First, they came for “jihad.”
Then they took “Sharia.”
But, by God, they’re not getting “Allahu akbar.”
That’s the feeling behind a flurry of writings by US Muslims snatching back their most repeated of exaltations — “God is greatest” — from Islamist extremists and Muslim-bashers who’ve twisted it for their own purposes.
The outpouring to reclaim the phrase was prompted by the deadly attack in New York City in which authorities said the suspect, an Uzbek national, shouted, “Allahu akbar,” after rampaging down a bike trail in a truck. Within hours, the Arabic words appeared in national headlines, splayed most prominently on conservative sites with a clear anti-Islam bias.
And, just as quickly, Muslims rushed to defend the phrase in tweets, blog posts, and essays. This certainly wasn’t the first time Muslims have issued reminders about the many contexts for “Allahu akbar,” but the force of the response reflects the urgency of defending Islam at this moment, as it’s exploited by extremists on one side and bigots on another. There are widespread fears that one major attack is all it would take for the Trump administration to come up with a collective punishment for the nation’s 3.3 million Muslims.
Indeed, President Donald Trump condemned the New York attack, called the suspect an “animal,” and urged the death penalty for him, all while the investigation was ongoing. Trump offers no such hang-'em-high posturing when the suspects are white extremists or non-Muslim shooters.
Muslim writers noted that discrepancy, a phenomenon that lawyer Arsalan Iftikhar called “the Allahu akbar double standard of terrorism.” Dallas-based Muslim cleric Omar Suleiman, writing on CNN.com, warned against allowing “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.”
Others pointed out that the majority of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims invoke “Allahu akbar” in nonviolent, celebratory ways, such as at the birth of a baby or upon passing an exam. In a New York Times op-ed, “I Want Allahu Akbar Back,” the writer Wajahat Ali said he’d recently used “Allahu akbar” more than 100 times, including while tasting a delicious kebab.
CNN’s Jake Tapper got caught up in the “Allahu akbar” debate, saying on air that it could be used “under the most beautiful of circumstances, and too often we hear it being said in moments like this,” referring to the New York attack. Fox News and DailyCaller.com suggested Tapper was praising the beauty of “Allah akbar,” but later walked back the implications. Still, anti-Muslim viewers, including former senior White House aide Sebastian Gorka, persisted in misquoting Tapper, while Muslims rushed to defend Tapper’s statements as accurate.
“It’s always a good thing when people are speaking up, but it’s not going to make a difference unless others are willing to listen. It’s a two-way street,” said Heraa Hashmi, a junior at the University of Colorado Boulder who’s behind the list “Muslims Condemning Things,” a tweet-turned-website that went viral last year. She compiled the 712-page list after a classmate asked why Muslims don’t reject terrorism.
Ordinary Muslims shouldn’t be expected to condemn attacks that have nothing to do with them, Hashmi said, but many still do, feeling obligated to mark a clear line between the world’s Muslims and Islam’s extremist fringe. Similarly, she said, Muslims shouldn’t have to teach the subtleties of “Allahu akbar,” but they do. The suspect shouted it after causing death, Hashmi said, while she and other Muslims said it while praying for the victims.
But discussing “Allahu akbar” solely in a security context is misleading about how and when it crops up in everyday Muslim life, Hashmi lamented. When asked the last time she used it, she responded without hesitation.
“I found free parking on campus today, so I was like, ‘Allahu akbar,’” she said with a laugh.
The confusion over “Allahu akbar” starts with translating it from Arabic: Is God great, greater, or the greatest?
“From a Muslim point of view, it’s ‘the greatest.’ From the linguistic point of view, it’s ‘greater,’ a comparative degree,” said Aman Attieh, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Arabic.
News organizations use various translations, as do commentators and Muslims themselves, typically without drawing distinctions between the literal translation and the spirit of the phrase. Though it doesn’t appear in the Qur’an, “Allahu akbar” is an integral part of prayers and worship. And like other hotly debated terms in Islam (think “jihad”), there are many ways to use it, dating back to the early days of Islam.
Suleiman, the Dallas-based cleric, cited the example of the birth and death of Abdullah Ibn Az Zubayr, the first child born among Muslims who’d migrated to Medina from Mecca to flee persecution. When Abdullah was born, Suleiman recounted in his essay for CNN, his grandfather “carried him through the streets as the crowd happily chanted, ‘Allahu akbar.’” Later, when Abdullah was slain by another group of Muslims, the murderers also chanted the phrase.
“While those who killed Abdullah used the same words as those who celebrated his birth, only one group truly honored the greatness of God,” Suleiman wrote.
After 9/11, the FBI released a handwritten letter found in hijacker Mohamed Atta’s suitcase that urged attackers to shout “Allahu akbar” because “this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” Records show several other assailants using it, among them the Fort Hood shooter, the Times Square bomber, the Paris Bataclan attackers, and the Charlie Hebdo gunmen.
As lopsided as it is — a handful of attackers versus millions of Muslims who use it daily in prayers — the negative connotation of “Allahu akbar” is the one that’s stuck in public opinion. In the popular conscience, “Allahu akbar” means an attack is about to go down.
