Monday, February 22, 2010

In the name of Allah

Again, a foreign scribe has put Malaysians to shame by having a much clearer view of Malaysian society, the issues it faces and, of course, the usage of the Arabic word for 'God'.

I am posting this essay published in several foreign newspapers and websites on Jan 8 for the benefit of all Malaysians so that we can learn more about ourselves and our nation....

In the Name of Allah

By Gwynne Dyer

In the late 80s, when I was in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, a friend suggested that I drive out into the desert near Jubail to see the oldest extant Christian church in the world. And there it was, surrounded by a chain-link fence to keep casual visitors and foreign archaeologists out.

Experts who saw the site before it was closed said that the church was built by Nestorian Christians, and was probably used from the 4th to the 9th century.

Its existence embarrassed the Saudi government, which prefers to believe that Arabia went straight from paganism to Islam. But it confirmed the assumption of most historians that Christianity was flourishing in the Arabian Peninsula in the centuries before the rise of Islam. So what did these Arabic-speaking Christians call God? Allah, of course.

I mention this because last week the Malaysian High Court struck down a three-year old ban on non-Muslims using the word Allah when they speak of God in the Malay language. The court’s decision was followed by firebomb attacks on three Christian churches in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday night, and on Friday protesters at mosques in Kuala Lumpur carried placards reading "Allah is only for us." 

Prime Minister Najib Razak condemned the attacks on the churches, but he supports the ban on 
Christians using the word “Allah” in Malay and is appealing the High Court decision. 

"We...have the right to use the word 'Allah'," said Rev. Lawrence Andrew, the editor of the Herald, the newspaper of the Catholic Church in Malaysia, whose use of the word in its Malay-language edition triggered the crisis. Parliamentary opposition leader Lim Kit Siang simply observed that "The term 'Allah' was used to refer to God by Arabic-speaking Christians before Arabic-speaking Muslims existed." 

Of course it was. Arabic-speaking Christians predate the rise of Islam by three hundred years, and what else were they going to call God? The word “Allah” is a contraction of the Arabic definite article al- and the noun 'ilah, which means god. In parts of ancient Arabia it once referred to the creator-god (who was not the only god), but for a very long time it has meant the One God.

This Arabic word was imported into the Malay language by converts to Islam, which arrived in the region several centuries before Christianity. All ethnic Malays are considered to be Muslim under Malaysian law, but there are numerous Malay-speakers, especially in northern Borneo, who are Christian and not ethnically Malay. They also use the word Allah for God.

What’s the harm in that? Why are Malaysia’s Muslims so paranoid? The real paranoia, alas, is ethnic.

Malaysia is an ethnic time-bomb that has turned itself into a peaceful and prosperous country by a huge effort of will. The original population was mostly Malay, but under British rule huge numbers of Indian and Chinese immigrants were imported to work the mines and plantations. By independence,

Malays were only 60 percent of the population, and much poorer than the more recent arrivals. They resented the past, the present, and the probable future.

After several bouts of savage anti-Chinese and anti-Indian rioting, the country arrived at its current, highly successful compromise. The Malays dominate politics, but the Chinese and the Indians thrive in trade and commerce – and most people understand that they are ultimately in the same boat, which is called Malaysia.

The state spends a lot of money to raise the living standards of the Malays, and gives them 
preference for university places and government jobs. They haven’t done badly out of this deal, but nevertheless they feel perpetually insecure. Since they are all Muslims, while few other Malaysians are, they also feel their religion is under threat. Some respond by being aggressively intolerant of minorities.

Not all Malays behave this way. Major Muslim organisations, including the Islamic political party, PAS, have agreed that the other “Abrahamic religions” –  Christians and Jews –  may call their God Allah in Malay. But it’s getting ugly, and it’s high time for the Malaysian government to stop playing along with the extremists.

It should take a lesson from the early Muslims of Arabia. Both the archaeological and the textual 
evidence suggest that most Arabs in northern Arabia and along the Gulf coast had already been Christian for several centuries when Islam first appeared in the 7th century. They were swiftly conquered by Muslim armies, but they were not forcibly converted.

As in all early Islamic empires, Christians had to pay higher taxes, but they were allowed to keep their property and practice their religion. It is highly improbable that they were forced to change the word they used for God. They did gradually convert to Islam, but the last Christian churches in the region probably survived into the early 9th century.

