Malaysian Court Rules That Non-Muslims Are Forbidden from Using the Word ‘Allah’

Malaysia isn’t considered a progressive country for a number of reasons. Last year, its Education Ministry issued guidelines to identifying gay or lesbian children so that their “symptoms” could be corrected (Example: Gays wear “V-neck and sleeveless clothes”).

The International Humanist and Ethical Union noted that Malaysia requires its citizens (over the age of 12) to carry ID cards that list their religion. And while officials would argue there’s religious freedom, two states in Malaysia passed laws prohibiting anyone from leaving Islam (though they theoretically can’t be enforced):

Amending the penal code is the exclusive prerogative of the federal government. Despite contradicting federal law, the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu passed laws in 1993 and 2002, respectively, making apostasy a capital offense. Apostasy is defined as the conversion from Islam to another faith. No one has been convicted under these laws and, according to a 1993 statement by the Attorney General, the laws cannot be enforced absent a constitutional amendment.

Yesterday, one of the country’s Court of Appeals took the largest backward step yet:

A court in Muslim-majority Malaysia ruled Monday that only Muslims are permitted to use the Arabic word “Allah” to describe God, overturning a lower court’s 2009 decision that allowed others to use the word.

“The usage of the word ‘Allah’ is not an integral part of the faith in Christianity,” Chief Judge Mohamed Apandi Ali said in the ruling, supporting the government’s case.

(You can read Ali’s decision here and his colleagues’ here and here.)

This may be even worse than a blasphemy charge. We’re used to hearing countries ruled by fundamentalists argue that you can’t denounce God or speak poorly of religion. Ali’s ruling says that you can’t even use the word “Allah” — a word that means “God” — unless you’re Muslim and talking about the Islamic God. So a Catholic newspaper that uses the word “God” and translates it into the Malay language (“Allah”) is forbidden from doing so:

“It is a retrograde step in the development of law in relation to the fundamental liberty of religious minorities,” The Herald’s editor, the Rev. Lawrence Andrew, said after losing the case.

Andrew said he would appeal to Malaysia’s highest court.

What’s the fear? You won’t believe this:

However, some Muslim groups have said that the Christian use of the word Allah could be used to encourage Muslims to convert to Christianity.

“Allah is not a Malay word. If they [non-Muslims] say they want to use a Malay word they should use Tuhan instead of Allah,” Zainul Rijal Abu Bakar, a lawyer representing the government, told the BBC.

Oh no, not conversion! If your faith is so flimsy that the use of the word “Allah” will change your mind, you have bigger problems than translation.

(It’s worth noting that there may be politics involved in this ruling, which is explained here.)

We often hear the claim that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God; they just call him different things. This ruling contradicts that belief. It also calls into question how seriously Malaysia takes the idea of freedom:

This could end up being the most important religious liberty story of the year, with wide-ranging implications for religious pluralism in southeast Asia. At issue are three of the minority rights at the very core of modern rights-based polities: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press.

I’m not sure whether the blame here rests on government officials or general adherents of Islam, who think they get to control the word choices of other people. Keep in mind this case wasn’t about someone using the word “Allah” in a negative way. It was just about using that combination of letters in that order, period.

In theory, this also means non-Muslims authors would be forbidden from using the “A” word in a book. Non-Muslim students couldn’t use it in an essay about Islam.

It makes as much sense as McDonald’s saying that only regular customers could say the name of the company.

What I haven’t seen in any of the stories is what the punishment would be for a non-Muslim who used the word. Would they be fined? Jailed? Slapped on the wrist? It’d be great to see a good number of the two million Christians (and unknown number of non-religious citizens) in the country engage in some civil disobedience and use the word “Allah” as much as possible. (Or, if you want to be sneaky, write reports about how you’d like to vacation in Tallahassee or go to the Lallahpalooza concert.)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Dys
  • Mick

    When the Muslim Inquisitions finally get underway (not long now) I wonder if they’ll break the Christian record of 600 years?

