The English translation of Saddam Hussein's phrase, cited by the Independent on January 19 1991, is as follows
“The great, the jewel and the mother of battles has begun”
The OED (not behind a paywall) says
mother of all —— n.[ \in quot. 1990 after Arabic umm al-maʿārik mother of battles] something that is outstanding or exemplary (in magnitude, importance, etc.); anything that is definitive in character, or that is the epitome of its kind; frequently humorous.
Popularized as a catchphrase by Saddam Hussein (b. Saddam bin Hussein at-Takriti 1937), President of Iraq from 1979, with reference to the Gulf War (see quot. 1990). Perhaps reinforced in later use by the euphemistic use of mother to mean ‘motherfucker’ (see sense 7 and motherfucker n. 2b), hence the occasionally occurrence of the form mutha in the phrase.
Despite what the Ngram chart below shows, the saying was unknown in English before 1990.
If we check the results between 1984 and 1990, Google Books claim that “mother of battles” first appeared in 1990 but this is most probably due to an OCR error; the foreshadowing book, Battlefield of the Future, was actually first printed in 1995.
We can, however, be confident in stating the phrase “mother of all battles” has always been the more popular, and that it reached a peak during 1994/95. Since the late 1990s, both variants have maintained a steady trend.
From Oxford Dictionaries, we further learn…
Hussein’s dramatic turn of phrase, [‘umm al-maʿārik’ =‘the mother of all battles’] though, wasn’t an original one.
The Battle of al-Qādissiyah in 636, in which Arab forces bested the Sāsānian dynasty and went to conquer Persia, has historically been called umm al-maʿārik.
Nor is umm al, literally ‘the mother of’ in Arabic, a construction exclusive to warfare: the city of Mecca, for instance, often goes by Umm al-Qurā, or ‘the mother of all settlements’.
In the Arabic language, umm (’mother’) reads simply as ‘mighty’, ‘main’, or ‘major’, a fossil metaphor that got fresh life in its famed translation.
When Saddam Hussein used the Arab expression ‘umm al-maʿārik’ he was evoking the historic victory of the Arab Muslim army over the Sassanid Persian army in 636. The conquest of Persia was fought in the name of Islam and led to the conquest of Iraq, which was under Sasanian rule at that time. The successive fall of the Sasanian empire (224 to 651 AD) also led to the decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Iran (Persia).
Thus the expression ‘umm al-maʿārik’ was already familiar with the Iraqis, Saddam Hussein had not coined the phrase, he had had only brought it to the attention of the mass media in the Western world.
Furthermore, there are several usages of mother of all– in the Quran, said to be written between 609 and 632
Drinking alcohol is a major sin, for wine is the mother of all evils. It clouds the mind, wastes money, causes headaches, tastes foul, and is an abomination of the Shaytaan’s [Satan’s] handiwork.
Alcohol is the mother of all evils, the greatest of major sins.
- Avoid Khamr for it is the mother of all evils.
- Ummil kitaabi (mother of all books)
- Umm al-Qura (mother of all cities)
Therefore, in the Muslim world, the expression mother of all– refers to something that is the most extreme example, the epitome of its kind.
While Arabic no doubt helped boost the expression, the mother of all — does have some precedents in English. A few instances of the superlative mother of all appear in American English well before Hussein’s notorious 1990 speech.
- The Oxford English Dictionary cites the Sazerac Lying Club, an 1878 book by American author Fred Hart: ‘I seed the biggest trout I ever laid eyes on…The mother of all the trouts in Reese River, by thunder’.
A 1936 New York Times article likened American actress Ilka Chase to ‘the mother of all vultures; playing the part as it was written, she leaves no bones unpicked’.
A similar expression may have also influenced the mother of all — construction: the father and mother of a —. Rudyard Kipling mentioned ‘the ‘father an’ mother av a beltin’ and ‘the father and mother of all weed-spuds’ in 1892.
Yet older in the English language is mother’s counterpart, father of a —. A 1824 edition of the Boston-based Spirit of the English Magazines characterizes, if not stereotypes, the saying ‘the father of a beating’ as an Irish English colloquialism.