Allah can’t be substituted with Tuhan in Bible translation

Muslims in other parts of the world (Arabs, Persians, North Africans, Pakistanis and Indonesians) have no objection and are not worried about getting confused when Christians using the word “Allah”. In contrast, some Malaysian Muslims claim to be confused; a strange phenomenon indeed.

By Dr Ng Kam Weng (Sin Chew Daily)

This observation lends credence to the suggestion that the Allah issue is an artificial Malay issue and not a genuine Muslim issue. The truth is that the current orchestrated protests against the recent High Court decision to allow the Catholic Herald (and Christians) to use the word Allah must be seen to be as cynical manipulations by Malay politicians to gain votes from their community.

I am more interested in going beyond these political manoeuvres. Politicians (and that includes government bureaucrats) are happy just to stay at the level of vague suggestions since they have no competence nor care to address real issues of translation. In contrast, Christians must ensure their arguments for the right to use the word Allah are based on concrete evidence supported by a coherent linguistic philosophy of translation of Scripture.

One major demand from the Malay protestors is that Christians stop using the word Allah on grounds that Christians can find a simple alternative, that is, simply substitute the word Allah with the word Tuhan. Unfortunately, this demand only betrays the ignorance of the protestors.

I would have thought that any Malay would know that the meaning of the words Allah (God) and Tuhan (Lord, Rabb) are not the same. How can they suggest that Christians simply use the word Tuhan to substitute the word Allah? To express the issue linguistically, Allah and Tuhan have different senses even though they have the same reference.

Both the terms Allah and Tuhan are used in the Malay Bible. Following the precedent set by Arab Christians, Allah is used to translate el/elohim and Tuhan (or TUHAN in caps) is used to translate Yahweh (YHWH). The two words are sometimes paired together as Yahweh-Elohim in 372 places in the Old Testament (14 times in Genesis 2-3; 4 times in Exodus; 8 times in Joshua; 7 times in 2 Samuel; 22 times in Chronicles; 12 times in Psalms; 32 times in Isaiah; 16 times in Jeremiah and 210 times in Ezekiel, etc.).

More importantly, the word Tuhan is also applied to Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Thus we read of the LORD Jesus as Tuhan Yesus (The word LORD was used to translate the word kurios 8,400 times in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament. It refers to human beings in only 400 times and refers to God 8,000 times. Of these 8,000 times, 6,700 are substitute for the word YHWH). The transference of the title kurios LORD/YHWH to Jesus Christ is testimony to the belief in the deity of Christ right at the beginning of Christianity.

This simple statistical survey shows clearly that the demand by Muslim demonstrators that Christians simply substitute the word Allah with Tuhan is unreasonable since it renders many Biblical references to God and Jesus Christ incoherent. First, the substitution is incorrect since the meaning of Allah and Tuhan are different.

Second, it creates an absurd situation when Christians try to translate the paired words Tuhan Allah (LORD God). Are Christians now required to call the LORD God, Tuhan Tuhan? This sounds like committing linguistic redundancy. Worse still, the repeated words Tuhan Tuhan come across to Malay readers as suggesting that Christians believe in a plurality of Lords/Gods (since the plural form in Malay is expressed by repeating the noun and setting them in apposition).

Finally, Christians are unable to express the Lordship of Jesus Christ as one who is distinct from the Father and yet shares with the God of the Old Testament, the name that is above every other name — kurios/Tuhan (Philippians 2:9, cf. Isaiah 45:23). In other words, Christians are rendered unable to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ and teach the doctrine of Trinity without the foundational words that maintain the semantic relationship between the words Allah and Tuhan as they are applied distinctively in the Malay Bible.

Christians in Malaysia would do their utmost to maintain religious harmony in Malaysia. Indeed, the Christianity community has made many concessions to accommodate the concerns of the Malay community.

However, it cannot accept the demand that it abandons the use of the word Allah and adopts the word Tuhan as the substitute simply because some ill-informed Malays take offence at their practice — an offence which would not have arisen if only these people set aside emotions and prejudices and examine the historical and linguistic evidence in a calm and rational manner. At the very least, Malays (or rather Muslims) should understand that believers are not at liberty to change the meaning of their Scriptures, the word of God, to satisfy the unfounded scruples of man.


I refer readers to the accompanying post, “Translating the Names of God” published in the learned journal (The Bible Translator) that gives more concrete examples of how the names of God are translated in the Malay Bible.

The article also discusses the controversy among some scholars on how words Allah and Tuhan should be used in the revision of Shellabear’s version of the Malay Bible. In any case, all the scholars in the controversy agree that Christians need to use both the words Allah and Tuhan in the Malay Bible. Please note that the article is reproduced (partially) with permission from the author Dr D Soesilo.