What’s in a Name?


An uproar is occurring in a perhaps unexpected place. This past week Malaysia witnessed rising tensions as several churches have been vandalized. These tensions are the result of a court ruling in which a government ban on the use of Allah by Christians was overturned. Proponents of the ban argue that the term Allah should be reserved only for Muslims because they believe that Christians are using the term to get converts and that its use by other faith communities will end up confusing Muslims. The violence that has resulted, in my view, is problematic and sad.

While Muslims make up 60% of its population, Malaysia has a significant non-Muslim population and this kind of tension is troubling for a number of reasons. First of all, Allah is simply the Arabic word for God, not the property of a specific religion. In the Arabic-speaking Middle East, Muslims and Christians both employ this word when referring to God. For example, many expressions that have Allah in them like InshaAllah — “if God wills” — are used by both groups. As Anthony Shadid mentions in his article on the topic, “the God of Abraham, has a shared name, Allah.”

This violence is also troubling because it goes against the dictates of the faith that is is supposedly supporting. Houses of worship are not to be attacked, period. These kinds of attacks perpetuate the idea that Muslims are violent and such violence does not reflect how Muslims are instructed to live with others. Finally, I really don’t think that Muslims will become confused if others use this word!

It’s too bad that a term that carries so many positive connotations is leading to violence. In my opinion, the term should bring the groups together with a common vocabulary that both understand.

What do you think of the attacks? Do you think a common vocabulary can help diverse groups communicate? Can language lead to violence? How? Are there other similar situations? Please share your comments.

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. It is very distressing to see this happening right here in Malaysia. The immediate impression that it gives out to others is that Muslims are aggressive, and has no respect for other religions.

    I am sure if you ask any of the people in the streets, where the word Allah originated from, most of them would not know. Some people just continue to protest just because other Muslims are doing it.

    And yes, I do agree, Allah is a simple Arabic word for God! We do not ‘own’ or have ‘copyright’ over the word.

  2. this behaviour is disgusting ,every true muslim knows that they are forbidden to attack churches and synagogues ,this is written in the holy quran as for the name of our lord ,almight allah ,all the arab christians refer to allah by his name, since when did muslims have the copyright to own it,this comment has been left by a white british female revert to islam

  3. In my opinion, in order to maintain racial harmony, the government should take precautions against the danger that might happen if non-Muslims use or perhaps misuse the word Allah. If you look at the rate of Malaysian Muslims who convert to other religions, it’s sad and alarming.

    I’m also aware that the word Allah is used comfortably by both Muslims and non-Muslims in the Arab world, but it’s not fair to generalize the same for the rest part of the world.

    Is it necessary to use the word Allah while they can use the word God or Lord? Why would they want to use an Arabic word?

    Nevertheless, violence is definitely not the solution.

  4. What is so wrong about that single word? It is just a name. As long as you say it with respect.