Jan 4, 2010

God, By Any Other Name

A big controversy is brewing in Malaysia right now. It's all about whether Catholic publications should be allowed to use the word "Allah" to refer to "God".

The executive government had said "no". Then the High Court said "yes". And now NGOs in Kuala Lumpur are protesting and saying "no".

      Protests in KL, Penang over 'Allah' ruling
      Protests were against the use of the word "Allah" in the Herald, a Catholic weekly.
      -New Straits Times, Jan 04, 2010

      KUALA LUMPUR: Thirteen non-governmental organisations protested here yesterday against the use of the word "Allah" in the Herald, a Catholic weekly.

      Ten police reports were also lodged by the NGOs to express their disappointment over the use of the word in the publication. About 100 protesters gathered outside the Sentul district police headquarters about 3pm before 10 representatives were allowed in.

      The entourage was led by Muslim Consumers Association of Malaysia secretary-general Datuk Dr Ma'amor Osman.

      In his police report, Dr Ma'amor said the NGOs requested for an investigation into the publisher and that the publication stop using the word.

      "We are acting based on the Rukun Negara, where Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan (Belief in God), is a general way of describing God in the context of a multiracial country."

      Dr Ma'amor said "Allah" was generally used by Muslims to describe Him exclusively.

      "The issue is very sensitive, especially for Muslims in the country and has to be dealt with in a proper manner to avoid unnecessary racial tension."

      ..... On Thursday, High Court judge Lau Bee Lan granted approval to the Herald to continue using the word "Allah", after dismissing the home minister's prohibition on it.

      In her decision, Lau declared that under Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution, applicant Titular Roman Catholic Archbishop Tan Sri Murphy Pakiam had the constitutional right to use "Allah" in the Herald in the exercise of his right that religions other than Islam might be practised in peace and harmony in the country.

      On Feb 16 last year, Pakiam filed for a judicial review on the usage of the word "Allah" in church publications, on the basis that the word was not exclusive to Islam.

      The church publishes the Herald, a weekly which is available in English, Bahasa Malaysia, Chinese and Tamil.

      It had challenged the home minister's order to stop using the word "Allah" in a non-Muslim context which was made on Jan 7 last year.

      In George Town, a crowd of about 250 people gathered in front of the Penang High Court at Lebuh Light yesterday to show their unhappiness ....
The above matter does not particularly excite me (since I am neither Catholic nor Muslim). But I do find the matter a little ironic. After all, the Catholics and the Muslims (and in fact the Jews too) all worship the same God.

No doubt some Catholics and Muslims might disagree with my preceding statement. If they do, it's because they don't know the religions very well.

The respective stories of Christianity and Islam (and Judaism) are inextricably intertwined, featuring many of the same figures and places in the Middle East. All three religions can be traced to the same common origin.

Historically, Judaism was first. Christianity came next, followed by Islam. But when a Muslim prays, when a Christian prays, when a Jew prays, each of them is praying to the one and the same God that Abraham worshipped.

That's why the three religions are known as the Abrahamic religions. And what does Wikipedia tell us about the word Allah? An excerpt:

      Allah is the standard Arabic word for God. While the term is best known in the West for its use by Muslims as a reference to God, it is used by Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, in reference to "God" ...

                .... Arabic-speakers of all Abrahamic faiths, including Christians and Jews, use the word "Allah" to mean "God". The Christian Arabs of today have no other word for 'God' than 'Allah'.

            There you go.

            In one sense, you could say that the Malaysian controversy is a contest to establish who's entitled to use what word, to refer to the same thing. However, the usefulness of such a contest is unclear to me.

            If I were a Muslim, I would probably say, "Oh never mind, let the Catholics go ahead and use the word Allah."

            If I were a Catholic, I would probably say, "Oh never mind, let's just drop the word Allah and use the word Tuhan instead."

            But then I am neither Muslim nor Catholic. So instead as a member of the human race, I can only say, "Sigh, here we go again, yet another religious spat. Another fine example of love, peace and harmony."

