One of the first things that you notice when learning Arabic is the rich tradition in Arabic expressions, greetings and their appropriate responses, many if not all of an Islamic nature. While studying abroad, I found that even if my vocabulary was limited or when my grammar let me down, knowledge of these phrases always endeared me to my Arab interlocutors.

as-salaamu 3alaykum – ‘Peace be upon you’

To demonstrate this, consider the greeting used throughout the Islamic world, as-salaamu 3alaykum, ‘peace be upon you’, and the response wa 3alaykum as-salaam, ‘and upon you be peace’. Unlike in English where it is very normal to respond to a greeting in kind, in Arabic the response is a different phrase.

Similarly, goodnight layla saeeda, literally ‘happy night’, has the response of tisbah ala khair or to literally ‘wake up on good things’.

in shaa’ allah – ‘If God wills it’.

Spend any time in an Arab country and you’ll quickly learn the meaning of in shaa ’allah, ‘if God wills it’. In Islam, it is taught that you cannot make concrete statements about the future as only God knows what will really happen in the future. Therefore, this phrase can be heard in many contexts. “Will I see you tomorrow?” – “in shaa ’allah”. “Will you finish your homework?” – “in shaa’allah”.

If in shaa’allah can be seen as the punctuation of the future tense, then al-Hamdu lillah is the punctuation of the past tense. This is easily my favourite Arabic expression, meaning ‘praise be to God’, and illustrates the continually positive outlook that seems so innate for many in the Arab world. You say al-Hamdu lillah when you have finished your meal and you may use it on its own to answer kayf al-Haal?, meaning ‘thanks to God, I am well’.

You should also say al-Hamdu lillah when you sneeze and those around you would answer yar hamuk Allah, ‘may Allah have mercy on you’.

Some other useful phrases to know are:

Congratulations, mabruuk in most if not all spoken dialects. The response to this is allah ya barik feek or barakallahu feek – ‘the blessings of Allah upon you’. Congratulations in MSA are slightly different: mubarak. This is also how you would greet someone during a festival eid mubarak.

Before a meal you could say Bismillah.

To express condolences if someone has died, you would say allah yarhamha, ‘May God have mercy on her’/ allah yarhamhu, ‘May God have mercy on him’.

Finally, to wish someone a happy birthday you could say eid milad saeed, which is a direct translation. However, for a much more idiomatic expression, you would say kul aam wa antum bikhair – ‘every year and you are well’. This latter expression can also be said at any festive occasion.

I consider these Arabic phrases and responses a very rich aspect of the language and culture. I sometimes find myself saying insha’allah to non-Arabic speakers and wish there was an English equivalent. Unfortunately “let’s hope so” does not carry the same weight.  Perhaps the reason that we don’t have English equivalents is because the language is no longer so entwined with religion – if we think of ye olde english, there were more ‘may God keep you’ type expressions. Personally, I think it is a shame that our language has lost this level of expression in our daily speech.

If you have an upcoming trip to the Arab world, I guarantee that taking the time to learn some of the above phrases will prove useful.


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