Malaysia’s War of Words

During my language studies in Indonesia, one of the first books we interacted with was the Indonesian Bible. Although I was surprised to find the word “Allah” in the text, my teacher was not. In fact, when he went on to discuss the verses we were studying, he kept using that word as he expressed his own thoughts and experiences. My surprise was due to the fact that I understood Allah to be the Muslim god. I knew that Muslims recognized and valued many of the same prophets as Christians, but I hadn't considered the possibility that they might worship the same God as I do. As my teacher continued, it became clear that he considered the Muslim god the same as the god of the Bible. And naturally, he believed that Muslims also felt this way, since this didn’t come up as one of the issues causing tension between Christians and Muslims.
When I took EWI, I saw the linguistic progression of Alaha in the Aramaic (the language that Jesus used, see Mark 15:34) to Allah in its daughter language Arabic. I learned that in the Arab world, Christians had been using Allah as the name for God before Muhammad was even born. The opposite happened in Indonesia, where Christianity came after Islam. People who came to Christ naturally used the name they knew from their Muslim background for the God of Abraham. In both places, using Allah was natural and logical.
How ironic, then, that certain groups in Malaysia now dispute this usage. Some Westerners have long insisted, in defiance of etymology and history as well as the point of view of many Muslims, that Allah could not be the same deity as the God of the Bible. This group will feel vindicated by the Malaysian government's declaration that Christians should not use the word Allah. It would seem, though, that this decision has less to do with real beliefs than with political maneuvering, as it did not come from religious leaders but from the government. The political opposition suggests that the ruling party merely brought up this issue to increase its popularity by becoming the defender of Islam. The government has also repeatedly blocked shipments of Bibles from entering the country; that the Bibles use the word Allah is another way to justify that action.
The irony is that this position disregards the fact that millions of Christians in neighboring Indonesia, speaking almost the same language, refer to God as Allah in their Bibles, prayers, and preaching. In a more global context, it is amusing to see how Muslims in the US have been intentionally using the word God instead of Allah when speaking about their beliefs to the public. Apparently they think the words refer to the same deity. Perhaps they should sit down with officials in Malaysia and sort this out.
For those of us who only read the headlines, it is also worth pointing out that the demonstrations in Malaysia came as a response to the higher court's ruling that it is illegal to restrict Christians from using Allah. The country’s own independent judiciary did not find evidence to support the exclusive use of Allah by Muslims or the threat to social stability if Christians use it.
Ultimately, however, we should recognize that the word itself is not really the issue. The meaning, both intended and understood, should be our focus. Rather than being concerned about what we call God, we should concentrate on who he is. How can we speak about Allah to Muslims in a way that leads them to the God of the Bible? It is certainly an encouragement to them if they can learn about Allah in the stories of the Old and New Testaments, and it’s an opportunity for us to move them toward an understanding of the God of the universe that reflects his love for them and his sacrifice on their behalf.