Peace in the name of God
IN THE current Allah controversy, no logical, legal or constitutional arguments can appease the Christians and Muslims who believe their religious rights have been violated. Each side will stubbornly argue that there has been an encroachment into their particular religious territory by the other. They believe their faith is being threatened.
To the Christians, the ban on the use of the word Allah in the Malay Bible is unacceptable as, historically, the Malay-speaking Catholics of Sabah and Sarawak have always used the word in their practice and worship of Christianity. Among them, the ban is widely seen as an unconstitutional move to curb the religious freedom guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.
To the Muslims, the word Allah exclusively defines the oneness of God in Islam. They cannot accept that it can be extended to refer to the trinitarian concept of God in Christianity. Generally, Muslims are taking the stand that it is their right to defend an Islamic doctrine.
Public discourse in the English media is inclined towards the argument that the word Allah is a generic Arabic term to refer to the universal God of all religions.
The evidence quoted is that the word has been used by Arab Christians and Arab Muslims for centuries and is not exclusive to Muslims. That the Bible uses interchangeable terms such as “Father”, “The Lord”, “God Almighty” has not been highlighted.
Malay Muslim discourse, on the other hand, upholds the exclusivity of Allah in referring to God in Islam. It is argued that in Malaysia, the Arabic word Allah has acquired a specific meaning. It has become the term Malay Muslims use to refer to God not only in their readings of the Quran in Arabic but more widely in their prayers and worship of Islam in Malay. Thus their objection to the use of Allah to refer to the Christian God.
At the root of the impasse is the inability of Malaysian Christians and Muslims to understand one another’s sensitivities. The confrontational approach in seeking a legal redress over the matter will only lead to greater bitterness as each side is seen to be losing or winning. To the Muslims, lifting the ban would be sacrilegious to their religion. To the Christians, disallowing the use of Allah is a violation of their constitutional rights.
It does not help that the officials and religious leaders representing Christianity and Islam have been adamant in their respective stands. Their uncompromising attitude has opened the door to the most belligerent among their supporters to stage protests and demonstrations.
Religious leaders on both sides must be prepared to engage one another in a more magnanimous and compassionate manner to come to a compromise. Muslim leaders must acknowledge the historical evidence that in Sabah and Sarawak, the Malay-speaking Catholics use Allah in their reading of the Indonesian Malay translation of the Bible and should be allowed to continue doing so. Christian Catholic leaders, on the other hand, must see to it that the Bible translation is updated and edited to ensure there is no confusion in the references that arise from the use of Allah in a Christian text or area of worship.
Malay Muslims should not feel intimidated, rather they should feel honoured that Christians want to refer to the Christian God as Allah. They should see this as an opportunity to clarify the doctrine of monotheism in Islam in contrast to the concept of the trinity in Christianity. A show of compromise and magnanimity by Christians in Selangor is perhaps to concede that out of respect for the Sultan’s ban on the use of Allah, the congregation of East Malaysian Catholics can be persuaded to revert to “Tuhan” (God) or “Bapak” (Father) as terms which are interchangeable with Allah. Out of this peaceable compromise, both Muslims and Christians will be better educated in the doctrines and beliefs of one another’s faith.
It’s obvious that compromises are reached more easily among the better educated and exposed. It is apparent, too, that not everyone has the same level of knowledge and reasoning to be able to understand complex religious matters. The most belligerent among religious followers are usually those that are either ignorant or have been led astray, advertently or otherwise, by religious leaders.
Closed-door meetings and small-group sessions can pave the way for larger, more harmonious engagements between Muslims and Christian. Community and religious leaders must come together at a retreat or an interfaith convention where issues surrounding the Allah controversy are discussed in a peaceable manner.
When people are able to engage openly, much of the suspicions and prejudices will be removed. They can then try to convince their community of followers and supporters to approach the subject rationally and peacefully. It goes without saying that the moderators and mediators must be people who are highly respected members of the community.