x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Where there's a will...

The wisdom and absurdity of a certain Arabic phrase, Insha'allah.

When I still lived in Cairo, I went to apply for a visa to visit Uzbekistan, and ended up talking to the resident consul about religious culture in Egypt. Something was perplexing the Uzbek diplomat. "The other day," he told me, "I phoned an official called Mohammad. And I said, 'Is this Mr Mohammad?' But the voice at the other end, instead of saying 'Yes' or 'How can I help you', replied, 'Insha'allah'!"

God willing, I thought, giggling, my name is Youssef Rakha. "It is very strange. There are no insha'allahs about it. How could God will or not will that? It has already been willed. No one would dream of saying that in Uzbekistan." I was not about to disagree with the consul - and not only because I needed the visa. He had cited a particularly amusing variation on a common complaint of non-Egyptians. He was bemoaning the Insha'allah Syndrome. Even to a deeply religious mind, his incredulity would be easy to understand.

A conditional clause derived from a verse of the Quran to the effect that nothing happens until God wills it, insha'allah is traditionally an expression of hope or prayer: "Insha'allah, this year I will pass my exam." In a similar, practically secular framework, it has been used to reassure ("Insha'allah, your papers will go through"), to express determination ("Insha'allah, I will teach her a lesson"), resignation ("Insha'allah, by then, the political situation may have improved") or simply for emphasis: "Tomorrow at eight, insha'allah.

Less seriously, the phrase is an exclamation of surprise ("Who might this be, insha'allah?"), disapproval ("So you will go on smoking until tomorrow, then, insha'allah?"), sarcastic negation ("Ah, insha'allah..." - meaning "Never") or, as in the case of the Uzbek consul's phone call, utter boredom on the part of Mr Mohammad. All of which is not to mention the function Westerners pick on the most: the tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility, especially in cases - like being expected to answer a simple factual question - where acknowledging the responsibility is both straightforward and necessary. Like the English "Sorry" and "Thank you", however, overuse has rendered the expression, used colloquially, less meaningful over time: just a diversion with little relevance beyond indicating that you no longer want to talk.

Not until the 1990s did anyone think about it, really. And they did so not in the context of American-inspired administrative reform or theological argument, but simply to register the rising influence of Salafi Islam, the most pronounced evidence of which was the gradual tendency to replace "Good morning" and "Good evening" - even, in some cases, the "Allo" with which people routinely answer the phone - with "Assalamu 'alaykum", now deemed the official, divinely stamped Muslim greeting. Likewise the Salafi inspired insha'allah: Salafis regard the expression as a necessary adjunct to every statement in the future tense, reflecting a literalist interpretation of the aforementioned Quranic verse: "Say not I will until [you say] God wills it." When pressed, orthodox theologians will in fact point out that (a) the verse refers to what you should believe, not what you should say, and (b) even if you were to think it necessary - for reasons of barakah, or blessing - to say insha'allah, it is generally a better idea to say it in your heart rather than verbally flaunt it, since what is in the heart counts for more than what is on the tongue.

So much for religion. From the secular point of view, Westerners who are eager to understand it should think about insha'allah not simply, in reductive and orientalist terms, as a way for those lazy and fanatical Ay-rabs to avoid the dictates of work and logic, but rather, more deeply, as a cultural trope. The tendency to absolve oneself of responsibility is certainly annoying, and in many cases the decision to say insha'allah is informed by nothing more high-minded than the drive to get rid of someone. But in the end such attitudes are but the side effects of a mentality that could conceivably act as a corrective to the obsessively materialist standpoint of Western culture. To a far greater extent than its Western counterpart, the Muslim world view recognises the limits of human endeavour and is less uptight about time. Things happen because you make them, when you make them, but there are factors beyond the individual's control, and to assume that reason and exertion are all there is to accomplishment or efficiency is not only to overlook dimensions of life but to give in to vanity, too.

The Western critique of insha'allah has a point, but so does Muslim fatalism. Big questions like death, what happens after death and how life might be lived in preparation for death are, after all, unlikely to acquire scientific answers. No medicine or technology can prevent an unexpected heart attack from instantly taking a young person's life, which does not mean that open-heart surgery should be made illegal. Yet the cliché that every scientific good brings about a proportional evil - once again, to be swallowed with a generous pinch of salt - seems true if not at the material level then at the level of spiritual fulfilment. Cryogenics, for example, seems like a terribly barren alternative to the ecstasy of a Sufi invocation ceremony - which shares the same ultimate objective of eternal life.

Among Egyptians in particular, the belief in fate, which long predates Islam, is so strong and so pervasive that no one ever dares to question it. When you say insha'allah, in this context, you are - at some deep, ancestral level - acknowledging the limits of your power and professing the patience to wait. It seems more modest, more sensible and generally better for mental health to understand that there is only so much you can do in a given situation, relegating the rest to a greater power. Of course the incumbent risks are considerable, and the theory should be applied with caution. Bad science, inertia and inefficiency can readily result from the belief that all is in the hands of a greater power. But even within the framework of the Muslim faith, theology makes a distinction between positive tawakkul (relying on God) and negative tawakkul (absolving yourself of responsibility on the pretext of such reliance). Nothing happens until God wills it, sure, but the individual will is equally essential; and giving your name on the phone is something you can quite safely keep God out of without incurring His wrath.