sticks and stones

Image source: The Guardian

Malaysia is in the news again for the usual reasons: nine churches firebombed by radical Muslims in the last week, on account of a rising controversy over the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians. A Catholic weekly paper, The Catholic Herald, was ordered by the government to cease publishing its Malay-language edition until the courts resolved the question of its use of the word ‘Allah’ to mean the God of the Christian faith. The question was resolved in High Court, which ruled in favour of the Herald. A week after the ruling, nine churches were torched over three days. Molotov cocktails were involved. The High Court ruling has been suspended pending appeal.

This semantic quibble can seem baffling to non-Malaysians, but the sad truth is that the event is wholly explicable within the context of Malaysian social dynamics. It seems to me that the trouble arises out of a potent (Molotov) cocktail of two factors: 1) the troubling relationship that exists between ‘Malay’ and ‘Muslim’ in Malaysia, and 2) the relationship that this hybrid ‘Malay-Muslim’ has with the rest of Malaysian society. First, some thoughts on the word Allah; then, on the Molotov cocktail of Malaysian society.

In the Beginning was the Word

First of all, it should be made clear that there are at least two words for ‘God’ in Malay (apart from, you know, the 99 names of God): Allah, and Tuhan. The first is from Arabic: a Semitic word for the divine, combining the definite article al- (the one) with the root word -ilah, meaning ‘god’. The root ilah can be compared with the Northwest Semitic el of Elohim, the Hebrew word for divinity.

The second and probably older word in the region, Tuhan, seems to share a common etymology with the Austronesian word atua, or te atua in Maori, meaning god (no particular one – the Maori were broadly animist). The link isn’t surprising. Malay is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian language tree, and many other linguistic commonalities run throughout the region: Indonesian, Micronesian, Polynesian and Philippine languages are all relatively closely related. Tuhan probably also has something in common with the Malay word tuan, which roughly means lord or master (as in, Joseph Conrad’s Tuan Jim, or Lord Jim).

Both words have been in use in Malay, more or less interchangeably, throughout its written history. Even on the famed Terengganu Inscription Stone (Batu Bersurat Terengganu), which is the earliest extant evidence of Islam on the Malay peninsula and dates to around 1303, the word ‘Allah’ appears three times, and the word ‘Tuhan’ twice.

Malay, Muslim, Same Diff

What has animated the whole controversy is the claim by the ruling government that the word ‘Allah’ is something especially Islamic, and by extension, exclusively Malay. The trouble comes at “by extension”. Under the Federal Constitution, a Malay is defined as a person who 1) is born to a Malaysian citizen, 2) professes to be Muslim, 3) speaks the Malay language, 4) adheres to Malay custom, and 5) is domiciled in Malaysia. Here’s the important part: Malay citizens who convert out of Islam are no longer considered constitutionally Malay, even if they were born to a Malaysian, speak Malay, adhere to Malay custom and live in Malaysia.

This bizarre, calcified mess of legal status, religion, language and ‘custom’ is almost entirely a product of colonial governance. The definition comes from a Land Reservation Act from 1913, which the British passed in an attempt to delineate which people should benefit from state land protectionism. But over time, the definition proved both politically expedient (the British gained a lot of colonial mileage out of professing to be looking after ‘the Malays’) and psychologically central to Malay self-perception (‘the Malays’ came to see themselves as a coherent cultural entity). The result is that today this definition is no longer only politically useful; it has become true for many Malays, and it is what their sense of identity rests on. And that identity is geographic, linguistic, cultural, and yes, religious.

Malay-Muslims vs. the World

The second factor is the relationship of Malay-Muslims to the rest of Malaysian society. One might ask: why is Islam such an important element of Malay identity, given the other four constitutional components?

