DAVID ATTENBOROUGH MADE ME SAY “ALLAH-HU-AKBAR”

BLUE PLANET II

I was watching the brilliant BBC TV wildlife program Blue Planet II, narrated by broadcasting legend David Attenborough, and they were showing these amazing crystal-like coral reef sponges. They showed a shiny silver coral known as Venus’s flower basket, which lives several miles down in the bottom of an ocean trench. Living inside this particular sponge were two shrimp who had crawled in when they were young but were now too big to crawl back out the same way they came in. These shrimp, one male and one female, had mated and the female was now pregnant. You could clearly see it was carrying several eggs. As I was watching this I just sat there amazed and dumb founded, so much so that I involuntarily whispered “Allah-hu-akbar” under my breath. I said this Arabic phrase because I was genuinely astonished at what I was seeing. Now, here is my question: does saying this Arabic phrase make me a terrorist?

The reason I ask is this phrase has once again hit the headlines because a certain Muslim was heard shouting it repeatedly as he killed eight people in New York on the 31st of October 2017. As can be imagined the phrase has been widely discussed and dissected in the media since the attack. Even the Sun, a right wing British newspaper, felt the need to write a somewhat positive article about it. Likewise, CNN’s Jake Tapper, who said the phrase was “sometimes said under the most beautiful of circumstances,” got caught up in then trying to defend his comments from various Fox News pundits:

As someone who says “Allah-hu-akbar” many times each day (I did the math and can confidently say that I have said this phrase over 1.1 million times in my life so far, and continue to say it over 150 times per day), I personally believe this phrase should not be so violently misaligned just because some hoo-haa-numb-nut decides to yell it loudly (and probably with incorrect syntax) before killing innocent people for a twisted ideology that, under close scrutiny, makes no sense whatsoever. (For more on this please read the brilliantly satirical article ISIS Wondering Where Insane Medieval Fantasy Project Went Wrong by the always hilarious Daily Mash). As Hassan Shibly, executive director of CAIR-Florida, said in response to this recent terror attack in New York, “That is the biggest act of heresy, to shout God’s glorious name when committing the worst crime against God.”

Unfortunately one can choose from a plethora of morons who over the years have committed atrocities while shouting “Allah-hu-akbar” at the top of their lungs. Another recent example that springs to mind is that of a man who was arrested outside Buckingham Palace in August 2017, armed with a 4-foot sword. He was shouting (you guessed it) “Allah-hu-akbar” as he struggled with London’s Metropolitan police officers. Three unarmed officers suffered minor injuries as they detained the 26-year-old man, whilst two were treated at a hospital for cuts. The man drove his car at a police van and stopped in front of it in a restricted area near Buckingham Palace. He was eventually incapacitated with CS spray.

In order to try and bring some reasoned context to the debate surrounding the phrase “Allah-hu-akbar”, I thought it best to examine what it actually means and what Muslims actually feel about it.


What it looks like in Arabic…

Before we get to the deeper meaning, this is what it looks like when written fancifully in its original Arabic form:

Allah-Hu-Akbar


How to pronounce it…

And this is how to actually say it:

The phonetic transliteration is “Al-law-hu-ak-bur” and the simplest translation is “God is great.” However, after the New York terror attack, it is noticeable that various news readers clearly not versed in the Arabic tongue were mispronouncing this as “Aloo-ak-bur” which literally means “potatoes are great.” This small and weird bit of comic relief, in the context of a horrific tragedy, was noticed by the likes of journalist Aisha Sultan, lawyer Rabia Chaudry, and the journalist Mehreen Kasana. Chaudry even offered her services to help those in linguistic need, tweeting:


What it does and does not actually mean…

Before we get to what it really means, let us start with what the phrase is not. Contrary to the bigoted views of some, the phrase is not the war cry of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He first uttered the phrase whilst praying and meditating in the mountains around Mecca. Likewise, when translated by some as “God is greater” or “God is greatest,” this is not meant comparatively to other gods and religions. Muslims are not saying Allah is greater than your God. These words are therefore not, to refute the magazine American Thinker, “a statement of Islamic supremacism and war.”

