The 1,000-year old turf war


Muslims understand Allah in terms of simple monotheism rather than the dynamic Trinitarian theology that Christians profess. Yet Allah, the word for God that Muslims know from the Qur’an, actually predates Islam. Some translators have recovered it so that Muslims reading Scripture for the first time won’t immediately reject the Bible as foreign to their culture.


Raja Petra Kamarudin

You have heard of Malaysia Today, right? Well of course you have. If not you would not be reading this article. Well, have you heard of Christianity Today? If you have not then you can see below.

Anyway, the point is, many (even non-Christian Malaysians and/or Muslim Malays) are arguing that the 1988 law that forbids Christian publications in Selangor from using Allah as the name of God, or the Article in the Federal Constitution of Malaysia that forbids the propagation of Christianity to Muslims, is unfair, unjust, undemocratic, and a violation of human rights and civil liberties.

Well, this is Malaysia where you are guaranteed freedom of speech but not freedom after speech. So why should anything surprise you? And do not many of you sing the praises of Lee Kuan Yew and say that Malaysia would be a great place if it can just be like Singapore (and you always compare Malaysia to Singapore to show how bad Malaysia is)?

Well, Malaysia is just like Singapore, as you wish and pray it would be. Malaysia, too, just like Singapore, practices what Lee Kuan Yew calls ‘guided democracy’. The government ‘guides’ you as to what you can and cannot do.

So be careful what you wish for.

What begs answers is (1) why was this 1988 law and that Article in the 1957 Constitution never challenged and opposed earlier and (2) why is the government eager to implement this law after so many years of this law being ‘silently’ around?

The challengers say they never challenged this law earlier because it had never been used before so it was not a problem until today, while the authorities say they never needed to use this law in the past because the Christians have always behaved themselves and never tried to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Both, I suppose, have valid arguments although is this a case of both being right? And then we will need to ask a third question: whether two rights make a wrong?

I remember writing, ten years or so ago, that many Malays want to leave Islam to become Christians. My article was not meant to criticise the Christians but to criticise the Muslims. I was pointing out that if we had better Islamic education and if Muslims had faith in Islam then this would not be happening.

Hence I was not blaming the Christians but blaming the Muslims. If Muslims want to leave Islam to become Christians then it is the fault of the Muslims and not the fault of the Christians. Something must be wrong with Islam or the Islamic education.

That was the gist of my article. And I wrote this article after meeting one very senior man in the National Registration Department (NRD) who revealed that they had received thousands of applications from Muslims requesting to change their Muslim name to a Christian name. (And not all these people are converts to Islam due to marriage and who, after their divorce, want to leave Islam to return to their old religion).

The NRD, said this man, normally delays approval and instead ‘sends someone’ to talk to these people to try to convince them to remain Muslims. Some are even sent for ‘religious rehabilitation’ so that they can be ‘re-indoctrinated’. Eventually, many leave Islam quietly without applying for a change of name on their IC out of fear of being taken in for ‘religious rehabilitation’.

So Malaysia actually has many ex-Muslims who are now Christians but will remain in the closet just like gays because if they were to come out of the closet they would become a target.

So, it is a problem and the government is at a loss as to how to solve this problem. But then, as I said, do we blame the Christians or do we blame the Muslims?

I spoke to one very senior Malaysian church leader in London three years ago and, surprisingly, he blamed his fellow Christians. He felt the church should lay off Muslims and not kick the hornets’ nest by poaching Muslims. And he said he had told his church colleagues this.

We need to understand the more than 1,000-year history of Christianity and Islam to understand this issue. For so long, Christianity and Islam have been fighting a turf war. Both are trying to poach followers from the other side so that they can boast about how many from their ‘rival camp’ have crossed over to join them.

(It is just like Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat always holding press conferences to announce crossovers).

Muslims will proudly announce that this or that famous Christian person has now embraced Islam. Cassius Clay. Michael Jackson. Lady Diana. Yusuf Estes. Jimmy Cliff. Malcom X. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson. Cat Stevens. Larry Johnson. Dave Chappelle. Peter Murphy. Richard Thopson.