The answer here, I feel, is demographic, and one can see that by comparing Malaysia with Indonesia. Indonesia has always been much more racially confident of itself than Malaysia, even though at times this confidence has led to terrible tragedies. Across Indonesia, visible ethnic minorities remain minorities, and are today often deeply assimilated. The Chinese population, to name the usual suspect, is small — only about 3-5% of the population. And Indonesian Christians, I’ll add, have no trouble using the word ‘Allah’:

Image source: Malaysia Today

In contrast, Malaysia is a much more heterogenous society, with ‘Malays’ making up around 60% of the population, ethnic Chinese somewhere around 25 to 30% and ethnic Indians, mostly Tamils but also some Sikhs, around 8%. This has led to a certain amount of racial insecurity. Over the decades of last century, various Malay groups have made various sorts of overtures to Indonesia in order to try to tap into the demographic advantages of Indonesia’s enormous, ethnically Malay population. The ejection of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, it has been argued, had in part to do with fears over the large number of ethnic Chinese in Singapore that would become part of Malaysia, while the inclusion of British Borneo into the Federation in 1963 was arguably an attempt to beef up the ‘ethnic Malay’ numbers. In the 1940s, a group of Malay nationalists almost managed to negotiate Malaysia into sharing Indonesia’s independence when the Japanese Occupation ended: a thwarted vision of “a nation that would consolidate a hundred million brown peoples into a single Republic of Malaysia” (Taufik Abdullah, 1997:257).

But the fact remains that Malaysia has always been more interested in hooking up with Indonesia (and other regional Malays) than vice versa. Today, Malay Malaysians are on their own, in a very multicultural Malaysia. The proximity of multiculturalism, I think, has created a lot of incentive for Malays to differentiate themselves, and to hang on tightly to those differences. And in Malaysia, of the five constitutional elements of ‘Malayness’ I listed above from the 1913 definition, only two remain which are not now widely shared by all Malaysian citizens since Malaysian independence in 1957: Malay ‘custom’, and Islam.

Religion has therefore become a central marker of ethnic identity in Malaysia. And here is the nub of the problem. In the case of Islam, a religion that has historically spread with its carrier language, the Arabic language comes with the territory. It’s not so much that many Malays speak Arabic (in fact, I don’t know that many do), but rather that any connection to the Arabic culture and language should be, in Malaysia, only effected through Islam — which is in turn almost exclusively Malay. Two examples of this perceived special connection:

  1. In the forties and fifties vociferous battles were fought over whether the Malay language should be written in Jawi (Arabic script) as it had been since Islam came to the region, or in Rumi, the Latin script. Opponents of romanization accused pro-Rumi writers of being kaffirs (infidels), saying that discarding the Arabic script was tantamount to discarding Islam. The Arabic script was central to Malayness.
  2. Today, the word kitab, which means a normal ‘book’ in Arabic, is often used in Malay to refer to a specifically religious book, while secular books are simply buku, from the English.

Something similar is happening here with Allah. It may ‘just’ mean ‘God’ in Arabic, but in Malaysia, amidst these deep-rooted anxieties and questions of identity, it is so much more than a semantic quibble.

Allah, Tuhan, Same Diff

The frankly ridiculous claim, then, that only Malays/Muslims are allowed to use the word Allah, and that everyone else should back off and use Tuhan, certainly arises out of this ingrained defensiveness over what it is to be Malay. The claim that ‘Allah’ is somehow especially Islamic is disproved at least by the fact that the word itself predates Islam. Any argument that it has acquired ‘Islamness’ over time is furthermore disproved by the fact that it remains in use by Arab Christians today (and also by Indonesian Catholics). The dogged adherence to this claim by a small number of firebomb-wielding ultra-Malays is only explicable when we understand how sensitively most Malays are invested in themselves (politically or otherwise) as Muslims, in distinction to the other ethnic groups and religions in Malaysia. To be flippant: if Malays were really interested in being more ‘Malay’, they should in fact use the word Tuhan, which is much more ‘Malay’ for having deeper regional Austronesian roots, than Allah, which is, after all, an imported name for an imported God.


33 responses to “sticks and stones

  • Sharon

    Rachel, this is possible the most clarifying piece I have read on the issue. Thank you for thinking so hard about this, for your elegant accuracy of language, and for your neutrality.

