Malaysia's High Court rules Christians can use the word "Allah" for God in religious publications

Malaysian Christians can use the word “Allah” to refer to God in religious publications, in a major decision by the country’s High Court on Wednesday.

The Malaysian High Court quashed a 35-year-old government ban on the usage of “Allah” and three other Arabic words by Christian publications. The Court deemed the ban unconstitutional.

The government had previously said “Allah” should be reserved exclusively for Muslims to avoid confusion that might lead to conversions to other religions. The 1986 government directive was made to maintain “public order”, a justification that the High Court judge this week said was inadequate. The judge stated there was no evidence of “adequate, reliable and authoritative” proof of any disruptions or potential disruptions to public order when the directive was made.

A court battle has been ongoing for more than a decade. It was started by Jill Ireland Lawrence Bill, a Sarawakian Christian after the government seized eight educational CDs containing the word ‘Allah’ at an airport in 2008, upon her return from Indonesia. In 2014, the courts declared unlawful the seizure of the CDs – which were for personal use only – and they were returned. But the decision did not address the constitutional points raised by the plaintiff, who asserted she had a right to use the word “Allah” for religious purposes.

The Catholic Church also challenged the ban in 2014, after the Church used the word “Allah” to refer to the Christian God in its Malay-language newsletter, but the ban was upheld by the Malaysian Federal Court.

Ms Bill’s lawyer Annou Xavier told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the High Court’s declaration that the ban was unconstitutional “entrenches the fundamental freedom of religious rights for non-Muslims in Malaysia”.

The three other words banned by the government directive were “kaabah” (Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca), “baitullah” (house of God) and “solat” (prayer).

The lawyer acting for the government, Senior Federal Counsel Shamsul Bolhassan, confirmed that the four words could be used by Christians for their religious publications, but maintained that those publications “must carry a disclaimer that [they are] intended for Christians only, as well as a cross symbol”.

Malaysia is a majority-Muslim country, though Christians comprise about 10 per cent of the population. Christians in the region have used the Arabic word “Allah” for God before the existence of Islam. In 2014, the General Secretary of Bible Society Malaysia, Simon Wong, told Eternity that indigenous churches in East Malaysia had used the word “Allah” to address God for more than four hundred years. A Dutch trader, AC Ruyl, had used the word to translate ‘God’ as early as 1612, with Ruyl’s Dutch-Malay Gospel of Matthew published in 1629.

  • Article Updated: A previous version of this article indicated that the decision was made by “Malaysia’s highest court”. The High Court is in fact the third highest court in the country’s legal system, the Court of Appeal and the Federal Court being higher.