A religious controversy came and went here in Sarawak before I even heard about it. The Bup Kudus, the translation of the Holy Bible into the Iban language, was banned two weeks ago, and dis-banned today. The Sarawak Tribune I picked up was so information-poor, I could not discern from the article why they banned it, when they banned it, or why they had lifted the ban. I found a partial explanation here:

The secretary-general of the Malaysia National Evangelical Christian Fellowship, the Rev. Wong Kim Kong, said from Kuala Lumpur there had for some time been difficulties over the fact that some words used in Islam were also used in Christian publications.

Some Muslim leaders thought this could perplex Muslims who picked up such books.

Among the words that cause concern is “Allah.” It’s the word Muslims use for the deity they worship, but the Arabic word pre-dated Islam and is also used by Christian Arabs when referring to God – despite the considerable differences in the Judeo-Christian and Islamic conceptions of God.

The Iban translation of the Bible uses the term “Allah Taala” for God, while the other banned Christian books, in Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesia, also use “Allah” for God.

This is thought likely to be one of the problem areas for the Home Ministry.

I think the Home Ministry made the right move by lifting the ban. But the language issue is an interesting one. Allah is used interchangeably with Tuhan to mean God in Bahasa Malaysia, but Tuhan is the original Malay word. When my son learns the meaning of an Arabic dua in school, Allahumma (Oh God) is still translated as Ya Tuhan. I don’t speak any Iban at all, but I would be very surprised if Allah is the original or preferred word for God, what to speak of Allah Taala (Almighty God), which is rarely heard even among Malays outside of Islamic religious sermons. So why would the Bup Kudus translators go with that translation? It is reminiscent, as Anak_Alam pointed out, of the uproar over Arabic Bibles that began with the Bismillah (that’s it at the top of the page), a distinctly Islamic invocation whether it has an intelligible meaning to non-muslim Arabs or not. Well, now that it is lawful again, I’ll have to go pick up my own copy of the Bup. I’ve still got my childhood copy of the Bible (KJV), so I should be able to learn a bit of Iban with them side by side.

[Update: The first thing that popped into my head when I saw the words Bup Kudus was the Holy Piby, the “Black Man’s Bible” that Rastafarianism is built on. Rather a tangent, I know, but that’s what the web does best. ]

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. As a Christian from Sabah, neighbouring state of Sarawak, i can tell you that we too use “Tuhan” and “Allah” interchangably in our Bibles. And we (of people of any religion) would use “salam” simply to mean “shake hands.” And we say “Astaga!” — which comes from “Astaghfirullah” — as if we would say “Oh maaaan!” to indicate shock or surprised disappointment.

  2. Thanks, I didn’t know that! Still, I think my point stands, that Tuhan is the original word for God in Bahasa Malaysia and the other languages in the same language family. If I were translating, I would choose the original over the borrowed. It’s not a religious objection, mind you. It’s the same problem I have with English words getting carried over into Malay in preference to perfectly good Malay alternatives, like opsyen instead of pilihan.

  3. Dear Bin Gregory

    Nice blog! I have added you into my Daily Reads…

    Anyway, your are right about using “original over the borrowed” is a preferred choice, and I agree with you on this but I have to point out that the usage of Astaga and Allah outside of the Malay(Bumiputra?)-Muslim circle has its roots from Indonesia.

    I used to live there from quite a number of year and I recall Sunday sermons on TV in Bahasa Indonesia and the reference to God as Allah.

    Mind you, I was only in my early teens then, and I was quite confused over the usage of Yesus (Tuhan)nand Allah (Tuhan) in the same sentence.

    I do not know if you or nelzs would share my opinion, but I think the Ministry should at least impose an age limit on the access of this Bible?

  4. Not letting kids read the Bible?! Preposterous! Makes no sense either! I’m under the impression that using “Allah” in a Christian Bible is offensive, correct?

    For Mass and prayer in Malay and ethnic languages, Christians here solemnly use “Allah” without any association with Islam, and it’s even pronounced differently. I did think it was wierd at first as a kid, but I easily found it acceptable. Personally I figured that since BM is so infused with Arabic influences, non-Malays/Muslims simply adopt Arabic words when they adopt BM. There’s nothing wrong there. Well, though I commend the expansion of vocabulary for the national language, I do think “opsyen” instead of “pilihan” sounds a bit silly… but come on, not “Allah.” I think my question is: can a religion have ownership to a word; any word for that matter?

  5. You’re right, nelzs. The confusion argument doesn’t really fly, Sharizal, even if we say that a muslim might decide to become a christian on account of it. That’s because it is every bit as likely that an Iban christian might “get confused” when encountering Islam and become muslim, perhaps more so since Islam is the majority religion. My point is that the use of the word Allah in itself does not constitute proselytizing, in my opinion, which would be the only possible reason to consider a ban.

    Nonetheless, I can understand the concern on the part of the Home Ministry only because missionary activity in muslim lands is often done in an artfully underhanded way. This is what I was alluding to with the Arabic Bibles that begin with Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim. Here we have not just a translation of a word, but the introduction of a distinctly Islamic invocation that does not occur in the Bible. This could only have been done to make the Bible more comfortable and inviting to muslims.

  6. right, that’s what i was trying to say; the “confusing” bit is just nuts. i wasn’t confused about it as a child. i understood — if fact generally all bumiputran christians understand with little or no explaination and think nothing of it. i fear what it means if grown malay men don’t… such as those in the home ministry.

  7. umm… pardon my simplistic way of thinking (I just cannot understand complicated things and my brain tend to simplify “difficult” issues)

    but when I refer to Jesus, isn’t he Isa too? now, i would alternate between these 2 depending on my audience.

    When I said Allah, I’d also translate that to God when speaking to non Muslim (or Muslim for that matter)

    hmm to me..isn’t this good da’wah ?

    but i can understand the fear of the Big Man In Black Suit (or should I said Baju Melayu) … of children/teen to accidently think that the Bible is apart of Islam. But, then again Mr Big Man Black Suit sitting in the parliamentary meetings, might I remind you that in our school textbook we do not teach or even expose our children to comparative religion or interfaith discussion? If we believe in our education system to be a system which produces Thinkers, then have no fear!

    umm sorry Mr Gregory for using your comment feature to express my frustration! I promise to stay quiet for the next 6 mths

  8. and I’d like to add that many non Muslims came to realize that Islam is not somekind of new cult and it has root in Ibrahim/Abraham A.S , Musa/Moses A.S and Isa/Jesus A.S . Same messages, same Allah/God

  9. (You need to have en edit feature! I don’t think when I post then I realize I left things out!!!)

    ..at least to the non Muslims I met.

    We might all have different experiences and met different ppl so what I stated above does not validate nor disapprove my opinion as mentioned.

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