Squabbling over a word


SIDE BY SIDE: ‘The Sarabah Solution’.

THE raging controversy over the recent judgement of the Court of Appeal of Malaysia in the case of ‘The Herald’ remains unabated.

That judgement reversing the decision of High Court which had allowed the Catholic weekly publication to use the word ‘Allah’ in its Bahasa Malaysia section has caused much unhappiness among Christians in the country, especially those in Sarawak and Sabah.

The members of the Indian community in Miri have also expressed concern lest they too may get into trouble with the law because the word ‘Allah’ also appears in the Holy Book of the Sikhs.

The Christians are not happy because they think that the ruling of the court prohibits them from using their Bible, prayer books, hymns, standard texts for funeral services, lectures, sermons, and other communications relating to their religious practices. In almost all of these the term ‘Allah Taala’ appears from time to time.

So it is difficult to accept the statement allegedly made by one of the judges in ‘The Herald’ case to the effect that the word ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the Christian faith in Malaysia or “Bukan aspek penting Kristian” as the Utusan Malaysia of Oct 15 put it.

The truth is simply the opposite; the word has been an integral part of the Christian faith in Sarawak for more than 160 years.

More of this later.

Another judge in the same case was also reported by the same newspaper as having said to the effect that there was no historical evidence of the existence of the word ‘Allah’ in the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia. For such evidence, one has only to read the Alkitab in Bahasa Indonesia, which is currently in use in Sarawak to find the Almighty ‘Allah’ appearing in the first sentence of the passage of the Bible.

What are the Sarawakians and the Sabahans going to do now if the decision to ban the use of the word stands and becomes the law of the country?

Unless and until the decision of that Court of Appeal is reversed by the Federal Court on appeal, every time they read their Bible, sing a hymn, say a prayer, or confess to a priest, they are technically against the law of the country. Their crime seems to be their reference to the Almighty God as ‘Allah’, who is also mentioned in their hymns in Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, or their prayers in Bahasa Iban or in a Bidayuh or in Kadazan as the case may be.

A few months ago, I attended the funeral of a relative in Kuching. The service was totally conducted in the Iban language. Luckily for the mourners she died before the judgement of the Court of Appeal. It was all legal then because the decision of the High Court was the law as it has always been in Sarawak for a long time.

However, the Bible and the other written material used in that church will still be there for the next funeral. I propose that nobody should die in the meantime.

The words ‘Allah Taala’ have been used in and by the Anglican Church at Stunggang in Lundu since 1853. That was the first time the missionaries of the Church of England landed in that Dayak village. Among the first priests was Fr Gomes, a native of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Gomes was being proactive: he translated the English of his teaching materials into Malay, the hymns into Malay, the prayers into Malay (the language understood by the people of the village).

When the school resumed in 1946, English was introduced for use by the students, but romanised Malay continued to be used for the hymnals and the prayers. Several Malay boys from the nearby village went to that school. They attended assemblies where prayers were offered in Malay asking ‘Allah Taala’ to help the students in their studies through Jesus Christ, Nabi Isa Almaseh, as their Mediator and the Advocate. Everybody said Amen!

I don’t remember hearing about any of the Malay boys becoming Christians as a result of their exposure to the word ‘Allah’ at school. Their faith was strong and no amount of Christian influence could make them waver from their belief. I still remember them by name and all of them except one has been to the Haj. Some have joined their Maker, the same invisible Maker of the Christian boys. The Maker’s name is ‘Allah Taala’.

Not until 2009, in the case of ‘The Herald’ was there a problem; not until copies of the Alkitab imported from Indonesia were impounded by the Customs but were released eventually after each copy had been stamped ‘For Use By Christians Only’.

Why are Sarawakians having problems with Almighty God after so many years, not during the Brooke Raj, nor during the Imperial Japanese Army Occupation, nor during the Colonial Rule, nor during the honeymoon days of Malaysia?

What’s the solution?

Before the controversy causes more religious tension, Malaysians themselves must seek a solution to the problem of the use of the word ‘Allah’, the sooner the better. For all Malaysia – the peninsula included. Why? Because there are many Christians in KL and Johor who possess the Alkitab in Bahasa Indonesia and ‘Allah’ is with them there. Are they going to be treated as suspects having in their possession some subversive literature?

Religions are supposed to be good for their adherents. Many of the faithful hope to go to heaven when they die; many do not worry so much about going there at all. Yet many others do not even believe in the existence of these places. Their heaven is right here in the city or their hell is when the cost of living goes up by the minute.

But when religious problems cannot be solved on earth everybody will go to hell including the priests, the ustazs, the gurus as well as those non-believers or agnostics who live in the same neighbourhood or inside the same condominiums.

We Malaysians have not learnt a lesson from the TV screen – how religious bigots and fanatics having come to power start killing one another, even those from another sect of the same faith, in the name of a religion, thus making use of religion as an excuse to murder, burn churches, mosques and temples.

In Malaysia, we must avoid all this at all costs and nip in the bud anything which subverts any religion being practised here. The Muslim organisations and those of the local Christian organisations have a heavier responsibility now more than ever before to provide wise leadership in finding a solution to the sticky problem at hand as soon as possible.

And the people, especially the sensible adherents of every faith, whatever it is, must support their leaders to reduce religious tension which, if uncontrolled, may develop into ethnic tension as well – which we can do without.

There should be respect for each other’s beliefs: Article 3 (1) of the Federal Constitution provides: “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation.”

The 10-point policy

The root cause of fanaticism is yet to be found and handled properly. The 10-point solution worked out by the federal cabinet is an administrative measure only and as such can be changed overnight depending on who runs the government of the day.

More is required. While affirming that Islam shall be the official religion of the federation, a proviso is required to Article 3 above to guarantee in writing the use of the word ‘Allah’ by the Malaysian Christians in the Borneo states and those Borneo Christians working or residing in other parts of Malaysia. Any amendment to this proviso in future can only be done through a referendum held among the people in each of the Borneo states.

No state religion

The states should be allowed to go back to the old provisions of their respective state constitutions – no state religion – according to the terms of merger under the Report of The Inter-Governmental Committee, 1962, by which the Borneo states became the integral components of Malaysia the following year.

Call this ‘The Sarabah Solution’, if you like.

You will realise, of course, that in this article we are commenting on the judgement of the Court of Appeal without having the benefit of reading the actual text of that judgement. However, the passing remark or obiter dictum of one of the judges that the word ‘Allah’, as reported by the media, is not an integral part of the Christian faith, could be misleading. That needs further clarification at the higher court’s level.

Is it the fact that the ratio decidendi of ‘The Herald’ case is limited to this particular publication and any use of the same word in other publications is allowable?

As there have been many interpretations of the core decision of the Court of Appeal by various quarters, perhaps, this is a good reason for an urgent appeal to the Federal Court. Let that court finally decide what to do with ‘Allah’, the word.

High time we stopped squabbling over it and move on with other important things in life.

Failing that, consider ‘The Sarabah Solution’.

Failing all that, God help us.

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