            At this point, I can't help but be reminded of Eckhart Tolle. He hails from Germany and is a non-religious spiritual teacher (and no, that is not a oxymoron). Tolle stopped using the word God, because he found that the word means too many different things to different people. Too much historical, social and cultural baggage is attached, and he found that most of it is unhelpful.

            So Tolle does not use the word God anymore. Instead he uses the word Being. A new word, a fresh word, a marvellous starting point for rediscovering man's relationship with the divine.

            Best of all, with a word like Being, you won't accidentally break anybody's rules about what you can say or think, or cannot say nor think, about ... God.


            Anonymous said...

            IMHO, its another manifestation of racism in a great country with pathetic rulers...

            Anonymous said...

            Actually, most of us who know the 3 religions well enough know that they are three very different religions, worshipping 3 very different sort of "God".

            The term "Abrahamaic religion" is just a PR term to bring the three feuding religions together.

            Jews were religiously persecuted in the past by Christians. Muslims have repeatedly invaded and destroyed Christian churches in Middle East, North Africa, Iberia and Eastern Europe, and Christians also have launched religious crusades against Muslims.

            My point is not about who is right and wrong.

            But rather, each of the three views each other as an enemy, and not as fellow brothers.

            Call them the "same religion" if you like, but the reality is, all three are starkly different, and all three view each other with suspicion and all three usually have legal rules in place to discriminate against each other in their societies.

            Just because people call their god by the same name, or cite common history, certainly doesn't make them worship the same god.

            In any case, all three religions have conflicting religious principles. It is weird that the same god would give three sets of conflicting values to his followers.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            There ARE key differences in the religions. For example, Christianity regards Jesus as the son of God. Whereas Islam regards Jesus as a major prophet of God, but still merely a prophet, and lower in stature, than the Prophet Muhammad.

            Nevertheless the God in question is exactly the same God. Islam does not say, for example, that Jesus was a prophet of God X, while Muhammad was a prophet of God Y. Islam says that both Jesus and Muhammad were prophets of the same God, and that there is only one God.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            "In any case, all three religions have conflicting religious principles. It is weird that the same god would give three sets of conflicting values to his followers."

            Think of it this way. Once upon a time, in a certain part of the world, there were various religious events and teachings. These events unfolded over a period of time. And you could place more or less emphasis/significance on any of these events.

            Christianity and Judaism shared the same story, except that Judaism didn't put Jesus on its centrestage.

            Christianity and Islam shared the same story, except that Islam put Muhammad, not Jesus, on its centrestage.

            Islam and Judaism shared the same story, it's just that at that point in history, when Muhammad appeared on the scene, as the last in a long line of prophets, some folks regarded him as THE most important prophet of all, whereas others didn't. Those who regarded Muhammad as THE most important prophet of all became known as "Muslims", and those who didn't, just remained whatever they are (ie they stuck with Christianity or Judaism).

            Anonymous said...

            No. They are three different religions. Just because all three people call God as 'god' doesn't mean they worship the same god.

            The character of each of their 'god' clearly points to three very different sort of 'God'.

            Jews consider Jesus as a fraud. Jews and Christians consider Muhammad as a fraud. On paper, Muslims view the Jewish and Christian prophets as 'prophets', but they know absolutely nothing about these prophets and their teachings. And they can't use the Bible or Talmud because Islam considers these books to be corrupted, which is basically a nice way of saying the books are lies or fakes.

            But I suppose it is better to be politically correct and just say all three religions worship the same god when in reality, they do not.

            I need to stress that I am not insulting any of the three religions, or claiming which one is the true way.

            My point is that these are three different religion. No one is superior or inferior. They are just - different.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            I don't know if you realised it, but none of your arguments actually support the point that they do not worship the same God.

            See ... you say that they fight with each other; that they have different views about the alleged or actual prophets / messiahs of their God; that they have different views about different books ...

            All of which is true, and none of which support your point.

            Eg you and I could worship God X, but you and I could still argue whether Mr Brown is indeed a prophet of God X or not. We could also have different methods of worshipping God X, but God X would still be God X.

