By Dr. Zaidi Ismail
By now, Malaysians are generally aware that there have been disputes between the Muslims and the Christians from among them pertaining to the use of the key term “Allah” by the latter.
Unfortunately however, it seems that of the whole controversy most Malaysians can be sure only of that much.
The rest, judging from the many viewpoints and contentions raised thus far, seems convoluted and confused to them.
Yet, if one is to be patient enough to gather and analyze with intelligence all the questions posed and answers accordingly offered, one may then be able to see a certain pattern of arguments, involving in turn several clusters of issues.
It is pretty clear that the issue revolves around the “use” of the key term “Allah,” as it has been understood and used by the Malays in particular, to translate the word “God,” as used particularly in the Bible and as understood by the Christians.
The issue as such pertains to the problem of CORRECT TRANSLATION and is thus primarily an issue of the CORRECT USAGE of a language—in this case, the Malay language in relation to the English language and, as Islam is also central to the discussion, the Arabic language.
Comes then the next question: What kind of a term are the word “Allah,” on the one hand, and the word “God” as used in English in relation to the Bible, on the other hand?
It is obvious that with regard to the way the Malays have been using the term “Allah” in accordance with what Islam has taught them, it is THE “PROPER NAME” FOR THE ONE AND ONLY GOD WITH ALL THE NAMES AND ATTRIBUTES NECESSARY AND PROPER FOR HIM and, just like any other proper name, it cannot be translated but rather should be basically maintained as such.
Hence, the sentence “Mr. Bush used to be the President of the United States of America,” in a correct Malay translation, is very likely to be “Encik Bush pernah menjadi Presiden Amerika Syarikat” but not “Encik Belukar pernah menjadi Presiden Amerika Syarikat.”
Similarly, the Arabic sentence “Wahid ismi,” or “Wahid akhi,” in all likelihood will not be translated into English as “One is my name,” or “One is my brother,” but instead will be rendered as “Wahid is my name,” or “Wahid is my brother,” respectively.
On that ground, therefore, one is fully justified to query whether it is correct to translate the respective proper name in the original Bible, if there is any, as “Allah,” let alone if the name concerned is actually merely an appellative noun or a title or, worst still, a general noun.
Furthermore, the very fact that the Christians themselves have not till today reached a consensus as to how to use the term “Allah,” whether in their many translations and versions of the Bible or in their general usage of it, simply demonstrates how contentious and controversial such a usage—particularly pertaining to God’s proper name—has been among them, totally unlike the Muslims who, regardless of sects, schools, race or language, have been unanimous in holding that “Allah” is His Proper Name.
Regarding “Allah” as a proper name, one may further ask whether or not it is derived from any other more basic Arabic word.
Here, notwithstanding certain views which did not survive the rigorous intellectual tests throughout the Islamic Religious and Intellectual History, the established and verified position of the Muslims has always been that the term is not an Arabic derivative but is itself revealed by The One and Only God to humankind through His chosen messengers, Who knows Himself what His Name truly is and without Whom so revealing, man would still be in the dark as to how to correctly call and address Him.
It is therefore pertinent here that one be fully cognizant of the criteria for a term or word to qualify as a proper name, particularly when it concerns the fundamentals of a religion, especially God: (1) the term needs to be clearly stated in the primary source of the respective religion (as an example, the Qur’an and the Prophetic sayings in the case of Islam and with regard to the term “Allah”); (2) it does not entertain being plural, both in sense and in reference, in connotation as well as in denotation (unlike “gods,” for instance); (3) it has been used as such by all the adherents of the religion concerned (for example, the Muslims in regard to the term “Allah”); (4) it is exclusive to God and never others.
As to the argument that the term “Allah” had been used even before the revelation of the Qur’an and the dawn of Islam, the aforementioned position of the Muslims as it is is not necessarily opposed to such a contention.
Yet, since the contention is primarily a historical one, one cannot simply rely on logic to prove it but rather one should resort to established and authentic historical evidence to support it.
And such historical evidence should at least shed some light on (1) whether or not the term “Allah” was then used by Christians who shared more or less the same beliefs and practices with the present-day Christians, particularly in Malaysia, and (2) whether or not the term “Allah” was then solely used as a proper name.
Otherwise, the only historical evidence one can reliably rely on is the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.) in which the term “Allah” is employed purely as a proper name.
As to the many versions of the earlier Malay translations of the Bible, which have been taken to be among the historical proofs to justify the term “Allah” being used as such in its present-day translation, it is particularly noteworthy that they were mainly attempted by the non-Malays—to be more specific, started by the colonialists—whatever their real intentions were.
And to regard as prototypical the usage of a term in a language by a non-native, let alone by one who colonized, in cases where it conflicts with the way the native speakers have been using it surely calls into question the validity of such a position, to say the least.
Unless the answers to all the aforementioned questions and issues vindicate without any ambivalence the position which certain segments of the Malaysian Christian community have been taking, the only sensible way forward in the Malaysian multiracial and multireligious context is for the parties who have committed such linguistic errors to correct them wherever applicable and appropriate.
Moreover, in dealing with such issues, it is indeed important that the parties involved, regardless of whether they are Muslims or Christians, abide themselves by the basic rules of correct reasoning which, needless to say, involve the law of non-contradiction and the law of the excluded middle, wherever relevant.
In addition, they also need to begin from what is clear and established.
It really defeats their purpose if they choose rather to start from what is ambiguous and contentious.
And despite some parties claiming that logic or reason has a very limited role in solving the controversy, I on the contrary believe that it can play a pivotal role in helping us delineate the main issues from the non-issues, identify the real problems from the pseudo—albeit distracting—ones, sort out the primary, secondary and totally unrelated matters, separate the fundamental questions from such which are trivial or, at best, non-essential.