I was going to entitle this article “Islam and the Arabian Mind,” but it would have been a little predictable and over generalized. I think that in order to appreciate the ways in which religion permeates every aspect of life in the Middle East, the concept of “Inshaallah” is a good place to start.
I have spent around ten years on the Arabian peninsula, working a long way from home, and I think it has taken me this long to understand the Arabic concept of “Inshaallah” and the fatalistic concept of life and death that prevails in that desert kingdom. About a year ago, a Saudi I knew well died in a car crash. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was precipitated out of the back seat of a car his friend was driving head first through the windscreen. The others in the car survived because they had been wearing seat belts. However, on offering condolences, I heard the same point of view repeated time and time again. “There was nothing anyone could have done. ‘Inshaallah.’ It was God’s will: his time had come.” Of course, this totally ignored the fact that the victim had decided not to take a basic safety precaution.
First, what does “Inshaallah” mean? The usual translation given is “God Willing.” However, “Inshaallah” goes a lot further than that. It includes the idea that we are all at the mercy of God or Allah in every moment of our lives. “Will the plane come on time?” “Yes…Inshaallah.” “Will I get the money tomorrow?” “Of course…Inshaallah.”
Confused people from the west often ask: “Does Inshaallah mean ‘yes’ or ‘no’ ?” There is no simple answer to this question as it is genuinely difficult to interpret “Inshaallah’s” extreme ambiguity. Sometimes it is used to take the wind out of the sails of an “arrogant” westerner who seems too businesslike and purposeful for the fatalistic Arabic mentality. “Please deliver this package by 1 p.m. tomorrow.” “Inshaallah,” comes the inevitable response, intoned as a clear rebuke to someone who has forgotten that God can upset our plans at any moment.
I suppose, that in the western world we more or less believe our fate is in our own hands. Indeed it is a philosophy and way of thinking that has served us very well and has thrusted us technologically far ahead of more traditional and overtly religious societies.
In Saudi Arabia, which has one of the highest occurrences of road death in the world, each new statistic tends to be written off as the inevitable will of God: his time had come and so he died. No one could have stopped it. The particular conditions that came together to cause a death were secondary in causal terms. The essential and profound reason for the death was that Allah had decided to take back a soul. Of course, in these circumstances, diatribes on road safety tend to fall on deaf ears. Even the gory piles of mangled metal and human flesh that I have often seen on the Saudi highways do not provide any serious reconsideration or deterrent.
Between pious Muslims, “Inshaallah” is a way of displaying a deep faith in Allah and his immanence in all material phenomena. They could agree with John Lennon that life is what happens to you, “while you’re busy making other plans.” A good Arabian Muslim should always bear in mind that the will of God might be different to his own personal wishes.
The traditional westerner’s response to “Inshaallah” is one of impatience and contempt. There is the strong idea that lazy people are excusing their own incompetence and lack of ability by some spurious reference to the will of God. However, this point of view if expressed directly will deeply offend a pious Muslim. He will speak of the arrogant westerner who ignores the power and influence of God who is immanent in everything. The first cause of all things. The Prime Mover, who remains Himself forever unmoved. The West needs to comprehend this fundamental belief in the Arab world in order to come to any clear understanding of the Muslim Arab mentality.
[Jon Aristides is the author of The Mask of Priam, published by Kudos Press in 2001. His new book, The Black Scarab of Amun-Ra, will be published shortly by American-Book Publishing.]
See Jon Aristides’s website www.jon-aristides.com for his new book, The Black Scarab Of Amun-Ra.”