During a meeting some years ago, one of the then-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, that speaker years ago said that he had come to understand Si Dios quiere much more sympathetically in recent years. He had struggled with serious cancer for quite a while by that time — sadly, it eventually took his life — and he had just received word, after a seeming respite, that he needed still more treatment. This, he said, had 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 than when I first became acquainted with the phrase.
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 imam whom I liked a great deal. “I’ll see you tomorrow at 2 PM,” I said. He looked at me without response. So I tried again: “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.