Malaysia’s “Allah” Fiasco: What does the Qur’an say?
AND [on that Day] the Apostle will say: “O my Sustainer! Behold, [some of] my people have come to regard this Qur’an as something [that ought to be] discarded!” (25:30)
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Comedian Chris Rock once asked, “Who is more racist – black people or white people?” His answer: “Black people. You know why? ‘Cause we hate black people too.” “Everything white people don’t like about black people, black people really don’t like about black people,” he explained as the audience laughed. Rock then proceeded to go on a truly epic, profanity-laced rant about the differences between black people and “niggas” – at one point saying, “I love black people, but I hate niggas. … Boy, I wish they let me join the Ku Klux Klan!“
Thanks to some Muslims in Malaysia, I feel like going on a similar rant of my own.
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There’s been a lot of controversy during the last few months in Malaysia, where the use of the word “Allah” by certain Christian groups (particularly a Catholic newspaper called The Herald) has angered many Muslims – including the current government – and resulted in a series of attacks on churches. For the past couple of years, non-Muslims had been legally banned from using the word “Allah” in their publications; just last November 10,000 bibles were confiscated under this law. Malaysia’s Catholic Church appealed the legislation, leading to its reversal at the end of December 2009. (The Malaysian government is appealing the ruling, and until the case is decided, the ban remains in effect.) Since the law was overturned in December a number of churches have been attacked, and most recently the office of the lawyers representing Malaysia’s Catholic Church was broken into and ransacked. Malaysia’s largest, most powerful and currently ruling political party, UMNO (“United Malays National Organization”), has been generally complicit in the escalation of events.
Aljazeera produced this excellent program on the matter:
Anyway, here is some of what I read yesterday:
Islamic academics and administrators have blamed Christians for provoking Muslim anger by challenging the ban on their use of the word “Allah”.
Politicians, particularly those from Umno/Barisan Nasional (BN) were also blamed for failing to defend Islam against perceived threats.
Mohd Aizam Masod, an officer from Jakim’s research department, said the argument that Arab Christians and Jews also used the word “Allah” had no domestic merits given that Malaysia is not an Arabic speaking nation.
“For Christians, this is just a question of translation but for us Muslims, the term Allah is integral to our akidah (faith),” he said, arguing that the usage of “Allah” by non-Muslims can and does confuse Muslims.
“Imagine if Jesus Christ, which under the Unitarian concept is considered as God to the Christians, be called ‘Allah’, wouldn’t it be confusing? Allah is by definition a description of a singular Muslim God, but non-Muslims usage will pluralise it,” he said.
This attitude – that Christians must be legally prevented from using the word “Allah” – betrays a truly astonishing ignorance of Islamic sources. How anyone who reads the Qur’an can take such a position is beyond me, but to clear up any remaining doubts on the matter, we will do some review.
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I. No Coercion in Matters of Faith: The Fundamentals
“I am only a warner”
One of the most basic concepts in Islam is laid out in this oft-quoted statement:
THERE SHALL BE no coercion in matters of faith. (2:256)
This is complemented by the rule that all issues of faith stand between (wo)man and God alone; no human can claim the right to punish someone else for a religious belief. In the words of Prophet Shu’ayb:
“And if there be some among you who have come to believe in the message which I bear, the while the others do not believe, then have patience in adversity till God shall judge between us [and them]: for He is the best of all judges!” (7:87)
These values are embodied by the Prophet Muhammad, whose character and role are clearly described in the Qur’an:
NOW [as for thee, O Muhammad,] We have not sent thee otherwise than to mankind at large, to be a herald of glad tidings and a warner; but most people do not understand [this] (34:28)
Indeed. Most people do not understand this.
In order to better grasp the complete meaning of this verse, we should pay attention to two descriptions of the Prophet recurring over and over again in the Qur’an. The first (as mentioned in the verse above) is that he is only a “warner”.
