On March 10, 2021, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that non-Muslims can use the word “Allah” to refer to God. This is a major decision in a case relating to religious freedom in this country with a strong Muslim majority.
The High Court ruling overturns a 35-year-old government ban on the use of the word “Allah” and three other words by Christian publications.
The court estimated that Christians—who represent about 13% of a population of 32 million, which is 60% Muslim—will be able to use the word “Allah” in their prayers, texts, and religious practice, according to the lawyer of the complainant, Mr. Annou Xavier.
A little return to the past
In a 1986 decree, the Malaysian government specified that the word “Allah” should be reserved exclusively for Muslims, in order to avoid any confusion that might encourage them to convert to other religions. This position is unique to Malaysia.
The Malaysian Catholic community retorted that the ban was unreasonable because Malay-speaking Christians have used “Allah” - a Malay word taken from Arabic - in their Bibles, prayers and songs for at least 400 years.
In 2007, a new directive from the Malaysian Home Office revoked the right granted to a local Catholic newspaper, The Herald, to use the word Allah in its pages “for matters of public order.” The newspaper then sued in court and won in 2009.
The first-instance judgment aroused the ire of Muslims, leading to arson and vandalism against 11 churches. The trial ended in 2014. The High Court then dismissed the Catholic Church's request to use the word “Allah” in the Malay edition of The Herald.
In 2008, a Malaysian Christian, Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, had confiscated at the airport eight educational CDs in which the word “Allah” was used to refer to God. She then challenged in court the prohibition for Christians to use the word.
In 2014, the courts partially ruled in favor of the complainant, ordering the return of the seized material. However, the question of the use of the word “Allah” remained open. The court delivered its verdict on Wednesday March 10.
Catholics Win Their Case
With the Malaysian constitution guaranteeing freedom of religion, Judge Nor Bee Ariffin ruled that the prohibition on Christians using the term “Allah” is “illegal and unconstitutional.” The circular from the Ministry of the Interior must therefore be rescinded. “Religious freedom must be protected even in the context of a situation involving public order,” the judge said.
Most Christians in Malaysia worship in English, Tamil, or various Chinese dialects, and refer to God in these languages, but some Malay people on the island of Borneo have no other word for God than “Allah.”
Three other words: “kaabah,” the sanctuary, “baitullah,” the house of God, and “solat,” prayer, were also prohibited by the government directive of 1986.
Government legal adviser Shamsul Bolhassan, as quoted by The Star newspaper, said the four words could be used by Christians, provided that a warning states that the material is intended for Christians only and that a cross is affixed.