Side Views

Sultan’s decree on Allah and response to IKIM — Ng Kam Weng

January 10, 2013

JAN 10 — Rulers are looked upon as symbols of national unity. For this reason Rulers or Sultans normally stay above political contestations and social controversies. This would be a most appropriate posture of royal dignity. An intervention that is premature would only exacerbate disunity among his subjects. He intervenes only when the conflict is so intractable that his intervention is absolutely necessary. Knowing exactly when to intervene is the mark of a wise Ruler. Obviously, he can restore unity only when he is seen to be impartial and has the interests of all his subjects equally in his heart.

Many of us wonder why the Sultan of Selangor chooses to decree that the word “Allah” is forbidden to use by any non-Muslims religion in Selangor at a time of obvious political tensions and deep social divisions in the run-up to the coming general election. 

The Ruler has absolute discretion in making any decree. He can rule, but will he reign, at least in the hearts of all his subjects? In this regard, other national leaders from political parties and leaders from the Christian and Sikh communities have expressed concerns, if not disagreement with the decree of the Sultan.

What now happens to the harmony between the Sultan and his subjects? The Christian assurance is that providence is ultimately in the hand of God, the one and only almighty ruler over human history and society.

Meanwhile, MAIS secretary Datuk Mohd Misri Idris announced “His majesty the Selangor Sultan has made a decision and decreed that the word ‘Allah’ is a sacred word specific to Muslims and is strictly forbidden to use by any non-Muslim religion in Selangor as stated in a fatwa and gazetted on 18 February 2010.”

The ban is unprecedented and it is questionable whether a fatwa can be applied to non-Muslims. In any case, as a non-Muslim, my profession of faith cannot be determined by any human authority (whether the government or the Sultan). It is ultimately between me and my God.

Only God is almighty; still he does not impose blind obedience onto his decree. Instead, he invites us reason with him. As God decreed, “Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob” (Isaiah 41:21) and “Put me in remembrance; let us argue together; set forth your case, that you may be proved right” (Isaiah 43:26). Authority in matters of faith is legitimate not because it is backed by legal or political coercion, but because it is supported by a compelling argument that is open to reason. The only force that is legitimate is the force of truth and peaceable persuasion.

In this respect what rational justification have the authorities given for the ban? What evidence, reasons and arguments have the advisers to the authorities set forth that would legitimise the ban? It is significant that IKIM (headed by graduates from ISTAC and working with officials from JAKIM) released a press statement that coincides with the Sultan’s decree. Perhaps a declaration from a think-tank would encourage rational discourse whereby matters of religious disputes could be settled in an amicable manner. Alas, such hopes are quickly dashed.

The experts advising the authorities are mistaken right from the beginning. The press statement from IKIM goes as follows: “Kenyataan Media oleh YBhg Datuk Nik Mustapha bin Haji Nik Hassan, Ketua Pengarah IKIM. Internet TV IKIM Siar Muzakarah Pakar Terjemahan ‘God’ Sebagai Allah: Mengenal Pasti Punca dan Permasalahannya”.

The press statement follows a meeting of “translation experts” seeking to identify the causes and problems of the present Allah controversy. Note how IKIM experts simply frame their discussion as the problem of translating the word “God” as “Allah”. Unfortunately, these experts have misconstrued the problem from the start. What comes across from IKIM press statement is that the Christians in Malaysia are insisting on substituting the English word “God” with the word “Allah”. It is arguable that such an act makes no sense and these experts conclude that Christians must be up to mischief, that is, they are attempting to confuse Muslims.

I agree with IKIM experts that substituting the word “God” with “Allah” seems an unnecessary choice for translation. Indeed, I personally am happy to address my God as “God”. But then I am talking about using the Bible and praying to God in English. I see no need to substitute the word “God” with “Allah” and IKIM can rest assured that the English-speaking churches in Malaysia would agree with me. Truth be told, it is IKIM that is mischievous in insinuating that the Christians in Malaysia for no good reasons want to substitute “God” with the word “Allah”.

More importantly, the insinuation from IKIM is a red herring that distracts us from addressing the reality that the Allah controversy in Malaysia pertains to the right of the Bumiputera Christians from Sabah and Sarawak and Peninsular Orang Asli Christians to continue using the word Allah in the Malay Bible (Alkitab) which has been around for generations. These Bumiputera Christians are only asking the authorities to respect their right to profess their faith in their mother tongue. Malaysian Bumiputera Christians have consistently insisted that when they use the word “Allah” they are only maintaining a continuity with historical churches which use the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic) when they translate the Hebrew words ēl, ĕlōah (Hebrew) or ĕlāh (Aramaic) or alaha (Syriac) into Allah (Arabic and Malay Bible).

What could be more natural than the choice of the word Allah? Just look the words — linguistically they share similar roots and sound similar. The simple reason is they are cognate languages or dialects within the family of Semitic languages. They share similar sounds as these linguistic communities have existed side by side for millennia. In the same way, words sound similar but also slightly different when one compares Hokkien, Cantonese and Hakka since they all are dialects within the Chinese language. Any reasonable person who acknowledges the historical background (and not dogmatically write them off as times of ignorance, jahiliyyah) would agree that it would indeed be an unnatural decision not to follow the historical-linguistic trajectory (Hebrew words ēl, ĕlōah (Hebrew) or ĕlāh (Aramaic) or allahu (Syriac) into Allah (Arabic or Bahasa Malaysia) and adopt the word Allah.

The IKIM statement, “IKIM berharap siaran TV IKIM dan penulisan artikel ilmiah di laman web IKIM (www.ikim.gov.my) akan membantu orang ramai memahami isu ini dan berharap isu ini akan dihentikan polemiknya,” suggests that the scholarly articles from both its website and TV IKIM should put a stop to the Christian polemics that is the source of the controversy.

The Muslim scholars speaking in TV IKIM did not hide their enmity towards Christians, based on their (mis)perception that Christians are both incompetent translators and mischievous missionaries when they adopt the word Allah. The viewer would be disappointed that these scholars did not offer evidence from comparative philology, linguistics and sound arguments. All one gets is dogmatic religious assertions, deliberate misrepresentation of the Bible, rhetoric and polemics. O yes! IKIM is the one guilty of polemics with the suggestion that Christians have caused offence in taking “God” as “Allah” when in reality Christians are innocently maintaining the centuries-old practice of using the word Allah as equivalent to the original words ēl, ĕlōah and allahu in their revealed Scriptures. In common parlance, the IKIM press statement is a fig leaf to cover up an act (the ban) that is simply intellectually unwarranted and legally indefensible.

* Dr Ng Kam Weng is research director of the Kairos Research Centre.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.