SAY [O Muhammad]: “I am only a warner; and there is no deity whatever save God, the One, who holds absolute sway over all that exists” (38:65)
There are some nuances in the meaning of this statement. In 46:9, it is used to make the point that the Prophet has no supernatural powers and cannot determine or perceive the fate of others (or himself):
Say: “I am not the first of [God's] apostles; and [like all of them] I do not know what will be done with me or with you: for I am nothing but a plain warner.” (46:9)
Similarly, it is stressed that Muhammad has no special power to transform the minds and hearts of people who will not believe:
For [thus it is:] the blind and the seeing are not equal; nor are the depths of darkness and the light; nor the [cooling] shade and the scorching heat: and neither are equal the living and the dead [of heart].
Behold, [O Muhammad] God can make hear whomever He wills, whereas thou canst not make hear such as are [dead of heart like the dead] in their graves: thou art nothing but a warner. (35:19-23)
Building on this, the most concrete meaning of being “only a warner” is given in verse 2:119:
Verily, We have sent thee [O Prophet] with the truth, as a bearer of glad tidings and a warner: and thou shalt not be held accountable for those who are destined for the blazing fire.
Just as the Prophet has no power to change a person’s beliefs, neither does he have the responsibility to, and thus he will not be accountable for the faith of anybody else. Forcing people to change their beliefs is clearly beyond the scope of his role:
And yet, some people worship, instead of God things that can neither benefit them nor harm them: thus, he who denies the truth does indeed turn his back on his Sustainer! Yet [withal, O Prophet,] We have sent thee only as a herald of glad tidings and a warner. (25:55-56)
Finally, he is given clear instructions on how to address those who do not accept the message of Islam:
Whoever, therefore, chooses to follow the right path, follows it but for his own good; and if any wills to go astray, say [unto him]: “I am only a warner!” (27:92)
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“I am not your keeper”
The prohibition of using force to resolve issues of belief is even more clearly expressed in the refrain that Muhammad is “not a keeper”:
Whoever pays heed unto the Apostle pays heed unto God thereby; and as for those who turn away – We have not sent thee to be their keeper. (4:79)
Means of insight have now come unto you from your Sustainer [through this divine writ]. Whoever, therefore, chooses to see, does so for his own good; and whoever chooses to remain blind, does so to his own hurt. And [say unto the blind of heart]: “I am not your keeper.” (6:104)
Yet if God had so willed, they would not have ascribed divinity to aught beside Him; hence, We have not made thee their keeper, and neither art thou responsible for their conduct. (6:107)
The most explicit of these verses is 42:48:
BUT IF they turn away [from thee, O Prophet, know that] We have not sent thee to be their keeper: thou art not bound to do more than deliver the message [entrusted to thee].
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“Yet bear thou with them”
There are several occasions in the Qur’an where God addresses Muhammad (or Muslims in general) directly to tell him not to despair over the wickedness of others or their refusal to believe. At the start of one passage, the Christian concept of Trinity is strongly censured:
Furthermore, [this divine writ is meant] to warn all those who assert, “God has taken unto Himself a son.” No knowledge whatever have they of Him, and neither had their forefathers: dreadful is this saying that comes out of their mouths, [and] nothing but falsehood do they utter! (18:4-5)
In the next verse, God reminds Muhammad of the limits of his role and responsibility as Prophet, asking him rhetorically:
But wouldst thou, perhaps, torment thyself to death with grief over them if they are not willing to believe in this message? (18:6)
The following verses are to the same effect:
O APOSTLE! Be not grieved by those who vie with one another in denying the truth …
[Be not grieved by them -] for, if God wills anyone to be tempted to evil, thou canst in no wise prevail with God in his behalf. (5:41)
Wouldst thou, perhaps, torment thyself to death [with grief] because they [who live around thee] refuse to believe [in it]? (26:3)
Had We so willed, We could have sent down unto them a message from the skies, so that their necks would [be forced to] bown down before it in humility. (26:4)
[But God has full knowledge of the true believer] and of his [despairing] cry: “O my Sustainer! Verily, these are people who will not believe!” (43:88)
Yet bear thou with them, and say, “Peace [be upon you]!” – for in time they will come to know [the truth]. (43:89)
To sum it all up:
And [so, O Prophet,] if they give thee the lie, say: “To me [shall be accounted] my doings, and to you, your doings: you are not accountable for what I am doing, and I am not accountable for whatever you do.” (10:41)
There are many more examples of this common theme in the Qur’an; it really could not be any clearer. But then again – in the words of verse 34:28 – “most people do not understand this”.
