Allah or Tuhan in the Rukun Negara?

Allah or Tuhan in the Rukun Negara? – A Separate Issue from Allah in the Alkitab

Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang was reported by Bernama (22 March, 2010) to have called on the government during a debate in the Dewan Rakyat, to amend the first Rukun Negara from belief in God to belief in Allah since the Quran did not bar followers of other religions from using the word Allah. LINK

In her article “Rukunegara: M’sia not Quite Secular”LINK , Helen Ang expressed her puzzlement over the absence of official response from Christian leaders to Hadi Awang’s comment with a hint of sarcasm.

All those who insisted on the Catholic Herald’s ‘right’ to ‘Allah’ should now warmly welcome Hadi’s proposal made in Parliament when debating the motion of thanks on the Agong’s speech. After all, these people had so enthusiastically embraced the idea that ‘your Allah is my Allah too’.

Hadi Awang has merely made a preliminary statement. It is reasonable to wait and see how the government will respond to him. Only when the rationale for both the government’s and Hadi Awang’s positions becomes clearer will Christian leaders be able to give a more specific and substantial response.

But Helen Ang seems to think that the hesitation of the Christians arises because they are caught in a bind of their own making. That is to say, since Christians have been so adamant about using the word Allah, they would now have to adjust their theology to make it consistent with what is deemed a proper Islamic understanding of Allah. Helen elaborates,

Once ‘Allah’ has been adapted into our national set of guiding principles, then every citizen should learn to understand and appreciate this word in its proper context. According to Hadi’s Jan 7 statement on kalimah Allah, “there are among followers of Christianity who have made a ‘wife’ and ‘son’ for God”. What a no-no!

Should ‘Allah’ be incorporated into the Rukunegara, then Malaysians reciting it must be mindful that Allah has no Son, and adjust their mindset accordingly.

Unfortunately, Helen’s comments betray a lack of understanding not only of the basic impetus that led Christians to use the word ‘Allah’(the translation imperative), but also the rationale that undergirds the Christian usage of the word ‘Allah’ (linguistic justification).

Translation Imperative
First, by the translation imperative, I mean every religion cannot avoid the necessity to translate its original Scriptures into a new language the moment that religion gains adherents among those who use that language, whether from Pali to Chinese, Greek to English or Hebrew to Malay. To be sure, many Muslims are adamant in insisting that the Quran is untranslatable, but nonetheless, the Muslim community still translates and publishes Malay versions of the Quran. There can be no escape from the act of translation. Even a Malay Muslim with functional competency to read the Arabic Quran cannot avoid the mental act of translating the Quran into Malay inside his head, unless through total immersion in the Arabic language, Arabic becomes his primary language, that is to say, he basically reads, thinks and dreams in Arabic.

These observations on the translation imperative should put to rest the insinuations by some Muslim activists that Christians suddenly decided to use the word ‘Allah’ in their Scriptures as part of a conspiracy to confuse Muslims. When Christians translate the Bible into Malay, it is simply to cater to the needs of Malay speaking Christians. Similarly, Christians all over world have translated the Bible into 2400 languages to cater for native speakers of these languages.

In this regard, it is important to note that Christians are defending their right to use the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God only in the Malay translation of the Bible (Alkitab). They have never suggested changing the words ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ to ‘Allah’ and ‘Tuhan’ respectively in the English translation of the Bible.

Linguistic Justification
Second, the linguistic justification for the Christian position is that they have the right to use the word Allah since the word ‘Allah’ – along with other Semitic words  like Hebrew (el, elohim) and Arabic (Allah) – is fundamentally a general term that refers to God. That is to say, Allah is not a personal name. In linguistic terms, the morphology of the word ‘Allah’ follows the grammatical rules of a generic noun.  Thus the words el, Allah show morphological inflections/declensions (e.g., depending on whether the word is used as a nominative, accusative, genitive case, etc).

Let me give a simple (obviously limited) illustration taken from the English language. Compare the following two statements:

(1) God save the Queen

(2) God save Elizabeth

Undoubtedly, when an Englishman utters those sentences he is referring to the same lady. Obviously, the word ‘Queen’ in (1) is a generic noun even though for English people there is only one queen (a monadic, one-of-a-kind noun) with the personal name (Elizabeth) in (2).

The limitation of this illustration lies in the fact that the word Queen remains the same in the English language, but the words el, allah or theos would be inflected/declined when used in different syntactical relations in a sentence.

Indeed, we can determine whether a particular noun is monadic when we go beyond just the single word and take into consideration the entire noun phrase. To give a Christian example, the expression “Heavenly Father” is monadic; “father” is not.

Based strictly on linguistics, Christians are justified in using the word ‘Allah’ to translate the word ‘el’/‘elohim’ in the Bible as both words are morphologically generic. They are not personal names. In short, since Allah is not a personal name it cannot be the sole preserve of Islam.

It is noted that Christians use the word ‘Tuhan’ to refer to the personal name of God YHWH (LORD). Historically, the Hebrew personal name for God, YHWH was translated with the word, ‘kurios’(LORD) for Greek Christians, which in turn was translated into ‘Rabb’ for Arabic Christians. The early Malay Christians naturally used the word ‘Tuhan’ (LORD) when they refer to the personal name of God while retaining the word ‘Allah’ for generic references to God.

(For further discussion see my earlier posts:
“The Semantics of the Word Allah” LINK
and
“Allah is not a Personal Name” LINK

These undeniable historical facts should put to rest the repeated claim made by some Muslim scholars that Christians only recently decided to adopt the word ‘Allah’. Their claim can only be maintained out of (1) ignorance of common knowledge of linguistics of Semitic languages, (2) deliberate disregard of the fact that the Christian usage of Allah in Malay Bibles is not recent but centuries old.

