KUALA LUMPUR — Malaysia's self-styled image as a global leader of moderate Islam has been undermined by a court ruling that only Muslims can use the word “Allah” to refer to God, with a growing number of Muslim scholars and commentators condemning the decision.
A Malaysian court ruled last week that the word was “not an integral part of the faith in Christianity”, overturning a previous ruling that allowed a Malay-language Roman Catholic newspaper to use the word.
Since then, confusion has reigned over the interpretation of the ruling, with government ministers, lawyers and Muslim authorities giving widely diverging views on its scope. Critics of the decision have said it casts a chill on religious rights in Muslim-majority Malaysia, which has substantial minorities of ethnic Chinese and Indians.
Commentators in some countries that practice Islam more strictly than Malaysia have condemned the ruling, arguing that the word Allah has been used by different faiths for centuries. Christians in Malaysia's eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak have used the word for generations, as have Christians in the Middle East.
Pakistan's Dawn newspaper said in a commentary that the decision was a “sad reflection on how an otherwise modern country, widely seen as a role model for the Muslim world, is succumbing to the current trend of insularity in matters of faith”.
Reza Aslan, a prominent American Muslim theologian, called the ruling a political decision and said it had made Malaysia an international laughing stock.
“It's an embarrassment, it's shameful, it's not worthy of a great country like Malaysia,” he said this week on radio.
“(The ruling) just casts this negative light on a country which ... is a model for Muslims around the world, and yet this has made it a laughing stock. We are laughing at you.”
Reza noted that the word Allah literally means “the God” and thus could not be considered a name.
“It's almost a blasphemous thought to think that God has a name.”
The court's ruling came as Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak seeks to consolidate his support among majority ethnic Malays, who are Muslim by law, and secure the backing of traditionalists following a divisive national election in May.
The editor of the Catholic newspaper is appealing against the decision.
Facing a strong backlash to the ruling, government ministers have said in recent days that the large population of Christians in Sabah and Sarawak would not be affected by the ruling - an interpretation disputed by most lawyers. They have also said the ruling only applied to one particular newspaper rather than the general use of the word.
Adding to the confusion, Malaysia's tourism minister said this week that east Malaysians could use the word Allah in their home states but not if they were in west Malaysia.
Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said in an opinion piece this week Muslim scholars outside of Malaysia found the “Allah” issue “absurd”.
“Few Muslims around the world would endorse the claim that we have a monopoly on the word 'Allah',” he said.