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Embracing holy envy: 'Allahu Akbar'

We should not allow terrorists and bigots to hijack language in order to sow fear, ignorance and division.

Interior of the Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Credit: By Phillip Maiwald (Nikopol) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

I say ‘Allahu akbar’ dozens of times a day. I say it during prayer. I say it as an expression of reaffirmation and gratitude to God.

I said it when my daughter was born, and there will be someone to say it over me when I am buried.

I say it when I witness beauty.

‘Allahu akbar.’

In 1985, Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl, in defending the building of a Mormon temple by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Stockholm, enunciated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding:”

“When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.”

“Don’t compare your best to their worst,” and:

“Leave room for holy envy.”

Stendahl challenges us to be open to recognizing elements in other religions—even those that may appear foreign or threatening—and to consider how we might wish to support, embrace, emulate or further explore those elements that might help us to deepen our understanding of our own religious traditions and more deeply connect to others: to embrace ‘holy envy.’

Abdullah, a Saudi friend of mine whose family tree traces back to the time of Prophet Mohammad in Mecca, travels to Cairo with his family every Christmas.

He, with children and grandchildren—perhaps even now with great grandchildren—window shop, go to Christmas parties, sing Christmas carols and together celebrate the birth of Jesus, considered by Muslims to be the most revered prophet after Prophet Muhammad.

On Christmas Eve they attend Midnight Mass at the Anglican Church in Zamalek. Abdullah doesn’t take the Eucharist but he loves Jesus—and Christmas pudding (Egyptian friends make him an alcohol-free version).

Before New Year’s Day they return to Saudi Arabia, renewed by their encounter with Christian tradition and re-committed to an ecumenical understanding that the descendants of Abraham share much more through faith than they disagree about politically.

Like Stendahl, Abdullah and I believe that being open to holy envy helps us to connect to others, to ease tensions and build bridges.

I was recently reminded of Stendahl and Abdullah as I listened to the discussion that followed the terrorist attack in New York on October 31 2017 when eight people were killed and 12 injured by a truck driven by Uzbek native Sayfullo Saipov. As the truck plowed into a bicycle path in lower Manhattan, it’s reported that Saipov cried out ‘Allahu Akbar.’

‘Allahu akbar.’

We know, from documents released by the FBI after 9/11, that a letter written by the hijacker Mohamed Atta urged attackers to shout ‘Allahu akbar’ because “this strikes fear in the hearts of the non-believers.” 

We know, from Fort Hood, from New York, London, Paris, Brussels, Mogadishu, Istanbul, Baghdad and Beirut, that terrorists continue to shout ‘Allahu akbar’ even when most of their victims are believers.

To terrorists the non-believers are those who don’t hate as they do—Muslim and non-Muslim.

On the other hand, at the funeral service for Muhammad Ali there were four recitations of ‘Allahu akbar’ along with prayers, readings and blessing in-between.

‘Allahu akbar.’

I believe that ‘Allahu akbar’ will strike fear only if we allow, through ignorance and prejudice, terrorists to define how we approach God. 

To Muslims ‘Allahu akbar’ means ‘the greatest,’ although linguistically, it translates as ‘greater.’

To Muslims it means nothing is greater than God. 

‘Allahu akbar’ isn’t in the Qur’an, but it’s part of daily prayer and worship, embedded in our consciousness. As a term of gratitude to God it’s even used by some Arabic-speaking Christians.

Today, Muslims who pray ‘Allahu akbar’ are caught between terrorists who try to inspire fear and Islamophobes who try to instill ignorance and fear of The Other.

In the US, we are learning not to define all Christians by the practice of the Westboro Baptist Church (“God hates fags”), or the far-right anti-Muslim Judge Roy Moore, or by those who want to ban Harry Potter, Halloween and dancing.

We’ve learned that Christianity is not monolithic.

Today, we must also learn that Islam is not monolithic, and that all Muslims are not defined by Sayfullo Saipov and Mohamed Atta.

We must embrace more holy envy and less unholy ignorance.

A friend of mine, an Episcopal priest who has traveled in the Middle East, has holy envy over the Muslim tradition of saying ‘insha’Allah.’

“I often wish we had something like that in our tradition” she once told me, “the constant reminder—‘insha’ Allah’—that only God knows the future.”

‘Insha’Allah’—if God wills it—is to recognize God’s omnipotence, God’s Grace, presence and authority in our lives.

Can I borrow your snow-blower tomorrow? ‘Insha’Allah.’
Can we have dinner tonight? ‘Insha’Allah.’
Can you meet me tomorrow? ‘Insha’Allah.’

I love Thanksgiving. I like Christmas trees. I love menorahs and the story they tell. I love the call of the shofar, the peeling of church bells and the sound of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. We need to witness, and we need our children to witness, each others’ religions, traditions, symbols and practices.

We need more holy envy—‘insha'Allah.’

We need to see the world, not as something to be partitioned and feared but as a source of engagement and richness that nourishes all of humanity.

Our challenge today is to refuse to allow terrorists and bigots to hijack, weaponize and appropriate language in order to sow fear, ignorance and division. I believe that our public squares are richer and our nations healthier when we struggle to preserve and enhance the pluralistic experience that defines our societies at their best.

This isn’t just an Abrahamic calling: whether secular, Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Quaker—whatever faith tradition we may or may not embrace—I believe that we are all called, by our Constitutions as well as our Prophets, to serve the forgotten and the dispossessed, and to honor conscience and each other’s dignity and humanity.

‘Allahu Akbar.’

 

 

About the author

Robert Azzi lives in Exeter New Hampshire. An Arab American Muslim, he writes on Islam, identity and conflict. Information on “Ask a Muslim Anything” and an archive of his writing can be found at theotherazzi.wordpress.com. For an interview with Robert on NPR click here.


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