During one of the more charged moments of the chaotic US presidential debate, former Vice President Joe Biden dropped a phrase from everyday Muslim and Arab vocabulary and lit up the internet.
Pressing President Donald Trump on when the American public would get to see his long-anticipated tax returns, Biden questioned: “When? Inshallah?”
In certain vernacular, “inshallah” serves as a non-committal response to a question.
Taken literally, the term “inshallah,” consists of three Arabic words (In sha’ Allah) which translate into “if God wills it.” Spiritually it represents a submission to God’s will. It can perhaps be seen as the Muslim counterpart to the Yiddish adage, “Man plans, and God laughs.”
Children in the Muslim world will often say that when a parent responds to a question with “inshallah,” it signals an unfulfilled promise, while unreliable timekeeping is lightheartedly chalked up to “inshallah timing.”
“Yes, Joe Biden said ‘Inshallah’ during the #Debates2020 debate,” tweeted political commentator Wajahat Ali. “It literally means ‘God willing,’ but it’s often used to mean, ‘Yeah, never going to happen.’ Example: My wife: Will you finally pick up your socks? Me: Inshallah. No, saying inshallah doesn’t make you Muslim.”
So when Biden called the President out on his amorphous sense of timing around his long-promised tax returns, “inshallah” seemed to hit the nail on the head for those well-versed in Muslim and Arab culture. Trump has never released his tax returns to the public, something out of step with previous Republican and Democratic presidential candidates and incumbents.
However, earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Trump had paid no federal income taxes in 10 out of 15 years beginning in 2000 because he reported losing significantly more than he made, citing more than two decades of tax information the paper obtained.
While many saw Biden’s use of the phrase as a nod to their own experiences, others saw it as derogatory and drawing on cultural stereotypes about the Muslim and Arab world.
For many in the Muslim and Arab world, the phrase retains its original spiritual purpose. Far from providing license for fickle behavior, “inshallah” represents a relinquishment of control over the uncontrollable. It is an acknowledgement that while one will try to fulfill their goal, there could be God-like circumstances that may get in the way. To many, the utterance of the phrase is an exercise in humility.
“It’s so disheartening that the best thing the Biden campaign seems to be able to offer Muslim Americans in the midst of an uptick in islamophobic violence is an offhand, completely inappropriately applied ‘inshallah’ in the debate,” tweeted political activist Meriam Masmoudi.