The “Allah” Dilemma: A Linguist’s View

(Image credit)

While “Allah” issue in Malaysia (warning: Wiki link) has raised more than just eyebrows, I have stated in a previous post that while the usage is seemingly allowed according to Islamic canonical sources, bearing specificity to the Arabic language, those who are against it would assert that the contextualization of language (specifically Malaysian vis-a-vis Indonesian) would render that argument invalid.

Further readings I came across also inferred to the relatively contemporaneous usage of the word Allah by Christians in Malaysia. Previously, the word tuhan has been used as the translation for god. So why the recent recourse for the right over Allah?

Being frank, I must say that the jury is out until these speculations are cleared.

Adding to that, here’s NUS  linguistics lecturer Jyh Wee Sew’s enlightening article in the Malay daily recently (19 Jan), elucidating the exclusivity of religious terms.

‘Adakah satu perspektif transformatif diperlukan untuk menghadapi masalah perpaduan?’

Memang tidak wajar untuk menyamakan isu kemelut linguistik nama khas dengan sejarah yang berlaku 40 tahun lalu. Masalah dasar pada empat dekad lalu ialah kemiskinan atau lebih diakuri sebagai masalah ekonomi.

Masalah pada hari ini sebenarnya isu antiglobalis yang cuba disandung pada media cetak yang dianggap sebagai cabaran kepada agama Islam.

Terdapat banyak perkara yang perlu difikirkan dalam kemelut yang melanda keheningan masyarakat majmuk di Malaysia. Isu yang paling asas bukanlah isu perpaduan tetapi isu keharmonian.

Perpaduan antara kaum tidak akan mencapai konsep kawah lebur (melting pot), malahan ia tidak perlu menjadi begitu.

Kaum masing-masing telah pun sedia maklum dengan identiti sendiri seperti cara beramal ibadat, sistem bahasa, budaya makan, kepercayaan adat resam masing-masing.

Keunikan masyarakat majmuk yang begitu baik perlu dikekalkan dengan mantap. Setiap kaum harus bebas tetapi dengan peka menjalani kehidupan menurut tabii yang diwarisi.

Yang penting ialah keharmonian antara kaum dipelihara menerusi cara hidup yang bertatasusila.

Dengan mengakuri keistimewaan nama Tuhan agama sesuatu kaum yang lain tanpa menyamakannya secara globalis, keharmonian akan terpupuk.

Isu mutakhir yang menggugat keharmonian masyarakat majmuk berpunca daripada isu bahasa.

Keinginan menggunakan nama Tuhan secara merentas agama ternyata satu usaha yang tidak wajar kerana agama tidak lut globalisasi.

Reaksi dan suara daripada penganutnya bahawa keistimewaan nama keagamaan dipelihara sudah jelas dan ia harus dihormati serta dituruti oleh institusi perundangan serta sosial.

Konsep arbitrari bahasa iaitu rujukan bahasa bersifat wewenang ternyata tidak berlaku akibat peristiwa pembakaran gereja di Malaysia.

Konsep wewenang bahasa ini disalahtafsirkan daripada buku Ferdinand de Saussure yang disusun oleh pelajarnya selepas kematian beliau. Pembetulan masalah bacaan linguistik struktural ini boleh dibaca dalam buku From Interaction to Symbol oleh Piotr Sadowski (John Benjamins, 2009) yang antara lain diterangkan bahawa lambang bahasa merupakan hasil evolusi rujukan yang bertimbunan sejak zaman lampau.

Dengan ini lambang bahasa tidak mungkin bersifat wewenang tetapi merupakan himpunan makna yang mantap. Rujukan nama Tuhan dan rujukan nama khas yang lain sudah tidak mungkin disamakan dengan rujukan baru sesuka hati.

Faktor emosi tidak boleh diabai secara struktural. Sebagai contoh lain, usaha menghalalkan makanan Cina bernama Bak Kut Teh iaitu masakan sup tulang rusuk babi. Walaupun digantikan dengan daging ayam dan lembu, ia tetap dibantah oleh masyarakat Melayu kerana nama tersebut tidak halal didengar. Inilah yang dimaksudkan sebagai evolusi rujukan yang bersifat rujukan langsung atau isomorfik. Sebenarnya banyak rujukan isomorfik yang tersirat dan tersurat pada nama.

Bagi menjawab persoalan awal, perspektif yang transformatif tidak semesti pandangan yang bersifat radikal atau baru. Satu pemikiran yang mapan dapat dimanfaatkan daripada peribahasa Melayu ‘buat baik berpada-pada, buat jahat jangan sekali’.