By the same token, the controversy over the word ‘Allah’ only pertains to the Malay Bible. There is no necessity to change the word ‘God’ to ‘Allah’ in the English Bible (nor have Malaysian Christian leaders suggested this possibility).

Allah Acceptable for Bahasa Malaysia Version of Rukun Negara but Not for the English Version
All these linguistic principles become clear when they are applied to frame a consistent Christian response to Hadi Awang’s suggestion regarding using the word ‘Allah’ in the Rukun Negara.

First, it is linguistically unnecessary and questionable to change words “belief in God” to “belief in Allah” for the English version of the Rukun Negara. There is no need to substitute the universally acceptable term ‘God’ in the English language.

Second, whether the authorities finally use the word ‘Allah’ or ‘Tuhan’ in the Bahasa Malaysia version of the Rukun Negara a minor issue. Still, it would be good for the  authorities along with the academia to debate on the relative merits of either term and then inform the public on the rationale for their final choice of either the word ‘Allah’ or ‘Tuhan’. Doubtless, the final choice is decided by what is considered most appropriate for capturing the original intention of the Rukun Negara.

However, the Rukun Negara decision should be separate from how Christians themselves decide on the most appropriate way to use ‘Allah’/’Tuhan’ to express their faith in the Alkitab. Indeed, the freedom to define one’s own beliefs on one’s terms is what the Christians are fighting for in the Allah Court case.

Additional note added on 6 April 2010 at 1215 am

Malaysiakini has just posted my comments as a letter LINK. I notice they did not include some minor changes suggested to them, changes that should help avoid a possible misinterpretation. I included the changes in the present post when I thought they were not going to print my article. In any case, the thrust my article remains the same.

3 Comments

  1. U-En Ng says:

    I have no quarrel with your argument that the use of cases distinguishes the syntactical position of a noun: “mensa, mensa, mensam; mensae, mensae, mensa” being the singular half of what schoolchildren learn of the first declension in their introductory Latin classes. Or at least they used to.

    I regret that I cannot make the same apply to your examples, to wit, “God save the Queen” and “God save Elizabeth”, for here we leave the realm of grammar and enter into semantics, with the equivalence of the two nouns “Queen” and “Elizabeth” being grounded in the latter rather than the former — English having lost all its declensions save the possessive and the pronomial object form, turning the accusative, dative and ablative into the same thing. (That is to say, “he” in English, turns to “him” both in the direct and indirect object; and “his” in the possessive (or genitive, in the old language). This is a function of Germanic languages as opposed to Romance.)

    For this reason I am unable to see how “God save the Queen” and “God save Elizabeth” should share anything but a semantic identity that expresses the hope that God might save two distinct individuals, one being the Queen and the other Elizabeth — that they might be the same person, or not, is not logically or grammatically necessary to adequate application.

    For example: even if saying “God save Elizabeth” in Trafalgar Square on a rainy Thursday evening to a woman called, say, Elizabeth Pope, elicits the understanding that Queen Elizabeth II is meant, it does not follow that this is a function of grammar and only one Elizabeth can possibly be meant. (I have, in fact, done this — but sadly in a different city and cannot thus demonstrate my point with the force I desire.)

    I am not sure how this affects your argument in response to Helen or Hadi Awang, but I thought I ought to point it out.

  2. Kam Weng says:

    Response to U-En.

    As I pointed out in my post – any illustration taken from the English language that does not display morphological inflection/declension suffers from some inherent limitations. My aim in giving the illustration is specifically directed at my Malaysian Muslim friends.

    So far, Malaysian Muslim scholars simply assert that other people cannot use the word ‘Allah’ because Islam uses it as a monadic noun. Indeed, they simply assert that ‘Allah’ is a proper name without giving any supporting evidence (If it were a personal name it would suggest a unique reference to the God of Islam).

    (As an aside, local Muslim scholars managed to supply two references to the great E. W. Lane Arab-English Lexicon and Duncan McDonald to support understanding ‘Allah’ as a proper noun, but this view is disputed by contemporary Arabic scholars who now have access to additional classical Arabic sources since Lane, especially ancient Arabic poetry).

    I could have simply quoted my Arabic Christian friends who personally assured me that ‘Allah’ is linguistically a general term. I give the simple (though limited) illustration of the ‘queen’ and ‘Elizabeth’ to help readers see that even if the Englishman uses a general term (‘queen’) in a monadic sense it does not justify the assertion of the term ‘queen’ as a proper noun/proper name (Elizabeth) regardless of the semantic identity in the case of the English speaker. The word ‘queen’ remains a common noun.

    Analogously, just because the Malaysian Muslims use the general word ‘Allah’ in a monadic sense (the One God) there is no justification to assert that ‘Allah’ is a proper noun, much less a proper name – at least when we take into account the morphology of the term ‘Allah’ and its classical usage.

    Personally I am puzzled why Malaysian Muslim scholars insist that Allah is a personal name. Are these Muslim scholars saying that their Allah has revealed his personal name? If it were a proper name in the meaning of ‘personal’ name, that would contradict Islamic theology which does not speak about God as a ‘person’. Is it not the case that Allah is not to be associated with attributes of his creation (shirk) and that names and attributes may be used of God only “without knowing/asking how” (bila kaif)?

    See my earlier post Analogical Language in Islamic theology LINK http://www.krisispraxis.com/archives/2006/07/analogical-language-in-theology-part-1/

    I await a Muslim clarification on this matter.