Islamists want to prohibit non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah.

A wartime lexicon.
Feb. 8 2010 10:56 AM

Holy Names

Now some Islamists want to prohibit non-Muslims from referring to God as Allah.

Vandals attack a statue. Click image to expand.
Vandals in Malaysia splashed red paint on a statue of the Virgin Mary

In Malaysia last month, there was vicious rioting after high court judge Lau Bee Lan issued a ruling on the proper naming of God. A complaint had been lodged by Muslim groups that local Christians were using the word Allah in their services and publications. (In the Malay language, that happens to be the word for God, a term Christians find it hard to do without.) The high court finding was very narrowly drawn; it said that the Catholic Herald could say Allah in its Malay-language edition, provided that the paper was sold "only on church grounds and bearing the label FOR NON-MUSLIMS ONLY." Even this restriction was too lenient for the Islamists. Several churches and convents have been firebombed and defaced, and the Malaysian government has publicly regretted the court's decision. According to an Associated Press report, the authorities believe that "making Allah synonymous with god may confuse Muslims and ultimately mislead them into converting to Christianity." The danger of this seems small—most of Malaysia's 2.5 million Christians are ethnically Chinese or Indian, and indeed there is a slight but unmistakable racist tinge to the Malayan Muslim demand for an ethno-linguistic monopoly on the word for the deity.

Christopher Hitchens Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.

This is interesting and alarming for several reasons. First, it is happening in one of the world's most celebratedly "moderate" Muslim states. It seems very probable that the same sectarian intolerance will now spread to neighboring Indonesia, which has a language very similar to Malaysia's in which the "G-word" is also Allah no matter which confession is employing it. This would add to the existing pressure being brought by Islamists in Indonesia to reduce the size and influence of the country's Christian minority, as well as to make Islam an enforceable religion by means of sharia.


When speaking silkily to ignorant Western audiences, Muslim propagandists sometimes like to say reassuringly that we all—Christians, Jews, Muslims—worship the same God. We are all children of Abraham, blah blah blah. We are all "peoples of the book," blah blah again. It is true that the Quran contains much material borrowed from the Pentateuch and the New Testament, but it is also true that it is widely considered to be authentic only when written or declaimed in Arabic. The Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia lingua franca contains many borrowings from Arabic, including the G-word, but this doesn't stop its Christian speakers from being told that they can't follow their own faith in their own tongue. This quite clearly negates the notion that Islam is universal, that it preaches brotherhood, that it is a "religion of peace," blah blah blah. Instead, it shows a very calculated sectarianism, not entirely free of racial and national exclusivity at that, which proves that deep down the Islamists are not monotheists at all but believe that there are several gods, of whom theirs is naturally the best.

It won't surprise you, I hope, to learn that I have been an expert on this for decades and took it in literally with my mother's milk. My earliest years were spent in the island nation of Malta, that wonderful spot of earth between Libya and Sicily, with its capital, Valetta, perhaps the greatest Baroque and Renaissance city in Europe. Malta has a language of its own, which I used to speak in a boyish way. The Maltese tongue was once considered by some philologists to be descended from the speech of the Carthaginians, but by far its closest kinship is with the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb of Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco. It is the only Semitic language rendered in a Latin script, and, along with English, it is an official language of the country. Since Malta's accession as the smallest member state, it is also an official language of the European Union. And in Maltese, the printed word for God is Alla, which means that when spoken by a priest, it sounds exactly the same.

This is made additionally interesting by the fact that Malta is probably the most Christian country in Europe, more observantly Catholic than Spain, Portugal, Ireland, or even Poland. It is studded with beautiful and ornate churches and was the site of one of the longest sieges ever mounted by the Ottoman Empire—a siege that eventually led to a Crusader victory. (They don't call themselves the Knights of Malta for nothing.) When services are held in the vernacular, God is addressed as Alla.

It could well be that all this unsettling information has not yet reached the ears of the jihadists. But it now joins the long list of actual and potential confrontations, derived from the infinitely elastic list of matters about which Muslims award themselves the right to be aggrieved—and also the right to resort to violence. Who could have guessed that they wouldn't notice until last year that there were non-Muslims speaking the same language as them? Who could have foreseen that within weeks of this startling discovery we would witness the usual dreary display of yelling crowds, snarling preachers, and smoldering buildings?

Arabic is a great language of literature and poetry, and derivations from it (such as algebra) are found in our own dictionaries as well as across the geography of Spain (Alhambra, Alcázar, etc.). You might think that Muslims would be flattered that Christians in Mediterranean Europe and Asia employ the Arabic word for the divine. (As presumably do the local atheists, maintaining stoutly that Allah is not great or does not exist.) But it seems that grim sectarianism now carries all before it. Perhaps our newsroom copy editors should begin to make the relevant adjustments so that mobs howling " Allahuh Akbar" are now translated as howling only that "Allah is great," and people intoning "Insh'allah" are quoted as saying only "If Allah wills it," rather than "If God wills it." But if this change were ever adopted, you could make a sure bet that there would be rioting and burning and killing about that as well.



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