I have been increasingly asked whether the widespread expression ‘good luck’ is impermissible to use, and whilst I was initially surprised that it was even a topic of debate, I could empathise that the godly might be anxious when told that it is impermissible, based on the notion that luck is based on chance, and that it is God who determines all things – things do not happen outside the decree of the Most High.
But does the term ‘good luck’ denote or even infer a rejection of God’s decree? And must God’s power of decree be made explicit in all linguistic expressions?
A brief explanation:
‘Good luck’ is merely an expression in the English language which confers the hope of success and advantageous outcome. Any inference beyond these simply depends on who is saying it. To assume anything more from this expression would be linguistic incompetence and unfamiliarity with how phrases or expressions inherently work. To misappropriate the English to impose upon it Islamic theology is misplaced. Yes, the expression can be intended to mean the desire for success as a random consequence, but nobody uses it with this staunchly intended meaning. In fact it’s simply a shortened way to say: “I hope it goes well.”
Expressions are not simply the literal meanings of words that have been put together, they usually take on a different meaning. “He’s the bomb!”, “What’s up?”, “bee in a bonnet”, “whatever the weather” etc. are all expressions that move beyond any literal meaning of the individual words. Furthermore, like with any linguistic term, in any language, it is about the meaning and intent inherent within the phrase. And where a word or phrase can synonymously mean several things, context dictates how it is taken.
In Arabic, there are a number of expressions that intimate what a Muslim would mean by good luck, one that is widespread is “bil-tawfiq“. Now the expression literally means: to bring together in agreement. Where a Muslim might say it as an empathetic expression, it suggests the desire for God to facilitate good, but without explicit mention of God. In explaining 11:88, Al-Qurtubi put it that Tawfiq is al-rushd, that is, to be advantageously subjected to God’s agency, which is inherently what believers mean when they say ‘good luck’ in English. Notably, the expression isn’t a supplication, and I have never met (nor heard of) a scholar who opined that rather than saying bil-tawfiq one ought to make an explicit supplication – in fact to make this point would probably be considered quite sanctimonious. But as we see with a number of (inflated) issues in the west, self-righteous indignation often becomes the norm.
Another word that might be loosely translated as luck (with cognisance of God’s agency) is hadzh الحظ which literally means share or lot. It means, where used to denote advantage, to get a good share or lot of good outcomes. This word, amongst other places, appears at the end of 28:79, where God tells us that ‘those whose aim was the life of this world said, “If only we had been given something like what Qarun has been given: he really is a very fortunate man.”’
Likewise, we use terms such as fortunately and unfortunately, all of which could as equally be argued to denote fortune, i.e. luck. Even where it might be argued that these are being used in the descriptive sense, that is in looking back at a situation and describing it, the notion of luck (or lack of it) remains. There are also prescriptive forms, such as “it would be fortunate if…” To my knowledge, no one seems to have qualms with such a statement because they intuitively understand what is meant, without the etymological pedantry that is unreflective of popular usage. Going even further, one could argue that we shouldn’t include the word pig in guinea pig because a pig is impure which isn’t true of a guinea pig, and so on. The point is very simple, and as the Hanbali usuli Sulaiman al-Tufi put it, ‘words are not intended for their own sake, but to manifest meanings.’
Beyond expressions or phrases, there are also words, such as coincidence, which holds a plethora of connotations, and could denote randomness although no Muslim seeks to negate God’s agency when using it. When a believer uses the term coincidence, he merely means that it seems human agency seemingly had little to do with something, whilst affirming all things to be determined by Allah. In fact, Muslim usage of the term might be held as an affirmation of qadr (divine decree) and an expression of its wondrous nature, that God’s will came to pass in a way that was entirely removed from human intent.
When a believer says ‘good luck’ they simply express a hope for success, fully aware that success or failure is determined by God. In essence, the sentiment is: ‘I hope for your success’ with the ellipsis that “may God make it happen”.
But wouldn’t it simply be better to make a supplication, such as ‘May God give you success’?
Not necessarily. It is perfectly valid to express empathy (and well wishing) to someone in a linguistic form that isn’t supplicatory. For example, there are several hadith in which the Prophet expressed his hope that a sahabi would attain membership of a given successful cohort, saying: “and I hope you will be from amongst them” and evidently felt little linguistic need to make clear in that moment the he hoped that it was God who would decree such a thing. Given that it was the Prophet saying it, the godly sentiment would be obvious, just as when a believer says good luck, the same would be assumed to be true.
Another relevant case study might be the prophetic compellation (as related by Ibn Abbas) to the sickly, “Not to worry, a purification – if God wills it.” (al-Bukhari) It might be argued that the ending here denotes that it must be ascribed to God. However, some points to consider:
- The statement “Not to worry, a purification” presents as descriptive and so would have been taken by the sahabi as informative. However, the Prophet wasn’t informing him that it had occurred but expressing a hope, so by including “if God wills it” the Prophet made clear that it was a hope (i.e. non-grammatically supplicative), and not an inevitable occurrence.
- It is also telling that “Not to worry, a purification” meant that Prophet did not need to spell out that Allah was the source of that purification, that through the illness it was God that forgave sin. Again, the sentiment coming from a believer, and especially the messenger of God, made that clear.
Is it better to stay away from saying ‘good luck’ out of caution? Well, only for the one in doubt. If one isn’t in doubt, then there is nothing to be cautious about. Thus, if a person prefers not to use the phrase then that is perfectly fine, but to pontificate to others or to inaccurately evangelise on its impermissibility is severely misplaced.
I’m aware that I’ve delved far too deeply into this, granting a trivial issue more than it is worth. However, I have done so to demonstrate how simple issues can spiral out of control when some get “a bee in their bonnet” (another non-literal expression!) over something that really isn’t that deep, and going over the top by making it great cause for debate. This issue is a good example of the Prophetic caution, “The most criminal of Muslims are those who enquire into those things that haven’t been made haram, but then become haram because of their excessive questioning.” (al-Bukhari and Muslim)
To say or not to say ‘good luck’ really isn’t that deep. But if you would like some brain food, read up on meaning in the philosophy of language, and sections on الألفاظ والمعاني in usul al-fiqh.
And God knows all.