Is the name of the God worshipped by Jews and Christians ‘Yahweh’? El? El-Shaddai? Adonai? Lord? Elohim?
I’ve heard a pastor from Mississippi begin grace with “Daddy God.”
Whether we use a name we believe to be historically accurate, a title, or a term of endearment, the principle of using the name respectfully and in praise and associating with it a sacred meaning and feeling is more important than the actual word.
According to a Malaysian court, Malaysian Christians can now call God ‘Allah’. Islam is the dominant religion in Malaysia.
A Catholic publication has been (and plans to continue) using ‘Allah’ as the term for the God of Jewish and Christian Scripture. This was upheld by the court as constitutional. An appeal, however, is in the works to overturn this decision.
From the Wall Street Journal:
“The Arab word Allah has been used by Malay-speaking Christians for centuries, much as it is used by Christians in Arabic-speaking countries or in Indonesia, where, like Malaysia, the concept of a single God was introduced by Arabic-speaking traders.”
MalaysiaKini.com, a non-government owned paid-news agency that publishes in English, Malay, and Tamil, published a letter explaining how habitual and traditional it is for Christians to use ‘Allah’.
The author, Dr. SK Teoh contextualizes this case within common practice:
“During the translation of the Bible, Christians follow the principle of using the term in the local language for God. The Hebrew term for God is ‘El’ or ‘Elohim’, the Greek word is ‘Theo’, French is ‘Dieu’, and ‘ShangTi ‘ in Chinese.”
As the most historical, traditional, linguistically apt term, ‘Allah’ is a logical choice for Malay-speaking Christians, as the Malay language does not accommodate the singular Christian God.
Although, it must be disconcerting for Malaysian Muslims to hear their God-term being used by people who do not subscribe to their belief system.
However, if the situation in Malaysia is as Jennifer Pak, BBC correspondent in Kuala Lumpur, suspects and the word ‘Allah’ is being used as encouragement to convert to Christianity–then it is an underhanded move by that publication and flagrantly disrespects the tradition of kinship between the People of the Book, the term used in the Qu’ran for Jews and Christians, recognizing them as others who had received revelations from God.
Dr. SK Teoh disagrees, and is quoted on MalaysiaKini.com as saying:
“Bahasa Malaysia Bibles and publications have been restricted for use only within the churches and have been prohibited from being available in public areas. Christians have reluctantly accepted this restriction over the last 30 years. During this time, there was never any evidence that Christians have intentionally ‘confused’ the Muslims. However when the authorities stopped the printing of Bahasa Malaysia and even Iban Bibles, and prohibited the Catholic Herald (which is only sold within the churches), there was no choice but to go to the courts for a solution. There is no intention to ‘provoke’ any sentiments.”
As this issue is becoming a flashpoint for tension among religious groups, maybe Malay ought to be revised to include words for the Christian God.
UPDATE: Read a WSJ editorial by Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister of Malaysia and current member of Parliament, for another more local perspective.
He notes that:
Malaysia’s poor handling of religious and sectarian issues is not unique. The ill treatment of minority groups in Muslim countries is often worse than the actions Muslims decry in the West. I have called attention to the broader need in the Muslim world for leadership that demonstrates consistency and credibility in our call for justice, fairness and pluralism. These values are embedded in the Islamic tradition as the higher objectives of Shariah expounded by the 12th-century jurist al-Shatibi.
We have seen Muslims around the world protest against discriminatory laws passed in supposedly liberal and progressive countries in the West. Yet just as France and Germany have their issues with the burqa and Switzerland with its minarets, so too does Malaysia frequently fail to offer a safe and secure environment that accommodates its minority communities.
UPDATE: Al-Jazeera’s report on turmoil in Malaysia
Does assigning God human characteristics, such as a name or a gender, limit our ability to conceptualize God by creating an anthropomorphized God?
A clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian on God’s name
Rivers Cuomo (of Weezer) and Rainn Wilson cover One of Us