Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
October 22nd, 2013

Why I Say Allahu Akbar


Residents are framed by the architecture of Lahore's Badshahi Mosque as they offer Eid al-Fitr prayers. (CNS photo/Mohsin Raza, Reuters)

Residents are framed by the architecture of Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque as they offer Eid al-Fitr prayers. (CNS photo/Mohsin Raza, Reuters)

This evening, as I left an Amman café after sharing a croissant with an old friend, I was greeted simultaneously by the echoes of the evening call to prayer and a bright full moon in the fading light.

“Allahu akbar!” called the muezzin, “God is greater!” The moon, perfectly round like a communion wafer, was suspended above the power lines and square, cement rooftops.

At the end of a day which included more joys than I can count, and a month of challenges, including moving, missing family and friends, and settling into life in a new city, I couldn’t help but notice this more-than-coincidental convergence of aural and visual. These two very ordinary events — the call to prayer and the emergence of a full moon — have, over the past few years, become particularly symbolic for me, and their convergence made their messages all the more clear.

Finding the full moons

During my sophomore year of college, I took a course on the Catholic Church in the modern world, a class that helped re-enliven my own Catholic spirituality. One day early in the semester the professor, a Jesuit priest, asked us, “Who saw the full moon last night?” Every student except me raised their hand. There was talk of how beautiful and big the moon was, and I was disappointed and in some ways ashamed that in the midst of studying and rushing around I had missed the startling sight. My professor proceeded to use the full moon as an example in explaining the importance of having a “sacramental imagination.” It’s about having the ability, the awareness, to see God at all times, to look upon the world and see the transcendent in the most ordinary of circumstances. It’s about looking at the moon and not simply saying, “Wow, that’s pretty,” but instead understanding it as a small sliver of God’s self-revelation to the world.

Ever since that class, I have been on the lookout for the full moon, intent not to miss this sign of God that always appears every month. I don’t think I’ve missed one in the 2 1/2 years since. Watching for the full moon helps remind me not only to look for God in the places where I know God will be, but to be prepared to be surprised when God’s presence is revealed unexpectedly, like it was tonight when I stepped onto the sidewalk.

I came to love the azan, the Islamic call to prayer, and what it means and stands for. Its short but powerful phrases — “God is greater! Come to prayer! Come to salvation!” — remind all who hear it of the necessity not only of recognizing God’s presence, but also of orienting one’s life toward and around that presence.

This habit of looking for the full moons of life — of being attentive to and seeking “God in all things,” as the Jesuits would put it — has helped me recognize the unanticipated blessings each day during my first few weeks living in Jordan: the Filipino parishioner at my Jesuit parish who scooted next to me on the pew as I cried with homesickness and worry; the compassionate landlord who returned money after I had to cancel a lease agreement; the friend who let me live for days at her place and left peeled fruit on the cutting board for me every morning; and the other countless moments of hospitality and welcome that were usually accompanied by a glass of steaming, sugary tea.

Sometimes I am able to acknowledge the sacramentality of these moments as they are happening. Other times it requires prayer and recollection in order to uncover the bright blessing from behind foggy clouds. All too often, I still don’t see the moon, missing it as I rush around or wallow in the mud of my own troubles.

Invoking Allah

My personal spirituality has been shaped not only by Ignatian practices but also by Islam. Thanks to Arabic classes, my involvement with the Muslim student group at my school, and my own personal exploration of the faith, I came to love the azan, the Islamic call to prayer, and what it means and stands for. It, like the full moon, is a reminder to pray and remember God. Its short but powerful phrases — “God is greater! Come to prayer! Come to salvation!” — remind all who hear it of the necessity not only of recognizing God’s presence, but also of orienting one’s life toward and around that presence.

The first line, Allahu akbar, is my favorite and one I can be heard muttering in moments of gratitude. Muslims use it in almost every aspect of life — to praise God, to acknowledge God’s goodness, power, mercy, and ability to transcend human weakness. It is customary for a Muslim parent to whisper the azan into the ear of their newborn baby.

Unfortunately, the azan has received a negative connotation in the West, particularly since the War on Terror began. I remember being surprised the first time I heard the azan not in the context of terrorism and violence, having previously been inundated on the news with videos of fighters launching bombs and shouting “Allahu akbar.” Because of this unfortunate and inappropriate usage of the prayerful expression, many in the West came to perceive the uttering of “Allahu akbar” as an indicator of Islam’s endorsement of violence. Recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that he ducks for cover when he hears this “war chant.” In a Fox News interview that went viral, John McCain dismissed this assumption, asserting that Muslims using the phrase are no different than Christians saying “Thank God!”

But now, understanding the real meaning and intention of the azan, I have the urge to say Allahu akbar often.

I say it when I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the generosity of the cab driver who refuses to accept the fare I owe him. I say it when I feel a newfound passion bubbling up while planning lessons for my confirmation class and realize how much I like to teach about my faith.

But I say it more often in moments of fear, weakness and discouragement: when it seems that the gulf of misunderstanding between Christians and Muslims vastly outmatches any attempt I could make to bring people together; when Muslims set fire to churches in Egypt and when Christians burn down a mosque in Missouri; when my own passion for my work feels deficient; when I feel disconnected from family and friends at home and wonder if I have enough love to go around. I say, “God is greater,” to remind myself that the all-Powerful One is bigger than the differences we create between us; that God surpasses my own selfishness and inadequacy.

