Articles taken from
by: Imran Mustafa and Wan Mohd Aimran Wan Mohd Kamil are research fellows at Himpunan Keilmuan Muslim
WE read with interest the article entitled “Allah row — what’s the name of the game?” written by Ong Kian Ming and published in Malaysiakini.
In the spirit of new beginnings marked by the coming of a new year of the common/Christian Era, we believe that it is fitting to look into the issue regarding the permissibility of using the name Allah by Christians in Malaysia as part of their religious ceremonies.
Ong has shared some of his insights into the matter and his wish for a sensible discussion on the matter rather than resorting to “baseless accusations and impractical ‘suggestions’ that ignore due process” is laudable and worthy of emulation.
He justifies his support for permitting Christians in Malaysia to use the name Allah in their religious practices for three reasons:
1) THAT Christians ought to enjoy the autonomy to determine the choice of technical terms to be used in their religious practices;
2)THAT the proposed translation “Tuhan” has already been used in the Malay-language Bible for Yahweh. Therefore, to also translate Elohim (which he conceives as a generic name for god) into “Tuhan” will trigger theological and semantic confusion among Christians, since Yahweh is a specific noun whereas Elohim is a generic noun; and,
3)THAT to translate Yahweh into Allah will have no practical implications for Muslims as “Christians have been using Allah in Sabah and Sarawak for many years without ‘confusing’ or ‘misleading’ Muslims in both states… and that it was unlikely that we would find throngs of Muslims flocking to churches on any given Sunday in Malaysia and be offended by the usage of the word Allah during these services (especially given the limited number of church services in Bahasa Malaysia in Peninsular Malaysia)”.
In this essay, we shall limit and direct our attention to the second reason since, to our way of thinking, it is the most fundamental reason upon which the first and third reasons rest.
We would like to point to two of the three points which Ong has raised, summarised in the following paragraphs: “Secondly, the proposal to replace the word ‘Allah’ with ‘Tuhan’ ignores the fact that ‘Tuhan’ (or rather TUHAN) is already used in the Bahasa Malaysia bible. Without going into literary semantics, we would merely state here that YWHW (or Yahweh) in the Old Testament is translated into TUHAN whereas the generic name of God — El or Elohim — is translated into Allah.
“In the various English translations, YWHW is translated as LORD (in capital letters) whereas El or Elohim is translated as God. In response to this, someone may again make the friendly suggestion that YWHW be translated into TUHAN while El or Elohim be translated into Tuhan (no capital letters) rather than Allah.
“Other than the contradicting point one above, this suggestion ignores the more than 300 times where YWHW is paired with El or Elohim (or LORD with God). If Allah is to be replaced with Tuhan, we would find Tuhan appearing twice in the same verse.”
There seems to be an obvious problem here. In Malay, “Allah” is not a generic name for God, the word “Tuhan” is. This is clear from the translation of the Muslim shahadah (literally, witnessing) of the Arabic which reads: “Tiada tuhan melainkan Allah, dan Muhammad itu Pesuruh Allah.”
(There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.)
Though we are not deeply learned in the science of semantics nor in Christian theology, it seems strange to translate both YHWH and El or Elohim in the manner which has been suggested, given that the meaning in Malay is actually the reverse: “Tuhan” is the generic name for God in Malay, while the word “Allah” is the specific name for God.
There seems to be an inconsistency — if not an error — in the categorisation employed in order to match the original words in English (Yahweh and Elohim) with its purported Malay counterparts (Tuhan and Allah), which might indicate a mistake in the initial process of translation itself.
One can argue that this is tradition, and that translations have always been problematic and that we should go with what past Christians have decided, but there are at least three instances within the Christian tradition which could point to the fact that translations have been important:
THE name “Peter” is derived from “Petros”, which means “Rock” in Greek. However, we do not use the word “Rock” to mean “Peter”, nor do we use “Batu”. In Indonesian, “Petros” is rendered as “Petrus”;
THE word Mašíac in Hebrew means “the Anointed One”. It is translated into the Septuagint (Greek) as Khristós, which has roughly the same meaning, and subsequently into English as “Christ”.
