Sunday, January 3, 2010

Who's God - or Whose God?

Roaring into 2010 is the case of the use of "Allah" by Catholics in their weekly publication, The Herald, putting the issues of religion front and centre.

Most cultures find problems when they face irreconcilable differences. In the spirit of Malaysia Boleh, we have shown that we can find problems when faced with irreconcilable similarities.

The main question is framed as: why the change to use "Allah" instead of "Tuhan"? This is a relevant enough question - and the historical approach employed by the church in its stance that won the case in the High Court is that its usage dates back to the early 1800s. An example is shown here in a Malay Bible from 1818. The usage in The Herald's Malay section caters primarily for those from East Malaysia, for whom the usage of "Tuhan" instead would be the change - not the other way around.

That being said, the similarities are obvious - at some point in history the two religions shared something in common. That's something to be celebrated and it is either that there are few who recognize it, or few who are brave enough to embrace it. A surprise it was then that it is a member of PAS who has risen to the challenge, as quoted by the Malaysian Insider:

"To me, I see this as an opportunity to bring all of us closer together despite our religious differences and submit to the God Almighty. We all believe in God and we call God Allah. There is most certainly plurality in Islam. Islam accepts and recognises the fact that there are different religions out there in the world. Even though all these religions may not be united, we all believe we worship God Almighty." - Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad.

In the end we're talking about ownership of a word - does any religion "own" exclusive terminology? And how do we determine who owns what? Because if we really go down this path, it's likely Christians and Muslims would face a stiff challenge from the much older religion of Judaism. The issue of ownership itself, is however, crucial - when you own something, it's not free for use, and that's where freedom of religion comes in. Beyond just one word is the issue of whether people get to practice their beliefs in the way that they believe, and whether the use of "Allah" in Christianity threatens or changes Islam. One could argue it does not, just as the use of Nabi Isa does not affect Yesus Kristus - are they competing for a definition of who's God, or is the question rather whose God are you referring to?

In the end though, it is likely this matter of "confusion" amongst rural Muslims, which seems to a side issue but is the crux of the problem. It seems somehow more probable that the use a term so recognizably part of Islam would send Catholics away - not the other way around. If it is simply a question of seeing a threat where none exists, Marina Mahathir put it succinctly in that Confident People Do Not Get Confused.

It seems hinted by some politicians, however, that it is not the question whether people would get confused... but whether there is an active move to convert and confuse Muslims simply by using the word "Allah". If this really is the problem, then opponents should bring it up honestly as the issue that it is, and prove in a court of law that the Church is going about spreading its religion dishonestly. If not, then one should hold one's peace and go in peace.

That being said, one can understand that there is a suspicion simply because it seems like a new issue when discussed on the Peninsula. The Church's position, again, is that the Malay section of its publication is geared towards the large number of Catholics that live in East Malaysia, for whom it is matter of maintaining a tradition and continuing one's way of practicing their religion. The position of various opponents, most obviously the political ones, is that there is something else up the Church's sleeves.

The question that faces all Malaysians is whether we trust each other despite our differences - and similarities - of religion.

Malaysian unity and the image of our country in the eyes of the world in the end lies in whether we can take that leap of faith.

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