Monday, 4 January 2010

Allah versus God, politically correct language takes a Malaysian turn

No religion has a monopoly on language. Or God or Allah or whatever one chooses to call Him. The Malaysian High Court's brave decision to permit non-Muslims to use Allah synonymously with God is a nod in that direction.

Allah is one of the Arabic language's most recognized words, even when it is part of a larger phrase

Allah is an Arabic word meaning God which predates Islam.
Allah, the word (and the script) is closely associated with Islam. When the Fort Hood attacker allegedly shouted 'Allah-o-Akbar' prior to shooting soldiers at his army camp, few will have mistaken the phrase for a Christian chant.
In a sense, Allah is part of the Islamic 'brand.' A reasonable patent office will surely agree to an application filed by Islamic authorities.
However, just as I have a license on how I spell 'Ahmed' so do thousands of other 'Ahmad's.' My copyright is not exclusive and does not preclude others from spelling the name differently. Similarly, Allah may be 'owned' by Muslims but not to the exclusion of non-Muslims.
Perhaps that is a simplistic version of a battle playing out in Malaysia's legal system between Malaysia's 850,000 strong Catholic community and Islamic conservatives.
However, the real story is a much bigger one. It is unfinished tale about a tolerant and self-confident Islam versus the current popular perception of a religion tarnished by extremist fanaticism.
Unfortunately, Islam has its own demons to conquer.
The linguistic battle is part of the war of ideas forced upon Muslims who somehow missed the Industrial Revolution. Having slept through much of the 1700 – 1900s, Muslims suddenly woke up in a world with electricity, airplanes, super tankers and the internet.
It is not surprising Islam is confused. On top of everything, Islam's intellectual reservoir is spent arguing about trivial matters.
The revitalization of Islam's body politic through effective governance is an agenda topic for annual summits. Statements are dutifully and regularly issued. Practical action is sorely lacking.
At the local level a misguided cleric often remains in control of interpreting Islam. The clerics are desperately trying to hang on to their archaic beliefs. These obscurantist forces are willing and able to go to extreme lengths to project (and protect) their world view.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal was a pioneer in the Islamic modernist movement. Among other places, he also studied at Heidelberg University in Germany

Islamic modernists first meaningfully appeared during the 1900s. They have yet to find their feet. Critical mass eludes the modernists. In today's treacherous environment, modern ideas are controlled or subdued by the suicide bomber.
Islam is strong enough to stand on its own feet. It does not require the crutches of a restrictive legal system. Is Islam so weak that a revitalized Malaysian Catholic (Allah in place of God) newsletter may transform Malaysian Muslims to suddenly believe in the trinity and break their link with Islam?
Neither Allah nor Islam is in danger of disappearing if the Catholic God miraculously became Allah, at least in the material world of publications.
If we are resolved to describe Islam as a system of superior values, we are obliged, first of all, to acknowledge that we are not the true representatives of Islam.
Muhammad Iqbal

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