On a Saturday night not quite a month ago, I attended a concert at the Kennedy Center here in Washington with Omar, a close friend, a fellow-Muslim and a music lover who, halfway through the performance, did something that could have caused a panicked stampede out of the concert hall.
Omar, you see, was so moved by the sad, weeping sound of the violin — his favoured instrument — and by how it resonated with such sensuous purity, that he found himself, altogether involuntarily, declaiming, “Allahu akbar!” Happily, Omar simply yelped rather than yelled the two words — for had he done the latter it would’ve been tantamount to shouting fire in a crowded theatre. So unfamiliar with and so disquieted by Islamic common parlance are Americans and other people in the Western world today!
Muslims will tell you, clearly with modesty aside, that Allahu akbar may be the two most culturally and spiritually compelling words found in any language in the world — yet, in the West, they remain the least understood and the most pejorated.
Those, say in the English-speaking world, who take the trouble to look up the term in Merriam-Webster will be told that it is an “exclamation” that means “God is greater” and is “used by Muslims in prayer and as a general declaration of faith or thanksgiving”. To edify logophiles further, the dictionary offers an example of how it is employed in a sentence: “Crowds of people gathered, shouting Allahu akbar”.
Look, we know lexicographers are harmless drudges who mean no offence, but come now. Seriously. We’re adults. So time to set the record straight and tell it like it is. (Merriam-Webster: Tell it like it is, colloq., “”to say what the facts are”, “to speak about unpleasant things in an honest way.)
The great God
To interpret Allahu akbar as meaning “God is greater”, or alternatively as “God is great” and “God is the greatest”, provided by other dictionaries, is to interpret little.
To be sure, Allahu akbar does indeed translate into English, albeit literally, as “God is greater”. But the native speaker of that language is left in the dark. What does it mean? In what context, on what occasion and for what purpose does a Muslim invoke these two words? And, pray tell, why is the comparative adjective not telling us “greater” than whom and the superlative not telling us “the greatest” among whom?
Muslims know — and they know because they have a shared assumption of its implicit meaning. People in the West do not know.
For centuries, Muslims have turned to them to express the dialectic of virtually every human emotion they experience — from love and hate to joy and grief, and from hope and despair to honour and shame.
When my friend found himself spontaneously muttering Allahu akbar while listening to a musical composition at the Kennedy Center that moved him deeply, he was calling up words long encoded in his religious and cultural archetype and using them to say that, though the music he was hearing was imbued with great beauty, God is capable of creating “greater” beauty still — beauty accessible to those close to Him.
Even when a Muslim is, conversely, witness to cruelty perpetrated on innocent people that Muslim would still say Allahu akbar, that is, God has “greater” power than the zalem, or oppressor, who had perpetrated the crime and He will in time mete out appropriate punishment.
A spiritual outcry
In like manner, when Muslim go to war, soldiers break into a full-throated Allahu akbar, meant to affirm their belief that God, the Omnipotent, has “greater” power at his command than does their enemy — however dominant that enemy’s resources are — and with Him on their side, they would most assuredly emerge triumphant. Allahu akbar in this case becomes not a war cry but a spiritual outcry.
Countless other examples abound, even pedestrian ones in quotidian life (“Your kind is cute, Allahu akbar!”) that tell of how those two words never exhaust their intended meaning: There is unfolding logic, a revealed design, in His creation — one “greater” than man is capable of imagining.
Thus, Allahu akbar are two words that make up not so much a phrase as a metaphrase, one to which Muslims ascribe some mystery of autonomous being, as if it were a life-force all its own. And not only has this metaphrase avoided becoming worn, threadbare, filed-down, as often happens to phrases after centuries of use as a currency of semantic exchange in daily life, but it has become more woven into Muslims’ skin of consciousness than the skin of their own bodies — and so woven into the culture of the Arab world that a majority of Christians there are known to use it much in the manner as the fellow- Muslim Arabs do. (Palestinian Christians of the Greek Orthodox faith use it in liturgy.)
What is painful — ever so painful — is that the bad guys who hail from or who trace their roots to the Muslim world have appropriated those sacred words and hollered them, for everyone to hear, as they killed, maimed and destroyed. And what is even more painful still is that people in the West have, by a process of linguistic osmosis, as it were, internalised them as an expression connoting “Islamic terrorism”.
To translate from one language into another is to interpret one culture to another, given that language and culture are one, and if they are two, they are two sides of the same coin. To mistranslate is not just to mislead but also to impoverish and to harm.
Consider, in this regard, the havoc wrought on the Western intellectual tradition after the beginnings of the 1500s, when a number of basic words of the early Greek thinkers were sometimes mistranslated into Latin (then the lingua franca of Europeans), which led to keeping the thought of classic Greek philosophy obscure till the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th centuries.
With Allahu akbar being a term not responsive to translation into English, it should then be naturalised, much as have been thousands of Arabic words and phrases — stretching alphabetically all the way from adhan to zero — with native speakers interpreting it in accordance with own bent of mind, much as a musician would interpret a musical composition according to his.
I say that would be a great, perhaps a greater, even the greatest way to go about it. Wouldn’t you say?
Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile