The Nine Billion Names Of God

Christian missionaries are making a mess in Malaysia by insisting upon the right to use the word “Allah” to refer to their particular variant of the Abrahamic deity.

A two-year legal battle by the publishers of the Catholic Herald resulted December 31 in a ruling by the Malaysian High Court permitting the paper to use the word “Allah” in its Malay-language edition to refer to that fellow commonly known in the English language as “God,” “Lord,” “Jehovah,” “Heavenly Father,” and “The Rat Bastard Who Tortured and Tormented Job On A Bet.”

Ratzinger’s people claim that the word “Allah” was used in Malay to refer to a grumpy sky king long before Islam ever arrived in the islands, and that there is simply no other word in the language to refer to their version of The Big Dude.

Muslims contend that the people of the primates are nothing but a mendacious pack of sneak-thieves stealthily working to convert Muslims to Christianity through distraction and confusion. It is against the law in Malaysia for those of rival faiths to proselytize to Muslims.

Some Muslims were exercised enough about the court’s decision to commence burning churches. Wednesday the court suspended its ruling, after the government, which has filed an appeal, argued that it was inciting racial conflict. “While the appeal process is going on, it is our responsibility not to do anything that can jeopardise the interest and well-being of the people,” intoned Prime Minister Najib Razak. Malaysia is a majority Muslim country, but about 40 percent of its citizens are Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian, with substantial Indian and Chinese populations.

The newspaper that created this stink, the Herald, circulates but 14,000 copies a week. There are 850,000 Catholics in all of Malaysia, about 9% of the total population, some concentrated in the region where the Herald presses its paper. That would be what is known as “East Malaysia,” which comprises roughly the top third of the island of Borneo; the remaining two-thirds is known as Kalimantan, and is part of the island nation of Indonesia. Presumably this is also the region where the government recently seized 10,000 Malay-language Christian bibles printed with the word “Allah” substituted for the usual references to God.

As I groused here:

Malaysia is a European colonial construct, one of the most absurd on earth. It combines former British colonies on the southernmost tip of the Thai peninsula with former British colonies on the northernmost region of the island of Borneo. In between lies hundreds of miles of the South China Sea.

While the people of the Thai peninsula can muster a good argument for being a nation—ethnic Malays, they became predominately Muslim beginning in the 16th Century, in contrast to the Buddhist Thais to the north—the forced conjoining with the animist Dayaks of northern Borneo is a sick joke. All that separates these Dayaks from the Dayaks of the rest of Borneo is a line on a piece of paper that marked a division of spoils between the Dutch and the English. Prior to European colonialism, the Dayaks of northern Borneo shared about as much in common with the Malays of the Thai peninsula as Koreans share with Swedes.

Borneo is an island of animists that frankly doesn’t need either Islam (which established itself there in the 16th Century) or Christianity (which set up shop in the far northern sliver of the island in the early 19th Century). As Bill Dalton has noted, Borneo was doing just fine long before either of these offspring of Judaism climbed out the cradle: “by the late Neolithic period (1800 to 500 BCE), when Europeans were wearing deerskins and throwing spears, Borneo’s people already had a highly advanced culture, fashioning polished stone tools, earthenware pottery, bone ornaments, and cotton textiles.”

Malaysian animists traditionally believe that everything has a semangat, or spirit, which can choose to help or harm. Offerings are routinely made to these spirits, especially before such life-changing events as marriage or a journey. A bomoh, or healer, is relied upon to mediate with spirits to heal sickness, or produce prosperity or crop growth. These people are still considered of value among the more enlightened members of today’s medical community, as “[t]he bomoh’s know-how . . . is based on a repository of knowledge that had expanded generations after generations.” Finally, the spirits of deceased ancestors are honored and supplicated for protection and guidance.

These beliefs are under assault from Islamic bribes and from indefatigable Christian missionaries that will just not leave these people alone.

Prior to contact with Islamic and Christian proselytizers and “civilizers,” the people of Borneo were for 50,000 years primarily hunter-gatherers, for whom animism is the only faith that makes a lick of sense, deriving as it does from direct experience with the natural world. As explained here:

Animism is centered on the belief that every element of nature is endowed with a spirit, or soul. Trees, birds, rocks, rivers, fish, mountains—all have spirits which need to be placated through complex rituals, the origins of which go back millennia. Bird augury (interpreting birdsong) is a common feature of animism, as is the interpretation of bird sightings; the Kelabit, for example, rely upon the annual migration of the yellow wagtail as a signal for the sowing and the harvesting of their rice crop.

The same source notes that “the animist spirit world, which is not an exclusive domain, can happily make room for the gods or ‘spirits’ of other religions.” Thus both Islam and Christianity are often but a thin veneer applied over the animist beliefs that still form the core of people’s spiritual lives. So, while the Malaysian village of Mukah is separated into Catholic and Muslim communities, both unite to participate annually in the ancient animist Kaul festival, which celebrates the passing of the monsoons and involves offerings to the spirits of the sea.

It is when the proselytizers of the far-off desert deities of Allah and Jehovah press hard on these animist tropical people that they encounter difficulties: as expressed by this person, “[i]n Malaysia, to accept Jesus as one of the gods is not a problem, but to realize Jesus as the most high God is not easy.”

