Setting the record straight on Dewan Bahasa’s jurisdiction over Malay Bible

OVER the course of the judicial review hearing at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on November 15 concerning the use of the holy word “Allah” by certain Christian publications in the Malay language, lawyer Mohamed Haniff Khatri Abdulla was reported to have said that Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (DBP) should be the body to prepare the Malay-language Bible to correct Christians’ usage of the term “Allah”, and that the text should be sent to the Christian community for approval.

Such a suggestion was met with vehement criticisms by political figures and Christian leaders, who demanded that Mr Haniff apologise for having uttered such a statement.

While the Concerned Lawyers for Justice (CLJ) understands and appreciates the premise of Mr Haniff’s argument, i.e. DBP being the public institution vested with the statutory power and duty as the guardian of the national language, CLJ is mindful that translating a religious canon is a humongous task that requires far more than mere expertise and authority on one particular language alone.

It also requires a deep understanding of the creed of that religion, its theology and traditions, apart from a strong grasp of the history and context pertaining to its teachings, with thousands of years of scholarship, and not to mention, a mastery of the language of the original text.

For this reason, Article 11(3) of the Federal Constitution appropriately provides that every religious group shall have the right to manage its own religious affairs, as a form of protection against unwarranted interference by those in power. And, the suggestion made by Mr Haniff, with due respect, would not stand in the face of such a clear constitutional safeguard.

Be that as it may, CLJ is of the opinion that DBP still has a crucial role to play to untangle the current controversy, albeit in a much more limited scope than to take over the task of translating the Bible (which it has no business meddling in).

This could be seen from the fact that in the attempt to justify the usage of the holy name “Allah”, the Christian community contends that the word is the correct translation of the word “God” in the Malay language, and that it has purportedly been used in Christian publications since as early as the 17th century.

DBP, therefore, is in the prime position to arbitrate as to whether such a claim is true or not, and whether the usage of the term “Allah” is accurate, semantically and linguistically.

This is in line with Section 6 of the Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Act 1959, which provides that “the board (of DBP) shall be the sole coordinating authority pertaining to composing, devising and standardising of terminologies in the national language”.

The suggestion of correcting errors in the translation of certain terms in canonical text, such as the Bible, need not necessarily be perceived as an attempt to meddle in the Christian religion, if one were to look into the academic article written by Robert A. Hunt, titled “The History of the Translation of the Bible into Bahasa Malaysia (sic)”.

There, the author stated that “(e)arly translators (of the Bible) learned Malay in places as diverse as Ache and Ambon, usually without the benefit of studying Malay literature”, one of whom, John Stronach, was said to have known but a little “more than a smattering of Malay”.

Such translations prepared by persons who are not competent in the Malay language must surely be open to be criticised and corrected.

The author then went on to narrate how during the 1800s, missionary societies, in particular the London Missionary Society (LMS), attempted to produce the Malay translation of the Bible.

“The story of the LMS efforts to produce the Malay-language Bible begins with an interview between Milne and one of his first language teachers, Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, more commonly known as Munshi Abdullah… In that interview, Abdullah was asked to give an opinion on Leidekker’s Bible. He confirmed what Milne no doubt suspected: that this Bible was not idiomatic and had many strange words.”

At one point, the author even noted that Munshi objected to the various biblical phrases in Malay, like that of “Kerajaan Syurga” (Kingdom of Heaven), “Mulut Allah” (Word of God), “Anak Allah” (Son of God), and so on and so forth.

As Hunt himself acknowledged at the end of his academic article, “there may be the need for further new translations”. It is therefore imperative that the Christian community in Malaysia take serious consideration to do what needs to be done in order to do justice not only to the Malay language, but also to their own scriptures.

There is no shame in being magnanimous and admitting to errors in the translation of certain terms, and in submitting to the authority of experts of the national language to determine the correct and accurate terms to be used.

In translating key theological terms, such as the holy name “Allah”, great care must be taken to refer only to authoritative works, from those whose expertise in the Malay language has been duly recognised.

This would include the likes of the oldest known Malay manuscript, the Aqa’id of al-Nasafi (1590), wherein it is affirmed that the holy name “Allah” in the Malay language refers strictly to “the One… (who)... is neither accident nor body, nor atom… (who) is not formed nor bounded nor numbered (that is, He is not more than one), neither is He portioned nor having parts nor compounded”, the definition of which is clearly incompatible with Christians’ concept of trinity.

Another such definition can be seen from that accorded by Raja Ali Haji (who died in 1873), who is considered the first authoritative lexicographer of the Malay language. His detailed definition of the holy name “Allah” in his Kitab Pengetahuan Bahasa (The Book of the Knowledge of Language) could not be more irreconcilable with that of the trinity.

In the above light, one would suggest that the Christian community engage and work closely with DBP, to correct what needs to be corrected in the current translation of the Bible, while maintaining their religious autonomy on the actual translation work.

It must be said that it is unfortunate that the matter has been brought yet again to public attention via a court case as a fully blown constitutional challenge. In the past, this has caused bitter divisions and hatred within our multireligious society, and will continue to do so, unless it is approached very carefully and responsibly.

It is in this light that it becomes all the more important that one must never lose sight of the underlying scope: that the objection is, and always has been, specifically against the alteration of the meaning of the holy name as understood in the Malay language, not Arabic, not English, not any other language.

And, the reason is fear of an unwarranted shifting of the firmly rooted theological concepts emanating from it.

Never has it been about claiming ownership of the word, as some quarters have relentlessly tried to simplistically portray, and neither has it been to prevent Christians from freely professing their religion.

* Concerned Lawyers for Justice is a civil movement comprising lawyers who are concerned about the state of the Malaysian nation.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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