Wishing harm and invocations

July 9, 2006 at 3:15 pm (Arabic, Blogs, Culture, Hebrew, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Pakistan, Persian, Personal, Religion, Religions, South Asia, The West)

This is as a result of reading this post approving harm (Heaven forfend) upon Jeff Goldstein by tony robbins.

One of the things that disturbs me about insults and violence-tinged comments and wishes is that I have inherited a somewhat superstitious attitude towards words written and spoken. South Asian Muslims are very careful to add some qualifier when discussing something negative that has not happened. In Urdu, we use “khudaa nakhaasta” or “khudaa nakhwaasta” (Persian, literally “may God not desire (it)). Jews use “chas v’shalom”. In English, “God/Heaven forbid” is often used. (I personally like “Heaven forfend.” It sounds quaint.) Of course, the best thing is to avoid such talk all together.

I understand many people, especially in the West, have a nonchalant attitude towards such comments and statements. But try as I may, such comments still irk me. I so badly would like to go up to tony robbins’s post and add a qualifier, to nullify what he said. Same with others who are unpleasant in their insults. It’s one thing to insult someone, it’s another to wish or desire or approve harm upon them. The latter I can’t stand – but what’s a somewhat superstitious person of South Asian origin to do but say nothing and mentally disqualify the statements?

Accordingly, among Muslims and Jews praise and wishes for good are also qualified with statements hoping they come to pass or to thank/honor God. Among Muslims it’s “maa shaa’a-llaah” (Arabic, literally “what God wills,” connoting “God has willed it”) when someone is praised, and “in shaa’a-llaah” (Arabic, literally “if God wills (it)”) when something good is desired or good wishes expressed. For the first of the two, among South Asian Muslims an additional reason has arisen (the first being that one should thank God and recognize His greatness for and in the good/great things of the world): by saying this, the Evil Eye is averted. I never thought I believed in such stuff until I realized that I am fastidious about this around my family and around kids. It’s almost as if subconsciously I don’t want to praise them and then have them suffer for it because of the Evil Eye. My mother is also quite aware of this – but according to her in some cases even such measures are not enough. She gets very upset and disturbed when someone admiringly stares at a plate of food she’s made for someone or when someone lavishly praises that plate of food. She says that she fears the Evil Eye will fall upon the plate of food, affecting the person she prepared the plate for. My mother usually only prepares plates of food for her immediate family, so her concern is understandable. Many relatives will add a needed qualifier if the speaker doesn’t say it: the speaker is expected to make up for not saying it when he/she should have by repeating the one who not-so-subtly reminded them of their error. Almost every South Asian house will have a plaque or poster or painting or sticker or some other medium whereon is written “maa shaa’a-llaah” to deflect the Evil Eye from the house, its inhabitants, and whatever’s inside. There is usually some Qur’anic decoration for the same purpose. (Our house has a silver plate with the “aayatu-l-kursee” instead of a “maa shaa’a-llaah”.) In Pakistan, every single building site has such a sign. These things are taken very seriously.

Anecdote: I say “maa shaa’a-llaah” whenever praising anything, even food. Now, to understand why this can be humorous, a very common blessing or wish in Urdu is “maa shaa’a-llaah, allaah aap ki abaadi baRhaai” (“maa shaa’a-llaah, may God increase your children”). This is often said by older people to younger people, usually married. Remember, in most societies, having many children is considered a good thing, a blessing even. Once a relative brough over a cake. I praised the cake and, not wanting to offend them by not saying the usual invocation, ended with by saying “maa shaa’a-llaah” twice. (Whenever I say “maa shaa’a-llaah” or “in shaa’a-llaah”, I say it twice, if not more times.) They all laughed (I admit it is somewhat strange to be so profuse in praising a cake) when I said “maa shaa’a-llaah” on the cake, one suggesting I wanted its progeny to multiply. (In reality, I said it so the Evil Eye wouldn’t fall on the cake and thereby affecting my family and relatives.)

“In shaa’a-llaah” has superstitious power in it too. The fear is that if it is not said, God will get angry and frustrate the person’s plans. Not saying “in shaa’a-llaah” is like claiming one does not need God’s goodwill or power to make something happen, that one can do something despite God, one does not need Providence. This is considered to be an insult to God. Like “maa shaa’-allaah” above, if someone forgets to say it, someone will usually remind them to say it.

Ever so often, people who have rediscovered Islam will lecture more lax Muslims about the importance of saying these invocations, often focusing on Islamic theological (rather than superstitious) reasons. These people are uniformly considered to be annoying, rude, ill-mannered, and in bad form. Such lectures, if given, are expected to be short and in private, and from someone older to someone younger. A well-mannered person would be expected to teach through more subtle means. The best person to teach such a lesson would be one of the elders (older relatives, usually an older uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather, et cetera) who plays a role in the person’s life. This is prevent avoidable scandal – it reflects very poorly on a person’s relatives and elders if he/she has to be lectured on matters of protocol, so it’s best to have someone already responsible for his/her behavior and upbringing to explain what needs to be explained.

I have actually experienced someone lecturing at a wedding to a whole table on the importance of saying “in shaa’a-llaah”. Even the guy’s older brother became uncomfortable. I don’t know if the person he was lecturing to forgot to say it, was not comfortable saying it, or refused to say it – whatever the case, such a lecture was not considered appropriate for his age, station, and particularly considering the occasion. He was probably among the youngest there. This incident, in our society, implies his parents/elders have not taught him necessary discretion and patience, or that he has gone on his own merry way, both of which would be considered worthy of disapproval. Ideally, his older brother would have cut him off. Our people are expected to obey, without question, the direction and instruction of elders. One is also expected to tread specifically on the path worn by his/her elders. One who strikes his/her own path is considered to be very bad (and rude, arrogant, ill-mannered, rebelling against society, a bane to one’s relatives and elders, a source of shame, et cetera, et cetera). A good South Asian – male and female – is always deferential, obedient, predictable, trustworthy, respectful, and well-mannered.

Very often, when one makes one of the two invocations above, listeners will repeat it, as if to (re)enforce it. One does not have to repeat it, but not doing so is considered bad form if not desirous of harm.

To complete the comparisons between Islam and Judaism, when someone is praised, one says “barukh hashem” (“blessed be God”); when an intention or desire is expressed, one says “im yirtzeh hashem” (“if God wills (it)) or “be’ezer hashem”/”be’ezrat hashem” (both meaning “by the help of God”); also when an accomplishment is mentioned, one says “be’ezer hashem” or “be’ezrat hashem”.

I feel compelled to say – may God immediately nullify and cast away any and all desires for and approval of harm, violence, or anything bad or negative upon Jeff Goldstein, his family, and his readers. May God protect from the Evil Eye and may the Evil Eye be deflected away from Jeff Goldstein, his family, and his readers as people praise and support them.

(I really feel stupid for believing in the Evil Eye but it’s so ingrained! Thanks for indulging me.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: