‘Allahu Akbar’ – ‘Allah Is The Greatest’ – A Jihadi Battle Cry

By: Y. Carmon

This report will discuss jihadis’ use of the phrase Allahu akbar – meaning “Allah is the greatest” – as a battle cry during terror attacks. This subject has been discussed in previous MEMRI analyses, but there have been many attacks since carried out by jihadis in the West in which this battle cry was repeated. In two recent examples, an Islamist named Trevor Bickford shouted “Allahu akbar” as he lunged at New York Police Department officers with a machete on New Year’s Eve near Times Square, and a man who stabbed six people in a January 11, 2023 attack at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris also shouted the phrase during his attack. This report will provide more than three dozen additional examples from recent years of the use of the term as a jihadi battle cry (see Appendix below).

This article will also examine how and why this term is routinely mistranslated and misunderstood by Western media. This was illustrated very clearly after the October 31, 2017 attack in Manhattan by Sayfullo Saipov, who according to witnesses shouted Allahu akbar as he drove a truck into a crowd of cyclists and pedestrians in Manhattan, killing eight and injuring nearly a dozen. Minutes after the attack was reported, CNN’s Jake Tapper said: “The Arabic chant Allahu akbar, God is great – sometimes said under the most beautiful of circumstances and too often we hear of it being said at moments like this.”

The media’s usual rendering of Allahu akbar as “God is great” is misleading and omits the aspect of superiority in the word akbar (which means “greater” or “greatest,” not merely “great”) and blurs its specific reference to Allah – and not to any other entity or deity. Translating and understanding this phrase as merely “God is great” is not only wrong – it also strips it of its crucial aspect of Allah’s supremacy over all other entities and deities. This is why throughout the history of Islam, and to this day, Allahu akbar has been a battle cry shouted out during attacks, as demonstrated in modern-day Islamic terror attacks.

Indeed, jihadis themselves relate to the battle cry of Allahu akbar as the “Marseillaise of Arab conquests,” as the Muslims’ “nuclear bomb,” and as what the “communist East and the capitalist West fear the most,” and they believe that it guarantees victory just like it had in the times of the Prophet Muhammad.

Needless to say, when Allahu akbar is used, for example, by an Arab Christian priest, it is not a jihadi battle cry. But when it is uttered by a Muslim, it is always an assertion of Allah’s supremacy– either in a nonviolent context (such as prayer – indeed, Allahu akbar is repeated several times during the Islamic prayer ritual) or in a violent context.

Translating “Allahu Akbar”

Translating concepts from one language into another is a difficult endeavor. Translating concepts that have no equivalent in the target language is even harder. Translating religious concepts for a culture in which religion has ceased to play a central role in the life of the individual and in society is hardest of all.

Perhaps this is the reason why religious Islamic idioms representing concepts such as Allahu akbarla ilaha illa Allah, and istishhad are routinely mistranslated in the American media.

The American failure to understand religious concepts does not apply only to Islam. A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1993 between the authorities and fundamentalist Christian David Koresh, who had holed up at a remote complex outside Waco, Texas along with dozens of his followers, including women and children, and an arsenal of weaponry. Besieged by the authorities, who attempted to negotiate with him, Koresh recited Biblical prophecies about the End of Days. Trying to peacefully end the standoff, the authorities urged him, “Let’s not discuss religion now.” Koresh, immersed in his religious beliefs, could only reply, “But religion is life and death.” It was a “dialogue of the deaf,” doomed to end as it did, with the loss of many innocent lives.

The problem is not one of linguistic relativity – as comprehensively discussed in the last century by the renowned linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf – since there are ways to convey original meaning in a proper, brief explanation. Instead, it is about the tendency of the media to choose the easiest solution, that is, to translate to what will sound most familiar to readers, even if inaccurate.

