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The Wall Street Journal reports that a Malaysian court has denied a newspaper of the Roman Catholic Church in that country the right to refer to God as “Allah.”

“Allah” belongs to Muslims.

Whether one should refer to the Christian God as “Allah” has always been a vexing question for missionaries to Muslims as well as their converts. Is “Allah” merely a generic Arabic name for God or does it refer specifically to the deity of Islam? And even if it is a specific name, can it be rehabilitated? What other culturally sensitive names are available?

Once upon a time, I lived among Muslims in northwest China. I didn’t attempt to equate Allah and the God of Christianity. Allah is a radically monotheistic concept, while my God exists as an eternal Trinity. These visions of God are so different that I thought it best to use one of the many Chinese names for God when talking about my own faith.

Talking about Christianity within an Arabic-speaking context can be a little more complicated. I know faithful Christians who use the word “Allah” when talking about the Christian God and I know some who avoid it.

In Malaysia the courts are attempting to remove some of the ambiguity by reserving “Allah” for Muslim use. It is as if the court has given “Allah” trademark protection, and Christians who use the term infringe upon Islam’s brand.

The court ruled that using “Allah” was not an integral part of the Christian faith, so the Catholic newspaper had no constitutional right to use the term. The corollary seems to be that since “Allah” is an integral part of Islam, Muslims have exclusive right to the term. One cannot deny the centrality of the term “Allah” to Islam, but does it follow that term can only be used by Muslims?

Sixty percent of Malaysia’s thirty million people are Muslim, but there are also almost 3 million Christians in the country. According to the Wall Street Journal, 60 percent of Malaysian Christians prefer to call God “Allah.” That certainly didn’t happen overnight. This usage is traditional for some Christian groups in the country.

I find it troubling that Muslim protests and potential violence seem to have influenced the court’s decision. Malaysia continues to move further away from religious toleration.

I hope, however, that Malaysian Christians can use this situation to further the Kingdom of God. Perhaps it will give an opportunity for discussion as both Muslims and Christians think about terminology. I hope that this atmosphere of concern over the name of God gives Malaysian Christians the opportunity to clarify for their Muslim neighbors the truth that the Son and the Spirit exist eternally within the Godhead with the Father and that it is only through the atoning work of the Son, which the Spirit applies to the believer that one can be reconciled to the Father.

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