I’m deeply concerned about the treatment of Christian minorities in certain Islamic countries, and this interview mentions some of the reasons that engage my concern:
However, I badly need to correct one statement from the interview:
Allahu Akbar is Islam’s most original and distinct war cry, it is always shouted out when Islam scores a victory, most often, a military victory, such as, in this case, shooting missiles at a church. It literally means “my god [Allah] is greater” than your god (hence why shouted in the context of military victory). And hence why it is disgraceful for John McCain to compare it to Christians saying “thank God.” He elevates the war cry of Islam to the level of the evcharistia – the Greek word for “thanksgiving” — and thus implicitly equate the Holy Eucharist with 1,400 years of jihad against Christianity.
I’ll pass over the cheap shot of casually mentioning “shooting missiles at a church” as an example of an Islamic military victory. (I expect that the great Salah al-Din, victor over the Crusaders at the Horns of Hattin in 1187 AD, would have rounded up the cowards who fired those missiles at the church and executed them. He certainly wouldn’t have considered their act a great military triumph.)
No, I want to address something else in this passage.
Saying Allahu akbar (الله أكبر) – which, in Arabic, is called the takbir (تَكْبِير) — is, yes, an Islamic war cry. But it’s much, much more than that, and it’s used in many other circumstances. Furthermore, it doesn’t merely mean “Allah is greater (e.g., than your God).” In fact, I’m not sure that it ever means that at all. It’s typically translated as “God is greatest,” or “God is most great.”
Moreover, Allah is simply the Arabic equivalent of English God. Thus, saying Allah is greater [than your God] would scarcely work against Christians . . . for the simple but sufficient fact that the God of Arabic-speaking Christianity, the God referred to in the Arabic Bible, is also called Allah.
Saying Allahu akbar is required in each of the obligatory five daily salat prayers, as well as during whatever optional du‘a prayers a Muslim may offer up. The muezzin, who calls faithful Muslims to prayer five times a day from the minaret of a mosque, says Allahu akbar several times during each prescribed call. Devout Muslims also pronounce the takbir during important annual religious holy days.
It’s sometimes used as a kind of applause, when something has been particularly good. In that respect, as in others, it can indeed be an expression of thanks.
When a baby is born or a person has survived something that might have killed him or her — e.g., a disease or an accident — happy well-wishers will often say Allahu akbar, very much as a way of thanking God for a blessing. It can also be taken as a cry of amazement.
It’s used, sometimes, when somebody has achieved something very impressive, partly as a reminder to be humble before God and to acknowledge divine help in all human achievement. Humility before God is perhaps the central Islamic virtue — the word Islam itself means “submission [to God]” — and such humility is expressed in a multitude of ways, including the posture of salat prayer, in which the worshiper prostrates himself or herself and touches his or her head to the ground as a token of absolute submission to the divine will. (The verb “to prostrate oneself” is sajada, and the English word mosque is a badly corrupted form of the Arabic masjid, which means “place of prostration.”)
Examples of such humble submission are omnipresent in Arab and Islamic culture. When you’re asked how you’re doing, for instance, the proper response is al-hamdu li-llah (الحمد لله), or “praise be to God.” If you decide to provide more specific detail, you might reply “I’m well, al-hamdu li-llah.” But you would also, if appropriate, reply “I’ve been sick, al-hamdu li-llah.”
If you’re congratulated on something, you should humbly respond al-hamdu li-llah.
When you say that you’ll be at such and such a place at ten o’clock tomorrow, you should also say in sha’a Allah (إن شاء الله; “if God wills”). Not to do so is arrogance. (Compare the Epistle of James [4:13-15] , in the New Testament: “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’”)
At the mention of an appreciated event or a person, Muslims commonly say ما شاء الله (ma sha’a Allah, or “what God willed”).
Allahu akbar is often said when death is imminent, and perhaps this is the real point of its use in battle — not as a declaration of belligerent supremacy but as an expression of humble resignation to the will of God. Thus, for example, when a Garuda Airlines plane crashed in Indonesia in 1997, killing all aboard, the last words from the pilot, who had been speaking English until that point, were Allahu akbar!
Has the takbir become a feature of attacks by Islamic extremists? Yes. But that’s only one more by now redundant illustration of their mangling and misappropriation of mainstream Islam. There’s a long list.
I’m not a particular fan of John McCain. But his apparent equation of Allahu akbar with the Christian expression “Thank God!” is neither incorrect nor “disgraceful.”
And, while I’m at it, Mr. Ibrahim’s mention of “1400 years of jihad against Christianity” ought to be counterbalanced by recognition of such historical Christian events as the Inquisition (which was aimed, at least partially, against Andalusian Muslims), the Spanish Reconquista, the Crusades, the French mission civilisatrice in North Africa, and the Bosnian genocide against Muslims.