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PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang was reported by Bernama to have called on the government - during a debate in the Dewan Rakyat - to amend the first Rukun Negara from ‘Belief in God’ to ‘Belief in Allah’ since the Quran did not bar followers of other religions from using the word Allah.

In her article Rukunegara: M’sia not quite secular , Malaysiakini columnist Helen Ang expressed her puzzlement over the absence of official response from Christian leaders to Hadi Awang’s comment with a hint of sarcasm.

‘All those who insisted on the Catholic Herald’s ‘right’ to the term ‘Allah’ should now warmly welcome Hadi’s proposal made in Parliament when debating the motion of thanks on the Agong’s speech. After all, these people had so enthusiastically embraced the idea that ‘your Allah is my Allah too’.’

Hadi Awang has merely made a preliminary statement. It is reasonable to wait and see how the government will respond to him. Only when the rationale for both the government’s and Hadi Awang’s positions becomes clearer will Christian leaders be able to give a more specific and substantial response.

But Ang seems to think that the hesitation of the Christians arises because they are caught in a bind of their own making. That is to say, since Christians have been so adamant about using the word ‘Allah’, they would now have to adjust their theology to make it consistent with what is deemed a proper Islamic understanding of Allah. Ang elaborates:

‘‘Once ‘Allah’ has been adapted into our national set of guiding principles, then every citizen should learn to understand and appreciate this word in its proper context. According to Hadi’s Jan 7 statement on ‘kalimah Allah’, ‘there are among followers of Christianity who have made a ‘wife’ and ‘son’ for God’. What a no-no!’

‘Should ‘Allah’ be incorporated into the Rukunegara, then Malaysians reciting it must be mindful that Allah has no Son, and adjust their mindset accordingly.’

Unfortunately, Ang’s comments betray a lack of understanding not only of the basic impetus that led Christians to use the word ‘Allah’(the translation imperative) but also the rationale that undergirds the Christian usage of the word ‘Allah’ (linguistic justification).

First, by the translation imperative, I mean every religion cannot avoid the necessity to translate its original Scriptures into a new language the moment that religion gains adherents among those who use that language, whether from Pali to Chinese, Greek to English or Hebrew to Malay. To be sure, many Muslims are adamant in insisting that the Quran is untranslatable, but nonetheless, the Muslim community still translates and publishes Malay versions of the Quran.

There can be no escape from the act of translation. Even a Malay Muslim with functional competency to read the Arabic Quran cannot avoid the mental act of translating the Quran into Malay inside his head, unless through total immersion in the Arabic language, Arabic becomes his primary language, that is to say, he basically reads, thinks and dreams in Arabic.

These observations on the translation imperative should put to rest the insinuations by some Muslim activists that Christians suddenly decided to use the word ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures as part of a conspiracy to confuse Muslims. When Christians translate the Bible into Malay, it is simply to cater to the needs of Malay-speaking Christians. Similarly, Christians all over world have translated the Bible into 2,400 languages to cater for native speakers of these languages.

In this regard, it is important to note that Christians are defending their right to use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God only in the Malay translation of the Bible (Al-kitab). They have never suggested changing the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ to ‘Allah’ and ‘Tuhan’ respectively in the English translation of the Bible.

Second, the linguistic justification for the Christian position is that they have the right to use the word Allah since the word ‘Allah’ – along with other Semitic words like Hebrew ( el, elohim ) and Arabic ( Allah ) – is fundamentally a general term that refers to God. That is to say, Allah is not a personal name. In linguistic terms, the morphology of the word ‘Allah’ follows the grammatical rules of a generic noun. Thus the words ‘el’, Allah show morphological inflections/declensions (eg, depending on whether the word is used as a nominative, accusative, genitive case etc). in contrast to proper names which do not display changes in inflection.

Let me give a simple (obviously limited) illustration taken from the English language. Compare the following two statements:

1. God save the Queen

2. God save Elizabeth

Undoubtedly, when an Englishman utters those sentences he is referring to the same lady. Obviously, the word ‘Queen’ in (1) is a generic noun even though for English people there is only one queen (a monadic, one-of-a-kind noun) with the personal name (Elizabeth) in (2).

The limitation of this illustration lies in the fact that the word Queen remains the same in the English language, but the words ‘el’, ‘Allah’ or ‘Theos’ would be inflected/declined when used in different syntactical relations in a sentence.

Indeed, we can determine whether a particular noun is monadic when we go beyond just the single word and take into consideration the entire noun phrase. To give a Christian example, the expression ‘Heavenly Father’ is monadic; ‘father’ is not.

In short, based strictly on linguistics, Christians are justified in using the word ‘Allah’ to translate the word ‘el’/‘elohim’ in the Bible as both words are morphologically generic. They are not personal names. In contrast, Christians use the word ‘Tuhan’ to refer to the personal name of God YHWH (Lord). Historically, the Hebrew personal name for God, YHWH was translated with the word, ‘kurios’(Lord) for Greek Christians, which in turn was translated into ‘Rabb’ for Arabic Christians.

The early Malay Christians naturally used the word ‘Tuhan’ (Lord) when they refer to the personal name of God while retaining the word ‘Allah’ for generic references to God.

These undeniable historical facts should put to rest the repeated claim made by some Muslim scholars that Christians only recently decided to adopt the word ‘Allah’. Their claim can only be maintained out of (1) ignorance of common knowledge of linguistics of Semitic languages, (2) deliberate disregard of the fact that the Christian usage of Allah in Malay Bibles is not recent but centuries old.

By the same token, the controversy over the word ‘Allah’ only pertains to the Malay Bible. There is no necessity to change the word ‘God’ to ‘Allah’ in the English Bible (nor have Malaysian Christian leaders suggested this possibility).

‘Allah’ is acceptable for Bahasa Malaysia Version of Rukun Negara but not for the English version. All these linguistic principles become clear when they are applied to frame a consistent Christian response to Hadi Awang’s suggestion regarding using the word ‘Allah’ in the Rukun Negara.

First, it is linguistically unnecessary and questionable to change ‘Belief in God’ to ‘Belief in Allah’ for the English version of the Rukun Negara. There is no need to substitute the universally acceptable term ‘God’ in the English language.

Second, whether the authorities finally use the word ‘Allah’ or ‘Tuhan’ in the Bahasa Malaysia version of the Rukun Negara a minor issue. Still, it would be good for the authorities along with the academia to debate on the relative merits of either term and then inform the public on the rationale for their final choice of either the word ‘Allah’ or ‘Tuhan’. Doubtless, the final choice is decided by what is considered most appropriate for capturing the original intention of the Rukun Negara.

However, the Rukun Negara decision should be separate from how Christians themselves decide on the most appropriate way to use ‘Allah’/’Tuhan’ to express their faith in the Al-kitab. Indeed, the freedom to define one’s own beliefs on one’s terms is what the Christians are fighting for in the ‘Allah’ case.