The A, B and C of God

The A, B and C of God

By Farish A. Noor

It has been a month now since Malaysia has been gripped in one of the most obscure and arcane of controversies over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This must seem odd to foreigners for elsewhere in the world Muslims (such as the Muslims of Egypt) have no problem with their Coptic friends and neighbours using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. Why, even during the Coptic Christmas on 7th January the
Coptic Pope delivered his Christmas sermon with phrases like ‘Bismillah’ time and again. So why are the Muslims of Malaysia so obsessed with the idea of claiming a singular word for themselves?

For those who have studied the fundamentals of rational metaphysics in Islam, one of the first themes that is covered is often that of semantics and semiotics. Odd that many courses on rational metaphysics begins with the most fundamental of subjects itself: meaning and the relationship between the Signifier and the Signified, but then again as any scholar will alert
you, one cannot even begin to embark on the social production of knowledge without the ground rules of meaning and signification established in the first place.

The startling thing that the student learns soon enough may seem commonsensical, but crucial nonetheless: That signification is a socially determined, historically conditioned, relative and subjective phenomenon. Words mean what they do simply because the rules of signification have come to be settled by convention over time. There is no essential reason why the
idea of a tree has to be referred to with the word or symbol ‘tree’; but once that association is made then the rule for that sign is set (not necessarily in stone perhaps) and we stick to it. Otherwise even the most basic of conversations beginning with the word ‘Hello’ would not get off the ground, and we wouldn’t get very far would we?

The real difficulties arise, however, when we embark on discussions on loftier, more abstract matters like virtue, aesthetics, divinity and of course God. Here is where rational metaphysics gets sticky to a point.

For hundreds of years the Muslim world has witnessed the on-going polemic and contestation between the verificationists-positivists and the nominalists: In plain English, this refers to the dispute over how one reads scripture and how the mortal human mind interprets divine revealed knowledge. On the one hand there are the positivists who insist on empirical referents to everything that is said or signified, and who hence argue that
complex concepts like virtue and beauty are, literally, meaningless. Then on the other hand there are the nominalists who take the view that words mean what they do as we intend them to, and while empirical referents are not necessarily close at hand, the words nonetheless have meaning because they
are understood in a determined social context.

The Sufis or Muslim mystical philosophers who belong to the age-old tradition of Muslim metaphysics honed this principle to a high art, and in the lyrical ruminations and speculations of Maulana Rumi and his peers, we find the concept of divinity interrogated, explored, laid bare, adorned, embellished, dissected – all for the sake of trying to get to the Truth of the matter which the human mind, with its limited faculties, cannot encompass in its entirely. That is why, as the Sufis will remind you, there are so many names of God: From ‘Allah’, to ‘Gamal’, ‘Rahim’, ‘Rahman’ and so
forth, each of which point to a singular attribute of a divinity that is infinite. Perhaps one of the most enigmatic names of God is ‘Hu’; which during the dzikrs (recitations) of some Sufi mystics such as the followers of the Naqshabandiyya order, is pronounced ‘Who’. The Naqshabandis do not merely pronounce the word Hu, they even exhale and empty their lungs completely in a rhythmic sequence, again and again, to signify that even
speaking the name of God entails totally emptying – thus negating – your human self in the process; as if to suggest that God is all and the human is nothing.

With such a rich and complex history that points to an obvious understanding that the word ‘Allah’ is merely a symbol or sign and not the thing itself, why is it that the Muslims of Malaysia still demonstrate an understanding of normative Islam that is not only shallow, but also parochial and exclusive? To suggest that the word ‘Allah’ can only be used by Muslims as some of Malaysia’s leaders have done would suggest that God requires a copyright,
and that God would not be understood if you cannot get its name right.

Yet Islam, if it is to be the universal religion that it is, does not need an official language or uniform. Nor does it need to claim copyright to universal signifiers that are, after all, part of the common currency of public language. Once again, despite claims to being a ‘moderate’ Islamic state, the Malaysian government (or rather some of its leaders) have demonstrated a third-rate understanding of the subjects they are wont to prattle about. That this doesn’t say much about their understanding of Islam, linguistics and philosophy is bad enough; but worse still is how this reflects on Malaysia’s vainglorious ambition to present itself as a model Muslim state for others to follow. Perhaps the leaders of the country should get back to the basics, and focus more on the A, B, Cs of Islam once again…

  1. #1 by gofortruth on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 6:27 pm

    It is very clear to me that the reason put forth by the gomen to prohibit non muslims to use “Allah”,the simple arabic word meaning God, is fearing that muslims may somehow convert to Christianity. The gomen wants to be seen to be doing something to protect the Malays since GE is coming soon.

