The Malaysian High Court’s decision to allow Christians to use the word Allah in their publications is commendable. However, the court’s past rulings on the subject and its political relevance for Muslim Malay political leaders indicate that the issue is far from over.
By Umair Jamal
A Malaysian court has ruled that Christians in the country can use the word Allah in their religious publications, striking down a government ban from 1986.
Malaysia’s Home Ministry had declared it unconstitutional for Christians to use the word Allah, arguing that it is not a fundamental part of Christian faith.
However, the controversy is unlikely to end with the High Court’s latest verdict as the country’s judiciary remains divided over the issue. In fact, the timing of the verdict may have made the matter more controversial as Malaysia’s government and opposition parties prepare for an election.
What is the Allah ban controversy?
After a decade-long trial, a Malaysian court has allowed Christians to use to use the word Allah in their religious texts. Besides the word Allah, the court allowed Christians to use three other words: Kaabah, Islam’s holiest monument; Solat, meaning prayer; and Baitullah, the House of God, in their publications.
Malaysia’s government supported maintaining the ban on the basis that overturning it could lead to confusion and lead some Muslims to convert to Christianity.
The legal battle gained publicity in 2008 when authorities at a Malaysian airport seized a set of educational CDs belonging to a Christian, Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, because they contained the word Allah. Bill then set out to dispute the 1986 ban on Christians’ use of Allah in religious texts and publications.
In a separate case, a major Christian magazine in Malaysia, The Herald, has also led a legal battle against the government ban for more than a decade. The editor of The Herald magazine, Father Lawrence Andrew, maintains that Christians have used the word Allah for centuries in Malaysia and the attempt to ban its use among his community has no religious grounds.
Andrew believes that radical elements within the country’s ruling elite are supporting an attempt to keep the ban in place as they try to bolster their influence within the Muslim community. However, according to Andrew, this has only undermined the diverse ethnic and religious identity of Malaysia.
“So that’s why we say that it is not so much a question of language here, it is also a cultural heritage of our Christian people that has been challenged by prohibiting us from using the word Allah,” Andrew told the Voice of America.
Malaysian law prohibits Christians from converting anyone to their faith. Andrew emphasizes that his community has followed the law in this regard, saying, “There have been Malays who came to me and said: ‘Father I want to become a Christian—baptize me.’ And my answer to them is: ‘No way, we will not baptize you. You know the law of the country. We cannot convert you’… Now this law of the country has been in existence for 50 years, and it is part of the constitution and we wouldn’t want to go against this constitution.”
Justice Nor Bee, the Kuala Lumpur High Court judge who ruled in the case, said the ban on the use of four words by Christians was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
“The freedom to profess and practice one’s religion should include the right to own religious materials,” she said.
Malaysia’s courts remain divided over the issue
The contentious history of the case shows that the ruling is likely to face further scrutiny and may not stand if challenged in a higher court. In 2009, a lower court ruled in favor of Christians, allowing them to use the word Allah. The decision prompted clashes between Muslims and Christians resulting in the burning of dozens of churches and mosques.
The government and Muslim groups challenged the verdict and immediately filed an appeal case. In 2013, a court went against the 2009 decision, ruling that Malaysian Christians cannot use the word Allah in their books. The court said in its verdict that the word Allah should only be used by Muslims to refer to God because any other uses could lead to violence and public disorder. “The usage of the word Allah is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity. The usage of the word will cause confusion in the [Muslim] community,” said the court in its 2013 ruling.
This ruling, in turn, sparked objections among Christians. Expressing her disappointment, one Christian woman told BBC at the time that “If we are prohibited from using the word Allah then we have to re-translate the whole Bible, if it comes to that.”
Commenting on the 2013 ruling, Father Andrew said, “Allah is a term in the Middle East and in Indonesia it is a term both for Christians and Muslims. You cannot say that all of the sudden it is not an integral part. Malay language is a language that has many borrowed words, Allah also is a borrowed word.”
In 2014, the High Court issued an initial ruling on Bill’s case and declared that the seizure of her personal property in 2008, though it contained the word Allah, was unlawful. But the ruling didn’t address the key point of the case related to the use of the word itself by the Christian community.
The High Court reached its final decision in the case back in 2017, but this verdict was not announced until March 10 of this year, as Muslim and Christian leaders tried to reach an out-of-court resolution. When this hadn’t succeeded after more than three years, the court released its judgement.
The latest overturning of the ban is an indication that non-Muslim communities in Malaysia can expect justice from courts. “There is no such power to restrict religious freedom under Article 11,” said Judge Noor Bee in her ruling, referring to the statute of Malaysian law that protects religious practices. “Religious freedom is absolutely protected even in times of threat to public order.”
The fate of the case is far from settled
The government of Malaysia has already challenged the High Court’s verdict. Initially, the government’s response seemed to indicate they would let the ruling stand and the debate would eventually recede. Immediately after the ruling, the government’s lawyer in the case, Shamsul Bolhassan, said that Christian publications in Malaysia “must carry a disclaimer that [they are] intended for Christians only, as well as a cross symbol”.
However, on March 15, the government lodged a review petition in the court of appeal, saying it was “not satisfied” with the High Court’s verdict. It appears the controversy has gained renewed political relevance as parties vie for the majority Muslim vote in the impending election expected to take place later this year.
Muhamad Nadzri Mohamed Noor, a political scientist based at the National University of Malaysia, told the South China Morning Post that with campaigns likely to focus on “identity and religion”, Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin could use an attempt to reverse the ruling as a defense against his opponents.
Nadzri also believes that “[The Allah issue] may be used by political parties or Malay nationalist leaders to discredit Perikatan Nasional [Muhyiddin’s coalition] and pull their support away easily.”
Perhaps, this threat could be one reason Muhyiddin’s government has challenged the verdict—to preempt his opposition’s attacks and appeal to Malay Muslims voters. More controversies are likely to follow in the coming weeks if the “Allah issue” becomes central to political campaigns.