What’s in a Name?

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet;

Unfortunately, what was true for Shakespeare doesn’t seem to be true for Christians in Malaysia, where violence has flared up after the courts granted Christians the right to use the word ‘Allah’ for God.

Churches in Malaysia were bracing themselves for further attacks by Muslim protesters today, hours after two arson attacks, apparently provoked by a controversy over the use by Christians of the word Allah.

Police were increasing their patrols of areas around churches and Christian communities were hiring security guards, after a Protestant church in the capital Kuala Lumpur was set on fire by a petrol bomb in the early hours of the morning. Muslim organisations have promised street protests today over a court decision that would allow use of Allah as the Malaysian language term for the Christian God. (The Times)

‘Four Malaysian churches were attacked with firebombs, causing extensive damage to one, as Muslims pledged Friday to prevent Christians from using the word “Allah,” escalating religious tensions in the multiracial country.’ (Ruth Gledhill)

The point here is that the word for ‘God’ in Malay is ‘Allah’. We English speakers are used to hearing ‘Allah’ used in Islamic contexts, but its use has never been restricted to Islam. In many parts of the world, Allah is used by both Christians and Muslims to describe ‘God’ and no confusion occurs.

Muslims in other parts of the world (Arabs, Persians, North Africans, Pakistanis and Indonesians) have no objection and are not worried about getting confused when Christians use the word Allah. (Read more).

It may sound strange to us, but at root, this is no different to both Christians and Hindus in the UK using the term ‘god’ to describe their perception of divinity. In fact the Arabic word ‘Allah’ is linguistically close to the Hebrew names of God in the Old Testament (El, Elohim, Eloah); much more so than our English term. I’ve read some comments on Twitter by Christians who believe that using ‘Allah’ is a sell out to Islam, which of course it isn’t. It is quite simply using the appropriate word for God from the local language.

Some Muslims in Malaysia suggest that Christians should not use ‘Allah’ but should rather use the Malay word ‘Tuan’ for God. However, on a linguistic basis, this idea is a non-starter.

One major demand from the Malay protestors is that Christians stop using the word Allah on grounds that Christians can find a simple alternative, that is, simply substitute the word Allah with the word Tuhan. Unfortunately, this demand only betrays the ignorance of the protestors. I would have thought that any Malay would know that the meanings of the words Allah (God) and Tuhan (Lord, Rabb) are not the same. How can they suggest that Christians simply use the word Tuhan to substitute the word Allah? To express the issue linguistically, Allah and Tuhan have different senses even though they have the same reference.

Both the terms Allah and Tuhan are used in the Malay Bible. Following the precedent set by Arab Christians, Allah is used to translate el/elohim and Tuhan(or TUHAN in caps) is used to translate Yahweh (YHWH). The two words are sometimes paired together as Yahweh-Elohim in 372 places in the Old Testament (14 times in Genesis 2-3; 4 times in Exodus;8 times in Joshua; 7 times in 2 Samuel; 22 times in Chronicles; 12 times in Psalms; 32 times in Isaiah; 16 times in Jeremiah and 210 times in Ezekiel etc.).

Read more about this suggestion here and here (for a more academic account).

Of course the problem is that we are not simply dealing with a linguistic question. Shakespeare is wrong, names do mean something. When people who only know me as Eddie start to call me Edward, I don’t like it. My name is Edwin. Eddie is fine, Edwin is fine, but don’t call me Edward or Edmund. Likewise, to Malay Muslims, the word Allah is important and in some sense they feel it is defiled when it used outside of the boundaries they are familiar with. Looking at the situation, I’m sure there are all sorts of religious, ethnic and political issues tied up with their unease – but the unease is real.

There are a couple of thoughts that spring from this.

The first is that translating the Bible, or the Christian faith into a vernacular language is more than just a religious act, it is also a political one. The Gospel starts to lay claim on areas of life and language which were the domains of other faiths and allegiances.  Perhaps the best example of this was the way in which the name of Jesus developed during the early years of the faith. The Aramaic phrase Jesus is Messiah was expressed using Greek terms – Jesus is the Christ. However, Greek speaking Christians didn’t fully understand the term and Christ became regarded as part of Jesus name (as we still see it today). But some way was still needed to demonstrate the messiah-ship of Jesus, so the Greek term ‘Lord’ was used. So we see an evolution from Jesus is Christ to Jesus Christ is Lord. The problem was that Caeser is Lord was the pledge of allegiance to Rome and the declaration that Jesus was Lord brought the Church slap bang into conflict with the Roman authorities. Language use is political, it was then and it is now.

The second thought is that the word which is chosen to be used to translated God in the Scriptures and the life of the church is vitally important. Lamin Sanneh has demonstrated that the church in Africa has developed much more where the indigenous word for God was used rather than a foreign import. (Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (American Society of Missiology))

I don’t know what solution will be found in Malaysia, but this is not the first time this problem has arisen, and it won’t be the last.

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.