Sunday, March 01, 2009

Can Christians Pray to Allah?

For most Christians it must be inconceivable that the word “Allah”, that is commonly associated with Islam, can be found in Christian Bibles, but a surprising number of Christians in Southeast Asia use Allah as a generic term for the Supreme Being when they pray.

The Bible in Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia), widely used in Malay-speaking countries, uses Allah for “God” as do the bibles widely printed and distributed in Malaysia. Both are Muslim majority countries, though Malaysia is barely so.

The use of Allah in the Bible is a legacy of translations stretching back nearly 400 years. The very first Malay translation of a portion of the Bible in 1612 – the first translation of God’s word into a non-European language – used the word Allah for God.

But the use of Allah by Christians has burgeoned into a serious issue of religious freedom in Malaysia, where the government has banned the use of the word in Christian publications and threatened to withdraw the publishing license for a Roman Catholic newspaper. The Home Ministry asserts that “Allah” is the preserve of Islam.

The tussle began more than a year ago, when the Malaysian government threatened to withdraw the publishing license for the Catholic Herald, which is the newspaper of the diocese of Kuala Lumpur. The paper, with a circulation of about 14,000, prints articles in English and several vernacular languages including Malaysian.

The government relented in February by allowing the Herald and presumably other Christian publications to use the word Allah so long as the publications are labeled “For Christians”, which can lead to the absurd situation of the imported Indonesian Bibles having the label “for Christians” on the cover. Who else are they for?

Then it turned around and re-imposed the ban, saying the earlier action had been a mistake. The Herald has taken the case to the High Court, claiming that the government’s actions violate Malaysia’s Constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion, and has said it will continue to press its case in the face of government and popular opposition..

The Herald got some welcome public support from a member of the governing coalition, when a minister in the prime minister’s office, Tan Sri Bernard Dompok, said “[Allah] is a universal terminology used in the Christian world when they are praying in their vernacular language. There is no reason to continue harassing the Catholic Herald.”

Mr. Dompok represents a small party from Sabah a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, which has a large population of Christians among its indigenous Dayak population among whom Christian evangelicals are active.

The issue in part reflects the increasing nervousness that government has toward Christian proselytizing in Malaysia. They see the use of the word Allah as a subtle way of spreading Christianity. The Catholic Herald, a newspaper which has circulates only among the country’s estimated 850,000 Catholics, says its publication is not a religious tract.

The Herald’s editor, Father Lawrence Andrew argues that Allah, as a common reference for God, predates Islam, and is, indeed, used in Bibles written in Arabic. The government’s ban on use of Allah also extends to other words from Arabic that now have Islamic implications, such as solat for prayer or kaaba for a Holy Place.

On the other hand, Muslims have some legitimate reasons for concern about Christian use of Allah. Christians may argue that Allah and God are one in the same. But how does one defend the phrase that appears in Indonesian Bibles, anak Allah or Son of God? That puts Allah in the triune tradition that is anathema the supreme oneness of Allah.

Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Malaysia have been rising in recent years, many of them concerning conversion controversies, complicated by the fact that Malaysia has two judicial systems, a federal, secular court system and a Shariah law court system.

Where is one to turn to if you are, say a Christian convert from Islam and believe that your rights are being trampled under Malaysia’s constitution? As a (former) Muslim your case may be shunted to a Shariah court, which would not even recognize your complaint.

The tensions are compounded by the insecurity that many Malaysian Muslims feel that they might be relegated to a minority in their own country. Of the country’s 27 million people, only about 60 per cent are Muslim Malays. The rest are Chinese, Indian or indigenous peoples, most of whom live in Sabah or Sarawak, Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.

The current government is weak, having suffered an historic defeat in the general election held a year ago, and faces increasing heat from an opposition coalition that includes the fundamentalist party Pas. The country is also entering the season of by-elections to parliament.

The use of Allah in Indonesian Bibles does not seem to have raised the same concerns there. It may be because Muslims, with nearly 80 percent of the population, feel more secure. Christians and Muslims have their conflicts, sometime very bloody ones, but usually the issues revolve around land and migration disputes, not theology.


Blogger Hiking Muslima said...

Why do Christians want to use the word 'Allah' to call their God is beyond me. Did Christianity originate in the Arab land? No. Did Jesus speak Arabic? No. He spoke Aramaic and Greek. God in Aramaic is Alaaha, which has a different pronunciation and spelling from "Allah".

September 28, 2009 at 8:52 PM  
Blogger Hiking Muslima said...

Yes, Christian Arabs have used the word "Allah" for as long as they did, years before Islam, but that's because in Arabic Allah means god. Just like Tuhan means god in Malay language, any Malaysian people of any religions can use that word. Christian that doesn't speak Arab have no business using the word Allah. As that would strike confusions in those that are beginning to learn about Islam, such as the young children.

September 28, 2009 at 8:58 PM  
Blogger Hiking Muslima said...

In regard to Indonesia, just because it's OK in one country doesn't mean it has to be fine in another country. The way Islamic values are imposed as law in these two countries are not the same. Nobody is saying that Indonesia is the one who sets the standard on how Islamic law or laws in regard to Islam is imposed on other Muslim countries. Afterall, Indonesia is much looser in terms of imposing Islamic laws on muslims there. Public kissing, for example between non-married muslims is okay. Public alcohol drinking is fine too.

September 28, 2009 at 9:15 PM  
Blogger André said...

This certainly does make for interesting reading to say the least. christian books

March 2, 2011 at 1:16 PM  

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