Columns Jeffrey Weiss: My Way to the Egress Opinion

The Arabic word that perfectly describes the uncertainty of my condition

In the Quran, Muslims are instructed to use the Arabic phrase "insha'Allah" as a reminder of divine power. RNS photo courtesy of Aysha Khan

(RNS) Around six months into brain cancer, I try to be honest about obligations and requests. You want me to do something tomorrow? If I decide I’m up for it, I have an answer:

“Inshallah.”

Heh. It’s Arabic, of course. Tied to Islam and Allah, of course. But “Allah” simply means “God.” And the meaning is similar to plenty of other religion-themed idioms.

“God willing and the creek don’t rise” is an American expression, attributed to 18th-century Congressman Benjamin Hawkins. Orthodox Jews may offer “be-ezrat hashem,” or “with God’s help.” The Arabic expression translates directly into “God willing” or “if God wills.”

But I know just enough to understand that it’s sometimes used with a wry grin more than a devout nod: Yeah, sure. I’ll get all over that if the Almighty sets that up. Right. Ubetcha. Maybe.

That’s partly why I use it. Like the idiomatic use by many Muslims, I realize that my commitment is likely to be a bit of “maybe, maybe not” and I like to deliver that, even if the people I’m telling don’t really understand it.

I looked up the use of “inshallah” by Muslims and found more than a few clergy-style finger wags. Don’t use God as an excuse!

I found a column in Arab News from a couple of years ago:

“Apparently, this word has become associated with what is called ‘second-hand procrastination,’ i.e. never getting things done … for other people.” The columnist then gives an example of a person trying to fix a visa problem:

“He hands the required papers to the official, and waits. When he checks the status of the application one week later, the response is: ‘Not finished yet, Insha Allah tomorrow it will be.’ He checks tomorrow and it’s not done yet, but ‘Insha Allah next week.’ He visits next week, hoping his papers are OK now, only for the official to indifferently mutter with his eyes on his monitor: ‘Not finished yet, Insha Allah next week.”

Partly, I think I use it as my own gentle nod at Muslim culture mixing in America.

One of the strongest and most powerful facts about American English is that we’ve grabbed words from any language if it offered some interesting choices.

“Chutzpah” came from Yiddish. “Chaise longue” from French. “Okra” from Nigerian. And “algebra,” ahem, from Arabic.

And yet, anti-Muslim fears in the U.S. push against even the innocent use of a simple phrase.

The New York Times reported last year that an Iraqi college student (and legal refugee) was booted off a plane in California by Southwest Airlines because she was on the phone using “inshallah.”

Sigh.

So if my use pushes such American abuse away even slightly, it’s a small positive to try.

And it reminds me a bit of the captain in one of the songs from Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” He’s never sick at sea. And never curses with “a great big D.”

“What never?”

“Hardly ever.”

Heh.

Idiomatic “inshallah” matters more to me because uncertainty is starkly unavoidable for someone with glioblastoma. Median survival is about 15 months.

My odds may push me a few months beyond that, but who knows? And while I’ve not had many of the symptoms that many GBM patients struggle with, I do have fatigue kicking in pretty hard on some days.

Naps aren’t a negative, for sure, as long as they aren’t all day and night. But knowing I have limits, unpredictable limits, is in the front of my head as I plan what I want to do today and next week and next month.

I’m thinking about trips. I’m wondering about a new restaurant. I’m digging deeply into the huge batch of new and not yet strongly tested treatments for an as-yet incurable disease.

And by the way, do I wanna join some folks for lunch next week?

Inshallah, my friends. Inshallah.

(Jeffrey Weiss writes the RNS column “My Way to the Egress”)

About the author

Jeffrey Weiss

2 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • I love the use of colloquial idioms, and Inshallah surely meets the case, but I think it will be awhile before it meets common usage. Meanwhile Jeff, you’re still clicking on all cylinders.

  • Hallelujah on this Shabbat, and every day, and every moment, unto the ages of ages!

    Inshallah. If God wills! Indeed, this phrase may convey a person`s relation to God.

    Brother Jeffrey Weiss, the phrase reminds me of two persons in the New Testament. It also reminds me of Allahu Akbar used in a non violent way by Arab Christians.

    A.
    “2 A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”

    3 Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.” (Matthew 8,2-3)
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+8

    B.
    But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

    23 “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

    24 Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
    (Mark 9, 22-24)
    https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+9&version=NIV

    C.
    “To a Western mind, Allahu Akbar sounds like a threat. What do Christians of the Holy Land think about them?

    We Christians also say Allahu Akbar. This is an expression of our understanding that the Creator is great. We don’t want this phrase to be related to terrorism and crimes.

    We refuse to associate these words with massacres and murders.

    We speak against using this phrase in this context. Those who do, they insult our religion and our religious values.

    Those using these words while taking some unreligious, unspiritual, uncivilized actions are harming the religion.

    Do people say Allahu Akbar in church?

    Of course.

    For us, Allah is not an Islamic term. This is a word used in Arabic to indicate the Creator who’s made the world we are living in. So when we say Allah in our prayers we mean the Creator of this world.

    In our prayers and pleas, in our Orthodox Christian religious ceremonies we use exactly this word. We say, glory be to Allah in all times. We say Allah a lot during our liturgy. It’s erroneous to think that the word Allah is only used by Muslims.

    We the Arab Christians say Allah in our Arabic language as a way to identify and address the Creator in our prayers.

    Allahu Akbar is an expression of our faith.

    One must not use these words for non-religion-related purposes in order to justify violence and terror.”
    https://www.rt.com/op-edge/227871-palestinian-orthodox-christian-bishop/

    May Allah(Elohim), our Father in Heaven, help you, according to His divine and eternal knowledge and power!

ADVERTISEMENTs