Courtesy Reuters

No God But God

Malaysia's "Allah" Controversy

Last December, the Malaysian High Court ruled that the Herald, a weekly Catholic magazine, was allowed to use the Arabic word "Allah" to refer to God in its Malay-language section. The decision overturned a government ban on non-Muslim use of the term and was met with protests in Kuala Lumpur's central mosque and decried online in numerous Malay Muslim chat rooms. In the days following the announcement, arsonists set fire to as many as eight churches around the country. Subsequently, several Muslim prayer halls were also attacked.

The arson attacks have caused a round of soul-searching among Malaysians, who are fond of celebrating their country's rich religious and racial diversity but who have seen its politics become increasingly sectarian in recent decades. Left unaddressed, these trends could undermine the delicate sociocultural balance in one of the Muslim world's most developed nations and deal a fatal blow to Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's goal of national unity.

For many Muslims in the region, Christian use of the word "Allah" is relatively unproblematic. Jesus, who lived six centuries before Islam was founded, would most likely have used a similar Aramaic word, "Alah," in reference to God. In fact, the Arabic word "Allah" shares the same root as the Aramaic "Alah" as well as the Hebrew "Elohim." It is derived from two words, namely "Al," meaning "the" and "Elah" meaning God. In this sense, it can be argued that "Allah," "Elohim," and "Alah" or "Elah" are closely linked.

Today, the word "Allah" is used by Muslims and many Christians alike. When the Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrate their Christmas Mass, for example, their pope begins his sermon with the phrase "Bismillah" (in the name of God) and uses the word "Allah" throughout. In Southeast Asia, Catholics and Protestants use the term "Allah"; Indonesian Christians have sung prayers to Allah at every Easter and Christmas celebration since the arrival of Christianity on those islands a millennium ago.

The term is as important to Arab and

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