What does Allāhu Akbar mean?
Allāhu Akbar is one of the greatest statements any human being can utter. It is the statement through which you enter into your ṣalāh. It is also known as takbīrat al-taḥrīm. Once you enter ṣalāh, what was previously ḥalāl for you (e.g. eating, drinking and talking) has now become ḥarām for you. Similarly, you should make worldly thoughts ḥarām upon yourself.
You are now entering the ḥaram: a sacred space where you prevent others and your thoughts from coming in between you and Allah.
In Arabic, you may say: Zayd is bigger than Maḥmūd (زيد أكبر من محمود). Here we say Allāhu Akbar, hence, Allah (ʿazza wa jall) is greater than … Thus, what He is greater than has not been specified. This lack of specification (also known as ellipsis) indicates that Allah (ʿazza wa jall) is greater than everything.
Allah (ʿazza wa jall) is Greater than anything we can imagine. His greatness encompasses all things: He is Great in His Essence, His Names, His Attributes and His Actions. Allah is Supreme and Transcendent above every limitation and deficiency that is inherent in created beings.
Our limited minds are unable to comprehend the greatness of Allah. However, we can try to appreciate His greatness by pondering over His creation. By pondering over the greatness of the heavens, the earth, Allah’s Kursī and His Majestic Throne, and then realising how we are unable to comprehend them due to their greatness, we arrive at the most important realisation: how Great must their Creator be!
To understand His greatness, it helps to reflect on His greatest creation: His Throne (the ‘Arsh of Allah). The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “The seven heavens in comparison to the Kursī is nothing but like a ring thrown in a desert, and the excellence of the Throne of Allah over the Kursī is like the excellence of that desert over that ring” (Bayhaqī).
In other words, imagine the Sahara Desert. The entire desert is the Kursī of Allah (ʿazza wa jall), and the size of the heavens and the earth in proportion is equivalent to a ring thrown in the desert.
Now close your eyes, and let your mind ascend. Wander around this desert, which is now the Throne of Allah (ʿazza wa jall), and remember that the Kursī in proportion is the size of a ring. Can you even imagine the size of the Throne of Allah (ʿazza wa jall)? It is truly mind-boggling.
If we cannot comprehend the above, how can we then comprehend the greatness of Allah (ʿazza wa jall)?
Mean what you say!
On uttering the phrase Allāhu Akbar, you say that Allah is greater than everything in your heart. It is not sufficient to simply say this phrase. You have to also believe it. To be sincere in your utterance, you cannot give greater importance to something or someone other than Allah (ʿazza wa jall) in your heart. Let Him be the One.
Each time you utter the words ‘Allāhu Akbar’, remind yourself of the greatness of Allah and say: Allah is Greater… He is greater than me, greater than my desires, greater than my loved ones, greater than my hobbies, greater than the most powerful armies and empires, greater than everything.
Saying Allāhu Akbar with conviction should make you appreciate the greatness of the One whom you are standing in front of. When you remind yourself of His greatness, your self-importance should disappear as you remember how weak and insignificant you are. Thus, saying Allāhu Akbar also safeguards you from pride as you will no longer think of yourself or what you possess as great.
Saying Allāhu Akbar humbles you in front of Allah (ʿazza wa jall), and frees you from every type of servitude other than His. It gives you the strength and courage to confront falsehood and call to the truth.