  • kaveh

    well written! very concise and informative!

  • mera

    I think there are more words for the word god than just two. Dewa (and its variants, dewi, dewata, etc) is another.

  • ted mahsun

    @Mera, but in Malay the word “dewa” and its variants has pagan connotations and therefore would be taboo if equated to “Tuhan” or “Allah”.

    @Rachel, thanks for writing this. Came here from a link on Sharon’s twitter. I enjoyed reading it and some things were made clearer to me too, especially the decision to change to rumi. Always wondered if there was a controversy then.

  • J Leonard

    a lucid piece of writing! keep up the good work.

  • John

    Excellent article. The current situation is just an attempt by a few uneducated Bumiputra’s int he government to create division and unrest. Allah means God, it’s as simple as that. Islam is a supposed to be a religion of peace so why is the Government deliberately seeking to cause conflict?

  • maximos62

    This is an excellent article. Of course there are both Austronesian and Arabic words for God. In a recent Orthodox Christian liturgies that I attended in Indonesia recently Allah was used for God and Tuhan was used for Lord. This usage seems consistent with some of your comments.

    Orthodox Christianity seems to have appeared in Nusantara at the same time as Sriwijaya and maintained a presence until Majapahit. There is no written record of this. According to Orthodox Christian sources I’ve read, there is an oral tradition that acknowledges this presence and even retains the names of the Monks who brought it to the archipelago, they were Mar Yaballah, Mar Abdisho and Mar Denha.

    Since this all happened before Islam arrived, it would be interesting to know which term was used for God.

    Thanks for this post. I came to the computer today with the specific intention of researching this issue further. You’ve helped a great deal.

  • maximos62

    Ignore ‘a recent’ , it’s just what comes from typing and posting quickly from Internet cafes 🙂

  • krystlechow

    Thanks for this post, Rachel! Excellent research and writing as usual. I’ve stolen this to post on my Twitter feed =)

  • Crabcrab

    I suppose a less defensive group of Islamists might have insisted that _everyone_ use the word Allah. It’s revealing that they’re going for exclusivity in this case.

  • Rachel

    Thanks to everyone for the comments – I thought it was time for a less shrill take on the matter.

    It’s been pointed out to me that the perspective of the East Malaysians is absent in my piece of writing. I did have a paragraph on it but decided it was too much of a deviation from the topic at hand, which is the semantic issue.

    So I’ll say what I know here, which is that the majority of Christians in Malaysia are from East Malaysia (about 1.5 million in total), the majority of East Malaysians speak Malay as a first language, and it’s noteworthy that no churches are being firebombed in Sarawak and Sabah — only on the peninsula, where racial and cultural tensions are more visibly and insistently stoked by political intervention. Malay-speaking Christians comprise about 40% of Sarawak’s population and 30% of Sabah’s, which means that Malay-language Christianity is probably far more normalized over there than it is on the peninsula, and to the detriment of the Malay-Muslim-centric Federal Government as well as the firebombers, perhaps they understand the situation less than they ought to.

    But I know too know less about East Malaysia than I ought to, and I’d love to learn more from Sarawakians and Sabahans about their thoughts on this issue.

  • Jonathan Jarrett

    I can’t claim that sort of expertise, but I can point you (if you’re not already aware, which given your location you may well be) to the work of Liana Chua, which was where I first met the question of Malay = or != Muslim. You must have seen this post at the time, but I blogged one of her papers a bit here. She works on modern-day conversion to Christianity in Sarawak and so is probably right on top of some of these issues.

  • starranise

    I’ve written a blog entry on the same subject but coming from a Sabahan’s (me) perspective. We actually have a lot of similar points.

