The Single Most Important Arabic Word Posted by on Nov 25, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Inshallah

Listen, I like procrastinating as much as the next guy. I like to live in the moment, you know? And sometimes that means not doing things that would make that moment boring and unmemorable, and pushing that burden on some future version of yourself that will hate you. I’m not the worst procrastinator in the world, but it’s not often that I’ll decide to get a jump start on my taxes or pay my bills early or do next week’s work this week. Life’s too short! Sometimes living in the moment means wasting what precious little time is given to you by binge-watching the latest garbage TV show.

Fair enough. We’ve all done it. But in the Middle East, they have taken procrastination to a whole new level, and it all comes from one little innocent-sounding word: inshallah.

Inshallah literally means “if God wills it,” though it’s not really used the same way we use “God willing.” It’s closer to “we’ll see.” It’s stuck at the end of any kind of declaration about the future, large or small, good or bad, accompanied by a humble shrug and a resigned smile. “I hope it doesn’t rain this afternoon.” Inshallah. “Next week my parents are coming to town!” Inshallah. “Yes, I will absolutely, definitely, positively pay you back those 10 bucks I owe you tomorrow.” Inshallah.

Basically, inshallah absolves you of any kind of responsibility about the future so that you don’t break any promises. After all, it’s the future! You can’t control the future, can you? I’d love to be able to come to your birthday party on Wednesday, but anything could happen between now and then! I might get hit by a truck and fall into a coma, and then I will be breaking a promise I made to you that I would be there. Better to just leave it in the hands of fate. If it’s “decided” that I will attend your party, I will of course attend. All I can do is express my desire to be present and hope that the Powers That Be agree with me. If not, it’s not my fault!

As you might imagine, this can quickly get frustrating, especially when relying on others to get something done. Westerners are used to a more goal-driven, self-motivated attitude in which God more or less minds his own business. In the Middle East, you’ll find that God often wills it that you spend your day chatting idly over sugary tea with your friends and neighbors than getting anything accomplished. If something needs doing right now, it’s up and at ’em, no time to waste! But if it needs to be done in an hour, well . . . inshallah.

The thing to realize about this slippery little word is that it’s a two-way street. That’s right, you get just as much right to inshallah yourself out of promises and commitments as anyone else. Being pestered by a local merchant to spend some expensive time in his shop? “I’ll be back in an hour, inshallah.” Can’t pay your rent on time? “I’ll have it next month, inshallah.” The wife wants you to get off the couch and do the dishes for once? “Absolutely, I promise, I’ll do them today! Inshallah.”

After all, those dishes might need to stay dirty for a very good reason. God works in mysterious ways.

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. sunshine:

    There is a little cultural misunderstanding here. this expression is actually a requirement for followers of Islam in their daily occurrences and speech; God is the ultimate decider of anything we intend or would like to do.
    If you read attentively the Holy text, it will become more clear; but also from a young age children apply it yet understand it later as adults. It may be expressed in different ways in other religions, and people may not necessarily say it so audibly but it is there in subtle ways whether in Mother Theresa’s profound humility in the face of adversity, or in how often some Catholics sign themselves besides when just entering church. Amen and “Ainsi Soit-il are also expressions that”acknowledge that God is the Ultimate Decider’ African American preachers will ask their parishioners to say “amen” at the uttterance of the powerful messages that they deliver when inspired by the Divine, and when the Beatles sang : Let it Be” it was a powerful reminder that we are not the ones in Control, but we can only control our reactions to the events of life..I hope this can put a little more perspective to what you label as annoying. Thank you for the opportunity to reflect on my beloved expression Incha Allah. God Bless (You)

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