Allah Around the Globe – Egypt, USA, Indonesia, China and Malaysia
In the 21st century, the word “Allah” means differently to different people across the globe. Some zealously fight for the exclusivity of the word while others trumpet that Allah draws human beings to a common denominator: God. As I lived in different countries and met people of diverse background, I found that the definition of Allah to individuals interjects the richness of their background to the landscape of the discourse and faith traditions. Unfortunately, it also sparks hostility and violence. Who is Allah to the regional Muslims and non-Muslims across the globe?
Allah in Cairo, Egypt
A few weeks before leaving for Egypt, one of my professors at Yale Divinity School (YDS), a visiting Professor of the Middle East & Islamic Studies from Egypt, gave us a crash course on the culture of the Egyptians. “Please say ‘inshallah’ to humbly acknowledge God’s will and intervention in all things you do in your conversation with every Egyptian. The Egyptians, the Muslims and Christians use the word Allah for God,” she said. I thought to myself, “this is going to be another great adventure.”
The day came when we finally left the JFK Airport, New York. It was on the 25th of January, 2011, the first day of the protest at the Tahrir Square that later escalated to the unprecedented Arab Spring. While chatting with the Al-Azhar officers and Professor Joseph Cumming who met us at the Cairo airport the following day, I heard the ‘azan’ from the minaret calling out ‘Allahuakbar.’ I discovered myself feeling at home. My heart echoed the azan into a meditation, ‘God is great.’ When I started to feel connected with the local community through the azan, my North American classmates were also enjoying saying ‘alhamdulillah’ and ‘mashallah,’ two important vernacular words they began to learn to use.
Unfortunately, the instability due to the protest shortened the program. When we boarded onto the chartered plane that MEDEX and Yale University arranged for our evacuation, I had mixed feeling in saying goodbye to Cairo. I could not imagine saying ‘alhamdulillah’ when I knew my newly acquainted Egyptian community was experiencing turbulent period. Nevertheless, like everyone else who clapped their hands as the plane took off, I was glad to leave Egypt as our departure will reduce the burden that was faced by the al-Azhar University. A deep regret seeped through my heart for not completing my last semester there.
In June 13th 2011 about six months later, Dr. David Shenk, one of the two authors of the book ‘A Muslim and A Christian in Dialogue’ and his wife Grace, gave me a copy of the first publication of this book in Arabic language. The gift was a pleasant surprise. Why? Because, in the midst of the protest in Cairo, Shenk had this book launched by the al-Azhar University and a few of the prominent Muslim and Christian leaders in Cairo. The foreword was written by the mufti of Egypt indicating the endorsement of the Sunni theology school on what he wrote about Allah, i.e. “God has revealed himself to the prophet Abraham as Elohim or Allah, which is translated God Almighty” and with a footnote “Elohim and Allah derive from the same Semitic root El.”
I smiled. The YDS group did not even had the opportunity to enter the university compound due to the curfew, but Shenk at his age was successful to build peace in the midst of the chaos. And through his book, one can be affirmed that the Sunni scholars from this oldest university in the world agree that Allah is a Semitic word and hence, I interpreted their agreement that Allah is not exclusive for the Muslims.
Allah at Yale University
My evangelical classmate was uneased when I replied ‘Inshallah’ to what he said. I meant ‘God Willing!’ and my respond was followed by an interesting and a short polemical discussion. “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name will smell as sweet?” Shakespear – that was what I felt about the word like Allah, Tuhan, Gott, Shen (神) or zhŭ (主).These are generic words that denote God.
The non-Muslims Arab had used Allah long before the founding of Islam in the 7th century. Surah an-Najm 53:19, which mentioned the ‘sons of Allah’ (as pantheon gods) Uzza, Allat and the third goddess Manat evidenced that ‘Allah’ was connoted for God: monotheist and non-monotheist and the word was used widely by the Meccans prior to the birth of Prophet Muhammad. In the Bible, the presence of the Arabs were recorded as early as in Joshua’s period (Joshua 15:52) and some scholars estimated this to happen around 1250 BCE. If the Arabic language had been formed back then, Allah would have probably been used about 1880 years before Islam was founded.
