Preface: I wrote this article on Christmas Eve 2007 with reasonable expectation that it will be printed by at least one local newspaper. Unfortunately, this was not to be because of circumstances beyond my control (or rather circumstances that are in full government control).
The controversy arising from the government’s stated policy to prohibit non-Muslims from using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the supreme God or Creator is a fast developing story. The latest news is that the government has alllowed the Catholic Herald to renew its annual publishing permit without insisting that the Herald stop using the word ‘allah’.
The government’s decision should be welcomed. However, it can amount to no more than a temporary reprieve from a harsh policy that evidently threatens religious freedom in the country unless the fundamental assumptions that inform the policy makers are addressed. Until then, be rest assured that the ‘little Napoleans’ in the government departments will now and then resume their harassment. There will be further confiscation Christian literature (including the AlKitab) now and then. As happened before, Christian publishers will be required to refrain from using ‘allah’ (and who knows what other alleged exclusive Islamic terms) if they want their publishing permit (PP) or KDN to be renewed.
As such, I am making available online my article since it continues to be of value for public education. Hopefully, because we know the facts of history we will not compromise in resisting unjust restrictions on our religious freedom. Indeed, if we compromise in matters of Scripture our ability to remain faithful to our Christian identity is fatally undermined.
‘No One Religion Can Monopolize or Copyright the Term ‘Allah’– Click to Download PDF Version
The Logical, Historical, Cultural and Constitutional Case for the Right of Everybody to use ‘Allah’
The Deputy Minister of Internal Security, Johari Baharum, recently declared that only Muslims may use the word ‘Allah’ to describe the God they worship. He was reported as saying, “The word ‘Allah’ can only be used in the context of Islam and not any other religion ….Only Muslims can use ‘Allah’. It’s a Muslim word, you see. It’s from (the Arabic (language). We cannot let other religions use it because it will confuse people.”
That an official of such high standing can make such a declaration is disturbing. Not surprisingly, there have been some emotional responses from the public to the Deputy Minister’s declaration. But it is important that we go beyond emotional responses and offer a firm, rational and clear rebuttal to the flawed rationale that underlies the Deputy Minister’s declaration.
The declaration is questionable for the following reasons: 1) its logic is flawed 2) it omits historical facts 3) it shows disrespect for cultural identity and 4) it disregards Constitutional rights of Malaysian citizens.
1) Flawed Logic
Looking at the declaration, the Deputy Minister’s logic is as follows:
(1) If x is Arabic then x belongs to Islam
(2) x = ‘Allah’ is Arabic
(3) Therefore ‘Allah’ belongs to Islam
The problem with this reasoning is its flawed premise (1). The logic outlined above just cannot be applied to linguistic terms that were in use in pre-Islamic Arabia. In particular, the term ‘Allah’ was the common term used to refer to the supreme God long before Islam existed. The evidence for this is supported by many authoritative reference works including the following:
“That the Arabs, before the time of Muhammad, accepted and worshipped, after a fashion, a supreme god called Allah – “the ilah” or the god, if the form is of genuine Arabic origin; if of Aramaic, from alaha, “the god” – seems absolute certain” (Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, ed., H. A. R. Gibb & J. H. Kramer, p. 33).
“The cult of a deity termed simply “the god” (al-ilah) was known throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia in the days before Islam… It seems equally certain that Allah was not merely a god in Mecca but was widely regarded as the “high god,” the chief and head of the Meccan pantheon,…Thus Allah was neither an unknown nor an unimportant deity to the Quraysh when Muhammad began preaching his worship at Mecca” (The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito, p 76-77).
The Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu remarks that it is precisely because the name Allah was common to both the pagan Arabs and the Muslims that gave rise to the heated debates that arose between Muhammad and his adversaries. Likewise, Muhammad addressed his adversaries in the name of ‘Allah’ without bothering to explain what this name meant given their common understanding of ‘Allah’ as referring to the supreme God (God and Man in the Quran, Toshihiko Izutsu, pp. 100-117).
