The Mashallah Muslims

The loft walls are painted in brilliant pink, on the upper floor of a house nested in a cozy Dallas suburb. Bright cupcakes, cute pastries, and party favors pepper a burnished stall specially designed by a social media event planner. Balloons with “It’s a Boy!”, fill the back corner of the room. Gift bags with the names of all those in attendance sit on a table near the front door.

The guests arrive. The women have manicured nails, sparkly white teeth, ritzy clutches, and shiny heels. A few don hijabs. The men aren’t as flashy, but they are exemplary corporate types: button down shirts with rolled up sleeves, a nice watch perhaps, with boat shoes or loafers. A Botox injection fills their upper lips—effective enough to amplify their curvaceous smiles but stealthy enough to avoid too much attention. Unlike their forebears, when these folks go abroad for work, they style themselves as expats – never immigrants.

Also interspersed among them are doctors, rising high priests of academia, accountants, and musicians. Some of them are running in elections on a platform of inclusivity and equity for various disadvantaged communities, confident in their ability to fit their religious convictions into the manifestos of the local Democratic (or Labour) machine. When these figures win, they commemorate their success as the first Muslim in America or Britain to have won a seat on the city council. Or the ten-person school board of a sparsely populated county in the Colorado Rockies (and perhaps one day, in the far-off locales of Northern Ireland). Or some permutation thereof. 

Some guests arrive as couples, bringing dolled up infants who bear greater resemblance to thespian barbies than they do to human babies. When these infants mature into toddlers and young children, the posturing becomes even more extravagant—private schools, weekend little leagues, and curated playdates. Despite the purported celebration of Muslim diversity—of claiming to add a new dimension to American social and political life—every single act in the name of inclusion becomes adjusted to damning, irresistible conformity.

Their political sympathies lie with the likes of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn, as they attempt to generate copious amounts of passive income by investing in real estate in a moment of profound economic inequality. They rally in support of the disabled and against body shaming while simultaneously advocating so-called modest fashion—somehow always advertising the clothing products in the form of slender Instagram influencers. They pride themselves in building brands that ethically source sustainable goods and services as they rejoice in their admission to institutions and affiliation with prominent public figures that they may otherwise harbor exceptional disgust for. 

Embedded in the gaiety of their conversations are words that have a long history in the Islamic world, but ones that have recently been permuted to fit the flavor of the newly emergent lifestyles that American and British Muslims inhabit. “Mashallah” enjoys special popularity.

Mashallah is a compliment of sorts (and literally means “what God has willed”). The word is used to express happiness about or gratitude for something. For example, it’s common courtesy to say Mashallah when someone shares good news or an achievement. It is the present tense corollary of “Inshallah” (“if God has willed”). 

The usage of Mashallah today is quite alien to how the Muslims of yesteryear—from the marauding horsemen of the Central Asian steppes to the meek fishermen living in sleepy villages on the banks of the Niger—used it. The word was never implicated in a thoroughly commercial infrastructure. It can be said that Mashallah was tied to a desire for salvation on the Day of Judgment. To exercise loyalty to Allah and commitment to prophetic example. Sometimes, Mashallah was an attempt to avert the notorious wayward gaze, a call for divine protection against potentially feeling jealous or lustful when faced with the happiness of another. 

Now Mashallah has come to stand in for and celebrate occurrences and accomplishments that fit squarely into a representative politics and pluralistic society that selectively incorporate elements of Islam. Elements that satisfy the predicates of liberal political rule. The circumstances in which the materially-inspired Mashallah is deployed have ripened into a celebration of the precise qualities of human life that Muslims seeking acceptance in Western democracies so frequently criticize. Mashallah is not simply—or even any longer—a linguistic act of worship. Mashallah is a convenient marker of social differentiation and prestige. It’s a kind of sexy that makes rounds in hip hop videos and Bollywood songs.

At some point “sameness infects” the Western Muslim, and she no longer maintains the distinction for which contemporary multicultural politics gives her importance. [1] And so, keeping relevant requires giving uniquely Muslim acts, words, and cultural artifacts a new meaning utterly inexplicable to most Muslims in the world. Hence, the beliefs, values, and norms that spanned the vast social and theological universe of Muslim experience for centuries are—like the Muslims who embodied them—buried in the past. 

Consulting the moral resources of the past is often cast as an act of swimming in irresponsible and misguided nostalgia, but it can be useful in addressing the many problems—war, inequality, famine—that now the Mashallah Muslims not only contribute to but benefit from as well. These Muslims fill the ranks of companies that enthusiastically call upon them to strive for professional excellence, ones that nourish their career mobility. These Muslims are encouraged to remain authentically Muslim—to pray in the designated quiet room, have their foreign-sounding names pronounced correctly, and feature in the employer’s latest marketing brochure. In return they are expected to contribute to the development of more effective supply chain dynamics and organizational efficiencies that may end up relieving Muslims in the Global South of their jobs at the neighborhood toy factory.

For so many, one of the most important questions is whether any of this is good or bad. But that’s the wrong question to ask. These newly emergent sensibilities associated with Mashallah will stubbornly persist and spread. 

As Muslims bring their aspirations into the fold of mainstream Western societies in seeking acceptance, their ambition—and the practices and norms that distinguished them to begin with—is disabled, trademarked, and fed back into the commerce of mass reproduction. The pursuit of acceptance becomes “the only natural, decent, and rational one.” [2]

Ultimately, the Mashallah Muslims become entirely exchangeable with other products—or minority groups—in a bazaar of multicultural representation.

Works Cited

[1] Horkheimer, Max & Adorno, Theodor (2007), Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Stanford University Press.

[2] Id. 

Photo via Vlada Karpovich

About the Author: Shahrukh Khan is a writer. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

5 thoughts on “The Mashallah Muslims

  1. A witty and pointed article. I feel this deeply as a member of a migrant middle class rapidly integrating into a capitalist lifestyle and ethos.

  2. I have to agree with this criticism. It seems like a newly emerged sect, one which balances perfectly the western pursuit of individualism, but also “holding onto their roots” by using a veneer of Arabic buzzwords. Ultimately rooted in superficiality.

  3. Thank you for writing this- this is something I have noticed and didn’t know how to articulate. I fear for American Muslims turning “Muslim” into nothing more than an pseudo ethnic group, a loose cultural label that has lost its true meaning. Many parts of our community are habitually exclusive, insulated, and classist and it is exhausting.

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