There is indeed a comparative nature of the phrase which is explained simply as follows:

Allahu Akbar means “God is greater than…”; it suggests that Allah is greater than any noun with which one might choose to complete the sentence. – from the book The Complete Idiots Guide To The Koran by Shaykh Muhammad Sarwar and Brandon Toropov

And here are a few other definitions that hopefully bring greater depth to what this phrase actually means:

Allah is Allah-hu-akbar, Allah is greater than anything I could ever say about Allah. We can’t praise You as You have praised Yourself. You are as You praise Yourself. Anything I say about Allah, it’s deficient. – Shaykh Hamza Yusuf

For the record, “Allahu Akbar” has no inherent political/violent connotation meriting instant terror diagnosis. I say it like 20 times a day…If you understand how it is used in common parlance amongst Muslims for nearly every single situation maybe it would make sense…Favorite team wins? You say it. Fav team loses? You say it. Something wonderful happens? You say it. Something terrible happens? You say it. – Rabia Chaudry

In the West, “Allahu akbar” is commonly confused for only being a battle cry but in reality, millions and millions of Muslims say this phrase in a variety of situations. From extraordinary contexts like when someone gets cured of a debilitating disease to everyday and ordinary situations like praying or even getting up from bed, there is no fixed situation for which “Allahu akbar” must be uttered…In the wake of the Tuesday terror attack in New York City, there’s going to be a ton of discussion on the phrase, its meaning, and how in some cases it has definitely been used by terrorists. But the resounding majority of Muslims use “Allahu akbar” for innocuous matters and things that are utterly harmless. – Mehreen Kasana

“Allahu Akbar” is a powerful declaration used by Muslims on many occasions and in many prayers. It is a celebration of life, not death and destruction, the first words fathers whisper in the ears of their newborns. They are used to indicate gratitude when God bestows something upon you that you would have been incapable of attaining were it not for divine benevolence. It is a prayerful phrase that reminds us that, no matter what our concerns may be, God is greater than them. – Imam Omar Suleiman, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research

The phrase Allahu akbar has a long history of use within Islam. It expresses a sentiment that is at its heart a theological reflection about humanity’s place in the world: That no matter what trials or victories people face, God is greater than it all…Allahu akbar is an affirmation of a belief in a monotheistic God…since it suggests that God has no partners. Belief in absolute monotheism is a core part of orthodox Islamic theology. – Carol Kuruvilla


When do we say it…

We Muslims say this phrase all the time, in a myriad of different situations. Aside from the example above of Sir David making me involuntarily say it several miles deep in the ocean, here are a few more examples just to illustrate the wide and varied usage of this phrase.

A friend of mine used to work for the computer giant Cap Gemini. He was part of a test team working on a complicated project. They were testing a particularly complex piece of code. My friend hit the button and several people from the project team, including a few managers, stood there anxiously waiting to see what would happen. After a few minutes the computer returned a result: success! The stunned silence was punctuated by the voice of my friend, who just uttered “Allah-hu-akbar!” My friend said this made a few people laugh, and everyone present was pleasantly surprised, as such an intricate piece code worked first time. The phrase was uttered and no one died.

In an episode of the BBC TV program Have I Got News For You, Adil Ray (aka Citizen Khan) explains how context really is everything:

Here we have a few more differing examples:

After every sneeze a Muslim is taught to say “Alhamdulillah” (thanks be to God). – Faisal Kutty