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II. From the General to the Particular
Beyond even all the evidence above, there are a number of verses that very specifically apply to Malaysia’s situation.
The beef that some Muslims have with Christians using “Allah” is that they see it as a blasphemous misnomer; the Christian Trinitarian God, the argument goes, is not the real God that Muslims worship. This attitude is evident in the comment by the Malaysian scholar from the quote above that “Allah is by definition a description of a singular Muslim God, but non-Muslims’ usage will pluralise it”.
1. The Qur’an emphasizes that belief in God is meant to be a source of fondness and common ground between Muslims and Christians – not a point of dispute. Verse 29:46 instructs Muslims to say to followers of earlier revelation (e.g. Christians or Jews):
“We believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, as well as that which has been bestowed upon you: for our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that We [all] surrender ourselves.”
This does not mean that Muslims believe in a Trinity. Rather, it means that at the most essential level – beyond any abstractions of Father, Son or Holy Spirit – the Christians strive to worship the same God that the Muslims do. The general point is that Christians (or Jews) and Muslims should see God as an occasion for unity rather than division. The beginning of the verse (29:46), in fact, reads:
And do not argue with the followers of earlier revelation otherwise than in a most kindly manner – unless it be such of them as are bent on evildoing
Thus the affirmation that “our God and your God is one and the same” is designed specifically to defuse conflict between the two parties. Essentially, it is a reminder that Muslims and Christians (or Jews) have more in common than in difference. It also reflects the premium that Islam places on peace and harmonious relations between faith communities:
UNTO every community have We appointed [different] ways of worship, which they ought to observe. Hence, [O believer,] do not let those [who follow ways other than thine] draw thee into disputes on this score, but summon [them all] unto thy Sustainer: for, behold, thou art indeed on the right way. And if they [try to] argue with thee, say [only]: “God knows best what you are doing.” (22:67-8)
Although there are important differences in the ways that Muslims and Christians understand God, this should not distract them from the bigger picture:
… thou wilt surely find that, of all people, they who say, “Behold, we are Christians,” come closest to feeling affection for those who believe [in this divine writ]: this is so because there are priests and monks among them, and because these are not given to arrogance. (5:82)
Some Malaysian Muslims may have forgotten the famous story about the Christian king of Abyssinia who provided asylum to a group of early Muslims from Mecca because of his understanding – based on the words of the Qur’an recited to him by the Prophet’s cousin Ja’far – that Muslims and Christians worship (ultimately) one and the same God.
(This scene is dramatized in the 1976 film The Message, starring Anthony Quinn:)
2. The Qur’an does not make it a point to differentiate between the name that Muslims, Jews and Christians use for God:
For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, [all] monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques – in [all of] which God’s name1 is abundantly extolled – would surely have been destroyed [ere now]. (22:40)
1 “us’mu l-lahi” = ٱسۡمُ ٱللَّهِ = “the name of Allah“
God’s nature does not change because one name is used or another. The claim (quoted in the Malaysian Insider excerpt above) that “for us Muslims, the term Allah is integral to our akidah (faith)” is not fully valid:
Say: “Invoke God,1 or invoke the Most Gracious:2 by whichever name you invoke Him, [He is always the One - for] His are all the attributes of perfection. (17:110)
From the Qur’anic point of view, the suggestion that “non-Muslims’ usage [of "Allah"] will pluralise it” is also dubious. This should be perfectly clear from 17:110. If it is not, then verse 13:33 removes any doubt. The verse begins by criticizing those who assign divine attributes to things other than God:
IS, THEN, HE who has every living being in His almighty care, [dealing with each] according to what it deserves – [is, then, He like anything else that exists]? And yet, they ascribe to other beings a share in God’s divinity!
