In a tense exchange during the US presidential debate on September 29, Joe Biden dropped an Arabic word that took the internet by storm.
In response to President Donald Trump's reassurance that he would eventually release his tax returns, Biden dryly quipped "when? Inshallah?"
It was enough for Muslims and Arabic speakers to either scratch their heads or nod appreciatively.
"Did Biden say ‘Inshallah’ after asking ‘when?,’ indicating the proper use of Inshallah as meaning ‘never’?” remarked cultural commentator Sana Saeed.
New York City fashion designer Bas applauded the move. "Biden just hit him with an Inshallah?” he said. "That’s all I needed to hear." Google recorded a spike in searches for the word in the aftermath of the debate, with queries focusing on its meaning and usage.
What does Inshallah mean?
Chances are, the results would pose more questions than answers.
That’s the beauty of Inshallah, it has different shades of meaning.
Introduced to the Gulf region’s everyday lexicon through verses in the Quran, it means “if God wills” and is one of the most malleable words of the Arabic language.
Inshallah is often used as qualifier before committing to a particular action. It means the task will be completed in the exception of unforeseen circumstances. And in the Islamic tradition, any such unexplained situations are deemed fateful.
This is why Inshallah is so rooted in Muslim culture – the word itself crystalises the faith’s essence of submission to God. That said, over the years the well-intentioned meaning of that term has been gradually eroded. Inshallah has now become a gentle byword for “no” and the Arabic version of the sarcastic term “yeah, right!”
It is the latter definition that Biden used when addressing President Trump. He basically gave him the Arab eye roll.
Inshallah and American culture
While some may be disappointed at the negative connotation surrounding the word, Muhamed Osman Al Khalil, an associate professor of Practice of Arabic Language at NYU Abu Dhabi, is not fussed.
He says that the negative vibe sometimes given to Inshallah is actually part and parcel of its meaning.
That is also explored in the Quran.
Al Khalil says Biden’s usage of Inshallah harkens back to some exchanges detailed in the Quran centuries ago.
The book recalls a number of situations involving Prophets Muhammed and Moses in which they addressed sceptical crowds.
“You will find in those moments the word Inshallah being used by those unconvinced by their message. They were used in ways that are ill-intentioned and noncommittal,” he says. “This is exactly the same type of way Inshallah is used around today to mean either being non-committal or dismissive. This is why the Quran is realistic. It shows you that there will be people out there who tell you things they don’t mean.”
But how does Biden know that term? Let alone the nuanced way to use it?
Al Khalil puts it down to more than decades of experience crafting US foreign policy involving the region.
Simply put, Inshallah has seeped into American culture over the best part of six decades.
“It has been around since the 1960s,” he says. “And that’s linked to the African-American communities who embraced Islam.”
Al Khalil says YouTubes trove of speeches and interviews with slain Muslim activist Malcolm X and boxing great Muhammad Ali is full of Islamic Arabic terms such as Inshallah.
Getting the Arab vote
Another reason is the freewheeling nature of the English language.
From Italian words such as fiasco and partisan to the German angst and blitzkrieg, Al Khalil says the English language has a history of adopting words to suit its purpose.
"It is versatile by design," he says. "English is famous for finding foreign words it is missing. There is really no concern about the liturgical or religious background of certain words. They will just take it and go with it."
That said, for all its rich history, Biden remains a wily politician. Al Khalil says he wouldn’t put it past him to drop Inshallah in order to appeal to a particular electorate.
“Michigan is a state he wants to win,” he says. “There are a lot of Arabic speakers there, so this could also be a signal to them to say ‘hey, I understand you.'”