I do not intend to discuss the legal, etymological or historical use of the ‘Allah’ word in the Catholic news letter, the Herald, which has led to the current ‘fiery’ brouhaha.
High Court Judge Lau Bee Lan has already ruled on the unconstitutional banning by the Malaysian government on the Herald’s use of the god-name. There is now an appeal to be heard. Let us wait for it.
On the etymological aspect, a number of academicians including Muslims have traced its usage to pre Islamic era, and explained that both Arab Muslims and Christians refer to their respective gods as ‘Allah’. Who are we to challenge their erudite clarifications?
Historically, it has been agreed that Dutch Christian missionaries sometime in the 16th Century translated the bible into the Malay-Indonesian language by using the word 'Allah' for God. Why those Dutch missionaries did so has not been questioned but that they had used ‘Allah’ has been deemed by the Catholic Herald as a precedent which must continue to be accepted even today.
Not unexpectedly, the High Court’s decision has brought about lamentable outcomes, from protests against the judicial judgement to reckless accusations that Judge Lau was biased because she is a Christian, to criminal arson attacks against churches, and to the inevitable political conspiracies. I do not also propose to discuss the behaviour or utterances on both sides of the political fence on this issue.
Given the experts’ etymological and historical clarifications on the ‘Allah’ word, I am in no doubt the editor of the Catholic Herald, Father Lawrence Andrew, is on strong legal grounds to use it ...
... but I have always believed that religion is about faith and morality and not legality or for that matter, political approval. Thus I find it unfortunate that the Catholic Herald had taken the issue to the courts. Surely on a matter of religious faith and knowledge, there are numerous other names of God it could have use beside ‘Allah’.
So why has Father Lawrence Andrew insisted on doing so?
Let me start off by quoting what he told AFP in April 2009 about the release of a new Malay language bible that does not use the word ‘Allah’. The news item was picked up by the Free Republic, a conservative American online news portal.
The new Malay-language Bible had referred to God as ‘Elohim’ rather than ‘Allah’. This displeased Father Lawrence Andrew who stated:
"The Catholic bible that the church uses has the word 'Allah' for God whereas in comparison, this one does not."
"The new Malay bible weakens the argument for using the word Allah because some groups are trying to substitute God with a foreign name, whereas Allah is the Malay word for God and has been the accepted translation for centuries."
I find it rather incomprehensible that Father Andrew would assert ‘Elohim’ to be a foreign name for God while in the same breath dare to claim ‘Allah’ is not. I wonder whether he would consider 'Yeshua', 'Isa' or even 'Jesus' as ‘foreign’ names? And as he is from the Catholic Church, may I ask him what he considers 'Mary' or 'Mariam', the name of the Holy Virgin Mother, to be?
Then one just has to ask: (a) why consider the new Malay-language bible as ‘weakening’ the use of ‘Allah’ when it has actually reinforced the original reference to God’s name as ‘Elohim’, and (b) who does the ‘accepting’ of the translation and what are the criteria for that process?
Now consider, hasn’t the Catholic Mass which was originally conducted only in Latin, since been changed to the language of the locals? So why can’t the use of ‘Allah’ in the Bible, as translated by Dutch missionaries hundreds of years ago, be changed to ‘Elohim’?
It seems that Father Andrew is dead set on using ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian God, regardless of the superior pedigree (in the Christian context) of God’s other names as revealed in the Bible.
And on the pedigree of God’s names, the first revelation of God’s personal identity is in the Tanakh (Jewish Bible) Book of Genesis 1:1 which says: "In the beginning Elohim created the heaven and the earth."
So, why did Father Andrew consider it a ‘foreign’ name? Aren’t we talking about the God of the Christian faith?
The second name of the Divine One as revealed to Moses was 'YHWH' or 'Yahweh' (later modified to 'Jehovah') which means ‘I AM WHO I AM’ or 'I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE'.
'Yahweh' is mentioned 6823 times in the Old Testament, while 'Elohim' scores 2570 times. How many times is ‘Allah’?
In fact 'Elohim' is used 66 times in a row at the beginning of the Bible before any other Hebrew word for the English word 'God'.
There are various other names besides ‘Elohim’ and ‘Yahweh’ to describe God and Jesus, with the latter being found in the New Testament.
Really, what is the morality or motivation behind Father Andrew’s rejection of ‘Elohim’, the original name of the Judaist-Christian God, and his insistence on the use of ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian God when locally it has always been recognized that ‘Allah’ refers to the God of the Islamic faith.
Ultimately let us also not forget that both Islam and Christianity are evangelistic missionary religions with an obligation on the faithful to convert the so-called ’pagans’, for altruistic reasons of course. But the late A Powell Davies, a minister of the All Souls Church in Washington, advised us that “True religion, like our founding principles, requires that the rights of the disbeliever be equally acknowledged with those of the believer.”
Has Father Lawrence acknowledged the rights and sensitivities of the Malaysian Muslims?
Friedrich Nietzsche reminded us: “Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”
But I ask of Father Lawrence Andrew: “What is really your goal in obdurately pursuing the use of the word ‘Allah’ to refer to the Christian God in a Malay-language newsletter and Bible when so many other names of your Christian God, with even better biblical pedigree, remain available?”