The Associated Press reports on a peculiar incident in Malaysia :

Eight churches have been attacked over three days amid a dispute over the use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims, sparking fresh political instability that is denting Malaysia’s image as a moderate and stable Muslim-majority nation.

Many Muslims are angry about a Dec. 31 High Court decision overturning a government ban on Roman Catholics’ using “Allah” to refer to their God in the Malay-language edition of their main newspaper, the Herald.

The ruling also applies to the ban’s broader applications such as Malay-language Bibles, 10,000 copies of which were recently seized by authorities because they translated God as Allah. The government has appealed the verdict.

Firebombing a church is an absurd overreaction and reflects poorly on the both the Muslims involved and those Malaysians who quietly condone the action. But what I find most perplexing about the story is that Christians would want to use the term Allah to refer to God.

One of the qualities of Islam I most admire is how its believers are not prone to fall for New Age clichés wrapped in the language of tolerance. Unfortunately, the same can’t always be said for many Christians.

The idea that the children of Abraham use different names while speaking about the same “God” is one that is considered blasphemous to Muslims. Islam claims that there is only one name for God—Allah. Therefore, any other names—Yahweh, Christ—refer to a “false god” or idol. Their reasoning is sound.

God is not an abstract concept; He is a personal being. Having a different understanding of this personal being we are referring to when we speak of God is not a minor doctrinal disagreement on the lines of infant baptism or the veneration of Mary. If I claim that Tracy is a good father and you disagree by saying that Tracy is a bad mother then we don’t just have a misunderstanding about a name. We are either talking about different people or one of us is in error. Muslims are not simply substituting the word “Allah” for “Christ” as if they were interchangeable terms. They are using a specific term that represents a broad range of truth claims about the nature of God. Since this is the case, why would any Christian want to use the name Allah for Christ?

Christians claim that God is triune and that Christ is the second person in that Trinity. The Koran states that those who believe Christ (Isa, in Arabic) was God’s Son are not true believers (see Sura 5:15-20). This is not simply a doctrinal dispute over what name God is to be called, it is a dispute of who God actually is .

As an evangelical Christian I believe that those who don’t acknowledge Christ as God are not worshipping the true God. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that I am making an idol of Christ. By the rules of logic, one of us is wrong. Neither of us, however, should take offense because the other holds beliefs that differ from our own—much less firebomb our houses of worship because of such differences.

Instead, we should recognize that we not only have different names for the Supreme Being but hold different—and incompatible—conceptions about Him. Allah is not Christ and we would be foolish to try to pass them off as the same. True tolerance means respecting what another’s religion actually believes—not trying to gloss over theological misunderstandings in order to make them palatable for the politically correct.

(Via: The Volokh Conspiracy )

Update: A number of people have offered some thoughtful objections so rather than add them in the comments I’ll post them here:

1. What IS the word for God in the Malay language? Do they have any other suitable words that do not refer to pagan deities that are likely to be less confusing? It is my understanding that the generic word for God in the Malay language is Tuhan.

2. The word Allah predates Islam. It is the word which the Arab Christians have used for centuries and centuries. — This is certainly true. But the question is whether the Arabic language doesn’t evolve over time. The fact is that no Arab Christian (or their great, great, great grandparent) has been alive longer than Islam. The term Allah has become so bound up with Islamic doctrinal distinctions that it’s hard to imagine that an Arab Christian can use when speaking to Muslims without their being confusion. The question is now why it was ever used, but why a word that continues to carry so much linguistic baggage would still be used today.

Obviously, those Christians who have been using the term for centuries and have proven that it causes no confusion should not abandon the term. But it is clear that in Malaysia, the use of the word is causing theological confusion.

3. Does this mean you believe Jews don’t worship the true God? — Let’s examine the logical structure of the argument and see if it applies to Judaism. The following includes premises that most Christians (and, perhaps, all evangelical Christians) would claim to be true and valid:

1. P — The Gospels of Matthew and John make accurate claims about what Jesus said.
2. Q — Everything Jesus said was true.
3. R — Jesus said that he is the begotten son of God. { John 3:16 , 1, 2}
4. S — Jesus said that you can know the Father, if and only if you know him first. { John 8:19 , Matt. 11:27 1, 2}*
5. T —> U — If you deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God then you do not know Jesus. {Modus Ponens, 1, 2, 3}
6. U —> V — If you do not know Jesus then you do not know the Father. {Modus Ponens, 4}
7. T —> V If you deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God then you do not know the Father. {Hypothetical syllogism, 5, 6}
8. W — Muslims deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God. (Qu’ran (Sura 112) — “Say: He is God, The One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, Nor is He begotten; And there is none Like unto Him.”)
9. T & W — You deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God and Muslims deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God. {Conjunction, 5, 8}
10. W —> V — If Muslims deny that Jesus is the begotten son of God then Muslims do not know the Father. {Simplification, Modus Ponens, 7, 9}

I believe this argument is a solid case for why Muslims do not worship the same God as Christians. I suspect they would agree. But does is also apply to modern followers of Judaism (i.e., Jews after the time of Christ)?

At the very least, this is what Christians (or at least Christ) claims to be true. So when making the claim that Jews and Christians worship the “same God” we are forced to choose one of the following three positions:

1. The Trinity is not an essential aspect of God. A person can therefore reject Christ without rejecting the Triune God.

2. Christians and Jews worship the same God, but Jews are confused about an essential nature of God (namely, the Trinity). Though they think they are rejecting Jesus they are really worshipping him.

3. To say that Christians and Jews worship the “same God” is technically true since Jesus is God and Jews do not worship Jesus.

Position #1 must be rejected by Christians. Position #2 is, I believe, what most of us Christians are really saying when we say that we all worship the same God. What concerns me is that it might be more insulting to Judaism to say that then to hold Position #3.

Of course I could be missing another option so I’m open to other possibilities. I’d be interested to hear what our Jewish reader think about the question.

4. I am not sure that, when Christians are being persecuted by a bunch of fanatics for simply using the word for “God” in their own native tongue, we should sitting back and criticizing them for their political correctness, and saying that we admire their persecutors for being made of sterner stuff and not being sappy PC types like those whose churches are being firebombed. — This was certainly not my intention, so let me clarify by saying that I am not saying that those being persecuted are “being sappy PC types.” Political correctness is what I think we Americans are resorting to when we downplay the essential nature of the Trinity in order to claim that Muslims and Christians worship the “same God” (a claim that Islam rejects).

Malaysians are not using a term for God that is in their native tongue, so in this example the point is inapplicable. But I still think that when a term has become associated with cultural and theological baggage that we should abandon it to avoid confusion.

I also don’t want to downplay the persecution being suffered by Malaysian Christians. I think their use of Allah in Bibles is only slightly more harmful than the inclusive language nonsense many English translations use. Needless to say, the Muslim reaction is disconcerting and should be condemned in no uncertain terms. I’m not sure how my post could be seen as endorsing the views of Muslims over a persecuted group of Christians but for anyone who thinks that let me be clear in saying that there is no excuse for the firebombing of the Malaysian church.

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