However, when the Bible is translated into Malay, the word used is “al-Masih” — which is within the Malay language genes given that it is from Arabic — rather than Christ, as this word conveys a similar meaning in Malay; and,
THE translation of the verse in Matthew 16:18, “You are Peter (rock), and on this rock I will build my church”, was first rendered into English in the Tyndale Bible (which forms part of the basis of the King James or English Standard Version of the bible) as, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my congregation”, hence removing the need for an ecclesiastical hierarchy. In Indonesian, it seems that it is rendered as, “Engkau adalah Petrus dan di atas batu karang ini Aku akan mendirikan jemaat-Ku”, which on the surface, seems closer to the Tyndale translation and is, therefore, a Protestant take of the verse.
The point of the three examples above is to demonstrate that the primary goal of a good translation is to transfer correctly the meaning of a word from one language into another by employing terms and concepts which are indigenous to the translated language.
This conception of translation as a process of transferring meaning inherent in words combines both mathematical-like qualities of rigour, clarity and precision with a creative sensitivity to the subtle shifts in meanings projected by the vocabulary of a particular language. It presupposes knowledge in the translator of the worldviews in which these two distinct languages represent.
A good “modern” example of this is the translation proposed by the eminent Muslim scholar, Tan Sri Prof Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas for the word “secularism”, which he translated into Malay as “faham ke-disini-kini-an” (literally, the-here-and-now), which captures the essential meaning which the word “saeculum” denotes, instead of “sekularisme” as it is often rendered.
It is interesting to note that even within Christianity, there is an acknowledgement of the potentially enormous confusion that will be generated among its adherents should important religious terms, in this case, the name by which one calls God, is translated incorrectly and inappropriately from one language into another.
What this implies is that there is an acceptance on both sides of the Muslim-Christian divide with regards to the foundational premise that true meaning is tied to correct and exact choice of words.
In other words, words which are assigned arbitrarily to particular meanings cannot be guaranteed to fulfil their primary role in conveying their meaning, thus the process of assigning words (form) to meaning (substance) must be considered and executed carefully and intelligently.
It follows, therefore, that if the word “Allah” is to be liberally embraced in Christian services, then:
THERE will be a risk of misrepresenting the conception of God within Christianity itself, since the Christian conception of God symbolised by the Trinity is absolutely and completely dissimilar to the conception of Allah in Islam; in other words, the potential for confusion is not confined only to Muslims but also to Christians;
IT will constitute a grave infringement upon the greater right of the Muslims over the name by which they call upon God as understood correctly and truly in Islam; for since in Islam, the word “Allah” is not a translation of some other word nor is it a product of cultural syncretism that develops through history, but it is the name which God had chosen to call Himself and to make Himself known to mankind.
WHEREAS in Christianity, the word “Allah” is claimed and employed to be a translation of the English word for Yahweh or Elohim into Malay. Between the two, surely the party who does not have to translate the term has a greater right over the correct and proper use of the term, just as somebody who owns a car has greater right and priority over somebody who borrows that car.
Indeed, as elaborated by Professor Dr Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud, the name “Allah” came into the Malay world with the coming of Islam, therefore, it does not have any other meaning apart from the meaning that was brought by and associated with Islam.
It follows that the often-repeated argument that Christians should be permitted to use the name “Allah” because it has long been used, and continues to be used, by non-Muslims in the Middle East, for example Christian Arabs, overlooks the historical fact that it was Islam that first introduced the word to the religious and intellectual consciousness of the peoples in the Malay world, especially Muslims.