These pertinent observations of the common usage of ‘Allah’ by Arabs before Islam also found confirmation among archaeologists. One may consult the archaeological report by the great German scholar Julius Wellhausen who gave an exhaustive list of inscriptions referring to ‘Allah’ in pre-Islam Arabia. Wellhausen’s observation is confirmed by W. Montgomery Watt in his work Muhammad’s Mecca (Chapter 3: Religion in Pre-Islamic Arabia) that affirms the thesis that belief in a high or supreme god was common throughout the Semitic Near-East in the Greco-Roman period. Watt, quoting Javier Teixidor, says “The epigraphical material reveals that the worship of a supreme god coexisted with that of other minor gods…. But the increasing emphasis on such beliefs is evidence of a trend towards monotheism, namely towards the exclusion of other gods’ existence.”
The historical evidence suggests that Quranic Arabic was a subset of Arabic language and literature in the Middle East at that time. It is also beyond dispute that ‘Allah’ was widely used by all monotheists in pre-Islamic Arabia. Hence the premise –
(1) If x is Arabic then x belongs to Islam
is clearly wrong especially if x (the Arabic term ‘Allah’) was common currency before Islam. In short, it is a fallacy to conclude that just because it was referred to in Arabic; ‘Allah’ belongs exclusively to Islam.
2) Omission of Historical Facts
The standard lexicons on the Arabic language point out that there are linguistic similarities between ‘Allah’ in Arabic and other references to God in the cognate Semitic languages – for example, °§l¹h in Aramaic and ilu in Akkadian. ‘Allah’ certainly bears linguistic affinity with the Hebrew el, with the root meaning “to be strong”, or eloah, the singular form of elohim. Allah could be derived from ilah meaning a deity or god, with the addition of the definite article al- Al-ilah, “the God”.
It is because of the linguistic affinity between the term ‘Allah’ and other Semitic terms that Christian Arabs called the supreme God ‘Allah’ centuries before the appearance of Islam. Arab Christians continue to use ‘Allah’ today. It is also true that historically, Christians in South East Asia have used ‘Allah’ to refer to the supreme God they worship. The earliest Christian writing in Malay, Kitab salat as-sawai (Christian prayers) was printed in Arabic type 1514. Christian catechisms in Malay were published around 1545. ‘Allah’ was used in the printed version of the Gospel of Matthew in Malay (1629) and the complete Malay Bible (1731-1733).
‘Allah’ as such has been used in the liturgy, prayers and worship among the Christian native peoples of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak from the very beginning when these churches were first established generations ago. The fact of the centuries-long usage of ‘Allah’ among native Christians bears importance significance to what is perhaps an unexpressed charge behind the Deputy Minister’s declaration, “We cannot let other religions [the context refers to Christianity] use it because it will confuse people.” That is to suggest that there is a hidden agenda when Christians use ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures, that is, to confuse Muslims.
But Malay-speaking Christians have already been using ‘Allah’ for centuries and there was never any suggestion that in using the term ‘Allah’ Christians were at any time confusing Muslims. Indeed, it may be argued that the existence of a common term ‘Allah’ facilitates communication and promotes mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims.
The Malayan Declaration of Independence (1957) provides an outstanding example of how common usage of ‘Allah’ builds mutual understanding. The Declaration of Independence begins with the phrase “Dengan nama Allah yang Maha Pemurah lagi Mengasihani, segala puji bagi Allah yang Maha Berkuasa.” The Declaration continues to affirm an agreement between the Queen and the Malay Rulers whereby Malaya was granted Independence. Obviously, the Declaration assumes that both the Queen of England (who is the head of Christianity in England) and the Malay Rulers could appeal to the same supreme God (‘Allah’) to ratify their agreement. The Deputy Minister ought to take note that there was no hint of any confusion regarding the Independence granted to Malaya.
