Insha’Allah, this will be a good post. I’ve been wanting to write a post about this for a long time. I’ve put it off again and again. I didn’t feel like I sufficiently understood the complexities of the phrase or its significance to the Moroccan people. I have come to love the phrase and wanted to ensure I gave it the respect it deserves. Simply put, the time was not right. I had to trust that it would be written when it was written and not before.
This is the essence of the phrase. It’s much more than a statement of faith, it is a relinquishing of ego attachment to outcome. It’s letting things happen as they will with patient acceptance and aplomb.
In some ways, I am reminded of the ancient Greek story of the Fates, those witches who could see the future, but — at least by some accounts — shared one eyeball as the price for such vision. A belief in fate presupposes a belief in a sequence of events that is, for all intents and purposes, inevitable, unchangeable, a continuous thread that ties a life together sequentially, logically. Heroes, gods, and mortals alike desired to know their destiny, but of course, it was never to their liking. How could they? Who would want to know in advance that unavoidably he will lose a leg tomorrow? Knowing does not change the outcome. Even knowing about winning the lottery only creates anxiety in its anticipation.
With so much out of our control, it’s no wonder people strive to understand and to fight for some semblance of control. We want assurances. We want order and purpose. Yet, every major faith system, including science, seeks to remind us that much of it is out of our hands, unknowable and random.
If God Wills It
The phrase, insha’Allah (إن شاء الله), pronounced with a small glottal stop in the middle, is ever-present in daily discourse in Morocco and, I suppose, much of the Muslim, Arabic-speaking world. One sees this translated into English as “God willing” or “if God wills it.” The phrase appears in nearly every conversation at some point. It’s almost as if they are reminding each other, “Why worry about it? If it happens, it happens,” but with a definitive focus on the will of Allah as they understand him.
Often it occurs in series that, to an outsider, might sound odd. A very common, ordinary conversation might sound like this:
What time are you coming?
One o’clock, insha’Allah.
Great! I’ll see you there, insha’Allah
Insha’Allah, (then, softer and fading) insha’Allah.
Take literally, it is trust in the will of a controller of the existence. It is a relinquishing of the individual ego to the will of a supreme creator. But, in daily usage, the phrase takes on more subtle overtones. We might translate the above interaction this way:
What time are you coming?
One o’clock, I think.
Great, I hope to see you there.
I’ll try to make it. I’ll do my best.
Yes, Maybe, Maybe Not
Though there’s some denial on the part of my Moroccan friends that this occurs, I’ve noticed there are more subtle variations of the phrase that act as social lubricants, as ways to hint toward intention without obligation, namely, to be polite. It depends on subtle changes in the tone of voice and posture. Take, for example, the following exchange:
Are you coming tomorrow?
There are infinite interpretations of these two lines, but one generally sees three broad intentions behind the response.
“Of course, I’ll be there! Not wind, nor dust, nor flash flood will keep me from our meeting!” The respondent has every intention of coming. The tone is strong and sincere. Eye contact is somewhat sustained, unflinching.
“I want to. I’ll do my best. It depends on some other things going on.” The respondent seems to have some expectation and intention of coming. The tone is softer and slightly changes pitch to express precautionary regret should it not work out. Body posture is soft and submissive, seeking forgiveness.
“I doubt it. There’s a match on tonight. It’s cold. I’m not all that interested.” This, it seems, is often as close as one will come to an actual “No.” Moroccans are some of the most polite people I have met, so even if they absolutely cannot come, they will still speak of hope. The tone is strong, but playful, as if hinting about the truth. Eye contact is generally avoided. Instead, since this is also usually serves as the end of the conversation, there is a tendency to look toward the exit. Yet, even though it’s essentially a “no,” should God intervene and make it so, they will come. It is His will, after all.
Every language has many words and phrases that its speakers use in equally distinct ways. (One thinks of the seemingly innumerable tones and meanings with which one can utter, “dude” in American English.) But, it is less the words than the sounds we make to each other that sooth or provoke, cause ease or anger. Insha’Allah navigates between the two gracefully and leaves us with possibility. Because, after all, who knows what will happen next?