school allowed pupils to recite the pledge of allegiance in Arabic, sparking anger that the kids were expressing their loyalty to “one nation under Allah”.

But this is just plain ridiculous: Allah is God and God is Allah.

That is why it sometimes irritates me when English translations of the Quran talk of Allah, not God. After all, English translations of the Bible do not tend to use the Aramaic or Hebrew words for God but employ a Germanic one, which derives from guthan, meaning “that which is invoked”.

But some conservative Christians will invoke, in their defence, that Muslims pray to a different deity to them and so this must be distinguished. But this is also nonsense. Though they may disagree on certain ideological and doctrinal issues, and even a little on the nature of God, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all worship the same monotheistic deity.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that the three religions are essentially branches of the same faith. That is why Muslims refer to the “People of the Book”, and all three religions trace their roots back to Abraham, whom they believe to be their common patriarch.

Khaled Diab ( is a Belgian-Egyptian freelance journalist

On Twitter: @DiabolicalIdea