Thursday, October 17, 2013

No one has monopoly claim to God: On the use of ‘Allah’ in Malaysia

Endy M. Bayuni, The Jakarta Post | Opinion | Wed, October 16 2013, 11:16 AM

Can Muslims, who profess belief in One Almighty God, seriously claim exclusivity to God?

Malaysian Muslims apparently can. A Malaysian appeals court has ruled that the word “Allah” (which is Arabic for God) is an exclusive term for Muslims, and that no other religions should be allowed to use the word when referring to their own deity, or deities as the case may be.

The verdict overturned a 2009 lower court decision which allowed the Roman Catholic Church in Malaysia to use the word Allah in their publications, including in the Malay translation of the Bible.

The word has been used by the church for decades if not centuries since it came to this part of the world.

Religious exclusivism, which goes against the grain of Islamic teachings and most major world religions, is now formally implanted among Muslims in the Southeast Asian country, which ironically, takes pride in the racial, ethnical and religious diversity of its people.

Interestingly, while the Malaysian Muslim majority goes for exclusivism, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican is going exactly in the opposite direction towards more inclusivism.

Pope Francis shook the Catholic world early this month when he said “I believe in God, not in a Catholic God” in an interview with an Italian newspaper.

Monotheism is the foundation of the Abrahamic faiths – including Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and it entails that their followers pray to the same God Almighty. The Pope is only reaffirming the very principle of monotheism but at the same time he is promulgating the inclusivity of the deity.

His remarks should help cool a world that is increasingly being wreaked by religious tensions and conflicts.

No one who believes in the power of one supreme God can really claim exclusivity. There is no such thing as the God for Catholics, just as there is no such thing as the God or Allah for Muslims.

Those who claim exclusivity to God undermine their own faith, and inadvertently or not, preach polytheism.

Every monotheistic religion will obviously claim exclusivity in their proximity to God, but that is not the same thing as claiming that God only listens to them and no one else.
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It’s only a matter of time before someone takes the cue from Malaysia and starts raising objections to non-Muslims using the word Allah.
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The controversy in Malaysia started when Muslims raised objections to the use of the word Allah by the Roman Catholic Church in its publications.

Although the lower court already ruled in favor of the church in 2009, the Malaysian government decided to take up the issue on behalf of Muslims and appealed. Not surprisingly, this week it won the case, ironically on the eve of the Muslim’s Sacrifice Day.

The controversy on the use of the word “Allah” goes beyond semantics, or else it would not have provoked such emotional reactions from all sides concerned.

And it is a debate that sooner or later will come to Indonesia, for the seeds of exclusivity have already been deeply planted among Muslims in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

Like their Malay Muslim brothers, Indonesian Muslims who share the same Malay root language, translate the phrase Lailaha Illallah to Tiada tuhan selain Allah (in English: No God but Allah), instead of the literal translation “No god but God”.

Something quite fundamental is lost in the translation when Indonesians make a distinction between “God” and “Allah”, two words that essentially mean the same thing. But this erroneous translation may have become the basis that put Muslims in much of Southeast Asia to claim exclusivity to God.

I am no historian, so I do not profess to know the reason for the translation, but since this part of the world was predominantly Hindus and Buddhists before Islam came in the 14th century, the distinction between Allah and God may have been important in helping to convert people who then believed in many deities.

The late Islamist scholar Nurcholish Madjid drew sharp rebukes when he suggested that Indonesians should translate the term to “No god but God”, so the idea was dropped prematurely.

Exclusivity to the claim of God is equally strong in Indonesia, if not stronger, than in Malaysia.

Indonesia has had its share of debates on Islam’s claim to exclusivity, including whether non-Muslims should be allowed to say the traditional Islamic greeting assalamu’alaikum (which means peace be upon you) and other popular Islamic expressions such as Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) and Insya Allah (God willing).

It’s only a matter of time before someone takes the cue from Malaysia and starts raising objections to non-Muslims using the word Allah.

The problem with religious exclusivism is that it breeds intolerance, which leads to prejudices against the others.

Indonesia and Malaysia may rightfully claim to have developed a more moderate strand of Islam, and history has actually proven that Muslims in this part of the world to be more tolerant when compared to their brothers and sisters in Islam’s place of origin in the Middle East or in South Asia.

But there is only a thin line dividing tolerance and intolerance, so we should not take this moderation for granted.

With the rising exclusivism that the Muslim majorities in these two countries are pushing, we may be witnessing the Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia becoming less and less tolerant. In fact, it may already be happening.

Which begs the question: Is there anyone in this country that is pushing for more religious inclusivism? Insya Allah.
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The writer is senior editor of The Jakarta Post and a founding member of the International Association of Religion Journalists (IARJ)

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