3) Disrespect for Cultural Identity
It is vital that due respect and freedom be given to Malaysian natives in their desire to continue their centuries-long practice of referring to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures, liturgy and songs. That is to say, their expression of faith in God (‘Allah’) and their prayers to God (‘Allah’) in their mother tongue – the soul-language that frames their linguistic and emotional matrix – is foundational to their religious and cultural identity.
For this reason, any attempt to prohibit Christian natives (and for that matter any Malaysian, since Bahasa Malaysia has become their primary language of proficiency) from using ‘Allah’ amounts to a blatant disrespect of their cultural identity and cultural freedom.
It is recognized that religious identity transcends national boundaries. Thus, Muslims in Malaysia proudly identify with Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere. By the same token, Malaysian Christians also share a wider religious identity with Christians in other countries. An important factor in this transnational religious identity is that both Malaysian natives and other Malay-speaking Christians refer to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ along with fellow-Christians in Indonesia, India, the Middle East and Africa. It is when they worship the same supreme God (‘Allah’) together that they have a sense of oneness in their religious identity.
That being the case, the Deputy Minister’s declaration to prohibit Christians from referring to God as ‘Allah’ amounts to a disregard for their religious identity and religious freedom.
4) Disregard for Constitutional Rights of Malaysian Citizens.
Article 11 of the Federal Constitutions defines freedom of religion to include the following:
(1) Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion and, subject to Clause (4), to propagate it.
(3) Every religious group has the right –
(a) to manage its own religious affairs
(b) to establish and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes…
In the light of these provisions, the prohibition of Christians from referring to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ results in denying their children to be educated and instructed about matters of Christian faith in their mother tongue. It is a fact that the authorities periodically seize Christian literature written in Bahasa Malaysia, as well as the Malay Bible (Alkitab). Such acts by in effect prevent Malaysian natives and Malay-speaking Christians from professing and practicing their faith in their mother-tongue and hence it is a violation of their religious freedom enshrined in Article 11 of the Federal Constitution.
It is our sincere hope that the arguments given above will persuade the authorities to accept the right of every Malaysian Christian to refer to their supreme God as ‘Allah’ in the profession and practice and propagation of religious faith.
I also attach below some photos taken from some early nineteenth century Malay Bibles (Please note that these photos are copyrighted and may not be used or reproduced without permission). These photos provide undeniable evidence that our indigenous Christian believers have been using ‘Allah’ in the Bible and in their worship centuries before our policy makers even consider making the absurd claim that the terms ‘Allah’ and other religious terms like ‘kitab’, ‘firman allah’, ‘injil’, ‘nabi’, ‘iman’, ‘wahyu’ etc are exculsively Islamic and therefore could not be used by non-Muslims.
11 thoughts on “No one Religion can Monopolize or Copyright the Term ‘Allah’”
Thanks Kam Weng. This is much required and timely. In the old days it took people like the late TS Tan Chee Khoon to “stop” such arbitrary actions, but today, we must speak up and act based on our convicions. Yours is a good example. God Bless.
Hi Dr. Ng,
My name is Muhammad Faudzee. I have read your article by the title “No one Religion can Monopolize or Copyright the Term ‘Allah’”. I understand that even in the original language of Old Testament the word ‘elowahh’ – Hebrew (e.g in Deu 32:15) and ‘elahh’ – Aramaic (e.g in Ezr 4:24) are refer to Allah the Almighty God. I have no doubt about that eventhough some Christians in Indonesia have strongly against the using of the word ‘Allah’ as God in the Indonesian Bible called ‘Alkitab’ in bahasa produced by Lembaga AlKitab Indonesia (LAI). They use to write their own ‘Alkitab’ and replace the word ‘Allah’ as ‘Yahweh’ and named thier Alkitab as ‘Kitab Suci Umat Perjanjian Tuhan’. This objection (the using of the word ‘Allah’ as God) by this group is so serious, as a result LAI has to produce this statement:
This group has claimed that ‘Allah’ is the name of pagan’s god and not suitable for the God Almighty. For them The Almighty God is ‘Yahweh’. Infact the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible has use ‘Yahweh’ for the Divine Name.
