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Reclaiming Allahu akbar

Women pray at theIslamic Center of Southern California
Women pray at theIslamic Center of Southern California
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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For Muslims all over the world, the Arabic phrase, "Allahu akbar," is very common, yet also special. It means "God is greater" or "God is greatest,” and it's said throughout the day for all different kinds of occasions. 

But for many people, the phrase is known because it's also been uttered in connection with terrorism, like last week's truck attack in New York city. 

Wajahat Ali is a playwright and a lawyer. He wrote an op-ed for the New York Times last week explaining his reverence for "Allahu akbar" and how he'd like its true meaning to be better understood. 

Wajahat Ali
Wajahat Ali

I say “Allahu akbar” out loud more than 100 times a day. Yesterday, I uttered it several times during my late-evening Isha prayer. Earlier, during dinner, I said it with my mouth full after biting into my succulent halal chicken kebab. In the afternoon, I dropped it in a conference room at the State Department, where I’d been invited to address a packed room of government employees about the power of storytelling. Specifically, I expressed my continuing gratitude for the election of Barack Obama, whom, in a joking nod to the Islamophobic paranoia that surrounded him, I called “our first Muslim American president,” adding “Allahu akbar!”

People in the crowd laughed and applauded, the world continued to spin, no one had an aneurysm, and only a few people seemed to wonder with arched, Sarah Sanders-like eyebrows, “Wait, is he ...?” 

When we spoke to him, he began by telling us what the phrase means for him personally. 

...It's a very common form of expressing gratitude in the vernacular ... you know I joked, but I was very serious (in the article) that if I see a tasty meal I go, Allahu akbar. If my kids sleep before midnight, because they're insane, Allahu akbar ... it's such a benign common phrase that is used by Muslims all across the world, when you see it being hijacked by a tiny fraction of a percent for violent extremism ... and you see that as the only understanding, it really pains the heart. 

But like many things dealing with religion and culture, a misunderstood phrase is only part of a larger issue ... which Ali believes might be a attributable to a lack of knowledge and understanding of what Islam is all about.

In the absence of truly understanding and really knowing about Islam and Muslims, the only narrative that has been shoveled to the overwhelming majority of the public is terrorism, violence and national security threat. So in the absence of 1.7 billion narratives that define Muslim experiences all around the world ... do you blame people? Of course not ... 

But when we asked him what could be done to actually "reclaim" the phrase, he had this to say. 

Muslims don't need to reclaim it, because we already know what it is, but the way to reclaim it in the Western space and the American space is you need more education and awareness. Muslims have been in American for 400 years, but studies show that 60 to 65% of Americans say they don't know a Muslim ... so you have to reach across the aisle, do a little work, other minorities know this as well. You know when you're not welcomed, you have to be extra welcoming, you have to do a little bit more work, but it's worth it. 

Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and the author of the recent New York Times op-ed,  "I Want ‘Allahu Akbar’ Back."

(click on the blue arrow to hear the entire interview)