The Christians, Hindus, animists and others who make up 40 percent of Malaysia’s people pay higher taxes, in the sense that they subsidise the poorer Malay/Muslim majority. Few of them will ever convert to Islam, but they are not its enemy either. Malaysia has achieved a fragile but workable compromise that gives its people a good life. It should not endanger it so frivolously.

> Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Allah and Elohim

The languages of Judaism, Christianity and Islam - Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic respectively - are closely related and the Hebrew word for 'God' and the Arabic word for 'God' have a common bond.

This essay is from and all Malaysians should read it for a better understanding of the 'Allah' issue which has yet to be solved.

Is the Word Allah Similar to Elohim?

By Penny Warren B.A., M.A., D.D

(C) 1998 PLIM REPORT Vol. 7 No. 3


The Middle Eastern culture has given birth to the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Although these religions are dogmatically at odds with each other, they have more in common than they realize.

Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic, the languages of these religions, are closely related although debates still rage over which language was first. Researchers have found that people from the same region will usually have similar root words referring to the same thing.

The Hebrew title of God is "Elohim;" in Arabic it's "Allah." These two words for God have a common bond that most people don't understand. Both of these words have their origin in pagan deities of the ancient past.

The intent of this article is to examine the etymology of the word Elohim and Allah. Although some of the definitions may be repetitive, our aim is to document the meanings from various sources.

Is there commonality between Elohim and Allah?

Webster’s Dictionary gives the definition and etymology of Allah as follows. Allah is the Muslim name for "the God." Allah is derived from two words "al," which means "the" and "ilah," which is related to the feminine Hebrew word for God, "eloah."

Now the Hebrew title or name for God is 'Elohim' and it is the plural form of eloah. It is made plural by adding "im," which is masculine. This corresponds to adding "s" to make a word plural in English. So the commonality between Allah and Elohim is "eloah" and "ilah."

According the Huston Smith’s book The World’s Religions (p. 222), it states: "Allah is formed by joining the definite article al meaning ‘the’ with Ilah (God). Literally, Allah means ‘The God.’ … When the masculine plural ending im is dropped from the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, the two words sound much alike." Eloah (Hebrew feminine) is similar to Ilah (God). Both Elohim and Allah are titles and not names.

Do scholars agree on the derivation of Elohim?

The scholars do not agree on the origin of the word Elohim. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the languages of the regions do not support whether the word Elohim applies to the God of Israel or an earlier polytheistic culture's diety. "The ancient Jewish and the early ecclesiastical writers agree with many modern scholars in deriving Elohim from El, but there is a great difference of opinion as to the method of derivation. Nestle (Theol. Stud. aus Würt., 1882, pp. 243 sqq.) supposes that the plural has arisen by the insertion of an artificial h, like the Hebrew amahoth (maidens) from amah. Buhl (Gesenius Hebraisches Handworterbuch, 12th ed., 1895, pp. 41 sq.) considers Elohim as a sort of augmentative form of El; but in spite of their disagreement as to the method of derivation, these writers are one in supposing that in early Hebrew the singular of the word signifying God was El, and its plural form Elohim; and that only more recent times coined the singular form Eloah, thus giving Elohim a grammatically correct correspondent. Lagrange, however, maintains that Elohim and Eloah are derived collaterally and independently from El." (See Catholic Encyclopedia: Elohim

Did the Hebrews borrow the word Elohim from the Canaanites?

"Elohim, the plural of the Hebrew word eloha, "god," a lengthened form of the Canaanite word el (Aramaic alaha; Arabic ilah), is most frequently used for the God of Israel in the Old Testament. … The Israelites probably borrowed the Canaanite plural noun elohim and made it singular in meaning in their cultic practices and theological reflections (The New Encyclopaiedia Britannica, Micropaedia, Vol. III, 15th Edition, p. 863)."

Has much been written about Elohim?

Godfrey Higgins in his classical book Anacalypsis (V. 1; p. 64-65, 67) gives the etymology of Elohim, originally spelled Aleim. He states the following: "Perhaps there is no word in any language about which more has been written than the word Aleim; or, as modern Jews corruptly call it, Elohim. The root … al, the root of the word Aleim, as a verb or it its verbal form, means to mediate, to interpose for protection, to perserve; and a noun, a mediator, an interposer. In its feminine its has two forms …ale, and … alue. In its plural masculine it makes … alim, in is plural feminine … aleim.

