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.