Early reports indicated that the man shot by police in Paris Thursday yelled “Allahu akbar” as he carried a knife and wore a fake suicide belt. The Arabic phrase — a praise of God — has become a routine cry of Muslim extremists before carrying out their violent attacks. Some right-wing analysts have even called the phrase a Muslim “war-cry.”
But the phrase is commonly used by Muslims worldwide and is generally translated as “God is great.” It’s used in many contexts in Muslim societies — during prayer and in the call to prayer, to express amazement or sorrow or to pronounce determination. To most familiar with Islamic practices, the phrase is rather familiar and doesn’t carry an ounce of extremism to it.
Often in Muslim societies, the phrase is used as an alternative to applause, most often in religious settings. Someone will shout, “Takbir,” and the crowd responds, “Allahu akbar.” The phrase is included on both the Iranian and Iraqi flags, and it also blasts from minarets of mosques five times a day in countries where the call to prayer is amplified throughout the streets.
While repeated in the daily lives of millions of Muslims worldwide, “Allahu akbar” was also a common cheer of Arab Spring protesters, who were largely calling for democratic reforms and the removal of tyrannical regimes, starting in 2011. Literally, the phrase translates as “God is greater,” and can be used to draw out the diminished power of a dictator in comparison to God.
“‘Allahu akbar’ is more than just a phrase; it is a way of life,” Hesham Hassaballa, a Beliefnet columnist wrote. “It means that God is greater than anything else on earth: whether it be a vicious tyrant shooting and killing his own people or from one’s own evil whims and temptations.”
Muslim extremists have also used the phrase. Major Nidal Malik Hasan, who opened fire at the Ft. Hood military base in Texas, was reported to have yelled it just before killing 13 people. Witnesses also reported hearing “Allahu akbar” yelled late last year by several Paris attackers, whose coordinated terrorist attacks Nov. 13, 2015, killed more than 100 people. But it's safe to say that for billions of Muslims, extremists don't hold a patent on the phrase.