Professor Miroslav Volf of Yale Center for Faith and Culture, in his latest book ‘Allah – A Christian Response,’ refuted Pat Robertson’s statement that Allah is ‘the moon God of Mecca’ in what Miroslav called, ‘an attempt to promote clashes’ among the worlds’ biggest religious adherents. Instead, Volf purported towards the overlapping of the worship of One God or ‘Allah,’ whom Muslims and Christians understand in partly different ways. The surah which I quoted earlier however did mention that Allah was also used to denote pantheon gods. This also means that the Quran itself affirms that Allah is not exclusive to denoting monotheist God, in this context, the God of the Jewish, Christians and Muslims.
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. Somehow, I cannot recapture this at all. With regard to her faith tradition and practices, I can only recall her cooking Indonesian food in one ‘Hari Natal’ or ‘Christmas Day.’ She cooked our delicacy: 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 on her faith. Worshiping three gods was definitely a ‘no no’ for me. The common denominator for conversation was our assignments. We were the only two female students specializing in nuclear power plant in the chemical engineering department at our university and Kristina was in the dean’s list. She was my unofficial tutor and I confessed that I abused the extra time I gained as a result of her kind help on my studies by squeezing 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, I looked at my Indonesian house mate’s worship DVD cover and found 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. I felt awkward to hear how ‘Allah’ and ‘Yesus’ were interchanged in the lyrics. This rooming experience opened door to engaging and mutually respecting 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 on the use of Allah among the Indonesians was expanded 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, in the ‘way they pronounce Allah.’ The Muslim Indonesians utter the word ‘Allah’ like the Arab word pronunciation, with the the front part of the tongue at the back part of the teeth. While most of the Christians pronounce the world ‘laam’ or ‘ل’ in the word Allah simply like the pronunciation of the word ‘L’ in English.
Allah in Shanghai, China
My previous local business partner in Shanghai, Madam Tzu, is a Muslim. I asked her once how the Chinese Muslims called God. I was expecting her to say ‘Allah’ and was curious on her pronunciation of the word. But her reply was ‘zhēn zhŭ,’ (真主). ‘Zhēn‘ means genuine while ‘zhŭ‘ means God.
Interestingly in China, only the Muslims use the word ‘Genuine God’ while other faith adherents use ‘zhŭ,’ without the word ‘zhēn.’ The word ‘Genuine God’ is widely accepted and used in the writings and publications to denote the Chinese Muslims’ God. The word ‘ān lā‘ (安拉) or Allah is used exclusively only when referring to the Arabic name for God. The problem with using the term ‘Genuine God’ is that when the Muslims embrace other faith, the word God that is used within their new faith community is simply ‘God’ and no longer the ‘Genuine God.’ The ‘downgrading’ and the ‘upgrading’ of the term that happens when the denotation for ‘God’ is interchanged as one crosses Islamic faith is a unique China spiritual experience. Only the native Chinese speakers can articulately express how such memory of verbal communication impacts their new spiritual lives.
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 from sighing every time I read news on this conflict.
In 2007, the word Allah was prohibited by the Malaysian Home Ministry from being used in the Christians worship and the non-Muslim publication, 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.
When Judge Lau Bee Lan of Malaysia’s high Court announced that Allah is not exclusive to the Muslims at the beginning of 2010, some of the mass public responded aggressively by bombing churches. The bombing was followed by the disposal of wild boar heads at the compound of a few mosques. There were 17 attacks of worship places in total in January 2010; 10 churches, 1 convent school, three mosques and two suraus (small Muslim prayer place) and a Sikh gurdwara.
During this period, 130 Muslims NGOs help to guard the churches as there weren’t enough police officers to patrol. No one died or injured in any of these events. This to me reflected that these acts were outlets for frustration. Every Malaysian is affected with these incidents and unfortunately, hurt does not heal fast. The truth is, Malaysian public still care about each other. But the pressing question is how can the conflict be mitigated and resolved?
It is true that Muslims in Malaysia have been using the word Allah to indicate the God of the Muslim while the word ‘Tuhan’ is used to indicate God in a generic term. The use of this word in Malaysia’s landscape 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 polemic and tension erupted from the dispute of using 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 – let’s not forget that shalom means peace and salam or the word ‘Assalamualaikum,’ which we always say, means ‘may peace be upon you.’ Let’s love peace and love doing good.
(Click here for Al-jazeera Inside Story on the issue of Allah in Malaysia)