The word istishhad (related to the term “to bear witness”) denotes a religious act of faith in which a believer strives to kill as many perceived enemies as he can, at the price of his own life, as a means of getting closer to Allah, the prophets, the righteous, and the shahid “martyrs” (see below) in Paradise. The goal of this act of faith, which is considered blessed, is to make Allah’s religion supreme on Earth, in what the perpetrator believes to be an imitation of the battles of early formative Islam of the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the four righteous caliphs. This term is often recklessly and inaccurately translated as “suicide,” which is an act motivated by personal desperation and is forbidden in Islam, and for which a different word – intihar – is reserved in Arabic.

This is also why Allahu akbar and la ilaha illa Allah – both statements of faith that embody the religious concept of the supremacy of Islam and of Allah – are mistranslated. First it was the struggle to establish the supremacy of the monotheistic Islam over the pagan idols of seventh-century Mecca. Then it was a struggle for supremacy over other religions, including monotheistic ones, in the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the expulsion of non-Muslims, as related in the compilation of hadiths on behalf of the Prophet Muhammad: “I shall take out the Jews and the Christians from the Peninsula” – a ban that is in force to this day against non-Muslim religious institutions. Later it was a struggle against other religious empires, such as the Persian and the Byzantine. However, the rendering of Allahu akbar in the U.S. media as “God is great” omits the aspect of superiority in the word akbar (which means “greater” or “greatest,” not merely “great”) and blurs the specific reference to Allah rather than to another deity. In the same vein, la illaha illa Allah is often translated in the U.S. media as “There is no god but God” (rather than “There is no god but Allah”). Omitting the supremacy of Allah over all other deities is a mistranslation, and moreover leads to a logical fallacy – reminiscent of Carrollian nonsense verses.

One of the reasons for such mistranslations is the fact that in the modern Western world the struggle for supremacy among religions has almost completely ceased, and to the extent that it still exists, it is nonviolent. Therefore, statements of religious faith that embody a continuing historical struggle for divine religious supremacy lack a modern religious/cultural conceptual basis through which to be understood in the West, and consequently lack a linguistic equivalent. The American media, facing the risk of not being understood in translating these Islamic concepts, prefer to provide an approximate translation, even though these are inherently misleading.

This is not to say that Allahu akbar is uttered only by jihadis continuing the age-old struggle for the supremacy of Islam and of Allah. Over the centuries it has come to be uttered by non-religious Muslims as well, and even by Christian Arabs. In many cases, it carries a variety of meanings – ranging from admiration for what is perceived as a wonderful act of Allah to an expression of shock and horror in the face of calamity.

A translation should always reflect the context, the speaker, and his intent. But what often happens in the U.S. media is that when Allahu akbar is said by a jihadi, it is translated as if said by a non-religious Muslim or a Christian Arab. This is utterly wrong. And when such mistranslations occur time and again, whether intentional or out of ignorance, it results in a profoundly apologetic misrepresentation of the concept, and its cultural and religious meaning.

So what could be the solution? One school of translation holds to keeping the original term, followed a brief explanation of its meaning, as, for example, the Japanese word kamikaze. In this case, this solution was so effective that the original word no longer required explanation. There is no reason why the same process should not occur with the word istishhad, which over time could become as well known and understood as kamikaze.

So what could be the solution? One school of translation holds to keeping the original term, followed a brief explanation of its meaning, as, for example, the Japanese word kamikaze. In this case, this solution was so effective that the original word no longer required explanation. There is no reason why the same process should not occur with the word istishhad, which over time could become as well known and understood as kamikaze.

The alternative is for the media to adopt a more professional approach, translating these terms in each case according to the specific context, speaker, and intended meaning, and not settling for an approximate but misleading term.

