By Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian
English speakers all know: To sound smart (or insufferable), use French. That movie has a certain je ne sais quoi; my grandmother exhibited a true joie de vivre. French has been fancy since 1066 when the conquering Normans ate boef while the lowly English peasants cared for the cū.
Or to sound open-minded (or stoned), use Sanskrit. No one will be surprised to learn that the first recorded use of the word “karma” in a popular U.S. publication was in 1969 — in the California-based Surfer magazine.
These days, another word is making inroads into the American English lexicon. It’s “inshallah” — an Arabic Islamic expression that means “God willing.” Inshallah first made its English debut in the 19th century, but it’s only since 9/11 that the word has become fashionable among non-Muslim, non-Arabic-speaking Americans. You’ve probably heard it already in passing, which is my point. The Atlantic’s James Fallows has tweeted it. Even actor Lindsay Lohan has made a faltering attempt. I’ve heard it in meetings, on the metro, and at a casual Sunday brunch in Brooklyn.
For all these inshallah-invokers, the phrase seems to combine the prestige of French and the multiculturalism of Sanskrit — with an added thrill of risk.
President-elect Donald Trump is stacking his administration with supporters who believe that Islam is inherently violent, dangerous, and threatening. Some who evince this view believe that anything associated with Islam has a diabolical power, an insidious evil that has to be guarded against at every turn as the Puritans guarded against witchcraft.
Michael Flynn, a retired intelligence officer whom President-elect Donald Trump has tapped for national security advisor, has called Islam a “malignant cancer” and believes that sharia, or Islamic law, is creeping into U.S. laws and institutions. Conspiracy theorist Frank Gaffney, who advised Trump during the campaign and is “good friends” with Steve Bannon, the president-elect’s senior strategist, has previously written that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency logo contains a hidden star and crescent, the symbol of Islam, and that it thus suggests “official U.S. submission to Islam.” It’s an argument that comes out of the world of Christian fundamentalism, which has long sought out occult symbols in the most innocuous of sources.
This fear extends to the Arabic language. In 2013, Gaffney criticized John Brennan as President Barack Obama’s pick to head the CIA, deeming him the “single most important enabler of the Islamic supremacists’ agenda in government today.” One piece of evidence Gaffney gave for this assertion? Brennan speaks fluent Arabic. After listing the names of several terrorist organizations at a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in May 2015, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham reportedly quipped that “everything that starts with ‘al’ in the Middle East is bad news.” Al, of course, is simply Arabic’s definite article, equivalent to “the” in English.
It should come as no surprise, then, that inshallah has found itself in the crosshairs of these rising Islamophobes. In June, when BBC presenter Nicky Campbell ended his usual segment with crossed fingers and a poorly inflected “inshallah” — “We’re in Uxbridge next Sunday for a special, asking, ‘Are we facing the end of the world?’ So we’ll see you then, inshallah” — it set off a right-wing media firestorm.
Breitbart wrote that the “incident comes just days after the BBC’s Head of Religion admitted that Islamic State is rooted in Islam.” Jihad Watch, a popular anti-Islam website, commented: “A conquered, colonized people adopts the language and practices of its conquerors.” In April, a University of California, Berkeley, student of Iraqi origin was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger heard him speaking Arabic on his cell phone; he had ended his conversation with “inshallah.”
The latent Islamophobia the word can conjure seems to be part of the its growing appeal among progressive urbanites in the United States. As the Islamophobia industrial complex has expanded, so has a cultural push against it. Garnishing your conversation with an inshallah or two is a small act of resistance, a direct jab at the belief that Islam — and by association, Arabic — is sinister.Garnishing your conversation with an inshallah or two is a small act of resistance, a direct jab at the belief that Islam — and by association, Arabic — is sinister. It’s the linguistic equivalent of donning a headscarf in solidarity for World Hijab Day. Or the spoken version of the anti-Trump ad near Dearborn, Michigan, a city with a large population of Arab-Americans, which was written in Arabic and read: “Donald Trump can’t read this, but he is scared of it.” It’s a subtle political statement, a critique of Republicans who believe certain sounds, like incantations, must cross the lips in order to defeat evil (“radical Islamic terrorism”) whereas other sounds (“inshallah,” “Allahu akbar”) must remain taboo.
But why inshallah and not some other Arabic word? There are dozens of other common Islamic expressions, including bismillah (in the name of God), barakallah (blessings of God), and alhamdulillah (praise be to God), that haven’t crossed into English (though bismillah makes a cameo in Queen’s 1975 classic “Bohemian Rhapsody”).
The reason is that inshallah is a charming, maddening, and undeniably useful expression. On paper, the word is very similar to “God willing,” its Christian, English equivalent. It’s an acknowledgment of the human inability to foresee or control the future while harking to the belief that a Greater Being holds humanity’s fragile plans in its omnipotent hands.
