On Monday 14 October 2013, a panel of three Muslim judges of the Court of Appeal of Malaysia quashed the 2009 judgement of the High Court that the Catholic Church in the capital city could use the word “Allah” in its Malay language publications. The Malay language is used in worship and religious written materials mainly by the indigenous Christians in the Malaysians states on the island of Borneo, such as the Iban and Bidayuh in Sarawak and the Kadazandusun and Murut of Sabah. It is also used amongst aborigines in Peninsular Malaysia and also Christians from the two Bornean states residing in the peninsula. By law, Malay is the sole official language of the Federation of Malaysia.
The main reason for the Court’s decision was that it agreed that the Home Minister had the power to ban the use of “Allah” by the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur in the Malay language section of its weekly newspaper, Herald, in order to preserve public order. This would appear to be a reference to the resentment of certain groups among the majority Muslim population towards non-Muslims using “Allah”.
The main argument advanced by the Archdiocese, the respondents to the appeal by the Government of Malaysia against the High Court’s earlier ruling, was that “Allah” had been used by Christians in the region for centuries in the Malay/Indonesian language, long before there was ever a Government of Malaysia, or even a Malaysia. Another reason employed by the Archdiocese was that freedom of worship, being enshrined in the Constitution, prevents the Government from telling non-Muslims what words they may or not use in the practice of their religions. The Court of Appeal, however, has decided that the anger of Muslims is reason enough to prevent Christians publishing the word “Allah” in news publications prepared for those of their flock who regularly read religious materials in the national language, in fact the majority of Malaysia’s almost 3 million Christians.
Besides the Archdiocese’s historical and constitutional reasons for using “Allah”, another reason, not relied upon in Court, is that Christians need two words to refer to God, just as in all other languages. One is a way of expressing “Lord” and the other, of course, is for expressing “God”. In Malay/Indonesian Christian materials the word “Tuhan” has been mainly used for “Lord” and “Allah” has been used for “God”. Some Muslims have said that Christians should use “Tuhan” for “God” and not “Allah”, which they say is strictly the “personal name” of the Islamic God. However, they have not been so helpful as to suggest how Christians could then express the idea of “Lord” or “the Lord God”. If Christians say “Tuhan Tuhan” for “the Lord God” it actually means “Gods” in Malay, where the plural of a noun is formed by duplicating the noun. Saying “Tuhan Allah”, however, makes perfect sense.
Another interesting point is that even in the Qur’an it appears that the God of the Christians and the Jews is also referred to as “Allah”.
Father Lawrence Andrew SJ, editor of the Herald, has indicated that the Archdiocese will appeal against the recent decision in the country’s apex court, the Federal Court of Malaysia.