            By analogy, Catholics and other Christian denominations would have differences about who or what the Pope is, and their rituals and traditions would also differ ... On the other hand, there is no question that they worship the same God.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            By the way, I don't disagree with this:

            "They are three different religions."

            I merely said that they worship the same God.

            Religion is not just which God you worship, but encompasses the beliefs, rituals, traditions, lifestyle, teachings etc.

            Lucky Tan said...

            The Christians believe in the Trinity which means Jesus is God. But substituting God with Allah...it means Jesus is A which may be offensive for Muslims.

            Anyway according to Kong Hee of City Harvest. Even the ancient Chinese believe in the same 'Abrahamaic God'. Check it out:


            I don't believe in God. It just amazes me how seriously people take their religion and how they can believe their own religion as TRUTH sometimes absolute truth.

            Anonymous said...

            Take a step back and think.

            If between the two of you who are non-biased cannot agree who the hell is god,

            Can you blame the many who goes into religion because of
            - coolness
            - friends
            - families
            - any other crap

            and please do not bother to answer to my comments.

            lh said...

            i recommend Tolle's A New Earth. There's something interesting he said when people are so fixated about words and what they ought to mean.

            veii said...

            If we are to take a historicist view of religions, very broadly even Hinduism and Buddhism could join the Abrahamic party. The reason being the early Persian religion, which we today know as Zoroastrianism, was an integral influence in both Judaism and Hinduism. In that sense, any conception of a God-figure in religions of the Indian subcontinent can claim to be descended from the same traditions that gave rise to the Judaic, Christian and Muslim God.

            Robert L said...

            The Muslims believe that Jesus Christ is a prophet of their God, so a big difference between Islam and Christianity is that Jesus Christ is not God, but one of many prophets.

            Now, if you read that again, you would have to reach the conclusion that the Muslims believe that Christians are really worshipping the Islam God, though in the wrong way.

            One common God, one common name - Allah.

            Anonymous said...

            Is anyone surprised, this is Malaysia after all? They would probably object to anyone else using the words "Chicken rice" or "bak kut teh" since they've laid claim to these dishes as their native dishes.

            Anonymous said...

            Sigh.... Another fine example of the bigotry and stupidity of these religious fanatics. That's why till this day, there is no peace in the middle-east where these religion were originated.

            la nausée said...

            Unfortunately, very few Muslims, Christians and Jews actually buy into the ecumenical view that they're all worshipping "the same God". (Incidentally, the term "Abrahamic religions" is best associated with the New Atheists, and not with theologians.)

            The point is that what we secularists/atheists dismiss as so much "historical baggage", is the whole foundation of each faith. And each faith has a different set of doctrines, scriptures and rituals, and its own particular culture and history, through which "the same God" is filtered.

            But if "God" in each case is a historically and culturally situated concept, then it isn't "the same God" for Muslims, Christians, and Jews, is it?

            And there's a fear among religious believers (Karen Armstrong's The Case for God is a cogent recent statement of this view) that if you strip away all of a religion's rituals, myths and histories in favour of a transcendent idea of God as 'Being', that that God is not going to look very attractive (too esoteric)... so that you end up inexorably with atheism. Thus the need for any religion to remain rooted in the past -- even to the point of claiming ownership of a word like 'Allah'.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            Just noticed that my post has been linked by "World Have Your Say", which is a BBC World News Blog.

            For those interested in reading that post, here's the link.

            Just wanted to highlight one comment by a reader over there, Ibrahim. He wrote:

            "Allah is the word the Arabs use for God, whether they are Arab Muslims, Arab Christians or Arab Jews. (some Arab songs by Christians even sing Allahu Akbar).
            Muslims believe that all the Abrahamic faiths worship the same God; Allah.

            The furore against Christian Malays using the word Allah is probably because they fear that the Christians are using the word for the purpose of converting Muslims, rather than a linguistic necessity.

            E.g. if Christians, while addressing a Hindu audience, started saying “…and Krishna begot a son who died on the cross for our sins…” Would that be for language purposes or for other?"

            Ape said...