Boundless Light*

Sometimes it seems like God is absent, only a faint, barely visible blue outline against a bluer sky. Sometimes it seems like the world’s goodness is the size of a jagged, torn fingernail. Or it feels like the only light I can give is just a faint sliver, unable to illuminate much more than my own smallness.

But on nights like tonight, I am reminded that though it may take some time — some waxing and waning, some high and low tides — eventually God’s boundless nour creeps around the surface of the earth and, in the most unexpected moments, reveals its fullness like the swollen, white orb that hangs in the pink sky. It’s in moments like these that it’s easy to find the ayat, the signs, that God is greater.

*”The Boundless One” (al-Wasi’) and “The Light” (al-Noor) are two of God’s 99 names, as professed by Muslims.

The Author : Jordan Denari
Jordan Denari lives in Amman, Jordan, where she is conducting research on Muslim-Christian relations through a Fulbright grant. She graduated in 2013 from Georgetown University and is originally from Indianapolis, Indiana. Jordan has published articles for The Washington Post, America and Commonweal.
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  • Emma Hayes

    Jordan, what a beautiful testament to faith and seeing God in all things. Your perspective and research are sorely needed. Sending you strength to weather the challenges and wonder to foster the gratitude. Looking forward to reading more about your journey!

    • Jordan Denari

      Thanks so much, Emma! Good to hear from you!

  • Brian Hurta

    I understand your sentiment, but with 2000 years of beautiful Catholic tradition, why do you feel it necessary to use the phraseology of a heretical religion?

    Glória in excélsis Deo
    et in terra pax homínibus bonae voluntátis.

    • Jordan Denari

      “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men.” Nostra Aetate 2

      • josmart

        Except that the the God we Catholics worship is not the god that is of the Islamic faith. That which is stated in their scripture from their god would never come from God. To say that they are one and the same goes against the teachings of the Church.
        The passage you quoted is true, but only when the element of “true and holy” is affirmed. The god of Islam certainly does not pass the “true and holy” test against Catholic teachings.
        One can be respectful of other faiths yet remain incongruent. This includes any notion that the “Allah” of Islam is God. Even absent the stigma described in the article, our God, invoked in the context of Islam, is not inline with the teachings of our faith.
        Stating the reasons for saying “Allah Akbar” in the context of the article above is incorrect catechism. It would be like serving another god.

      • Jordan Denari

        Jose, did you know that Arabic-speaking Christians use the word Allah for God? I have many Arab Christian friends, and have celebrated the Mass in Arabic, and the word used for God is Allah. This isn’t simply a question of semantics, but here, in the Middle East, it acknowledges that Christians and Muslims are talking about the same God, though they may say some different things about God.

        Can you give me some examples about how the “god of Islam” does not pass the “true and holy” test?

      • dino – South Africa

        Doe the islam god have a son…….no the Christian GOD speaks of love …….so much hatred in islam GOD is not schizophrenic

      • Jordan Denari

        Dino, I suggest you do some reading on Islam. Check out the books by Tariq Ramadan and Karen Armstrong. Or check out the blog of Suheib Webb. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you read.

      • Conservadave

        Jordan, I think it’s you that needs to do some reading. Armstrong is an ex-nun Western apologist for Islam with very little knowledge of how it’s really lived in most of the world and Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder and Hitler enthusiast, Hassan Al Bana. Ramadan is banned from some western countries for his views and will not say he is against stoning adulterers, blasphemers or apostates because it would “end dialogue” with more traditional Muslims.

        Instead, you should read Islam straight from its sources. Read the Koran, Sahih Bukhari (the main source of Hadith from which Shariah is largely taken from). Read The Reliance of the Traveler, which describes Sunni Shariah Law. It is approved by Egypt’s Al Azhar University, which is their closest equivalent to a Vatican. Read the fiqh of any of the 4 Madhabs, which is just the 4 main Sunni denominations juridical rulings. All 4 still approve of killing apostates, adulterers, blasphemers, approve of offensive Jihad (if an invitation or “dawa” isn’t heeded), require for women to cover all but their face and hands etc etc.. The main Shia school, Jafari, also holds to these basic rules. Mixing your Christian faith with other faiths is a very dangerous and presumptuous thing to do. That’s not even being cafeteria Catholic, that’s being a Cafeteria Universalist, not unlike how Episcoplians or Jesuits have ended up. This line, “My personal spirituality has been shaped not only by Ignatian practices but also by Islam.” shows me you are far down that road. What makes us wise enough to craft a “personal spirituality” that picks and chooses from various religions?

      • YaraGreyjoy

        Well Benedict XVI affirmed Catholics & Muslims worship the “one true god” as stated here by Vatican II (it’s been stated many many times before too but I’m to lazy to look – sorry :/ ):

        The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even his inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. (Nostra Aetate 3)

        I second the motion to definitely familiarize oneself with the Koran & other Islamic texts first hand. The Popes would not have affirmed thusly if half the untruths I’ve seen written all over the internet about what Islam “is” were indeed true. Remember too there are many ways to interpret a religious text! We know this well as Catholics.

        Before reading one problematic sentence or part of a whole book out of context, just remember this – There are extremist Christian sects that we are nothing like that hew to almost opposite interpretations & emphases on certain scriptural writings. A lot of what makes a religion separate & distinctive from one another is what that group chooses to give prominence to – like say the Westboro Baptist’s Church’s idea of erm.. righteousness :/ & what we would call Christlike behavior.

  • Mike Romeu

    Thank you Jordan. Once I found out what it meant a few years ago I too find myself uttering Allahu akbar from time to time.

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