Words Matter

Picture 27This news story reminded me of teaching long ago, and trying to persuade students that “God” was not necessarily a generic, cross-cultural, trans-historical term but, instead, usually carried with it (as do all words) a specific baggage (e.g., the Christian doctrine of trinity, the role of Jesus, specific ideas of heaven and salvation, the bible, etc.) — an argument not that different from trying to persuade students that “man” is not necessarily a universal designator for all human beings (i.e., introducing them to the issue of gender inclusive language).

For the story opens:

Picture 28What’s the issue? Well, according to another site (which has far more detailed information on the issue), quoting a Malaysian government minister:

Picture 29So words play a role in all this, since I have trouble imagining a lot of English-speaking Christians being comfortable with someone using “Allah” to translate their local term “God,” since — at least for them — each term means and entails a certain thing, operates within a specific socio-semantic universe, is more than likely related to the other in some ranked or normative manner (i.e., “their name for God is Allah” or maybe “theirs is a false god” or some such claim), and thus they are — again, at least for those particular insiders — seen to be hardly interchangeable.

Or, to rephrase, invoking one to re-name the other is likely seen as a power move by many people — one they’ll either assert or resist, all depending on their situation and interests.

But what does a local person who speaks a language in which the word “Allah” might be a standard or at least familiar item of vocabulary, but who is a Christian, call the protagonist of their text? How would you translate the Christian bible to make it relevant for such a reader while not confusing them concerning distinctions that are likely of importance to you? And if you were Muslim and saw “Allah” being used in non-Muslim texts, what would you think?

Now these are real quandaries to some and it isn’t difficult to imagine a government getting involved to manage the potential ramifications of using words.

One thought on “Words Matter

  1. It is important to remember that “Allah” is not a Muslim word, but an Arabic one – I was reminded of this recently on attending a Maronite (that is Arabic speaking Roman Catholic) mass. As they are Arabic speaking they also use the term word Allah! The Malaysian ruling seems particularly unfortunate given this more liberal and generous approach across much of the Arabic speaking world.