But unlike the English “God willing,” inshallah also serves as a convenient preordained excuse for what may go wrong. If your toilet is broken and your plumber says he’ll come “tomorrow, inshallah,” you may be in for quite a wait. In countries such as Egypt, inshallah has expanded into a society-wide verbal tic invoked by Muslims, Christians, and even the nonreligious for occasions as mundane as ordering a hamburger or riding an elevator — a phenomenon that a 2008 article in the New York Times dubbed “inshallah creep.”
That’s what has made it so easy for visitors to pick up. Inshallah conveys an uncertainty that “hopefully” lacks. “The project will be done by 9 p.m., hopefully” implies that a sense of control still resides in your hands and thus a lingering amount of responsibility if the deadline isn’t met. “The project will be done by 9 p.m., inshallah,” by contrast, indicates that some outside force — an indolent contract worker, slow trains, spotty internet, even fate itself — is now in the driver’s seat and that if things go wrong, it’s not your fault.
It’s also exotic in a way that the down home “God willing” can never be. That phrase conjures images of church pews and pro-life protests outside Planned Parenthood — nothing that progressive Americans typically want to associate with. Throwing inshallah into a sentence here or there — “Tom will be filing that report tonight, inshallah!” — signals membership in a well-educated, well-traveled, and tolerant urban elite.
Arabic-speaking Americans don’t seem to mind this bit of friendly borrowing. Marya Hannun, a Palestinian-American doctoral student based in Washington, D.C., called the trend “charming,” explaining that when speaking Arabic, non-Muslims as well as Muslims use inshallah. She described its use among Americans as “solidarity and finding meaning in a language other than your own.”
“I say it every now and then,” said Thorstan Fries, a New York-based consultant who told me that he picked it up from a college friend studying Arabic. “I started saying it much more frequently after a trip to Morocco a couple years ago. They say it all the time, and I think it’s cool.”
Of course, to view a Middle Eastern import as exotic is also to risk condescension. The very first recorded use of inshallah in the English language was not just atrociously Orientalist — it was also incorrect. In his 1857 work The Kingdom and People of Siam, John Bowring, a British politician and the fourth governor of Hong Kong, wrote, “Inshallah! Such promptitude was, I believe, never before exhibited in an Asiatic Court.” But inshallah is used exclusively for events that have not yet occurred. What Bowring likely meant was mashallah, an Islamic phrase expressing amazement at an existing set of circumstances.
The first to use it in natural speech, not in a grandiose reference to foreign peoples, was T. E. Lawrence, otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence viewed Arabs with respect, lived among them, and adopted some of their customs — including, apparently, the habit of checking plans against the divine’s schedule. “I have been photographing this last week—and will more next. Developing too inshallah,” he wrote in a letter dated 1911.
Britain’s entanglements in the Middle East, North Africa, and India put it in intimate contact with Muslim peoples decades before the United States became similarly involved. Inshallah followed on the heels of colonialism. For the British upper classes, Arabic was a sign of distinction; the Arabists dominated Britain’s Foreign Office for decades, and Prime Minister Anthony Eden — who sent Britain’s reputation in the Middle East plummeting with the Suez crisis — prided himself on his fluency.
At the time, American English was far more preoccupied with the apparatchiks and cosmonauts of the Cold War. It wasn’t until the expansion of U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, particularly after 9/11, that the region became a national preoccupation. (Though the growing number of Muslim and Middle Eastern immigrants in the United States has also helped popularize the word. One person I spoke to learned it from Arabic-speaking students she encountered at her university; another googled it after he saw Muslim friends posting the word on Facebook.) The study of Arabic has blossomed across the United States, and a legion of American military officials, diplomats, journalists, government contractors, NGO workers, academics, and students flowed in. Upon their return home, many brought with them the ubiquitous, malleable, and easily pronounceable inshallah.
It’s now common currency among the younger generations at the State Department, journalists who’ve spent time in the region, and soldiers who deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan — and, increasingly, among the people who travel in the same elite circles as these folk. As one colleague, who uses the word but has no background in the Middle East, told me, “I learned it because everyone at every damn development NGO uses it.” Others I know say they picked it up from artifacts of contemporary popular culture, like Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, which was adapted into a movie in 2007, and Rabia Chaudry’s book, Adnan’s Story, published this year.
There’s now a good chance inshallah may find a permanent home in English. But those afraid of creeping inshallah should take heart. This wouldn’t be the first time that the word has imbedded itself in a Western language. Ojalá is a common Spanish word often translated as “hopefully.” In fact, ojalá is merely the Hispanicized pronunciation of inshallah, which made its way into the language during the centuries of Muslim rule in Spain that ended in 1492. Yet as far as I can tell, despite this obvious case of linguistic jihad, neither Spain nor the 20 other countries where Spanish is the official national language has yet fallen to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nor has asking a waitress for more pancake syrup — from the Arabic sharab, a versatile word that the West acquired during a previous episode of war-induced cultural cross-pollination, the Crusades — ever proved to spontaneously convert anyone to Islam. Nor has spending hours studying algebra — another one of those menacing “al” words — ever made anyone more inclined to funnel one’s life savings to al Qaeda.
It turns out short vowels, sibilants, and fricatives might not be as magical as some have been urging us to believe. Donald Trump and his national security team would be wise to take note. God willing.