On Saturday, September 17, Dahir A. Adan, an Islamic State “solider,” according to an ISIS media outlet, stabbed nine people in a Minnesota mall. Adan shouted “Allahu Akbar” and “asked at least one person if they were Muslim before he attacked.” In June, ISIS supporter Omar Mateen shouted “Allah Akbar” during his shooting spree in Orlando, which left at least forty-nine people dead and many more injured.
Not only in the US, but also in Europe: On September 9 in southwestern Serbia, a man wounded police officers as he yelled “Allahu Akbar.” One month previous, on August 6, another man yelling the same phrase wounded two Belgian police in machete attack. This same Islamic phrase is repeated in a video during the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in 2015. Even in Australia, earlier this month Ihsas Khan stabbed a stranger as he shouted “Allah Akbar.”
Prior to the horrific terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the terrorists were instructed: “Shout, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ because this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.”
The incidents are numerous, and the phrase is one: “Allahu Akbar.” What does it really mean? Why is it so significant for those executing these attacks?
In Arabic, “Allahu Akbar” means “Allah is greater” or “Allah is the greatest.” The phrase reflects, for those who use it, that Allah is the greatest above all. He is the only true deity and no one else. Chanting “Allahu Akbar” is called an act of Takbīr, which indicates a proclamation of the belief in the supremacy of the deity.
In their ritual prayer, devout Muslims repeat the phrase four times. It is actually used in many different contexts, not only in attacks. In celebration or rejoicing, in lifting a heavy weight or walking up a flight of stairs, in experiencing a severe catastrophe or expressing frustration, and in many other incidents, a Muslim will say: “Allahu Akbar.” The phrase, in everyday life, reflects not only praise and worship to Allah, but also an acknowledgement of his power and affirming human submission to him as the Almighty One who has predestined everything.
In attacking others, yelling “Allahu Akbar” affirms that this act is being done for the sake of Allah, in submission to his commands, and for him to be glorified. This is to ensure that the act is being done for a pious religious cause, to which the divine reward of eternal paradise is expected (see, e.g., Qur’an 9:72; 16:41; and 29:45).
Applying “Allahu Akbar” before attacking has its roots in sacred Muslim texts, precisely in Muhammad’s Biography. The Muslim Prophet initiated a raid against the Jews living in Khaybar (a neighboring oasis ninety miles near his stronghold city Medina). To launch the attack, the Prophet proclaimed: “Allahu Akbar, Khaybar is destroyed,” prophesying the victory of the Muslims in taking the land and the hegemony of Islam.
For any devout believer, the utmost desire is to apply the Qur’an and to imitate Muhammad. When some apply the sacred texts in a literal manner, attacks such as these take place. Using the phrase “Allahu Akbar” is a proclamation for the attackers themselves: We are seeking Allah, and following his will, walking in the footsteps of our pious messenger.
While the phrase in its literary form in Arabic could reflect a good meaning, it turns out in the hands of religious zealous to be a lethal weapon used against innocents.
Ayman S. Ibrahim is postdoctoral fellow of Middle Eastern history at Haifa University and assistant professor of Islamic studies and senior fellow for the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.