On 10 March 2021, the Kuala Lumpur High Court demolished a 1986 government directive that had unjustly forbidden non-Muslims from using the word Allah.
The High Court ruled that the government had erred in issuing the 1986 ban on the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims. Thus the 35-year-old controversy was laid to rest judiciously.
The suit involving a Melanau Christian, Jill Ireland, on her constitutional right to practise her religion without any imposition of a restriction or ban on the import of educational materials was ruled in her favour, thus bringing to a close a 15-year-old saga that had dragged on so unfairly.
The judge pointedly stated that the Ministry of Home Affairs’ directive dated 5 December 1986, banning the use of the words Allah, kaabah, baitullah and solat has no statutory backing and is therefore illegal and irrational.
The judge also confirmed that there is no evidence the use of the word Allah by the indigenous Bahasa-speaking Christian communities of Sabah and Sarawak for over 400 years has ever threatened public order.
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What was surprising in this ruling is the revelation of a cabinet decision way back in May 1986 that actually allowed the conditional use of the four words Allah, kaabah, baitullah and solat.
However, seven months later, on 5 December 1986, officials from the Ministry of Home Affairs imposed a total ban on the word Allah in Bahasa Malaysia editions of Christian religious publications. How is this possible? Can officials from the ministry override a cabinet directive? Definitely no! But who was then the home minister? It was Mahathir! Did he collude with these officials to nullify the cabinet decision? Was that the reason why the cabinet did not bristle with indignation when they were overruled by some government officials?
God could have made us one nation, one community and one faith – but He didn’t. There must be a purpose for it.
Perhaps He wants to find out how well we all can get together as human beings. It is a real challenge for all of us whether we can fulfil his expectations.
Ultimately, the question is, are we capable of being human beings?
In all the other Muslim countries – numbering about 50 – this has not been a problem. When the entire Muslim population, amounting to about 1.8 billion people all over the world, are not confused and don’t see this as a controversy and can easily get along very well, why does even the use of the word Allah become a problem only in Malaysia? For God’s sake, it is merely a word and nothing more!
Aren’t the Muslims in Muslim countries following the injunction and teachings of Islam? Can it possibly be true that all the others, the vast majority, are wrong, and we are the only ones who are absolutely correct? Or are we the only odd ones out?
If Umno and Pas adopt this confrontational path, it is understandable. These parties are perceived to be bigoted and narrow-minded. They have always used Islam very successfully as a political tool to serve them, to advance their political influence, to capture power and rule Malaysia.
But for the government to be a party to this controversy is unthinkable and unacceptable. How can the government confront the entire non-Muslim Malaysian population and foment uneasiness among the non-Muslims and incite Muslims by going to court with this issue?
The duty of a government should be to serve all citizens fairly and bring about unity and harmony among all communities to live in peace and camaraderie.
Crosses, churches and Bibles have never threatened the faith of the Muslims in Muslim countries. This is an undeniable fact! Why is this a peculiar problem only in Malaysia? Is the aqidah of the Malaysian Muslims so weak that they cannot be faithful to their faith? How can they betray their religion in spite of all the religious instructions and preaching to instil piety and religiosity to guide them to live an Islamic life?
How come Abu Dhabi can allow a huge Hindu temple to be built and stand out as a remarkable structure of beauty on 55,000 square metres of land given by His Highness Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces? An exquisite golden memento of the temple was gifted to Sheikh Abdullah, and he had no problem in accepting it. Subsequently, the UAE government, as part of its year of tolerance programme, allocated 14 more acres of land to the BAPS Hindu mandir in January 2019.
We used to be tolerant and accommodating when we set out as an independent nation. We were the envy of other nations as we stood out as an exemplary nation of harmony. Our unity was acknowledged by the rest of the world, so much so our beloved Bapa Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, so proudly proclaimed, “I’m the happiest prime minister.”
Why did we abandon this path of brother/sisterhood, fraternity and kinship and embark on a path of destruction that has so drastically divided us as a nation? Why did we turn our backs from the right path?
On 14 October 2013, following the Court of Appeal’s decision to ban the Catholic weekly Herald from using the word Allah to refer to God, the United Arab Emirates newspaper The National, in an editorial, expressed its astonishment with this decision and emphasised that the word was “not exclusive to Islam”.
“In a fellow Muslim country with substantial Christian and Hindu populations, this feels like the wrong decision,” said the editorial. “The word ‘Allah’ is never exclusive to Islam – indeed, both Christians and Jews used the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God even before the coming of Islam.
“When Christians across the Middle East pray to God, they use the term ‘Allah’. Walk into a church in Cairo, Baghdad or Beirut this coming Sunday and you will hear the name of ‘Allah’ invoked.
“The Quran itself is explicit on this subject, declaring, in Surah Al Ankabut, that Muslims should tell People of the Book (Christians and Jews) that ‘our God and your God is one’.”
In July 2013, the then-Perlis Mufti, Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, with regard to the legal tug-of-war between Muslim Malaysians and their Christian countrymen for the right to call god “Allah”, observed, in an interview with the Malay Mail Online: “It is better for people to know who’s the real ‘Allah’, than to waste your money,” he said, of the government’s appeal that had been languishing in the Court of Appeal for the past four years.
The vocal Islamic scholar pointed out that in the Middle East, from where both creeds sprang, churches use the Arabic word Allah and not the Malay term Tuhan to describe their god, and he was confident Muslims in Malaysia were able to distinguish the god they worship from the Christian god.
“Only stupid Muslims cannot differentiate between Muslims’ Allah and Christians’ Allah,” he said. “Our job is to educate people, not enforce the law,” Asri said. “If you do your job, people will not leave the faith.”
“Some people want to make Islam more Malay,” Asri said, adding, “Islam is not a religion for Malays; it’s a religion for all.”
There is no obligation on the part of the government to appeal against this High Court decision. It must have enough grace to accept this as a sensible solution and settlement. Malaysians would want the government not to politicise this issue and wreak havoc on our unity and harmony.
Let’s be guided by this simple truth: “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.”