Inch'allah and other misunderstandings

Calligraphy representing the word "Allah"

No matter what I say, no matter what I ask for, regardless of the nature of my comments, my observations- the first, and sometimes only answer I hear is "Inchallah"... "If God wills".

A few examples:
1. Me: "See you tomorrow" /Friend: "Inchallah"
2. Climbing into a taxi: "To the train station, please"/
Driver: "Inchallah"
3. Me: " Let's have these articles ready for next week"/
Colleague: " Inchallah"

"If God wills, If God wills, If God wills"… There is simply no getting around it. The doomed colloquialism sending shivers down my spine. Whether you need to make an appointment, inquire about upcoming events, or ask if the local grocery store has eggs, the answer will inevitably and invariably be: "If God wills".

To most non-Moroccans in Morocco, "inchallah" is the arch-enemy,a frustrating expression they interpret to mean "maybe".
"Maybe" we will get there in time, "maybe" I will come to the appointment, "maybe" we will make that train... not surprising you should see them shiver at the mere mention of the word. Some even adopt it as a defense tool in the tourist industry: "Come and visit my shop"..."inchallah".... Come and ride my Camel ..... "inchallah".... "Will you return to visit my museum"...."Inchallah"!! Try it, it works wonderfully- chasing the faux guides and shop hagglers away, as if struck by a spell.

But "Inchallah" does not mean "maybe". If it did, guides and shop owners wouldn't carelessly let you walk away. Inchallah is a form of commitment- but a contingent commitment. In a world where all things are willed by God, and understood only by him, men are faced with much uncertainty: the unexpected sometimes occurs, and men should not be so arrogant as to claim control of time or even control of their future. "Inchallah" is meant to remind us of this contingency. Were we to translate it fairly, we would need more than one word: "provided all goes well, and that the unexpected does not occur, I will fulfill the commitment you have asked for, expecting no blame from you if I cannot deliver, and not blaming you if you cannot deliver". "Inchallah" is a vow of humility.

This can be a rather frustrating experience for those of us who aren't so accustomed to thinking of the world, and of our future, as products of a supra-human will. To those ears this expression can sound like a suspect intention to flake, to default, to avoid promises. It 's a refusal to commit, an ex-ante defense against blame or guilt. And in some ways it is... For lurking behind every "Inchallah" is an even trickier "maktoub ": "It was written" - the ultimate alibi, the complete exemption from responsibility. No one to blame…just another bad twist of fate. Perhaps even a divine punishment. Nothing to feel sorry for… as it all lies well beyond any given individual's powers.

Now in many ways, this "inchallah" business is rather pragmatic- the truth is that we do not have total control and that unexpected events do occur. Actually, we all take these contingencies into account, making room for the unexpected: an accident that cancels a meeting, a reversal in fortune, a change in plans. So while we universally recognize the very contingent nature of life, different cultures adopt different means of expressing it, of weaving it into daily life.

In the West (to use a very broad, vague but hopelessly substituteless term!) unexpected events are thought of as anomalies, deviations from the norm. In the 'usual' course of events, things work out as planned, giving each actor the very real illusion that he or she controls this course of events. To reflect the low probability of unpredicted events occurring (and perhaps to reinforce the illusion of control) we simply omit to reference it, occasionally cracking jokes around it (One of corporate America's favorite expressions in reminding workers to archive all their work is "Just in case you get run over by a bus"; how charming!).

In Morocco, the incessant use of "inchallah" points to the exact opposite understanding of contingency in life. It's "normal" for plans to be canceled, for things to go wrong, for people to lose track. What's unusual is prediction, commitment, fulfillment. Chaos is the norm, order the anomaly... For a Muslim, this intuitive understanding of chaos is based on his or her understanding of God's will. While things may appear chaotic, random and unpredictable from 'down here', they all wonderfully fit in the 'bigger picture', which no individual can dream to comprehend...Life is a constant act of faith, a daily acceptance that God, not I, controls my life. And I owe it to others to remind them : "inchallah"!

So while us westerners run about making promises, talking about tomorrows, acting as if today were a good enough predictor for days to come, Muslims remind each other daily that the present has very little to do with the future, and that your guess is as good as mine as to what 'might' happen. Take away the "divine" explanation of this contingency and you get a rather healthy reminder of the genuine ambiguity of time passing. Generations of rational sciences have taught us to analyze the present with respect to our past, finding comfortable cause and effect links between what was then, and what is today. But these 'ex -post', after the fact rules don't easily translate to' ex-ante', before the fact rules- just as many an inaccurate prediction reminds us. It may not be the works of a fickle God, but humans certainly do have to deal with much darkness regarding the future- a darkness we too hastily mask, by using today as a perfect predictor for tomorrow.

So rather than tear my hair out at the very sound of a hesitant "inchallah" I have found my own, secular substitute: "Things don't always work out the way you want them to, but life goes on...."