Insh’allah: My Muslim Lesson

During my graduate studies in philosophy and religious studies, I received a fellowship to go live and study Urdu in Pakistan for a year.  My home-stay Pakistani family consisted of a Muslim couple with two teenage boys  living in a poor Shiite village outside of Lahore.  When I arrived, my Urdu was very bad but my ‘father’ spoke some English to help me get started.  My ‘mom’, however, was uneducated, spoke no English and made little eye-contact at first.

But I eventually spent a lot of time with “Mom”.  I would rise early every morning and joined her in the “kitchen” where she prepared the family breakfast comprised of chapatis ( چپاٹی : a pancake-sized flat bread) and some curried vegetables with a little goat meat.

Tiffin Lunch

The kitchen looked much like this picture — a dirt floor with no furniture and a little clay oven.  It was dark and smokey.   At first I would only watched my Pakistani Mom work efficiently as she got water boiling for tea, make breakfast and pack lunches in tiffins.  I would occasionally interrupt and point at things asking what they were called in Urdu.   She patiently trained me in a few of the kitchen duties, like getting the little wood stove started and rolling out the chapatis.  It took about a month before she actually made eye contact with me and we could share basic conversations.

I was a great source of fun for Mom as she made fun of my lack of skills in both rolling out chapatis and speaking Urdu — both of which improved slowly until we were able to have simple conversations and make great breakfasts.  Remember, this was unusual for my mother, for she was the sort of Pakistani woman who work a full burka when she went out in public.

Our conversations progressed and we grew closer.  And when I left Pakistan, she stood at the doorway tearfully saying,

“I remember when you could not roll a round chapati and all we could talk about was “What time is it?”.  Now you can roll a perfect chapati and we can talk about life in this town.  I will miss you.”

I miss her.  She was generous, thoughtful, funny and sweet — a great person to wake to each morning.

insh’alla: “if Allah wills”

One of the many things my Pakistani mother taught me was humility toward the future.  Well, actually, Islam taught me this through her.  For in Islam, one should not speak about the future with certainty but must admit that one’s fate is in the hands of Allah and not in one’s own hands.  To show this attitude, a Muslim says the phrase “insh’allah” (if Allah wills) after any future tense statement about oneself.  Examples may be:

  • “Tomorrow I will visit my sister, insh’allah.”
  • “Next week I will finish repairing the roof , insh’allah.”

My mom taught me to say “insh’allah” in the exact same manner Pakistani mothers taught their little children.  Whenever I left “insh’allah” out of the appropriate sentence, she would gently slap me in the back of my head and remind me with a whisper, “insh’allah!”.  Such training was very effective.  For even to this day, I often feel my head tipping forward under the kind reminder of my Mom’s hand when I say something predicting my future actions — even when I speak in English.  And so sometimes, under my breath, I finish those sentences with “insh’allah”.

Sure, I don’t believe in gods, spirits or ancestors who reward or punish our actions, but over time I came to feel the beauty of a heart which admits uncertainty about the future.  I learned to relax into my tenuous position in life.  On a similar note I wrote here about how thankfulness-before-eating is useful even without needing to focus on a god, and thus likewise I can culture a humble attitude in life without deities.

Ah, writing of chapatis, makes me miss them.  Next week I will teach my daughter to make them, insh’allah!

Note:  See Qur’an Surah 18:23 “And do not say of anything: Surely I will do it tomorrow.”

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

20 responses to “Insh’allah: My Muslim Lesson

  1. Hi Sabio, Years ago, I started to consistently substitute “plan to” for “will” in my statements about my future activities. I like to bear in mind the fact that an earthquake, tsunami, nuclear meltdown, nuclear war, or who knows? even the second coming of Christ may change my plans. No need to invoke Allah.

  2. imarriedaxtian

    Lovely post and lovely message.

  3. atimetorend

    Nice story, how wonderful to have memories like those, and to have built relationships like that.

    Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.” Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and also do this or that.” But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.
    James 4:13-16

    I have been admonished on occassions as well for neglecting to add an “if the Lord wills” disclaimer to a phrase. :^)

  4. That was a delightful story. It reminded me of my own chapati Mom, “Madhav.” Boy, did she have some patience 🙂

  5. aly

    Beautiful post and message. Thank you : )

  6. Hey Dan Gurney :
    “plan to” is a great substitute for “will”. But if you can talk about “the second coming of Christ”, invoking Allah should not bother you! 🙂

    Glad you enjoyed — thank you

    Great NT quote — I had forgotten about that. No many Christians like quoting the book of James!
    Humility is a tough attitude but the wisdom of it is seen in all cultures.

