“From now on, I’ve decided to wear a sign slung from my neck that reads: ADNAN R. KHAN, NON-MUSLIM.”
It’s been a decade since I wrote that line, a controversial declaration, to be sure, especially for a person of Pakistani origin who is automatically presumed to be part of the community of believers. I was a journalist working for the Western press in Turkey at the time, covering the outskirts of the Iraq war, and though I was opposed to that war, I nonetheless represented the overarching culture of domination that had manufactured reasons to invade a sovereign nation and cause havoc in the lives of its innocent civilians.
But I was also a Muslim, nominally as that may have been, and that meant I had to take sides. “Being a Muslim in these trying times,” I wrote in that commentary, “automatically aligns you with the spiraling hatred sweeping across the Arab world against the West. The logic’s straightforward: you’re brown and you have an Arabic name, therefore you hate the West.”
It was, in retrospect, the beginning of a very dangerous narrative. None of the Muslims I knew hated the West, but somehow, being Muslim was quickly becoming synonymous with being anti-Western.
Over the years, that narrative has spread and grown, thrust into the forefront by a series of jihadist plots against Western targets. Most, like the recent arrest of two Canadian residents planning to bomb a train, are broken up before they can be executed. More often than not, the plots themselves turn out to be little more than angry young people talking tough. Garage talk, with little hope of ever being translated into action.
But occasionally, as in Boston, and London, and Madrid they do succeed, with devastating effect.
Whenever these attacks happen, I find myself hoping that a Muslim was not involved. Occasionally, that proves true – the carnage in Norway being the best example – though the Western media will almost reflexively speculate on the Muslim connection.
Often enough, however, it is a Muslim, and the narrative of a violent, bloodthirsty Islam is strengthened, this despite the fact that jihadist terrorism, in statistical terms, still ranks far below other forms of terrorist violence (right-wing, left-wing, racist) in many western countries, including Canada.
How did this happen? How did a fringe group of fanatics become the poster boys for a religion of more than a billion people? It’s convenient to blame the media: jihadists are a good story in our fast-paced information age. They are easily packaged into sensational sound bites and visual ephemera. But that’s only part of the picture.
The narrative of Islam has traveled down a dark road, and Muslims themselves are largely to blame. That they have allowed a small, inherently marginalized group to hijack that narrative is a reflection of an overarching malaise in Muslim thought.
Take, for example, that most famous of Islamic phrases – Allahu Akbar. In the jihadist narrative, it has become a slogan, a war cry. It has been corrupted to such a degree that even moderate Muslims have forgotten the deeper meanings it implies, reduced as it has been to simply “God is Great”.
Ask a Sufi, however, and the meaning is much different. These mystics and intellectuals – the last remaining bulwark against the ossifying effects of ultra-orthodox Islam – do the necessary brainwork that Islam demands of its adherents.
Here’s what a Sufi might tell you: Allah is the contraction of the Arabic word al, meaning “the” and ilah, meaning god. A better translation, they would say, is “The One God”, or more mystically, The Unity, that overarching force which binds the universe together.
The meaning of akbar is somewhat less contentious. In Arabic, the word for “great” is kebir. Akbar instead means “greater”.
So putting the two together - Allah and Akbar – would produce “The One God is Greater” or “The Unity is Greater”.
Next, consider the hu. In grammatical terms, the u is the nominative desinence added to Allah to link it to the verb akbar. Straightforward enough. But as most Sufis, and Arabists, will tell you, nothing is ever so straightforward in Arabic, particularly the Arabic of the Qur’an.
The hu itself is an invocation of sorts: the sound carries meaning. Some mystics equate the hu with the Hindu om, employing it in devotional ceremonies, or zikr, as a mantra. Allah-hoo, Sufis are often heard chanting at dergahs, their private gatherings. Allah-hoo, over and over again, occasionally releasing an elongated hoooooooooo in an airy expulsion of breath.
Breath itself is the key to the ceremony. The repetition of hu, interspersed with Allah, is a kind of breathing exercise intended to release the mind from its attachments and bring a person closer to God’s all-encompassing presence. So Sufis often refer to hu as the presence of God.
So now where does Allahu Akbar stand? We already have Allah meaning the One God, or the Unity, and Akbar meaning greater. Add the hu and you have ‘The presence of the One God is Greater’, or ‘The presence of Unity is Greater’.
That reading is a world apart from God is Great. Whereas the latter externalizes God, turns Him into an object to be worshipped and obeyed, the more spiritual (and arguably more accurate) rendering brings God back to earth, a presence to be experienced and understood. God is Great is the exultation of the masses; The Presence of God is Greater is quiet reflection, an individual, meditative exercise.
That is the Islam I remember from my childhood, a faith infused with such subtle meaning that it has produced some of the greatest works of literature in human history – Rumi, Hafiz, Gibran, to name a few. It is not the angry Islam we see today.
My mother studied Persian poetry at university. She used to be able to quote Rumi in the original Persian. Since 9-11 and all of the chaos that has followed, anger has displaced that beauty. Muslims have allowed their faith to devolve into a series of rules and prohibitions devoid of inner meaning, a story shaped and controlled by fanatics.
As long as that remains the case, I will keep that sign slung around my neck.
Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.