Translating concepts from one language into another is a difficult endeavor. Translating concepts that have no equivalent in the target language is even harder. Translating religious concepts for a culture in which religion has ceased to play a central role in the life of the individual and in society is hardest of all.
Perhaps this is the reason why religious Islamic idioms representing concepts such as Allahu Akbar, la ilaha illa Allah, and istishhad are routinely mistranslated in the American media.
The American failure to understand religious concepts does not apply only to Islam. A similar misunderstanding occurred in 1993 between the authorities and fundamentalist Christian David Koresh, who had holed up at a remote complex outside Waco, Texas along with dozens of his followers, including women and children, and an arsenal of weaponry. Besieged by the authorities, who attempted to negotiate with him, Koresh recited Biblical prophecies about the End of Days. Trying to peacefully end the standoff, the authorities urged him, "Let's not discuss religion now." Koresh, immersed in his religious beliefs, could only reply, "But religion is life and death." It was a "dialogue of the deaf," doomed to end as it did, with the loss of many innocent lives.
The problem is not one of linguistic relativity - as comprehensively discussed in the last century by the renowned linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf - since there are ways to convey original meaning in a proper, brief explanation. Instead, it is about the tendency of the media to choose the easiest solution, that is, to translate to what will sound most familiar to readers, even if inaccurate.
The word istishhad denotes a religious act of faith in which a believer strives to kill as many perceived enemies as he can, at the price of his own life, as a means of getting closer to Allah, the prophets, the righteous, and the martyrs in Paradise. The goal of this act of faith, which is considered blessed, is to make Allah's religion supreme on Earth, in what the perpetrator believes to be an imitation of the battles of early formative Islam of the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the four righteous caliphs. This term is often recklessly and inaccurately translated as "suicide," which is an act motivated by personal desperation and is forbidden in Islam, and for which a different word - intihar - is reserved in Arabic.
This is also why Allahu akbar and la ilaha illa Allah - both statements of faith that embody the religious concept of the supremacy of Islam and of Allah - are mistranslated. First it was the struggle to establish the supremacy of the monotheistic Islam over the pagan idols of seventh-century Mecca. Then it was a struggle for supremacy over other religions, including monotheistic ones, in the Arabian Peninsula, resulting in the expulsion of non-Muslims, as related in the compilation of hadiths on behalf of the Prophet Muhammad: "I shall take out the Jews and the Christians from the Peninsula" - a ban that is in force to this day against non-Muslim religious institutions. Later it was a struggle against other religious empires, such as the Persian and the Byzantine. However, the rendering of Allahu akbar in the U.S. media as "God is great" omits the aspect of superiority in the word akbar (which means "greater" or "greatest," not merely "great") and blurs the specific reference to Allah rather than to another deity. In the same vein, la illaha illa Allah is often translated in the U.S. media as "There is no god but God" (rather than "There is no god but Allah"). Omitting the supremacy of Allah over all other deities is a mistranslation, and moreover leads to a logical fallacy - reminiscent of Carrollian nonsense verses.
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 through 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.
This is not to say that Allahu akbar is uttered only by jihadis continuing the age-old struggle for the supremacy of Islam and of Allah. Over the centuries it has come to be uttered by non-religious Muslims as well, and even by Christian Arabs. In many cases, it carries a variety of meanings - ranging from admiration for what is perceived as a wonderful act of Allah to an expression of shock and horror in the face of calamity.
A translation should always reflect the context, the speaker, and his intent. But what often happens in the U.S. media is that when Allahu akbar is said by a jihadi, it is translated as if said by a non-religious Muslim or a Christian Arab. This is utterly wrong. And when such mistranslations occur time and again, whether intentional or out of ignorance, it results in a profoundly apologetic misrepresentation of the concept, and its cultural and religious meaning.
So what could be the solution? One school of translation holds to keeping the original term, followed a brief explanation of its meaning, as, for example, the Japanese word kamikaze. In this case, this solution was so effective that the original word no longer required explanation. There is no reason why the same process should not occur with the word istishhad, which over time could become as well known and understood as kamikaze.
The alternative is for the media to adopt a more professional approach, translating these terms in each case according to the specific context, speaker, and intended meaning, and not settling for an approximate but misleading term.
This report aims to elucidate the term Allahu akbar in its original meaning, by providing examples of its usage by jihadis taken from the MEMRI archive, based on years of monitoring the Arab and Muslim media. This is not to claim that MEMRI, in its 18 years of translating tens of thousands of pages of primary source material from the Arab and Muslim media, has not at times fallen for the temptation to prioritize being understood by a non-expert reader. Even in the field of transliteration, we have accepted incorrect transliterations because they were common in the media (for example, "Koran" instead of "Qur'an"). In many cases, we used the word "martyrdom operations" for "istishhad," even though martyrdom is an inaccurate translation, since it is a Christian concept for an individual accepting death rather than forsaking his religious beliefs, while the Islamic concept of istishhad relates in modern times primarily to killing enemies at the price of one's own life.