    I have major doubts on statistics claiming that 60% of the country’s population is Malay purely because based on the constitution, these statistics inculcate constitutional Malays as well as ethnic Malays. Malays aren’t indigenous to Borneo and if Sabah is ranked the third most densely populated state in Malaysia, whilst having at least 1/3 of the population being illegal immigrants from Indonesia or the Philippines, something about the statistics seems really funny to me. As for the ‘legal’ immigrants in Sabah, God knows how they get PRs or citizenships. I wouldn’t be surprised if some have been officially claimed as Malay or Muslim upon receiving their entry statuses into Malaysia. They make up for some of our voting ballot, after all.

    I think what’s happened is that the national constitution after all these years (with safeguarding from BN), has only now blown up in the face of Malaysians. Not just Article 160 but ‘ketuanan Melayu’. Politicians have relied on the ‘60%’ Malay majority to keep their positions by manufacturing said 60% themselves. Now that this ‘Allah’ issue has shown the true colours of conservative Malays to the world, Malaysia’s going to be undergoing some serious changes.

  • starranise

    I forgot to mention, there was an attack on a Miri church too and a member of USIA (United Sabah Islamic Association) was reported in the news to have agreed that non-Muslims shouldn’t use the word ‘Allah’.

  • Guy

    Good analysis, as far as I can tell. Some questions from this ignorant reader, if you’d be kind enough to indulge me:

    1) Are there non-Malay (ethnically speaking) Muslims? How are they treated legally, politically and culturally?

    2) Why has this issue never been come up or been resolved before? Unless it has.

    And lastly: what do you propose as a solution to this situation? Or is it too late to do anything in the short term?…

  • Ryan

    On the plus side, that dude on the left has excellent penmanship. Western picketers could learn a thing or two about presentation from these guys.

  • Nina

    Muslims, whatever their race or ethnicity, USE Allah because it is in the Quran. For Muslims, the Quran is the literal word of God, which is in the original language that it was revealed in – Arabic. Muslims recite the Quran in Arabic, they pray in Arabic – the usage of Arabic is a daily occurence for praticising Muslims, regardless of what thjeir native language is.

    Non-Muslim Arabs using the word Allah to denote God in their Bibles does not spark controversy because Arabic is THEIR native language.

    Christians, whose native language is NOT Arabic, using Allah to denote God is farcical. The usage of Allah by these people bespeaks of an intent to appeal to Muslims used to usage of Arabic word for God.

    Simple as that.

  • ted mahsun

    If only it *were* that simple.

  • maximos62

    Nina you haven’t acknowledged that Arabic has been assimilated into other languages such as Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia. Of course the term Allah will be used by various people of various faiths.

    Also, aren’t there 99 names for Allah? That’s my understanding, please correct me if I’m wrong.

  • Kyle

    Nina’s strikes me as a seriously invested oversimplification of a dynamic Rachel has striven to reveal here in all its complexity.

  • Rachel

    yes, um, about 33% of Malay vocabulary are loanwords, of which nearly 6% are from Arabic – Allah, of course, included. there are Christians in Malaysia who have grown up speaking no language other than Malay.

  • Lee

    but i still wonder why the Herald Tribune want to use the word : Allah .. why don’t they just use God if they think there is no difference meaning between Allah and God ..

  • starranise

    If there is no difference between ‘Allah’ and god, why not use ‘Allah’? Peace is not as simple as making everyone happy. That’s been Malaysia’s ethos to the key of racial harmony for decades. They’ve set up rules instead of educating people or allowing its people to ponder freely on why we should be respectful of each other’s backgrounds. We shouldn’t respect each other for the sake of racial tolerance and national peace, we should respect each other because we are human beings. We have the intelligence to be bigger than petty things like this but are we exercising it?

  • Hasnan

    This is not a critique but a reflexive observation. Alas, the issue has died down for the time being. I think most comments in this thread assume a certain underlying discourse which left a gap salient for understanding of the other.

    I claim no expertise on language and its historicization. But I do know that despite not being able to speak in Arabic, the shared meaning by the Malays (culturally speaking) on Allah goes beyond etymological and definitional stance. A dedicated body of knowledge on God – called usuluddin – with philosophical underpinnings even developing until today focuses on understanding of what are the properties of and who is Allah. A dedicated body of knowledge on God in practise and worship – called tasawwuf or sufism – focused on experiencing the gnostic and ecstasy in the Divine. The twos are related and still are a living body of knowledge.

