Disputation in Malaysia over the Kalimah Allah, the name of God, has not abated.
On the contrary, it continues to become ever more acrimonious and worrying.
These days we now even have some enthusiastic “idealists” who give advance notice of their readiness for a virtually premeditated amok —— or to excuse others who might resort to that kind of intimidatory violence —— in order, paradoxically, to uphold their notions of moderation, mutual acceptance and tolerance in interfaith relations.
A question of many parts
There are many aspects to this dispute, all of them requiring close and serious consideration.
There is the constitutional and legal aspect, which is fundamental, and which —— especially in habitually litigious Malaysia, where everybody always seems ready for a large and long-lasting “lawyers’ picnic” —— can never be ignored or taken lightly.
There are important considerations in the areas of political philosophy, especially of democratic and multicultural theory, which are relevant and need to be acknowledged.
There are questions in the area of historical linguistics, especially in the field of comparative Semitic philology (from old Syriac and Ugaritic through Hebrew and Aramaic to Arabic) which must be considered.
After all Middle Eastern Christians have been using the name of Allah to denote, and reverentially to address, their God for many long centuries going back to the time before the birth of Muhammad.
There are issues that arise from the religious and civilisational history of the Southeast Asian world, especially the fact that the Bible, or key parts of it, have been translated into Malay in which the idea of the Christian God has been rendered as Allah for several hundred years.
All these aspects of the current dispute are important.
They need to be fully discussed.
But I shall not go into them here. Others have already explained these matters with great patience and precision.
Instead I wish to suggest and explore another, different dimension of the present controversy over the invocation of God’s name.
The cultural anthropology of the Malay world
I wish to address and highlight a cultural aspect of the problem.
I want to suggest that this controversy is “a very Malay thing”.
Here I mean “a very Malay thing”, or “something that is in its own way very Malay”, in a very specific sense and manner.
I mean in a “cultural” sense, as old-fashioned cultural anthropologists used to, and might still, understand the matter.
Those of us who know something about Malay village life, either as inhabitants of that older, now disappearing world or else as intrusive cultural analysts and reporters, know of the role of the village bomoh, the spirit healer, and of its great social and human importance.
How does the bomoh work?
By calling upon the “spirit world” through spirits with whom he is familiar, with whom he has a continuing relation, upon whom he may make some kind of moral claim.
And how does the bomoh do this?
He does so by summoning those spirits to him, into his presence, in a séance or spirit mediumship session.
He summons them by means of powerful jampi, invocations.
If you have ever heard these jampi recited —— or read about them in the old works of Skeat, Gimlette, Annandale, Wilkinson, Winstedt and the like —— you will know how they work.
Through these jampi the bomoh calls upon his connections in the spirit world.
He calls upon them, imploringly but at the same time commanding them, virtually requiring them to come and help him.
He does do by asserting ritually, in his densely coded jampi or incantation, his right to their presence, assistance and serviceable intervention.
He does so by reminding them they are not strangers to him, nor he to them. That he has a claim upon them, and that they are obliged to recognize his claim upon them.
How does he assert this?
He does so by means of a number of the standard “formulaic” expressions of his ritual language —— through the arcane phraseology and idioms of his jampi.
“I know you!” he declares. “I know your name. I know your origins.”
That is crucial.
Knowing its name and then to assert knowledge of a spirit’s origins and place in the hidden recesses of the cosmos is to be able to hold it to oneself, and its power to one’s needs and purposes.
By the affirmation of this relationship —— a special and very personal, even exclusive, relationship —— the bomoh not only reminds the spirit that he, the bomoh, is there.
He affirms his claim, and asserts an obligation on the spirit’s part, for that power to come to him, to help him, to render some special assistance to him: some special assistance that the spirit would not and need not render to others who do not know its name —— who do not know and therefore have no basis or right to call upon it, since they do not have that same special relationship with the spirit.
The spirit has a superhuman or supernatural power. By the ritual affirmation of that special relationship, the bomoh asserts and establishes his right to recognition, consideration and assistance from that extra-human power. He voices his claim to enjoy the benefits of that power that he is able to invoke.
Power and knowing names in the Malay world
This matter of knowing the names of things and their origins —— and the idea that this knowledge is both empowering and that it is also an entitlement of power, that this knowledge confers and revalidates and announces a great moral power that the person who knows these things may enjoy —— is not just a matter that applies to bomoh.
It is a more general and pervasive theme in what used to be called “traditional Malay culture”.
To give but one example, one of some recent and contemporary significance, people may recall how on a number of occasions in modern memory various state rulers have intervened with the designated road, highway and mapping authorities to insist that certain street and place names be changed.
The names given by the road and mapping authorities may, by the latest standards and conventions, have been linguistically impeccable. They may have pleased the sign-makers and mapping experts, but so far as the Malay rulers were concerned they were simply wrong.
