Sunday, May 24, 2009

Catholic Church in Malaysia uses word "Alah" for God.

A Catholic church in Malasia is using the word "Alah" for God in its services and other Christian groups are publishing Bibles and religious newspapers that use the word "Alah" for God. The justification is simple: in the official language of Malaysia, "Alah" means "God."

The BBC story above doesn't give all the details I'd like. The religious services they show are in English, not Malay, the official language of Malaysia. So why import one word? They also don't say how long the Arabic word "Alah" has been a part of Malay, the official language of Malaysia, or whether there is also an indigenous word for God.

More interesting still is the nature the controversy that this move has provoked. In the US, if you showed people a Christian Bible that used the word "Alah" for God, you would probably offend Christians, who felt that "Alah" was the name of some false god or God who was competing with theirs. But in Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion and 60% of the country is Muslim, the feeling of offense is coming from the Muslim side, where people feel that this is a recruiting tactic used by Christians to make Muslims more comfortable with Christianity.

Last year in my Asian Philosophy class I had a student write a paper arguing that the Chinese word "Tian" and the Hebrew word "Yahweh" referred to the same person. His arguments were pretty poor, but the issue raises interesting problems for both the philosophy of religion and for language. How is reference fixed when you are dealing with entities as elusive as gods? Here's a related case: Indra, Zues, and Thor are all gods associated with lightning. Are they the same God? Herodotus would have said so. What about the Marvel comics character? We had a discussion about this on Unfogged. I should go back and look at it.

In any case, I want to revisit all these issues in my Asia philosophy and religion class again next fall. It should be fun. Maybe I'll also use it to revive this blog.


Anonymous said...

Allah means God.

Allah is God.

The only reason I can think of that people would object to this is that they don't like the idea that the Muslims worship God.

That's simply absurd. They do.

If you are going to get hung up on words, then it is going to be a bit difficult to justify the translinguistic and transcultural and transhistorical worship of
God. Someone praying to 'Deus' is not praying to 'God'?

So Christians that speak Arabic don't worship God?

Do Jews worship God?

Only Islam-bashing could be behind this. I can't think of anything else?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

If this was in the US, I'm certain I'd say Islam-bashing was behind it. But the whole dynamic in Malaysia seems reversed. Muslims are doing this because they are afraid of Christian proselytizing.

Either way, though, the argument is incompatible with what you rightly call the "translinguistic and transcultural and transhistorical worship of

Julian E said...

I'm not a great scholar of Islam, but if I were a Muslim, I think I might find it a touch strange to claim that Christians are not worshipping Allah, or at least shouldn't use that word. After all, while Islam might claim that Ahura Mazda, Brahman, etc, are not the same as the true God that they worship, I thought that Jews and Christians were established by the Koran as worshipping the same true God that Muslims do -- although doing so in a somewhat corrupted, ignorant manner. If I'm a Malay Muslim, who believes that Islam's claim to be a continuation of worship the same God who spoke to Abraham is true, and I think that Catholics follow a corrupted and semi-polytheistic version of that same tradition, how could using the same word to refer to the same God be offensive or misleading?