COMMENTARY: Muslims don’t own the term ‘Allah’ in Malaysia or anywhere else

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A woman in Turkey examines the word "Allah," written in Arabic script on a wall outside Eski Cami. In Malaysia, Christians have used the term "Allah" to refer to god since at least 1650 when the word appeared as a translation from the Dutch word "Godt" in a Dutch-Malay dictionary.

Creative Commons image by Nevit Dilmen

A woman in Turkey examines the word "Allah," written in Arabic script on a wall outside Eski Cami. In Malaysia, Christians have used the term "Allah" to refer to god since at least 1650 when the word appeared as a translation from the Dutch word "Godt" in a Dutch-Malay dictionary.

(RNS) If a Muslim reads a Catholic newspaper in the Malay language and sees the word “Allah,” he might mistake it as a reference to the Quran and become a Christian when he learns those are actually references to the Bible.

At least, that’s the reasoning Malaysian Muslim groups used when they pushed ​Malaysia’s​ Supreme Court to ban a Catholic newspaper from ​referring to God as “Allah.”

On Monday (June 23), Malaysia’s Supreme Court ​upheld a lower court ruling that found the term “Allah” belonged to Muslims. Now, the Catholic Church in Malaysia is no longer permitted to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language newspapers, even though “Allah” has been used for centuries by all faiths in the area when referring to God.

As is precedent in countries with this type of oppressive behavior, ​the oppression will only increase. ​It is crucial to understand the true impact this unjust decision will have, and it is also important to understand the best solution to overcome this intolerance.​

First, the negative impact.​

​T​his​ decision​ provides support to ​an ​extremist base to place additional restrictions on religious minorities. Larger restrictions rarely take place overnight; they take time to plan and play out. For example, in neighboring Indonesia, the constitution states that freedom of religion is guaranteed. That’s ironic, because Indonesia made it illegal to be an Ahmadi Muslim, and now a rapidly growing movement is trying to ban Shiite Islam.

Malaysia is no different. Its constitution declares Islam to be the official state religion and allows other religions to practice peacefully. Yet it is illegal and a jailable offense to be a Shiite Muslim in Malaysia.

The ban on Catholics using “Allah” in print will head in the same direction. Hate groups will create protests and pressure the government into imposing stricter laws, such as completely disallowing non-Muslims from using the word “Allah.” This isn’t a fantasy. This is the same route Pakistan took 40 years ago. Pakistan enacted anti-blasphemy laws that led to copyrighting Islamic terminology and practices.

​Likewise, oppression of freedom of conscience creates a hellish environment. These laws and hate movements will empower people to find, persecute and kill minority Muslims and non-Muslims for their faith. Again, this is not without precedent, but the same route of other countries in the region, such as Indonesia and Pakistan, where Ahmadis, Shiites, Hindus, Christians and atheists face such danger.

But it’s not too late to reverse the problem. ​Here’s the secular solution provided by a leading religious voice: His Holiness the Khalifa of Islam and worldwide leader of Ahmadi Muslims, Mirza Masroor Ahmad.

His Holiness has advised two fundamental requirements to resolve such conflicts:

First, keep matters of religion and state separate. His Holiness ​repeatedly advised that “Khilafat (Caliphate) has no interest in power or government.” Just the same, Islamic religious leadership on any other level should follow that separation. If this doesn’t happen, then matters relating to one religion will be enforced on all others. “Instead of pointing fingers at one another and instead of hurting the feelings of each other,” he said, “we should instead join together as one and work toward the progress of the nation and towards establishing peace in the world.”

Second, in April, ​His Holiness reminded Muslims that Allah is “the source of peace.” However, as we saw in the Malaysian courts, Allah became a source of anxiety for Catholics and other religious minorities who fear they’ll be targeted next. God as a source of peace would not want to be associated with a name-sharing squabble. ​After all, the Arabic term “Allah” predates Islam. Muslims have no ownership over it​.

​The Quran mentions “(t)hose who remember Allah standing, sitting, and lying on their sides.” That reference is not exclusive to Muslims. Rather, all people have a right to remember Allah whenever and however they wish. It’s a pity that the Malaysian government tries to prevent Catholics from remembering Allah while they’re reading their newspapers standing, sitting and lying on their sides.

(Salaam Bhatti is a deputy spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, USA, and is an attorney in New York.)


  • Riyaz

    Well written. Its sad that the liberal media has not come sounding themselves on this. I think may of them also think Allah is a deity of Islam. Allah means God and why people – including Muslims and non-Muslims – continued using the word Allah for God is because it is free from gender or singular/plural. It is the absolute God. The concern with Malaysia’s rule is not just that they want to “own up” Allah instead of submitting to him – but the trend of deciding who believes what and speaks what

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  • About a year ago I met a person from the Orient who was both Muslim and Buddhist. I had the privilige of sharing the Gospel with him.
    He did a lot of research on the internet about the differences between Allah and the God of the Bible.
    On the last day of my being able to see him, here is the conclusion he had come to at that point: Mohammed–hate. Jesus–love.
    Allah and the God of the Bible are not the same.

  • Fr. John W. Morris.

    How do they explain the fact that Arab Christians use the word Allah when they pray? Allah is simply the Arabic word for God. In the Arabic speaking world, it is used by both Muslims and Christians to refer to the deity.

