Home 2009:11 Can ‘Allah’ be monopolised by any community?

Can ‘Allah’ be monopolised by any community?

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Public intellectuals must raise the voice of reason and take a public stand on this issue even risking their own reputations or careers, says Asghar Ali Engineer.


Of late, I have been receiving questions about the controversy these days in Malaysia about ‘Allah’ as Malay Muslims are objecting to the use of word ‘Allah’ by Christians. The Malays feel only Muslims can use the word Allah and Christians cannot. The case was fought at the High Court, which allowed the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians. But the Malaysian government obtained a stay order, pending appeal. It is not because the government is trying to defy the High Court order, but because the controversy has become politically unmanageable due to overcharged emotions.

The Catholics translate the word ‘God’ as ‘Allah’ in the Malay-language supplement of the their weekly newspaper, Herald – and hence the controversy. Of late, about a dozen churches have been  attacked and with the administrative wing of one extensively damaged. The religious extremists appear to be  determined to inflict their views on others. Malaysia, like India, is a multi-religious society, and by and large it has remained peaceful except when violence erupted in 1969 between Malays and Chinese.
But then again, relations between Malays and Christians or Malays and Hindus sour occasionally  or the situation becomes tense. All multi-religious societies experience inter-communal or inter-religious tensions in some or more degrees. All Malays are Muslims, who constitute about sixty per cent of Malaysia’s population. In Malaysia, Malays and Muslims have become synonymous. As mostly weaker sections of society embrace Islam in the hope of equality and justice, in Malaysia too, poorer sections embraced Islam and large numbers of Malays till recently were poor and backward. However, many of them are now well educated and economically better off.
The Malays who oppose the use of word Allah by Christians argue that this will confuse ordinary Malays and worry that, in view of the missionary activities of some Christians, they may convert to Christianity. They thus want to ward off this confusion among the Malays. This may have its own rationale but the problem has to be solved through dialogue and mutual understanding. But the problem is that some politicians would like to exploit such controversies for their benefit.

In fact, those who object to the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians are on weak grounds. Allah is one and the creator of all of us and cannot be monopolised by any one religious group, much less linguistic community. The word ‘Allah’ in Arabic was in use before Islam appeared on the scene in Mecca. As Maulana Azad points out in his Tarjuman al-Qur’an the word ‘Allah’ is derived linguistically from pre-Islamic ‘eel’ as in Jibra’il or Israf’il. The word in Hebrew was also iloh or ilah and by adding ‘al’ (which in English is used for ‘the’). Thus al-ilah (the God) became Allah in Arabic and was used for supreme God.
In fact Muslims should welcome it if non-Muslims too use the word Allah for God or Ishwar. How can one object to the use of Allah by others? Anyone who learns Arabic and talks about God will have to use word Allah. All Christian Arabs freely use word Allah in countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon. No one objects to the use of the word ‘Allah’. At least I do not know whether any Muslim Arab ever objected to such use.

Language pre-exists religion

I was in Lebanon in the late nineties for a Christian-Muslim dialogue and we decided to visit a mosque on a Friday and a church on Sunday. We, Muslims, offered salah (prayer) on Friday and the Christians sat in one place till the prayer was over, and we discussed with the imam of the mosque certain inter-communal problems. Similarly, we Muslims observed the service in the church on Sunday while Christians in the group participated in the service.
The priest, who was delivering the sermon in Arabic, was using the word ‘Allah’ only and had a rosary (tasbih) in his hand like the imam in the mosque. If a curtain had been drawn between us and the priest, I would have felt as if the imam in the mosque was delivering a khutba in the mosque. Of course, there were theological differences, but otherwise the Arabic language made us feel as one.
As I have always maintained, any language exists prior to any religion and not otherwise. A particular religion uses a language which pre-exists it. More than one religious community can use the same language, and the terminology of both the religions would appear very similar. In fact, in Lebanon, Christians have rendered yeoman service to the Arabic language, and it is the Christians who have prepared a dictionary of modern Arabic Al-Munjid, which is consulted by all Arab scholars of modern Arabic.
No language can be the monopoly of any one religious community. In India too, many Hindus learnt Arabic and Persian, which was court language, and they spoke fluent Persian and even wrote poetry in Persian like Chandrabhan Brahman. Several first rate Urdu poets were and still are Hindus, and they use words such as ‘Khuda’ and ‘Allah’ in their poetry. How can one object to that?
The fear that the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians would confuse Malay Muslims and they might then convert to Christianity is not well grounded. Only those who feel their religion is followed without much conviction can entertain such fears. For Malays, their very identity and existence is based on Islam and as pointed out above, being Malay and being Muslim have be come identical. How then can such fear be justified?

Not religious but political
In a modern democratic society, one cannot stop conversions through a fear of the law. If anyone converts to another religion, it would be between him/her and Allah. In matters of religion, one is answerable only to God, not to any human being.
However, this matter is really not religious but political. The majority community feels it would be reduced to a minority and hence it resists any conversion to other religions. In India, the Hindutva forces are enacting laws in the BJP-ruled states to stop Hindus converting to other religions like Christianity or Islam but conversions are welcome if any Muslim or Christian converts to Hinduism. Thus, political benefit and not conversion is the issue.

In a truly democratic society what matters are democratic and fundamental rights not conversion to or from the religion of the majority community religion. It should be purely an individual decision whether to convert to or from any one religion to another religion. Otherwise, our democratic rights would be in great danger.
As rightist forces and extremists make a big issue out of nothing to scare the minority, the right wing extremists in Malaysia also have tried to create such a controversy. And as in India, when the BJP raised such a controversy about the Ramjanambhoomi Temple, the Congress Government under Narsimha Rao allowed the Babri Masjid to be demolished. The Malaysian Government too is scared and is afraid of implementing the High Court judgment for the time being.
Any multi-religious or multi-cultural democracy does not work smoothly in an ideal sense. Even advanced western countries are facing problems of inter-religious tension. In France, there is often tension between African Muslims and white French. It is not so much religious but economic and political, and there also rightist forces behind such eruptions.

