The Arabic literally translates as ‘if God wills’, but it conveys a whole lot more – usually to the foreigner’s frustration. In this article for the New York Times, Wajahat Ali explains:
It’s similar to how the British use the word “brilliant” to both praise and passive-aggressively deride everything and everyone. It transports both the speaker and the listener to a fantastical place where promises, dreams and realistic goals are replaced by delusional hope and earnest yearning.
If you are a parent, you can employ inshallah to either defer or subtly crush the desires of young children.
Boy: “Father, will we go to Toys ‘R’ Us later today?”
Father: “Yes. Inshallah.”
Translation: “There is no way we’re going to Toys ‘R’ Us. I’m exhausted. Play with the neighbor’s toys. Here, play with this staple remover. That’s fun, isn’t it?”
If you are a commitment-phobe or habitually late to events, inshallah immediately provides you with an ambiguous grace period.
Wedding Planner: “We only have the hall from 7 to 10 p.m. We’ll incur extra charges if we go past 10. Please tell me you’ll be on time.”
Wedding Attendee: “But of course! Inshallah, we’ll be there.”
Translation: “Oh, you sad, sad, silly little man. I hope you have saved a lot of money or have access to an inheritance. I’ll leave my house at 9:45 p.m.”
Inshallah is also an extremely useful tool in the modern quest for love.
Man: “So, you think we can go on a date later this week?”
Woman: “Yeah, let me think about it, inshallah.”
Translation: “No. Never. There is no way we are ever going on a date. Even if there was a zombie apocalypse and you were the last man on earth, I would not consider this an option and would rather the human species perish as a result of my decision.”
I drop about 80 inshallahs a day, give or take. I’ll get to the gym, inshallah. Yes, I’ll clean up around the house, inshallah.
Most commonly, inshallah is used in Muslim-majority communities to escape introspection, hard work and strategic planning and instead outsource such responsibilities to an omnipotent being, who somehow, at some time, will intervene and fix our collective problems.
In all the above he pokes fun at his own culture, but Ali started the article lamenting the Southwest Airline crew who removed a Muslim from the plane for uttering the word.
But he ends the above with a paragraph of introspection we must demand of ourselves. Laugh freely, but for the foreigner in the Arab world, couple your inshallah frustrations with the following friendly advice from an article in Daily News Egypt:
Living here for years, foreigners often develop a natural desire to see Egypt become a better place. Thus, they begin to express their opinions on issues that could be improved—which often leads foreigners into an unpleasant area.
Egyptians generally, and their government in particular, always want to be complimented.
Foreigners may make their remarks sincerely and with the best of intentions, but voicing any sort of criticism of the “Mother of the World” affects Egyptians’ ego and is not appreciated.
The author spends most of the article lamenting Egypt’s promotion of xenophobia whereas it should more rightly, like the majority of ordinary Egyptians, respect and welcome foreigners.
In the West we want to get to the point, and being direct–with tact–is a virtue. In Egypt the emphasis must be on tact, with directness following far behind. It is a difficult skill and I don’t claim to be anywhere near mastery.
But at the minimum, knowledge of the cultural reality will make a world of difference for the foreigner, um, God willing.
Allow them to make the inshallah lament on their own. You: Just show up on time and never mind them being late. Let your generosity of spirit mirror their own, and all will learn together.