Militants attempted to hurl hand grenades over the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, Syria, on Tuesday. During the siege, the attackers cried “Allahu akbar!” or “God is great!” Last week, a group of Western tourists in Amman were gunned down by a man shouting the same phrase. When else do Muslims say “Allahu akbar?”
All the time. The phrase—which is called takbir—turns up again and again in religious contexts. For example, the call to prayer begins with four repetitions of “Allahu akbar.” Once you arrive at the mosque, “Allahu akbar” appears in the prayers as well. Muslims also say it after slaughtering an animal, and some whisper it (along with the rest of the call to prayer) into the ear of a newborn baby.
Muslims can use Allahu akbar to express general approval, or even as an exclamation of surprise. Sometimes crowds will shout the phrase as a form of applause, the way people might yell “Bravo!” at the end of a performance. The takbir often stands in for applause after a Quranic reading, since it would be inappropriate to cheer for someone who has merely recited God’s words. But the phrase might just as well be shouted out at a soccer match.
Allahu akbar isn’t appropriate for all occasions. A pious person wouldn’t say it in the bathroom, nor would he use it in an impure place like a garbage dump. He might also frown upon its use in jokes. (If you’d like to read a popular joke that includes “Allahu akbar,” click here.)
Although newspapers often translate the phrase as “God is great,” the proper translation is actually “God is greater.” The phrase implies that no matter what you’re doing, you should always remember that God is still greater. Muslims use the phrase “God is great”—substituting kabir (great) for akbar (greater)—in different situations. You might say it to console someone, for example, with the idea that God is great in his mercy or benevolence.
Militants on suicide missions often say “Allahu akbar” because they believe they are committing a righteous act and because it’s good form to die with praise for Allah on your lips. In some cases, a religious phrase uttered at a time of grave danger gets misinterpreted. In 1997, an Indonesian pilot shouted “Allahu akbar!” moments before his plane crashed, killing all 234 people on board. Some people thought he’d downed the plane on purpose; in fact, the accident was the result of bad instructions from the air traffic controller.
Bonus Explainer: Some say the takbir has even made its way off the planet. A widely circulated urban legend holds that a befuddled Neil Armstrong heard the words Allahu akbar and the call to prayer when he stepped onto the surface of the moon. He converted to Islam, the story goes, when he returned to Earth and discovered the source of the phrase. The myth of Armstrong’s conversion was so pervasive in the Muslim world that the U.S. State Department even issued a denial on the astronaut’s behalf.
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Explainer thanks R. Kevin Jaques and Zaineb Istrabadi of Indiana University.