            "I can only say, "Sigh, here we go again, yet another religious spat. Another fine example of love, peace and harmony." "

            Ape shares the same thought with Mr Wang. Shouldn't a faithful be more concerned about DOING God's work than telling others that they are not doing God's work.

            Eaststopper said...

            A Buddhist would no doubt be happy if everyone start using 'ah mi tuo fuo'!

            Anonymous said...

            I might be wrong but it would seem to me that one of the main reasons for not allowing Christians or any other religion to use Allah is the disallow them from preaching in Malay. Its easy enough to preach in Mandarin, Indian or any other languages but to preach in Malay, the word for GOD is ALLAH. Preaching in Malay implies that they are trying to convert Muslims.

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            No, they can use the Malay word "Tuhan", for God.

            Allah is actually the Arabic word for "God".

            Parka said...

            Worshipers should start addressing gods by their specific names and stop using the generic encompassing "God".

            Anonymous said...

            I am not surprised by the article.

            In Indonesia, some of the Christians/Catholics have begun using Allah to refer to God. When the Non-Muslims visit their Muslim friends, they will call out the greeting in Arabic to show respect to the friends and they are very happy with that.

            When I did that to my Muslim friends in Singapore or Malaysia, they told me not to say that anymore because I am not a Muslim thus I am forbidden to say anything that sounds Arabic. Ha!

            BTW, most of the stories in the old testament are similar to the stories in the Muslim events ;p

            chengguan said...

            this is a political issue.

            they argue that the use of the word may cause anger among muslim and nowhere it mentioned that it is technically wrong to use the word. it's really surprising for a law lecturer who teaches constitutional law to have such comment.

            Anonymous said...

            Mr Wang is very correct indeed. The 3 religion do worship to the same GOD.

            These 3 religion differs in their own "interpretation" on What-is-GOD.

            The said...

            /// In one sense, you could say that the Malaysian controversy is a contest to establish who's entitled to use what word, to refer to the same thing. However, the usefulness of such a contest is unclear to me. ///

            It's elementary, my dear Watson. In Malaysia it is all about politics and Ketuanan Melayu.

            UMNO is losing ground on the election front, and losing badly and desperately need a bogeyman to rally support from the Malay/Muslims. This artificial controversy also serves the purpose of distracting the people from more serious issues:
            1) Alleged murder of Teoh Beng Hock by the MACC
            2) Squandering of RM100 billion by Mahathir during his reign (although Najib is PM now - guess who he owes his position to)
            3) 2 stolen F5E engines from the RMAF worth RM100 million (stolen is bad enough. What if the engines were re-routed to rogue countries?)
            4) Floundering economy, capital flight and slowing FDIs.
            5) Etc, etc, etc.

            Artxy said...

            p.s. can't help noticing that you've read tolle's and m scott peck's books. was reading these books just recently in a search for spiritual understanding. hmmm, do you have any other recommended authors?
            (sorry, knows that this comment's not contributing to the debate)

            Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

            Don Miguel Ruiz might interest you.

            Anonymous said...

            What god? There're no gods! Religion is the worst invention from human thoughts & storytelling. Religious conflicts & ancient stupidity cause problems that're worse than terrorism.

            The said...

            Now they have torched a church...

            Anonymous said...

            "Now they have torched a church..."

            it's always this religion against that religion, this religion against the non-believers... it's always about that religion's own 1 & only thing that their blindsided followers pray/worship to. Where's the tolerance, harmony with other religions? There isn't any cause this human storytelling's only about their so-called supreme god/deity/idol/figure objects... when will all this nonsense going to end?

            Anonymous said...

            ur a knowledgeable man mr wang..but sometimes u overstretch urself. some comments u made on this topic are quite off...just my 2 cents worth.

            Anonymous said...

            The point about using the word Tuhan, is that in the Bible, there are phrases like 'the Lord your God' - which would be Tuhan Allah (not sure if I've got it quite right) - but if they could not use the word Tuhan, the phrase would be Tuhan Tuhan - kinda loses some of its meaning, a meaningless duplication.