Karpal urges Penang to clarify shariah law curbs on ‘Allah’
Sunday, 12 January 2014

The Malay Mail
By Boo Su-Lyn

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 12 — DAP’s Karpal Singh urged the Penang state government today to clarify the legality of a shariah enactment there prohibiting non-Muslims from referring to God as “Allah”, after a decree by the state Mufti threatens to plunge the Sikhs into the ongoing row over the Arabic word.

The senior lawyer said the move was necessary even as he pointed out that the constitutionality of the Penang mufti’s announcement on the ban on non-Muslims from using 40 Arabic words could be challenged in court.

“In the Sikh Bible, the word ‘Allah’ appears 37 times,” said Karpal in a statement today.

“The Sikhs have used the word ‘Allah’ in Penang and elsewhere in the world from time immemorial without any objection from any quarter, and rightly so, having regard to the guarantee of freedom of religion under Articles 3(1) and 11(1) of the Federal Constitution. The Penang Mufti’s prohibition of that word by Sikhs in the state, therefore, is of no consequence or avail,” added the DAP national chairman.

Besides the Sikh holy book, the word “Allah” is also found in the Bahasa Malaysia translation of the Christian bible, the Al-Kitab.

English daily the New Straits Times reported yesterday the Penang mufti as prohibiting non-Muslims from using Arabic words like “Allah”, “iman” (faith) and “nabi” (prophet) under the Administration of Religion of Islam (State of Penang) Enactment 2004.

That law, however, is not a secular state legislation like other similar laws in other states in Malaysia, according to senior lawyer Roger Tan who wrote a commentary in The Star today.

Tan wrote in the English daily that a fatwa on the exclusivity of certain words to Islam may have been issued under the 2004 Penang shariah law, but that it is not binding on non-Muslims.

The Selangor Non-Islamic Religions (Control of Propagation Among Muslims) Enactment 1988 places a blanket ban on non-Muslims from using 35 Arabic words and phrases, including “Allah”. The law was recently used by the Selangor Islamic Religious Department (Jais) to seize over 300 copies of Malay and Iban-language bibles from the Bible Society of Malaysia (BSM) on January 2.

There are similar secular enactments in nine other states, except in Penang, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territories.

Tan questioned the constitutionality of such laws, pointing out that legislation can only be enacted to specifically prohibit the proselytisation of non-Muslim faiths to Muslims, under Article 11(4) of the Federal Constitution.

“But the states do not have the power to make laws controlling or restricting, let alone prohibiting, the use of certain words and expressions without any act of propagation. In other words, a state law can only be enacted to proscribe a Christian from delivering a Bible which contains the word ‘Allah’ to a Muslim, and not if the former uses the same Bible for his own personal belief,” he wrote.

The lawyer also wrote that Section 9 of such state laws, which detail the ban, violates one’s constitutional rights to freedom of religion and free speech.

“Having said that, Section 9 is still a valid law unless repealed or amended by the respective state legislature. In the alternative, anyone can challenge its validity but he must first obtain leave from a Federal Court judge under Article 4 (4) unless the challenge comes from the federal or state government,” said Tan.

He also stressed that non-Muslims cannot be charged in a shariah court, but only in a civil court.

“It would certainly be in order for the Penang state government to seek legal advice on the prohibition announced by the Penang Mufti before any non-Muslim is charged for an offence for use of the words prohibited,” Karpal said in relation to Tan’s remark.

The tussle over “Allah” has so far been largely restricted to Muslims and Christians, although the Arabic word also exists in the holy books of other religions.