It ends with directions for Muslims to follow when confronted by such people:
Say: “Give them any name [you please]:1 but do you [really think that you could] inform Him of anything on earth that He does not know – or [do you] but play with words?”
1 Lit., “Name them!”
Really this entire debacle reminds me of one of the quarrels recorded in the Qur’an, where people argued about whether Abraham was a Christian or a Jew:
O FOLLOWERS of earlier revelation! Why do you argue about Abraham, seeing that the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed till [long] after him? Will you not, then, use your reason? Lo! You are the ones who would argue about that which is known to you; but why do you argue about something which is unknown to you? Yet God knows [it], whereas you do not know: Abraham was neither a “Jew” nor a “Christian”, but was one who turned away from all that is false, having surrendered himself unto God; and he was not of those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Him. (3:65-67)
What is going on in Malaysia is equally foolish – it is as if people are arguing over whether God is a Muslim or a Christian.
(This is an interesting perspective on the word “Allah” from a Yemeni Jew:)
3. If some Malaysian Muslims truly feel that they may become “confused” by the use of “Allah” by Christians (which is ridiculous), they ought to be upset at their own religious leaders rather than Christians. How superficial and weak must the religious education of Malaysians be for them to become “confused” by Christians using “Allah”? The very suggestion is an insult to their faith and general intelligence.
Let’s revisit 2:256. After establishing that “There shall be no coercion in matters of faith”, the verse provides this reasoning:
Distinct has now become the right way from [the way of] error: hence, he who rejects the powers of evil and believes in God has indeed taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing. (2:256)
Again: faith and general intelligence prevent Muslims from “confusing” the right path for the wrong one. If Malaysians are so easily duped by a single word, there needs to be some serious questions asked about the way Islam is taught in Malaysia.
During the time of the Qur’an’s revelation, Christians in the Prophet’s community used the word “Allah” – just like Muslims. In the hadith collection of Imam Bukhari, for example, there is the account of Waraqa bin Naufal (repeated here and here) – a Christian who Muhammad was taken to see after his first experience of revelation:
Waraqa asked (the Prophet), “What do you see?” When he told him, Waraqa said, “That is the same angel whom Allah sent to (the Prophet) Moses.”
Even in this context – when the use of “Allah” by Christians was more widespread than it has ever been in Malaysia – the Qur’an maintains that the right way remains distinct from the wrong, and that if someone believes in God, they have “taken hold of a support most unfailing, which shall never give way” (2:256). What, then, is there to be confused about?
Political intrigue aside, this controversy reflects the fetishism that seems increasingly prevalent among Muslims today. For many, “Islam” has to a large extent been reduced to a formula of rituals and symbols that are supposedly sacred and beneficial in and of themselves. These Muslims, for example, think that the key to their religion lies within the syllables of the word “Allah”, and thus they fear that its use by Christians could “pluralise” God. These are like people who decorate good-luck amulets with verses from the Qur’an, but don’t even know the meaning of the words they so zealously cling to.
In any event, if Malaysia’s Muslims feel the need to make a strong statement on the matter, there is an entire surah (chapter) in the Qur’an which gives perfect advice for them:
SAY: “O you who deny the truth! “I do not worship that which you worship, and neither do you worship that which I worship! “And I will not worship that which you have [ever] worshiped, and neither will you [ever] worship that which I worship. Unto you, your moral law, and unto me, mine!” (109:1-6)
4. Not only is the ban on Christians using the word “Allah” not Islamic; it is un-Islamic, having been very specifically forbidden in the Qur’an:
Hence, who could be more wicked than those who bar the mention of God’s name from [any of] His houses of worship and strive for their ruin, [although] they have no right to enter them save in fear [of God]? For them, in this world, there is ignominy in store; and for them, in the life to come, awesome suffering. (2:114)
Some will argue that this verse refers only to mosques because the word “masajid” (plural of “masjid”) is used. In the Qur’an, however, “masjid” does not exclusively mean “mosque”; it may also refer generally to “house of worship” (e.g. in verse 18:21). Furthermore it is clear from the context that Muslims are not being addressed exclusively (if at all). The preceding verses (2:111-113) criticize the Christians and Jews for their excessive quarreling, which culminated in each side completely denying the faith of the other (sound familiar?). Verse 2:114 is a rejoinder to these two groups (and more generally, everyone) not to persecute each other – just as 2:112 is a rebuke to the claim made by some Christians and Jews that their community alone is promised heaven, mentioned in 2:111. (Also, the verses following 2:114 address Christians and non-Muslims.)
