During the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, while the president was saying that he would release his tax returns once an ongoing IRS audit ends, Biden interrupted him by saying, “When—insha’allah?”
The utterance of this Arabic phrase, which simply means “Allah willing,” by the Democratic candidate is strange, and also revealing.
For starters, why, in a purely American setting, would Biden suddenly resort to Arabic? It would have been one thing if he used this formulation before a Muslim audience—it would then be chalked up to diplomacy, pandering, etc.—but why use it when around Americans and during a distinctly American event such as a U.S. presidential debate?
Secondly, while insha’allah does literally mean “Allah willing,” and is regularly used to express modesty before the Supreme Being whenever Arabic speakers are discussing future events—as in, “Next year I plan on visiting the Arctic, insha’allah”—what very few non-native speakers of Arabic appreciate is that it is also used with great frequency by those who utter it to signal that they really have no intention of doing what they say they plan on doing, and by their listeners to express doubt or cynicism.
For example, if Abdul tells Mustafa, “I promise to do X, Y, and Z,” and Mustafa responds, “insha’allah,” say, with a knowing smile, he is essentially saying—and Abdul knows he’s saying—“Suuuure you will.”
And it is precisely in this latter and subtle sense that Biden was using it: while Trump was insisting that he would eventually release his tax returns, Biden was saying, “Yea, right,” though—and again, this is the bizarre part—through a distinctly Arabic idiom.
This suggests that Biden has been around many Arabic speakers—the majority of whom were obviously Muslim, not least based on the Obama administration’s well documented preference—to the point of being able to instinctively think and utter jokes like them.
This interpretation may shed some light on a controversial thing Biden said in a video directed at Muslims in late July: “Hadith from the Prophet Muhammad instructs, ‘Whomever among you sees a wrong, let him change it with his hand. If he is not able, then with his tongue. If he is not able, then with his heart.’”
Amongst Muslims, this hadith, which is sahih, meaning deemed authentic/canonical by Sunni Muslims, concerns the enforcement of sharia, Islamic law (particularly in the context of the doctrine of al-amr bi’l ma’ruf w’al nahi ‘an al-munkir, “enjoining the right and forbidding the wrong”). Muslims are taught to enforce sharia (understood as the totality of all good things) any which way they can: ideally through their “hand” (physical force, or jihad); if that’s not possible, then through their “tongue” (words, ideas, propaganda); and if that too is not possible, then at least with their “heart” (their intention, niya).
Rather than conclude that the presidential candidate was giving a wink and nod to Muslim voters concerning Islamic law, everyone, even Biden’s critics, many of whom were additionally critical of Islam, concluded that he has no idea what he was talking about and should better vet the scripts his team provide him with.
However, now that it’s clear that, far from being clueless of the things of Islam, Biden is so familiar and comfortable with them that he instinctively relies on Arabic idioms—even around the most inappropriate of audiences—a reevaluation of what Biden meant may be in order.
At the very least, it would seem that the Democratic presidential candidate is not as naive about Islam as many think—and not necessarily in a good way.
Raymond Ibrahim, author of Sword and Scimitar, The Al Qaeda Reader, and Crucified Again, is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute, and a Judith Rosen Friedman Fellow at the Middle East Forum.