Updated: Dec 20, 2019
I've been studying Arabic on and off for nearly two decades and have had the good fortune of living in the Arab world for ten years, including Cairo (Egypt), Amman (Jordan), Sharjah (UAE), and now Doha (Qatar). The thing that is both magical and frustrating about this ancient language is how utterly complex it is. I still consider myself a beginner; I need my Hans Weir and those diacriticals! Why? Arabic is polyvalent and diaglossic. In other words, it comes in many forms (which sometimes feel like different languages!) and is profoundly layered and nuanced--as any language ultimately is, but especially the old ones.
Take, for example, the phrase Allahu Akbar --الله أكبر. In a strictly sacred sense this well-known phrase means "God is great" or "God is the greatest" and is used in ritual, prayers, personal devotions and in a casual pietistic sense. Unfortunately it has also been hijacked by terrorists and Hollywood alike as a boogeyman call. For more about that and some of its secular uses read the New York Times article here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/world/americas/allahu-akbar-terrorism.html
But for this blog post it is the vernacular sense of Allahu Akbar that I'd like to explore in more depth. As the Sudanese American activist Hind Makki says, "Although its origin is religious, it's also cultural and not always faith-related. Folks can compare the phrase to when English speakers say 'oh my God!' in exciting/emotional moments. People say both phrases in non-religious contexts all the time." Or, as the Egyptian American children's book illustrator Hatem Aly states, "My father yells it spontaneously when he gets scared of a loud noise or someone spooking him as a 'goodness gracious!' Or 'holy moly' or whatever." In the words of my favorite contextually-based example, "It could also mean: 'Good God, what have you done?' when uttered as a teen comes home with pink hair or hubs adds a 'window' between the family room & kitchen for faster access to the food" (thanks Crafty Arab).
But the fun, secular, and cultural uses of "Allahu Akbar" that only native Arabs or those who actually live in the Arab world might hear don't end there. Arab judges on the Arab version of the "Voice" will jump up and down and use it to mean both AWESOME and SWEET in a Keanu Reeves Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventures sort of way. It might also mean "God damn it" when an Arab loses their car keys, or even juicier, as a way to thinly veil a side-eye during a heated moment. Or a not so thinly veiled, "Allahu Akbar alaik yazeelak!"
At any rate, this blog post is dedicated to those who suffer from compound ignorance regarding the Arab street and yes, Arabic, which includes Islamic terms that...hmmm...come from Arabic!
As for the rest of you Allahu Akbar alaik yazeelak! Just kidding. Muslims can joke, you know.
But in all seriousness, if you ever want to know about the polyvalent nature of Arabic then please, please habibi, DO YOUR HOMEWORK and ask an ARAB or an academic. Happen to be married to the latter, a scholar who teaches Islamic studies in Arabic to graduate students at an Arab university so we can get really nerdy, too, if you'd like. By nerdy, I mean this kind of lovely nerdy: Masha'Allah.
P.S. Or do what my journalist friend from Al-Jazeera suggested and watch some old school Egyptian comedy. See below.
(Oh! and one more crucial point: ALOT of Christian liturgy is in Arabic. Because...they speak Arabic... Muslims DO NOT have a monopoly on Arabic nor does any one Muslim have a monopoly on all things Islam nor does a single person from an ownvoices group have a monopoly on the myriad expressions of that group. The world is so wonderfully complex, is it not?)
And if anyone is wondering about the backstory regarding this blog post--it comes from a critique of my upcoming thriller in which both Arab characters and those deeply informed by native Arab culture use the term Allahu Akbar in this venacular sense. For unbiased reviews check out Booklist and School Library Journal.
Shukran, hadtha huwa.