I say “Allahu akbar” out loud more than 100 times a day. Yesterday, I uttered it several times during my late-evening Isha prayer. Earlier, during dinner, I said it with my mouth full after biting into my succulent halal chicken kebab. In the afternoon, I dropped it in a conference room at the State Department, where I’d been invited to address a packed room of government employees about the power of storytelling. Specifically, I expressed my continuing gratitude for the election of Barack Obama, whom, in a joking nod to the Islamophobic paranoia that surrounded him, I called “our first Muslim American president,” adding “Allahu akbar!” People in the crowd laughed and applauded, the world continued to spin, no one had an aneurysm, and only a few people seemed to wonder with arched, Sarah Sanders-like eyebrows, “Wait, is he …?” I even confess to saying “Allahu akbar” two days ago in a restroom after losing the battle, but ultimately winning the war, against a nasty stomach virus. – Wajahat Ali, 01 Nov 2017, from a brilliant article entitled I Want ‘Allahu Akbar’ Back

It is a powerful expression that can also lend strength and fortitude in difficult times. In his final days, before succumbing to the cancer that lent us nineteen years with him, my father often invoked the words. In the midst of enduring unimaginable pain, we’d find him calmly and quietly reciting “Allahu Akbar. Sabr aur shukr.” God is the Greatest. Be patient, be grateful. – Dr Zainab Chaudry

In fact, we say it so many times that Eric Nagourney may be right when he says:

Allahu akbar is so commonplace a saying as to be utterly unworthy of note. It’s quite an innocuous expression. – Eric Nagourney


When not to say it…

Here we have a few examples of the phrase being used way out of context. We start with Ahdaf Soueif who, somewhat incorrectly, uses it for less divinely inspired and rather more prosaic matters:

Let’s say your football team is mounting an attack. You can say, ‘Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,’ and you’re pushing them along, like, ‘Go for it, go for it, go for it.’…You see a really beautiful woman or a good-looking guy, you go, ‘Allahu akbar.’ – Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author

Another bizarre example of the use of this phrase comes from the 1987 movie Beverly Hills Cop II, where Axel Foley (iconically played by Eddie Murphy) says the phrase in order to wriggle his way out of a difficult situation:

And here we have the animated TV program Family Guy using it rather controversially as a literal wakeup call with their Palestinian alarm clock:


What other Muslims are saying about it…

Sarah A Harvard uses this phrase and Muhammad Ali as daily inspiration:

In my room, hanging on the wall across my bed, is a framed poster of Ali holding a copy of Muhammad Speaks, once the official journal for the Nation of Islam, with a headline that reads “Allah is the Greatest.” It serves as a reminder every time I wake up in the morning that even Ali—who, at the boiling point of the Civil Rights Era, convinced America that a black man was “the greatest” and also submitted to one God. He was never afraid to shout “Allahu Akbar.” Ali was proud to say it and the world loved him for it. – Sarah A Harvard

Ali Newspaper

She goes on to say:

“Allahu Akbar” unites over 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, who all speak different dialects and languages, as well as Arab Greek Orthodox and Christians who use the expression. It’s a versatile, humble phrase, said about 100 times a day during our five daily prayers. It’s whispered into a newborn’s ear. It’s muttered as the last words before one’s death. It’s said at the sight of a beautiful sunset or a starry night, and roared during moments of chaos and strife. It’s a reminder that no matter how invincible or vulnerable we feel, God—the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful—is greater than all other powers and has always sought out the best for us. – Sarah A Harvard

Mehreen Kasana explains why is it important to understand this phrase properly:

Social vilification of such a common phrase among Muslims is dangerous because it gives a distorted portrayal of a religious minority’s practices. It depicts an ordinary phrase in exaggerated and negative light, only leading to more animus against a community that has already been witnessing Islamophobia for years now. A phrase can be used in both good and bad contexts, and remembering to take a nuanced stance on that as opposed to panic and paranoia will help people learn more about a community and bridge divisions. – Mehreen Kasana

And here we have Karim Shamsi-Basha who grew up with the phrase:

I grew up saying “Allahu Akbar” numerous times every day. And no, I wasn’t, and am not, a terrorist. I wasn’t someone who blew buildings up, killed people or shot a missile from my rocket launcher. As far as the West is concerned, those are the events associated with the saying when something bad is about to happen. People of the West are terrified of the phrase…The phrase is to remind Muslims that God is supreme. That’s it. It was never to be used as a battle cry during horrendous actions furthering political agendas with evil motives. – Karim Shamsi-Basha


