When I was growing up, my family used the expression “inshallah” a lot. For Muslims, the term — which translates to “If God wills” — is auspicious: If you want something to happen, you should say inshallah before you say anything else about it. The Quran says as much in its 18th chapter, Surah Al-Kahf. “And never say of anything, ‘Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,’ except [when adding], ‘If Allah wills.’”
Despite not speaking Arabic (as Sri Lankan immigrants, my parents spoke Tamil), my family prefaced many sentences with inshallah. We attached it to everything from the grandiose (“Inshallah, I will live in a big house one day”) to the mundane (“Inshallah, I will get paid tomorrow”). Whenever my mother wanted me to clean my room or vacuum the carpet, I tried to procrastinate by telling her I’d do it later. She’d tell me to add inshallah to the end of my promises: “If you don’t say inshallah, it won’t get done.”
But inshallah’s meaning is unstable. These days, this pious sense of optimism might be overshadowed by a more popular use. Inshallah has come to take on a somewhat cynical edge, invoked to appease others or change the subject — when someone is invited to a wedding he or she has no plans of attending, the person might say, “Inshallah, we will try” — or even to send a sarcastic signal of disbelief. This last use has sometimes found its way into non-Muslim mouths: Unaware, perhaps, of its religious significance, President Biden used the expression in reference to Bernie Sanders’s Medicare for All plan, and again while debating Donald Trump in 2020. When Trump suggested he would release his tax returns, Biden responded with a breathless “When? Inshallah?”
Contrary to these more cynical invocations, inshallah’s religious context has always registered an element of hope. This concept isn’t unique to Islam. Browsing Twitter, I regularly find people “manifesting” and putting hopes “out into the universe.” Whether or not you are religious, there is comfort in the idea of a higher power, a force beyond the mundane that organizes and intercedes in your life as it unfolds. But practices like manifesting depend on an unrelentingly positive worldview that focuses on people achieving their material ambitions. Inshallah requires us to embrace the possibility that we might not realize our hopes, that what we can envision for our lives is paltry in comparison with that which God plans. The benefits of this realization may not be evident for years after it arises, and those benefits might not be material. Understanding inshallah requires humble patience as God’s will unfurls. It demands a suspension of the ego in the face of cosmic forces and provides a little order to what can be a chaotic life — knowing that you are on the path you are supposed to be on, whether or not it’s what you expected.