Moreover Dr. Robert Morey’s book ‘The Moon-God Allah In The Archeology Of The Middle East’ (1994, Research And Education Foundation: Newport (PA)) claimed that the word ‘Allah’ was using by pagan for moon god and Islam is worshipping the pagan god.
And lastly, Jack T. Chick, who drew a fictionalised racially stereotyped story entitled “Allah Had No Son” (1994 by Jack T. Chick LLC) also claimed that the word ‘Allah’ was using by pagan for moon god and Islam is worshipping the pagan god.
I’m glad that now Christianiaty has realize that Allah is the Truth Almighty God and make their revert to uphold the name of Truth God. I thanks you Dr. Ng Kam Weng.
Allah as a Babylonian Moon-God? There is no need to get entangled with etymological disputes given the fragmentary nature of ancient texts, artifacts and inscriptions. This is not to deny that the question of the emergence of monotheism (El, Elohim, Allah) and its trajectory is a valid historical inquiry. We shall for the moment set aside the task of resolving the relationship between folk religion and scriptural monotheism and focus on overlap of meaning when Christian Arabs first used the term Allah that was subsequently adopted by Muslim Arabs.
The fact is that the meaning of words in general, including the nomenclature ‘God’ (El, Allah, theos etc) is not flat. Even a simple knowledge of linguistics should warn as that we cannot just assume that one word has just one unchanging meaning throughout history.
Linguists know that the semantic range of a word has to be established first by a diachronic analysis of the usage of the word over time. The analysis is further fine-tuned by a synchronic analysis of the word. In synchronic study we examine all the ways in which a word is used at a particular point of time. In diachronic study we seek to discover how its meaning has changed over the centuries. The most probable meaning is then determined by how it is used in the immediate context. In other words, it is usage and not etymology that determines the meaning of a word [etymological fallacy].
For example, the Hebrew word, ‘nepesh’ can have the following meanings depending on the immediate context: throat, neck, desire, soul, life, person or simply a reflexive pronoun (don’t worry, despite the semantic flexibility or versatility of the Hebrew language we will not insist that the Bible cannot be translated. All it takes is sensitivity to the syntagmatic relations of the words in context for us to get the clear sense of the word).
Even then we need to be sensitive to how a word both denotes and connotes. It seems to me that Allah (Elohim) historically denotes a meaning that is generic, but in Islamic society it can connote a personal meaning. In Biblical Malay, Allah is used to translate Elohim and therefore takes a more generic sense, but TUHAN translates YHWH or Adonai or kurios and assumes a personal sense. You might be interested to know that certain sections of the Old Testament combine YHWH with Elohim (hence translated LORD God or TUHAN Allah). My point is that we ought to be more informed by expertise of linguistic and semantics so we don’t end up making simplistic generalizations that effectively misrepresent Christians.
We do well to emulate the sensitivity to subtle shades of meaning that a word can carry. The great scholar Kenneth Cragg provides an instructive example when he writes:
“Theologies and Scriptures are agreed about his Being. They diverge in understanding the predicates they make of Him…assuming that the God of the Gospel, and Allah of the Quran are the same Lord. Emphatically so, as the subject of all the predicates made. And one, too, in many of the Muslim/Christian predicates, such as Lord, Creator, Sovereign, Sustainer, in power, wisdom, mercy and truth.
But the predicates also differ powerfully. Since in grammar, predicates are to denote their subjects, there is a sense in theology too in which the subjects ‘differs’ in line with any disparity in what is predicated. God in the Quran, is not ‘the God and Father of our lord Jesus Christ’….So likewise, with other dimensions of faith and with other ‘adjectives’. Allah means a ‘difference’ in how God is understood….There also have subtle distinctions within their common vocabulary currency.