Final point…

After all is said, done, and written by myself and others, be they Muslim or otherwise, the truth of the matter is that this murderous idiot in New York and all the other zealot idiots can say what they like as it actually makes no difference in terms of body count. This cold harsh reality was pointed out by Nathan Lean, author of such books as The Islamophobia Industry and Understanding Islam And The West:

This sentiment was also shared by the aforementioned Wajahat Ali and Imam Omar Suleiman:

It’s easy to forget that language is often hijacked and weaponized by violent extremists. Some people yell “Allahu akbar” and others chant “heritage,” “culture” and “white pride.” The preferred slogans of a killer don’t make much difference to the people whose lives are lost or their loved ones, but they make all the difference in Americans’ collective understanding of a tragedy. – Wajahat Ali

We mustn’t allow terrorists or agendas of fear to own any of the words, concepts, or devotions found in the sacred text of a quarter of the world’s population. That would give them exactly what they want. And God is far greater than the ugliness committed in His name. “Allahu Akbar…” – Imam Omar Suleiman

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NEW YORK HIGHLIGHTS THE SAME OLD DOUBLE STANDARDS

Saipov Varvel

On Tuesday 31st October 2017 Sayfullo Saipov, a 29 year old immigrant who moved to the US legally from Uzbekistan in 2010, drove a Home Depot rental truck southbound into a pedestrian and bike path along the West Side Highway in Lower Manhattan in New York City, close to the Hudson River. He killed eight people and injured eleven in the deadliest terror attack on the city since 9/11. Six people died at the scene, while two others died at a nearby hospital. Five of the dead were friends from Argentina celebrating a graduation anniversary. An unnamed Belgian mother of two was also among the dead.

Saipov was shot in the abdomen by a New York City police officer at the scene, and was then taken in custody to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan. As he exited his truck he was heard to shout “Allah-hu-akbar”. He left a note in the truck, written in Arabic, that said the “Islamic State will endure forever.” As expected, ISIS are more than happy to take credit for this atrocity, calling Saipov a “soldier of the Caliphate.”

The truck driver started his rampage near Houston Street, tearing down approximately 20 city blocks on a bike path along the Hudson River, a site popular with cyclists and runners. The truck came to a stop after it collided with a school bus near Stuyvesant High School, near Chambers Street, the location of several schools which were letting out children for the Halloween evening. He then is said to have waved a pellet gun and a paintball gun in the air while pledging himself to Allah. It was at this point that he was shot by police. At least four passengers — two adults and two children — were on the school bus when the pickup driver slammed into it. The children were among the injured.

His sister, Umida Saipova, speaking with Radio Free Europe from her home in Uzbekistan, said her family had not noticed any signs of radicalisation in her older brother. She claimed they had a “normal” conversation with him the day before the attack, in which he said he was eating his mother’s favourite pastry, and was on his way to pick up a client at the airport (Saipov worked as an Uber driver). She went on to say: “We don’t know who has brainwashed him. We don’t know his circumstances. We don’t know. Perhaps he’s become part of some organised group. My mother said she would have brought him back to Uzbekistan had she noticed anything. I don’t know, honestly, how long it will take for his head to get rid of that poison, but I’m sure he will come to his senses, God willing.”

She also added: “We don’t think he should be given the death penalty immediately. We are hoping for a fair trial. We are ready to go there, if it’s possible, to talk to him. Please pass my message to Trump, if possible.” Good luck with that.

Whilst ISIS maybe losing real ground in the physical world, this attack in New York shows how it is gaining virtual ground in the digital world. Saipov was found to have about 90 videos and 3,800 images on his cell phone featuring ISIS propaganda, including a video of a beheading, shootings, bomb-making instructions and several images of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. He also wanted to hang the group’s flag in his hospital room after the attack. Again, good luck with that. He has also told prosecutors he was inspired to carry out the truck attack by watching these ISIS videos on his mobile phone.

