This week, the court ruled that Christians can use the word “Allah” to god, ending a 2009 ban for them to use it.
Below is what I wrote at the height of the controversy.
Only in Malaysia is the world perhaps witnessing a raging debate on who has the patent to the word ‘Allah’; simply translated as ‘the/that god.’ It seems to be a seasonal debate to get the political parties to wrestle over the linguistic or semiotic of the word; one that connotes and denotes ‘the Force of Divinity’ that Man has attempted to understand, revere, love, and fear yet can never comprehend.
This is simply because we are in a matrix of truth and representation, and in a prison-house of language unable to see what the Ultimate Reality looks like.
What’s in a name? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. And even more so this Shakespearean “a rose is a rose” type of problematique seems relevant in a world of political manipulations such as in Malaysia when race and religion are the twin determinants of political evolution.
The debate on the origin of the word ‘Allah’ is obviously interesting as a topic of dissertation or as an inquiry theme in fields such as bio-semantics, bio-semiotics, linguistic philosophy, philology, or the study of the transcultural flow of language as yours truly embarked upon on the origin of the words ‘Cyberjaya’ and ‘Putrajaya’ in a dissertation submitted to Columbia University, a few years back.
To ascertain the origin of the word ‘Allah’ might also yield those studying it to also explore the origin of the concept of ‘god’, ‘religion’, ‘scriptures’, and even the notion of soteriology in the study of religion; a human enterprise that began with the agriculture society and what the sociologist Karl Wittfogel would term as the ‘hydraulic societies’.
The attempt to name ‘god’ and to call it by ‘special nouns’ have been a human cognitive exercise since Man has been trying to figure our what causes his crop to do well or to be damaged or destroyed, the night to go dark and the sun to illuminate, or the fate of his or her clan as the tribe moves from one planting area to another after slashing and burning crops.
The search for ‘god’, perhaps noted as early as the discovery of cave paintings in Southern France moving on to the conceptualisation of the Divine and Ultimate Reality, to the birth of Zorastrianism, to Judaism, to Christianity, and to Islam (in the Fertile Crescent) and in the non-monotheistic conception of it in cultural philosophies such as Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism (in the Indus valley).
These are ways that Man has tried to name the un-namable, explain the unexplainable, and conceive the unconceivable.
I am not sure if there have been controversies or people killing each other over who has the right to the name of this or that god. The Romans and the Greeks have gods in common playing different roles, but I have not come across crisis and conflict in such naming of gods in these two civilisations.
No need for controversy
At this point in human evolution, in this age of reconciliation of the post-Mayan calendar, Malaysians (especially Christians and Muslims) need to be less childish in the fight over patenting and branding ‘god’. It is a name conceived differently anyway, as different as how each soul conceives the Divine.
Whether one calls god Allah, The Lord, Brahma-Shiva-Vishnu, Bhagwan, Waheguru, Yahweh, or Hashem or not call it anything at all but refer to it in mere silence and reverie, the ultimate aim is to ‘connect’, and hence the Latin term ‘religio’ which loosely means ‘to connect’. Herein lies the limits of language insofar as the naming of ‘god’ is concerned.
There is no reason to be locked into controversy but all the reason should be to engage in exploring human creativity in trying to understand Absolute or Ultimate Reality.
Because we are social beings plunged into a world of materialism and our existence always in dialectical opposition with world of Appearance and Reality, if we take the Platonic Theory of Forms as a framework of analysis, and because we are always engaging in a world of realism first and foremost, our focus needs to be on how to live a life examined as societies of human beings always empathic to the lives of others less fortunate and to dwell on similarities rather than differences.
We ought to focus on making sure fellow men and women are accorded the basics of life – food, shelter, clothing – and how these will contribute to the cultivation of dignity, rights, and responsibility.
In Malaysia, this means people of all religious faith ensuring that caste and class in society is gradually, but surely abolished and that the rich will not become richer by any means manipulative and necessary.
A wide-awake society that includes the ideological warring factions called the Muslims and Christians fighting over the word ‘Allah’ ought to be aware of what will continue to divide and conquer them, so that their praxis or the act of translating theory/perspective to practice for the common good is not clouded or even debilitated.
It would be necessary to allow any religion to use the word ‘Allah’ I would venture to say, if the word means everything good and brings them to do ultimate good. Muslims and Christians alike may perhaps need to do a philological and linguistic-genealogical research of the word ‘Allah’ or even the history of the word ‘god’ itself in order to be more enlightened of the issues and attendant claims or ownership.
Surprised they may be in discovering that we were once inhabitants of the Tower of Babel trying to figure out what word to use to name the nameless, and what shape to create to represent the Formless.
Until we Muslims and Christians come to this dialogical crossroad, the road to political manipulation in Malaysia is always paved with linguistic distortion in service of crypto-crony-capitalistic intentions!