Lozah

Mis-Referring to Allah SWT

I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend. Some Muslims have begun to refer to Allah SWT using feminine pronouns (Her, She). It seems that these Muslims think they are making some kind of feminist statement by doing this – that somehow by referring to Allah SWT using “Her” it will prove to all those doubters out there that Islam is, in fact, woman-friendly. I would like to clarify though that those (I know of) who do this are not trying to imply that Islam has a female deity. Rather, it is to emphasize that unlike in Christianity or Judaism, Muslims do not refer to Allah SWT as “the Father”, “the Son”, or any male being whatsoever. Rather, Islam emphasizes that Allah SWT – the creator of all things – is genderless. Allah is beyond gender, which is a purely earthly construct. Allah SWT is a supreme genderless being that our human minds simply cannot fathom in earthly terms. This is further explained in the following paragraph:

We Muslims do not believe that Allah SWT is male or female. Allah is the Creator of everything and is beyond any gender or similitude. Allah does not incarnate, either in the form of a male or in the form of a female. Allah is not called in Islam “Father” or “Mother”. Allah is the Rabb [Lord] of the worlds. The Qur’an says clearly, “There is nothing like Allah.” … Allah SWT is a not a thing, but a Being with qualities and attributes [as described by the 99 divine names]. Muslims always believed in Allah as the Being beyond maleness or femaleness. When Muslims used the pronoun “He” for Allah, it never occurred to them that they were talking about a man. Muslims never made a picture of Allah. They knew that it was Haram [forbidden/sinful] to depict Allah in any form or person.

Some people may ask: if Allah SWT is beyond gender, then why does the Qur’an use male pronouns when referring to the Divine? The short answer to this question is that the pronoun “it” does not exist in the Arabic language. Some may respond to this answer saying: even though there’s no “it” pronoun, that still doesn’t explain why Allah SWT is referred to in the Qur’an using “He” and not “She”. This is where the long answer is given, which is simply that referring to a non-gendered being using “Her” or “She” is grammatically incorrect in the Arabic language, so it makes no sense to translate it that way in the English language.

In Arabic, non-gendered singular nouns are referred to using gendered pronouns that are assigned based on grammatical reasons, while female pronouns and verbs are used to refer to the non-gendered plural of any gender (keep in mind that verbs are also gendered in the Arabic language).

For example, a non-gendered object such as a tree is referred to using feminine pronouns, while a pen is referred to using male pronouns. In Arabic a grammatically correct sentence would be “al-qalam howa allazhy yaktub”: al-qalam [the pen] howa [he] allazhy [male pronoun meaning the one who] yaktub [male verb meaning writes].

However, if I am referring to a group of pens, a grammatically correct Arabic sentence would be “al-aqlam heya allaty taktub”: al-aqlam [plural: pens] heya [she] allaty [female pronoun meaning the one who] taktub [female verb meaning writes].

Therefore, there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for using a female pronoun to refer to a singular non-gendered being when translating from Arabic to English. Thus, by using “Her” to refer to Allah SWT one is not preserving the “genderlessness” of the Divine, rather, one is essentially assigning a gender to a non-gendered being – Allah SWT –  which is by anybody’s account haraam. However, even if there were no grammatical explanation, the fact remains that the Qur’an uses Arabic male pronouns and we simply do not have the right to change this when translating.

As Muslims, we are constantly under pressure to fit Islam under one ideology or another. We must not let this pressure – whether from the outside or from within ourselves – incite us to try to morph the religion into something it’s not. Rather, we should assume that any perceived inconsistencies are simply due to our own ignorance, and can be resolved if we put in a little extra effort – such as learning about the Arabic language before attempting to translate from Arabic to English.

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May 6, 2009 - Posted by | Islam

4 Comments »

  1. Man. I have been thinking about this for a while. And even though I have extensive classical Arabic training, I thought the default rule is just that the non-gendered entity gets a “He” in Arabic, which is precisely, according to feminist theory (I think!), the problem because it reflects bias in the society, etc.

    Thanks for this piece of info. Your (counter) “pen” example shows that it is really an arbitrary thing, not (necessarily) reflecting cultural bias.

    I wonder if your noting that “it” does not exist in Arabic means that “it” would be the right choice? Or would that imply non-intelligence?

    Comment by Ahmed | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  2. A fellow Canadian! Welcome and glad you enjoyed the post.

    Regarding “it”, I agree that it would imply non-intelligence. But also, it implies a certain degree of detachment. I mean, people until recently reffered to babies using “it” but have recently stopped because it’s too impersonal. If it’s too impersonal for your baby, then what about Allah SWT who is closer to you than your jugular vein and knows you more than anybody else in the world, even more than you know yourself?

    Comment by lozah | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  3. And a fellow Egyptian too! 🙂

    I don’t see why not “She” then if “it” is inappropriate and “He” and “She” are equally gendered in English?! Your objection would apply to referring to God by “Heya” in Arabic rather than “She” in English.

    Tell you the truth, I think that the Arabic grammar are influencing us so that we can’t really swallow the English “She” without perceiving of (deliberate) gendering. There is no doubt that Islam has a strong attachment to Arabic (mainly because of the emphasis on authenticity), but shouldn’t we just get over it? I don’t know.

    Comment by Ahmed | May 13, 2009 | Reply

  4. Yes, actually you can. The only reason many people reject this concept is because Allah refers to himself as “He” in the Quran. Keep in mind, Allah also refers to himself as “We” in the Quran so does that mean that God is many? Absolutely not. Similarly in this case we do not take it literally as the gender-based pronoun ‘he’ for this creates a masculine conception of God. Language is also something to keep in mind. Huwa in Arabic does NOT carry the same biological connotations that “he” does in the English language. Hence, Arabic has no neuter grammatical gender; all nouns are either grammatically masculine or feminine.

    “Call upon Allah, or Call upon Rahman; By whatever name ye call Upon Him, (it is well): For to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names”. [Al Qur’an 17:110]

    You are allowed to call Her by any beautiful name; one that should not conjure up a mental picture.

    What’s wrong with “she”? Absolutely nothing.

    =)

    Comment by Rona Farighi | December 13, 2009 | Reply


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