By extension of free speech, I am quite indifferent to the usage of the noun “Allah” by Christian groups and I frown at threats issued by the government partial to conservative Muslims to the Christian groups to desist from using the noun “Allah” in local Christian literature. This issue is not new and has been popping now and then. Yet, it has not been resolved and I think it is because the local Christians do not completely comprehend the typical conservative Muslim Malaysians’ objection to the usage of the noun “Allah” by Christian groups. I believe a review of basic grammar would significantly clear the air surrounding this issue and explain why there is a conflict in the first place.
Language may not be my forte but at least I know enough of the differences between proper and common nouns. In my humble opinion, at the center of the controversy is an unstated confusion or assumption over Malay proper and common nouns regarding god.
Before I move on, I would like readers to give special attention to capitalization. I use it to differentiate between proper and common nouns. Now that that is clear, let us move on at a measured pace.
In Arabic, at least as I understand it, “allah” comes in form of proper or common noun, depending on usage. Because of the noun ability to become a common noun in Arabic, everybody could use the noun “allah” to refer to any kind of god.
In Malay however, “Allah” is a proper noun with specific reference to Islamic God and not a common noun. The Malay noun “Allah” enjoys a sense of exclusiveness; it refers to the Islamic god as it has been, to the best of my knowledge, until recently.
At the same time, the Arabic noun “allah” is not quite similar to the Malay noun “Allah“. This is a crucial point, at least, again, from what I understand through the reaction of conservative Muslims, or those that sympathize with that groups. The noun underwent an evolution during its importation from the Arabic to the Malay language centuries ago; it lost its ability to become a common noun in Malay during the process. That however does not mean the Malay language does not have a word to describe whatever the Arabic noun “allah” tries to describe. The Malay language has the noun “tuhan“; its usage is exactly similar to the Arabic noun “allah” within the context we are interested in. “Tuhan” unambiguously means god in both proper and common forms.
From conservative Muslims’ point of view, the Christian groups in Malaysia might be mistranslating the word “God” into “Allah” instead of “Tuhan“, by accident or on purpose. In fact, I may even sympathize with the Muslim groups since I am in the opinion that there is a confusion between the Arabic noun “allah” and Malay noun “Allah“.
In Indonesian, such translation may be acceptable but it has to be noted that Malay and Indonesian languages have gone through different paths from a common origin. Whatever true in the Indonesian language is not necessarily true in the Malay language spoken in Malaysia, and vice versa.
On the surface, this situation is silly and I really do not know why I care to make clarification on behalf of religious believers to another. Well, maybe, probably because it is annoying to see how both types of individuals — both Christians and Muslims — that care to raise their voices on the matter refuse to least comprehend what the conflict is all about before jumping into the fight, indulging in polemics rather than understanding. This tendency is affecting other people that simply wish to watch the days pass by peacefully without shouting matches and flying vases.
Underneath these layers of nouns, however is not something so superficial.
There seems to be an evangelical competition between Christianity and Islam for Malay-speaking non-Christians or non-Muslims. Like it or not, Arabic terms with Islamic connotations have been absorbed into Malay with ease. For Christian preachers, it may be easier for them to use these Arabic terms to convert Malay-speaking non-Christians into Christianity. It is easier to deliver a message in terms familiar to somebody. Muslims preachers however would like to have exclusive use of these words which have been traditionally utilized locally to refer to Islamic ideas. On top of that, there are Muslims would like to keep Islam clearly separated and differentiated from any other religion.
 — KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: A Catholic weekly newspaper in Malaysia has been told to drop the use of the word “Allah” in its Malay language section if it wants to renew its publishing permit, a senior government official said Friday.
The Herald, the organ of Malaysia’s Catholic Church, has translated the word God as “Allah” but it is erroneous because Allah refers to the Muslim God, said Che Din Yusoff, a senior official at the Internal Security Ministry’s publications control unit. [Malaysian Catholic weekly told to drop use of 'Allah' in order to renew publishing permit. AP via IHT. December 21 2007]