Liberty Politics & government Society

[2149] Of there are Malay alternatives to the term Allah and tuhan

I have clarified my position regarding the usage of the term Allah by Catholic group and by extension, any term by anybody. This reasoning forms the basis of my position not to oppose Catholic group’s use of the term. Indeed, I consider this line of reasoning as not only the most convincing for me, consistent with my wider libertarian philosophy that I hold, it is the only line of reasoning that informs my decision not to oppose it. This is the libertarian position. The purpose of this entry is to address another position regarding the lack of alternative.

First, there are other reasons that have been bandied elsewhere. Arguably, the argument I have seen the most is based on historical development of the Malay Bible. As it goes, certain domination of Christianity — and Sikhs — have been using the term Allah well before the 1980s, when the government first interfered in the issue. Furthermore, the first Bible that used the term Allah to refer to the Christian god was first translated into Malay in the 17th century by a Dutchman as part of Christian evangelization effort in Southeast Asia. Notwithstanding the libertarian position, this argument is acceptable because it appeals to historical accident. Moreover, it demonstrates that the use of the term by Christian, obviously, as not a recent phenomenon. Yet, it fails to kill the suspicion that use of the term Allah is really for proselytizing activities, which is one major problem associated with the whole controversy to start with. This failure what convinces me that this particular rationale as imperfect.

I have no problem with propagation of any religion as long as those religions do not violate liberty but in addressing the issue in Malaysia, the suspicion seriously have to be addressed. To say that there is a law to prevent propagation of other religions among Muslims as an answer to that concern is utterly deficient because — ignoring its anti-liberty rationale — would such law work? Do differentiate the normative and positive aspects.

Despite its failure, I reiterate, the argument based on history may have some sway.

The second argument, which is the purpose of this entry, is the point that there is a lack of alternative to describe the term god. Ignore the fact that terms can be imported from other languages, even the Malay language has alternatives to Allah and tuhan. There are more than two words to describe the idea.

While I set out to disprove the argument that there is no alternative to the word Allah and tuhan in Malay, knowing that there are alternatives, my casual research on the language and terms to describe the idea of god really surprises me even.

Consider the fourth edition of R. O. Winstedt’s An Unabridged English-Malay Dictionary published in 1963. For god, Winstedt listed Allah, tuhan, dewa, dewi, dewata, indera and khalik. These words are detailed by Teuku Iskandar’s Kamus Dewan as published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 1970. Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka’s Kamus Dwibahasa Bahasa Inggeris-Bahasa Malaysia adds another one and that is betara. This has not even considered other words and phrases like penciptatuan and dato’ which can be made to mean the same as god within specific context.

There are also older words like Hyang or Sang Yang that are rarely used but remains Malay nonetheless.

I personally have never encountered the word khalik and betara but that shows how, even for a native speaker of Malay, the full breadth of the language is larger, as it should typically be, than everyday popular vocabulary bank. In this sense, arguing that there is no alternative is an act of sheer arrogance of one’s pool of knowledge. Arrogance can be justified but when it is based on ignorance, then humility must take its place.

Thus, this renders the argument of no alternative to naught. In fact, I consider such argument as a point in ignorance, if not outright dishonesty.

This requires highlight in political terms. Even I as a person who is generally dismissive of religions and its activities and as a libertarian who actually does not oppose the use of the term Allah by Catholic Church in Malaysia am distrustful of the motive behind the employment of the rationale. Consider what would conservative Malay Muslims would think? The label conservative Malay Muslims is rather misleading. A lot of not-so conservative Malay Muslims feel distressed about the issue. I can divorce the flaw of the ”˜no alternative’ argument from my overall position but the less libertarian Malays would not do so and would use it instead to strengthen their illberal opposition.

Using the ”˜no alternative’ argument will just give more fuel to the opposition fire. Not only it defeats effort at bridge building, it helps to popularly defeat libertarian position on the matter.

So, my advice is, do not use the argument that there is no alternative. It is simply not true. Just stick to the historical accident and libertarian arguments.

10 replies on “[2149] Of there are Malay alternatives to the term Allah and tuhan”

You’re right, it is about context but then a lot more. and the context here, as is often repeated, is that Christians in Malaysia, or at least parts of it, have used Allah for centuries. In this context, there is no alternative that would require not just a logistical and practical nightmare but a discursive rearticulation that would cause harm to the practice of the faith.

And as you say, early Muslims used Dewata, but that option has closed up for them because it has gone out of usage. The reasons for this I cannot suggest with any certainty as it is beyond my knowledge, but one might assume that Muslims today would find it unsatisfactory if the term Dewata was used to refer to the Muslim God. In the current context, many resorts, and businesses dealing with exotica, especially in Indonesia, use the word Dewata to name their establishments, eg Villa Dewata. Very few, if any, would use Villa Allah.

The problem that is raised now is one of intercontextuality. Allah, the word, belongs to a culturally exalted place for Malay Muslims and a different place for Malaysian Christians. However, for both, it would be harshly detrimental to their faiths to understand Allah in any different way. There is an antagonism here between the two contexts and somehow, someway, there will have to be a violent evacuation of meaning because the issue has now moved properly into a public sphere. In effect, the irony is that ignorance was bliss, and the need for all these inter-faith dialogues we are calling for is simply because the faiths have come to learn about each other.

But because this is such a convoluted line of argument to take, as I said earlier, I am no big fan of the no alternative argument either, even if I believe that it is exactly in the current context that it is with merit, rather than, as you have placed it, in a ‘universal’ use of Malay frame, where of course, there are many synonyms for God.

While I personally am not a fan of the no alt argument, I don’t think that it is without merit. As far as words like dewa and betara go, if my tenuous knowledge of Malaysian folklore goes, they refer not so much to a god, let alone a monotheistic god but to deities or even spirits, monsters, supernatural creatures et al which fall more under paganistic or animistic beliefs. Asking Christians to call god ‘betara’ would be akin to although not precisely, asking Muslims to call god Odin.

i fear that is besides the point. the point is that there are alternatives and that the argument of no alternative is clearly false.

whether one wants to use allah regardless of alternatives, that is a very different matter (which, I have no problem from the point of view of liberty).

and even if it is the contemporary term for iban languages, it is not the malay language. so, i don’t see how the point on iban language is relevant.

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