  • Rashid.M

    The Malaysian ruling simply illustrates that religious bigotry is no different to bigotry of any other type. Such beliefs of ‘exclusive rights’ are just as irrational. The reference to the Pakistani experience illustrates this well. It shows the bizarre and ungodly results of forcibly claiming ownership of religious terminology. Those deemed ‘non Muslims’ by clerics and the state are jailed for uttering the universal Muslim greeting of ‘Assalamoalaikum’. And any public depiction of the standard affirmation of a believing Muslim, i.e. ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, is forcibly removed off of the houses of worship (forbidden to be called mosques) of these same legally declared apostates. All done on the purported basis of ‘defending Islam’, and again, completely sanctioned by the state.

    No-one has the right to play God with the term God.

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  • Leo

    Muslims may not technically own “Allah,” but everyone connects the term with Islam. Christians should be pleased to let them keep it with all of its associations, including “Allah Akbar,” that is, “Our god is the greatest.” Greater than whose God? The term only conjures up images that are not positive for many of us, especially when shouted during terrorist rampages.

  • Rashid.M


    The issue which you seemed to have missed, is the desire and ‘right’ of Christians in Malaysia to use the Arabic term Allah to denote God as ‘they’ understand Him – as Christians. Your predictable response suggests you have much in common with those Muslims in Malaysia who oppose this. Both you and they are uncomfortable at the thought of there being common ground, or even inferred common ground between Christians and Muslims. Like them, you want exclusivity of terminology, and rather than believing in one God for all people, you and they create artificial distinctions – a Christian God and a Muslim God. Both you and they create artificial barriers, e.g. access to the ‘true God’ being requisite on joining the only ‘true religion’. The logical conclusion being that any prayer offered by anyone not following the ‘exclusive truth’, allegedly goes either nowhere or to some other god.

    The issue in this article mirrors the controversy in Columbus, Ohio earlier this year. In that instance a Muslim group ran billboard advertisements which read: “Jesus is Muslim”, citing the many references to him in the Quran as the basis. In a familiar echo to the objection of this minority Muslim group in Malaysia, that Muslims might be confused and wrongly influenced by Christians using the term Allah, Pass the Salt Ministries declared:

    “We do not support the hijacking of the name of Jesus Christ in their attempt to lure uninformed Christians into their religion” – Coach Dave Daubenmire.

    Lastly, the Arabic term ‘Allah Akbar’ does not (regardless of your personal wishes) translate to ‘our God is the greatest’. It translates simply as ‘God is great’. Nothing else. And He (God) is directly accessible to everyone and anyone regardless.

  • Ningbody

    Astonishing that you appear to be some kind of minister and you don’t even know that history and meaning of the name Allah, Dave. Many Christians outside of your narrow little world use the term Allah, not only in Malaysia. It is derived from the same name as El and Elohim.

    Secondly, you lost the track because you start to compare Jesus (the Son of God according to Christians) and Mohammed (the Islamic prophet.) Not relevant to the argument.

    Finally, I doubt even the truth of your comment. A person cannot be Buddhist and Muslim at the same time. That is nonsense.

  • A R Dauharry

    There may be a few things you are not be aware about Islam. Have you noticed that whewever Muslims write the name of Allah they follow it with SWT in brackets or when they use the name of Mohammad or even Jesus they add PBUH? Have you ever asked yourself why they do that? It’s because they keep such names at such high level of venerartion which no other religions or sects do. Their respect of such names is such that if they find them written or printed on a piece of paper on the ground they’ll pick it up and place in a cleaner place. You may consider them as crazy but I respect their sense of sacredness.
    Have you ever considered how these people would feel when you write “Jesus, the Son of Allah or Jesus is Allah and Allah is Jesus, both of the same essence”? The basic tenet of Islam is Allah is one, does not beget and is not begptten and withour rhat tenet there is no Islam.
    The principles behind your reasoning must also include respect for other people’s sense of sacrednes

  • A R Dauharry

    Respectful father,
    There’s no need to explain because everbody in those regions know they are not refering to the same deity. One is unique, he does not beget and is not begotten. The other is Three, one of whom is his own son. The former says nobody shall carry the burden of another. The latter makes his son carry the sins of men who themselves carry the burden of Adam and Eve and yet claims to be rightful and just.
    It is true that Yeshua (pr. Isho in Aramaic, very near to Issa in Arabic) may have called God “Allah” in his dialect Aramaic but the context and purpose are different. If you want to insult a Muslim just tell him Jesus is the son of Allah and see what happens.

  • A R Dauharry

    I believe you miss the point. At the core of this issue is the basic tenet of Islam. There is no God but Allah. There is no Islam without it just like there is no Christianity without Jesus being the son of God. Do you know how you hurt a Muslim when you say Jesus, son of Allah?
    Why don’t we, through respect for other,s just keep to ourselves. Are Eloi, Elohim, YWH, Yahweh, Jehovah, God, Dieu, etc. not enough? Do we have to borrow yet another name without knowing the harm we are causing to other people sense of sacredness?
    It is true that in our modern world there’s no place for sacredness but please allow the few who want to keep it. Is it too much asking?