Mr. Higgins points out in his book that many learned men believe that "Al" is derived from Arabic but some disagree with the derivation of Allah. "I beg the reader to observe, that Arabians, from whose language the word al properly comes, have the word for Sun, in feminine, and that for the moon, in the masculine gender; … The word Aleim … has been derived the Arabic word Allah, by many learned men; but Mr. Bellamy says this cannot be admitted; for Hebrew is not the derived, but the primitive language. … The Alah, articulo emphatico alalah (calassio) of Arabians, is evidently the … Al of the Chaldees or Jews…"

Encyclopedia Britannica Micropedia (Vol. 1; p. 250) states the following about Allah. "Etymologically, Allah is probably a contraction of the Arabic al-ilahh, "the God," although the Aramaic Alaha has also been proposed. The origin of the name can be traced to the earliest Semitic writings in which the word for god was Il or El, the latter bring in the Old Testament synonym for Yahweh. Know to Arabs even in pre-Islamic times, Allah is standard Arabic for God And is used by Arab Christians as well as Muslims."


"Allaah is the Arabic word for 'one God,' the same as Eloh in Armaic. Allaah is not God of Muslims only. He is God of all creations, because He is their Creator and Sustainer." (From the Daar-ul-Ehsaan USA site, "The Most Frequently Asked Questions About Islaam,"

Allah is the name of the Supreme Being in the Arabic Language. The word Allah is never used for any other being or thing. The names for God found in other languages are all attributive or descriptive and are often used in the plural, but the word "Allah" is never used in the plural. In the absence of a parallel word in the English language, the original name "Allah" has been retained throughout the translation. Selected Verses of the Holy Quran, Copyright © 1996 Ahmadiyya Movement in Islam

"Allah is an unique Arabic proper name for the One God. It is unique as it does not permit of gender or plurality. Allah describes himself in The Quran in Chapter 59, Verses 22-24. One possible meaning of the verses is provided below:"

"22. Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;- Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He is The Most Gracious, The Most Merciful. 23. Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god;-The Sovereign, The Holy One, The Source of Peace (and Perfection), The Guardian of Faith, The Preserver of Safety, The Exalted in Might, The Irresistible, The Supreme: Glory to Allah. (High is He) above the partners they attribute to Him. 24. He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colors). To Him belongs the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on the earth, do declare His Praises and Glory: and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.", From the Muslim Student Association of Clemson University

Were there many gods before Islam?

According to Marcus Bach’s book Major Religions of the World, religion was a big, commercial business in Mecca at the time of Mohammed (p. 99-100). Temples and shrines abounded to many nature gods and men also worshipped the Black Stone said to work miracles. Located in the middle of Mecca was a building called the Kaaba that housed images of 360 gods and the stone. Priests charged a fee to worshippers and those who offered prayers.

Mohammed belonged to a sect called Hunafa who hated the money-making priests and worshipped Allah exclusively. When Mohammed had his vision, the angel Gabriel told him to teach the people, Allah, the God, "One and only, One without rival (p. 225)."

For Mohammed to teach monotheism in a polytheistic society was as revolutionary as the Messiah preaching faith in Yahweh to the Jew who had worshipped the Law of Moses for 1500 years (Eph. 2:8-9). They both faced ridicule, persecution, and death threats from the reigning powers. Unlike the Messiah, Mohammed was not killed, but prevailed and ruled his nation for years.


Although the etymology of Allah and Aleim (Elohim) is inconclusive, it is clear that the Jews, Christians, and Arabs are worshipping the same God or "All in All." None of these religions would deny that there is ONE source of life, regardless of what names or title The Creator is called. Innumerable names can be attributed to the Most High.

The problem is that each religion has their own interpretations, customs, and traditions on how to serve and worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who is Spirit. Man-made dogma, customs, traditions must be put away and the fundamental principles of Spirit must be understood, whereby the worship of Elohim or Allah is done in Spirit and Truth. The followers of the true and only Creator must exercise and exemplify the principles of love, peace, faith, and patience. This will be an example and invitation to all men to come to the light. If this is not done, confusion will continue in the world, which the Apostle John called Mystery Babylon in Revelation (Rev. 17:1-5).

