What's in a Name?
Agnes Monica is the Miley Cyrus of Southeast Asia. The Indonesian teen singer's face is ubiquitous. Her performances are packed out. But in Selangor, Malaysia, no one is allowed to play her song "Allah Peduli" ("God Cares"). Monica is a Christian, and Malaysian law bans non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah.
The ban on "God Cares" is one application of state laws widely opposed by the island nation's Christians and other non-Muslims. Few question whether Allah is the God of the Bible—to Malaysian Christians, Allah is simply the word for God.
The decades-old state laws have gained recent prominence through The Herald, the national Catholic newspaper. Beginning in 1998, Malaysia's Ministry of Home Affairs has sent letters to editor and priest Lawrence Andrew asking him to cease using Allah in the paper's Malay edition. In 2007, the government threatened to ban the newspaper. Thus began a long legal battle, with government representatives issuing conflicting orders and the paper suing to both publish in Malay and continue its use of the theonym.
The newspaper acquired a printing permit for 2009. But on May 28, the church lost its suit to legally use Allah. A high court hearing that began July 7 should resolve the newspaper's legal status.
Perhaps in anticipation of another unfavorable ruling, the Indonesian organization Yayasan Lentera Bangsa has published a new translation of the Bible in Indonesian. Allah does not appear in the Kitab Suci Indonesian Literal Translation (KS-ILT). Instead, the publishers transliterated Hebrew terms (such as Elohim) and substituted some less-common Indonesian names for God.
"Coincident with the forbidding of the use of Allah by non-Muslims in Malaysia, we think it is the time for us to release ourselves from the dilemma," said editor Jahja Iskandar.
Mainstream churches, however, have been hostile to the KS-ILT. Neither the Bible Society of Indonesia nor that of Malaysia has approved the translation. The National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) of Malaysia issued a statement "strongly opposing" the translation. "We continue to maintain the right to use Allah as it has been so used for over 300 years in Malaysia," the group said.
Evangelical observers support NECF's move. "Theologically and missiologically, Allah is a very appropriate way [for Southeast Asian Christians] to refer to God," said Ajith Fernando, national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka.
Christians and Muslims sometimes misunderstand Allah to be purely Islamic. Instead, it is the Arabic word for God and a close semantic relative of the Hebrew El. In many Central Asian countries, Muslims use Khuda, the Persian word for God, rather than Allah. Christians in Palestine and other Arabic-speaking communities also refer to God as Allah.
The term spread to Southeast Asia in the 1100s as Muslim sultanates were established. It then became incorporated into the Malay language family, which includes Malaysian and Indonesian.
The Herald’s Andrew says outlawing its use by non-Muslims is as silly as arguing that breakfast cannot be used by people who mean anything other than cereal with milk. “The word God has no content other than what one’s belief posits,” he said.
The Malaysian government says the ban protects Muslims. Its letters telling the Herald to cease and desist “often concluded with their official sentiment that our use of the word Allah will cause confusion among the believers and threaten security of the nation,” said Andrew.
Christians have used the word for centuries, and the conflict is not new. A Wycliffe translator who has been in the region for several years said this debate began when the first Bible was published in Malay, using Allah, in 1985.