Are non-Muslims Barred from using “Tuhan” since DBP says it refers to Allah?

On 17 April 2021, Uthaya Sankar criticized Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) for restricting the word “Tuhan” to Islamic usage. He observes that for DBP, “Tuhan” seems to refer exclusively to Allah, whereas “tuhan” refers to “something worshipped by people whose religion or belief is not based on the One God” (“sesuatu yang dipuja oleh golongan manusia yang agama atau kepercayaan mereka tidak berasaskan kepercayaan kepada Tuhan Yang Esa”). [Re: Apart from Allah, why is the word “Tuhan” exclusive for Muslims too?]

However, DBP defends its decision.

THE Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) today defended its decision to make a distinction between the words “Tuhan” and “tuhan”, saying it was also practiced by English language dictionaries.

“English language dictionaries such as Oxford Dictionary of English, Collins English Dictionary and Wikipedia make the same distinction.

“For example, Oxford Dictionary of English Second Edition (2003) uses the word “God” to refer to the Almighty of monotheistic religions.
“For the polytheistic religions, they use the word “god”,” its director general Datuk Abang Salehuddin Abg Shokeran said, in a statement to FocusM.

Datuk Salehuddin elaborates,
Touching on the matter, Salehuddin said that the decision was made based on DBP’s guideline; Pedoman Umum Bahasa Melayu (1975), where capital letters were used to refer to religious matters, holy books, God’s name and its pronouns.

“But dictionaries are about compiling vocabularies of a specific language and we record it based on its actual usage.

“So, ‘Tuhan’ is recorded in our dictionary to refer to Allah, which is correct based on the usage while the word ‘tuhan’ is a general term used to refer to deities, who have their own specific names. [Source: DBP: “Tuhan” for monotheistic religion, “tuhan” for polytheistic faiths]

DBP’s answer to Uthaya is ambiguous. Its policy of applying “Tuhan” (with cap) to refer to the monotheistic God and “tuhan” (without cap) to refer to gods in polytheism is acceptable if DBP recognizes that they are other forms of monotheism apart from Islam (e.g. Judaism, Christianity & even Vaishnavism (Ramanuja) within Hinduism), and that these other forms of monotheism should have the same right to use “Tuhan” as they understand it.

However, DBP insists that non-Muslims who want to use “Tuhan” to refer to their monotheistic God must get approval from JAKIM. The reference to JAKIM suggests that for DBP, “Tuhan” refers only to Allah, the God of Islam. Unfortunately, JAKIM and other Islamic authorities have fatwas that ban non-Muslims from using the word “Allah.” The logical conclusion is that non-Muslims may not use “Tuhan” even when they are using it to refer to the One God within their own monotheistic traditions.

We agree with Datuk Salehuddin that “dictionaries are about compiling vocabularies of a specific language and we record it based on its actual usage.” As such, the linguistic policy of a dictionary should be descriptive (the meaning of words is derived from actual usage) rather than prescriptive (the meaning of words is imposed on the users on the ground). It is the users who finally decide the meaning of words.

The crucial question then is, “who are the users of Bahasa Melayu today?”

Since Bahasa Melayu (Bahasa Malaysia) has been adopted as the official language, it is used daily by all Malaysians. Bahasa Melayu is enriched as various communities bring new nuances and subtleties to the usage of the language. Following the policy stated by Salehudding that dictionaries should be based on actual usage, it is right to expect Kamus Dewan to record and reflect how Bahasa Melayu is actually used by all Malaysians, regardless of race or religion.

DBP should be reminded that Kamus Dewan is not a dictionary of ‘Bahasa Islam’ (if ever there is one). It is a dictionary of Bahasa Melayu which has become the language of all Malaysians. As such, it is illegitimate and unjust for Kamus Dewan to restrict the reference of “Tuhan” only to Allah, the God of Islam. Kamus Dewan must acknowledge the natural and legal right of followers of various monotheistic traditions to use “Tuhan” to refer to the One God they worship.

 

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