On Urban Dictionary, a typical definition offered by users is “Run the fuck away!” There’s a genre of videos on YouTube in which pranksters dressed in Saudi-style clothing walk up to an unsuspecting passerby, drop a black bag at their feet, and shout “Allahu akbar!” Every time, the victims scream and run for their lives.
In August, the mayor of Venice made international headlines when he said that anyone who shouts “Allahu akbar” while running through the city's famous St. Mark's Square “can expect to be gunned down by snipers within four paces.” That kind of story is applauded in right-wing circles as taking a stand against a faith they believe to be inherently violent.
A piece last month in the right-wing online magazine FrontPage began like this: “They say that all the good things in life begin with chocolate. And all the bad things in life begin with Allahu akbar.”
Such rhetoric swelled after the New York attack, with conservative luminaries such as Michelle Malkin mocking “Aloha Snackbar” in a commentary titled, “Allahu Akbar-it is: America’s Deadly and Debilitating Disease.”
The linking of “Allahu akbar” with doom is enshrined in pop culture by now. In movies and TV shows, the sound of the Islamic call to prayer, which begins with “Allahu akbar,” is used to set the scene of an exotic, vaguely dangerous place. Actors playing terrorists routinely shout it in attack scenes. In a 2015 interview, the actor and former Daily Show regular Aasif Mandvi told me, only half-jokingly, that he’d yell “Allahu akbar” from the stage if he ever won an Emmy — it works for both gratitude and shock value.
Perhaps the only corner of US pop culture where “Allahu akbar” is not automatically negative is hip-hop. Ali Elabbady, a Minneapolis-based DJ and music critic also known as Egypto Knuckles, rattled off several positive or neutral uses of “Allahu akbar” by rappers dating back decades, from Public Enemy to Kanye West.
A Wu Tang Clan track includes the line, “I’m the best of mankind / Allahu akbar / straight jewels and real stars.” Brother Ali raps, “My heroes brought me on tour / I said Allahu akbar.” An old Brand Nubian song is titled, “Allah U Akbar.” Many of the rappers who use the phrase aren’t Muslim but seem drawn to Islam’s ideas about the infinite greatness of the creator.
“The reason why the phrase resonates with so many rappers is that it reinforces their spiritual core of beliefs, that they are at the prevalent position they’re in due to God’s divine intervention,” Elabbady said.
That’s probably not the explanation, however, for the use of “Allahu akbar” by Arab Trappers, members of an online collective that mixes Middle Eastern sounds with EDM trap beats.
Their identities are unclear and they call themselves “a provocative parody,” but their posts include references typically used by Muslims. Songs on their YouTube channel, which boasts more than 54,000 subscribers, feature “Allahu akbar” interspersed with screams, the ticking of a bomb, and the click of a gun being cocked. The accompanying videos show a logo that looks like a militant group’s flag over images of airstrikes and mushroom clouds, as if the artists are trying to turn the “danger” associated with “Allahu akbar” into street cred.
The beats might be bangin’, but it’s safe to say many US Muslims would watch the videos and think: Dude, you’re not helping.
The film and TV projects Sue Obeidi reviews as a Muslim consultant to Hollywood are typically related to terrorism or national security and almost always include a character saying, “Allahu akbar.”
It’s so prevalent, Obeidi said, that she keeps a boilerplate note — on its history and various ways it’s used — to drop into the scripts that pass her desk at the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood bureau, which advises the entertainment industry on how to tell more nuanced and inclusive stories about Islam and Muslims.
“Oh, God, here we go again. Roll the eyes,” Obeidi said, describing her reaction when she sees a gratuitous “Allahu akbar” in a script. “Literally, we have the note saved and the only thing we change is the characters’ names. Cut and paste.”
On the plus side, Obeidi said, film and TV producers are the ones coming to the Muslim consultants, proactively seeking cultural and religious guidance because they know their own power to shape how an entire population is viewed. The more awareness there is about the demonization of Islam, she said, the more she hears from producers who want to tell accurate stories without playing into anti-Muslim tropes.
Sometimes, Obeidi said, producers hand over 10 scripts at a time, an entire season, for review. (She’s barred from naming the shows because of confidentiality agreements.) She listed the usual places she finds “Allahu akbar": “before a violent attack, a head chopping, an explosion.”
Obeidi said her bureau acknowledges how often “Allahu akbar” is spoken by militants, which she called “a perversion” that infuriates her. But she’s concerned that reinforcing the link to violence in show after show effectively hands ownership of the phrase to extremists.
“It’s reality and it begs that old question: Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?” Obeidi said. “We’re not ignorant of the fact that it’s used in that way.”
Muslim consultants use various tactics in negotiating over “Allahu akbar” in relation to violence. First, they simply ask the writers to remove it in the name of reducing anti-Muslim hostility. If it’s kept in, Obeidi said, consultants ask that writers work it into another part of the show in a positive context. And if all else fails, she said, they just try to reduce the frequency: “OK, you used it 16 times in this episode, could we cut that in half?”
It’s laborious, sometimes contentious work, but Obeidi said it’s vital to the overall image of Islam to mount a strong defense for “Allahu akbar.”
“The most beautiful phrase has become a derogatory term,” she said, “and it’s the responsibility of Muslims to work with storytellers to change it.” ●
Hannah Allam is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Hannah Allam at email@example.com.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.