Christians are pleased with this month’s ruling by a Malaysian court that a government prohibition on non-Muslims using the word Allah is illegal and irrational. However, the ruling has expectedly stirred much emotion within the Southeast Asian nation’s Muslim community, which has always held the word to be exclusive to Islam and for use by Muslims only.
I will leave comments on the extensive grounds of the High Court’s recently released 96-page judgement, released March 17, to the legal community. My more modest purpose here is to address the social-religious implications of the case for the church at large.
The Allah Debate
The debate over Christians referring to God as Allah has a longstanding history. Beginning with concerns about the proselytization of Muslims in the 1980s, the federal government issued an executive directive in 1986 banning the use of four words by non-Muslims in order to allay Muslim fears. One of the four words was Allah. It’s important to note when this was issued, there was a context. The directive was not a total or complete ban, as the government was well aware that Christians—in particular those in East Malaysia—and indigenous peoples were using the Malay language and the word Allah in their religious worship, rites, and spiritual activities.
As time went by, Bibles and other Christian publications in the Malay language were either impounded or confiscated. In 2008, Jill Ireland, a Melanau Christian from Sarawak who was flying home had eight educational CDs (containing worship songs) seized by customs at the Kuala Lumpur international airport. The Home Affairs Ministry informed her the CDs were withheld due to their prohibited use of the word Allah. Being dissatisfied with the seizure of the CDs, Ireland sued for the return of the CDs and a declaration that as a Christian, she is entitled to use the word based on her constitutional right to freedom of religion or belief.
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