    From an actor network theory or perspective, I will assume that shared meanings from these two bodies of knowledge somehow are transferred and become actants in this debacle. Texts (and share meanings) can become actants too. The actants have been non-neutral, invisible forces and what we saw was the power balance in the figuration, if we look at it from another perspective purported by sociologist Norbert Elias. The picture you use was an illustration of how a philosophical understanding is embedded ‘going against trinity concept’ in the placard held by the Malay demonstrator.

    But I think this is non static. True to Eliasian perspective, phenomena changes and power balance tips. Other invisible forces are at play (beyond nationalistic-Islamization forces), e.g. rationalization and modernity. Perhaps, level headedness and openness and active trust formation will take over the public sphere.

    My 2 humble cents.

  • John Ling

    Arguments about semantics aside, it’s frustrating that Malaysians are still unwilling to clearly separate matters of state from matters of religion. There is far too much cross-pollination between the public and private spheres, and there’s a distinct lack of political will in both Barisan and Pakatan to change the status quo.

    Ideally, Malaysians should slowly but surely move towards removing recognition for a single state religion. This will encourage greater fairness and transparency. But if that’s too radical, perhaps they could take a page from Indonesia’s constitutional framework. The country recognises six official religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. It’s far from the perfect solution (minority faiths are still marginalised), but at the very least, this offers less of a religious monopoly.

    It’s one thing to to debate and dissect and insult Allah in the private sphere. It’s another thing completely to bring Allah into public sphere and allow the government to run riot with all kinds of 5th-century legislation. It’s neither desirable nor condusive to a modern, multicultural Malaysia.

  • Nadira Ilana

    Malaysia Christians to Preserve Five Thousand Bibles ‘Defaced’ Defaced by Authorities –

  • Zainal Abidin

    Dear Dr Rachel Leow,

    I read your name in the papers about your prized Fellow at Harvard.
    Your achievement is great at your age of 26. From Warwick to Cambridge and now at Harvard. I have to give you this ‘Salutation’ for your academic achievement.

    I also read your article on ‘Sticks and Stones’. It was a good article and you are indeed a brave writer. But I have to write to you why Muslims hold on to their faith and belief and they refer to God as ‘Allah’ in Arabic.

    Islam evolved when Prophet Muhammad was chosen by Allah to set-up the religion of Islam. Islam is not about violence and forcing non-Muslims to embrace Islam.

    The Quran was dictated to Muhammad by the archangel Jibrail.
    Muslims must abide and accept the earlier Prophets. We acknowledge that Allah created Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were Jews. So was Abraham, Noah, and Moses. But the lineage broke at the point of time when Abraham had two wives. The Arab chronology and lineage started from Ismail running down to Muhammad.

    Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scholars have done the calculations and estimated the age of Abraham to be around 11,600 years old.
    Adam was approximately to be 43,000 to 45,000 years ago.
    The first human civilisation was believed to start in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. It was estimated by archeologist, researchers and historians to date back around circa 6,800 years ago.

    Religion is about faith and belief without questioning the veracity on what is apocryphal and what is logic to the human mind.

    Religion is not about a catechism of questions and answers.

    We must not induce cataclysm with religion.

    We have to understand and look beyond the human race.

    If we should recalculate the vast distance between Adam and Eve with Abraham, there is 31,400 years.
    From Abraham to the Mesopotamian dates is 11,600 minus 6,800, and this gives us a distance of 4,800 years.

    So where does the human race came from? Scientist traced DNA profiling and estimate that we came from the African continent.
    And why does the human skin colour so diverse and the colour of the eyes different. The Asians have black and brown and light brown and dark brown eyes. Why do caucasians, the ancient Greeks – believed to be the ancestors of the Aryan race, the Germans, the Iranians, the Punjabis in northern India share the same almond blue and Irish green eyes?