But we reduce everything to chaos if we suggest that disparate predicates do not relate to the identical ‘subject’ to whom they are ascribed, as if they could be, in truth, ‘gods many and lords many’ corresponding to all the confused concepts, however numerous and contradictory…
Thus, the answer to the vexed question, ‘Is the God of Islam and the God of the Gospel the same?’ can only rightly be ‘Yes! and No!’ Yes, as the common ground of all we say in partial unison: No, insofar as our convictions diverge. It would be foolish to make either convergence or divergence total, to identify altogether or to contrast only. A ruling sense of God’s sublime Oneness will best serve us in confessing Him.”
Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian, pp. 124-125.
Greetings Dr. Ng
Thanks for the beautiful response. This is an interesting topic to discuss together. Iâm strongly believed that we share the very same God or now you have accepted God as âAllahâ, so actually Christianity and Islam are sharing The One and Only Allah since both are the monotheism religions. This statement is supported by the Bible scholar themselves. In the biblical dictionary by the title âVineâs Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Wordsâ under the title âGodâ (in the Old Testament section) has stated:
âelah, âgod.â?, This Aramaic word has equivalent of the Hebrew eloah. It is a general term for âGodâ? in the Aramaic passages of Old Testament, and it is a cognate form of the word allah, the designation of deity used by the Arabs.â?
So it is clearly shows that âelahâ, âeloahâ and âallahâ are sharing the same linguistic family which is refer to The Almighty God – The Creator. Moreover, as we know that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are originated from the very same source that is Allah â The One and Only God of Abraham, Moses, David and also Jesus (p.b.u.t). Thus the teaching of these Abrahamicâs religions should be the same in the concept of God because they are coming from the same source that is Allah. Let us examined the concept of God which was revealed to prophet Moses (p.b.u.h) about 3000 years ago:
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one”
The word ‘one’ which was using by prophet Moses (p.b.u.h) in Hebrew is ‘echad’ (Strongâs # 259).
Then about thousand years latter came Jesus (p.b.u.h), and let us again examine the concept of God which has teached by Jesus (P.B.U.H):
The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. (Mark 12:29)
Jesus has teached the very same concept of God as Moses was (p.b.u.t). Here again the word ‘echad’ is using (because Jesus was refering also to Deu 6:4). Referring to the above verses we are understand that Allah (‘elah’, ‘eloah’) is One and Only God, so monotheism is the main concept of God in both Christianity and Judaism.
And finally, about 600 years after Jesus came prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h) and again let us examine the concept of God teached by him (p.b.u.h):
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only (Qurâan 112:1)
Here âoneâ in Arabic is âahadâ and has similar meaning with âechadâ in Hebrew which was used by prophet Moses and Jesus (p.b.u.t). So these three major religions are sharing the very same concept of God that is âAllah is One and Onlyâ.
When I heard that Christians in Malaysia want to use the word âAllahâ as God, I am so happy. Nobody, no religion can monopolize or copyright the Term âAllahâ as God. This issue has conforming what Allah has said in Qurâan regarding the deep believed in the bottom of mankindâs hearts (whether Muslim or non-Muslim) about Allah is the Creator of the universe:
If thou ask them (disbelieved), who it is that created the heavens and the earth. They will certainly say, “Allah”! (Qurâan 31:25)
About 1400 years ago through prophet Muhammad (p.b.uh) Allah has invited Jews and Christians to worship Him alone:
Say: “O People of the Book (Jews and Christians)! come to common terms as between us and you: That we worship none but Allah. that we associate no partners with him; that we erect not, from among ourselves, Lords and patrons other than Allah. (Qurâan 3:64)
This is supported by the Bible itself:
So that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the LORD, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:6)
Isaiah has stated clearly tjat no other God besides Allah, and for us all the Abrahamicâs religions (Jews, Christians and Muslims), we should believed that Allah is perfect. He has no partners. We worship Him and Him alone. This is my humble opinion. I last my discussion with this beautiful Qurâanic verse about our Allah:
Allah is He, than Whom there is no other god; Who knows (all things) both secret and open; He, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
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.