And the Christians will do the same.

Basically, it is a contest to see how many of your people become my people.

And herein lies the problem. Muslims are leaving Islam to become Christians. And the Christians are very happy that they can win converts from Islam because this means Christianity wins and Islam loses. And this more or less proves that Christianity is better than Islam.

It is the same game both Christianity and Islam have been playing for more than 1,000 years.

And the government is panicking and does not know what to do. So what they do is they try to prevent the message of Christ from reaching the ears of the Muslims. And the government feels that to do this they have to make sure that the church is not able to preach to Muslims.

Hence the clampdown on the use of the Allah word in Christian publications that we are currently seeing, plus the arrest of Muslims who attend church events and functions.


The Son and the Crescent

Bible translations that avoid the phrase “Son of God” are bearing dramatic fruit among Muslims. But that translation has some missionaries and scholars dismayed.

Last year, representatives from several prominent mission agencies, both national and expatriate, met to compare notes about the progress of their respective ministries in one Muslim-majority country. (The country’s name is withheld for security reasons.) The representatives rejoiced that more than 1,000 “fellowships,” as they call them, have been established for people from Muslim backgrounds. In fact, many of the fellowships had already planted new fellowships, and those fellowships had planted still more. Many thousands of Muslims in this nation alone, then, had found faith in Jesus.

Several of these fellowships can be traced back to small networks of Muslims who had encountered Christ and in turn began sharing with family and friends what they had discovered. In one case, a middle-aged working mother had inductively studied a new translation of the Bible for a few years. Among other language choices, the translation she used did not refer to Jesus as the “Son of God,” due to confused and angry reactions from Muslims who mistakenly believe this phrase means that the Father engaged in sexual relations with Mary. To avoid this misunderstanding, the new translation called Jesus “the Beloved Son who comes (or originates) from God.”

The woman, who eventually professed Jesus as Lord and Savior, began inviting friends and family to read the Bible too. At first, about 10 people met with her. This was cause enough for celebration, since Muslims in her country rarely study any religious books other than the Qur’an and the Hadith (collections of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds). Three months later, another group formed nearby to discuss one New Testament chapter per week, and an elderly member of the family accepted the Good News of Jesus. Within two years, seven more reading groups had sprung up. Today, no one knows exactly how many such groups have formed. But new believers in Jesus have spread the message to nearby towns, and several hundred professions of faith can be attributed to this network alone, according to a group of long-term field workers in the country.

These and many other Muslims live in places where Bible translations have been available in their languages for decades, even for more than a century. So why the sudden surge of interest in Scripture? Some translators attribute the response to the new Bible versions that use religious vocabulary familiar to Muslims. And that’s precisely the problem, according to other translators and missionaries who work among Muslims.

They charge their colleagues with compromise that undermines belief in Jesus Christ as the pre-existent, only begotten Son of God. Both sides eagerly long to take the Good News to the nations and make it discernable to Muslims in their heart languages. Both respect Muslims; neither wants to alter Jesus’ message. Yet a dispute over the most faithful and effective way to render the common biblical phrase “Son of God” is dividing missionary from missionary, scholar from scholar, in a time of evident mistrust between Western Christians and Muslims. It also underscores how few Christians in the West themselves understand this common biblical title for Jesus.

Compromise or Comprehension

Bible translation and contextualization have long divided Christians working to fulfill the Great Commission. When missionary pioneer William Carey translated the Bible into Bengali in 1809, he used the Hindu word for the supreme being, Ishwar, to refer to God. Critics charged him with making a fatal compromise in the name of comprehension. Today, “Son of God” is hardly the only point of contention among missionaries to Muslims. For example, they also tangle over whether Bible translations should use Allah to refer to God. Both sides make a compelling case. Muslims understand Allah in terms of simple monotheism rather than the dynamic Trinitarian theology that Christians profess. Yet Allah, the word for God that Muslims know from the Qur’an, actually predates Islam. Some translators have recovered it so that Muslims reading Scripture for the first time won’t immediately reject the Bible as foreign to their culture.