Malaysia’s head of state, Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah of Pahang, has spoken out on the controversial use of the world Allah, God, in the Malay language, by non-Muslims.
In Malaysia, the head of state – the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or Supreme Head of the Federation (unofficially the King of Malaysia) – is chosen for a five-year term by the Conference of Rulers from among the nine Malaysian states (out of 13) who have a hereditary head of state. The sultans are also head of religion (Islam).
Yesterday, Malaysia’s national news agency BERNAMA reported that the Sultan of Pahang was concerned about the controversy surrounding the use of the word Allah, and that for him, it was not a debate about terminology or linguistics but a matter of faith for the Muslim community and that any persistent confusion poses serious risks.
“My government must harmonise the current situation and at the same time, place the use of the word Allah in the right context by taking into account national security, the benefit of the ummah as well as my position and the position of other Malay Rulers as heads of Islam,” King Abdullah of Pahang said during a federal awards ceremony on his official birthday at the National Place, the monarch’s official residence in the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The debate revolves around the Arabic word Allah, God, which has been incorporated into the Malay language. Over several decades, its use by non-Muslim minorities when speaking Malay has been opposed by some Muslims, more so in recent years after some radical Islamist groups sought to ban ethnic and religious minorities from using it altogether.
The latest flareup comes on the heels of an announcement on 15 May by the federal government that it would withdraw its appeal against a ruling allowing Christians to use the word Allah, including in their publications.
A week later, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said that the government would streamline conflicting regulations regarding the use of the word Allah by non-Muslims.
The government is likely to ban its use by non-Muslims in Malaysia’s peninsular states (where Islam is the majority religion), but will allow it in the states – Sarawak and Sabah – located on Borneo Island, where the Christian community is concentrated.
In the Malay language, the deity is defined in various ways, but Allah has been in use for centuries, by Christians as well.
The distinction in the use that the authorities have pursued in courts stems from the push by successive post-independence governments to have Malaysia’s Islamic clearly recognised (even if Islam is the religion of just over half of the population).
In 2009, a court banned Herald Malaysia, the country’s Catholic weekly, from using Allah to refer to the Christian God. The ruling was overturned by a higher court, which the government appealed.
Since then, the issue has become highly politicised, exacerbating a debate that remains ongoing.