The Apostle Paul encountered a similar situation with the Greeks, who believed in many gods, when he visited Athens. They wanted to know about the resurrection of the Messiah. He said to them: "For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN Elohim (GOD). Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. Elohim (God) that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring (Acts 17:23-28)."

Monday, February 15, 2010

'Allah' or 'Tuhan'

It is strange how even an educated and liberal Malay can feel as if someone had invaded his 'property' when a non-Muslim uses the word 'Allah' (the Arabic word for 'God' widely used in the Middle-East by Muslims, Christians and Jews to mean 'God' without anyone feeling offended).

One would have expected that a broad-minded and English-educated Malay would have a global, learned and broad-minded outlook of the world, but even such a Malay would show a sudden insularity, a narrow-mindedness and a feeling that someone, perhaps an infidel, has 'taken' something sacred from him.

Such is the depth of the Malay-equals-Muslim ethos that it has evolved, rightly or wrongly, into a Malay-owns-Islam mindset.

Thus when a non-Muslim is allowed to use the word 'Allah', the Malay-Muslim feels as if someone has trespassed into his private and guarded space where the Malay-owns-Islam ethos reigns and taken something very close to his heart.

That is why most Malays are angry at the High Court decision allowing the Catholic Church to use the word 'Allah' in its Bahasa Malaysia bulletin for its Malay-speaking believers. The decision has been appealed.

When I asked a Malay friend known for his liberal outlook for his view on the issue, I was rather taken aback when he suddenly sounded like a conservative.

"Along the road where I live, all the Malays that I know are against the decision. They are all very angry.

"People like Marina Mahathir are in the minority. These liberals are from a small group. The majority of Malays are angry and do not want non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah'," he said.

The burning of one church and the vandalising of several other churches are done by the hotheads, a small group of people who cannot control their emotions. Most other Malays, my friend said, are angry but are still in control of their emotions.

"The Government has to act carefully on this matter. If they do not do the right thing, I do not know what will happen. My fear is that worse things will happen."

What about PKR's Anwar Ibrahim and PAS' Hadi Awang who made statements that it is okay for non-Muslims to use the word 'Allah' and many non-Malays seem quite happy with their stance, I told my Malay friend.

"That's all politics. The Malays know they are only playing politics trying to get the non-Malay votes," he said.

But 'Allah' is an Arabic word for 'God' which was in use before the advent of Islam, I said.

He replied: "Why must the Christians use an Arabic word when there is already a Malay word for god which is 'Tuhan'?

"If the Malay-language Bible uses the word 'Tuhan' for 'God', the Malays would not feel angry. Look, if you translate the Bible to, for example, Tamil, you would use the Tamil word for God. If you translate the Bible into Mandarin, you would use the Mandarin word for God. So if you translate the Bible into Malay, you should use the Malay word for God which is 'Tuhan'."

But 'Allah' is used in Arabic Bibles, I said.

"That's because it is in Arabic. Was the Bible written in Arabic?"

"Eerr, I think the Old Testament was in Hebrew and the New Testament was in Aramaic," I said.

"Okay, so what is the Hebrew word for God?"

"Elohim," I said.

"So why not use the word 'Elohim' in the Malay Bible? I think that's okay. I think the Malays would not be angry over that," he said.

But 'Allah' is also used in Indonesian Bibles, I said.

"That was translated a long time ago and the people there had no say in it and did not protest. In Malaysia now the situation is different," he said.

After the conversation, my Malay friend told me: "You asked for my opinion and I told you what I felt." It was his way of saying 'no hard feelings'.

I disagree with some of the things he said, but we are still friends.

Perhaps that is how the 1Malaysia concept should pan out to be - we as Malaysians can afford to agree to disagree, but in the end we should remain united as a nation.

As for the hotheads, whom I think are still in the minority, they should be dealt with by the cops and courts.

As for the politicians (from both the ruling coalition and the Opposition), we should learn to identify those who are sincere, honest and effective from those who are chauvinistic, corrupt and exploitative. The problem is, of course, that we will be left with very few politicians...

Thursday, February 11, 2010

'Allah' and the Malays

There seems to be a vast difference in the way the Arabs and the Malays treat the word 'Allah', which is the Arabic word for 'god' and was widely used to mean 'god' or 'gods' in the polytheistic Arabian world before the advent of monotheistic Islam.