    The country has at least 60% muslims ( Most Malays are muslims plus other converts from other races) and less than 10% of the population are Christians (Catholics & protestants put together).
    If anything the non muslims are the ones who should fear more to being converted to Islam and not the other way round as purported by the BN gomen.

    So what is the real reason for kicking up the dust?
    A) to win Malay votes
    B) to divert attention away from more urgent issues like PKFZ, Mongolian murder, Lingkam will fix it, Audit Genaral report etc etc.

    I hope all our Malay friends will not fall for this cheap & dirty & filthy manipulation by disgusting politicians abusing the true meaning of Islam.

  2. #2 by megaman on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 6:28 pm

    Or maybe malaysian should be taught how to search for the truth ?

    All these are nothing but diversions aim to muddle the minds of the rakyat.

    To divert attention away from more important issues and make us look like petty fools.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 7:13 pm

    Farish’s has pointed out the contradiction that if Islam is, as widely claimed, a universal religion, then it should be inclusive and embracive of all others – and not exclusive, now even to the extent of not allowing the sharing of the use of the word “Allah” (which had predated and been used even before Islam) by others as exemplified by the Catholic Weekly Herald’s controversy.

    The second contradiction Farish points out is that this exclusive approach of copyrighting the use of the term “Allah” for God to Muslims is (in Farish’s own words) “furthering of an exclusive brand of Islam that is communitarian and divisive” and contradicts the present administration’s avowed stand of promoting “its own brand of moderate Islam that was pluralist and respectful of other cultures and religions”.

    And Farish then asks, “so why are the Muslims of Malaysia so obsessed with the idea of claiming a singular word for themselves?”

    The first question is really how do we know, for a fact, that it is really the Muslims so obsessed with claiming this singular word or is it not really the case of some (not even all) of their political leaders claiming such to speak on their Muslim constituents’ behalf?

    Politicians and politics – what can I say?

    The two contradictions pointed out by Farish may be explained if one distinguishes what the faith actually is and says and what politicians claim it is and says…….

    Islam itself may be universal as faithful believe and say it is.

    But once politics comes in, a politician inclined to the Machiavellian may be justified to ask – how religion may be useful to politicians within the inner circle of power to shore up and galvanise their political support and legitimize their rule over the masses if it were not interpreted as “exclusive” of others, especially in context of ethnocentric political culture of this country?

    To secure support of one’s constituents upon whose votes one substantially depends, one’s constituents must have a powerful sense of self-identity to be differentiated from the rest based on not just on race (that bis taken care of by the perpetual NEP) but also that which captures hearts and minds – Religion – which is also part of the shared cultural identity different from others.

    The constituents must first be united behind the politicians by the strong sense of unique separateness of religious (besides racial and cultural) identity for them to identify their well-being and sense of security with politicians who hold claims that they are champions of the faith (besides the race). Second, they must be united by a sense of external threat to that sense of identity. (Only under such conditions of feelings of well-being and security, the constituents are prepared to forgive all their political leaders’ shortcomings and failures and let them continue in power…….)

    The issue of not allowing non muslims to use the common term for God used by Muslims (even though Farish points out “Allah” is an “universal signifier that is part of the common currency of public language”) has very much to do with the importance, from the political perspective, of preserving a separate identity for Malaysian Muslims in the context of our ethnocentric and communal political structure and tradition. If others also use it, where is the separateness? Also the is the other part of external threat – of propagation of other faiths which may accidentally arise from alleged confusion of the comon term used!

    The whole drift in recent political rhetoric on Malaysia being an “Islamic State” eschewing secular nature of the state and constitution has also an underlying political motive.

    A national ideology or culture that encourages a Secular society is the worst possible thing for those within inner circle who want to remain indefinitely in power because secular principles belong to the amalgam of Western values emphasizing on individualism, freedom, liberalism, and moral relativism, precisely encouraging of those very traits amongst the general populace that might encourage dissent, which in turn could dangerously weaken the political elite’s ability to hold on to their allegiance and support perennially.

  4. #4 by oknyua on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 7:27 pm

    Farish Noor is one person who is willing to look beyond “religious” boundary, especially in respect to the traditions & rules in what are normally accepted without question. Just an example, I asked our commentator Shamshul Anuar the reason why pork is non-kosher and his answer disappointed me, referring to pork as “nagis” without understanding the tradition inherited by his religion. It is on this line many religious edicts are issues in Malaysia.