Bagi perancang awam, pegangan wajib ialah tentukan nama hendaklah berpada-pada agar istilah agama kekal abadi. Jika pihak berkuasa lebih peka dengan sentimen ini, kemungkinan besar kerugian harta benda dan hakisan nama baik sebuah negara yang memang terkenal dengan keharmonian kaum tidak akan berlaku.

(Source)

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Avatar, “Allah”, and the Palestinian shawl

(Image credit)

What’s up with name association these days?

I try not to comment on such subjects; the internet and newspapers are already laden with views and arguments from more qualified experts. But then I received an email related to the movie “Avatar”, which said:

Before you get your children excited over “AVATAR” and keep saying the word again and again.

It continues:

An Avatar is in incarnation of a fragment of God on Earth. Avatars that are known of in the West include, Christ, Buddha, Rama, and Krishna; but there are many others as enumerated in the Bhagavata, the story of all the major Avatars.

To be frank, the first thing that came to my mind when I hear the word “avatar” was the small picture that is placed by a user in an internet forum, as a mean to identify himself. But that may be because I am partly internet-biased.

However, such associations of terminologies are nothing new, although it’s given its time in the media now. Especially, with the current debacle over the usage of the word “Allah” for Christians in Malaysia.

“Allah”: Is it for Muslims only?

To answer that, the easiest method will be to ascertain whether the word “Allah” was used in times before Islam. According to the editable Wikipedia (pinch of salt), the term “Allah” was already used in pre-Islamic times in the Middle East.

And to my humble knowledge, the term “Allah” is already being used in the Middle East today to refer to “God”, so much so that if you can get your hands on an Arabic-language bible, you can see clearly that the word “Allah” is used in it. (Sidenote: the debate over there must have been much more interesting, if there were any.)

Spot the word “Allah” (). Taken from the Old Testament, Exodus 1.


Taken from the New Testament, Luke 1.

Even the famous Muslim preacher Ahmad Deedat had been saying the word “Allah” does exist in the bible. At the same time, he also pleaded:

I had made some public statements regarding my discovery of the word “Alah” as alternatively spelled from the usual Christian spelling “Elah.” My plea to the Christians was this that spell the word as you like, with an “A” or an “E”, with a single “L” or double “LL’s”, but for goodness sake pronounce the word correctly, as we Muslims do.

…As much as the Englishman has the right to dictate to us as to how his language is to be sounded, surely we Muslims have as much right to demand a common courtesy when taking the name of God. We do not wish the word Allah to go into limbo like the “Yahuwa” of the ]ews. More than 6000 times the formula “YAHUWA ELAH,” or ya”HUWA ALAH,” or “HUWALLAH,” (He is Allah!) occur in the Hebrew manuscripts of the Jewish Bible, commonly called the “Old Testament,” by the Christians.

(Source)

Differing views

However in this blog here, the author posited that the the word “Allah” is used exclusively by the Muslims, and the Christians were advised with caution when using such terms.

The ex-PM of Malaysia has also lent his voice to the issue, citing his disagreement over the permissibility of the usage of “Allah” for non-Muslim reference.

This puts him at loggerheads with his own daughter, who sees no wrong in the usage, and also, surprise surprise, the Islamic political party PAS, which allows the usage of “Allah”, with caution against abuse.

Let Islam/Muslims be the Trendsetter

Yet, it is very common for Muslims be on the opposite of the spectrum, i.e., apprehensive of non-Islamic terms being used in everyday communications, such as the word “idol”. Muslims, generally, are very aware of the etymology of the word “idol”, especially when American Idol variants first came to our shores.

Then there were the Muslims who warned me when an Ar-Raudhah mosque (Bukit Batok, Singapore) was built with no dome, and star polygons decorating it. They say that  if another religion were to take over the mosque, they don’t need to do any redecorating. Firstly, I think it’s unlikely that “another religion” will “take over” the premise, and secondly, I think they confused it with the Jewish Star of David.

Same as those who sees the designs in window frames as Christian crosses. Some people may even freak out at the uncapitalized sans bottom-stroke “t”.

Still, such mindsets come from those who are not keen on Muslims copying from other people, yet unknowingly they are hogging everything that’s un-Islamic. Then there are the multi-colored rubber wristbands (made popular by superman Lance Armstrong), the supposedly-beneficial magnetic bracelets, and many more trends which numerous Muslims bulldoze through to be a part of.

