According to eye witness accounts, Sayfullo Saipov shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he drove a truck into a crowd of cyclists and pedestrians in New York City. But in their reporting of the attack, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and other mainstream media outlets translated this phrase rather than relaying the words verbatim as spoken by the jihadist. What we got instead of Allahu Akbar was the watered-down but incorrect translation, God is Great.
This more benign interpretation appears to be a trend when reporting terrorist attacks. In the horrific Fresno, California shooting last April that left three people dead, police said the shooter, Kori Ali Muhammed, yelled Allah Akbar. But the Associated Press reported that Fresno police claimed the man said “God is Great.”
By substituting the word “God” for Allah, the translators are assuming that Allah is on an equivalent footing with other gods. But radicals who shout “Allahu Akbar” are referring specifically to Allah as the supreme being, not to be equated with Jesus or Jehovah or Krishna or anybody else’s god. As Islam scholar Abbas Nadari says “So even though it means God, it means that particular God and not any God.” Thus, a translation of Allahu Akbar to God is Great strips the phrase of its unique applicability to Allah and Allah alone.
A more accurate interpretation than God is Great would be Allah is great, retaining the name of the god the jihadist is, in fact, referring to. But this still would not be exactly right, because akbar means greater or greatest, not merely great. To get even closer to a correct translation of Allahu Akbar, the journalist would need to say Allah is greater, meaning greater than your god, your government, or anything else in the world.
Wikipedia defines Allahu Akbar as an Islamic phrase, called Takbir in Arabic, meaning Allah is greater or Allah is greatest.
Yigal Carmon, citing a report written in 2016 by The Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI), says “It is worth noting that Allahu kbar is uttered by both Sunni jihadis and the Shi’ite leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran in every major sermon delivered by the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the crowd, comprising thousands and sometimes tens of thousands, chants “Allahu akbar” together with “Death to America” and “Death to Israel.” The MEMRI analysis goes on to point out that the term Allahu akbar embodies the fight for the supremacy of Islam, Allah and the true believers. “It is the battle cry and the anthem of this fight for supremacy.”
Arguments can be made that “Allahu Akbar” is used peacefully by Muslims as a commitment to their religion. The phrase is featured on national flags, including those in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan and is used in Islamic prayers and broadcasted from mosques as a call to prayer.
No doubt peaceful Muslims deplore the corruption by terrorists of a phrase they use in reverence. But the peaceful use of the phrase does not support the American translation to God is Great. The fact that Jesus is not interchangeable with Allah in the Islamic call to prayer points to the absurdity and inaccuracy of exchanging Allah for the more generic and inclusive word, god.
Why would the media publish a watered-down, misleading translation? According to the MEMRI analysis, “One of the reasons for such mistranslations is the fact that in the modern Western world the struggle for supremacy among religions has almost completely ceased, and to the extent that it still exists, it is nonviolent. Therefore, statements of religious faith that embody a continuing historical struggle for divine religious supremacy lack a modern religious/cultural conceptual basis for which to be understood in the West, and consequently lack a linguistic equivalent.
“The American media, facing the risk of not being understood in translating these Islamic concepts, prefer to provide an approximate translation, even though these are inherently misleading.”
The translation of Allahu Akbar to God is Great might seem relatively innocuous. No one in the media is endorsing terrorist attacks or supporting the jihadist, after all. But when a phrase which has become a rallying cry meant to instill terror in the hearts and minds of victims is replaced with a phrase that could apply to all religions beliefs, the radical misinterpretation of religious faith is diluted. Oft-repeated, innocent prayers like “God is Great, God is good,” take on a sinister new tone. “God is great” becomes associated with terrorism in the public consciousness, especially in the minds of those who mistakenly believe that religious faith rather than the evil misappropriation of religious faith leads to murder and mayhem.
Journalists are taking the jihadist cry out of context when they water it down. Either through linguistic laziness or political correctness, the reporting is misleading. Equating God is Great with Allahu Akbar is an injustice to those of any faith who renounce evil and embrace the great aspects of religious faith based on compassion and caring for our fellow human beings.