PAS deputy president Mohamad Sabu was walking on cloud nine after the success of his Stadium Merdeka rally. He had pulled off something big and his supporters claimed the event had raised his profile in PAS.
Mat Sabu, as he is known by all and sundry, is aware that not everyone in PAS thinks highly of him because he lacks the religious credentials demanded of top PAS leaders. He knows that party members call him “Raja Lawak” (king of laughs) but they would have to take him more seriously after this.
But the bubble burst on Sunday night when news trickled out that the Syura Council of Ulama, the party’s highest decision-making body, had ruled that the word “Allah” is sacred to Islam and cannot be used to describe God in any non-Muslim religious books.
The Syura Council said the “kalimah Allah” could not be used as the translation for the word God from any other language.
The Syura Council overturned what Mat Sabu along with his party’s two top leaders, Mursyidul Am Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat and president Datuk Seri Hadi Awang, had been telling the media just days earlier – that non-Muslims can use the term “Allah” as long as they do not misuse it against Islam.
Mat Sabu’s stand even won praise from Dr Paul Tan, the controversial Catholic Bishop who has raised many an eyebrow with remarks that have made him sound more like a politician than a man of the cloth.
But Mat Sabu has since done a U-turn, saying that “my stand is the same as the Syura Council”; and the Bishop who has been waltzing with PAS is now dancing solo.
Everyone in PAS has fallen in line because the Syura Council is the most powerful body in PAS and the decision was pushed by the party’s leading scholar in usuluddin (Islamic faith) Datuk Dr Haron Din. He is the sort who speaks softly but carries a big stick, and he has used the stick to great effect.
It was an embarrassing blow to Hadi and Nik Aziz because they are big names.
Dr Haron had been deeply disturbed by the compromises made on the “kalimah Allah” issue since 2010. Everyone has noticed how he has scaled back on political activities in the party but he has held his tongue.
He was also furious that Hadi had given the go-ahead for the use of “kalimah Allah” without first going through the Syura Council.
Hadi had appeared at a press conference together with DAP’s Lim Kit Siang and PKR’s Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim on the same day the Sultan of Selangor released a stern reminder to Selangorians that there is a state fatwa on the usage of the term.
Many in PAS were shocked by Hadi’s action. They thought it showed poor judgement and some claimed he was manipulated by the Pakatan Rakyat leaders.
Hadi has become known for his flip-flops but this particular issue has cast more doubts on his ability to lead the party. It is clear he cannot be relied upon to defend the party’s interests and he will be lucky if PAS retains him as president at the party polls due this year.
Some claimed this is what happens when the top leadership of PAS is made up of non-ulama figures – apart from Hadi, the deputy president and the three vice-presidents are non-ulama.
PAS Dewan Ulama chief Datuk Harun Taib, also a member of the Syura Council, told people he could not understand why the party was so concerned about pleasing people on the west coast when it should be looking after its traditional supporters in Terengganu and Kelantan.
People like Harun are convinced the faith would be in serious jeopardy without strict control over the “Allah” term.
“Muslims are very sensitive with the usage of certain sacred words. I am very relieved and I thank the Almighty for the decision of the Syura Council,” said Kelantan state exco member Datuk Nik Amar Nik Abdullah.
Nik Amar is normally quite a jovial person but he has been in a grim mood over the issue. He admitted that he is upset with DAP leader Lim Guan Eng for raising it.
“He should not touch on it,” said Nik Amar who is also the deputy state PAS commissioner.
Guan Eng, in his Christmas Day greeting as Penang Chief Minister, told the federal government to allow churches in Sabah and Sarawak to use the “Allah” term in their Bible. It was his usual habit of injecting politics into every occasion, religious or otherwise.
His party is eyeing the Christian vote and he had much to gain from the statement, but it has hurt his Pakatan partners big-time. Some joked that DAP had delivered a Christmas present to Umno. Others said the hand of God works in strange ways.