    Scientist claim that the period was around 200,000, 100,000 to 80,000 and it went further down to 60,000. Is this estimation correct?

    Since you are in the field of History, the Carbon 14 dating scientific machine in Britain, Germany and USA had always claimed that the Carbon 14 dating analysis is accurate.

    How accurate is this ‘Machine’?

    This comparison with the Old Testament and the Quran may drive the human race crazy if we use mathematical calculations to get the logic answers.

    I will retire as a clerk in 4 years time. After that I intend to do a degree and Masters in History or Law at UM or UKM.

    I apologise if there are any part of my writing which is not acceptable by you. I will appreciate if you could highlight my mistakes on the dates.

    Regards and Thanks.

    zainal abidin


  • John Ling

    “Religion is about faith and belief without questioning the veracity on what is apocryphal and what is logic to the human mind.”

    Unfortunately, by suspending veracity, almost anything can be justified in the name of religion. September 11th was the work of Islamic fascists who tossed away human logic and embraced suicide attacks. Likewise, the twin wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were driven by Christian Evangelicals who saw it as fulfilling biblical prophecy.

    It also justifies acts like this:

    When it comes to the crunch, veracity is all we have to prevent the slide into further religious conflict.

    “So where does the human race came from? Scientist traced DNA profiling and estimate that we came from the African continent.
    And why does the human skin colour so diverse and the colour of the eyes different. The Asians have black and brown and light brown and dark brown eyes. Why do caucasians, the ancient Greeks – believed to be the ancestors of the Aryan race, the Germans, the Iranians, the Punjabis in northern India share the same almond blue and Irish green eyes?”

    You are, of course, implying that God created the human race, and that’s the only reason why there’s such variety. But put God aside, and you’ll see the argument itself is flawed — Aryanism is conceptual dogma and motivated more by racial politics than it is by hard science.

    Secondly, you are overlooking the obvious — it has been proven possible, in only a matter of several generations, to create animal breeds with attirubutes wildly different from that of their predecessors. This is most obvious in the field of dog cross-breeding.

    How does that relate to the real world? Simple. The Indian and Chinese nation exist side by side, yet their citizens look starkly different. You don’t even have to bring Africans and Westerners into the picture.

    “Since you are in the field of History, the Carbon 14 dating scientific machine in Britain, Germany and USA had always claimed that the Carbon 14 dating analysis is accurate. How accurate is this ‘Machine’?”

    You’ll be interested to know that it was Islamic civilization that first posited the concept of carbon dating, not the West. So the machina you’re referring to is, in fact, Islamic. It’s interesting to note how you can take a pro-Islamic position and yet stop short when it comes to Islamic science!

  • Kevin

    im Indonesian Chinese and i understand ur problem well, in Malaysia i saw that racial disinteregation is way too strong. Chinese going out with Chinese and malay having their own world. In Indonesia its uncommon for Indonesian and Chinese to get married, which explain the amount of peranakan community in Indonesia even reaching 6 million out of 9 million (even i am one), and yes me being a christian can shout the name of Allah without any problem. The main problem i saw in Malaysia the “islamization” and “hak istimewa” especialy making it impossible for Chinese and Malay to mix, which cause hatred and insecurity(besides the amount of race problem u mentioned). the racial problem in Indonesia has caused the Chinese to become Indonesianized(for example being unable to speak Chinese, having Indonesians name and lots turn to Christ abandoning Chinese tradition).

  • Blair

    Rachel, great piece. I benefited a lot from it. Very clever point you made at the end.
    Ryan, good observation and an excellent point. The penmanship is extraordinary.
    Starranise, thanks for sharing about the Miri church attack (though it was minor). Quick Google search suggests it was a church in Lutong, but can’t seem to find the church’s name.
    John Ling makes a great point about the necessity of separating church/mosque and state.
    (I know my comments are two years late..haha. Sorry, just found this.)

  • Antares

    Refreshingly lucid & articulate. Heartening to see crystalline intelligence combined with serious scholarship. A rarity in academia indeed!

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