Monday, June 23, 2014

Do Muslims have a monopoly over "Allah"?

Malaysia's high court made international headlines when it recently ruled that Christians do not have the right to use the word "Allah."

The iconic Putrajaya Mosque, located in Malaysia's administrative city of Putrajaya.

After a long court battle, Malaysia's Catholic Church lost their case at the Supreme Court when a panel of seven judges voted to uphold the blanket ban preventing the use of the word "Allah" by non-Muslim groups.
I'll probably get a lot of heat for this but I don't believe Muslims have the monopoly over the word "Allah," least of all Malaysia's Malay, non-native Arab-speaking Muslims.

The fight over the word "Allah" has been a long one. Although Malaysia still can't quite decide what it's identity is - Muslim country, non-Muslim country, Muslim majority country - it has decided that its Muslims have the exclusive right to use the word.

In arguing their case, many forget that "Allah" is actually an Arabic term for God. In Latin it's deus. In French it's dieu. In Persian it's khoda. In Hindi it's bhagavana. Get the idea?

The word for God in Malay is Tuhan. Interestingly enough, there are no objections to Christians using the word Tuhan, although the majority of Malaysia's Christians are non-Malays or non-native Malay speakers, or both.

One of the arguments for preventing Christians from using "Allah" was that it would confuse Malaysia's Muslims and cause them to inadvertently convert to Christianity (apostasy is a crime punishable by law in Malaysia). Putting aside the sheer ludicrousness of this argument, let's try and conter it with some logic.

Firstly, while it is true that both are descendant of the Abrahamic tradition which worships one God, there are glaring differences between Islam and Christianity. Most fundamentally, Christians do not believe in Prophet Muhammad as the final messenger. Above any other human being, the Prophet is the single most influential person in any professing Muslim's life. Even non-Muslims know what an important figure the Prophet is. Just look at how the Danish cartoons and the Innocence of Muhammad film was successfully used to anger Muslims worldwide. In fact, Islam's foundational declaration of faith contains only two parts: first, there is no God but God and, second, the prophet is His messenger. A Muslim's faith is considered incomplete if either one of these tenets are missing.

Secondly, the ban prevents Christians from using the word "Allah" in their literature. But Christians can still use the word verbally - in conversations, for example - in discussing their faith with others. How are you going to stop the word "Allah" being used by Christians in propagating their faith? By spying in each and every single one of them in order to catch them in the act?

Thirdly, the word "Allah" was already commonly used in reference to God  in sixth century Arabia by pagan, Jewish and Christian Arabs. They used it before Muhammad received his prophecy and they continued to use the word after Islam spread in influence.

Yes, I am aware that we're not living in the Prophet's time. Back then, people received the message straight from him. Muslims today are a far cry from the noble and faithful companions of the Prophet, right?

Not quite. If you were to give even a cursory glance at the Islam's early days, you will notice that Muslims then were a small minority in the predominantly pagan Makkah. Worse, they were constantly under attack socially, economically, politically and even physically for accepting this new faith and disrupting the status quo. Many of the earliest Muslims were the most vulnerable members of Makkan society, from the city's poorest to slaves. They had very little political clout, very little material wealth and certainly no legal monopoly over the term "Allah."

Yet, despite those seemingly insurmountable challenges, Islam spread from Makkah, to the neighbouring city of Madinah and then to the rest of the world. How is that possible?

If the logic behind the ban applies, Islam should have gotten caught up in the confusion with Jewish, Christian and pagan Arabs using the word "Allah" as well, right?

The answer is simple. It lies behind the common claims Muslims like to make about their faith and their Prophet: it was the noble character of the Prophet and the values of justice, equality and dignity for all human beings before God that attracted people to Islam. It was Islam's respect for  different cultures and equal protection for everyone under its law - including people of other faiths - that made inroads for Islam across the African continent into Europe and Asia. It was its attention to the poor and needy that became an incentive for both the givers and the receivers of charity. Not its affinity for legal arm twisting.