This is the Palestinian-popularized kuufiyyah. People usually know it as keffiyah. (Image credit)

Then sometime two years ago, American talk-show host Rachel Ray came under fire for wearing one of those Palestinian kuufiyyah in her commercial. Of course the ad got pulled off as idiocy auto-translates that into support for the Palestinian cause.

Personally, aside from the controversy, I think the kuufiyyah is one of those examples that Muslims can learn from; a Muslim-associated symbol that is being internationally accepted. While its current usage on fashion runways is not something that a Muslim should be proud of, it does aid in the much-needed awareness for the Palestinian cause.

How wonderful is it if we can have more beneficial teachings and ideas which originate from Islam and Muslims themselves. Such trends and positive influences had contributed to the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia, through the generous Yemeni merchants (or some argue the Indian Muslim merchants came first). The spread of knowledge into Europe and the contribution the Islamic philosophers, scientists, religious scholars and many more in the time of “medieval” science and technology, Islamic architectures and designs being replicated and explained today through mathematics and many more, were all due to Islam and Muslims being the trendsetters of their time.

Come to think of it, it is hard to think of contemporary Islamic trendsetters nowadays.  Nobel (non-peace prize) laureates, brilliant inventors, and skilled orators (no entertainers please) are what we need badly to give a positive lift to our disdained image today. While consistently producing world-class trendsetters admittedly takes time, I think the Palestinian shawl is a good place to start.

So what now?

Back to the usage of the word “Allah”, while it is already being used in native Arabic-speaking countries, Deedat’s word does hold sound advice. However, in religiously-sensitive Malaysia, one has got to understand that the usage of the word may lead to more confusion than liberation.

While it is true that language, as well as fashion, evolves from one time to another, one has also got to weight the nuances of sentiments, and ramifications of judgment.

For instance, some restaurant owners display “Allah” openly to signify that they serve halal Muslim food. So maybe one day, the time will come when a customer got to ask whether that hanging “Allah” frame means they serve halal food or not; issues like this must be considered too before passing judgment.

As for me, I’m still waiting for the proper hijab is going to be an international fashion trend.

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Further reading:

Beza Antara Merebut Nama Allah Dan Mempertahankan Akidah (The Difference Between Wrestling for Allah’s Name and Defending the Faith)

Related post:

The “Allah” Dilemma: A Linguist’s View

Insulting Hinduism, and Islam too

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Dozens of Malaysian Muslims paraded Friday with the head of a cow, a sacred animal in Hinduism, in a dramatic protest against the proposed construction of a Hindu temple in their neighborhood.

The unusual protest by some 50 people in Shah Alam, the capital of Selangor state, raises new fears of racial tensions in this multiethnic Muslim-majority country where Hindus comprise about 7 percent of the 27 million population.

The demonstrators who marched from a nearby mosque after Friday prayers dumped the cow head outside the gates of the state government headquarters. Selangor adjoins Kuala Lumpur.

(Source 1, 2, 3)

Keen to insult another religion, they are perhaps unaware that by going against clearly stated rules in the Qur’an, they are insulting their own religion too. The demonstrators (with claims of hijack or otherwise) are seemingly unaware of what the Qur’an teaches:

وَلا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ كَذَلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَى رَبِّهِمْ مَرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُمْ بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ

“And insult not those who worship besides Allâh, lest they insult Allâh wrongfully without knowledge. Thus we have made fair­seeming to each people its own doings; then to their Lord is their return and He shall then inform them of all that they used to do.”

(Al-An’aam:108)

Even since the time of Musa (Moses), the same command had been in place. In the face of the most stubborn and violent Fir’aun (pharoah), Allah had declared to the Prophets Musa and Harun:

اذْهَبَا إِلَى فِرْعَوْنَ إِنَّهُ طَغَى

فَقُولا لَهُ قَوْلا لَيِّنًا لَعَلَّهُ يَتَذَكَّرُ أَوْ يَخْشَى

“Go, both of you, to Fir’aun (Pharaoh). Verily, he has transgressed (all bounds In disbelief and disobedience and behaved as an arrogant and as a tyrant).

And speak to him mildly, perhaps he may accept admonition or fear Allâh.”

(Taahaa:44)

All these are based on the graciousness, softness, and kindness that encompass what a Muslim must embody and act with:

ادْعُ إِلَى سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ وَجَادِلْهُمْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ

“Invite (all) to the way of Your Lord with wisdom and preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best (and most gracious): for Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He is Best Aware who receive guidance.”

(Al-Nahl:125)

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Additional reading:

سبب نزول قوله تعالى: ولا تسبوا الذين يدعون من دون الله