Owing to the centrality of the name Allah in Islam — both as a religion and a civilisation — and the enormous significance attached to it, not only in terms of religious rituals, but also in terms of the Islamic perspectives upon the nature of existence, knowledge, happiness and virtue, Muslims down the ages who are profoundly aware of its weight and import are opposed to any attempts to attribute deviant meanings to the name Allah.
They have strived instead to generate new terms that can accommodate the intended and superficially similar, but fundamentally different meanings as required by new circumstances without compromising the established worldview as projected by key Islamic terms and concepts.
Now, if there are issues with the original translations, there is no reason to think that the word “Yahweh” is unsuitable compared with the word “Allah”.
It is conceivable to argue that using the word “Tuhan” to refer to El or Elohim and the word Yahweh to refer to YHWH would be a much more faithful rendering in Malay of the original meaning contained in the Old Testament, rather than employing the word “Allah”.
If it is questions of theology we are concerned with, then these can be averted by simply introducing the word “Yahweh” into the Malay vocabulary and to then assigning it a specific meaning. This kind of “side-stepping” is not necessarily new in the Christian tradition.
One is reminded of how the early Christians who had to wrestle theologically with Muslims in Arabic faced a much more difficult task as the meaning of the terms used are basically controlled by Muslims.
But they managed to render the right words with the right meanings in Arabic despite the problems, even going so far as to make Arabic a language for Christian prayer, but without undermining and corrupting the established meaning of key terms and concepts within the “semantic field” of Arabic, and ultimately the world view of Islam.
If it is further argued that YHWH is not a Malay word, then one can argue that the word “ekaristi” (eucharist) is also not in the Malay language originally, but was introduced later.
Furthermore, an addition of another word is not impractical as it is often trumpeted to be as this will simply involve substituting the words “Allah” and “Tuhan” in the translation of the Bible with the correctly translated word, “Yahweh” without incurring much theological hair-splitting.
If tradition is cited, it is worth noting that in Christianity, certain things, such as the list of popes going back to St Peter given in the Annuario Pontificio (editor’s note — the annual directory of the Holy See listing all the popes to date and all officials of the Holy See’s departments) and the Donation of Constantine (editor’s note — a purported 8th century Roman imperial decree by which the emperor Constantine I supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the Western part of the Roman empire to the Pope), have not withstood critical scrutiny, if not proven to be false, especially by Protestants.
More recently, even the Septuagint story has been put under critical historical scrutiny. Therefore, the charge that changes cannot be made due to the inertia of tradition is self-defeating, especially if what is being proposed as changes are in fact corrections.
To recapitulate, our main arguments are as follows:
THIS entire case hinges on the fact that Christians and other non-Muslims have incorrectly conceived the word “Allah” to be a Malay translation of the name of God in Islam, when in fact it is not. It is not a translation of some other word into Malay but the name represents how God choose to disclose Himself to us as He intended it, in His Wisdom and Mercy;
THERE seems to be a translational error in the past if indeed the word “Elohim” or “El” was rendered into Allah and the word YHWH into “Tuhan”. If this is true, then the refusal to correct this error by substituting the incorrectly translated word with the correct translation is puzzling;
EVEN if the ordering is wrong, that is that “Elohim” or “El” is the specific name and, therefore, is translated into Allah, while YHWH is translated into “Tuhan”, there is no reason to think that we cannot accommodate the words Elohim or El into the Malay language as a specific noun; and,
A VALID reason to use the word “Allah” as opposed to YHWH would have to do with theology. Therefore, we shall need to assess the strength of the claim that the word “Elohim” or “El” must necessarily be translated into “Allah” on theological grounds.
We believe this to be reasonable in the light of claims by certain Christian groups, as well as neutral enough to provide common ground for an agreement which does not offend both parties.
However, if we wish to delve deeper into questions of theology and translations, we must also include discussions on linguistics, in theories such as the semantic field of languages.
This is crucial as we Muslims do not believe in a purely pragmatic view of languages, as we believe that Arabic is a language chosen by God to convey His Uncreated Word through Prophet Muhammad.