The Sacred and the Secular: Promoting Muslim Democracy

June 2nd, 2011, by Asef Bayat   Asef Bayat Urbana-Champaign, Illinois The presence of religion in public space challenges our ideas about the roles of faith in our lives and politics. Over the last centuries, proponents of secularization have claimed that as societies modernize, the role of religion in public and private life diminishes. For […]

War or Reconciliation (Part 3)

Skye Jethani Response to Hirsi Ali: Why Evangelicals Must Defend Muslims  Published @ Huff Post – Column on Religion/ Islam on 12th March 2012 Some Christians get excited when they discover that I’m half Indian or that I studied Islam in college. They’ll sometimes ask me to talk about how Christianity compares to other faiths. […]

My Story – World Christianity and Thanksgiving Day

This gallery contains 20 photos.

Shaded relief Map of the Mediterranean Sea – and its Basin and Landforms Professor Lamin Sanneh and World Christianity Four days before the North American Thanksgiving Day, I finished reading The Christian Movement in Islamic Perspective, chapter two of Professor Lamin Sanneh’s book, Disciples of All Nations – Pillars of World Christianity. I could not […]

Apostasy in Malaysia: The hidden view

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By Joshua Woo Published in National University of Australia – New Mandala website on November 10th, 2011 The two banners displayed at the Shah Alam Stadium during the Himpunan Sejuta Umat (Gathering of a million faithful) assembly on 22 October 2011 read “Say no to apostasy, don’t challenge the position of Islam” and “Together let’s […]

Freedom of faith for Malaysian Malays

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By: Norani Abu Bakar Published in: New Mandala – National University of Australia; re-posted Malaysia Today; Center for Policy Initiatives, etc. Date: 17th November 2011 Although Joshua Woo Sze Zeng’s “Apostasy in Malaysia: The Hidden View,” has showcased the scholarship of some renowned Muslim scholars and leaders, their perspective continues to be “hidden” to the […]

Reflection – Whose God is Allah?

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 () or zhŭ  ().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)




The Commonalities – Worshipping a Monotheist God

Shalom and a Warm Welcome

Many verses in the Quran say that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. One example is:

“And argue not with the People of the Book, except by what is best, save such of them as act unjustly. But say: We believe in what which has been revealed to us and revealed to you and our God and your God is One, and to Him we submit” (Al-Ankabul 29:46 Translation – Maulana Muhammad Ali)

Nevertheless, some Muslims believe that the Christians worship three gods, the Father, Isa or Jesus and Mariam or Mary. Their conclusions are based on some Quran verses such as:  

 And behold! Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah.?” He will say: “Glory to Thee! Never could I say what I had no right (to say). (al-Ma’ida 5:116a) (Translation Yusuf Ali)

The Christians do not worship Mary. Like the Muslims, most Christians, especially the Catholics, revere her. Why do some of the Quranic verses say that Muslims and Christians worship One God and then later contradict them by saying that the Christians worship Mary? Some scholars answer this question by pointing to the presence of the heretical sect Christians, such as Barbaraniyya and Collyridians, who worshipped Mary around 7th century. Thus, the Quran is right in refuting such worship as it is inconsistent with Christianity.

Christians believe in monotheist God. They hold to their hearts the commandment that was given to Moses in Torah which says:

Hear O Israel, The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. (Deutronomy 6:4-7 NIV)    

This same commandment was taught by Jesus thousands of years later and is recorded in the gospel Injil in the book of Luke 10:27a and Mark 12:30.  

He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; (Luke 10:27a NIV)

What is the difference between ‘three gods’ and the Trinity God? The Trinity is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – Three persons in One. How can three be ‘One’? Professor Volf of Yale University explains this theologically in his paper, ‘A Christian Response to Muslims Allah and the Trinity God – A Christian Response on Muslims Allah and the Trinity.’ Another short writing relevant to this discussion is ‘The Trinity – Christian Doctrine in Islamic Context.’

Several surah that are relevant to the Trinity in Islamic context are given below. Note that all surah in Arabic as in (2) and (3) below, rebuke Christians for worshipping Tri-Theism or three gods. Indeed, Christians do not worship three gods but one God. The misunderstanding arises as some of the translation works interpreted or commented the Arabic word ‘Three’ to ‘Trinity.’  

