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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