Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Forgiveness, and the subtleties of language


Language is a funny thing. Discussions about meanings of words and expressions may seem philosophical and in the clouds, but they are important because language is the most common way in which we communicate with each other. The Arabic expression for “commnunicate”, for example, “تواصل” (tawasul) has a very different feel to it than the English. In English, “communicate” sounds like a technical term, getting a message from one to the other. In Arabic, “tawasul” sounds much more emotionally-charged, it is the exaggerated form of the word “reach” (tawassul – very subtle difference in pronunciation for the non-native speaker) – and so to me it has the connotation of “increased reach”, it sounds to me like an enjoyment of a relationship of continuously reaching to each other.

I started writing this blogpost on my way to the launch of the Arab MOOC platform, Edraak, where I was a panelist representing the learner perspective about MOOCs. This is the event I had to speak Arabic (and I blogged about some of the issues I was having preparing for that… More on the event later).

Anyway, the inspiration of this blog post was a particular Arabic (or at least Egyptian) expression: “rabena yesam7ek” (ربنا يسامحك) which means “may God forgive you” (supposedly a good prayer, right?) but usually used to mean the opposite. When I was very young, an equally young friend told me you say this to someone, and it means God will put them through hell. Or something like that. I figured out later that the meaning was different, but the connotation when people use it surprisingly the same as that childlike understanding of it. People say it, and they mean it with derision and anger and they really don’t mean well (which is really interesting because supposedly God forgives all, it’s we humans who do not). They say it as a polite way of wishing someone the worst fate possible without actually using any swear words!

Now if that’s not using the Lord’s name in vain… Here’s another one: “in shaa Allah” ان شاء الله which means, “if God wills it” – in the Quran Muslims are encouraged to never say “I will do this tomorrow” unless they qualify it with “inshallah” (my shorthand for the 3-word expression). It is a recognition that nothing would happen unless God wants it to. Unfortunately, many people use it differently. Many a foreigner has asked me “inshallah yes or inshallah no?” Because people often say inshallah when they actually mean they’re probably not going to do something… Sort of pushing the blame onto God rather than themselves, when they never really planned to do it in the first place.

Now moving away from Arabic, and thinking about educational discourse… It is interesting how the term “liberal” is meant to be a good thing in certain contexts but not others. So “liberal arts”, and being liberal about social issues and being “a liberal” all refer to open-mindedness and so on, whereas liberal economic has a different connotation, and neo-liberalism is the enemy of education.

It’s also funny how a word like “instrumental” can mean totally different things. When I was thinking about my thesis, I was at some point thinking about how the North American conception of critical thinking treats it as instrumental (i.e. means to an end), but when I tried to explain this to a friend, I asked her if knew what I meant by the term “instrumental” and she took it to mean “essential” (as in, X is essential/instrumental to the success of Y), which, of course, is one meaning of the term.

So what is really confusing, for me, is words like that, that have several dictionary definitions that all work,but if you don’t know all the possible meanings, you could completely misunderstand something. And beside the dictionary definitions, there are the meanings of different words and terms in particular discourses, which makes outsiders even more confused, because the words have other meanings in plain language, but their connotation in the specialized discourse are completely different. And then the nuances of using expressions to mean something completely different – that must drive non-native speakers absolutely nuts!

Not saying anything new here, just reflecting…


  1. Great post Maha. Important the “watch what we say” and not just in spiritual matters where we can presume to be judgmental–a fault all religions warn us against. (I’m reading about psychiatry now and judging isn’t allowed even that mostly secular field).

    In the “critiques” I remember from art school the notion of being critical is turned to helping a person by offering feedback. Allowing them to see their work through your eyes and gain a deeper understanding of how they are seen. It’s a supportive process that trades judgement for a kind of outreach and empathy. Learning this process of being other-directed as a teenager was probably the only thing in school that ever impressed me.

    • Hey Scott, love your comments, as usual. Some of the research I want to pursue relates to connecting empathy with criticality. I think most critical thinking (in North American scholarship) is skeptical, antagonistic, etc., when it would be much more productive to be empathetic and supportive. Your comment about how it is in the arts is interesting, it implies it may be a disciplinary thing as well… Will write a post about this soon!

  2. Maha, can you help me understand the difference here – I learned to say ‘inshallah’ when a person (usually older) enquired about when I was going to have children – usually as a way to stop an uncomfortable or difficult to explain line of questioning. This was an occasional occurrence as we biked and travelled around Turkey, Syrah, and Jordan and met with and sometime stayed with local friends. However, someone said that I should be using ‘mashallah’, but I never really understood why.

    Your comments about English language usage for terms reminded me of a post I made when I was taking an epistemologies class. When researchers come from different world views, the same term can mean different things ( I find with many academic terms I need to do a double-take to make sure that I’m appreciating the correct meaning for the word.

    • Hey Rebecca, you were using inshallah correctly. “Mashallah” means something totally different. Well, it does literally mean “whatever God wills” (as opposed to inshallah which literally implies you DO plan to, if only God wills it and doesn’t stop you), but the connotation of using “mashallah” in most Arab contexts (cannot speak for Turkey) is “how beautiful is that!” (I.e. Look at how God willed it to be beautiful – and it is said to protect from the “evil eye” even if ur not superstitious, u have to say it in case the other ppl are superstitious). But inshallah is often used exactly for the way you used it: to prevent further discussion. I do it sometimes, too.
      Will look up your post on terms from different paradigms, but the general idea rings true. I can see the word “constructivism” in the title and i remember Dave Cormier had a hard time talking to the Physics folks at MIT who used the term to mean sthg totally different. It drove all of us non-physicists crazy coz se kept misunderstanding each other!

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