‘Allah’ a journey, not controversy

By Azly Rahman
Malaysiakini | Dec 28, 2012

Only in Malaysia is the world perhaps witnessing a raging debate on who has the patent to the word ‘Allah’; simply translated as ‘the/that god.’ It seems to be a seasonal debate to get the political parties to wrestle over the linguistic or semiotic of the word; one that connotes and denotes ‘the Force of Divinity’ that Man has attempted to understand, revere, love, and fear yet can never comprehend.

This is simply because we are in a matrix of truth and representation, and in a prison-house of language unable to see what the Ultimate Reality looks like.

What’s in a name? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. And even more so this Shakespearean “a rose is a rose” type of problematique seems relevant in a world of political manipulations such as in Malaysia when race and religion are the twin determinants of political evolution.

The debate on the origin of the word ‘Allah’ is obviously interesting as a topic of dissertation or as an inquiry theme in fields such as bio-semantics, bio-semiotics, linguistic philosophy, philology, or the study of the transcultural flow of language as yours truly embarked upon on the origin of the words ‘Cyberjaya’ and ‘Putrajaya’ in a dissertation submitted to Columbia University, a few years back.

To ascertain the origin of the word ‘Allah’ might also yield those studying it to also explore the origin of the concept of ‘god’, ‘religion’, ‘scriptures’, and even the notion of soteriology in the study of religion; a human enterprise that began with the agriculture society and what the sociologist Karl Wittfogel would term as the ‘hydraulic societies’.

The attempt to name ‘god’ and to call it by ‘special nouns’ have been a human cognitive exercise since Man has been trying to figure our what causes his crop to do well or to be damaged or destroyed, the night to go dark and the sun to illuminate, or the fate of his or her clan as the tribe moves from one planting area to another after slashing and burning crops.

The search for ‘god’, perhaps noted as early as the discovery of cave paintings in Southern France moving on to the conceptualisation of the Divine and Ultimate Reality, to the birth of Zorastrianism, to Judaism, to Christianity, and to Islam (in the Fertile Crescent) and in the non-monotheistic conception of it in cultural philosophies such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism (in the Indus valley).

These are ways that Man has tried to name the un-namable, explain the unexplainable, and conceive the unconceivable.

I am not sure if there have been controversies or people killing each other over who has the right to the name of this or that god. The Romans and the Greeks have gods in common playing different roles, but I have not come across crisis and conflict in such naming of gods in these two civilisations.

No need for controversy

At this point in human evolution, in this age of reconciliation of the post-Mayan calendar, Malaysians (especially Christians and Muslims) need to be less childish in the fight over patenting and branding ‘god’. It is a name conceived differently anyway, as different as how each soul conceives the Divine.

Whether one calls god Allah, The Lord, Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, Bhagwan, Waheguru, Yahweh, or Hashem or not call it anything at all but refer to it in mere silence and reverie, the ultimate aim is to ‘connect’, and hence the Latin term ‘religio’ which loosely means ‘to connect’. Herein lies the limits of language insofar as the naming of ‘god’ is concerned.

There is no reason to be locked into controversy but all the reason should be to engage in exploring human creativity in trying to understand Absolute or Ultimate Reality.

Because we are social beings plunged into a world of materialism and our existence always in dialectical opposition with world of Appearance and Reality, if we take the Platonic Theory of Forms as a framework of analysis, and because we are always engaging in a world of realism first and foremost, our focus needs to be on how to live a life examined as societies of human beings always empathic to the lives of others less fortunate and to dwell on similarities rather than differences.

We ought to focus on making sure fellow men and women are accorded the basics of life – food, shelter, clothing – and how these will contribute to the cultivation of dignity, rights, and responsibility.

In Malaysia, this means people of all religious faith ensuring that caste and class in society is gradually, but surely abolished and that the rich will not become richer by any means manipulative and necessary.

A wide-awake society that includes the ideological warring factions called the Muslims and Christians fighting over the word ‘Allah’ ought to be aware of what will continue to divide and conquer them, so that their praxis or the act of translating theory/perspective to practice for the common good is not clouded or even debilitated.

It would be necessary to allow any religion to use the word ‘Allah’ I would venture to say, if the word means everything good and brings them to do ultimate good. Muslims and Christians alike may perhaps need to do a philological and linguistic-genealogical research of the word ‘Allah’ or even the history of the word ‘god’ itself in order to be more enlightened of the issues and attendant claims or ownership.

