Zeinab Yusuf Saiwalla: In Muslim majority Malaysia, the government recently refused to allow the distribution of tens of thousands of bibles that were printed in the country’s main language – Bahasa Malaysia. The controversy is not new; in 2009 the Malaysian Home Ministry prosecuted The Herald, Malaysia’s sole Catholic publication, and threatened it with the loss of its printing license for the use of Allah in describing the Christian God in its Malay-language section.

The Herald defended its usage of the term Allah, arguing that it was backed by a centuries-old tradition within the Arabic language where non-Muslims in Arab countries used Allah to mean God. However, the Home Ministry claimed that its usage outside the Muslim context was an affront to Muslims and could confuse or even entice them to believe that both religions are the same, even interchangeable.  Islam is both the state religion and the largest faith in Malaysia, which helps to explain why the government is taking such an action.

Malays receive preferential treatment in Malaysia through schemes such as Bumiputra which affords local Malays special privileges such as cheaper housing and schooling. In that light, the stance of the current ruling party, United Malays National Organization (UMNO), on the bible issue could be interpreted as another way to ensure local Malays feel ‘privileged’ and lend their majority votes to UMNO.

Yet, increased pressure on the government this year has forced officials to soften their stance on the use of the word  Allah by Christian groups. Initially they agreed to release the confiscated shipment of bibles, seized early this year, after each copy was stamped with an official serial number – a move that angered Christians who equated stamping with defacing of the bible. The government hoped that stamping the bibles would help officials to restrict the number of copies in circulation, hence addressing fears that Christian groups will, without limit or restriction, use the Malay bibles as a proselytizing tool.  Instead of a serial number, Christian groups finally convinced the government to stamp the books with the words “For Christianity.”

The government’s concerns are hardly consistent with Islamic principles.  The Prophet Muhammad PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him), according to teachings, clearly expressed tolerance towards Christians.  According to a historical document from Mt. Sinai Monastery, believed to have been penned by the Prophet, protection and tolerance is promised to Christians.  In 628 A.D., the document records, a delegation of Christians from St. Christine monastery came to the Prophet seeking respite from their troubles. In his promise, written in Arabic, he says the following:

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

The Prophet, revered by Muslims, was all about inclusivity.  But Malaysia, which prides itself as an Islamic country, seems to rather be erring on the side of caution in protecting the nation’s Muslim majority. Shouldn’t the Malaysian Muslim government actually be glad that Christians are using “Allah” to refer to God?