Dec 24, 2016

Common "Religious" Arabic Phrases Used Culturally

Some phrases, that when translated to English may sound over the top and archaic, are so common they're practically expected to be said in other languages. Because I believe language is an insight into culture, I came up with six different scenarios and their consecutive phrases. This post will be dedicated to the Arabic language and culture—and in them, religion plays a big role without even having to be involved.

Image by: Saad Mahmood

Below is a list (of sorts) that includes all major religious phrases used all the time without any religious context for them. For anyone learning Arabic or is new to the culture, they're important phrases to understand. Plus, they'll definitely make a strong positive impression on a native speaker.

Although this is a somewhat extensive post, it doesn't cover half of all the sayings in this rich language. Nonetheless, it's still a good phrase-guide for what to expect in certain situations.

1. Greetings & Thanks

In English, people often greet each other by asking, "how are you?" And if we're being honest, they're excepting to hear "I'm good/ fine/ okay" in return. It's the same in Arabic, except instead of replying with any of the above, people almost always say "Alhamdulillah," ("الحمد لله") meaning "Thank God." The logic is that you're already doing well—and because of that, you're thanking God. So in a sense, you skip the "I'm good" part and immediately go into being grateful. I've never heard this question answered otherwise in Arabic.

When saying thank you, there's the standard "shukran" ("شكرا") that everyone uses. But there are also stronger phrases to convey just how thankful people really are. Saying "Baarak Allahu feek," ("بارك الله فيك") meaning "May the blessings of God be upon you," and "Jazak Allahu khairan," ("جزاك الله خيرا") meaning "May God reward you with fortune" are some of the ways people do so. They're reserved for "special thanks," but are commonly said as a way to show gratitude for small yet touching gestures done for the speaker.

2. Daily Life

A good example to share and explain for this section is sneezing. When sneezing, the sneezer would say "Alhamdullilah"  under the logic that their body has gotten rid of bad bacteria through sneezing and, therefore, they're thankful. Anyone in the vicinity would reply with "Yarhamuka Allah," ("يرحمك الله") meaning "May God have mercy on you." You can easily think of this as the Arabic substitute for "Bless you," except... the dialogue is not quite over. The sneezer, after hearing that, then says "Yahdeekum Allah wa yusleh balakum" ("يهديكم الله و يصلح بالكم") meaning "May Allah guide you and fix/ purify your condition." It may sound complicated, but the exchange is so natural that it's done routinely.

Another notable term that is so very common is "Inshallah," ("إن شاء الله") translating into "God Willing." It's a very flexible term used in varying contexts, mostly in a paradoxical sense. People often use it when they're looking forward to an event happening—but it's also said as a way to lightly reject an offer or a planned occasion. The phrase is so common that I've even heard non-native speakers using it in their own daily lives to imply that something won't happen. For example, a speaker can typically say "I will go, inshallah" and that can either mean they plan to go and are looking forward to it, or that they don't plan to attend at all. The secret to knowing the difference lies in the body language and context.

"Salam" Image by: Cisco Lightpainting

3. During Sickness 

It's commonly known that people greet each other by saying "al-salamu-alaykom," ("السلام عليكم") meaning "peace upon you." But the root word used here (al-salam) is worth a short tangent. This greeting is often shorted to simply "Salam" as a casual greeting and even a goodbye from the original form "Ma'a al-salama" ("مع السلامة"), meaning "With peace." The key word here is "Salam," ("سلام") which literally means "peace." It comes in a variety of forms and carries all sorts of grammatical nuances. For example, the word "Istislam" ("استسلام") is often translated into "submission," but is more like the verb form of the word "salam"—turning "peace" into an action. And some of its other forms are even used to talk about health.

When someone is sick, people would often express their concerns by saying "Salamat" ("سلامات") or "Salamatak" ("سلامتك")—kind of like saying "Get well soon" in English. The sick person would then reply with "Allah yisallimak," ("الله يسلمك") roughly meaning "May God keep you safe."

4. When Scared

When getting spooked, a common first reaction (in-sync with jumping all over the place) is quickly saying "Bismillah," the shortened version of "Bismillah al-rahman al-raheem," ("بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم") which means "In the name of God, the Most Gracious and Most Merciful." And some even say it before shrieking—it's that well engrained into their minds. Another phrase is "A'outhu billah" ("أعوذ بالله") meaning "I seek God's protection/ refuge" as a way to confront the fear while making the speaker stronger. Although they sound long, both are very common that they don't need to have a religious aspect to their fear to be said. They're just said whenever the speaker is suddenly confronted with something unexpected (in a passing moment).

5. When Angry 

A lot of people curse when they're angry, but other sayings are just as common, lighter, and more socially acceptable. For example, "Allah yehdik" ("الله يهديك") means "May God guide you," and it's used under the assumption that the instigator acted improperly— thus needing God's guidance. Or, by saying "Allah yesamhak," ("الله يسامحك") meaning "May God forgive you," the speaker is basically giving a quick (yet bitter-ish) prayer to absolve the instigator from their wrongdoings (that angered the speaker in the first place).

In a way, saying these phrases implies that the speaker is benevolent and that they're not really that angry—they're not actually cursing the instigator.

6. When Happy 

In English, saying "Oh God" often implies a problem or a confronted issue—but it's the opposite in Arabic. By simply saying "Allah" ("God") the speaker's tone changes, and they sound more pleased than before. The word is often said when looking at something beautiful, or admiring personal/ others' accomplishments. An even more popular phrase is "Mashallah," the shortened version of "Mashallah tabarakallah" ("ما شاء الله تبارك الله") that roughly translates into "What God wants to happen, God is blessed." It's said when the speaker wants to express their amazement. So basically, it's like saying "wow" in religious terms.


Some of these phrases aren't "religious" in the sense that they must be said during these situations. Instead, the aim of the post is to show how these religious phrases are used in everyday life, without religious context. They're not always expected to be said out of devotion, but are just so common that not hearing them said is just ... odd. In a way, this post shows how religion and language play a role in shaping a culture.