Whose God is Allah? - Part 2

Earlier this week, Norani Abu Bakar guest blogged about the use of the word Allah in different countries and by different faith communities around the world. Today, she concludes the discussion by looking at the way the word is used in Indonesia and Malaysia.  


Allah among the Indonesians

All Indonesians use the word Allah to denote God.

When I did my undergraduate degree in Canada, my housemate Kristina, who is a Catholic, must have used the word Allah all the time, but somehow, I cannot recall this at all. With regard to her faith tradition and practices, I can only recall her cooking Indonesian food one ‘Hari Natal’ or ‘Christmas Day.’ She cooked our delicacies rendang, lontong, satay and kuah kacang. The dishes she cooked reminded me of Idil Fitri. How can someone that had a similar culture like mine, who ate the same traditional food, and spoke almost the same language be a Christian? I had never encountered this in my home country.

I somehow also thought that Kristina worshiped three gods: the Father, the Son and Mary. So I was never interested to ask her much about her faith. Worshiping three gods was definitely a ‘no no’ for me. Rather, the common denominator for conversation was our assignments. We were the only two female students specializing in nuclear power in the chemical engineering department at our university, and Kristina was on the dean’s list. She was my unofficial tutor, and I confess that I abused the extra time I gained as a result of her kind help on my studies by squeezing in more time for a fun social life. My retrospect on my undergraduate life evidenced my school work and social life as my ‘Allah.’ They were the idols in my life.

A decade later in Shanghai, as I looked at my Indonesian housemate’s worship DVD cover, I found that the song lyrics used the word Allah significantly. It was the first time I ever heard Christian worship songs in Indonesian, a language similar to my mother tongue, and it was awkward to hear how Allah and Yesus were used interchangeably in the lyrics. This rooming experience opened the door to engaging and mutually respectful conversation on faith. For the first time, I understood that even though my Catholic housemate revered Mary, she worshiped the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit: a One Trinity God and not three gods. I found that rather intriguing. What a mystery!

My understanding of the use of Allah among the Indonesians was expanded further when my Indonesian language professor at Yale, Professor Sukmono, invited me to practice my Indonesian language by sharing at an Indonesian community gathering. My discovery made me smile: what is the difference between a Muslim and a non-Muslim from Indonesia? The answer is the way they pronounce Allah. The Muslim Indonesians utter the word Allah like the Arab pronunciation, with the front part of the tongue at the back part of the teeth, while most of the Christians pronounce the word similar to the English pronunciation of the letter "L." 


Allah in Malaysia

Malaysia has the most interesting scene with regard to the use of the word Allah. On 8th January, 2010, online Times news headline reported “Can Christians say ‘Allah’? In Malaysia, Muslims say no.” As a Malaysian, I cannot help but sigh every time I read news on this conflict.  

In 2007, the word Allah was prohibited by the Malaysian Home Ministry from being used in Christians worship and non-Muslim publications, such as the Catholic weekly Herald. The Muslims use Allah to denote God, and having the word used by other faith adherents created confusion and tension among some of them. In October 2009, Malaysian authorities seized 20,000 Bibles that contained the word Allah.

It is true that Muslims in Malaysia have been using the word Allah to indicate the God of Islam, while the word Tuhan is used to indicate God in a generic way. The use of this word in Malaysia is slightly different than in Indonesia even though their national languages are very similar. Writing on the evolution of the usage of the word Allah and its etymology within the Malay-Archipelago can be a great thesis; however, it is rather sad that such tension erupted over the word Allah, when Allah or God commands us to live in peace. 

My invitation as a Malaysian, especially to the Muslims and Christians in Malaysia is this: let’s not forget that shalom means peace, and salam - or the word Assalamualaikum - which we say all the time, means "may peace be upon you." Let’s love peace and love doing good.


Written by: Norani Abu Bakar. Please view www.ifeldp.wordpress.com for her writings on Muslim-Christian Relations.

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