Is ‘Allah’ a Translation?

I have finally come to understand why some Muslim in Malaysia are so against the use of ‘Allah’ by other religions, especially the Christians. One of the reasons, of course, has to do with theology. The Islamic faith has no notion of incarnation and hence, no idea of contextualisation or inculturation. The expansion of the Islamic faith is a socio-political-cultural expansion, and has always been geographical. Wherever it spreads to it brings along a set of cultural practices which is more or less fixed – the way of life, worship and rituals. On the other hand, the Christian faith has always been expanding via an interaction between faith and culture, allowing a spectrum of cultural expressions according to the local context. Instead of using a single ‘sacred’ language, the Christian faith has seen the translation of the Bible into all major languages. The Christian faith has spread via translation. For instance, one of the major contextualisation exercise in history is the Reformation, which saw the Bible ended up in various languages contextualised to the needs and suitability for various people groups.

So it is not surprising to see the comment, ‘Allah is the name of god not a translation’ (See Comments area of the linked webpage), as Muslim, with their theology has ended up regarding ‘Allah’ a proper noun. Dr. Ng Kam Weng has an article here, refuting this from the grammatical perspective. I would like to point out though, that this issue is more than a dispute about a proper noun.

According to the various comments made, it is clear that Muslim scholars know about the various name of God used in the history of the Christian faith – YHWH, elohim, etc. They are also well aware of the fact that the Arabic (and others) Christians were using ‘Allah’ to refer to God prior to the existence of Islam. However, according to their arguments, once Islam came to the scene the word ‘Allah’ became a proper noun specifically referring to the god of the Muslim. It is ‘his name’. So if Christians want to use a Malay word to refer to their god, they are asked to use a ‘translation’ (i.e., ‘Tuhan’), instead of the proper noun or the name of the personal god of the Muslim.

Hence, any talk about who used this word for how many years since when will not work (with this group of people). This word, ‘Allah’, has been assimilated as part of the cultural heritage of the Islamic faith among Muslim in Malaysia – a part of that great socio-political-cultural-geographical expansion. If you like, a part of the ‘spoil’. This is understandably a typical Malaysia situation as in the context of Malaysia, there exists a need for certain cultural group to find its identity.

Therefore, I am also not sure if in the context of Malaysia any talk about ‘rights’ would help. Of course constitutional rights is to be upheld, but whether it is the best link for dialogue or basis for debate is questionable. Perhaps national unity and other concepts are more appropriate?

As for Sabah and Sarawak,it is the same story, albeit the other way round.1  The natives here have adopted the word ‘Allah’ just like the Muslim when they first ‘discovered’ him and they will not like to let go of the ‘name’ of their God. So the Sabahans and Sarawakians will likely fight for the right to keep using the word.

So where does this bring us? I see the heart of the matter is the clash between two parties – between those who advocate Islamic rule (technically called ‘rule of law’ – the Islamic way) and those who insist on constitutional rule. Obviously non-Muslims belong to the second group. The question now is, how many percentage of Muslims in Malaysia stands with them?

1 Sabah and Sarawak are two states at Borneo which form the Federation of Malaysia with the rest of the states in the Peninsular Malaysia. The Borneo natives have been using ‘Allah’ in their Malay Bible for decades.
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