“Allahu akbar” is an Arabic phrase that translates to “God is greater.” In the wake of a deadly attack in New York on Tuesday, this inherently spiritual phrase is being used in a different context: to signify a link to political terrorism.
Eight people were killed and 12 others injured after a driver plowed through pedestrians and cyclists in lower Manhattan on Tuesday. The suspect, a 29-year-old Uzbek immigrant identified as Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, rammed into a school bus and exited the truck holding imitation firearms before being shot by police.
On Wednesday, federal prosecutors accused Saipov of plotting out a terror attack inspired by propaganda from the so-called Islamic State. Law enforcement officials also reported that witnesses at the scene claimed Saipov yelled out the phrase “Allahu akbar” during the attack.
This phrase has also reportedly been invoked during other terror attacks this year ― in Belgium, the United Kingdom, France, and Spain. As a result of the way it surfaces during these acts of violence, Allahu akbar has become something that provokes fear among those who are unfamiliar with or suspicious of Islam.
To hear a spiritual phrase that Muslims use in their everyday lives twisted in this violent way is incredibly frustrating, said Rabiah Ahmed, director of media and public affairs at the Muslim Public Affairs Council.
″[Allahu Akbar] has been used in traditional Muslim prayers for centuries and is used as a peaceful reminder of their religious commitment. They are also the opening words of the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) and is also often used in approval in the same way Christians say Amen,’” Ahmed told HuffPost.
“Its extremely painful and frustrating [to see it misused], and unfortunately, just another example of how our religion is co-opted by those those who act outside of it.”
A Phrase With A Profound Spiritual History
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.
It appears a few times in the Quran, but only mid-sentence, according to Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. The phrase is more explicit in the sunnah, a set of teachings about the way of life modeled by Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad.
Suleiman pointed in particular to a hadith ― one of the collected reports about the prophet ― where Muhammad is recorded as saying, “Allah is Greater, Mightier than all His creation. He is Mightier than what I fear and dread.”
“What it suggests is that God is greater than all our concerns, God is greater than all that is ascribed to him, greater than all the disappointments we have,” Suleiman said. “God is greater than our pain, God is greater than our material possessions.”
Allahu akbar is an affirmation of a belief in a monotheistic God, Suleiman said ― since it suggests that God has no partners. Belief in absolute monotheism is a core part of orthodox Islamic theology.
The phrase Allahu akbar is also used by non-Muslim Arab speakers, since “Allah” is the Arabic word for God. Some Christians from Syria, Lebanon, and other regions in the Levant, say Allahu akbar to express surprise, excitement, puzzlement or dismay ― in the same way that English speakers may use the phrase “Oh my God.” (It’s not a religious pronouncement for these Christians, however, and some Arab Christians, such as Egypt’s Copts, do not use it.)
From a theological point of view, the idea that God is greater than human circumstances is not limited to Islam. In English, one verse of the Bible declares, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
A popular Christian worship song by the band MercyMe is based on the verse. Another wildly popular Christian song, by the musician Chris Tomlin, states, “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.”
Nick Jonas has a symbol representing the words “God is greater than the highs and lows” tattooed on his arm.
Saying Allahu Akbar In Prayer, Joy And Sadness
For Muslims, the phrase Allahu akbar is built into the prayers that are one of the pillars of Islam. It begins the call to prayer, or “adhan.” It’s also used as a verbal transition between the different positions Muslims assume during prayer ― standing up, bowing, kneeling, prostrating on the ground.
“There’s something extremely powerful about saying Allahu akbar and then prostrating yourself, putting your face on the ground in supplication to our creator,” Suleiman said. “In Islam, the greatest position of prayer is prostration ― the more you lower yourself to God, the higher he elevates you.”
Outside of the context of formal prayer, Allahu akbar is also used by Muslims in moments of celebration, such as when someone passes a hard exam or is accepted into college. It is also said in times of sorrow ― such as when a dearly loved one passes away.
The phrase is often the first sound Muslims whisper into a baby’s ears at birth and one of the last sounds they hear during a burial, as a body is lowered into the grave.
Suleiman said that often during Islamic fundraisers, every time someone raises their hand to donate the whole audience will say Allahu akbar in celebration of the act of charity.
The phrase is so much a part of daily life that Qasim Rashid, a spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in America, estimates that he’s said it more than 1.6 million times over the course of his life ― just because of the five daily prayers.
“[Praying] five times a day, since I was about seven years old, it comes out to about 1.6 million times over the last 28 years or so,” Rashid told HuffPost. “That doesn’t include when I said Allahu akbar when my kids were born, or when I helped build a hospital, or Michael Jordan made the game winning shot in the NBA finals.”
“It’s part of our celebratory mode, and to believe that it could mean something violent is asinine,” he said.
The Consequences Of Misusing The Phrase
Despite the prevalence of this religious concept, Hind Makki, an interfaith educator and activist, told HuffPost said she feels that a stigma has become attached to the phrase in American culture ― particularly when it is said in Arabic.
“It’s one of those Arabic phrases that people who aren’t Muslim or aren’t really familiar with Islam treat with dread because they connect it to a crime,” she said.
“It’s frustrating because we have seen how many mass shootings and mass murders there have been recently and several of the suspects, I would assume have some kind of ideological bent,” she said, referring in particular to the Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, whose rampage in October left 58 people dead and hundreds more injured. “But because the person is not from a Muslim background, or didn’t yell Allahu akbar, people are like, ‘We don’t know why he did it.’”
Some Muslims have become wary of saying the phrase, or speaking in Arabic in general, while in public. The feeling of anxiety is felt heavily on planes, where some have reported being taken off flights for speaking in Arabic.
Rashid said that as a result of how the phrase is treated in America, he tries to use it as much as possible around his children.
“I don’t want them to feel intimidated. I feel young Muslims feel intimidated using words like jihad, or Allahu akbar, or even saying ‘assalamu alaikum’ [a common greeting] in public,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate side effect of what’s happening right now.”
Another side effect of misusing and misunderstanding Islamic phrases is that it leads to fears of a backlash against the Muslim community. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have increased dramatically since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Allahu akbar has been weaponized in the past by people whose intent is to harm Muslims. In Quebec City, Canada in January, it was reportedly yelled out by a suspect with far-right, white nationalist views during a deadly attack on a mosque community.
This summer, an Italian mayor threatened that anyone who shouts Allahu akbar in a main square in Venice would be immediately shot.
Ahmed, of MPAC, said she believes every terrorist act done in the name of Islam not only takes away innocent lives but also threatens the security of Americans who are Muslim.
“Because there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding about our faith and community, those who seek revenge for these attacks will usually direct their anger toward the first innocent Muslim they see on the streets, at school, and at public places,” she told HuffPost. “Since 9/11, this has been our reality. Whenever there is any terror incident done in our name, we mourn not only as Americans, but we mourn the hijacking of our faith and brace ourselves for potential backlash.”
That’s why Ahmed believes education about Islam is crucial. Instead of allowing the Islamic State to define what Allahu akbar means, she said it’s important to seek authentic, legitimate voices and interpretations of the phrase.
“When we allow [ISIS} to define Islam for the masses, we end up giving their twisted ideologies a platform and spread their hatred and fear,” Ahmed said. “The media and our government leaders have a lot of power in how it covers and responds to ISIS that can be harnessed to help achieve what we all want - the complete and utter defeat of ISIS and its ideology.”