Surprised they may be in discovering that we were once inhabitants of the Tower of Babel trying to figure out what word to use to name the nameless, and what shape to create to represent the Formless.

Until we Muslims and Christians come to this dialogical crossroad, the road to political manipulation in Malaysia is always paved with linguistic distortion in service of crypto-crony-capitalistic intentions!

DR AZLY RAHMAN, who was born in Singapore and grew up in Johor Baru, holds a Columbia University (New York) doctorate in International Education Development and Master’s degrees in the fields of Education, International Affairs, Peace Studies and Communication. He has taught more than 40 courses in six different departments and has written more than 300 analyses on Malaysia. His teaching experience spans Malaysia and the United States, over a wide range of subjects from elementary to graduate education. He currently resides in the United States.

  1. #1 by yhsiew on Saturday, 29 December 2012 - 7:22 pm

    Malaysian leaders should focus more on wiping out corruption, fixing the national economy, bringing in foreign direct investments and raising the country’s education standards instead of being sidetracked by trivial issues.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 29 December 2012 - 8:51 pm

    The real problem is that the issue raised is inherently idiotic.

    Even if you chuck away the rightful place of secularity supremacy in our messed up constitution, the obvious is that Sarawakians and Sabahan are guaranteed ABSOLUTE freedom of religion under the Malaysia Agreement. To violate the Agreement means cause for rebellion, secession – chaos is guaranteed eventually when enough Sarawakians and Sabahan have the education and income to demand their rights. No good can come of raising the issue.

    But even if we forget the legalese, the fact of the matter is ITS SHEER INSANITY TO DEMAND PEOPLE USE WORDS YOU WANT THEM TO..Its no different than censoring what is in people’s head. It cannot work even for subject matters of science and facts much less something like religion.

    These incidents only reaffirms the wisdom of our founders to make this nation a secular one – there are just too many weak minded people who make too much of the importance of their religion in worldly affairs rather than in personal and afterlife.

  3. #3 by pulau_sibu on Saturday, 29 December 2012 - 10:36 pm

    Azly’s degree should be the Teachers College (which is affiliated with Columbia University). It should not be called Columbia University in precise writing.

  4. #4 by Noble House on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 2:56 am

    Isn’t it strange that people place so much emphasis on religious beliefs and yet neglect the basic duties of our ordinary life which are commanded on every page of the Q’uran or Gospels? Should not religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair?

    Things that will destroy man: Politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; worship without sacrifice ~ Mohandas Gandhi.

  5. #5 by monsterball on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 6:14 am

    My only crime to be moderated by this moderator is that I write…truthfully..with feelings…no vulgar words.
    Thanks for the year ending present…you silly moderator!!

  6. #6 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 7:01 am

    Much Ado About Nothing.

    If all those idiots who ‘fight’ for God as much as they do, then Malaysia should not be so full of thieves, politicians, paedophiles, rapists, prostitutes, robbers, fraudsters, ………and
    Or an MCA President.

    Let every man be free in his mind to worship whom he wills.
    You cannot legislate how I should call my Father. I would slam you if you did.

    You cannot, therefore, legislate what and how I should call GOD and worship Him.

    I would deem you stupid to try and shut my mind or my thoughts.
    But GOD would slam you when he chooses.
    Be not mocked, God is not slow that He would not act against men pregnant with conceit and arrogance.

    • #7 by cemerlang on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 8:09 am

      Charles Babbage created the first component of a computer and subsequently many others created other components and there are many innovators that will continue to transform a computer until it becomes a super cool computer. A computer has men for its’ creation. Many human beings are created to survive independently. So how will you personally name your creator ? There are two main groups of people. One who knows that one does not exist just out of the big bang. The other one thinks that one just appear from nowhere. Whatever it is, like a computer; more versatile than a computer, one does not just sleep, eat, play and that’s it. The versatility means that you are designed for much more. Whether you believe somebody design you or whether you believe you design yourself.

