How 'Allahu Akbar' became a rallying cry against the Taliban

An Afghan National Security Forces soldier mans a machinegun mounted on a vehicle while patrolling an area during a military operation in Herat province. [Getty]
5 min read
10 August, 2021
In-depth: Once used as a slogan of resistance to Soviet occupation, Afghans are reclaiming ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a rallying cry against the Taliban and in support of security forces and volunteer militias.

Following a short three-day ceasefire to mark the Eid al-Adha holiday in July, the Taliban has continued its onslaught across Afghanistan, pushing to capture major cities in the west of the country.

Most of the districts surrounding the provincial capital Herat fell to the Taliban without much resistance – that is, until they reached the gates of the city.

The Taliban had momentum on their side as they captured areas that hadn’t been under their control for the past two decades, including parts of northern Afghanistan that had once denied them full control of the country in the 1990s.

After capturing the main trade routes in the southern and eastern parts of the province, the Taliban mobilised to capture the capital Herat.

"What originally began in Herat has spread to other cities, with 'Allahu Akbar' a new form of resistance against the Taliban"

Residents such as Mohammad Rasol, 30, who worked with the British forces in Helmand province, feared that a total collapse of the city was inevitable. “If the city falls, I could be dragged any moment from my house and killed because of my service,” he told The New Arab.

However, one man who had witnessed the turmoil of the past four decades was determined not to let that happen. Ismail Khan – a former warlord, governor and now saviour of the city - appeared among his people to lead the fight. On 29 July, the 75-year-old commander with a long snow-white beard and a black and white kufiya around his head arrived at the front line.

But the military support he had expected from the capital Kabul didn't materialise. “The reinforcement should have been in Herat only a day after the city had come under attack, but there were none, almost after three days,” he said last week.

He called on the residents of Herat, both men and women, to defend the city and fight what he called “the army of ignorance”. People responded and joined him in great numbers, with hundreds of young men surrounding him and chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is greatest) in response to his call.

How 'Allahu Akbar' became a rallying cry against the Taliban
The scene in Kabul after a strong explosion followed by gunfire hit Afghanistan's capital near the defence minister's residence on 3 August 2021. [Getty]

Allahu Akbar: The people's resistance

As the chants were heard near and far in Herat, more and more people joined in with the rallying cry in support of Ismail Khan and the Afghan National Army (ANA). A people’s uprising movement was born, and in major cities chanting ‘Allahu Akbar’ became a new form of resistance. This popular support boosted the morale of local forces, with some even crediting it with helping to keep the Taliban at bay in Herat.

A similar event was planned in Kabul at 9pm the next day, but the Taliban had other plans. Just before the chanting began, the Taliban attacked central Kabul with a Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).

The first bomb was followed by three more explosions. Kabul hadn’t experienced a major attack for some time, but the serenity in the city proved short-lived, shattered by explosions and an hours-long battle between security forces and attackers near the home of the Afghan minister of defence.

As the gunfight ensued, Kabul residents of all ages took to the streets while dozens took to their rooftops to raise the rallying cry of ‘Allahu Akbar’ in opposition against the Taliban, using loudspeakers from the mosques to amplify their call.

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What had started in Herat had now spread across the country. On the third day of the chanting, videos of people coming out late in the evenings in different parts of the country were shared on social media.

For the past two decades, the Taliban has used the chant to kill. Much to the group's disdain, the Afghan population has now reclaimed it to resist them and show their support for the Afghan army and local volunteer militias locked in a fierce battle with the extremist group after the US withdrawal.  

Reacting to the popular movement, the Taliban spokesperson tweeted that the group “has been waging jihad for twenty years under the slogan of Allah Akbar against the occupation of the United States and its slaves. This is our slogan; this is not the slogan of American slaves and secularists. Our nation is not afraid of the fallacious slogan. For the sake of Allah, slaves will be dealt with Inshallah.”

Former Afghan warlord, governor and social leader Ismail Khan addresses a gathering at his house in Herat on9  July 2021. [Getty]
Former Afghan warlord, governor, and local leader Ismail Khan addresses a gathering at his house in Herat on 9 July 2021. [Getty]

The people's reaction

“It is so beautiful to see the Afghan population reclaim the usage of Allah-u-Akbar. The phrase, which has often been manipulated to evoke fear and terror, is now being used to unify the nation+protest against the atrocities committed by the Taliban. How powerful,” one social media user tweeted.

Another user, Omar Sadr, wrote that the social movement “should not end here, but should continue and move into a continuous movement away from any political interference and group interests, in a completely popular and independent manner”.

In response to the Taliban claiming the slogan as their own, a Twitter user wrote, “This is from the national uprising of Allah U Akbar, 15th March 1979”.

What came to be known as the Herat resistance was first organised in the 1970s against the Soviet-backed government and became one of the most popular movements in Afghanistan’s modern history.

"On the third day of the chanting, videos of people coming out late in the evenings in different parts of the country were shared on social media"

The young Ismail Khan was one of the protest organisers in 1979, and ‘Allahu Akbar’ was the rallying cry that started the popular uprising against the Soviet-backed government. The uprising in 1979 started from the Ghoryan and Zinda Jan districts, which recently fell to the Taliban, and reached the city of Herat on the second day before continuing for nearly a week.  

The government tried to suppress the movement by using force, and it became one of the bloodiest periods in modern Afghanistan. Most believe the Herat uprising, in turn, led to a national uprising against the Soviet-backed government and the eventual Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The resistance fighters, or the Mujahideen, also used the slogan against the Soviet invasion.

Herat resident Mohammad Rasol said he first heard of its use as a rallying cry in the 1970s from his father, who also took part in the uprising. Now, he wants to be part of the current resistance, but fears for his life.

“I hope what started the bloodshed four decades ago can end the current one,” he said.

Sayed Jalal Shajjan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He covers post-conflict development and counter-terrorism operations

Follow him on Twitter: @jsaeedsh