By Samuel Gonzalez
Just before dawn one autumn morning, a veiled sister with gazelles prancing across her sari, her twinkling irises resembling two moons spliced by the stars, asks for money outside the masjid. One by one, some of the devout generously donate to her cause with some dollars, others release coins from their hands, falling like tidbits of ash from an old cigar. I give her what I can and she starts a conversation with me – eventually she asks about my family and how many siblings I have.
“Five,” I say.
She trills an appreciative whistle and says, “Mashallah.”
I didn’t really understand too well at the time, as I was an early convert – but through years of study, experiences, and encounters with beautiful Muslims and Muslimahs (female Muslims), my comprehension of this phrase has been greatly enriched. I hope to share some of this knowledge in this article so that you, too, can become enriched with its beauty and power.
Etymological Breakdown and Meanings
مَا شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ
In Arabic, these are the characters used to represent Mashallah. Arabic is written in a cursive script where all the letters are joined together and beautifully woven into words, phrases, and sentences. For those who are unfamiliar with Arabic, this word will be easier to break down since, given the nature of the letters used and their order, three separate figures can be clearly delineated. From right to left:
- Ma: Can be translated as “what,” in the sense of a pronoun specifying a thing (i.e. what she needs is water).
- Sha: Means “to will,” as in desiring something to happen in the future.
- Allah: Allah, or God.
Hence, when we put it all together, a rigid, wooden translation would be “what wills Allah”; but in English, a better translation would be “what Allah has willed,” or “what Allah has desired.” Other possible translations could be: “What Allah has wanted to happen,” “as Allah wills,” or “Allah willed it.”
The sacred phrase denotes wonder and contentment over what has been bestowed by Allah. It is a recognition of Allah’s grandeur for having willed something, usually an accomplishment or achievement. Furthermore, in addition to expressing appreciation for something, it expresses delight, happiness. Biologically, what usually accompanies mashallah is a smile of the eyes and mouth. Mashallah unites the mind, body, and tongue in order to make a connection with another person, while praising the Creator at the same time.
Where does this phrase come from? The phrase only appears once in the Qur’an, in surah al-Kahf:
And why did you, when you entered your garden, not say, ‘What Allah willed; there is no power except in Allah.’ [The Noble Qur’an 18:39]
Apart from this single verse, the phrase as it is used among Muslims today, does not appear anywhere else. Similar statements may be found throughout the Qur’an but the above verse most clearly expresses the phrase. The phrase also appears in a couple of hadith, with the Messenger of Allah praising a man for using it, although the chains of transmission for them are extremely weak.
It is unknown when or where the sentiment was first coined, but it has spread uncontrollably throughout Muslim countries – its usage expands to include Indonesia, Malaysia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and others. Notwithstanding, it is also used by Christians, Jews, and secular individuals who are living in countries that were once ruled by the Ottoman Empire: Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Albania, and some areas of Greece.
Usage in Colloquial Arabic
To understand Muslim culture and Islamic theology from the Qur’an and the Hadith Literature is about half of the equation. The study of these materials will aid you greatly in your path to learning more about Allah and His religion. However, many Muslims raised in non-Western countries also carry with them a worldview informed by their cultural context, most of which is informed by the Qur’an as well as the legacy it has left behind throughout different people groups. Over time, these communities shape their languages, ideas, and customs based on their expressions and understandings of Allah’s Holy Book and the life of the Messenger.
Throughout the Muslim world, the phrase has picked up a lot of sentiment and emotion – it is important to remember that while the elite may have the privilege of expressing their theology through systematic texts and essays, the common layperson will express their theology through the lived experience of words, labor, and family-life- it may not seem to be too sophisticated or complex, but when we look under the hood and read in between the lines, the following thoughts and beliefs begin to manifest plainly in a mashallah heard on the street:
- It is an expression of joy and happiness.
- It is a way of praising or recognizing someone for their reputation, actions, or personality.
- It is a manner of giving thanks or appreciation
In all these cases, more often than not, mashallah is a quick prayer inserted within a conversation. It accentuates the Islamic idea of qadr, or divine preordainment. Take the following as a few examples of its colloquial usage:
- “Congratulations on the promotion at work – mashallah.”
- “I’m so happy the weekend is coming up – mashallah.”
- “Mashallah my baby boy; Allah has made me a father.”
- “Mashallah this sunrise is so beautiful.”
Benefits and Blessings
In some Muslim communities, it is believed that reciting Mashallah has the power to ward off the evil eye, deter wicked djinn from entering the home, and to draw in blessings. As mentioned earlier, this phrase, or prayer (depending on how you look at it), is an expression of the manifestation of the Will of Allah: predestination, divine preordainment, or qadr, a very important Quranic doctrine and one of the six articles of faith. This concept implies the strength, power, and sovereignty of Allah over every atom in the universe. This concept implies the wisdom, goodness, and compassion of Allah over every evil in this world.
Hence, to say this prayer and believe in its words is to confess that Allah has the power to deter suffering, distress, and misfortune. For instance, to say this phrase over the acquisition of a desired job or after a wedding is to trust and hope that Allah will retain the goodness of the event for an indefinite period of time.
The djinn are invisible creatures made of smokeless fire who envy, whisper lies into the ears of the faithful, and haunt dark places filled with evil – though, it should be mentioned that not all djinn are mean and spooky – in many Muslim cultures (such as Afghanistan, Egypt, and Pakistan, for instance) it is believed that the djinn may be banished with this phrase. The wicked ones cannot stand to hear this praise, especially in a particularly gloomy place. By the same token, to utter this praise with confidence, knowing and hoping that Allah’s word is truthful, is to draw in blessings, for
Those who believe in Allāh and hold fast to Him – He will admit them to mercy from Himself and bounty and guide them to Himself on a straight path. [The Noble Qur’an 4:175]
To briefly end this article, let’s see what we’ve discussed. Mashallah can be translated in many different ways but it essentially means “What Allah has willed.” Mashallah implies the sovereignty of Allah over all Creation, it expresses gratitude and wonder at what has been manifested by Allah, and, in some cases, may be seen as a prayer that is quickly inserted into a conversation. Colloquially, it has become embedded within a long list of both Muslim and non-Muslim cultures, even being used by Christians and Jews in a handful of countries! Furthermore, it is believed that this phrase has the power to deter djinn, ward off the evil eye, and attract blessings. It only appears once in the Qur’an, but appears several times throughout the hadith literature, which is probably what contributed to its usage throughout the Muslim world.
In an upcoming article, we will be discussing a similar but not identical, phrase commonly used in Arabic: Insha’allah.
What do you think? Share your reflections below!
Myislam.org. What is the Meaning of Mashallah?
StudyDriver.com. Meaning of Mashallah.
Wikireligions. Mashallah Arabic Phrase.