Explained: What a Malaysia court’s latest ruling on usage of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims means

On Wednesday, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that the ban imposed on Christian publications to not use the word “Allah” to refer to God is unconstitutional and unlawful. The court also ruled that Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Christian from whom the authorities in 2008 seized Malay-language CDs that had “Allah” in their titles, had the constitutional right to not be discriminated against on the grounds of religion and practice her faith. The CDs were seized at an airport in Malaysia and had been brought by Bill for her personal use from Indonesia.

The ban on the word’s usage was first brought about by the Malaysian government in 1986. After Wednesday’s verdict, the Sidang Injil Borneo (SIB) church has decided not to pursue its bid in the Federal Court to find out why the government initiated such a ban in the first place.

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What is this about?

In 2007, Malaysia’s Home Ministry sent a warning to the weekly Catholic newspaper called The Herald, saying that its permit to publish will be revoked unless it stopped using the word “Allah” for God in its Malay-language edition. The order put another condition on the publication of the weekly, that it be circulated only within churches and to Christians. After this warning, then-Archbishop Murphy Pakiam initiated court action against the government’s decision to ban the usage of the word “Allah”, but he did not challenge the decision to restrict circulation among Christians.

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In 2009, the Kuala Lumpur High Court overturned this ban. But the ban was upheld by a decision taken by the Court of Appeal in 2013. In response to this decision, the Archbishop said that “Allah” has been the Bahasa Malaysia translation and the Arab equivalent of God and to deny the non-Muslim population of the country its usage was an infringement of the fundamental right of the people.

As per media reports, the prolonged legal verdicts over the usage of the word have raised tensions between Malaysia’s majority-Muslim population who fear that Christians are overstepping their boundaries and the minority groups who view the ban as restrictive and a part of the “Islamisation of the country”.

A 2014 paper published in the International Journal of Constitutional Law notes that Munshi Abdullah who is regarded as the father of Malay literature used the term “Allah” to refer to God in the 1852 translation of the Bible, implying that the usage of the word by non-Muslims has been practiced since a long time. “Until recently, Malaysian Christians have used the word “Allah” in their Malay language Bibles, publications, sermons, prayers, and hymns without much fanfare or complications,” the paper noted.

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