    The singularity of Jewish, Christian and Islam made many religious practices closely parallel with one another. The Israelite tradition became religious law back some 4000 years ago, now commonly referred to the Mosaic/Levitical laws. The 10 commandments is one such law. These laws became an institution under Talmudic tradition which probably started some 600 BC. When Christianity came in, it is unashamedly considered the fulfilment of these Mosaic laws. The reasons why I, as a Christian, do not follow the ancient laws to the letter is because I live in the age of grace (By grace you are saved, not by works…)

    Then some 600 years later, Islam came into the picture. Once again we see the similarities with the old Mosaic traditions. The classification of food, kosher/non-kosher is an example. Things like ritual cleansing before prayers, touch-nots, “korban” – (pascal) etc, etc are Jewish in tradition. Monotheism is 100% Jewish in origin.

    We can see there are more in similarities to unite than to divide. The demographic composition of Mid-Eastern people, look and language, further emphasised the similarities.

    Malaysia Muslims must be brave enough to admit these similarities which their religion inherited from these Mosaic and Talmudic traditions. Yet today’s “learned and pious” politicians placed wedges to emphasise differences. Behind the “fatwahs” and unknown assumptions, they created fear and mistrust. They issue religious and “national security” edicts without knowing what they say. The ban on the word “Allah” is the best example.

  5. #5 by a-malaysian on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 9:32 pm

    The question is “Do they have the legal right to ban non-muslim from using the word Allah?” If not, how can we challenge it?

    With the morons running this country and with this latest banning of the word Allah, I am also becoming a moron having this moronic dream.

    Due to old age, I seldom go to the fast food outlets, but in my dream I went to KFC. At the entrance, someone will be standing there to check those going in. As I was entering, the man ask if I am a muslim. I told him, no I am not. He then politely told me that non muslim are not allow to eat halal food as they are only meant for muslim. I was shocked and just walk away.

    Then, I thought that I will try the malay food stall, the same thing happen. The waiter ask if I am a muslim and I said no. He said that this food are halal and are meant for muslim only. I was very angry and the shock woke me up.

    After thinking for a while, I realize that this kind of thing may happen one day if we were to allow them to slowly cleanse the non muslim in the name of Islam. I would say here that ethnic cleansing is in progress and does not mean the killing way of ethnic cleansing. They are forcing the non muslim to rid of the originality of their race, religion and succumb to the way that they want. If you don’t like it, you can leave.

    From Malaysiakini:
    Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin urges citizens to preserve peace and harmony, in an appeal that comes as ethnic discord continues to seethe in the multicultural nation.

    I hope, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong can do somthing about it. We want to preserve peace and harmony but the question is “Does umno wants it?” The Agong should have a talk with umno.

    50 years is ENOUGH
    Vote For A Change
    Vote For Any Opposition
    Give Them A Chance To Change For A Better Malaysia
    Remember bn Is A Useless Grouping Of Self Serving, Corrupt, Dictator, Power Crazy, Racist, Kris waving, etc, etc type of parties.

  6. #6 by kritikus on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 11:01 pm

    Why go into historical and philosophical details explaining the past and the present Islamic concepts and findings and throwing to a bunch of half-baked muslim believers who have suddenly out of the blues discovered Islam.

    Do you all realise that muslims committing rape, incest, abuse of women can get a way scot free from the Shariah Courts. The Ulamas have been also bought, KENA JAGA PERIOK NASI BIB.

    If using Allah has become a controversial issue, think about the changes to be made as follows:-

    Musa for Moses
    Isa for Jesus
    Ismael for Ismail
    Isaac for Ishak
    Abraham for Ibrahim
    Noah for Noh
    Jacob for Yaacob
    Solomon for Suleiman
    David for Daud
    Gabriel for Jibrail and alot more, so, rightfully such names
    should not be used by muslims at all

    Therefore, those intelligent, wise, religious, pious, know-all scholars kindly issue a fatwa with immediate effect cause muslims with such names will not enter heaven and will have to wait at the gate for name change before the gates can be open.


    scholar in jurisprudence

  7. #7 by kritikus on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 11:15 pm

    if you are pious and religious you are not a politician and if you are a politician you can never be pious or religious, ask them for a debate and they will be cornered.

    Therefore, those so-called politicians who claim themselves to be pious and religious are only satan in imam’s clothing.

    Prophet Mohammad peace be upon him was definitely not a politician and none of these present day scholars and so-called ulamas are fit to even feel the dust on his holy feet.

  8. #8 by shamshul anuar on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 11:17 pm

    Dear Onkyua.

    I refer to our remarks. I am afraid you got it all wrong. Muslims in Malaysia or the around the world never deny Mosaic or Talmudic traditions. Where do you get the idea?

