The popular phrase “in sha Allah”, God willing, became headline news a few months ago when a young man was removed from a plane for saying it loudly while talking to his uncle over the phone, and it was perceived as ‘potentially threatening’.
What followed was huge interest in the phrase “in-sha-Allah”, that led to a New York Times article called “In-sha-Allah is Good for Everyone” where the article writer, Wajahat Ali, portrays the sad reality of what In-sha-Allah has come to mean these days:
“Most commonly, in-sha-Allah is used in Muslim-majority communities to escape introspection, hard work, and strategic planning and instead outsource such responsibilities to an omnipotent being, who somehow, at some time, will intervene and fix our collective problems.”
If you ask any non-Muslim who lived in a majority Muslim country, they would tell you how much they dread hearing the phrase “In sha Allah” from government officials or colleagues because they believe it will not happen. I even remember a senior non-Muslim colleague yelling at somebody saying “No, I don’t want to hear In-sha-Allah! Tell me, will you do it or not?” In which, the reply was “In sha Allah”!
So, how did In-sha-Allah devolve into this status and become so abused and misused? What is the true meaning of In-sha-Allah and the story behind it? How can we restore the status of In-sha-Allah to its respectful place? This is what we will delve into in this article.
The story behind in-sha-Allah
In his early years of preaching, Prophet Muhammad’s faced a lot of hostility and accusations from the local tribes in Mecca who were weary of his new message of Oneness of God. He was called a liar, a madman, a magician and the Meccans kept on plotting ways to stop his message.
One of these plots included paying a visit to the Jewish tribes that settled in Arabia and asking them to verify the credentials of this new Prophet. The Meccans – even though they were pagans – believed that the Jews were the people of the Book and had scriptures from God. So the Jewish leaders gave the Meccans a litmus test: 3 questions they should ask the new Prophet. If he answered 2 of them and not the third, then he was a true Prophet. Otherwise, he was a liar.
The Meccans were ecstatic! Finally, they thought they could corner the Prophet and ask him questions which he wouldn’t know the answers to since he was not from the people of the Book and was illiterate. The questions were:
- Tell us about the young men who went into the Cave
- Tell us about a King who ruled the east and the west
- Tell us about the Soul.
When the Prophet was asked these 3 questions. He replied, “I’ll inform you tomorrow”. And he did not add the phrase “in-sha-Allah”.
For 15 days, no revelation came to Prophet Muhammad and the hostility against him intensified. “You see! We told you! He’s a liar! He doesn’t know the answers to the questions – he said he’ll tell us tomorrow! And it’s been 15 days now!” The Meccans rejoiced.
On the 15th day, a beautiful chapter of the Qur’an, one that Muslims are encouraged to read every Friday, was revealed to the Prophet and it answered 2 of the questions, and not the third thus passing the test.
Here is the interesting bit. Close to the beginning of this chapter, a very clear message was given to Prophet Muhammad about saying he will do something tomorrow without saying In-sha-Allah. Allah told him in the Qur’an:
And never say of anything, “Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,”
Except [when adding], “If Allah wills.” And remember your Lord when you forget [it] and say, “Perhaps my Lord will guide me to what is nearer than this to right conduct.” [Qur’an: Chapter 18, Verses 23-24]
And, thus, the phrase “In-sha-Allah” became part and parcel of a Muslim’s lingo.
The wisdom behind saying in-sha-Allah
The scholars reflected on this story and drew three pearls of wisdom from it:
1. We say in-sha-Allah to avoid lying
When we say “I’ll do something tomorrow”, and for any reason we are not able to do it, technically we have lied and broken a promise even though circumstances were not in our favor. To stay truthful to our word, we say “In-sha-Allah” so that if something does happen that was out of our control – we do not end up lying.
2. We say in-sha-Allah to stop regret
Let’s say we planned a big day tomorrow with lots of to-dos, and for some reason when tomorrow came, things did not happen as planned. By the end of the day, we would normally feel regret and remorse that we had not achieved what we set out to achieve. But, if “In-sha-Allah” is said while planning to-dos, we will have this calm realization that Allah did not will it, and it did not mean to happen. Thus, no need to regret, and we can move on and plan for the next day.
