Jesus, Son of Allah: The Roots of the Riots in Malaysia

Two years ago, The Herald, a publication of the Malaysian Roman Catholic Church, filed suit for the right to translate the word God as Allah in their Malay-language edition, after the government prohibited non-Muslims from using the word. On December 31, the High Court ruled in The Herald’s favor and tensions broke out into violence that continues through this week—nearly a dozen churches have been fire-bombed or vandalized. Eds.

The riots in Malaysia in response to the overturning of a ban on Christians using the word “Allah” has given me a lot to think about. My first response is horror at the destruction of churches and disappointment in the Muslims who commit and support such acts of hate. My second response is a bit more academic. As a literary scholar who works on Arabic and Persian texts, much of what I do involves translation. How to translate the words people use to refer to any deity—let alone the Deity—leads us to all sorts of political and philosophical questions.

For example, two years ago I took part in a translation workshop in which someone was translating a short story from Arabic into English. He wondered whether he should translate “Allah,” and if so, how best to do so. His rationale behind leaving the word transliterated as “Allah” with a capital “a” was based on his desire to maintain some sense of the foreign in his finished translation. His main character was named Ibrahim, and even though it is a familiar enough cognate to Abraham, he felt the need to maintain the cultural connotations of the Arabic version of the name. He used the same logic for “Allah.”

I pointed out, however, that “Allah” is not a personal name but rather an impersonal proper noun. Capitalizing the “a” (keep in mind that Arabic has nothing equivalent to capital or lowercase letters) lends some specificity to the deity in question, just the way capitalizing the “g” in god does in English. Yet, “God” is not a name as such; the capitalized English word has come to refer to the monotheistic divinity of the Judeo-Christian tradition (whose actual personal name, according to that tradition, is “YHWH” or “Jehovah”). More on the noun vs. name issue in a moment. My second argument for translating “Allah” had to do with politics: I suggested that translating “Allah” as “God” was a way to underscore commonality among the Abrahamic faiths. Seeing “Allah” in print, especially in association with the takbirat (shouts of “Allahu Akbar”) before or during terrorist attacks, has given the English-speaking public a mistaken sense that “Allah” is some other god besides the one of whom Abraham, Moses, and Jesus spoke. In essence, while I agreed that maintaining the cultural value of “Ibrahim” was justified, I felt disrupting the English connotations of “Allah” (i.e., correcting misconceptions about “Allah”) would be an equally justified translation choice.

The Divine Noun

The distinction between noun and name, though clear in English, is blurred in Arabic. In fact, the same word is used to refer to both: ‘ism. Grammatically, “Allah” is an ‘ism-e ’alam, a proper noun—very much like “God” (notice the capital “g”) in English. Though the origins of the word have been subject to much philological debate, most linguists trace its development from the word ’ilah, the non-specific word for deity. When the definite article “al” was attached to “‘ilah” in order to denote a specific deity, the phrase was contracted from “al-‘ilah” to “al-lah.” This apparently happened well before the advent of Islam; the word “Allah” is attested in several pre-Islamic poems. One could associate god (lower-case “g”) with ‘ilah and God (upper-case “g”) with “Allah.” English conventions about “God” with a capital “g”, in addition to a desire to show reverence, contribute to the reasons we capitalize the “a” in “Allah.”

Reverence is more clearly marked when we refer to the deity of the Hebrew Bible in English. In Exodus 3, God reveals his personal name, YHWH, to Moses. Because of the sacred nature of this name, it is rendered in most English Bibles as “THE LORD” (in small caps) or “G-d” and is replaced with “Adonai” (the emphatic plural of “lord”) when the text is read aloud.

We are unable to pronounce the personal name of God most obviously because we lack its vowels, but this unpronouncibility begs the larger question of how any name or word can fully encompass a transcendent divinity. Mystics of all religions come up against this problem. Question: How does one express the ineffable? Answer: Call it ineffable. This is an example of apophatic speech—speech that undoes itself in its own act. The best we can do is describe God as indescribable. Muslims are taught that God has 99 “names,” however, these are more like epithets that describe God as the personification of a particular quality: “The Merciful One,” “The Patient One,” “The Just One,” etc. Almost apophatically, “Allah” has come to be the preferred signifier of God because it alone “expresses the sole and incommunicable godhead” (Encyclopedia of Islam, “Allah”), instead of naming God by one particular quality.

Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims Worship the Same “God”?

A further issue related to the imperfection of human language speaks more to the point of the conflict in Malaysia: its referentiality. By convention, speakers of a given language agree that a certain configuration of sounds represents a thing or concept. The conventions of language are key to understanding; and those conventions are culturally determined. To take a simple example, in the Southern United States, any carbonated beverage may be called a “coke,” regardless of whether it is produced by Coca-Cola, while in other areas “coke” always means the specific, branded beverage in the red can. These regional differences are evidence that the semantic range (the range of possible meanings) for a given word are culturally determined. Expand this concept across languages, not just regional dialects, and we begin to see why translation is often so difficult. Project it up to the divine plane and we easily have a controversy on our hands.

Leaving all these big questions aside for a moment, let’s deal a bit more specifically with what is making people so upset in Malaysia. “Allah” is the generic Malay word for God and has been for centuries. So no big deal, right? That’s what I first thought, and then I saw an article that said phrases that describe Jesus as “the son of Allah” were making people upset. That phrase gave me pause. It was jarring. It is a phrase I had never heard or seen in print before, and this is precisely why it was so jarring. I’ve heard plenty of people use the word “Allah” in English sentences, but never with modifiers or predicates that were implying something un-Islamic. This phrase introduces an unfamiliar Christian idea into my personal associations with the word “Allah” and the concept it represents to me. Because “Allah” is a word I tend to use only with other Muslims, it has come to signify God and all the things Muslims believe about God to me.

This gets to the heart of the issue—Do Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship the same “God”? According to the Qur’an, the answer is yes: “Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)” (29:46, Yusuf Ali translation). The thing that everyone seems to be missing is that the Abrahamic faiths proclaim the same monotheistic deity even as they proclaim different things about that deity. The names or words we each use to refer to that deity are inscribed with our own idiosyncratic beliefs about the character and priorities of that deity, so when “someone else” uses “our” word, we feel in some way violated. Keeping in mind that the generic word Malays (both Christians and Muslims) use for God is “Allah,” there should be no sense of violation: the word, while Arabic in origin, does not “belong” to a particular religious group, much the way the English word “God” is not the sole property of one group or another.

Using Religion for Political Gain

It is interesting to note that George W. Bush started a similar (though largely unnoticed) controversy by saying the God he believes in and the God Muslims believe in are one and the same. Evangelicals across America were outraged and released statements differentiating the “Gods.” This time it was the Christians upset at Muslims calling upon “their” deity.

It should be clear by now that I think this controversy is founded on nothing but hot air. “Allah” is simply a word whose semantic range differs from community to community. Juan Cole agrees (also see his much more succinct comments on the meaning of the word “Allah”). As some political analysts have suggested, the religious fervor behind these riots and acts of vandalism is likely stoked by purely political concerns. That the leading Islamic political party in Malaysia claims that Muslims may be confused by the Christian use of the word is evidence of their own ignorance of the Qur’an’s position on the subject and indicates their interest in dividing the Malaysian population along religious lines for their own political gains.

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