This is not to claim that MEMRI, in its 25 years of translating tens of thousands of pages of primary source material from the Arab and Muslim media, has not at times fallen for the temptation to prioritize being understood by a non-expert reader. Even in the field of transliteration, we have accepted incorrect transliterations because they were common in the media (for example, “Koran” instead of “Qur’an”). In many cases, we used the word “martyrdom operations” for “istishhad,” even though martyrdom is an inaccurate translation, since it is a Christian concept for an individual accepting death rather than forsaking his religious beliefs, while the Islamic concept of istishhad relates in modern times primarily to killing enemies at the price of one’s own life.

“Allahu Akbar” – An Expression Of The Supremacy Of Islam

The term Allahu akbar embodies the fight for the supremacy of Islam, Allah, and the true believers: past, present, and future; actual and symbolic; military, cultural, or by means of forces of nature controlled and directed by Allah. It is the battle cry and the anthem of this fight for supremacy. Victory for Muslims is victory for Islam and for monotheism, and it is Allah’s victory over false gods. Victory comes from Him and proves His supremacy. This was the main meaning of the term in the early centuries of Islam. Today it is a mark of Islamists and jihadis, as well as all others who wish to restore the ancient grandeur of Islamic empires, where “the crescent must always be on top of the cross,” as described by New York-based Muslim Brotherhood activist Ayat Oraby.

It is worth noting that Allahu kbar is uttered by both Sunni jihadis and the Shi’ite leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran (which was established as an “Islamic State” long before ISIS). In every major sermon delivered by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the crowd, comprising thousands and sometimes tens of thousands, regularly chants Allahu akbar together with “Death to America”, “Death to England”, and “Death to Israel.” (See, for example, MEMRI TV Clips 41545075, and 5011.)

Appendix – Examples Of The Use Of “Allahu Akbar”

Use As A Battle Cry During Terror Attacks – A Timeline

  • In September 2022, a Muslim man shouting “Allahu akbar” stabbed two British police officers in London.
  • In September 2022, a 200-strong mob chanting “Allahu Akbar” surrounded a Hindu temple in Birmingham; chants of Allahu akbar were heard.
  • In October 2020, a Muslim high school student in Paris shouted “Allahu akbar” as he beheaded his teacher, Samuel Paty, who had shown cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on free speech.
  • In November 2021, Fulani Muslims shouted “Allahu akbar” as they slaughtered 10 Christians, including several children, and burned down 100 homes in Nigeria.
  • In June 2020, Muslim rioters in Stuttgart, Germany chanted “Allahu akbar” as they attacked police with stones and bottles.
  • In March 2018, Yacine Mihoub stabbed to death 85-year-old French Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her apartment while shouting “Allahu akbar.”
  • In June 2017, a Canadian man, Amor R. Ftouhi, shouted “Allahu akbar” as he stabbed a U.S. police officer at Bishop Airport in Flint, Michigan.
  • In March 2011, a gunman shouted “Allahu akbar” as he gunned down two U.S. airmen in Germany.

From MEMRI Reports

In March 2015, MEMRI published a report titled “Jihadi Media Company Praises Tunisia Attack, Calls For More Attacks On Western Tourists,” in the aftermath of that month’s attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis in which 17 were killed. The article quotes the shooters: “‘How did you enter so easily,’ they asked in astonishment, and the two answered: ‘We come in the name of Allah.’ Then they began throwing grenades, crying ‘Allahu akbar,’ and shooting at infidels and at the policemen that guarded them, and the massacre began.”

In May 2003, an Al-Qaeda video about one of the group’s suicide bombings, in Riyadh that month, included an audio recording of the bombing itself. In the recording, the suicide bombers can be heard praying, and then, en route to carry out their attack, crying “Allahu akbar!” and “Allah, expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula!”

Read The Full Report


NYC: Muslim screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ brandishes BB gun, fires it into the air in Jewish neighborhood

France: Muslim migrant suspected of killing his wife threatens cops with a gun while screaming ‘Allahu akbar’

France: Muslim migrant screaming ‘Allahu akbar’ stabs six people at Paris train station

EDITORS NOTE: This MEMRI column is republished with permission. ©All rights reserved.

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