You’re Probably Using the Arabic Phrase ‘InshAllah’ All Wrong

The phrase was never meant to be a sign of delusional hope and promises made to be broken.
Joe Biden on tv saying InshAllah
The Arabic Phrase ‘InshAllah’ even made an appearance during the first 2020 U.S. Presidential debate. Photo: AFP/Image: Owi Liunic

In the technicolour world of the Malaysian Islamic cartoon, Omar and Hana, a familiar scene unfolds: A child asks for something, and the well-intentioned parents respond with “InshAllah (God willing)”. Then, they burst into song, “When you promise someone something, you should always say InshAllah… We may plan our lives but really Allah decides so let us say InshAllah.” 


It’s the story of almost every Arabic and non-Arabic speaking Muslim household (minus the serenading). The phrase “InshAllah” (variously transliterated Insha’allah, Insha Allah and In Sha Allah—preferably with a capital ‘A’ to signify singularity as a proper noun) is often offered instead of a definitive yes or no response. It’s an acknowledgement of Allah’s omnipotence, emblematic of the elusive balance between destiny and free will Muslims seek to achieve. 

Omar & Hana

A still from the popular Malaysian Islamic cartoon, Omar and Hana.

Unfortunately, what comes next—with the kid gleefully flying kites and pacifying his parents he’ll stop soon but demonstrating absolutely no intention of doing so—has become the more widely recognised meaning of InshAllah. It’s even used as a verb, with recipients frustrated by the inherent obscurity saying, “Don't InshAllah me”. Translation: While InshAllah originally represented a sincere commitment along the lines of, “Nothing can stop me except the will of God himself,” colloquial usage has instead become, “If God wills it; it will happen, but I’m not going to do anything about it.” 

This meaning—the latter one—has infiltrated the lexicon of much more than the Muslim world, with the phrase having even popped up in the first 2020 presidential debate. Joe Biden dropped it as Donald Trump hedged on saying when he would release his tax returns. “Millions of dollars and you’ll get to see it,” Trump said of the amount he claimed to have paid, as moderator Chris Wallace pressed him to commit to a firm timeline. “When?” the then Democratic presidential candidate Biden interjected. “Inshallah?” As the internet lit up with this phrase clearly deployed as a jibe, it even started vying for a place as the 2020 phrase of the year


InshAllah is also liberally peppered in casual language, with usage reports ranging from Indian actor Vidya Balan speaking about one day having a baby to Lindsay Lohan's somewhat misguided Instagram captions using the phrase, oddly, under sultry photographs and attempts to mourn Saudia Arabia's King Abdullah's demise. Even U.S. military and diplomats stationed in Iraq have picked up the term. But, despite so much ado, attempts to truly understand its essence seem tepid.  

What is InshAllah, exactly? A euphemism for “We’ll see” or a supplication conjuring up Islamophobia, such as when the Iraqi-origin student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was 'kicked off a flight for speaking Arabic' when he ended a phone call with the phrase? Is it a fatalistic cop-out—license to procrastinate and offload responsibility? Or, as President Biden seems to consider it, a sarcastic slur signifying a highly contingent outcome requiring divine intervention to ever materialise? Never have three syllables been laden with such pliability of interpretation. 


The deluge of responses to Wajahat Ali’s 2016 op-ed in The New York Times titled, “Inshallah is Good for Everyone”, is as ambiguous as it’s ambivalent. “Yet another phrase...that obfuscates truth, requires no thought, and invokes a fantasy-land deity...” says one reader, while another labels it, “a verbal tic you pick up if you spend more than a fortnight in the Middle East.” InshAllah is “ antidote to our narcissistic hyper-individualism,” writes reader Pete C. while another reader deems it, “...a relic of a culture defined by geography and marked by scarcity and violence.” Perhaps the best explanation, though, by a New-York born American fluent in Arabic, is that InshAllah, while sometimes a, “sneaky escape clause” is also “a lovely harbinger of future indefiniteness [which] smooths hard corners with the reality of uncontrollable fate.” 

