I am called John.
John F SeaDemon.
I may be called Yahya or Yahya Shaitan al-Bahri if I were in an Arab country somewhere, but I doubt John F Kennedy would have been called Yahya F Kennedy had he gone to Saudi Arabia or even Egypt. In fact, he would still be called Jack…or John. But for some Christians in Malaysia, especially in the Peninsula Malaysia, God is called Allah. Maybe it is time for me to address the Logos behind the Theos in this theological subject.
The Language behind Allah
There has been many attempts at explaining the origin of the name Allah, and the similarity the name has to the Jewish word, Elohim (Elochim). Allah is derived from two distinct Arabic words: Al (The), and Ilah (God), to describe the Supreme Being, the One God, and the word Allah, in Arabic takes a masculine form.
The Hebrew equivalent would be Eloah. However, Eloah is the female word for God. In order for the name to have a masculine form, the name Eloah is given a plural form, -im, making it masculine.
However, the Catholic Encyclopedia does not recognise Elohim as the Hebrew word for the God of Israel, but says that it could have been referred to an earlier polytheistic culture’s deity.
In Arabic, a female form of Allah would be Al-Lat. Interestingly, Al-Lat during pre-Islamic times refers to one of three goddesses (female) whose shrine and temple was built in the city of Taif in Saudi Arabia. She was a daughter of the Supreme God, Allah, along with her sisters Manat and al-Uzza. Here you can see that even polytheistic pre-Islamic Arabs had a Supreme God called Allah. Hence, if you ask me, an equivalent of Al-Lat in Hebrew would be Eloah, and not The One Supreme God. You can clearly see the difference between Elohim and Allah. While the former had to undergo a gender transformation, the Arabic word Allah is free of grammatical structure and corrupted meanings.
Of course, Christians in Malaysia argue that Allah is a common denominator for God for both Arab Christians and Muslims. We’ll come back to that in a while.
The Local History behind Allah
Let us remember one thing. Malaya (Peninsula Malaysia) was never colonised as a whole by the British, save for Penang, Malacca, and Singapore, while Sabah and Sarawak came under direct British colonial rule. Penang was acquired through a deal to lease the island made between the British East India Company and the Sultan of Kedah; Malacca was acquired from the Dutch through the Treaty of Bencoolen; and Singapore was included in the Treaty of Bencoolen by making the severely weakened Dutch to not object to the British occupation of Singapore. The people of these three places, together with Sabah and Sarawak, became British subjects.
Through treaties with the Sultans on the Peninsula, the British helped administer the State of the respective Sultans, while the Sultans remained as the supreme head of these sovereign states. The administration of Islam came under the purview of the respective Sultans as the protectors of the state’s religion.
So, why does Indonesia have Bibles that use the word Allah to describe God?
Unlike Malaya, Indonesia was a nation of conquered people. Hello! Remember the Dutch? When Douglas MacArthur met Emperor Hirohito, he purposely stood next to the Emperor to show the Japanese people that the Emperor was not a demi-God. Victors get to do as they please, and this is probably the same case as the Ladang Rakyat issue in Kelantan. The Dutch conquered parts of Indonesia beginning in 1595, and as part of its attempt to call the Malay diaspora in Indonesia to Christianity, the Book of Matthew was translated into the Indonesian language in 1629; and where the Dutch set foot, other religions were formally prohibited although Chinese temples as well as mosques remained in existence.
Missionaries, too, made headway in Sabah and Sarawak, converting the populace to Christianity. Sir Stamford Raffles recommended to Rev. Thomas Raffles (Buitenzorg, 10th February 1815, Mss. Eur. F.202/6) that Borneo be given vigorous campaigns by the missionaries as “the island is inhabited by a race scarcely emerged from Barbarism.”
This does not mean that the Malays were free from attempts to proselytize them. In fact, Raffles, in a letter to his cousin in 1815 mentioned how “Religion and laws are so united” in Muslim dominated areas that the introduction of Christian beliefs will bring about “much mischief, much bitterness of heart and contention”.
Raffles contended that Christianity must be packaged in a new form and be conveyed to the Muslim majority through a gradual approach. The “pagans”, on the other hand, required no stratagems. His methods include the establishment of missionary schools where the Malays are taught to read and write in their own language. Then he set up printers to publish books in Malay. Missionaries were largely responsible for this effort with the help of local agents, and the most famous of these agents was a chap called Abdullah Abdul Kadir who is better known as Munshi (Teacher) Abdullah. He and other Munshis taught Christian missionaries the Malay language. His role went beyond that and became the first Muslim in South East Asia to translate the Bible into the Malay language, that he became the target of his contemporaries who called him Abdullah Paderi (Pastor Abdullah) among other things.
It is interesting to note, however, that Raffles never once attempted to convert Malays in the Federated and Unfederated Malay States where the Sultans rule and guard the interest of the religion of Islam. This is because it would be foolhardy to anger the Sultans whom the British had a treaty with, by undermining the sanctity of Islam by converting their subjects. In the case of Raffles, he only focused his efforts on those who are British subjects.
Here we see the subtle tactics of the Christian missionaries during Raffles’s times, and the Malay lackeys who colluded with them. We can see the similarities in events of nowadays. But the above is also why we have Allah in the Bibles of Indonesia and Sabah and Sarawak, but not in Peninsula Malaysia.
In the next installment I will discuss on how the concept of Trinity came about and why it was opposed by some Christians, and about Allah as the common denominator for God in the Arab-speaking world.