(Also published on Malaysiakini)
Christmas came early for me this year, a month and a half early. I received not one but two presents in November, courtesy of the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM).
At a dinner held on Nov 5 celebrating the 400th year of the translation of the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia, I received a reprint of AC Ruyl’s BM translation of the gospel of Matthew as well a complete BM Bible translated by the BSM. AC Ruyl, a Dutch trader, had translated the gospel of Matthew into BM in 1612 and it was printed in 1629 in Holland.
The complete BM Bible was first translated by BSM in 1996 with a revised edition in 2001. Both books are important in understanding the ‘Allah’ debate that was first sparked by DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng’s Christmas Day message to ask the federal government to allow Christians in Malaysia to use the word ‘Allah’ in their worship of their God and Creator.
As a Christian, I’ve always wanted to have a copy of the Holy Bible in BM, to be able to read the Holy Scriptures in the national language. Unfortunately, tracking down a copy of such a bible in Petaling Jaya, a place with one of the highest concentration of Christians in peninsular Malaysia and also of Christian book shops, was challenging, to say the least.
I finally managed to track down an Indonesian Bible or the Alkitab which was stashed in the storeroom of a Christian bookstore, after I surreptitiously whispered to the cashier that I was looking for such a Bible. I felt as if I was buying contraband cigarettes rather than the Holy Scriptures of my faith. This was in the early 2000s.
Earlier this year, I went back to the same bookshop to ask for a copy of the Bible in BM because I knew that the BSM had produced a complete BM translation. While the Indonesian Alkitab was adequate, I knew that the Bible in BM would be a much more natural read given that we use slightly different words and sentence structures in BM as compared to Bahasa Indonesia (BI).
Furthermore, it seemed strange to me that I should have to resort to reading the Holy Scriptures in another language when a translation in my own national language was available, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the cashier said that they do not sell Bibles in BM.
So, you can imagine how pleased I was to receive a copy of the bible in BM, even one that had the stamp of the Home Affairs Ministry, complete with a serial number.
There are at least three points to consider on the issue of whether Christians should be able to use the word Allah in our Holy Scriptures which are published in BM. And I pray that my fellow Malaysians who are Muslims and who would protest the usage of the word Allah by Christians to consider each these points.
Firstly, Section 1 of Article 11 of the federal constitution states that ‘Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion’. Surely this right as enshrined in the constitution should include the right to determine the words which are used in one’s Holy Scriptures?
Tuhan instead of Allah?
Some have helpfully suggested that Christians use the word Tuhan instead of Allah in the BM Bible. Putting aside for the moment the practicality of such a suggestion (which I will explain later on), the crux of the matter here is the right of a religious group or body to independently decide on how their own Holy Scriptures is to be translated and the words which are to be used in this translation(s).
To say that Christians should change the word Allah to Tuhan is to disrespect the rights of a religious group – Christians, in this case – to have autonomy and control over their own religious texts.
It could easily lead to other slippery slope type arguments. For example, if the usage of the word Allah by Christians might offend or confuse Muslims and this word has to be changed, would other things in the Bible which may be offensive or confusing to Muslims – such as the many references to Jesus as God and Savior – also be required to be changed?
Secondly, the proposal to replace the word Allah with Tuhan ignores the fact that Tuhan (or rather TUHAN) is already being used in the BM bible. Without going into literary semantics, I would merely state here that YWHW (or Yahweh) in the Old Testament in translated into TUHAN whereas the generic name of God – El / Elohim – is translated into Allah.
In the various English translations, YWHW is translated as LORD (in capital letters) whereas El / Elohim is translated as God. In response to this, someone may again make the friendly suggestion that YWHW be translated into TUHAN while El / Elohim be translated into Tuhan (no caps) rather than Allah.
Other than contradicting point one above, this suggestion ignores the over 300 times where YWHW is paired with El / Elohim (or LORD with God). If Allah is to be replaced with Tuhan, we would find Tuhan appearing twice in the same verse.
For example, Exodus 29:46 would read: “Mereka akan tahu bahawa Akulah TUHAN, Tuhan (rather than Allah) mereka yang telah membawa mereka kelaur dari Mesir, supaya Aku dapat tingal bersama-sama mereka. Akulah TUHAN Tuhan mereka” (“They will know that I am the LORD, their Lord (rather than God), who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their Lord (rather than God))
This relatively well known passage from Revelation 1:8 would read: “Akulah yang pertama dan yang terakhir”, firman Tuhan, Tuhan (rather than Allah) Yang Maha Kuasa, yang ada, yang sudah ada dan yang akan datang” (“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord Lord (rather than God), “who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty”)
One BN minister who is also a Christian went so far as to say that he is fine with using Yahweh in place of Allah. Perhaps this minister did not realide that Yahweh had already been translated into TUHAN in the BM bible and that referencing TUHAN Yahweh would not make much sense from a translation as well as a theological standpoint.
I would recommend that those who suggest that Tuhan be used in place of Allah to read the BM Bible (if they can get a hold of a copy) to see if this ‘solution’ is actually workable in practice.
No practical impact on Muslims
The third and final point is that the usage of the word Allah by Christians (as well as the Sikh community) in Malaysia has absolutely no practical impact on 99.99 percent of the Muslim population in the country.
Christians have been using Allah in Sabah and Sarawak for many years without ‘confusing’ or ‘misleading’ the Muslims in both states. Sabah and Sarawakians who worship in BM in churches in Peninsular Malaysia, including using Allah in worship and in the Alkitab, have similarly not offended the sensibilities of the Muslims in the peninsula.
The notion that somehow the mere usage of the word Allah in the Alkitab can somehow confuse Muslims is as absurd as the supposed usage of solar-powered Bibles to ‘convert’ Muslims to Christianity (not to mention the fact that it is an insult to the intelligence and faith of the Muslim population in Malaysia).
And it is very unlikely that we would find throngs of Muslims flocking to churches on any given Sunday in Malaysia and be offended by the usage of the word Allah during these services (especially given the limited number of church services in BM in peninsular Malaysia).
In view of these three points raised, I hope that we can have a mature and sensible discussion over this matter rather than to resort to baseless accusations and impractical ‘suggestions’ that ignores due process. This would be one of my wishes for the New Year in 2013.
ONG KIAN MING is writing this as a Malaysian Christian who is trying to read the Bible on a regular basis in English, Chinese and BM. The views and opinions expressed here do not represent the views of the political party to which he belongs.