God is in our heart

“I searched for God among the Christians and on the cross but therein found him not.  I went into the ancient temples of idolatry; no trace of him was there.  I entered the mountain cave ofHira (where the archangel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet) and then went as far as Qandhar but God found I not, neither in low nor in high places.  With set purpose I fared to the summit of Mount Caucasus and found there only anqa’s habitation.  There I directed my search to the Ka’bah, the resort of old and young; God was not there either.  Turning to philosophy, I inquired about Him from Ibn Sina but found Him not within his range.  I fared then to the scene of the prophet’s experience of a great divine manifestation only a ‘two-bow lengths distance from him’ but God was not there, even in that exalted court.  Finally I looked into my own heart and there I saw Him: He was nowhere else.”

 – Rumi

Recently, the French government of Sarkozy, which is rightist in ideology, proposed a ban on burqa and, if someone puts it on, the government proposes to impose a fine of 750 euros, which is a huge amount. Now, it is ridiculous for an advanced democracy to dictate what one should or should not wear. The French rightist government has denounced the burqa as ‘prison’ and even if it is, it is not the business of government to dictate the nature of dress.
The the socialist left is opposing such a ban though it also considers the burqa quite undesirable. Thus, after all, it is not secularism which is in danger as the French Government feels and rationalises its action with but its own political power. As religion cannot be in danger by the deeds of a few extremists, secularism too cannot be in danger just because a few women wear the burqa in France, and yet we see how French government is creating fear and how it is dealing with the subject.

Time to speak out

In many countries with a multi-religious structure, the right wing among the religious majority community has been suppressing the voice of reason successfully. The moderates are being silenced through the creation of mass hysteria. There is a great need for civil society to play its role and support enlightened policies. Most of the moderate intellectuals have no time or interest to study the issue in depth and become victims of high-pitched propaganda.
We need what we call public intellectuals who can raise the voice of reason and take a public stand even risking their own reputations or careers. Most of our moderate intellectuals ask why we should bother about such things and instead give way to such extremist forces. We should always be ready  – like Bertrand Russell, Jean Paul Sartre or Noam Chomsky – to fearlessly criticise the powers-that-be in keeping with our convictions. What is the use of convictions which do not inspire us to speak out – be it about the controversy about Allah or the burqa or the crime of Zionists or the rigidity of orthodoxy.- irrespective of consequences?  They alone can save democracy.

Asghar Ali Engineer is chairman of the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai.

This is the personal view of a Muslim scholar in India who also opposes the Hinduisation of that country.

Excerpt of an interview with Prof Tariq Ramadan

Malaysia is a country with a lot of diversity. It is a plural society. How does Islam view these diversities?

This diversity is God’s will. The Quran says that if God wants it He could have made you one community. He said: We made you tribes and nations so that you may know one another.

It is God’s will. It is, therefore, not enough to tolerate others. We must respect them. As one prominent scholar said in one conference “who wants to be tolerant, we want to be respected.”

In Islam the word, therefore, is respect, not tolerate. Who are we to tolerate? This is God’s will for me to be here. So it is for Muslims to understand that because Allah wanted Christianity, wanted Judaism, and Buddhism and atheists and anarchists to be here it is for them to respect God’s will … We must remember that diversity is God’s will.

At the same time Muslims must stop the belief in this illusion that we have one and the same thought in Islam. There is diversity among Muslims too. It is a reality.

Never forget that this diversity is not only a challenge but also a gift. Through dialogue with Christians, Jews, Buddhists, they may make us better people….

You must have heard that there is a request by a Catholic publication, the Herald, to use the word “Allah” when referring to God in its articles in Bahasa Malaysia. The government has objected to this. What is your view on this?

If you travel around the world, in the Arab world, Allah is used by all Christians – Coptics and others. To us, Allah is the one God who sent us the prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. When we use Arabic, we say “Allah”, when speak in English, we say “God” and when we speak French, we say “Deus”.

The point is the substance and the substance is one God. We are using the language to say it. Some of the scholars coming from the literalist trend, the Salafiya-al Harfiyat, say that Allah is a very specific name.

The majority of the Muslims are using the word “God” when they speak English and the other words in other languages. Allah is not the God of the Arabs but Allah is the only God of all human beings. This is what we are saying.

When we speak other languages, you change by knowing what you are talking about and we understand that He is like nothing we can imagine Him to be. Therefore we cannot describe Him. So when I speak English, I do not have a problem saying “God” and in French I say “Deus” and that’s it.

When the Christian Arabs speak Arabic, in their Bible, they use “Allah” to speak about God. So, you cannot deprive them using this as this has been the case for centuries and in Arabic, God is Allah.

The Roman Catholics among them do not use “Allah” to describe Jesus. There is no problem there. And my understanding of their general hypothesis is that the Trinity is Three in One but they are not confusing the three dimensions of One God. If that is not a problem for them neither is it for us.

But we must also be aware that the Christians, depending on traditions that they are following, are promoting the concept of the Trinity. Each group has its own truth or understanding of it.

Excerpts from an interview with theSun

Professor Tariq Ramadan is a European Muslim who advocates reform in Islam and promotes interfaith dialogue. Born in Switzerland and the grandson of the Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan Al Banna, the European academic has been named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important innovators of the century.   

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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