Wednesday, January 20, 2010

My God vs Your God Part 1 - Saying Allah in Malaysia

Over the last few weeks there have been a couple of stories in the media highlighting the problems of inclusion and exclusion in religion and the age old problem that arises when different people worship different deities or belong to different religions. How these problems are played out will differ according to whether the people involved believe in many deities or only one. For people who accept the existence of many deities, the encounter with those who worship a different pantheon, can be worked out in several ways. One easy response is to welcome the broadening of the horizon of the divine. Here are a whole lot of new deities as well as my own. If there are several hundred million deities in Hinduism, such recognition and acknowledgement, has played a part. In the ancient Mediterranean world, people were also likely to adopt such an approach. Alexander the Great seems to have spent much of his campaigning paying homage to the any different deities of the lands he conquered. Ancient Jewish sources unproblematically report him offering sacrifice to the Jewish god in the temple at Jerusalem. Another response is to identify the different deities with each other. The Greeks identified many of the Olympians with the ancient Egyptian deities, even creating new deities such as Serapis out of a fusion of the old. At times such cross-identification takes on a universalist tone merging a suite of deities into one as is evidenced in the Vision of Isis to Lucius (Apuleius). Both Lucius in his prayer and Isis in her response identify Isis with a suite of female deities Greek and non-Greek however

both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis.

But once you start cross identifying a number of deities with each other you are likely to end up with only one, albeit known by many names. I think just such a process lies behind the monotheism of the biblical texts making up the Hebrew and Greek Bibles which comprise the various Christian Old Testaments. I also think that the biblical monotheist trajectory was just one of several unfolding in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern religious worlds and that these trajectories cross-fertilised each other, as well.

Biblical or Abrahamic monotheism works with both a universalist and a supersessionist dynamic. It operates throughout the Hebrew/Greek Old Testament texts. They both other and denounce as Canaanite the old Hebrew religious (polytheist) world at the same time as they appropriate and reconstruct it together with a good dose of Mesopotamian and maybe Greek polytheism, as well as many elements of the Persian monotheist trajectory. The old deities are denounced and at the same time absorbed into YHWH or transformed into angelic hosts. Even YHWH cannot completely absorb the old Father El, the high god of the old Semitic pantheon, who remains as El Elyon to become the Christain God the Father or splits YHWH into a greater and a lesser YHWH, a divine transcendent YHWH and an lesser angelic YHWH. Biblical monotheism never resolved these quandaries which continue to work themselves out in the various Abrahamic religions to this day.

The Abrahamic religions continue the dynamic of supersessionism and universalism. Each claims to be based on a revelation of the divine which at the same time completes and replaces what went before. Islam is most obvious in its universalism and and supersessionism. It claims to complete both the Israelite religious trajectory that starts with Isaac and ends with Jesus and a Gentile trajectory that starts with Ishmael and ends with Muhammad and incorporates a variety of other monotheistic groups such as the Hanifs of the Arabian Peninsula and the Sabians, who some identify with ancient pagan 'god-fearers' associated with ancient synagogues and a separate 'pagan' worship of the Most High God. These are all Peoples of the Book, who, together with the Magians of Persia, the Qur'an declares must be treated with respect and not prevented from following their ancestral faiths (in a qualified way at least for the Magians). At the same time, Islam represents the ultimate truth and fulfilment of all these other religions.

So I was bemused to see reports of a number of Malaysian churches (and a Sikh temple) vandalised and/or set on fire in response to a High Court ruling that Christians could use the word Allah to refer to God in Malay, striking down a decision by the federal UMNO government restricting the use of the word to Muslims only. According to Anil Netto,

the goverment and some conservative Muslim groups argue that only Muslims should be allowed to use the word Allah. These groups say Christians could use alternative terms such as "tuhan", a more general term.

The church, however, pointed out that the term Allah had been widely used by Malay-speaking Christians in the region for hundreds of years. These include Christian indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak, many of whom speak Malay or local languages.

Furthermore Christians and Jews in other Muslim countries especially the Middle East have likewise used Allah for generations since the rise of Islam and the spread of Arabic. And Islam itself declares that Christians and Jews are Peoples of the Book and hence worshippers of the One True God/Allah.

Interstingly, too,

Current Muslim opposition political leaders, including Anwar Ibrahim of the People's Justice Party (PKR) and Hadi Awang, president of the Islamic Pas party, say that Christians should be allowed to use the term Allah. Both leaders deflated plans for a larger protest last Friday against the High Court ruling when they discouraged their party supporters from joining in... only 300 or so protested at the national mosque in front of a crowd of onlookers, while over at Kampung Baru, a one-time hot spot for restive ethnic Malays, there were only about 20. The small numbers were arguably a reflection of new political realignments in which PKR and Pas have succeeded in winning over a significant portion of the Malay Muslim base.
A veteran UMNO politician, Razaleigh Hamzah... cited UMNO's position in the Allah controversy as a case in point. "In a milestone moment, Pas, the Islamic party, is holding on to the more plural and moderate position, while UMNO is digging itself into an intolerant hardline position that has no parallel that I know of in the Muslim world."

Ruling the word Allah off-limits to Christians could even be argued to be a breach of the basics of the religion that would undermine its claim to be the restoration of the older revelation given through Jesus himself as well as the prophets before him. An classic example of politically inspired exclusivist fundamentalism going against the fundamentals of the faith itself.

Further analysis by Fabio Scarpello can be found here.

1 comment:

  1. I attend a Melkite temple. We pray to Allah or Illah every week (as per the Trisagion: "Qudduson Illah, Qudduson Ilkawee, Qudduson Illathee lamut erhmna", with apologies for probably irregular spelling since I don't know the language and only repeat it by ear). When our bishop came last week he prayed to Allah. Allah is my God, the Father of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Refusing to let us pray to Allah is like refusing to let us pray to Jesus, if you happen to be immersed in the right cultural and ritual context.