Politics of the Malay Language

AllahnameindifferentlanguagesOn Monday, October 14th, Court of Appeal of Malaysia (the second highest court in Malaysia) ruled that the term “Allah” was restricted solely to usage by Muslims in Malaysia. The case originated after the government imposed a ban on the word’s use by non-Muslim entities in 2007. The High Court of Malaysia struck down the law in 2009; it was that decision that was overruled today by the Court of Appeal.

“Allah” is a loanword from Arabic, and literally means “the God”.  The word itself has several cognates within other Semitic languages, like Elohim in Hebrew, as well as cognates within Syriac and Aramaic.

Even more so, various non-Muslim groups have used the word for years as their native term for “God”. Palestinian Christians, for example, have long used to word to refer to the Christian deity. In fact, Christians have long used the word “Allah” in the Malay language (in its registers in both Indonesia and Malaysia, a point that was not forgotten in this court case). Linguistically, the court could not have been more off base in declaring the word, “Allah” to be a solely Muslim term.

PAs it turns out though, this is part of a broader escalation within Malaysian- Malaysian is divided among various ethnic and linguistic boundaries, with Malays speaking standard Malay making up a little over half of the population. Furthermore, under the current constitution, all Malays are to be Muslim.

In truth, the Court of Appeal was not considering the role Allah played with the Malay language at all. Rather, the court was considering the dominant role of the Malays within Malaysian politics, and pandered towards this group.

Language was just the latest casualty of Malaysian division.

Published by Alex Garland

Alex Garland is a staff writer for The Politic from Galivants Ferry, South Carolina. Contact him at jeffrey.garland@yale.edu.

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