I’m not Malaysian. I haven’t visited Malaysia. Nor have I engaged in intense academic study about Malaysia. So I don’t claim to be an expert on all the local dynamics that led Malaysia’s high court in October 2013 to declare it illegal for non-Muslims to refer to God as Allah, which led recently to hundreds of Bibles being seized from a Christian group because they used the world “Allah” to refer to God.
But I am a Muslim scholar and an Imam who has memorized the Qur’an. And I’m fully convinced that the Malaysian court’s decision runs counter to the core values and spirit of Islam. Moreover, I call on the Malaysian high court when it hears the appeal on February 24, to correct what I believe is a tragic mistake.
My understanding is that, because of their use of the word Allah to refer to God, certain non-Muslims have been accused of trying to mask their true identity and, by stealth, woo Muslims away from the Islamic faith.
To the degree that the accusations are true, such behavior should be condemned–not because other faith traditions don’t have the right to engage Muslims in religious dialogue in the hope of converting them, but because misrepresentation is always unacceptable. Honesty is a clearly established moral expectation in the holy writings of every major world religion.
Fraud deserves appropriate penalties. But making it illegal to refer to God as Allah is not an appropriate solution for fraud — if indeed fraud is the real problem. Could the real problem be the anger of poor Malay Muslims over the rising prices of fuel and basic commodities? And could this be an attempt by some in the Malaysian government to deflect that anger?
In the same way that God is referred to as Dios in Spanish and Dieu in French, Allah is the name for God in Arabic. Dios, Dieu and Allah are not three distinct beings in a pantheon of gods. They’re simply references to the deity that in English we call God.
When cultures overlap, it’s not uncommon for words to pass from one culture to another — which is precisely what has happened in Malaysia. Because Islam has for so long been the predominant religion of the region, centuries ago the name “Allah” became the standard term used by Malaysians to refer to God.
Non-Muslim faiths use the name “Allah” in their spoken liturgies and printed materials. It’s the word used for God not only in the Malaysian, but also Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Turkish, and many other translations of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
People called God as “Allah” before the Prophet Muhammad began teaching Islam. In the Qur’an (43:87), God stated: “And if you (Muhammad) asked them who created them, they would surely say, Allah!” Therefore, everyone has the right to call God “Allah” not just Muslims. As a Muslim, I feel honored that when our beloved faith arrived in Malaysia centuries ago it made such an impact that the entire population adopted our term for God.
What concerns me about the court’s decisions is that a word that has been so fully embraced, and that should symbolize the ultimate in love and justice, could in the minds of some come to symbolize hate and oppression. Punishing for the use of a word that’s so ingrained in the daily life and worship of non-Muslims guarantees a backlash.
The Malaysian high court’s decision goes contrary to what “Allah” commended in the Qur’an (3:64) Muslims to do: “Say: O’ People of the Book! Come to a common word between us and you: that we worship none but Allah!” The court’s decision is not only wrong, but it is besmirching Allah’s Name!
Imam Muhammad Musri is president of American-Islam and of the Islamic Society of Central Florida, one of “The Three Wise Guys” on the Orlando-based public radio program “Friends Talking Faith,” and a member of the advisory board of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.