When Muslims talk about worshiping One God as in Al-Ankabul 29:46, they meant to say that God is only One, the Creator who has 99 sifat (e.g. the knowledgeable, the powerful). This affirms the Christians belief in monotheist God. However, the Muslims believe that Isa al-Masih is fully man and that a man cannot be God and cannot be conceived into a human form.

The mainstream Christians believe that Isa al-Masih or Jesus Christ is fully man and fully divine. In Christianity, God is perceived as desiring to have a love relatonship with the creation, expressed by involving in every moment of the lives of the human being. A relationship works both ways and comes voluntarily. As God is perfect and human being is imperfect, the communion between human and God must first be restored in order for human being to have a relationship with God. This can only be done by God. The restoration is the greatest expression of God’s love and it was accomplished at the cross through the death and the suffering of Jesus Christ. A person who believes that God loves him or her eternally to the point of death of human Jesus Christ, receives the grace of salvation and the Spirit of God. This grace of faith bridges one’s relationship with God and the communion between one’s spirit with the Holy Spirit.  

The mystical Trinity: the Creator, Savior and Spirit, as One God is sometimes expressed by the Christians through the analogy of mind, body and spirit – three dimensions of one selfhood.   

Reading 1:

Reading 2:

1. Surah that affirm the Christians and Muslims worship the same One God.

 وَلَا تُجَادِلُوا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ إِلَّا بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ إِلَّا الَّذِينَ ظَلَمُوا مِنْهُمْ وَقُولُوا آمَنَّا بِالَّذِي أُنزِلَ إِلَيْنَا وَأُنزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ وَإِلَهُنَا وَإِلَهُكُمْ وَاحِدٌ وَنَحْنُ لَهُ مُسْلِمُونَ  – And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” (al-Ankabut 29:46)

فَلِذَلِكَ فَادْعُ وَاسْتَقِمْ كَمَا أُمِرْتَ وَلَا تَتَّبِعْ أَهْوَاءهُمْ وَقُلْ آمَنتُ بِمَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ مِن كِتَابٍ وَأُمِرْتُ لِأَعْدِلَ بَيْنَكُمُ اللَّهُ رَبُّنَا وَرَبُّكُمْ لَنَا أَعْمَالُنَا وَلَكُمْ أَعْمَالُكُمْ لَا حُجَّةَ بَيْنَنَا وَبَيْنَكُمُ اللَّهُ يَجْمَعُ بَيْنَنَا وَإِلَيْهِ الْمَصِيرُ – Now then, for that (reason), call (them to the Faith), and stand steadfast as thou art commanded, nor follow thou their vain desires; but say: “I believe in the Book which Allah has sent down; and I am commanded to judge justly between you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord: for us (is the responsibility for) our deeds, and for you for your deeds. There is no contention between us and you. Allah will bring us together, and to Him is (our) Final Goal. (al-Shura 42:15)


2. Various interpretations on al-Nisa 4:171 indicating how some translations use“three” and other use “Trinity.”

 يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لاَ تَغْلُواْ فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ عَلَى اللّهِ إِلاَّ الْحَقِّ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللّهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَى مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ فَآمِنُواْ بِاللّهِ وَرُسُلِهِ وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ ثَلاَثَةٌ انتَهُواْ خَيْرًا لَّكُمْ إِنَّمَا اللّهُ إِلَهٌ وَاحِدٌ سُبْحَانَهُ أَن يَكُونَ لَهُ وَلَدٌ لَّهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَات وَمَا فِي الأَرْضِ وَكَفَى بِاللّهِ وَكِيلاً –

O followers of the Book! do not exceed the limits in your religion, and do not speak (lies) against Allah, but (speak) the truth; the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Mariam and a spirit from Him; believe therefore in Allah and His messengers, and say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you; Allah is only one Allah; far be It from His glory that He should have a son, whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth is His, and Allah is sufficient for a Protector. (Al-Nisa 4:171) (Translation Muhammad Habib Shakir:

O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion: Nor say of Allah aught but the truth. Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) an apostle of Allah, and His Word, which He bestowed on Mary, and a spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His apostles. Say not “Trinity“: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is one Allah. Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth. And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs. (Al-Nisa 4:171) (Translation by Yusuf Ali:

O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which He conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three” – Cease! (it is) better for you! – Allah is only One Allah. Far is it removed from His Transcendent Majesty that He should have a son. His is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is sufficient as Defender. (Al-Nisa 4:171) (Translation Muhammad Pickthal:

O people of the Scripture (Christians)! Do not exceed the limits in your religion, nor say of Allah aught but the truth. The Messiah ‘Îsa (Jesus), son of Maryam (Mary), was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah and His Word, (“Be!” – and he was) which He bestowed on Maryam (Mary) and a spirit (Ruh ) created by Him; so believe in Allah and His Messengers. Say not: “Three (trinity)!” Cease! (it is) better for you. For Allah is (the only) One Ilah (God),glory be to Him (Far Exalted is He) above having a son. To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is All-Sufficient as a Disposer of affairs. (Translation Mohsin Khan:

O People of the Book, exceed not the limits in your religion nor speak anything about Allah, but the truth. The Messiah Jesus, son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah and His word which He communicated to Mary and a mercy from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you. Allah is only one God. Far be it from His glory to have a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth. And sufficient is Allah as having charge of affairs. (Maulana Muhammad Ali, The Holy Quran with English Translation and Commentary (Ohio:Ahmadiyya Anjuman Isha’at Lahore Inc., 2002), page 242)


3. Do these verses reject Tri-Theism (Three gods) or Trinity?Please refer to Reading 2 to read on the explanation on these verses (the link isgiven above) 

وَإِذْ قَالَ اللّهُ يَا عِيسَى ابْنَ مَرْيَمَ أَأَنتَ قُلتَ لِلنَّاسِ اتَّخِذُونِي وَأُمِّيَ إِلَهَيْنِ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ قَالَ سُبْحَانَكَ مَا يَكُونُ لِي أَنْ أَقُولَ مَا لَيْسَ لِي بِحَقٍّ إِن كُنتُ قُلْتُهُ فَقَدْ عَلِمْتَهُ تَعْلَمُ مَا فِي نَفْسِي وَلاَ أَعْلَمُ مَا فِي نَفْسِكَ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ عَلاَّمُ الْغُيُوبِ  – And behold! Allah will say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Didst thou say unto men, worship me and my mother as gods in derogation of Allah.?” He will say: “Glory to Thee! never could I say what I had no right (to say). Had I said such a thing, thou wouldst indeed have known it. Thou knowest what is in my heart, Thou I know not what is in Thine. For Thou knowest in full all that is hidden. (al-Ma’ida 5:116)

لَّقَدْ كَفَرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُواْ إِنَّ اللّهَ ثَالِثُ ثَلاَثَةٍ وَمَا مِنْ إِلَهٍ إِلاَّ إِلَهٌ وَاحِدٌ وَإِن لَّمْ يَنتَهُواْ عَمَّا يَقُولُونَ لَيَمَسَّنَّ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُواْ مِنْهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ – They do blaspheme who say: Allah is one of three in a Trinity: for there is no god except One Allah. If they desist not from their word (of blasphemy), verily a grievous penalty will befall the blasphemers among them. (al-Ma’ida 5:73)

مَّا الْمَسِيحُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ إِلاَّ رَسُولٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِ الرُّسُلُ وَأُمُّهُ صِدِّيقَةٌ كَانَا يَأْكُلاَنِ الطَّعَامَ انظُرْ كَيْفَ نُبَيِّنُ لَهُمُ الآيَاتِ ثُمَّ انظُرْ أَنَّى يُؤْفَكُونَ – Christ the son of Mary was no more than an apostle; many were the apostles that passed away before him. His mother was a woman of truth. They had both to eat their (daily) food. See how Allah doth make His signs clear to them; yet see in what ways they are deluded away from the truth! (al-Ma’ida 5:76) 

(The translations of the surah are from Yusuf Ali online translation of Quran unless indicated otherwise.