And, in the end, it is the Malay ruler who truly knows the proper, correct names of places. He knows because it is he who —— perhaps ironically, as part of his pre-Islamic Hindu-Buddhist cosmological inheritance as focus of the human world and anchor of its relation to the wider universe —— gives them their names, on the basis of his authoritative knowledge of their true if obscure origins.
So “incorrect” place names and signage are changed.
They are changed because the ruler says so.
But not capriciously.
He says so because that is what, in part, it means to be a ruler. In the “traditional Malay cultural universe”, places and people have no names and no fixed, clear social existence or identity until they are named and recognized by a ruler —— in their royally-given names.
The leading scholar Anthony Milner has written an important work entitled Kerajaan expounding this idea. And he does it with great clarity and scholarly depth.
Names, power and the current controversy
So how is this relevant in the present dispute?
A grasp of this anthropological kind of “cultural knowledge” about the Malay world is essential, I suggest, to understanding the current controversy, or at least one very significant and intractable part of it.
It has often been pointed out, as this dispute has evolved, that in the Middle Eastern Arab world the name of Allah is routinely used, and has long been, by non-Muslims and, what is more, that most Muslims in that Arabic-speaking historical context have no problem with their doing so. It is simply a routine matter to them.
So why, it is asked, should Malays, why should Southeast Asian Muslims far from the historical heartlands of the Islamic faith community, object? Do they know better? Can they know better? On what basis?
The answers given have been complex. But they have been very similar, most of them. Many have even invoked Islamic notions, at times employing Arabic linguistic terms, of the need to respect local custom and usage, to accept local society and its practices.
In published commentaries, both Professor Sidek Baba of the International Islamic University (UIA/IIU) and Ustadz Fathul Bari Mat Jahya of the Himpunan Ulama Muda Malaysia (or iLMU) have invoked the notion of fiqh ul-waqi.
This idea is usually employed to urge a “realist” rather than a normatively idealist or absolutist approach towards implementing Islamic law: to promote the view that all such efforts should recognise the importance of national variations. That they should take account of the obdurate “on the ground” facts of local law, custom and practice.
So, in short, behind all these rejoinders there is really one simple answer to the question “why object?”
It is an answer that is either totally compelling or totally inadequate, merely a postponing or avoidance of the issue, depending on one’s point of view.
That is the answer that “here things are different”. This, some people say, is the Malay world, and what may pass muster in the Middle East will not necessarily do so here. And whether it does or not, they further assert, is the “call”, the choice, of the local Malay Muslim community. It is a matter for them, and them alone, to decide.
The basis of an answer? To what question?
Now, I do not suggest that bringing in this kind of anthropological knowledge about, or perspective upon, Malay culture can possibly decide the central question —— the substantive issue of the permissibility or otherwise of non-Muslim use of the name of Allah —— one way or the other.
It cannot resolve the question whether or not it is, or should be, permissible for non-Muslims in the Malay world, and Malaysia specifically, to employ the name of Allah formally to denote, and ritually to address, their God.
It does not tell us whether non-Muslims may employ that designation to refer to God by name in Malay and other vernacular translations of their sacred texts.
But what it does do, I believe, is to clarify, and it goes a long way towards explaining, the great tenacity with which some Malay Muslims, as in this present controversy, insist upon their right, their own exclusive right, to use the name of Allah. To assert, that is to say, their own exclusionary or “sumptuary” right to its use.
They cling to and uphold their notion of this right —— regardless of what cultural usages in the Arabic–speaking Middle East may be, and irrespective of the learned arguments of wise, generous and acclaimed Islamic scholars worldwide may be —— in a very Malay way.
Like the bomoh who places great value on the spiritual importance and social significance of what it means to know, and have the right and ability to use, the name of certain spirits from the “Malay spirit universe”, many contemporary Malays, I believe, carry forward this same, deeply-rooted and entrenched Malay attitude into their Islamic religious consciousness and sensibilities.
In a land where many people are forever worrying about the boundaries between the Malay and the non-Malay worlds —— and where some people often call upon the prestige, standing and authority of Islam to “sacralize” and reinforce their ideas of these boundaries, and of their importance and inviolability —— it seems clear how the notion of a proprietary Muslim entitlement to the name of Allah, to the exclusion of the followers of all other faiths and faith communities, might take hold. More, how it has come to be valued, and become the object of an embattled yet highly assertive defence.
That Malay Muslims might, even unknowingly, understand and express their sense of themselves as Muslims in what are often very Malay ways should surprise nobody.
But, once you can see this, you can also recognise that what is at stake in this current and evolving confrontation is a largely matter of ethnic identity and the defence of ethnic boundaries, not (as so many seem to believe) the upholding of the standing and dignity of a global faith, of its beliefs and entitlements and its traditions.
Why, for God’s sake, will people not plainly admit that this is the fact? That this is their underlying motivation, their explicit purpose and considered strategy?
Why must they call upon the majesty of God to lend power, and seemingly divine authority and sanction, to their mundane ethno-political purposes?
God alone truly knows.
Clive Kessler is Emeritus Professor of Sociology & Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.