Tuesday 26 May 2009

God (TM)

Now here's a theological and political conundrum: who owns the rights to the name of God? According to the BBC

A Catholic church in Malaysia which prays to Allah has prompted a court case over who can use the word. Muslim leaders say Islam should be the only faith to use it, saying its use in other faiths could lead to confusion and conversions.

The priest at the church in question regularly directs prayers to  'Allah' during Mass, arguing that this is simply the accepted word for God in the national language. I was surprised to learn that this was controversial. I have a CD of medieval Christian, Jewish and Islamic music from around the Mediterranean, which includes a traditional Lebanese Arabic version of the Kyrie eleison, in which God is quite clearly addressed as 'Allah'. This reflects the back-and-forth borrowings between Christianity and Islam: an example on the other side would be the Muslim veneration of Jesus and Mary (should Christians in the region have slapped a 'TM' label on those names?).

The controversy raises the question of whether Christians, Muslims and indeed Jews are all praying to the same God, or to different gods. From an atheist standpoint, all gods are human creations, so Allah, Yahweh and the Christian God are, in fact, distinctive projections of the human imagination, reflecting diverse historical and cultural contexts. For some fundamentalist Christians, too, 'God' and 'Allah' are substantially different beings: one good, the other evil. During the first Gulf War, I found myself (for family reasons) at a service in a charismatic Baptist church, where one of the elders prayed that our forces would prevail against the 'false religion' of Islam, behind which, he assured us, was not God, but the Devil.  

However, among mainstream Christians in these multi-faith times, it's common to claim that all believers, and especially those adhering to the three main monotheisms, are actually worshipping the same God, even if they differ about the details of his nature and identity. This has become increasingly important as 'people of faith' have found a common interest in defending religious interests against the supposedly 'aggressive' advance of secularism. But the Malaysian case is a challenge to the woolliness and fudge that surrounds these inter-faith discussions. Can the Christian God who demands faith in Jesus as his one true representative on earth really be the same Being who requires adherence to the Torah, or strict observance of the law of the Koran?

At another level, the Malaysian case is also one of religious freedom, and is a further example of militant Islam flexing its political muscles in certain parts of the world. But surely it's a sign of weakness, rather than strength, when a religion is worried that merely hearing God's name used by a different set of believers will lead to 'confusion and conversions'? 

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