    In fact, there is a chapter in Kuran itself named after Lady Mary. Muslims never deny the existence of prophets from the Adam to Isaac to Solomon To David to Jesus . Muslims accept that. Only Islam rejected the the idea that Jesus as a God or the concept of trinity as per Kuranic verses ..”and Allah was not given birth by someone …”.

    As for entering heaven , I am afraid nobody in Islam can determine who will enter hell or heave, That is the jurisdiction of Allah. Different religion has different values though. In Christianity, for example Pope can “Excommunicate” meaning condemn you to hell. A Caliph, Sultan , PM cant do that.

    Perhaps this sentence from Kuran will benefit all of us . It says ..”and We created human from different races, classes, color of skin, physical attributes so that you may learn from each other and loves each other.”

  9. #9 by kritikus on Thursday, 10 January 2008 - 11:29 pm






    muslim scholar

  10. #10 by BoycottLocalPapers on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 12:38 am

    Dear Farish A. Noor,

    I enjoyed your articles and website very much. I hope the majority of Malays in Malaysia are like you, Raja Petra, and M. Bakri Musa.

    Can someone knowledgable in Islam please explain to me why non-Muslims are not allowed to call God “ALLAH” but it is okay for Malaysians (i.e. Muslims and non-Muslims) to call the Prime Minister of Malaysia “FATHER ALLAH” or “FATHER GOD” i.e PAK LAH? Isn’t that blasphemous? I am really confused.

    If I am not mistaken some state anthems use the word “ALLAH.” For example, this is the lyrics of Kelantan state anthem:

    Lanjutkan usia Al-Sultan kami
    Sultan Kelantan raja ikrami
    Aman sentosa Tuhan sirami
    Kekal memerintah kami

    Kasih dan taat setia disembahkan
    Keriangan diucapkan
    Segala kebesaran ALLAH cucurkan
    Bertambah kemuliaan

    I have no problem singing this song when I was in school and I can’t remember Kelantan UMNO government and PAS government stopping non-Muslims from singing this song when I was in school more than two decades ago. Does that mean from now onwards non-Muslims are not allowed to sing state anthem with the word ALLAH in it?

    Thanks for answering my question.

  11. #11 by undergrad2 on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 7:18 am

    If Malays and Islam are not given their special status under our Federal Constitution of 1957, if Malays are not legally deemed Muslims and could choose their religion, and if non-Malays and non-Muslims are not prohibited from proselytizing the Malays and if Islam is not the official religion of the federation, would the issue regarding the banning of the use of the Arabic word “Allah” by other faiths be an issue at all today?

    Would the government (read: UMNO) remove and re-locate Hindu temples with such ‘zeal’, and would the government remove crosses atop school buildings and seek the removal of non-Islamic icons from public display the way it is now doing, if not for the fact that Islam occupies a special position within our Constitution, and that Malays are deemed legally Muslims?

    So those of us who did extensive research on the real meaning and origin of the word “Allah” aren’t they missing the point here?

    If religion in Malaysia is not politicized, would we be even talking about it? Would the government have banned the use of the word “Allah” except among Muslims, and threatened not to issue a publishing permit to the Herald a Christian publication by a Church in East Malaysia where the work of Christian missionaries and the spread of the Christian religion attracts the displeasure of Muslim public officials and Muslim politicians there.

    Now another symbol has emerged – that of the Malay ‘songkok’ long regarded as a cultural and religious symbol. Whether it is more likely a cultural symbol which over the years has merged to be a Muslim symbol since all Malays are Muslims is not important.

    We have wrestled with this issue before when our Malaysian judges irrespective of whether they are non-Malays and non-Muslims, were asked to replace horse hair (called ‘wigs’ traditionally worn by British judges) on their heads with ‘songkoks’. What of the ‘tengkolok” worn by dignitaries at official functions and royalty? Were not the Malays once Hindus before they became Muslims?

    The politics of religion has run parallel to the politics of language and education ever since the Constitution was passed by the first Parliament in 1957. While the politics of language and education may have reached a flat so to speak, the politics of religion has gathered momentum in recent years especially post 9/11 and is on the incline.

    Religion anywhere is divisive in its nature.

    With the country facing general elections that could well put a new coalition of political parties in power, despite what the pundits are saying or are not saying, it is not untimely to ask if a new approach towards religion is not in order. The call by U.S. Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s resonates round the world. As Malaysians we could take a leaf out of his thoughts on the reclaiming of a dream long lost – a dream that Malaysians once lived happily together not like they do now together but separately, aware and tolerant of our differences and united in our diversity. It may be hard to undo the damage done over decades of misrule by UMNO but hope is what it is all about.