3. It is asking permission from Allah
When we say in-sha-Allah, we are essentially asking permission from Allah to make this happen as we have planned (Whenever I finish planning my calendar for the following week – I make sure to add a sincere “in-sha-Allah” because I deeply believe without His help and support I can’t get much done.) This form of supplication embedded within in-sha-Allah connects our plans to our spirituality and the Divine.
When we look at the reasons above, we would realize how far we have come in misusing in-sha-Allah. It is time to ask ourselves why? Why are we misusing in-sha-Allah so much?
The fear of saying ‘NO’ is our biggest driver to abusing in-sha-Allah
No one likes to say no. It comes across as disrespectful, it makes others feel bad about themselves, and we do not look good. So, as Muslims we have figured a ‘genius’ way to say no without saying no: just say “In-sha-Allah!”
It helps us argue – quite intelligently – that we had the intention to do something, but “Oh well, Allah did not will it, therefore I don’t need to feel bad about it.”
Let’s have a different, but deeper look. When we say in-sha-Allah and we do not have the sincere intention or resolve to do what we say we are going to do, we are essentially disrespecting Allah . Why? Because if we say in-sha-Allah and put zero or minimal effort towards fulfilling what we have said we would do, we are then – by definition- blaming Allah for our laziness!
As Muslims, we believe that Allah gave us free will and choice. Our Creator also gave us a mind/body to use to get things done. If something was out of our control and it stopped us from doing what we had said we would do, then yes, Allah did not will it. But if we had not put the effort in the first place, then how can we suggest that Allah did not will it?
Learning how to say NO instead of misusing in-sha-Allah
We need a serious positive re-brand as Muslims for the word in-sha-Allah. We must reach a point where when someone hears in-sha-Allah, it should sound less like a joke, and more like “Yes! Definitely! Unless I’m struck by a lighting, I’ll get it done”. And for that to happen, we need to learn the art of saying ‘NO’.
There are three main techniques to use to say “No” instead of “In-sha-Allah” and still sound polite:
While coming across a colleague in the elevator who invites us to a meeting the same afternoon, our normal reaction may be to say “In-sha-Allah” (whilst deep inside, we know we will not attend). So instead of saying In-sha-Allah, we can tell him “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.”
When marked by the boss to work on a brand new project we are not interested in or have no experience in, we would rather avoid working on it. Instead of saying in-sha-Allah in such cases, we can let him/her know that “I’m not the best person for this project because of XYZ reasons,” and can suggest someone else who can contribute better to the project.
It’s an important client meeting that last 3 hours; they ask us to join. Our portion is only 30 minutes. Instead of telling them “In-sha-Allah, I’ll join”, we can simply suggest to them that we would attend for the first half an hour because that is the part most relevant to us and we have commitments to complete.
It is not hard to say ‘NO’ once we have practiced it a few times. In fact, people will appreciate us more than when we misuse in-sha-Allah and break promises.
How can managers/employers encourage a positive use of In-sha-Allah?
Individuals trying to improve how they use in-sha-Allah would only make a small difference in rebranding in-sha-Allah although it is a good start!
What would be more effective is if a cultural transformation happens at work, especially in Muslim majority institutions/countries, that is led by managers/employers who educate their employees on better ways of saying in-sha-Allah and NO. Few practical tips below:
1. Education on the word in-sha-Allah
Feel free to share this article with your colleagues/peers/subordinates and let a discussion begin in the workplace on the misuse of the word In-sha-Allah and how to improve upon it. Make them realize the cost of abusing in sha Allah not only from a spiritual standpoint but also in terms of loss of productivity due to lack of clear communication.Give Feedback when In-sha-Allah is misused: As a manager when you hear the phrase In-sha-Allah being misused; give feedback (publicly and privately), therefore letting them realize that they shouldn’t take In-sha-Allah lightly and you’re holding them accountable for their promises.
2. Make it easier to say “No”
In some company cultures, it becomes career suicide to say “no” to your boss/manager. Take the pressure off from employees by making them realize that saying a legitimate “no” is better than lying and abusing In-sha-Allah.
The phrase In-sha-Allah is a powerful and deeply spiritual phrase that if used properly can really help us understand the link between our work/lives and the unseen world of Allah’s will. I pray that this article sheds some light on how we should use in-sha-Allah, and therefore we can start to save this phrase from becoming a practical joke among Muslims and non-Muslims, and instead we restore the dignity and sanctity of it.