The Abuse of “Takbir” from Ballot Boxes To Woolwich

For many non-Muslims, “Allahu Akbar,” or God is Great has become synonymous with radicalism, brutal murders, rape, and even cannibalism committed in the name of Islam. It is hardly surprising, as the Islamic slogan has been repeatedly used and abused by anyone who wants to justify his or her crimes by adding the wrap of Islamic religiosity. A recent example of such glaring abuse in the name of God was the appalling crime in Woolwich, in which two criminals brutally attacked a soldier, beheading him and mutilating his body. Eyewitnesses reported how the perpetrators chanted, “Allahu Akbar” while committing their sick murder.

The crime in Woolwich, like many previous terrorist acts, ignited debate about Islam and extremism. Of particular interest has been whether radicalism is linked to the exploitation of Muslims’ grievances or ideological and theological interpretations of Islam. In fact, it has nothing to do with either. As Jamie Bartlett explains, many young al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone, but also by the glorification of violence, precisely why more attention should be paid to the concept of Takbir.

Historically and over the last few decades in contemporary usage, there has been a slow and subtle evolution in the use of “Allahu Akbar.” This shift sheds some light on the current “free for all” use of this slogan.

Allah for beauty

It may be a revelation for some, but until the 1970s, “Allahu Akbar” was used within the Muslim society mainly in the call for prayers and religious ceremonies. The wider public in the Muslim world used the word Allah to praise natural beauty. The term “Allah Akbar” was a step further and used during special occasions such as weddings, graduations, and birth. It was used as an expression of awe, reverence, or deep appreciation of God’s creation, and to invoke God’s blessing for these special events. Old black and white Egyptian movies are full of endless examples of such behaviors that reflect the depth of religiously and appreciation of the Almighty in Islamic tradition.

The rise of Takbir

The social, economic, and political changes in various Arab and Muslim societies, particularly with the rise of political Islam, have taken the use of “Allah Akbar” to a different and new meaning. Now, the word “Takbir” is a prompt used to trigger Muslims to chant “Allah Akbar,” and has become a routine at Islamist gatherings. This is the case for benign charity events to more sinister radical group meetings. For each, a man usually stands in the crowd with a special designated job to prompt others to chant “Allah Akbar.” Prompting the crowd to chant Islamic slogans has become a deliberate and devious policy by Islamist groups and parties to fog the relationship between Islam and politics, and to cast an air of legitimacy to their goals.

Takbir as a distress call

The Arab awakening has added a new shade to the politics of Takbir. On the one hand, it pushed various Islamist parties into the public arena. They all use Takbir and other religious slogans, yet they vary politically and religiously (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafi parties). On the other hand, the ruthlessness of the fight in countries such as Syria has been reflected in an endless scream for God’s help. There are few videos emerging from Syria without the word Takbir in its content. Takbir has become a sign of distress and despair, rather than a sign of religious or political affiliation. The stunning destruction of cities, town, and villages has made Takbir a desperate call for help.

Takbir and wartime

In addition to its use in peacetime within the Muslim society, it is important to acknowledge that “Allah Akbar” was used in both medieval and contemporary battlefields, when Muslims were fighting foreign armies, mainly to create a sense of belonging, unity, and to evoke morals. It is also important, however, to understand that even in medieval times, these chants were organized, rationed by leaders, and were not allowed to overwhelm the scene or to exploit enemies. The manners and conducts of Saladin in fighting the crusaders was just one example.

This attitude has changed recently, particularly after the rise of none-state players, and radical groups. Radicalism, which is by definition an extremist act, has indulged in abusing the words “Allah Akbar” to justify murderous criminal acts. By creating a state of war as a permanent mindset and continuously feeding this mindset thru endless chants of God is Great, radicals exploit weak and insecure youth for criminal purposes within civilian communities. Invoking God has become the heroin of radical Islamists, numbing their moral codes and allowing them to authorize and legalize all forms of atrocities.

The shift in the use of Takbir from the vocabulary of beauty to the vocabulary of blood has, unfortunately, linked Muslims to gory crimes, as the one in Woolwich. For decades, many Muslims have failed to calibrate their religious barometer, and tolerated the hijacking of God’s name under various pretexts. While any anti-Islamic gestures have prompted overly irrational reactions, many Muslims have failed to see that the use of Takbir in election campaigns or civil war is far more blasphemous than a cheap video or cartoon that insults the prophet Mohamed.  Surely, God is not just “Great” because X has won a parliamentary or presidential seat, or because Y has donated some money to an Islamic charity, or even because a rival in a civil war has lost a tank or an aircraft. Such cheap and cheesy uses of God’s name—despite their good intentions—has led to a cumulative heritage that is eventually abused by radicals to glorify despicable crimes. In other words, political Islam did not invent criminality, but it initiated a slippery slope that eventually led to criminality.

