Malaysian Court Ruling Renews Debate over Exclusivity of ‘Allah’

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Malaysian High Court

The Home Ministry in 1986 ordered a total ban on the use of four words – Allah, Salat, Kaabah, and Baitullah – by non-Muslims

Syed Ali Mujtaba | Clarion India

THE Allah controversy that has emerged in Malaysia is having resonance in several countries and societies that are struggling to find a balance between majoritarian politics and minority identity politics. Here, in this case, it concerns the issue of the exclusivity of Malay-Muslims domination versus preserving the religious rights of the non-Muslims.

The Malaysian High Court on March 10, 2021 allowed non-Muslims (Christians) to use the four previously-prohibited words in their educational publications: Allah (God), Salat (prayer), Kaabah (Islam’s holiest shrine), and Baitullah; (house of God). In the judicial review, the High Court ruled that non-Muslims all over Malaysia can use four previously-prohibited words in non-Muslim publications. The court ruled that there must come with the disclaimer “only for Christians” and with the use ‘cross’ symbol on the book’s cover to identify the publishers.

In response to the court ruling, the Muafakat Nasional (MN) which comprises the two largest Malay-Muslim political parties in Malaysia has urged government to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal. The government acted swiftly and in just five days after the High Court judgment filed an appeal to review the ruling and the case is now moved to the Court of Appeal.

The Home Ministry of Malaysia in 1986 ordered a total ban on the use of four words – Allah, Salat, Kaabah, and Baitullah – for non-Muslims. Since then, the government of Malaysia, and a few Islamic religious councils in Malaysia battled for the use of the word “Allah” in courts.

The word “Allah” is contentious in Malaysia because conservative Muslim leaders have always been concerned about Christians that they will proselytize Muslims using the word. As such, Malaysia has made a law against proselytization of Muslims and has forbidden non-Muslims from using such selected words.

According to Christian groups, the word “Allah” predates Islam. It is an Aramaic word “Alah” (or “Alaha”) in Arabic. Aramaic was the main language for the Jews and Christians in the Middle East. Many Aramaic words are borrowed in Arabic and the believers from the Abrahamic tradition use this word in their religious practice.

The Allah controversy has more to do with religious reservations. It is grounded in the political and social discourse in Malaysia. In the debate over the word “Allah”, the central point is preserving the exclusivity of the Malay-Muslim identity and attempt by non-Muslim groups to defend their rights of religious minorities.

In Malaysia, religion has mercilessly been used by the political parties, each competing over the other for the proprietorship of the religious words and symbols. Political parties, by championing the Malay-Muslim discourse, seek Malay votes. There are powerful religious groups that have emerged in the process that vehemently oppose non-Muslims to make use of Muslim religious words like “Allah”.

Most Christians are living in East Malaysia and use the Malay language as their lingua franca and freely use the word “Allah” to denote the Supreme Being. They are concerned about their religious rights. They are also worried that politicisation of a word like Allah would lead to their further marginalization.

As such, the “Allah” controversy is raked to polarize the multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysian society in a big way. The non-Muslims, especially Christians, see it a threat to their fundamental religious rights. But on the contrary, the conservative Muslims see the “Allah” controversy as a threat to their exclusive collective identity.

At the moment the High Court judgment has given some protection to non-Muslim groups but will the Court of Appeal uphold the ruling. Given the stark opposing views between majority and minority groups, it remains to be seen how this deadlock is resolved. The proprietary claim of the word “Allah” will continue to haunt Malaysians for some more time.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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