"Allah" means God: that’s how the Catholic Church in Malaysia describes God and uses both the words in its publications. But the Malaysian authorities have forbidden non-Muslims from using the word Allah. The church says the ban is unconstitutional and violates freedom of religion.
How does one write 'God' in Malaysia?
When a Roman Catholic weekly newspaper, the Herald, was seeking the renewal of its licence at the end of last year, it was told that it should not use the word Allah to denote God. The Herald, published by Malaysia’s Catholic Church, has translated the word God as ‘Allah’.
The authorities are of the opinion that Allah is the God of the Muslims and the word should not be used by Christians, says Father Lawrence Andrew, the chief editor of the Herald: “The government of Malaysia thinks that the word Allah belongs to the Muslims alone. It is a political statement rather than a fact. Any thinking person in the world knows that Allah is a generic word. It is a word that belongs to the Arabic language. It was there even before Islam came into existence in the 7th century. It has a history beyond Islam.”
Is the word ‘Allah’ only restricted to Islam?
The Malaysian Minister of Islamic Affairs Datuk Abdullah Mohammad Zin has justified the decision, saying the use of the word ‘Allah’ in a Christian publication may create confusion among Muslims in the country. There are approximately nine percent Christians in Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion.
Shad Saleem Faruqui is a professor of law at the Technical University of Mara in Kuala Lumpur. He sees the use of certain Arabic words in a Christian newspaper as a provocation. He believes one could easily use any other word from the Malaysian language: "The word Allah is not a word of Bhasa Malaysia. It is actually a Quranic word. It has been associated with Islam for centuries. The Malaysian word for God would be Tuhan or Dewa. I don’t see any problem in using these names. The use of the word Allah is always associated with Islam."
Freedom of religion
Father Andrew doesn’t accept this argument. He has already lodged a complaint in the Supreme Court, saying the ban is unconstitutional and is hurting the country’s international image as a moderate society.
"In our country, we use the word Allah in our national anthem. So people, children of all religions, whether they are Muslims or Christians or Hindus or Buddhists, when they sing the national anthem, they are all using the word Allah. It is already a culture and a practice in the country for the children to use the word - all of sudden you turn it around, it doesn’t go well, neither within the accepted norms in the country, nor with the law of the country. So I think the government has no legal standing for it."
The controversy over the word Allah in Malaysia has intensified in recent months. Father Andrew says the pressure from the Muslim authorities has been growing. But in his paper, the Herald, the word Allah can frequently be seen in quotations and readers’ mails. Father Andrew says if the authorities take stringent measures against them, the issue will flare up further and will reach a wider public.