    Rin’dzin Pamo:
    Was you “chapati Mom” in Nepal? Do tell us the story.

    Glad you enjoyed. Thanks for reading !

  7. johnl

    Haha! ‘Tapping’ the back of your head…it reminds me of Japanese moms who push their kids’ heads down from behind when they forget to bow properly! As for ‘insh’allah,’ it seems similar to the Japanese attitude toward Buddhism. Believing it or not is not the main question–you just drop the coin in the box and call the priest for funerals and such (and other stuff depending on the person or family) because that is the way it is supposed to be. Avalokitesvara may or may not be real, but somehow, when the tsunami has wiped out the food supply, the supermarket manager starts handing out free food ‘because otherwise it might spoil’ … Speaking proper Japanese also involves a lot of humility.

  8. Howdee JohnL
    Indeed — excellent analogy. When in Japan I use to chuckle at the various trainings of the little ones! The mechanisms of behavioral training are fascinating. And if you get it in when they are young, it sticks forever! thanx for the great stories.

  9. fantastic post and great comments. esp. like JohnL’s.

  10. Memories like this seem to bring home a message of connection – sharing an experience between people rather than pitting ideas against each other. I hope your children enjoy the flat bread!

    she would gently slap me in the back of my head and remind me

    When I read this I thought of your other post on zen-slaps. Two very different practices maybe, culturally, but in some ways both useful in bringing about ‘awareness’?

  11. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    Another beautiful post. Thank you for sharing.

  12. @ Mike and Ghost: Thanks

    @ Andrew: Indeed, slaps can be useful.

  13. @ Sabio Lantz

    “My home-stay Pakistani family consisted of a Muslim couple with two teenage boys living in a poor Shiite village outside of Lahore. When I arrived, my Urdu was very bad but my ‘father’ spoke some English to help me get started. My ‘mom’, however, was uneducated, spoke no English and made little eye-contact at first.”

    I am happy to learn that you stayed in a village near Lahore. I have lived quite sometime in a village where still the barter system was on vogue. Hardly any money was needed to sell or purchase a thing. One could give a bowlful of wheat to purchase a thing. Natural living; knowing every body very closely.

    But now everything has changed.

    Both ways it is good.

    Thanks to God, the Bestower of life.

  14. @paarsurrey,
    I loved my stay in Pakistan. In India I lived in a Hindu village where there was no road (only ox path) and no electricity and bartering was the main method of exchange — loved folks there too.

  15. The same phrase is used in Greek. That is, “Πρώτα ο Θεός” (lit. “First the God”, meaning “God be FIrst” or “First of all, God”), in exactly the same manner. One says: “I’m gonna make chapati’s next week, πρώτα ο Θεός”, And if you don’t say it, a traditional mom would tell you “say … always, always say …” In more formal Greek, the expression is even closer: “Θεού θέλοντος” = God Willing.

  16. Interesting Takis — thanks!
    Makes me wonder if the Greeks preserved an old Christian tradition which the Muslims merely imitated — much as Mohammed craved a book to unite his people just like the Jews and Christians had.

    BTW, for those who don’t read Greek:
    Πρώτα ο Θεός = Pró̱ta o Theós
    Θεού θέλοντος = Theoú thélontos

  17. @Sabio: So when are you going to write a book on `religion’ explaining your views and definitions, providing a glimpse to this complex phenomenon, asking about its necessity, etc, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, telling your experiences?

  18. @ Takis,
    I have no intention to write a book. But I am curious why you ask? Also, as you know, I would not focus on something called “religion” but instead the components of what make cultures, worldviews, mental tools and such.

    “Necessity” seems to me an odd question. But all of these are questions for another thread.

    I tell lots of my experiences in this blog. What other types were you curious about?

  19. @Sabio: I didn’t mean anything deep other than that you have lots of interesting ideas/observations/points of view and it occurred to me that they could be a book. My message was meant to be a compliment.

  20. @ Takis,
    Ahhh, I thought it was a compliment, but I also wondered if there was something in peculiar you were interested in. Thanx

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