By Robin Gomes
Following a legal battle that dragged on for more than a decade, Malaysia’s High Court ruled on Wednesday that the use of Islamic words including “Allah” by Christians and other non-Muslim communities in the country is not unlawful. Non-Muslims can also use three words for religious and educational purposes including prayers, publications and religious services.
1986 Home Ministry directive
The ban against the use of Allah by non-Muslims came after Malaysian authorities in 2008 seized from Malaysian Christian, Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, 8 educational compact discs with the word “Allah” written on them, at Kuala Lumpur airport, when she returned from a visit to Indonesia. The authorities evoked a 1986 Home Ministry directive that forbade non-Christians from using the word saying it was a threat to public order. Some radical Muslim clerics argue that using “Allah” was the exclusive right of Muslims and allowing Christians to do so could cause confusion and unrest.
Bill then filed a petition with the Kuala Lumpur High Court for her right to use the word “Allah” for religious practices. In 2014, a court declared the confiscation unlawful and the CDs were returned to her the following year.
Ban – “illegal and unconstitutional”
The March 10 ruling by the Kuala Lumpur High Court stressed Bill’s right not to face discrimination on the ground of her faith. In her decision, Justice Nor Bee ruled that the word “Allah” – along with three other words of Arabic origin “Kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “Baitullah (House of God) and “Solat” (prayer) – could be used by Christians. She said the directive that banned the use of the four words was “illegal and unconstitutional”. “The freedom to profess and practice one’s religion,” she said, “should include the right to own religious materials.” The judge quashed the 1986 government directive saying the Home Ministry had overstepped its powers.
This is not the first time a Malaysian court has been divided over the use of the word “Allah”. In a separate case, the local Catholic weekly, “The Herald”, sued the government after it said it could not use the word in its Malay-language edition to describe the Christian God. In 2009, a lower court ruled in favour of weekly and allowed them to use the word, a decision that prompted a strong protests from radical Muslim groups.
Dozens of churches and a few Muslim prayer halls were attacked and burned following the decision. In 2013, the Court of Appeals overt reinstating the ban. A year later, The Herald lost a legal battle in court over the government order. Sidang Injil Borneo (Borneo Evangelical Church) has also been fighting for the legal right to use the word “Allah.”
Malaysia’s Muafakat Nasional – a political coalition – has urged that the March 10 High Court ruling be referred to the Court of Appeal, according to a report by local news outlet The Star. In Malaysia,
“Allah” is a word that entered the Malay language from Arabic, to refer to their God for centuries. However, Christians of Malay origin have been accustomed to the religious practice of using the word for God for centuries, especially in the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak where about two-thirds of the country’s Christians live. Muslims make up about 60 percent of Malaysia’s 32 million population and Christians account for about 13 percent, making up the third-largest religious group.