In a millennium that was rung in by the destruction of the Twin Towers, where a night in the City of Love ended with the world blanketed in horrified silence, many flinch at the utterance of these words. With al-Qaeda and ISIS being only the most notorious instigators of Islam-linked acts of terror, it has become terrifyingly easy to do the same.
Perhaps “Allahu akbar” has become better-known as a battle cry, screamed seconds before a young man detonates the bomb strapped to his chest or fires a metallic staccato of bullets from an assault rifle. In this light, it becomes nearly impossible to compare it with words that are much more familiar to many of us, even though they are practically the same: “Glory to God in the highest,” and our many variations of it.
As words of praise, “Allahu akbar” is intended to be the last sentence spoken in a Muslim’s life. Considering the sheer volume with which it is screamed to the sky as another suicide bomber deems his life a worthy exchange for many more, be they enemy soldiers or his own countrymen, its now-unshakable connections to terrorism aren’t exactly far-fetched. Neither does that mean they are justified, however, nor is death the only context in which God — Allah, in this case — is revered.
“We would say it when someone converted to Islam, when a child is born or someone graduates or marries,” says Yasmeenah Mizori, a practicing Muslim. “We also use it when in distress, pain or sorrow. In instances like that, it’s to show to God and others that, yes, we’re very sad and hurt right now, but we still believe in God and our faith remains strong.”
In a post-9/11 world, the seeds of distrust for Islam have been deeply sown. Ask Ahmed Mohamed, a teenager who made headlines last year when his engineering project, a pencil-box clock, was mistaken for a bomb and earned Ahmed a stint in a juvenile holding facility. Here in the Philippines, a country with a sizable Muslim population — though it pales in comparison to our close neighbor Indonesia, which has the highest population of Muslims in the world — our primarily Catholic faith has caused friction to arise. Even before ISIS was making headlines as an international menace, our own country’s armed forces were locked in a seemingly endless cycle of violence with the Moro-Islamic Liberation Front.
It’s easy to view Catholicism as squeaky-clean, considering how many of us are active practitioners of the faith, but a major reason for that is that there are no Aztecs left to contest the point. Religion has been bloody business on many occasions, spreading a message of peace by way of steel. Nearly a thousand years before the terrorists of ISIS were blowing themselves up, Pope Urban II’s First Crusaders were rallying to the call of “Deus vult,” Latin for “God wills it.” If the medium truly is the message, as Marshall McLuhan suggested, then our delivery could do with some improvement.
Consider for a moment the ISIS flag; it certainly paints a grim picture, but behind the foreign letters, what does it really mean? The white text spread across the top translates to “There is no god but God; Muhammad is the messenger of God.” It is the Shahada, a creed of Muslim faith and another of the verses spoken upon conversion to Islam. Within the white circle is the seal of the prophet Muhammad, used in his correspondence to heads of state. By commandeering the public image of such sacred symbols, ISIS denigrates the very faith they so vehemently claim to defend. “The terrorists have claimed this phrase, a symbol of faith for a religion of peace. It is heartbreaking to me that people are killing in God’s name,” says a combat soldier serving in the Israeli army.
“If I’m in a public place, especially a busy one, and have no reason to think Muslims are praying in the vicinity, and hear ‘Allahu akbar,’ my heart will stop,” she added. “This fear has been redoubled since the onset of the recent intifada (Arabic for uprising or rebellion) that has already injured many of my friends.” Indeed, the perpetual push-pull of both defensive and offensive action against ISIS is reaching a fever pitch, especially in Middle Eastern countries where the group has both a geographic and ideological reach.
“All of this being said, I am terribly ashamed that a phrase of prayer that has so much positive meaning to so many people brings so much fear to me. I don’t want to be Islamophobic, but don’t know how to protect myself otherwise.” Being in such a position brings frustration and disappointment in abundance. Even worse is the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of others who have no choice but to feel and think the same way.
Whatever it started as at first, the conflict between the Islamic State and other terrorist groups and what is quickly becoming the rest of the world has evolved into more than a difference of ideology. It has forced us to untangle our own contradictions and weigh our words against our actions. Perhaps in doing so, when all is said and done, “Allahu akbar” will no longer herald death, fear and war, but faith and hope, as it has always meant.