Malaysia as a country is still struggling to feed its poor and clothe the needy, not least because billions of tax payers' ringgits still go towards supporting the lavish lifestyle of its royals families - yes, Malaysia has MULTIPLE royal families - including sultans who stand as a symbol of Islam as Malaysia's official state religion.

Winning this monopoly over the word "Allah" may feel like a victory but ratcheting up the law can only go so far.

If keeping Muslims muslim is the country's concern, then it needs to turn its attention to the values that Islam calls for - respect, dignity, equality and justice for everyone regardless of their faith; just and fair implementation of the law for everyone, not just a select group; and material, emotional and spiritual support for the needy and vulnerable members of society, regardless of who they worship.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

National Aboriginal Day brings out Brantford's diversity

There’s a lot of diversity in Brantford, if you look in the right place.

The National Aboriginal Day celebration on June 21st at Harmony Square in the downtown core is one such place.

Amidst the toddlers splashing about among the square’s fountains, local residents from all walks of life came out to celebrate the occasion with spirit singers, drum circles, popcorn and snow cones.

Brantford Native Women's Drum Circle performing The Gathering Song during Brantford's National Aboriginal Day celebration
National Aboriginal Day is a nation-wide celebration of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people’s unique heritage, cultures and achievements. It is also an opportunity for non-Aboriginal peoples to learn about Canada’s Aboriginal history.

Different communities across Canada held their own festivities to mark the occasion. Local organizations responsible for Brantford’s celebration of National Aboriginal Day include Brantford Native Housing, De Dwa Da Dehs Nye>s Aboriginal Health Center, Laurier Brantford’s Office of Aboriginal Initiatives, the Niagara Peninsula Aboriginal Area Management Board, the Woodland Cultural Center and the Grand River Employment and Training.

I took my mom with me and I was happy to see her go shutter-happy at everything she. As newcomers to Canada, we weren’t exposed to the country’s Aboriginal history and culture beyond what we found in a travel brochure.

My shutter-happy mom and Jefferson in his full traditional dress on National Aboriginal Day at Brantford's Harmony Square.
It was through our own exploration that we discovered the Mohawk territory and Kanata Village located just ten minutes from our house. Looking for a quiet place to read one day, my dad discovered Mohawk Chapel, officially known as Her Majesty’s Royal Chapel of the Mohawks. The oldest surviving church in Ontario, the chapel is home to the tomb of Joseph Brant, also known as Thayendanagea, leader of the Mohawk people. The chapel was a reward to the Mohawks for fighting with British troops during the American Revolution.

While jogging one day, I discovered that the path I was on was named after the late Tom Longboat, or Cogwagee, the renowned Onondoga long distance runner from the nearby Six Nations of the Grand River. Oh, and I also learned only very recently that the reservation – locally known as “Six Nations” – is the largest First Nations in Canada and the only territory in North America that is home to six Iroquois Nations – The Mohawk, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca and Tuscarora.

This may all seem like common knowledge to some or even trivial to others.

To me, as a Muslim, this knowledge is of the utmost importance. It teaches me about my neighbours whose concerns and hopes for the community aren't so different than mine. It teaches me about those with whom the Canadian government has made agreements on my behalf. It is forbidden for Muslims to eat from the fruits of an agreement where one party is shortchanged while the other prospers; knowing that First Nations peoples have been severely shortchanged and that many treaties remain unfulfilled, I am obligated to support them in their struggles.

Most importantly, this knowledge led me on a personal path of learning about the similarities between my beliefs as a Muslim and the spiritual beliefs of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. They consider the environment a sacred trust, as I do. They treasure the ties of family and community, as I do. They deeply revere their elders, as I do.

The "Old" Mosh Boys performing on National Aboriginal Day at Harmony Square, Brantford.
I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for the phrase, “we are more alike than we are different.”

In some strange way, learning about Canada’s diverse community of Aboriginal peoples gave me a stronger sense of belonging than any newcomer program has.