H.A. Hellyer is a Cambridge University fellow, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
As the month of Ramadan neared its end on May 1, there were scores of video messages around the world congratulating Muslims on the occasion. That happens every year, but one particular video piqued my attention recently: In a tweet shared by the information agency of Ukraine’s defence ministry, Ukrainian Muslims in full military garb chanted a traditional Islamic ballad, sending blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad in a very typical Eastern European Muslim tone and melody. The tweet thanked the Muslims of the country for their “joint actions to restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine!”
The video was celebrated online by so many of us in the West. But I couldn’t help but think that in another time and place, it might have drawn a very different reaction. After all, a more complete version of the song might well have included a rather common expression, called takbir in Arabic – the pronouncing of God’s greatness over all else. Or, to put it another way: “Allahu akbar.”
For years, that particular phrase has been feared across the West as some kind of terrorist war cry, as some so-called jihadis shouted it before carrying out their latest atrocity. It has been co-opted in a similar way to how deus vult (God wills it), which originated as a rallying call for medieval Catholic Crusaders, has since been taken up by the modern American alt-right. But unlike deus vult, “Allahu akbar” is far more commonly used in the Muslim world – and in many more contexts.
The takbir’s most significant use is in Muslims’ ritual canonical prayer, and even to enter what can perhaps be compared to a regular act of sacramental communion for believers. As common as that is – it is not unusual to say it dozens of times in that context on a daily basis, as part of regular personal and collective litanies – the takbir appears even more frequently around the end of Ramadan. Traditionally, on the day of Eid al-Fitr at the end of that month, and during the three days of Eid al-Adha later in the year, the takbir will be recited many multiples of times, often communally.
Different Muslim communities take unique approaches to this invocation. The takbir is often vocalized with specific cultural touches, forged over the course of a community’s cultural memory-making. Indeed, Muslim customs and traditions will look and sound different depending on where you are in the world – from Ukraine to Uganda, from Poland to the Philippines, from England to Egypt, from Senegal to Syria, and much farther beyond. That’s incredibly typical of the Muslim community. And that’s what struck me about the Ukrainians’ video as they, against the background of wanton aggression against their country, engaged in spiritual practice.
When one hears the Ukrainian style, it’s a distinct harmony – one that is hauntingly powerful, and perhaps goes as far back as the Ottoman period. There is a resistance and a power to it, and it evokes a spiritual sensation that conveys a message of its own. Against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, all of that seems incredibly poignant and appropriate. If each unique style of takbir tells a story, the video suggested one in which Ukrainian Muslim soldiers feel deeply convinced by the call to defend themselves, their homes and their land.
On Eid al-Fitr, which lasts for one day and landed this year on May 2, Muslim communities engaged in communal exaltations of God’s greatness until the prayer of Eid. Then, in a little more than two months, comes Eid al-Adha – the “greater Eid” – which will last for three days starting July 9. With that will come many more celebrations and gatherings in which those present will pronounce “Allahu akbar”: the Divine is greater than everything.
So it seems pertinent to ask: If we in the West are able to recognize and empathize with Ukrainian Muslims’ plight and struggle, surely we might do the same for our own Muslim populations at home, and others further afield? That sentiment of extolling the Divine’s greatness, after all, is not terribly alien to us in the West – and perhaps we ought to recognize how much we have in common with our Muslim neighbours more often.
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