Malaysia’s high court has overturned a policy banning Christians from using the word “Allah” to refer to God, the latest in a decades-long legal battle.
It comes as part of a case brought by a Christian whose religious materials were seized as they contained the word. The issue of non-Muslims using “Allah” has in the past sparked tension and violence in Malaysia. Muslims make up almost two-thirds of the population, but there are also large Christian communities. These Christian communities argue that they have used the word “Allah”, which entered Malay from Arabic, to refer to their God for centuries and that the ruling violates their rights.
Malaysia’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But religious tensions have risen in recent years. In 2008, Malaysian authorities seized Malay-language compact discs from Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Christian, at an airport after they found the recordings used “Allah” in their titles. Ms Bill then launched a legal challenge against a 1986 ban on Christians using the word in publications. On Wednesday, after more than a decade, the Kuala Lumpur High Court ruled that she had the right not to face discrimination on the ground of her faith. In her decision, Justice Nor Bee ruled that the word “Allah” – along with three other words of Arabic origin “Kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “Baitullah (House of God) and “Solat” (prayer) could be used by Christians.
Justice Nor Bee said the directive that banned the use of the four words was “illegal and unconstitutional”. “The freedom to profess and practice one’s religion should include the right to own religious materials,” she said. This is not the first time a Malaysian court has been divided over the use of the word “Allah”. In a separate case, a local Catholic newspaper – The Herald, sued the government after it said it could not use the word in its Malay-language edition to describe the Christian God. In 2009, a lower court ruled in favour of The Herald and allowed them to use the word, in a decision that prompted a spike in religious tensions between Muslims and Christians.
Dozens of churches and a few Muslim prayer halls were attacked and burned. In 2013, the decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal, which reinstated the ban. On Thursday, Malaysia’s Muafakat Nasional – a political coalition urged that the latest High Court ruling be referred to the Court of Appeal, according to a report by local news outlet The Star.