While animism is not actually against the law, as it is across the Borneo border in Indonesia, it is not recognized by the Malaysian government. And thus we are presented with absurd pie charts like the one to the left, which purports to detail the distribution of religious faiths in Malaysia, but offers not a slice of animism.

Animism on Borneo received a particularly bad rap among Europeans because sometimes some of the tribal peoples native to the island would take the heads of enemies in battle. Of course, at the same time as early English explorers were recoiling in horror from this “savagery” perpetrated by what they considered barbarous ur-people, their own monarch, Elizabeth I, was back home busily lopping off the heads of her enemies, then sticking them on spikes for the delectation of the local ravens. Head-hunting was so constant and so prolonged in England that to this day members of the crow family still wheel about the Tower, hoping for a handout.

Part of growing up is learning that just because one can do a thing, does not mean that one should. As Malaysian Muslims take to the streets to angrily protest the court’s ruling, and as Malaysian Christians defiantly celebrate their “constitutional” victory, the occasional Sane Person, like a Who upon a speck of dust, attempts to be heard.

Like this sensible Malaysian Catholic:

While the use of the word “Allah” for our religious practice is constitutionally sound, does our faith become any deeper or shallower from using or not using the word “Allah”?

The practice may be constitutionally sound, and may be even theologically sound, but is it theologically necessary? Any practicing Catholic who knows a thing or two about God and Christianity knows that the answer to that is “No.”

“But, we have a right to use the word ‘Allah’! Why should only one group have a monopoly of the word?” is what the typical argument for us Catholics using the term “Allah” is. And that argument has a strong constitutional point. But it scores zero in the theological domain—there is no place in our Christian faith or Roman Catholic tradition that mandates, suggests, implies or favors the use of the term “Allah” . . . .

I [] think that the Herald and other Christian publications can do whatever is it that they are tasked to do without using the term “Allah” . . . .

Will the Church swallow its pride and its ego of wanting to feel right or justified and act out of respect for the Muslims’ request for us not to use the term “Allah”? Did the Church not decide on no longer using term “Yahweh” for God out of respect for our Jewish brothers? Can we not do the same for the term “Allah” for our Muslim brothers? If the answer to that is “no,” then we’re probably in for a rough ride.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “The Nine Billion Names Of God,” a group of Tibetan monks have for 300 years devoted themselves to the compilation of all the possible names of God. In contrast to these people in Malaysia, who are quarreling over using the same name to denote different gods, these monks are sussing out all the different names for the same God.

Their task having entered the computer age, the monks contract with a Western firm to transport a fine fast machine out to their mountain redoubt, to assist them in their labors. Having once estimated that it would require 15,000 years to write out by hand all the names of God, the monks have concluded that, with the aid of a computer, their job can be completed in a matter of months.

As the project nears completion, a monk confesses its purpose to one of the Western technicians who has accompanied the computer to the monastery, who in turn shares the story with his colleague. “When they have listed all His names—and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them—God’s purpose will have been achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy . . . When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up.” Asked if this meant “the end of the world,” the monk had replied: “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”

The technicians begin to fear that the monks may act out in some undesirable and even violent way, when they discover that their successful accounting of all the names of God does not result in any cosmic “poof.” And so on the evening that the project is to be completed, the technicians board ponies and begin winding their way down the mountain, so as to outrun what they expect to be the monks’ wrath.

At around the time that the technicians figure the last of the names has rolled out of the computer, and been pasted into the monks’ holy books, one of them happens to glance up into the sky. And there, “[o]verhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

This is without doubt a Mr. Ha-Ha story: a deity creating a universe only to snuff it out when a small clot of beings stuffed away in some small corner of it have succeeded in divining and recording all of Mr. Ha-Ha’s names. Then again, an el supremo who merely leans back and buffs his fingernails, yawning occasionally, as tropical people rattle and hum below in fervid bickering over applying the same name to two imported desert deities, must needs be a sort of Mr. Ha-Ha himself.

People who are not Malaysian are primarily interested in Malaysia because of what they can take from it. As I groused here:

Malaysia compliantly provides tin, copper, and petroleum to Western transnationals, and on Borneo permits extensive deforestation—today primarily for the benefit of other Asian nations, like Japan—that, combined with logging operations across the border in Indonesia, have on several occasions over the past decade created forest fires of such vast magnitude they have blocked out the sun and thereby killed crops, halted air traffic for thousands of miles around, and sickened with smoke and haze human beings and other living things in more than a dozen nations.

What Malaysia has been given in return is this absurd importation of two duelling religious faiths from the deserts of the Middle East. I look at these people from Malaysian Borneo, and I conclude that they need neither the Allah of the Koran, nor the Allah of the Bible. They Need. To Be Left. Alone.

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3 Responses to “The Nine Billion Names Of God”


  1. 1 Job January 13, 2010 at 11:15 am

    “Some Muslims were exercised enough about the court’s decision to commence burning churches”

    You obviously have a better lead than the police! How sure are you that the Muslims burned those churches? Are you out to create further discord? Tsk, Tsk, Tsk…..

  2. 3 Noto February 26, 2010 at 2:54 am

    interesting stuff hope it works.


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