Saturday, February 27, 2010

Malaysia and Allah: Whose God?

In Malaysia there is growing tensions over the use of the word "Allah." Some Malaysian Muslims think non-Islamic religions have no right to use the word "Allah" in reference to God. Other Muslims have pointed out that Allah is an Arabic word simply meaning "God." In Arabic translations of the Bible the word Allah is used freely throughout the Old and New Testament. Even the most conservative Arab Muslims never question that Allah is the God of Jews and Christians. The only debate is the "proper" understanding of Allah. Why then is this an issue in Malaysia with Malaysian Muslims? In this Aljazeera YouTube, social activist Marina Mahathir and opposition MP Khalid Samad point out that the real problem is political and racial. Muslim is synonymous with Malaysian in the rhetoric of Malaysian nationalists. Allah has become not just a Muslim God but the exclusive deity of the Malay people. What initially appears to be Islamic intolerance of other faiths is something altogether different. Chinese, Indian, and indigenous peoples must be kept in their place by the majority Malay population.

5 comments:

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

For a while I've been thinking of writing a paper called "God Beneath Being," looking at how by naming the being that thinkers of transcendence claim to ascribe ultimate reality to they end up predicating all sorts of things of (or in this case, through) that name which do away with the superogatory and normative unity a transcendent being claims to authorize...

I think Spinoza understood this point with his very deflationary deus sive natura.

Joshua said...

Interesting. Can you be more clear on what you mean. I think various religious thinkers thought as you to a certain extent. The concept of Eyn Sof in Jewish mysticism or the idea that God's name YHWH (Yahweh) should not be pronounced comes to mind. Many Orthodox Jews simply call God Ha-Shem, "The Name." At times they even deliberately mispronounce the Hebrew word for God "Elohim" as Elokhim. Hence, they do not even say God; he is mentioned in innuendo. In English they write God as "G-d": same method and concept. I may be way off your approach and point. Furthermore, do you really think that is really the issue in the Malaysian case?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I'm not sure --- if I've understood you correctly, the issue comes down to how Muslim nationalists in Malaysia treat the non-Muslim minority --- I'm reminded of the traditional notion in Islam of the dimmhi (? --- I think, I'm going by memory), the traditional status that was assigned to Jews and Christians (i.e. monotheists) who were held to worship the same god as Muslims but without the benefit of later revelations/prophecies --- again, if I'm recalling correctly the Mughal emperors extended this concept to Hindus on the grounds that their pantheism was similar (a little stretch theologically but obviously politically important). So the question becomes, are those of you who we disagree with allowed to use the same name to describe transcendent reality that we do?

The title I'm playing with here is a riff off of Jean-Luc Marion (an extremely orthodox Catholic thinker)'s God Beyond Being which claims that God explodes any phenomenal representation of God (God is a "saturated" phenomenon) --- for me, the idea of talking about God beneath being is to show how different groups use their particularistic understanding of God to push their own theologico-political agenda at the same time that they push some universality through the transcendence of the notion of God.

So, here the question is: does refusing to let other religious groups use the term Allah bespeak an awareness of the alterity of Islam (the ideological claim) or an intolerance of others (the material claim)? Would extending the name necessarily be more welcoming of other religious faiths?

I don't know, but it does seem to me that many religious thinkers have tried to have their cake and eat it to when it comes to transcendence, asserting the correctness of their particular claim when it suits them but then retreating to more generalized claims about "transcendence" or the oneness of God when challenged...

Joshua said...

I see. It is nice to have feedback on ideas about God, so-called revealed religion, and philosophy. Ultimately, I want to make clear that I put this up in the spirit of Zizek when he wrote in his book "Iraq the Borrowed Kettle": "So, in the style of Margritte's Ceci n'est pas une pipe [This is not a pipe], I should emphasize that Iraq the Borrowed Kettle is not a book about Iraq..." My reason to post this Youtube had nothing to do with Islam or even Malaysia per say, but the way religion can be used to hide other fundamental conflicts. I venture that economic disparities also play a role. As Marx stated: "The criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics."

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Instead of "hide other fundamental conflicts" would it be fair to say "play them out?"