While InshAllah has some close cultural equivalents, such as the Spanish “ojalá” (derived from the Arabic phrase itself), the Italian “magari” (which can mean “I wish”, “sadly, no” or “maybe”) and sayings such as “God willing and the creek don’t rise” or “Man proposes; God disposes”, one would be hard-pressed to find a direct parallel—likely because it’s more than a phrase. It’s a mindset.  


“This goes deep into the ethos of Islamic culture,” said Dr. Syed Nomanul Haq, dean of Liberal Arts at Lahore's University of Management and Technology, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, who is widely recognised for his contributions to Islamic history and philosophy. “In Sha’a Allah literally translates to In (if) Sha’a (will) and Allah. When you say In Sha’a Allah, for instance, regarding a Covid patient for whom you wish recovery, there are two possible outcomes. If he survives, God willed it. And if he doesn’t, that’s God’s free will,” he explained. “Either way, one’s faith in God remains intact. Allah’s will isn’t constrained by moral logic, rational standards or ethical systems. It’s not ontological; it’s a matter of His volition.” 

But that doesn’t mean humans are off the hook. Haq explained that the Islamic doctrine of “Kasb” or acquisition represents the middle ground between moral responsibilities and God’s omnipotence. While God creates man’s actions, man “acquires” them, thereby becoming responsible. A common ancient parable used to explain the concept of InshAllah is that of the camel. It is a Muslim’s duty first to tie his camel, and then leave it to God. InshAllah, then, becomes an affirmation of divine providence after due human diligence—not an excuse to do nothing. 

Omar and Hanna

The Malaysian cartoon Omar and Hanna features an InshAllah nasheed (Islamic song).

Speaking to the creative team behind the Omar and Hana cartoon, pre-production leader and scriptwriter for the InshAllah nasheed (Islamic song), Siti Afifah Imran, said, “It was important for us to have the parents be positive role-models. So, you see the father fulfilling his promise, and the son learning from his mistake when he doesn’t immediately oblige.” Even in Malaysia, the director of Omar and Hana, Nabil Baharum, noted that the word is sometimes misunderstood and misused. “Hence, it was crucial to stress that saying InshAllah means we’re giving our word and we will do it,” explained Fadila A. Rahman, the show’s creative producer.

References to the phrase in the Holy Quran underscore its importance, such as an incident narrated in Surah Al-Kahf, where the Prophet (PBUH) is said to have not received revelations for 15 days when he inadvertently forgot to say InshAllah. A translation from the Surah (verses 23 and 24) reads, “And never say of anything, ‘I will definitely do this tomorrow,’ without adding, ‘if Allah so wills!’” The original potency of the phrase, thus, is undisputed. But the roots of free will in Western philosophy, whereby the future is “controllable” by man, explain why it was the colloquial, filtered-down version of InshAllah—not the original one which requires a sort of acquiescence to a supreme being’s discretion—which resonated more profoundly in the western world.


The widespread misunderstanding, however, may partially be Muslims’ fault. In a 2019 video by YouTuber Khalid Al Ameri, he interviewed multiple people in the Middle East and asked them the simple question: “When you ask for something and they say InshAllah, is it gonna happen?” Some respondents said it probably wouldn’t, while others burst out laughing at the idea. The most popular response, it seemed, was that it depended on who you were speaking to, and it was often a way to soften the blow of saying no, an understanding informed by their experience working in the Middle East. 

“Culturally, people in non-western countries don’t want to say no,” said Haq, “This cultural etiquette, or weakness, often makes them promise something they can’t deliver.” For many non-Arab speakers, that may be precisely how the “wrong” meaning was absorbed, he explained, citing the common example of the notoriously late carpenter or plumber who never shows up on time—and might not show up at all—despite invoking the holy phrase.

When we pick up new words organically, a lot of the onus of understanding the context in which the word or phrase is used is on the speaker, not the listener. And as the original speakers of this phrase, it’s up to Muslims to back up the utterance with the niyyat or intention to follow through—and walk the talk. 

Perhaps if we, as Muslims, could just commit to saying no instead of misusing a phrase meant to signify hopefulness and not resignation, the rest of the world would understand it in the spirit it was intended and stop culturally appropriating it out of context. InshAllah. 

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