He is Allah, the Creator, the Evolver, the Bestower of Forms (or Colours). To Him belong the Most Beautiful Names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, doth declare His Praises and Glory; and He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise. (Qurâan 59:22-24)
Submit To Allah we will be safe. Thanks.
Hi Mohd Faudzee,
The basic issue here is not so much a theological one, (though its interesting)… The Christians may also wanna quote Yohannes 1: “Sebelum dunia diciptakan, Firman telah ada. Firman itu ada bersama Allah. Dan Firman itu adalah Allah… Firman itu telah menjadi manusia dan tinggal di antara kita. Kami telah melihat kemuliaan-Nya, yaitu kemuliaan sebagai satu-satunya Anak Bapa, penuh dengan anugerah dan kebenaran.”
On a fundamental level, it is a historical and ‘freedom of religion’ issue… The fact is, the term Allah has been used for centuries by Christians in SE Asia… and whether their concept of the name Allah is a strict tawheedian one or Trinitatian in nature doesn’t change the lon history of its usage. Therefore, the govt has no constitutional right to monopolise or copyright the name of God for exclusive use of any religion…
Generally the Muslim in Malaysia do not know that the word “Allah” or “Elah” has been used in the Arabic Bible that existed 600 years before Islam. Even if they know it now, I dare to say, that the Malays refused to accept the truth. And this is because of the teaching of Islam in Malaysia. The teaching has been greatly manipulated by the uneducated clergy and politicians. Many of the teaching are actually defiant.
Even the learning of English Language in school are objected. The language are considered Christian. This is how shallow minded the general Malays are and has been.
An Ustazah from a reputable Girls School in Penang make a statement that socialing amongst students of various ethnic and religion is forbiden in Islam, since touching each other hand are considered “Haram”. Holding a non Muslim hand is equivalent to touching a Pig.
This is just two example of an extreme mentality of a Muslim in Malaysia. There are many more if I were to quote. Even amongst our Ulamak, opinion and interpretation on Islamic matters differs from each other. Islam has been manipulated according to political advantage and influence by the individual or group.
Trap in their own cocoon that Islam is the most rightly religion accepted by Allah.
What makes commen sense to me is this…islam follows exactly or nearly the same as in the scriptures(Bible) but the muslims believe that allah passed it on to him. Sounds more like he just copied and pasted from the bible. PLEASE MAKE SENSE TO ME MOHAMMAD FAUDZEE .
Mohammad Faudzee is probably correct. Islam copied the Christian Bible.
Prophet Mohammed, Umar Al Khatab and the rest of leaders during this war era has probably copied the content of the bible and called it their own. For the purpose of influence, power and strenght. The need to get more people into their side, as war during this era require lots of manpower. One method to influence the support and control of from the people (whom are mostly illeterate) is through religious superiority. Just like what is happening in this present times. PAS as a political party are using religion for the same motif. Instilling fear of God commandment by manipulating the Quran and Hadith so the people will support them by voting. The same principle apply 1500 year ago and today.
The Ulamak will say, God says this and that and the Prophet too…and our people will accept it blindly since it is said by a religious persons or leaders…who pretended to be pious.
The verses from God was related by the prophet to his followers are compiled to become the Muslim holy book, 13 years after the prophet death.
How can it be coincidences on the similarity on the content of the Bible and the Quran. Surely one has has copied the other. The reality remained that the Scriptures existed way ahead of Islam.
Correct me if I am wrong
The Islamic sites themselves tell us that Judaism and Christianity used the term Allah before Islam:
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