The inshallah age has only just begun

  • Is there a more useful word in any language?
Muslims are known to say it all the time, of course; but there are good reasons to believe that the inshallah epoch has only just begun. Many non-Muslims, who’ve lived in the Muslim world for any length of time, often find it hard to resist the temptation to say inshallah. An American colonel in Iraq, writing to Washington Post’s Tom Ricks, has famously observed that the phrase had permeated all ranks of the army. That when soldiers were asked about the possible success of their mission, a surprisingly high number said, ‘inshallah’.  The word has not always been the foreigners’ favourite, however. Many years ago, a family friend was told (in a quite undiplomatic manner) by his Japanese boss (a diplomat) not to use the word in telling him when he will be able to complete a certain task. Inshallah, then, has won respect for the wisdom wrapped in it gradually, over decades. In stages, it has elicited on the part of the outsider, curiosity, irritation, rage, bemused frustration, amusement, and finally acceptance – followed by an irresistible urge to use it (like the US soldiers).
Of course, it’s a bona fide English word now, no synonym of which quite captures all its nuances. Of course, any time a conceptual word travels in the opposite direction to the general cultural flow is welcome. Also, there are few sounds sweeter than say a Buddhist or an atheist being compelled to say inshallah. Beauty and sweetness may well be matters of taste, but one would be hard-pressed to find an expression of more utility in any language of the world.
Inshallah has a great many things going for it: the Quran explicitly instructs its readers never to make public their intention of doing something in future without saying, ‘If God wills’. (As does the Bible for that matter [James 4:13-15], although not too many Christians would be aware of the fact.) The intent of the Quranic instruction was of course to remind the speaker and the hearer alike that it was God, not man, who was in-charge. Contrast this to the deistic view, wherein the supreme being (after creating the universe and its laws) had no further part to play in its running. Inshallah reminded the Muslim that God’s permission was very much needed for every act. This worldview not only has an active God running the show, but also leaves plenty of room for miracles, etc.
Of course, very soon inshallah started getting used to qualify things one had no intention of doing in the first place, which has been extensively reported and commented upon. However, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to make a commitment one has no intention of fulfilling. It’s objectionable only if the other party is under the impression that one means it. The other day, when I asked my students to read a part of the textbook before we studied it in our next meeting, there was a hearty roar of inshallah, the unanimity and good cheer of which was rather suspicious. When I asked, ‘You have no intention of doing that, have you?’ the students smiled and shook their heads. Similarly, many a romantic advance like, ‘We should someday go out for lunch’ has similarly been stopped dead in its tracks, politely, by a simple, ‘Inshallah, brother.’ Few things can postpone unnecessary things indefinitely (or till eternity) more politely than inshallah.

Many non-Muslims, who’ve lived in the Muslim world for any length of time, often find it hard to resist the temptation to say inshallah

Inshallah is often also used to express wishes. ‘The power will return soon, inshallah’, for example, or, like the inimitable Abid Sher Ali once remarked, ‘Liars will inshallah go to Hell.’ I recall a memorable assembly on the M2 some years ago where many travelers had stopped to watch at the Bhera rest area the concluding moments of a cricket match between Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was anybody’s game till the very last over and ‘Pakistan will win, inshallah’ was the general sentiment. I could visualize similar crowds in Bangladesh, with similar sentiments in favour of the Tigers. In this regard at least, the faithful nations enjoy a distinct advantage over the faithless ones. Until the latter board the inshallah bandwagon, that is – a process which (as we have seen) has already begun.
Inshallah as a wish has a problem though: There’s bound to be disappointed if the wish doesn’t come true. And here our philosopher is way ahead of the ordinary mortal. He uses the same word, but infinitely more wisely. (What else would you expect?) Of course, he is too mature to become excited at the prospect of one team beating another, or anything else for that matter. Instead, he views most things with the philosopher’s detachment. Take any prediction: ‘X will happen, inshallah.’ (Implicit in this statement is that X won’t happen if God doesn’t so will.) This is what is referred to in the epistemological circles as an analytic statement, which is always true. Because after defining the laws of the universe as nothing but the will of God, ‘X will happen, inshallah’ is a mere tautology which doesn’t bring any new information to the table. The statement is true whether X happens or not. Heads or tails, our philosopher wins. Thanks to inshallah.
Inshallah is still very much a work in progress. What precise forms it will take in its further evolution is anybody’s guess. But it isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I would go out on a limb and predict that from now on out it’s going to grow exponentially, both in scope as well as frequency of usage. Inshallah, that is.