  7. #8 by drngsc on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 9:47 am

    Dear PR politicians, please stay clear of religion and Allah in your campaign. It is a poison pawn. Religion is personal faith, and can be very emotional. Stay clear. Those who chose to use religion will ultimately pay the price. Throughout history, Allah Almighty can also be a name that divides. Let us focus on clean free and fair elections, corruption, free press, poor governance, need for change, etc as GE 13 approaches.

    We must change the tenant at Putrajaya. GE 13 is coming. PR121 is coming. ( By the way, we also need 121 seats in Parliament at least ). First to PR121, then to GE 13, then to Putrajaya.

    Change we must. Change we can. Change we will. The time is soon.

  8. #9 by ENDANGERED HORNBILL on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 9:51 am

    #6: “Be not mocked” should read “God is not mocked”.


    I think the current controversy is the “Deepak Controversy.”

    “Allah controversy” is just a red herring -a decoy, distraction.

    Pandai UMNO.

  9. #10 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 10:05 am

    This has nothing to do with the Creator and how to call Him. It has everything to do with the political imperative to keep driving in the message to the politically dominant majority community whose votes and support are necessary for alone ensuring the survival and continuance of the ruling party that quid pro quo against that their support, that dominance in every sphere – whether politics, language, religion and even what to call the Creator- will be assured and given greater importance in relation to Others outside the group. Hence every issue against which relative ‘Ketuanan’ of the politically dominant majority of this group forming the vote bank as against others could be measured and demonstrated will be fair game to be raised and exploited in advance of this political opportunism.

  10. #11 by monsterball on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 11:56 am

    The one who design his/her blog thinks his/her design is for his/her smart brain only.
    It’s happening…. all over…. all blogs.
    Head he/she wins…tail you lose.
    Take it or leave it.
    How to win votes like that?
    I think Bishop Paul Tan is doing a better job now.

    • #12 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 January 2013 - 9:37 pm

      The word Allah is only super sensitive in Malaysia. In this day and age of internet accessibility, you can read all about the word Allah and it is just so amazing all the different interpretations, comments, views about this one word. Some say it is Arabic. Some say it is Sanskrit. If it is acceptable elsewhere, what makes Malaysia so uniquely different that it has to be so emotionally unacceptable here ? What would an Arab Muslim or Arab Christian think of us ?

  11. #13 by sotong on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 12:11 pm

    When one fight over the use of an Arabic word relating to God, this speaks volume of the type of divisive, self-interest and narrow minded leaders/politicians we have……bankrupt of political ideas for greater good.

  12. #14 by chengho on Sunday, 30 December 2012 - 5:41 pm

    Suddendly so many people wanna be evangelists and Taliban , wonder why they mixed with politic.

    • #15 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 1 January 2013 - 9:38 pm

      What about Buddhists, Hindus and all other religions ?

  13. #16 by Loh on Monday, 31 December 2012 - 11:28 pm

    ///Datuk Othman Mustapha the director-general of the Islamic Affairs Development Department JAKIM issued a statement today pointing out that the use of the word Allah by other religions will bring harm to Islam.///–MalaysianInsider

    Can Datuk Othman Mustapha explain how so?

  14. #17 by Loh on Wednesday, 2 January 2013 - 2:28 pm

    When people do not have answers to their problems, they look to god. But Barisan Nationsal now restricts which God non-Muslims can look up to. It seems now only Muslims can look up to Allah, and non-Muslims are not allowed access to Allah.

    UMNO discriminates against non-Muslims in government policies. Now UMNO restricts non-Muslims on the way they place their hope. UMNO controls both material and spiritual lives of non-Muslims. Can this UMNO government said to be democratic?

  15. #18 by chengho on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 3:10 am

    Listen to Pope new year messages

  16. #19 by good coolie on Thursday, 3 January 2013 - 10:47 pm

    East Malaysian and Indonesian Christians use “Allah” to refer to the trinitarian god of Christianity. These are Malay speaking people. Since Bahasa Malaysia became intensively used by the younger generation of Malaysians, and migration of East Malaysian and Indonesian Christians into West Malaysia increased exponentially, use of “Allah” by all Malaysian Christians became a natural consequence. Besides, now the Malaysian position with regard to that proper name is regularized with respect to all the Muslim majority countries of the world, where “Allah” is indeed used by Christians to refer to their god. No confusion is engendered by this in the minds of Muslims in those Arab countries. Why then should Malaysian Muslims be confused?

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