If anyone still insists that “masajid” in 2:114 is exclusive to mosques, they should consider this commentary on the verse, made by none other than Ibn ‘Abbas (d. 68/687) in Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn ‘Abbas:
Then [Allah] mentioned Tatus Ibn Asipanos al-Rumi, king of the Christians who destroyed Jerusalem, saying: (And who doth greater wrong) in his disbelief (than he who forbideth the approach to the sanctuaries of Allah) Jerusalem (lest His name should be mentioned therein) by declaring Allah’s Oneness and calling to prayer, (and striveth for their ruin?) in the ruin of Jerusalem by throwing carrions in it. And this lasted until the reign of ‘Umar.
Malaysia’s ban is explicitly described as a sin in the Qur’an.
5. Some Malaysian Muslims suspect that the use of “Allah” by Christians is a deliberate ploy to proselytize to Muslims and attempt to convert them. Passages like this from 17:73 might resonate with them:
AND, behold, they [who have gone astray] endeavour to tempt thee away from all [the truth] with which We have inspired thee, [O Prophet,] with a view to making thee invent something else in Our name – in which case they would surely have made thee their friend!
Verses 2:109 and 2:120 have a similar tone. They begin:
Out of their selfish envy, many among the followers of earlier revelation would like to bring you back to denying the truth after you have attained to faith – [even] after the truth has become clear unto them. (2:109)
For, never will the Jews be pleased with thee nor yet the Christians, unless thou follow their own creeds. (2:120)
However, the conclusions of both verses emphasize that even when Christians or Jews are openly trying to tempt Muslims from their faith, the solution is never to force change onto them – this is the right of God alone:
None the less, forgive and forbear, until God shall make manifest His will: behold, God has the power to will anything. (2:109)
Say: “Behold, God’s guidance is the only true guidance.” (2:120)
Indeed, if some Malaysian Muslims are worried about being influenced by the Christian use of “Allah”, they do not need to read Catholic newspapers or remain in the company of Christians using the word:
And, indeed, He has enjoined upon you in this divine writ that whenever you hear people deny the truth of God’s messages and mock at them, you shall avoid their company until they begin to talk of other things – or else, verily, you will become like them. (4:140)
6. If Malaysian Muslims need to be wary of anyone trying to undermine their correct understanding of God, it is not Christians but certain other Muslims (such as this Wahhabi “sheikh”, shown here lecturing in Malaysia):
Notice that the “sheikh” is pejoratively called an “undercover Christian”. Muslims generally view the Christian idea of God being (or being similar to) a “father” – let alone Jesus – as a grave insult to God because it conflates temporal, created things with a God that they understand to be eternal and uncreated, with “nothing like unto Him” (42:11) and “nothing that could be compared unto Him” (112:4). The Qur’an even instructs Muslims , “do not coin any similitudes for God! Verily, God knows [all], whereas you have no [real] knowledge” (16:74).
7. One final point: when Muslims are in any kind of religious dispute with followers of another religion, they are reminded:
But do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of God, lest they revile God out of spite, and in ignorance: for, goodly indeed have We made their own doings appear unto every community. In time, [however,] unto their Sustainer they must return: and then He will make them [truly] understand all that they were doing. (6:108)
I wonder – how many people (in Malaysia and internationally) have developed a negative impression of Islam because of the Malaysian government and the foolishness it has been encouraging (and because of this will “revile God out of spite”)?
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To conclude, I quote the words of Muhammad from a charter of protection issued by him to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery at Mt. Sinai in 628 C.E.:
This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.
Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.
No compulsion is to be on them.
Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.
No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.
Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.
The Muslims are to fight for them.
If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.
No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).