Having read the various exchanges on Malaysiakini and elsewhere as well as listening to the arguments both for and against the use of the term ‘Allah’ as the Malay translation for ‘God’ by non-Muslims, I find that a lot of these exchanges seem unable to go beyond the polemics to address the actual fears and concerns of both communities. Let me start with the presumption that the use of the term ‘Allah’ is a mischievous ploy to confuse the Muslim faithful, as asserted by those including A Razak and Fathima Idris.
The Christian bible is translated from copies of the original manuscripts written in Hebrew, Chaldean, Aramaic and Greek. In these manuscripts, particularly those of the Semitic languages, various names are used to refer to God such as YHWH, Adonay and Elohim. In some instances the combined term ‘YHWH Adonay’ is used and this creates challenges in translation. When the bible was translated to English, one method to solve this challenge was to use the term ‘Lord God’ whenever the combination was found rather than to translate both terms ‘YHWH’ and ‘Adonay’ as ‘LORD’ and ‘Lord’ respectively with the distinct capitalisations. The term ‘Elohim’ is usually translated as ‘God’.
When portions of the bible was translated into Malay, translation challenges were solved by using ‘Tuhan’ and ‘Allah’. This is evident from one of the earliest Malay language portions available - the 1629 edition of the Gospel of Matthew. Note that in that period, many parts of the Nusantara had yet to be Islamised. This convention persisted in later translations and became the standard a third of a millennia later despite the distinction of Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia in the official Malay language. This would be the pedigree of the usage of the term ‘Allah’ as a common name for God amongst Malay-speaking Christians in this region.
Thus the argument that ‘Allah’ is used by Arab Christians to justify Malaysian Christians’ use of the word is equally flawed. While the Malay language does owe a lot of her religious vocabulary from Arabic, it must be acknowledged that Arabic and Malay are two separate languages with completely different evolutionary trajectories. It has been argued that while ‘Allah’ remains the common noun for God in Arabic, it has evolved into a proper noun in Malay (or at least Bahasa Malaysia) to refer primarily to the God of Islam.
This may have been a contemporary development but it helps one understand how the current misunderstandings could have occurred. Such linguistic evolution is not unique to the Malay language alone. Early translators of the bible into Chinese borrowed the term ‘Shangdi’ from Chinese folk religion and mythology. Over the years, the term has evolved and is almost exclusively used by Chinese-speaking Christians to refer to God.
It is obvious that there is a major lack of understanding in both communities about the current issue. This is why the controversy has continued to rear its ugly head every few years since the initial banning of the Malay version of the Christian Bible in 1982. Whether this state of mutual ignorance is deliberately maintained is still arguable. But what seems obvious is that there exists a major need for dialogue based on the assumption of mutual goodwill and respect rather than the confrontational stance that both faith communities appear to have adopted at this moment.
We ought to look at our shared values of integrity, honesty, justice, peace and mercy and use these shared values to contribute towards nation building. We need to keep our temporal leaders accountable. We have instead been wasting precious time and energy being distracted by this issue which only serves to further divide us as a people while deflecting attention from some of the real mischief-makers in this country.