IT TOOK four years for a court in Malaysia to dispose of a case on how God is referred to.
But when the Court of Appeal finally arrived at its judgment on Oct 14, Malaysians were no nearer to getting an answer.
The judges overturned the verdict of a lower court, which had granted the Catholic Church its constitutional right to use the Arabic word "Allah" for God in the Malay section of its newsletter, the Herald, in December 2009.
But did the judgment mean that only Muslims could use the word? Many thought so, particularly after former attorney-general, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman, insisted that all Malaysians were bound by the ruling. On Oct 21, however, National Unity Minister Joseph Kurup announced that the word Allah was banned only in the Herald, and could be used in worship by all Christians.
The government filed an appeal to restore the ban imposed by the Home Ministry in 1986 on the use of the word Allah for God by non-Muslims in their publications. The appellate court upheld the ban in its judgment. It said the ruling was made in the interest of public order and Islam's vulnerability to conversion efforts by other faiths.
THE word Allah is among 18 in the Islamic vocabulary that non- Muslims are prohibited from using, based on a fatwa by several clerics in 1982 and reaffirmed in 2008 by the National Fatwa Committee that declared the word Allah as being exclusive to Islam. As the fatwa was gazetted, it is legally binding.
A similar ban is found in the Islamic enactments in all the Malaysian states except Sarawak. The ban is meant to assuage fears that Malays would be confused and vulnerable to conversion to Christianity. Christians have been asked to use the Malay word "Tuhan" for God instead of Allah.
The ruling against the Catholic publication marks a decisive turn in the tussle over the word Allah since the authorities started enforcing the restriction in the past three decades. On several occasions, the authorities confiscated Christian literature and other materials containing the word Allah for God, after they were brought into the country by Malaysians.
In one case, thousands of imported bibles in Bahasa Indonesia were impounded in March and September 2009 for containing the word Allah. But the government relented two years later, releasing the books and lifting the ban under a 10-point agreement with church leaders to end the saga over the seized scripture.
Right-wing Malay and Islamist groups such as Perkasa and Pembela have become emboldened by the judgment. They have called for the ban to be extended to all Christian publications, besides the Herald. They also want Malay bibles to be prohibited from using the word Allah.
One Islamist group, Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, has gone even further by saying that Christians who could not accept the sovereignty of Islam and the King, as head of the Islamic religion, could always emigrate.
Amid the chest-thumping by the Malay and Islamist groups over the ruling, the Malay-speaking Christian bumiputeras in Sabah and Sarawak, and their relatives who have moved to the peninsula, are dismayed.
But they have rallied to support one another to strengthen their faith and lead their religious lives with greater vigour in referring to God as Allah. This is reflected in the statements and calls for Christian unity by churches in Sabah and Sarawak and a non-Muslim inter-faith body in Kuala Lumpur.