‘Allah’ and Linguistic Hegemony

‘Allah’ and Linguistic Hegemony

Some readers may be forgiven for thinking that the recent controversy arising from the absurd decision of the Cabinet to ban non-Muslims from using ‘Allah’ is nothing more than unnecessary quibbling over a trivial matter. Surely there are more important things to be concerned about than fighting over a word? If only such readers would tell that to the Cabinet and not merely offer well-meaning but misguided advice asking non-Muslims to submit to the Cabinet.

Indeed it is more than just a matter of semantics. Whoever has the sole power to define how I may use my primarily language defines my world and dominates it. The recent policy to prohibit non-Muslims from using certain terms on the ground that they are Islamic is in reality a projection of power for the purpose of controlling minority groups – euphemistically described as cultural and language planning for social harmony when in reality it is cultural and religious cleansing.

It should be noted that our rejection of the Cabinet decision is not just over a word. It is a matter of fighting over a principle, that is, whether any group should be allowed to arrogate for itself sole authority in defining how a regional language may be used. Indeed, the matter will not stop even if non-Muslims decide not to question Muslim authorities when they claim sole ownership of the word ‘allah’.

Be sure to expect the list of prohibited words to lengthen. Readers may note that many states have already passed [unconstitutional] enactments that prohibit non-Muslims from using the following words: Akhirat, Allah, Al-Quran, Al-Sunnah, Azan, Baitullah, Dakwah, Fatwa, Firman Allah, Fitrah, Hadith, Hadith/Hadis, Haj/Haji, Hajjah, Hauliak, Ibadah/Ibadat, Illahi, Imam, Iman, Injil, Nabi, Kaabah, Kadi, Karamah/Qaramah, Khalifah, Khutbah, Masjid (a word originaly non-Arabic), Mubaligh, Mufti, Mussabaqah, Qiblat, Rasul, Salat/Solat, Shahadah/Syahadah, Sheik, Surau, Syariah, Tabligh, Ulama, Wahyu, Wali and Zakat [Wow!]

Readers who seriously want to pursue the issue of linguistic hegemony and social-political power may read the works of Michael Foucault. For the present purpose it is enough for readers to take note of a few excerpts take from a Ph. D dissertation written by a Malaysian now lecturing at the National University of Singapore.

Thus historically, etymologically, linguistically and culturally and even theologically, we cannot see any justification for the prohibition on the use of Allah. It seems rather coincidental that for centuries the Malay speakers of all faiths have harmoniously shared the same term ALLAH for God and only now when Muslims rise in political and economic power, there is a corresponding flex of linguistic power. It appears that the purely religious issue of ALLAH is possibly in danger of being abused as a political one in Malaysia. What Richard Baldauf (1990:35) says with regard to language issues might be relevant even for a religious one such as this.
Most often a language plan purports to serve economic purposes and the development of socio-cultural solidarity. Too often hidden, though, is how that plan may facilitate political ends. Language is never hermetically sealed off from the broader political domains which surround it.

If that is the case, the lofty term ‘language planning’ degenerates to a form of interest-bound modern social-political planning. Williams (1981:221) points out that it is high time that we recognize that language planning is undertaken by those who are in a position of power to undertake such policies and is therefore designed to serve and protect their interests. Graff (1987) reiterates this in relation to elite groups who, in order to ensure survival, have often abused the educational provision of linguistic competence and literacy for purposes of self-production.

La Ponce (1987:4) elaborates on this same point more fully.
Language planning remains an attempt by some organized body to introduce systematic language change for some more or less clearly articulated purpose (commonly stated in altruistic terms but often not based on altruistic intents). But new questions have been introduced into the process. Now, it becomes important to understand ‘whose language’ is being modified to what end and by what means. In the very recent past Language planning remains an attempt by some organized body to introduce systematic language change for some more or less clearly articulated purpose (commonly stated in altruistic terms but often not based on altruistic intents).

The preceding observation seem to suggest it is possible that even religious terms like ALLAH could have been proscribed purely for political reasons. The problem is that even when objective religious and historical facts do not warrant such proscription and despite persistent protest of dissatisfaction from the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Sikhism, the linguistic proscription continued and even subsequently became State Law. One of those interviewed voiced the fear that if Malaysian Christian unthinkingly, whether in fear of the Government authorities or for reasons of wanting to be law abiding for the sake of religious harmony or cordial relations, opted to leave he word ALLAH out of the church lexicon, the present importation of Christian books and Scriptures from Indonesia would be immediately jeopardized (pp.201-203).

For all the above reasons, it appears that there are serious implications to consider if non-Muslims decide to comply with the linguistic proscription. A final word for those who sincerely feel that they should not compromise the belief that since the Muslim God is so different from the Christian God, the same term ALLAH should not be used. Aside from the fact, as explained earlier in the chapter, that ALLAH is originally Christian rather than Muslim, we need to understand that standard Bible translation strategy the world over is to adopt the indigenous term, or its closest equivalent, to facilitate cognitive compatibility. That is the primary reason why God is translated as “Sang-Ti’ (Heavenly King) for the Chinese, for instance, because it is compatible with Chinese traditional thinking. In the Malaysian context, ALLAH is certainly the preference for it has been so deep-rooted in centuries of Malay cognition (p.204).


Graffe, H.J., The Legacies of Literacy. Indiana University Press 1987.
La Pounce, J. A. Languages and Their Territories. University of Toronto Press 1987.
Baldauf, Richard & Luke, Allan, eds. Language Planning and Education in Australasia and the South Pacific. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters Ltd., 1990.
Williams, G. “Review: Variance and Invariance in Language Form and Context,” Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 1 (1981), pp. 363-370.

Note: Photocopies of the dissertation submitted to National University of Singapore (1994) by Dr. June Ngoh, Towards Cross-Cultural Cognitive Compatibility in the Malay Translation of Soteriological Terms is available from Kairos Office. Price: RM 20 plus shipping and handling.

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