BLACKSBURG, Va. – It was reportedly scrawled in red ink on the arm of the Virginia Tech gunman after his shooting rampage that left him and 32 others dead. It was written on an overnight postage Seung-Hui Cho sent between the two shootings. And a variation of it appeared on a file contained in the package sent to NBC that included Cho's rambling, hate-filled video, incoherent written messages and photos.
While there's no clear explanation of its meaning, the Internet is abuzz with speculation about the meaning of the phrase "Ismail Ax" on Cho's arm, "A. Ishmael" on the package and "axishmiel" on the file.
Bloggers and online discussions offer theories on what the words might mean. They have created anagrams, cited poems, books and religious teachings, and floated the suggestion that the phrase was simply 23-year-old English major's name for himself.
The most prominent discussions involve references to Muslim religious texts in which God asks Abraham to slay his son Ishmael in order to prove his loyalty to him.
But making that link is not "intellectually honest" given Cho's background, said Omid Safi, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"If you watch the video from the shooter, he very specifically talks about himself in Christian terms," Safi said, adding that Cho's references to Jesus Christ and being impaled upon a cross are not words "any Muslim would ever use."
Cho, a sullen loner who often refused attempts to communicate with others, used the religious references to blame his actions on those who had bullied him growing up, speculated Thomas C. Brown, founder of The Broken Toy Project, an anti-bullying awareness program.
"Killing them would tell his former tormentors that 'their' mistreatment of him, (not those at Virginia Tech) resulted in this carnage," Brown wrote in an e-mail. "I don't think he was angry at anyone at Virginia Tech. They were the innocents; just like Ismael would have been if his father had killed him to prove his loyalty to God."
Another theory focuses on a poem by 1960s beat poet Drum Hadley called "The Goat Ranchers," written under the pseudonym Yonder Ridgeline. In the poem about a romantic couple Haldey writes: "Traces of Ishmael's ax on the scarred trunks of the cedar trees."
Others link the phrase to writings including Herman Melville's 1851 novel "Moby-Dick," in which the narrator is named Ishmael. There is also a set of inspirational books by Daniel Quinn that features a gorilla named Ishmael that examines humankind.
There is also talk in cyberspace of links to Ismail Ak, a professor of psychiatry at a Turkish university, whose studies include psychiatry of anti-social and suicidal behavior.
Among the other suggestions were anagrams that referred to the ancient punishment of pouring salt on fields that made them incapable growing crops, a Bob Marley song called "Small Axe," and a technology called "AxisMail" that lets users have e-mail messages sent to their cell phones.