Si Dios quiere!


The view from the cosmos


During an early evening priesthood meeting today, one of the counselors in our stake presidency recalled his service, decades back, as a missionary in Bolivia.  Among the phrases that he commonly heard there was Si Dios quiere (“If God wills”).  He confessed that the phrase sometimes irritated him.  “Will you promise to give up smoking?” a missionary would ask someone he was teaching.  “Si Dios quiere!” the Bolivian would respond.  All too often, it seemed a polite way of saying “I have not the slightest intention of actually trying.”


The phrase, which is common across the Spanish-speaking world, is almost certainly a translation of  إن شاء الله, or in sha’a Allah – an Arabic phrase, omnipresent in Arabaphone countries and indeed the world of Islam, that means precisely the same thing.  Arabic-speaking Muslims occupied greater or lesser portions of the Iberian peninsula from Tariq b. Ziyad’s invasion in A.D. 711 until the Reconquista led by Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last overt Muslims back across the Straits of Gibraltar (Jabal Tariq, or “Tariq’s Mountain”) into North Africa in A.D. 1492.  The results of those nearly eight centuries of Arab Muslim presence dot the landscape of modern Spain — and its language.


I heard in sha’a Allah all the time while I lived in Cairo.  “Can I count on you to be here tomorrow at four o’clock?” I would ask.  “In sha’a Allah!” the plumber would respond.  And he usually didn’t show up.


I came to regard in sha’a Allah as, on the whole, simply a polite or evasive way of saying “No.”


And there’s no question that many Arabic speakers use the phrase as a refuge, an escape, from commitment, just as many Spanish speakers use its Spanish equivalent.


However, the speaker earlier today said that he has come to understand Si Dios quiere much more sympathetically in recent years.  He’s struggled with serious cancer for quite a while now, and has just received word, after a seeming respite, that he needs still more treatment.  This has impressed very deeply on his mind, in a way that few confident and healthy young men would fully comprehend, how much we are all in the hands of the Lord — or, if you insist, under the control of forces far beyond ourselves.


I, too, have come to understand in sha’a Allah in a different and more sympathetic way.


Many years ago, after my four years in Egypt but while I was a graduate student in California, I was saying goodbye for the evening to a classmate, a very devout Pakistani whom I liked a great deal.  “I’ll see you tomorrow at 2 PM,” I said.  He looked at me without response.  “Two o’clock, right?”  Still no response.  “What do you want?” I asked, puzzled.  “Say in sha’a Allah,” he said.  I thought he was joking, so I replied “Alright.  Alright.  In sha’a Allah!


He looked at me, friendly but not quite amused.  “You arrogant Westerners,” he said.  “You think you’re in control of everything, but you’re not.  Your heart could stop at any moment.  You could be hit by a car.  God is in charge, not you!”


It was a gentle but clear rebuke from a friend, and it hit home.  And, though it came from a Muslim, it was entirely biblical.


For several reasons, I’ve described the New Testament letter of James as the Bible’s “most Islamic epistle.”  Consider, in the light of what I’ve said above, James 4:13-15:


“Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow.  For what is your life?  It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.  For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that.”


There’s an old saying that is apropos here:  “When is it that God laughs?  When humans make plans.”  Or, alternatively, “Man proposes; God disposes.”


In the last analysis, we’re actually not the “masters of our fates, the captains of our souls.”  And we should never forget that.



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  • Virginia Brown

    You are probably familiar with Orson F. Whitney’s “Response to Invictus,” penned in reply to the poem to which you alluded:

    Art thou in truth? Then what of him
    Who bought thee with his blood?
    Who plunged into devouring seas
    And snatched thee from the flood?

    Who bore for all our fallen race
    What none but him could bear,
    The God who died that man might live,
    And endless glory share?

    Of what avail thy vaunted strength,
    Apart from his vast might?
    Pray that his Light may pierce the gloom,
    That thou mayest see aright.

    Men are as bubbles on the wave,
    As leaves upon the tree.
    Thou, captain of thy soul, forsooth!
    Who gave that place to thee?

    Free will is thine — free agency,
    To wield for right or wrong;
    But thou must answer unto him
    To whom all souls belong.

    Bend to the dust that head unbowed
    Small part of Life’s great whole!
    And see in him, and him alone,
    The Captain of thy soul.

  • mrmandias

    Another Allah reference is the Spanish ” ojala’ ” (o-ha-LA), which m eans ‘hopefully’ or ‘God willing’

  • RaymondSwenson

    I can understand how someone who lives in a society where political and economic instability disrupts even the basics of life would embrace that sentiment. In Japanese it is expressed as “shikata ga nai” (There is just no way around it) but usually after the intervening circumstance arrives, usually associated with Buddhist fatalism. In Japan, people don’t warn you that their commitments are tenuous. They just promise to come by later in order to avoid a disagreement and then blow it off. Different habits of speech but the same result.