The term Allahu akbar embodies the fight for the supremacy of Islam, Allah, and the true believers: past, present, and future; actual and symbolic; military, cultural, or by means of forces of nature controlled and directed by Allah. It is the battle cry and the anthem of this fight for supremacy. Victory for Muslims is victory for Islam and for monotheism, and it is Allah's victory over false gods. Victory comes from Him and proves His supremacy. This was the main meaning of the term in the early centuries of Islam. Today it is a mark of Islamists and jihadis, as well as all others who wish to restore the ancient grandeur of Islamic empires, where "the crescent must always be on top of the cross," as described by New York-based Muslim Brotherhood activist Ayat Oraby.
It is worth noting that Allahu akbar is uttered by both Sunni jihadis and the Shi'ite leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran (which was established as an "Islamic State" long before ISIS). 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." See for example http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/4154; http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/5075; and http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/5011.
Under What Circumstances Is "Allahu akbar" Uttered By Jihadis?
As amply reported in the Western media, perpetrators of terrorist attacks are commonly heard yelling "Allahu akbar." The call of Allahu akbar is also common among ISIS fighters during beheadings (Robert Hall - Abu Sayyaf releases grisly video of Robert Hall's beheading; John Ridsdel - Video of Canadian hostage John Ridsdel's beheading released; Nicholas Berg - http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/8928; Jacques Hamel - http://www.memri.org/legacy/jttm/normany-church-attackers-pledge-allegiance-to-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi; and other types of executions, such as children shooting accused spies - http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/5028; http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/4718; http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/4889; and http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/5048).
It is heard in videos of ISIS fighters, recording the downing of enemy aircraft (http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/5556; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjWsoWdrhBI; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oD3qf2ZOucg), or when a vehicle filled with explosives reaches its targeted enemy position, anticipating the explosion (http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/1037). In the Islamic State, even the re-introduction of Islamic punishments is perceived as a victory for Islam, which merit chants of "Allahu akbar," as in the punishment of homosexuals by throwing them to their deaths from rooftops, or in ceremonies of stoning of women accused of adultery (http://www.memri.org/legacy/clip/4558).
Jihadis themselves relate to Allahu akbar as a battle cry, guaranteeing victory just like in the times of the Prophet, as the "Marseillaise of Arab conquests," as the Muslims' "nuclear bomb," and as what the "communist East and the capitalist West fear the most."
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In fact, it is common for ISIS fighters to chant "Allahu akbar" during beheadings of their enemies. For a comprehensive report of ISIS acts of Islamic religious punishments - beheading, crucifixion, stoning, burning, drowning, throwing from buildings - see www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8928.htm.
The following are several examples:
A screengrab from a video of British ISIS fighters with government soldiers' heads:" "These are the heads of the kuffars the Mujahids bought back. Allahu akbar! One of the kuffar soldier shouted 'have you come to get your freedom' Abu Aisha replied 'No I've come to get your head' Subhan Allah got a bag full" (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8928.htm).
From the Instagram account of Saudi teen Muadh Al-Jraish: "Urgent | the director of Abu Ghraib prison was slaughtered with a knife in the prison's yard... He has long tortured and killed the detainees and exploited their dignities. His head was cut off today, Allahu akbar" (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/8929.htm).
And the following tweets:
"Allahu Akbar, reaping the heads of Hezb Al-Lat [derogatory term for Hizbullah] today in #Quneitra [Syria] by the hands of the Mujahideen, oh splendid morning #Jabhat al-Nusra"
"Head of a Nusairi [Alawite/Assad regime] thug executed by the mujahideen in the Adra Al-Umaliyya in the outskirts of Damascus in response to the al-Otaiba massacre, Allahu akbar"
MEMRI TV Video Of ISIS Executions And Crucifixion Near Aleppo, Syria
Building scaffolding for displaying the bodies; the execution, with child in foreground
Announcer leads crowd in shouts of "Allahu akbar" and "ISIS is here to stay!" Camera pans crowd, which includes children, after execution, as announcer speaks
As mentioned above, Allahu akbar is a battle cry that is shouted during attacks. For example, from the MEMRI report "Jihadi Media Company Praises Tunisia Attack, Calls For More Attacks On Western Tourists" (http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/8484): "'How did you enter so easily,' they asked in astonishment, and the two answered: 'We come in the name of Allah.' Then they began throwing grenades, crying 'Allahu akbar,' and shooting at infidels and at the policemen that guarded them, and the massacre began."