Thus in the Middle-East, the 'God' of Christianity and the 'God' of Islam were called 'Allah' simply because it was their word for god. Thus the Arabian Bibles used the word 'Allah' to mean 'God' and nobody took offence.

Also the fact that the Arabs grew up in the mileau of Abrahamic faiths just meant that it was okay for a Christian, a Muslim or even a Jew to use the word 'Allah' to mean 'God'.

As can be seen in the earlier postings, a Christian Arab can say 'Allah' in front of his Muslim Arab friend and the Muslim would not find that offensive.

However, in Malaysia (and Malaysia alone) the Malays, who are born Muslims, feel it is offensive if someone who is not a Muslim uses the word 'Allah' to mean 'God'.

They get angry that non-Muslims can use the word 'Allah' and they fear that if non-Muslims use the word 'Allah' somehow the Malays can get confused and abandon Islam.

The problem is this - the Malay-Muslims think they have the sole right to use the word 'Allah' which is why some commentators have argued that it is a 'copyright' issue following the fiery reaction to the Dec 31 High Court ruling that the Catholic Church can use the word 'Allah' in its Malay edition of its news bulletin for Malay-speaking worshippers.

One church was torched and several vandalised soon after. Several Malay-Muslims have been charged following swift police action to nab the hotheads.

Late last month, a couple of wild boar heads were found in the compounds of two mosques in Kuala Lumpur. Nobody has been arrested for this despicable act yet.

To understand why the Malay-Muslims, unlike the Arab Muslims, react in such an irrational and emotional manner when a non-Muslim (rightfully, if you take into account the etymology) uses the word 'Allah' to mean 'God', one has to go deeper into issues that do not involve religion at all - such as identity and sense of being.

The Malays have been indoctrinated for too long that for a Malay to be Malay, he/she must be Muslim. This indoctrination has been carried out by the Malay-language media, by culture activists, even language activists and, of course, the hordes of politicians who derive their power from Malay-Muslim voters.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but Malaysia must be the only nation in the world where the Constitutional definition of a race specifies practising a certain religion. Some Christian and Muslim countries have Constitional provisions for Christianity or Islam to be the religion of the state, but they do not specify that a certain race must practise a certain religion in order for a citizen to be accepted as a member of that race.

This Malay-equals-Muslim definition was a creation of the political elite back in the 1950s and it has served the ruling elite well - the politicians in power just have to champion the cause of either Malayness or Islam to be assured the support of the Malay-Muslim voters.

The ruling elite indoctrinated the Malay masses because it served their purpose well - just exploit Malay cultural and linguistic issues, and fly the Islamic banner and they will remain in power.

Thus the Malays have been indoctrinated to accept Islam as theirs - they have claimed 'ownership' of Islam because they are born Muslims and Islam has become integral to their very identity as Malays. A Malay who is not a Muslim is an entity that is illogical and impossible in the mindset of a Malay-Muslim.

Therefore the Malays feel they have the sole right to the usage of the word 'Allah', at least in Malaysia. This is despite the fact that Islam is a Mid-Eastern religion brought to the Malay peninsula by Arabian and Indian traders and missionaries during the Malacca Sultanate.

In other words, to the Malays, Islam is integral to his/her identity and culture despite the fact that it is not a Malay religion - it is a foreign religion that is merely practised by the Malays.

That is why during a recent dialogue on the 'Allah' issue, one participant said that to the Christians, it is only a matter of translation, but to the Malays, it is something more than that.

Having said all these, questions must be asked:

> Can one racial group in this world claim that they, and no non-Muslims, have the sole right to use the word 'Allah'?

> Isn't it inconsistent that in this global age the word 'Allah' is freely used by followers of other Abrahamic faiths in the Middle-East, where Islam began, but in Malaysia where Islam has been adopted by the Malays the word 'Allah' can be used only by Muslims?

> Is it possible that the emotional response of the Malays to the court decision (which has been appealed) is linked to their inherent feeling of insecurity?

> Will there be a time when the Malays feel confident enough about their identity, their sense of being and the 'Allah' that they worship that they won't find it offensive or feel threatened when non-Muslims use the Arabic word for 'God'?

> Will there be a time when the Malays can free themselves from the shackles of indoctrination and stand up proudly to declare that they are Malays and do not need the crutch of religion to give them confidence, courage and a sense of being?