ON ALLAH, YAHWEH, THE BIBLE AND MALAYSIA
The latest ruling made by the High Court which allowed Christians nationwide to use the sacred name “Allah” and three other liturgical Arabic words – Baitullah (House of God), Kaabah (The Meccan Shrine) and Solat (canonical prayers) – in their religious publications quashed the three-decade government ban on Christians using the word “Allah” in their religious publications.
It may be surmised that the High Court’s decision on Jill Ireland v Home Ministry clearly upholds the letter of the law on the freedom of religion as enshrined in the Federal Constitution. Article 11 of the Federal Constitution provides that (1) every person has the right to profess and practice their religion and subject to Clause (4), to propagate it – but let’s not forget the spirit of the law; whether our scandalous behaviour is creating animosity, and making Christians targets of persecution for the usage of a word that is not an integral part of Christianity. Yes, of course it is possible to focus on the letter of the law in a way that excludes the spirit; it was for that perverse approach that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees. But for the honest faithful, who grasp both the letter and the spirit, the law is a treasure. Now, the spirit of the law teaches the people not to cause others to stumble (1 Cor. 8:13, Rom. 14:21) or instigate scandals (Mar. 9:42, 1 Cor. 10:32).
There are many ways in which one can commit scandals. An obvious way of committing scandal is by giving bad example, without necessarily intending to lead others into sin. This can include inciting others to challenge the law of the land through one’s own actions. Romans 13:1-7 makes it abundantly clear that the people are to obey the government God places over them. God created government to establish order, punish evil, and promote justice (Gen. 9:6; 1 Cor. 14:33; Rom. 12:8). People are to obey the government in everything – paying taxes, obeying rules and laws, and showing respect. If they do not, they are ultimately showing disrespect towards God, for He is the One who placed that government over them. When Paul of Tarsus wrote to the Romans, he was under the government of Rome during the reign of Nero, perhaps the cruelest of all the Roman emperors. Yet, Paul still recognised the Roman government’s rule over him. How can then Paul’s followers do any less? As long as the law of the land does not contradict the law of God, the people are bound to obey the law of the land (Acts 5:27-29).
On a different note, it is true that the immutable essence of God is not changed by the alteration of His name. In English, we may say “God,” in Malay “Tuhan”, in Greek “Theos”, in Latin “Deus”, in German “Gott,” in Persian “Khoda,” yet all these names or words are used to point to the same Deity. Nonetheless, what follows is complex; it is a quantum leap to go from saying that God by any other name is still God, to saying that all the great religions in the world believe in the same Being though they call Him different names.
This absurd leap is prodded by the popular analogy of the mountain. This analogy notes that there are many paths or roads lead to the summit. Some progress on a more direct route, while others wind their way up many winding paths, but sooner or later they all arrive at the same place, at the top of the mountain. So, it is argued, there are numerous roads that lead to God. They may be different routes but they all end up in the same place – with God Himself. That is, the differing roads signify no difference in the God who is found. God’s being, then, becomes the lowest (or highest) common denominator of all religions.
The road analogy is bolstered by the democratic cliché that all religions are equal under the law. The fallacy in this axiom is thinking that just because all religions enjoy equal tolerance under the civil law, they therefore are all equally valid. That might be true if there were no God, but then it would be better to say that with respect to their ultimate affirmation they are all equally invalid.
It is quite farcical to argue that all religions ultimately believe in the same God. This is even apparent from a cursory review of the content of different religions. The nature of the Canaanite deity Baal differs sharply from the nature of the biblical God. They are not remotely the same. This sharp distinction is also seen when the biblical God is compared with Roman, Greek, and Norse mythological deities.
The problem becomes even more complex when we consider that sometimes different religions use the same name for God while their views of the nature of God differ radically.
Then we have Islam that claims to embrace the God of Abraham. Islamic faith holds biblical patriarchs in high esteem and even accords a certain respect to Jesus as a great prophet, but he pales in significance to Muhammad, who is the supreme prophet in the credo: “There is no deity but Allah and Muhammad is His Messenger.”
This forces the question, “Is Allah the same God as Yahweh, only under a different name?” Or we could pose the question in a different way: “Is Allah a God in the Trinity?” The answer to these questions depends first of all on the answer to the question: “Is the God of Christianity – the God in the Old Testament, that is, Yahweh?” If the Being who is called “God” in the New Testament is the God called “Yahweh” in the Old Testament, then, palpably, the God of Islam is not the God of the Bible. As “Yahweh” manifested himself in the flesh, it is clear Yahweh is very different from Allah. We cannot legitimately harmonise the theology of Christianity with the theology of Islam. They differ sharply at essential points.
The most obvious difference is with respect to the Trinity. Christians confess the triune nature of God. The language “nature” here may be confusing inasmuch as the Christian doctrine of God affirms that God is one in essence (or nature) and three in person. This means that the distinction of persons in the Godhead is not a distinction of essence, which would leave us with three gods.
Here is a crucial difference between the Muslim understanding of God and the Christian concept: The term “god” does not refer to the same being in each religion because Allah is clearly not triune. For Islam, there is no second person of the Trinity who becomes incarnate and effects our salvation and no third person of the Trinity who applies that redemption to us. So we are left with radically different views of God via the person and work of Christ and the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
There are two other vital differences between Christianity and Islam. Islam has no Cross and no resurrection, articles of the faith that are of the essence of Christianity and of ultimate importance to the plan of the triune God. There are other crucial differences we could explore of how God is understood in normative Christianity and how He is understood in orthodox Islam. It is enough for now to say that Allah and Yahweh are not the same. One is the Solitary God; the other is undivided Trinity.
Nurul Haq Shahrir.
13 March 2021
The author is a renowned scholar of inter-religious dialogue with expertise in dogmatic theology
*The views expressed here are those of author and do not represent the views of Samudera.my*