Saturday, July 08, 2006


“insha’allah” is an Arabic word that means “God willing.” I suspect that this word gets more use in Egypt than any other word. A close second? “ilhamdulillah”—Thanks be to God.

This is strange to Westerners, because we just are not used to people invoking God all the time, even about everyday things. For instance, in America if someone asks “how are you?” you will usually respond with, “fine, thank you.” Here, someone asks “izayik?” (how are you?) and the response is often simply “ilhamdulillah” or sometimes “kwayesa, ilhamdulillah” (good, thank God).

The same goes for insha’allah. When you leave work, you say to other people “see you tomorrow” or Monday or whenever. Here, you say “ishufak bokra, insha’allah”—I’ll see you tomorrow, God willing. Or when something needs to get done, the person will often tell you when but add “God willing.”

Tonight at church the preacher talked about this a little bit, but she went somewhere different than I have been thinking. She of course wanted to talk some about free will and whether “God willing” and free will were compatible. I, however, have been thinking about this rather differently.

I often feel that people here use this phrase to shrug off responsibility, and to promote apathy. This is a country with 35% unemployment, with a large number of problems, and with a history of other countries stepping in and doing things for them (think Suez Canal, Aswan Dam and High Dam, Cairo Tower, etc). There’s not a lot of responsibility taking—there’s a lot of waiting for things to get better. And I think part of this has to do with the “insha’allah” mentality.

If things happen only because God wills them, why bother doing anything? If you show up late to work (or if you don’t show up to work at all), that was God’s will. If you can’t find a job, it’s because God doesn’t will you to have a job. If there’s a huge problem in the education system, the environmental protection (or lack thereof), or with hunger or illiteracy, it’s because God does not will those problems to be solved. On the other hand, when things do get done, Thank God…and wait for the next thing.

I think it’s important to be grateful, to recognize that power and resources come from God, that God’s will is a major factor. But it’s also important to use the resources you have, to do the work of the kingdom here. Egypt has bunches of university graduates without jobs. Egypt has bunches of really smart people who are leaving the country because only in foreign countries can they research, work, or live safely. Egypt has a history that is the envy of the world. But they have a worldview that promotes apathy. It’s so different from our American “get up and do it! pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. (aside: have you ever thought about that bootstrap metaphor? Do you realize you can’t possibly pull anything up that way? You’ll just be stuck bent over and frustrated. Just saying.) I’m not saying that we’re right or anything...but I am saying that pushing all the responsibility for every little thing—and the big things too—onto someone else or onto God can leave you in a pretty big mess. God gave us brains and talents and resources…and expects us to use them. When we sit around waiting for someone else to do things for us, or when we say “well, God wasn’t willing for me to come to work yesterday” we get into dangerous ground.

What’s disturbing about this to me is that I have felt myself doing it. I say “see you Monday, insha’allah”—and inside I do not want, in any way, to go to work on Monday. I know that I am probably going to go in late because I just don’t want to face the streets in Cairo on Monday morning. So I am providing myself a little insurance by saying “insha’allah”—if I oversleep, if I take a little longer over my tea, if I procrastinate on getting out the door…well…God willed it. (I only do this on Monday morning, I promise!)

What’s good about this to me is that I have really found myself more reliant on God than I have been in the past. I know that it’s only “through Christ who strengthens me” that I can do anything, and that fighting against God is quite the losing battle. Putting the focus on God so often, sometimes in every conversation, reminds me to be correctly oriented. But I still do things, I still work hard, I still intend to use what God has given me. I guess that’s where our cultures clash…

and now it’s the end of the day—ilhamdulillah—and I am going to have a Sabbath tomorrow, insha’allah. woohoo!

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