Allahu Akbar! An Everyday Phrase, Tarnished by Attacks


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 Allahu Akbar! An Everyday Phrase, Tarnished by Attacks

Gathering for prayer at a mosque in Doha, Qatar.

When H. A. Hellyer is out walking with his family, strangers sometimes approach him and declare, “Allahu akbar!”

Many Westerners may find it hard to believe these days, but Mr. Hellyer does not recoil in fear.

“Ill be walking out with my kids,” he said, “and someone will say: Oh, theyre so cute. Allahu akbar. And Ill joke: Thank you — now stop talking to my kids.”

The Arabic phrase, which means simply “God is great,” has, it sometimes seems, become intertwined with terrorism.

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The driver of a truck that mowed down 20 people on a Manhattan bike path on Tuesday was said to have cried out “Allahu akbar” before he was shot by a police officer. The men who carried out the attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015 shouted it during their onslaught. And the phrase rang through the air as a British soldier was run down near a military barracks in 2013 and then hacked to death.

But for Mr. Hellyer and other Muslims, Allahu akbar is so commonplace a saying as to be utterly unworthy of note. “Its quite an innocuous expression,” he said.

Its origin is explicitly religious. It is said in the call to prayer that is heard five times day, and in the prayers that follow.

But it is heard far from the mosque, too.

“Something good will happen and people will say, Congratulations — and they will proclaim Gods greatness as a way of recognizing what they see as the divine blessing,” said Mr. Hellyer, a scholar of religion and politics at the Atlantic Council who lives in London.

Its use can be even less divinely inspired.

“Lets say your football team is mounting an attack,” said Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian author. “You can say Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar, Allahu akbar,” and youre pushing them along, like, “Go for it, go for it, go for it.”

Even more prosaically, Ms. Soueif said, “You see a really beautiful woman or a good-looking guy, you go, Allahu akbar.”

But the phrase — to many Muslims distress — has also been seized on by jihadists who claim that Islam justifies their attacks on innocent civilians in the name of God.

And in tense times, language itself can become a barrier.

 Last year, for example, a Berkeley student was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after a fellow passenger heard him on the phone telling his uncle he would call him when they landed, “inshallah.” The phrase means “God willing” and — as in the West — is widely used in conversation.

And in 1999, when an EgyptAir jetliner inexplicably plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, American investigators concluded that it had been downed intentionally because the voice recorder captured a crew member saying, “Tawakilt ala Allah” — “I put my trust in God.”

To the investigators ears, the phrase suggested ill intent. But to many Muslims, it was simply a man accepting his fate.

Still, when it comes to Allahu akbar, there is no denying that what it means can depend on who is saying it.

Ms. Soueif pointed to the reported use of the phrase by the suspect in the Manhattan attacks. Mr. Hellyer suggested, though, that in the end, it had little real meaning.

“People may read the headlines about the attack and say: Oh, he said, “Allahu akbar,” so that means something, ” he said. “Well, it probably means that he thinks it means something — but that shouldnt mean anyone who says Allahu akbar is suddenly about to do some violent act. Far from it.”

Mohamed Andeel, an Egyptian cartoonist and writer, wonders if it is worth trying to teach non-Muslims the real meaning of Allahu akbar.

“If you tell people not to be afraid of something,” he said, “they will basically learn to be afraid of something else.”

By: The New York Times

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