Is it a Yes or a No?

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“Nshallah”, lebanese for ʾin shāʾa llāh, meaning God willing, or if Allah wills, although claimed to be an essentially Islamic expression, is more accurately understood as a Middle Eastern, and especially Levantine, expression. Its enthusiastic utterers include Lebanese of all religious backgrounds. It’s  equivalent to saying hopefully.

In the Quran, Muslims are told that they should never say they would do a particular thing in the future without adding in-sha’-Allah to the statement. This usage of in-sha’-Allah is from Islamic scripture, Surat Al Kahf (18):23-24: “And never say of anything, ‘I shall do such and such thing tomorrow. Except (with the saying): ‘If God wills!’ And remember your Lord when you forget…'”

Inshallah is actually a phrase and not one word, but the words are combined into one for easier pronunciation. Three words make up this phrase: “In”, which means “if”; “Shaa’ ”, which means “will;” and “Allah,” meaning “God.” Literally, it means, “If God wills so.”

It is one of the most common expressions, or verbal appendages, in the Arab world and beyond it: Persian, Turkish, and Urdu speakers, among others, use the expression liberally, but it is most popular in our region.

If someone asks us to provide them with something, or do something for them, or just plainly anything that has to do with an action in the future, instead of saying “yes sure, or that’s fine I can make it”, we say Nshallah. It is widespread and has both, religious and cultural background.

Different ways of its use:

  • With true heart and hope:

“I would like to have you over for dinner this Friday”

“Nshallah, we would love to”

  • Or just honest to goodness uncertainty:

“Are you coming to our meeting this Friday?”

“Nshallah” (meaning: I have no clue if I’ll be able to make it but I’ll try)

  • As second-hand procrastination, of never getting things done or never committing:

“So are you submitting that document I asked you about last Friday?”

“Nshallah” (meaning: I probably won’t but I am avoiding saying it)

  • A way of brushing off someone. Somehow it’s become a word that is used most frequently by mothers. “Mom, bidde el spiderman li jdid, fina njibo” (mom, I want the new spiderman, can we get it?) to which the reply would be “nshallah,” which really means: no, but I can’t be bothered to go into an argument with you right now.

On one hand it is reflective of our culture, we are brought up to think that saying a simple No is disagreeable and we should always be convivial with the other person, hence a no becomes seen as a reflection of our unfriendly and unhelpful self, which god forbid we are! Since its meaning signifies that we do not have a choice in the matter as it is not decided by us, but rather a greater force, we can’t be held accountable of future actions.

On the other hand it’s a fear of disappointing the other person on the spot that makes this word a good escape route, with the background knowledge of the meaning of the word, both party will understand in between the words, that “I might not be able to make it, but let’s not upset you at the moment and wait maybe the circumstances will change and I’ll be able to make it after all,” turning the negative into a hopeful maybe.

One’s complete understanding of the different nuances in intonation, body posture, and size of the pupil, in detecting a lie or a genuine answer , play an important role in deciphering which Nshallah one is receiving.

To those people who are still trying to figure it out, I say good luck!

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