The “kalimah Allah” issue came about in 2010 when the High Court ruled that the Catholic newsletter, Herald, had the Constitutional right to use the “Allah” word.
At the height of the issue, Hadi declared that Islam did not forbid other religions from using the term. It did not go down well with many Muslims, including those in his own party but they did not react.
Shift in mood
Hadi probably thought the party would be with him again when he took the same stand two weeks ago. But the political mood had shifted.
Religious figures, from the state Muftis to the ustaz in the sekolah pondok, came out against Hadi’s stand. The dismay among Muslims all over was too widespread to be ignored. It was also coming too soon after the “freedom of choice in religion” incident involving PKR vice-president Nurul Izzah Anwar during a church forum.
The conservatives in PAS felt that enough was enough and that was when Dr Haron took over the steering wheel and turned the car around.
PAS-controlled Kelantan, which comprises 95% Malays, would have been in danger of falling had PAS not gone into reverse gear.
Kelantan opposition leader Datuk Alwi Che Ahmad has been telling his audiences at political ceramah that this episode is proof that “Islam is not PAS”, or as he says it in the Kelantan dialect, “Isle buke PAS”.
Alwi told a gathering last week: “If you are looking for paradise through PAS, you will not find it there. Paradise can only be achieved through Islam whereas PAS is all about politics.”
Alwi, who is also Ketereh assemblyman, said the “kalimah Allah” issue was God’s way of “opening our eyes” about PAS.
“Don’t believe them if they say that PAS will take you to paradise. That is like promising to bring someone to Mecca on a raft; you will never arrive. But if we walk on the right path, we will arrive in Mecca in an aeroplane,” he said.
Nik Aziz has changed his tune and is now also opposed to non-Muslims using the “Allah” word.
“When other religions which do not believe in only one God suddenly want to use the word Allah, that is wrong. Why should they apply the name of Allah? Now all of a sudden, there are religions which do not have only one God, but three or even more, they want to use the name Allah. That is nonsense,” he said on prime-time TV recently.
PAS central committee member Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof has been among the PAS leaders who have been having dialogues with church leaders to assuage their fears about PAS’ Islamic agenda. He is one of the few ulama figures who speak good English and he is about to publish his third book, titled PAS and the Church.
But now, he admitted, “we need to relook our position. It’s back to the drawing board.”
Several days after the Syura Council meeting, Religious Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Jamil Khir Baharom stepped up to say that the issue should be put to rest now that Muslims from both sides of the divide have taken the stand that “kalimah Allah” is a sacred word to Muslims and should not be misused by others.
He reminded everyone that the National Fatwa Council had in 2008 reaffirmed a list of 24 words, including the word “Allah”, that were exclusive to Islam. Moreover, a 1989 enactment, pertaining to the evangelising activities of other religions, also prohibits the use of the term by non-Muslim faiths.
PAS leaders are equally eager to bring the issue to a close.
“It should not be raised again,” said PAS secretary-general Datuk Mustafa Ali.
But is the issue really closed? Not really, because PKR deputy president Azmin Ali said Pakatan is sticking to its stand that non-Muslims are allowed to use the word “Allah”.
“We can’t change our stand every day, we are firm on the decision reached at the Pakatan meeting. We respect the Syura Council but its decision is applicable only to PAS members,” said Azmin.
It is difficult to see how PAS can continue to rationalise its position in Pakatan after this.
This issue has the potential to hurt any political party with a Muslim base. In 2010, Umno was severely criticised by non-Muslims because the party chose to respect how their Muslim members felt about the usage of the term.
This time, it almost derailed PAS because its top leadership failed to respect the fact that their rank and file were dead set against other religions using a term so sacred and fundamental to the Muslim faith.
The silver lining is that PAS and Umno have finally found themselves on the same page. They may be bitter rivals for the Malay vote but they are, at heart, brothers in Islam.
Joceline Tan can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org The STAR Online Opinion Sunday January 20, 2013