An imam in Florida who knew Saipov was increasingly worried that he was misinterpreting Islam. “I used to tell him: ‘Hey, you are too much emotional. Read books more. Learn your religion first,’” said Abdul, the imam, who does not want his last name used because he fears reprisals. “He did not learn religion properly. That’s the main disease in the Muslim community. He had a character problem. He became more obsessed with the physical trappings of Islam: the long beard, the ankle-high pants. He never spoke of violence, though.”

As has become the norm with such atrocities, the talk of double standards rears its ugliest of heads. Below are just a few things I have come across that refer to the hypocrisies that arise in the media coverage of these types of events:


Moustafa Bayoumi

Writing in the Guardian, Moustafa Bayoumi, in an article entitled We Must End The Terror Double Standards, talks of the misguided logic used by some when analysing attacks carried out by Muslims:

The White House is also pushing a position of collective guilt that will only bode ill for Muslims and foreigners and is completely unlike its reaction from just weeks ago. The Las Vegas shooting prompted the White House spokeswoman, Sarah Sanders, to say that since “there is an ongoing law enforcement investigation” then “it would be premature for us to discuss policy when we don’t know all of the facts.” And yet, here again, a gross double-standard stares us squarely in the face, as Donald Trump exhibits no such restraint when it comes to this attack. “I have just ordered Homeland Security to step up our already Extreme Vetting Program,” the president tweeted last night. He is now also targeting the Diversity Visa Lottery, a system established in 1990 with the laudable goal of expanding the pool of immigrants that are admitted into the country. In their rush to connect this attack to international terrorism, journalists and politicians are missing a key fact. It takes no special training to run people over with a vehicle. You don’t need to be a dangerous foreigner to buy fake weapons like a paint gun or a pellet gun. Anyone can shout “Allahu Akbar”. It’s easy to say you claim allegiance to ISIS. – Moustafa Bayoumi, 01 Nov 2017

He goes on to say:

In American culture today, terrorist attacks by Muslims are still reflexively seen as the expression of a problem shared by all Muslims worldwide, hence the kneejerk demands that Muslims everywhere denounce all attacks by individual Muslims anywhere. Terrorist attacks by white Americans, by contrast, continue to be seen as individual psychological puzzles that are begging to be solved with sympathy and care. This logic is as dangerous as it is misguided, since it feeds the notion that Muslims, who are nearly a quarter of the world’s population, are a unique threat who require their own special set of security measures. To adopt such measures would be to abandon the very principles of equality that our society is supposed to hold dear. – Moustafa Bayoumi, 01 Nov 2017


Stephen Colbert

Late night talk show host Stephen Colbert commented on how President Tweets-A-Lot reacted to the incident. Colbert tweeted himself that “The terrorist attack in the Big Apple is quickly politicized by the Big Orange.” Very clever word play, I am sure you will agree. In his talk show he went a little further:


Trevor Noah

On a recent episode of The Daily Show, Trevor Noah also made some rather poignant remarks about how Trump has reacted to the New York city attack.


Mr Fish

The always controversial cartoonist Mr Fish makes an indirect point about the attention these killings are receiving as opposed to others in America.

Saipov Ourselves


Wajahat Ali

In a brilliant article that is well worth reading in full, Wajahat Ali made the point that we need to reclaim the phrase uttered by Saipov as he was shot:

It’s easy to forget that language is often hijacked and weaponized by violent extremists. Some people yell “Allahu akbar” and others chant “heritage,” “culture” and “white pride.” The preferred slogans of a killer don’t make much difference to the people whose lives are lost or their loved ones, but they make all the difference in Americans’ collective understanding of a tragedy…If only the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico, leaving American citizens in desperate need of power, food or water, could have yelled, “Allahu akbar,” triggering that kind of tough response. Perhaps our president would have been able to see the storm as evil. Perhaps he would have been energized by a “them versus us” rage to insist on swift action to repair the damage. – Wajahat Ali, 01 Nov 2017, nytimes.com, from an article entitled I Want ‘Allahu Akbar’ Back