By extension of free speech, I am quite indifferent to the usage of the noun “Allah” by Christian groups[1] 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.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — 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]

13 Responses to “[1480] Of god, God, allah, Allah, tuhan and Tuhan”

  1. on 22 Dec 2007 at 03:50 Bob K

    From the Christian perspective, part of the problem comes from the difficulty in translating the terms “Adonai”, “YHWH”, “El”, “Eloh” and “Elohim” into the Malay language.

    As a result, common convention was used and the historical precedent of using the proper noun “Allah” since the first Malay language translation of the Bible in the 17th century was retained (interestingly this translation pre-dated the currently popular among conservatives Authorised Version of the English language Bible).

    In the Hebrew scriptures, the combination of “Adonai YHWH” is used a lot and is commonly translated into English as “Lord God”. In Malay it became Tuhan Allah. Convention in English translations saw the use of the term “Lord” where “Adonai” was used separately from the term “YHWH” and the latter being translated as “LORD” (in upper case). This same convention is used with Malay translations (vis a vis “Tuhan” and “TUHAN”).

    Granted there are some major issues here for both communities but I believe these problems can be solved through dialogue rather than a blanket ban.

  2. on 22 Dec 2007 at 03:52 Bob K

    My earlier comment, of course, dealt with this issue only from a Christian perspective. It doesn’t even begin to engage the problem with the Sikh community which uses “Allah” as a common term for God right from the start.

  3. on 22 Dec 2007 at 11:19 Hafiz Noor Shams

    Dear Bob,

    Thank you for the explanation. While I agree a dialog is better than outright ban, dialog is hard is polemics is all people are interested in. For instance, when I tried to discuss the matter here, but all I get is accusation of this and that but almost none that address the issue.

  4. on 22 Dec 2007 at 17:59 Bob K

    You might have struck the nail square centre here – ie. the polemics.

    While I am concerned about this issue, my concern is primarily on the use of the publication permit regime to regulate the flow of information.

    The usage of the term “Allah” only ever becomes an issue when there’s political mileage to be gained.

    One related event that went unreported was the condition imposed by the Internal Security Ministry on the Council of Churches of Malaysia to change the title of their official organ from “Berita CCM” to “CCM News” as a pre-requisite for extension of their publication permit.

    Incidentally, both the Herald and Berita CCM has been a bit less “mainstream” in their coverage of recent events and current affairs.

    A coincidence? I think not.

    Umno knows it needs Malay support with the non-Malay ground as shaky as it is at this moment. They tried the ethnic pride angle with the recent Hindraf rally and this apparently has not generated the type of reaction that they expect. This could just be another angle .. one of Malay-Muslim solidarity perhaps?

  5. on 27 Dec 2007 at 21:31 bobjots : redux

    The Name of God : Attempting To Move Beyond The Polemics…

    The general reaction towards the impending non-renewal of the publication permit of the Roman Catholic Church’s newspaper, Herald, has generally taken two main approaches : The Muslim PerspectiveThe assertion of the right to restrict the use of the te…

  6. […] on, Hafiz offers the difference between proper and common nouns, while Tricia – as I would – turns first to […]

  7. on 29 Dec 2007 at 10:29 Fikri

    Writing, Speech, and Difference
    Indonesian Muslims and Christian write the same letters “Allah”, but speak it differently. Muslims pronounce it with thick “l”, but Christians pronounce it with thin “l”. This difference is unnoticed when it is written. That is the way Indonesian Muslims maintain their difference from fellow Christians.
    On the other hand, Malaysian Muslims would like to keep their difference from Christians both in writing and speech.

  8. […] the __earthinc » Blog Archive » [1480] Of god, God, allah, Allah, tuhan and Tuhan […]

  9. […] the Malay language is not the Arabic language. Fellow blogger; Hafiz Noor Shams; presents a well written introduction of how the original Arabic term Allah has evolved from a common noun to a proper noun in the Malay […]

  10. […] clarified my position while trying to explain why some more conservative Muslims in Malaysia object to the use of the term Allah by Christians in Malaysia; right or wrong, that is their position […]

  11. on 04 Jan 2010 at 22:12 andrew

    Allah is a proper noun in Arabic.

    1. The common noun for god (or a god for that matter) is “ilah,” which is pronounced with a thin “l” as fikri writes.

    2. To proper-ize a common noun in Arabic, you add an al- to the word. For example, a chair is “kursi;” the chair is “al-kursi.” You never ever ever add al- to Allah; there is no such thing as al-Allah.

  12. on 05 Jan 2010 at 11:29 Hafiz Noor Shams

    thanks for the correction

  13. […] the Malay language is not the Arabic language. Fellow blogger; Hafiz Noor Shams; presents a well written introduction of how the original Arabic term Allah has evolved from a common noun to a proper noun in the Malay […]

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