Not much good comes out of horrific crimes such as the one in Woolwich, yet the graphic video that later emerged serves as another reminder to many devout Muslims of the glaring abuse of their religion, and has led the Muslim community in Britain to stand firmly against this abhorrent act. Meanwhile, in the Arab world, many Muslims continue to fight hard against radical Islamism to reclaim Islam from hijackers who use and abuse their religion for a wide range of purposes, ranging from winning elections to violent crimes.


This piece also published in  Daily News Egypt, and also translated to French

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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14 Responses to The Abuse of “Takbir” from Ballot Boxes To Woolwich

  1. Lalit Ambardar says:

    Well analysed menace of propensity to use religion for ulterior motives.Religion ought to take humanity forward but here is a zealously followed agenda to use it to resurrect medievalism across globe via terror & barbarity. Beautiful expression in praise of God is contextually universal across faiths,only linguistics vary.

    India’s only ethnic cleansing i.e of aboriginal Kashmiri Hindus by Kashmiri Jihadists was executed ironically in the backdrop of holy ‘takbir’ & regressive rantings like ‘what will prevail in Kashmir-nizam-e-mustafa’ ; we want Pakistan in Kashmir along with the Hindu women (meaning local Kashmiri) & without their men……… 😦


  2. nervana111 says:

    Many thanks Lalit. Truly appreciate your feedback.


  3. I too heard the casual use of Allah o Akbar as a response to a beautiful scene etc in Arab countries, but keep in mind that many Muslims are not Arabs. In Pakistan (and India, BD), Allah o Akbar was definitely used as a rallying cry for mobs, soldiers, political groups etc long before the 1970s….and rarely used as a way to appreciate something beautiful.


  4. mej says:

    I think that these mental patients are referring to Allah , the moon God in allla hu Akbar


  5. So you are suggesting that there has been a general shift in the use of the term ‘allahu akbar’ ?When I lived in the Middle East, ‘allahu akbar’ was used quite casually in conversations, even by people whom religion did not play a major role, just like ‘insha-allah’. It is just something that Muslims use, even terrorists unfortunately, but I do not think that there has any general turn in its meaning to something ‘radical’. Muslims ignore it primarily because it is so casually used in present times.


    • nervana111 says:

      With respect, I strongly disagree, There was a clear shift associated with the rise of political Islam. Non- Islamist Muslims have continued to use Takbir in a casual way, however, Islamists have started to use it in an organised manner. I attended several charity events, when organisers asked the crowd to perform Takbir after each donation. If you join Sheik Hassan Famous Salafi cleric) preaching sessions, Takbir is integral part of it.
      What you witnessed is non- Islamist casual Takbir. There is another side of the story.


  6. nedhamson says:

    Reblogged this on Ned Hamson Second Line View of the News and commented:
    Must read to understand


  7. Islam, like other religions has always had its ugly and violent side, growing up sheltered from that violence doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. I have no doubt that Saladin victorious forces were using Takbir as they slaughtered the Shiaa of Cairo, well before the stories of honor and courage of the wars against the Crussades.


  8. sameh says:

    I agree with politicwatcher!!!


  9. Moe says:

    You are missing the essence of “God is Great” it has to do with God being greater than man. Islam emphasizes how man is temporal and all achievements and oppression will not favor him at all. Death is remembered because it reminds us we are dust and God is ever living. “God is Greater” is the actual context of the phrase and we see it means no matter how tyrannical opposition we face, we rely on God alone. It has to do with monotheism and is intimately related to many stories in the Quran and Islamic tradition of speaking truth to power, of Joseph, or Moses, of the Boy and the king, of the people of the ditch, of the persecution of the early Muslims and their eventual triumph and their forgiving of their enemies. When death and evil befell them they didn’t lose their faith. That’s why we say Allahuakbar when we see some atrocity reminding ourselves that there will be justice for the perpetrators, a sign of faith in Divine Justice to come or in the heat of battle giving thanks for victory.


  10. What has affected “Allahu Akbar” as an expression, has affected many terminologies. The word Islam for instance, hijab, sharia…
    It is about how people label the term according to their perception, prejudice, and at times, shallow understanding.
    As Arabs and Muslims, we well know its religious connotation, status, and spiritual meaning. The real abuse happens when we start believing in the stereotype too, and act accordingly.

    Now, can we talk about how to proudly sustain our identity as Muslims, how to be creative in establishing the true message of Islam,to Muslims and non Muslims ; and how to develop the skills of voicing our own beliefs and views without the influence of “the others” ??


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