Why I Say Allahu Akbar
“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.
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.
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.
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.