    • Christian Kemp

      It is already underway in countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. Its we just accept it now as the Muslims say this is the way it has always been. Stoning, hangings, mutilation etc determined by ruling elite I would consider inquisition.

  • Todd

    I don’t get these religions that scream and cry how theirs is the only “true” religion and that everything about is right. but then fear members leaving it over the least little thing. If Muslims are so secure in their religion, why would they fear a non-Muslim using the word Allah. It makes me think that maybe they’re not as secure in their beliefs as they think.

    • David Kopp

      That’s because it’s not about the religion. It’s about control. Always has been, always will be.

      • Todd

        Agreed. They’re very afraid of losing followers, for whatever reason. Followers equal money and power.

      • pete084

        Governments love religion, it’s easier to control the people using the threat of religious punishment in the afterlife, and they are can use religion as a scapegoat when it goes wrong. Close ties between state and church are very dangerous indeed.

        Education is the antidote, at least partially, there is little that can be done for the wilfully stupid people who, despite a good education, choose to follow the path of faith instead of reason.

    • Christian Kemp

      I think its hard for any rational person to pretend that they really believe this trash, so they make real laws and hurt people to affirm their belief.

  • baal

    One more of the endless types of bs that we’d see here were we not a secular nation. Usual considerations aside, not allowing non-muslims to say ‘allah’ is a bad rule. What if a mosque puts up a billboard with allah on it? Or a muslim business? Or a christian business but the sign maker or person who physcially posts it is muslim? There are a ton of cases where you’d need to do a lot of investigating to see if a muslim put it up or not and then you get into is that person a good enough muslim etc.

    • TheG

      Better yet, what if a Muslim journalist reporting on a Muslim event quotes a Muslim saying the word “Allah”, but the owner of the newspaper is a non-Muslim? How about if the journalist isn’t a Muslim, but the owner is? Or both are, but they are quoting a non-Muslim using “Allah”?
      I would say they didn’t think this one through, but expecting a judge named “Mohammed” to rule on religion in any way that made sense is just a tad naive.

  • A3Kr0n

    Calling this a “retrograde action” is like calling a decapitation “just a scratch”.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I’m not sure whether the blame here rests on government officials or
    general adherents of Islam, who think they get to control the word
    choices of other people.

    I think the blame falls on every single person with their critical faculties intact that promotes the idea that religious ideas deserve to be respected simply because someone considers them sacred. Whether, you’re a muslim, christian, jew, buddhist, wiccan, or even an atheist. If you think bad ideas are worthy of respect, this is where it gets you.

  • Atheos

    Instead of a “draw Muhammad day” they could have a “write ‘Allah’ day”.

  • Sids

    Presumably, using synonyms instead such as “the transcendent invisible douchecanoe” would be entirely ok, right?

    • Gehennah

      I prefer “The one that chose a pedophile as a prophet”

      • DavidMHart

        Except that Christians talking about the Christian god (or, I suppose I should say, talking about the Christian allah) don’t have that as part of their story. They could, however, say ‘the one who impregnated a young woman by magic without her explicit consent’

  • Gehennah

    This is why I want a secular country. Not that every non-secular country ends up like this, but it opens up way too many doors for it to start happening.

  • Christian Kemp

    Another feather in the cap for religious stupidity, the only problem there is no place left in the hat. Malaysia, has real problems other than the use of the word “Allah” I just wish the government would see this and not try appease an imaginary god.

  • Richard Wade

    So if I’m in a restaurant in Malaysia, and I want to order à la carte, or I ask for pie à la mode, I risk being arrested? “But officer, it’s a French phrase, honest!”

