In a heated online television discussion yesterday, three Muslim scholars were still agreed on one thing: that the use of the word “Allah” to describe gods of different religions – including the Christian god – is an issue only in Malaysia and nowhere else in the world.
But it still was an issue to two of the scholars as they argued there was an agenda behind Christians using Allah to refer to their god in Malay bibles.
"Christianity is said to be over 2,000 years old. They should have a big vocabulary bank to choose from to refer to God. The fact that they chose Allah was evidence that they have an agenda," argued Dr Khalif Muammar Harris, associate professor of the Center for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilization at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
Agreeing with him, another panellist echoed the refrain of some that Christians had used the word to mislead East Malaysians to convert them to Christianity. Making this point was Dr Yusri Mohamad, chairman of the Coalition of Supporters of Islam (Pembela), who wanted the word "Allah" banned in Malay bibles.
"It is a Christian virus in the country. They cannot be faulted for having their own missionaries, but they are propagating the virus of pluralism, that all religions are the same," he said.
The forum "Is Allah exclusive to Islam – Law, Faith and Politics" was organised by MySuara.net, an online TV portal yesterday.
It was moderated by ex-Perlis mufti Dr Asri Zainul Abidin and held as a curtain raiser to Putrajaya's appeal set to be heard on Tuesday.
The appeal is against a 2009 High Court ruling that allowed the Catholic Church to use the word "Allah" in its weekly newspaper, the Herald.
Dr Asri, in his opening comments, said the word Allah was in a Catholic bible he bought in Jordan some time ago.
"They have been using the word a long time ago, and so it’s a non-issue in the Arab world," he noted.
But Dr Yusri responded that the word was currently being misused in the Malay bible.
"Yes, the problem is exclusive to Malaysia, but my personal opinion is it cannot be used in bibles. The National Fatwa Council also felt the same.
"The world would not turn upside down for the Christians if they are not allowed to use the word. It is actually not a big issue to them even if the word is banned. It’s not as though they don't have an alternative word that will not upset their Muslim friends," he said.
The third panellist, PAS Member of Parliament for Shah Alam Khalid Samad, felt that it was not an issue.
He argued that instead of banning the word from non-Muslim tracts, religious leaders and scholars should instead educate and create awareness on what Allah means to Muslims.
"We should try to make them understand and not make it seem that Islam in Malaysia is different from the rest of the world," said Khalid.
For this, he earned a rebuke from Dr Khalif who expressed shock that Khalid was taking a stand that was contrary to the ulama.
Dr Khalif argued that until now, the consensus among the ulama was not to support the use of the word by non-Muslims.
"It’s not about freedom of religion, but about respecting the sensitivities of Muslims, they should know their responsibility," Dr Khalif said.
Khalid shot back, "Allah didn't ask us to fight. He asked us to explain what Allah means."
Dr Asri then asked the panellists if the same hardline approach against Christians would be taken against Sikhs, if Muslims embraced Sikhism.
Sikhs also use Allah in their holy scripture and have taken a similar stand to the Catholics, pointing to the long-time usage of the word Allah in Malaysia and other countries by other religions.
Dr Khalif replied, "The issue here is Christianisation, where they are using the word Allah to convert Muslims. The Sikhs are not doing this."
But Khalid responded, "Our defence is knowledge, let us use that, and not use the issue to make the situation more tense."
Agreeing with Dr Asri that dialogue was the way forward, Dr Yusri said that on certain occasions, Muslim and non-Muslim representatives have met to discuss issues, but added that it was too late now as the Christians had taken the case to court.
Last month, the same court rejected the church's application to strike out Putrajaya's appeal.
On December 31, 2009, judge Lau Bee Lan allowed the church's judicial review application and lifted the home minister's ban, declaring it illegal, null and void.
The Herald is published in four languages, and has been using the word Allah as a translation for God in its Bahasa Malaysia-language section, catering to East Malaysians in the peninsula, since September 1995. The government argues that Allah should be used exclusively by Muslims. – September 5, 2013.