    “Since when has hope been false?” says Obama.

  12. #12 by csl on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 7:42 am

    All religions are good and will not teach people to rob. But for me, I chose to have non. Reason is sensitive, so better to keep it myself. But what Farish said was right. That the way a Malaysian should be. If all Malaysian think like Farish, I don’t need anything else to make me proud in front of anyone around the world.

  13. #13 by TruthEnquirer on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 8:49 am

    Chua Soi Lek has finally spoken, and we understand why!

    Sorry csl, just a joke. The World may be better off with more atheist like you since the world as we known it with many believers has not shown better results.

    But alas religion is going to be around for a long long time. We are stuck with it because our species is driven by fear. Fear of one another (we need religious teachings to regulate behaviour), and then of death and hereafter.

  14. #14 by oknyua on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 12:08 pm

    Mr Shamshul, I took pain to highlight the similarities. Was there a single sentence where I said Islam denied Talmudic tradition?

    You touched on “excommunicate-” as condemning a person to hell. That is touching something you don’t know. If you profess yourself to be a Christian but get yourself involved in activities prohibited, you can be excommunicated. This involves (1) counselling by elders. (2) Counselling by many (3) The church says, “You have deviated from the teaching of the bible and the church. Now we officially disassociate you from us.” The prohibited activities are: worshipping other gods, Debaucheries, Opposite teachings. A few more I can’t remember now. (Hey, I am a lorry driver).

    My posting was not to emphasis differences, friend. It was in line with what Farish Noor said: there are far too many similarities but man (politicians) emphasis differences. Then they made edicts and laws saying something that make people shake their heads in disbelieve. What you or I believe is immaterial, what is important, you KNOW WHAT YOU BELIEVE in. Trace the practices that you have with an open mind. If the Koran says so, trace the verse. You have the right to believe what you believe.

    What you rejected or accepted, I know them too, but I am not saying it. It is better you don’t say it too, especially on something you have no idea about. Once again, sir, I have not touched a single thing about Islam here. Finally, I still prefer to discus religion with a Pa Imam or an Ustaz.

  15. #15 by madmix on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 5:23 pm

    If holy scriptures are “revelation” from God and perfect, why does the perfect God use such vague language that his scriptures are subject to numerous interpretations? Shouldn’t holy books be so lucid that anyone who read it would come to the same conclusion? Like a good manual for operating you television set?

  16. #16 by DarkHorse on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 9:00 pm

    Unfortunately, the Torah, Bible and the Koran like all other books on religious beliefs are not standard operating procedures to be followed. There is but only one way to switch on a TV and language does not complicate the procedure.

  17. #17 by DarkHorse on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 9:02 pm

    “A few more I can’t remember now. (Hey, I am a lorry driver).” oknyua

    Does a lorry driver drive lorries for a living?

  18. #18 by DarkHorse on Friday, 11 January 2008 - 9:04 pm

    ooops “does this lorry driver….”

  19. #19 by shamshul anuar on Saturday, 12 January 2008 - 11:26 pm

    Dear Onkyua.

    Many thanks for your concern. I mean no disrespect for religions. I was just replying to comments on recent decision by Federal Govt with regards to word “Allah”. Quite a number of people here ridiculed PM , giving impression that he or Islam do not respect the belief of others.

    I answered as I understand the rationale behind the decision. It has nothing to do with the impending general election, or trying to show how pious he is. It is done so as to prevent any confusion. It is as simple as that.

    It should not create any uproar as Christians worship Jesus. Just mention the word “God” or Jesus. I am sure every Christians will accept it.

    As for my comment on Pope’s authority to excommunicate, I was merely showing that authority of any Muslim leader is temporal. In Islam, only Allah can determine who enters heaven or hell. Anyway, It was my answer to someone who mocked me. I studied Bible too. So I know what I am talking about.

  20. #20 by mysn1st on Sunday, 13 January 2008 - 4:30 pm

    Prof Farish,

    Believe me, Malaysian need you; Abdullah cabinet (especially to all the Ministers), our nationwide Ummah’s. You should promote yourself to give them a refreshment course on this matter.

    To YB,
    May I suggest YB should highly recommend this suggestion to Pak Lah Or to all the Parliament members and ask him to deeply think about it.

  21. #21 by helpless on Monday, 21 January 2008 - 11:49 am

    It is damn stupid to claim ownership of words.

    Is this mean the word is god ? what is the substance ?

    Can someone pattern right certain words?

    Is there an ownership to it ?

    Damn stupid to say it again.

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