Although Muslims say this sentence every day many times, it is not easy to translate “Allāhu ’akbar!” (الله أَكْبَر). Let’s see why.
The word ’akbar (أَكْبَر) is the so-called elative. In Semitic linguistics, the elative (اِسْمُ تَفْضِيلٍ) – noun of preference – is a stage of gradation in Arabic that can be used both for a comparative or superlative in Arabic. Thus, it denotes greater or greatest.
Here comes the problem:
If you want to say Allah is great, you cannot use a comparative, but ’akbar (أَكْبَر) is grammatically speaking a comparative. Why?
If you want to say: Allah is the greatest, you need a definite article in Arabic, which means it should be: Allāhu al-’Akbar (الله الْأَكْبَر). Notice that the word Allah is definite in Arabic and already means the God.
Some scholars suggested that ’akbar (أَكْبَر) has the meaning of the Arabic word kabīr (كَبِير) which means great. Thus, the sentence Allāhu ’akbar could mean: Allah is great. Edward Lane, an expert on the Arabic language (19th century) said that this explanation is of weak authority.
According to the majority of scholars, the phrase Allāhu ’akbar is elliptical and means: God is the greatest great (being). Or: Allah is greater than every other great (being). Or: Greater than such as that one knows the measure of His majesty.
Thus, it may be rendered Allah is most great, meaning: greater than any other being.
It is considered as elliptical because it is necessary that ’akbar (أَكْبَر) should have the definite article al (ال) in Arabic.
If it is used without the definite article, it must be followed by:
- the Arabic preposition min (مِن): Allāhu ’akbaru min (الله أَكْبَرُ مِن) – which would express a comparative meaning: God is greater than…
- or – theoretically – a noun in the genitive (مَجْرُور) case which would produce a so called ’Idāfa (إِضافة). It would then express the meaning of Allah is the Greatest of… Some Muslims, on the other hand, came to the conclusion that the second part of such a construction is elided on purpose. The blank spot stands for everything. In the meaning of Allah is the greatest of… the biggest of… the wisest of…
What is the best translation of Allahu Akbar?
- In English, most non-Muslims will say Allah is great. Also newspapers like The Guardian or The New York Times usually write “God is great”. The same is true in German: “Gott ist groß”.
- This isn’t wrong, but Muslims will say that it is “greater than just great”. English readers, however, will find it difficult to read “Allah is greater” as they ask – okay, but greater than what?
- Allah is the greatest could be a solution, but the newspaper might receive some letters from linguists saying that this doesn’t really work grammatically.
- For Muslims, there is no problem. Muslims will stick to the Arabic version “Allāhu ’akbar” anyway – in any language.