The chant of "Allahu akbar" is commonly used when Christian symbols or religious sites are destroyed, as has been done by ISIS in both Iraq and Syria, as well as jihadis in other countries. See, for example, Libyan jihadis desecrating Christian sites (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/6142):
Armed Libyan: "Break the cross of these dogs."
Another armed Libyan: "Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar."
An Al-Qaeda video referring to an attack included an audio recording of the bombing itself. In the recording, the suicide bombers can be heard praying, and then, en route, crying "Allahu akbar!" and "Allah, expel the polytheists from the Arabian Peninsula!" (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/980)
Allahu akbar is an integral part of references to historical and current Islamic victories. For example, when Muslim prayers were resumed in the Grand Mosque of Grenada after 500 years of absence, a Saudi daily report focused on the muezzin's cry of "Allahu akbar" (http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1331).
Allahu akbar appears in nasheeds (songs) produced by ISIS's media organs, as for example in the following two songs: https://telegram.me/suond_isis and https://telegram.me/whfsjidbknf. In both, victory is promised to the ISIS fighters - victory for Islam and the believers over the infidels.
Allahu akbar is also an inseparable part of contemporary threats. For example, in a religious exhortation that contains a threat of an imminent terror attack published on an Islamist website, "Allahu akbar" is a leading motif recounted many times (http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/817).
Bilal Bosnic, a Bosnian jihadi leader, chants "Allahu akbar" and promises that America will be destroyed to its foundations (http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/6452).
The chant "Allahu akbar" also comes together with a warning to the nations: "Keep away from the civilian and military institutions of Crusader America and its allies. Allahu akbar, Allah akbar. Islam is coming, reinforcing [the Muslims] and humiliating [the infidels]" (http://www.memri.org/legacy/report/1084).
It is also uttered in reference to future anticipated victories. For example, Muslim Brotherhood activist Safwat Higazi talked about former Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi, who he said would establish the "United States of the Arabs," and the crowds chanted "Allahu akbar" (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/6384.htm),
When British Islamist Abu Waleed promised his audience that the day would come when the Muslims would conquer the White House, Cameron and Obama would be on their knees paying the jizya (poll tax), and Queen Elizabeth would wear the niqab, the crowd repeatedly chanted "Allahu akbar" (www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5421.htm).
Allahu Akbar is commonly mentioned together with promises to annihilate the Jews, as promised in the known hadith about the promise of the stone and tree, which says that Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight and kill the Jews. When a Jew attempts to hide behind a rock or tree, the rock or tree will call upon the Muslim: 'O Muslim, O slave of Allah! There is a Jew behind me, come and kill him!' - except for the gharqad tree, which is reviled as a tree of the Jews. For an example of the hadith which includes the use of "Allahu Akbar," preacher Sheikh Bakr Al-Samarai delivered a Friday sermon at the Abd Al-Qader Al-Jilani Mosque in Baghdad in 2004, while brandishing a sword and waving it above his head: "Even the stone will say, Oh Muslim, A Jew is hiding behind me, come and cut off his head, and indeed we shall cut off their heads. By Allah, we shall cut them off! Allahu akbar! Oh Jews, Allahu akbar!" (see MEMRI report "Contemporary Islamist Ideology Authorizing Genocidal Murder" (http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1049).
* Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI.
 It is narrated that in one of the battles of the Ridda (the uprising of some of the Muslim tribes against the first caliph, Abu Bakr, aiming to leave Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad) Al-Baraa bin Malik Al-Ansari, one of the companions of the Prophet, volunteered to be catapulted into the castle of the enemies in order to open the gates from within, enabling the Muslims to break into the besieged castle, thus sacrificing his own life for the sake of Islam (http://islamstory.com/ar/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A1_%D8%A8%D9%86_%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83). This act was termed inghimas. In this case, the only life sacrificed was his own. The tactic of killing many people for the sake of Islam by means of one person wearing an explosives belt or driving a booby-trapped car is new, but it harks back to the days of early formative Islam.
 Regarding the word "martyrs" that stands for shuhada in Arabic - The English word that we are using, "martyrs," is not accurate, since the concept of martyrdom is taken from Christianity, which has a different concept of martyrdom, as will be explained in this introduction.
 History records cases in which the sacrifice of one's life for a "greater good" is not necessarily religiously motivated. Some such sacrifices were nationalistically motivated, such as some fidai operations in the late 1950s and the 1960s - and these too should not have been termed "suicide operations." The phenomenon with which we are dealing today is religiously motivated.
 Ironically, in the Italian media "kamikaze" is often applied to what happens in the Arab and Muslim world. Rather than explaining the original religious Islamic meaning of "istishhad," they use a term taken from a different distant culture and language.