'Allah' in Malaysia: mine, yours or ours

Quick Summary

  • The word 'Allah' is used by Muslims, Christians, Mizrahi Jews, Maltese and even Sikhs the world over. Most notably in Egypt, the Coptic Christians begin their Christmas Mass with “Bismillah” (in the name of God) and use the word 'Allah' throughout.
  • Some Muslims in Malaysia claim that Christians use the word 'Allah' as they want to confuse and convert Muslims to Christianity. This, they say, will pose a national security threat.
  • Contrarily, churches in Malaysia claim that such an assertion is baseless and the word used for God in the Bahasa Malaysia Bible (Al-Kitab) since its translation in 1731, is ‘Allah’. In English services, 'Allah' is not used nor the churches have ever suggested changing the word ‘God’ to ‘Allah’ in other languages of the Bible, Christians claim.
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    Malaysia, our next-door neighbour, is fast becoming infamous for a raging debate and legal battle over 'patenting' the word 'Allah'. The controversy started in 2007 when Malaysian Government ordered a catholic newspaper, The Herald [published by Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre in Kuala Lumpur], to stop using the word 'Allah' in its Bahasa Malayisa publication.

    Since then, after many twists and turns, the dispute has reached the Court of Appeal, which, on September 10, stated that it will announce its verdict “no later than October, and with written justification”. Importantly, Malaysia, has a population of about 28 million, of which 60% are Muslims, and Christianity is the third largest religion (after Buddhism) with about 2.6 million followers.

    Amidst all this chaos and wait for the final verdict, some sane voices have appealed for clam and harmony.

    Malaysia's former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, in a blog post titled, The 'Allah' Controversy, wrote, “Malaysia is a multi-religious country and  Malaysians respect each others’ religions and the rights of the religious practises of their followers. Unfortunately, now we have this controversy on the use of the name of God, 'Allah'. Religious confrontations can lead to very serious consequences. While we can have political differences, we should not resort to our religious differences to win elections. It is a double-edged sword and those who live by the sword shall die by the sword. Let this controversy be settled behind closed doors by responsible people. Let not the extremists take over and exploit religious issues.”

    Bishop Paul Tan, who is the immediate past president of the Catholics Bishops’ Conference of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, while writing in The Herald said, “The use of the word 'Allah', is a non-issue really. It becomes an issue when it is being politicised, which is the case in Malaysia.”

    Writer, academician and columnist, Azly Rahman, who recently published a book titled, The 'Allah' Controversy and Other Essays on Malaysian Hyper-modernity.

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    “At this point in human evolution, in this age of reconciliation of the post-Mayan calendar, Malaysians (especially Christians and Muslims) need to be less childish in the fight over patenting and branding ‘god’. It is a name conceived differently anyway, as different as how each soul conceives the Divine. Whether one calls god Allah, The Lord, Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, Bhagwan, Waheguru, Yahweh, or Hashem or not call it anything at all but refer to it in mere silence and reverie, the ultimate aim is to ‘connect’, and hence the Latin term ‘religio’ which loosely means ‘to connect’. Herein lies the limits of language insofar as the naming of ‘god’ is concerned,” argued Rahman.

    Case charge-sheet

    2007: Government orders The Herald to stop  using the word 'Allah' in its publication. Herald doesn't comply stating that it had been using 'Allah' in its Bahasa Malaysia [the country's national language] publication since 1995. Subsequently, The Herald is banned from publishing for two weeks. In response, catholic church leaders sued the Government in the High Court for violating Article 11 of the Malaysian constitution which guarantees “the right of religious practice for all without constraints or restrictions”. The church leaders also argued that Christians of Malaysian provinces, Sabah and Sarawak, have used the word 'Allah' for generations and Malay bibles imported from Indonesia had been using the word 'Allah' “for generations without complaint”. 

    2009: The High Court ruled that the decision to ban The Herald was illegal, unconstitutional, and therefore null and void. Judge Lau Bee Lan also added the Government is not empowered to impose a ban on the use of the word 'Allah' by Christians, who have equal right to use it.

    What followed was a wave of violence, ransacking, break-ins, fire-bombing and vandalising churches and other places of worships. Sikh temples were also attacked, apparently because Sri Guru Granth Sahib, Sikhism's holy scripture, contains the word 'Allah' as a reference to God in 37 places. 

    The Government in an attempt to appease extremist elements and control the ongoing violence appealed against the High Court ruling.

    2011: The Malaysian Government in April, just ahead of Sarawak elections, announced a 10-point solution to resolve the dispute. It stated that Bibles in any language can be imported into Malaysia and there will be no restrictions for people travelling between East and West Malaysia to bring along their Bibles and other Christian materials.


    August 22: The Court of Appeal dismissed a request by catholic leaders which sought to strike out the Government's appeal against the earlier judgement of the High Court permitting the use of the word 'Allah' to Christians.

    September 10: The Court of Appeal heard arguments from both sides. Government defended the ban on The Herald saying that it had exercised its “absolute discretion” in implementing the ban which was necessitated “in order to protect public safety and order”.

    October: Verdict awaited