    I can see this spreading. Christians, Hindus, and any other non-Muslims in Malaysia will have to say or write “you know who” as if they’re characters in a Harry Potter novel who are afraid to say “Valdemort.” They’ll feel constricted and ridiculous, so they’ll get resentful. They’ll say, “Oh yeah? Well you guys can’t use the names for our (uh, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, beyond-corporeal entity not to be named here).” Appealing to fairness, they’ll insist on similar laws forbidding non-Christians and non-Hindus and non-whateverists from uttering or writing the names of their (uh, supreme creator-sustainer-provider-type supernatural beings not to be named here), and so everybody will be you-know-who-ing all over the place in a confused and confusing mess.

    • Baby_Raptor

      You spelled Voldemort wrong. Expect Death Eaters at your door shortly.

  • Ho Yi Jian

    By the way, I feel like I need to represent my home country’s political dynamics. I’m not a Muslim myself, but I grew up in a evangelical Christian household but distance myself from religion nowadays.

    First, there’s a partial error that’s fuelling the comments below on religious expression. The Deputy Home Minister and Prime Minister’s Office has stated that the ban only extends to that particular publication, The Herald — so no legal problem at all at the moment for non-Muslims to order ice cream a la mode or say ‘astagfirullah’. Sources: (opposition-sympathetic source) and (government-sympathetic source)

    You mention that there may be politics in the ruling — Malaysians understand it as nothing but politics. There is a lot more to be expanded on Jessica Pak’s commentary in the linked BBC article. There’s been a history of religious-ethnic centripetalism with ruling Malay-Muslim party UMNO trying to out-Islamify the religious party. Recently, the Malay vote has been split in the elections earlier this year.

    Malaysia doesn’t take the idea of freedom seriously at all — at least it’s ruling parties. The initial formation of West Malaysia based on equal citizenship for all (The Malayan Union) was protested and rejected by Malays under the . It was only through a consociational bargain with representatives from other non-Malay communities that enabled a constitutional elevation of Malay rights, that Islam is the official religion of Malaysia and a tacit understanding that Malay-Muslims would remain the sole driving political force in Malaysia in promoting their vision of ethno-religious nationalisation. Essentially, Malaysia was not founded on liberty or equality, but on the premise of this project.

    There’s more to write about this ethno-religious nationalism and how it’s relevant to East Malaysia which is more diverse, but suffice to say that the powers that be find that the ruling completely in line with the project.

  • Dave The Sandman

    Sort of reminds me of this great classic from the Monty Python team

    shame the reality is a lot less funny

  • Clyde

    As a Christian I think this ruling may be a good thing. Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God and using different names makes this fact clear.

    • Mr. Two

      But you, as a Christian, would not be able to use the word Allah to describe the Muslim god. You’d have to call it “god” or some other name.

    • C.L. Honeycutt

      According to both Christians and Muslims, they worship the same god. The Muslim fanboys just wrote a different sequel than the Christian ones did.

  • Matt D

    That’s how it starts…..seemingly harmless concessions to appease a group of theists, and you’ll have a Theocracy in no time.

  • Belg

    So they can’t write “Allah”, but can they write “AIIah”? (the second time I wrote aiiah, with 3 first letters capped)…

  • Jay

    “It’d be great to see a good number of the two million Christians (and unknown number of non-religious citizens) in the country engage in some civil disobedience and use the word “Allah” as much as possible.”

    What would that do besides making the majority within the country angry and potentially getting people hurt or even killed?

  • zaki

    Instead of shamelessly pushing for civil discord in Malaysia and fanning turmoil, you should be tying to understand the uniqueness of Malaysia as a country. It is NOT like any other Muslim country, and has a distinct set of geo-social-political agenda that must be understood and balanced in providing a fair and amicable outcome to the situation.

    As an ignorant foreigner with lack of insights into the social evolution of Malaysian society, you are not in any position to be ignoring the sensitivities and delicate cohesion that exists in Malaysia. In other words, mind your own business and clean up the racial inequalities that exist in Chicago before sticking your nose in other people’s problems, which you can’t even be bothered to understand properly!