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Reclaiming “Allahu Akbar” from Semantic Pejoration by Adam Hodges

Allāhu akbar, the Arabic phrase meaning “God is the greatest,” has gained connotations in US public discourse that differ vastly from its meaning among Muslims. Understanding this process may be the first step to reclaiming its positive connotationsI spent the four academic years from 2014 to 2018 living and teaching in Qatar, a Muslim-majority nation located on a peninsula the size of Connecticut that juts into the Persian Gulf north of Saudi Arabia. One of the things I enjoyed most about my time in Qatar was going for a walk around sunset as the evening call to prayer sounded from the minarets of the local mosques. In the dusty sky of the Arabian Desert, the sun would enlarge into a big orange ball that slowly eased over the western edge of the horizon. As soon as it disappeared, the melodious voice of the mu’athin—the person who recites the call to prayer—would begin.

Allāhu akbar. The phrase holds important religious significance for the nearly two billion Muslims worldwide. It is as ubiquitous in daily life for Muslims as amen or praise the Lord for Christians. The mu’athin sings a cappella through the loudspeaker affixed to the top of the minaret, lingering on each syllable of Allāhu—the u marks the nominative case of Allah (“God”). Not just anyone can become a mu’athin. This layperson typically possesses a gifted musical voice. He—and the public mu’athin is typically a man in conservative Islamic tradition—must also possess appropriate religious knowledge to lead the call to worship.

Soon, neighboring mosques would start their own athan (“call to prayer”). Allāhu akbar. The warm evening air of the Arabian Desert, now relieved of the direct heat of the sun, would fill with an a cappella round calling everyone within earshot to the nearest mosque—and every neighborhood has a mosque within walking distance. I am not Muslim, but I savored the numinous quality of this experience as I took my evening walks after busy days.

Due, in large part, to those experiences, I associate Allāhu akbar with beauty, peace, tranquility, gratitude, compassion, and divinity. But the phrase Allāhu akbar has undergone semantic pejoration in US public discourse where it has become associated with acts of terrorism.

In the New York City truck attack last October, news reports noted that the suspect “jumped out of his truck and ran up and down the highway waving a pellet gun and paintball gun and shouting ‘Allahu akbar.’” After the Orlando night club shooting in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted “Orlando killer shouted ‘Allah hu Akbar!’ as he slaughtered clubgoers.”

A quick search in the New York Times brings up no shortage of headlines featuring the phrase: “Man with 4-Foot Sword Shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ Outside Buckingham Palace, Police Say” (August 26, 2017); “Assailant at Israel Embassy in Turkey Shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’: Turkish Police” (September 21, 2016); “Police: Man Shouts ‘Allahu Akbar’ in Australian Knife Attack” (August 24, 2016); “FBI Investigates Attack; Suspect Shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’” (August 23, 2016); and “Man Yelling ‘Allahu Akbar!’ Wounds Two Belgian Police in Machete Attack” (August 6, 2016).

In US or European contexts, Allāhu akbar conspicuously occurs in reportage of terrorism events while remaining largely absent in reporting on the mundane discursive routines of non-Muslims and non-Arabic speakers. Repeating the phrase to characterize the terrorist affiliations of mass murderers imbues it with those negative associations. As Penny Eckert 2008  explains, “A word’s denotation can absorb connotations through association with aspects of the context in which it is used.” Allāhu akbar thereby comes to index terrorism in the minds of many Americans and Europeans due to the shear repetition of the phrase in the context of acts of terrorism.

”Allāhu akbar” holds important religious significance for the nearly two billion Muslims worldwide. It is as ubiquitous in daily life for Muslims as “amen” or “praise the Lord” for Christians.

Some might argue that terrorists who utter the phrase before committing violent acts are responsible for imbuing it with negative connotations. But that is only part of the equation. Terrorists’ use of the phrase represents but one violent context out of the hundreds of overwhelmingly positive contexts in which the phrase is uttered daily by Muslims. Instead, primary responsibility for the pejoration of Allāhu akbar lies with the singular focus in US public discourse on the phrase’s use by violent actors.

The pejoration of Allāhu akbar gains momentum through its usage in news headlines and reports of violence—a usage that mirrors the anti-Muslim sentiment promoted by exclusionary Trumpian policies like the Muslim ban. 

Efforts to reclaim Allāhu akbar require explicitly defining the phrase for non-Muslim or non-Arabic speaking audiences. To these ends, Ahsan M. Khan defines the phrase  in a letter to the Los Angeles Times as follows: “‘Allahu akbar’ is not a chant of violence or warfare. It is not a call to kill others in the name of Islam. To the contrary, it is a beautiful Arabic phrase that translates to ‘God is great.’”

Efforts to reclaim Allāhu akbar require displacing the overwhelmingly negative connotations in US public discourse by highlighting the phrase’s association with positive events from everyday life. Wajahat Ali emphasizes  in a New York Times op-ed piece that the phrase can be used “to express just the right kind of gratitude in any situation.” In her Los Angeles Times letter, Khan adds that Allāhu akbar “is meant to be recited when we hear good news” and enumerates several contexts in which it might be spoken:

I recited it at my wedding, when I got my first job and at the birth of my children. As a physician, I often say it when my patients get better from a treatment. I even recite it when my favorite sports team wins. And I said it upon hearing the news that New York police officers were able to prevent additional casualties by neutralizing the attacker swiftly [in the NYC truck attack last October].

For me, I say Allāhu akbar when I watch a spectacular sunset that represents all the beauty in this world.

Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & SocietyJournal of Linguistic AnthropologyLanguage & Communication, and Language in Society.


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