Why Is Allah “He” Rather than “She”? | Part 1

How is it that Allah is referred to as “He”? Is that to say that He is “masculine”? Meaning, is Allah ‘masculine’ and not ‘feminine’? Alternatively, is Allah more ‘masculine’ than ‘feminine’?  Is Allah a male being, rather than a female being? Is Allah actually both feminine and masculine? Or, perhaps ‘He’ is neither?

Let not this issue be a hang-up for Muslims or for otherwise would-be Muslims—in this modern feminist-friendly world, where male dominance or supremacy in religious communities generally, and elsewhere, is seen as a mark of female repression and oppression.

Backlash: a Feminist Identification for Deity?

Should it bother us that we speak of Allah as He”; would there be anything wrong with speaking of Allah as “She”? Some Feminists have done just that. Maybe you have come across the Feminist-inspired slogan that reappears from time to time: “Pray to God—She will answer you”—suggesting a maternal protection and caring emotional bond. But do we really want to imply that God is female or feminine rather than male/masculine?

Why not look for—or create—a suitable pronoun reserved only for the unique Allah, something more dignified or “royal” than the “neuter” pronoun “it”—meaning belonging to a category neither masculine nor feminine. This might have the merit of avoiding implications of being male rather than female. Or vice versa! But frankly, our replacement term would still have to be a pronoun reserved for the single Deity alone. Otherwise, it would have the same unwanted associated gender implications—which is the perceived current situation with “He” and “She.”

Of course, we do have the English language convention of capitalizing “He” in reference to God—just as we capitalize “God” to mean the singular, unique, One Deity, as opposed to a false or man-made “god.” But this capitalization of “He” and “God” falls short of addressing an implied gender orientation in which the Creator, Allah/ Eloah/ God, is associated with a perception of an ordained patriarchal domination in human affairs and a divinely-approved domineering male half of society, oppressing the female other half.

While the Arabic language does not have capitalization so as to distinguish the divine “He” from the human male “he,” it does distinguish allâh (the unique, sole Deity) from ilâh (a god or goddess) as conceptualized in pre-Islamic Arabia.

Interestingly, ilâh (“god,” “goddess”—an idol or a personified force of nature [1]) is a feminine noun in Arabic grammar, in contrast to the noun allâh which is replaced with a masculine pronoun, huwa, “he”—making the two terms maximally distinct in grammar.

The Awe-Inspiring Female Force in Nature

Historically, the human reproductive capabilities of the female element in traditional cultures gave us such concepts as “Mother Nature,” a female personification of the natural forces at work in Allah’s creation, perhaps in counterbalance to a historically common male dominance  in hunting-gathering-governing activities.

Pre-Islamic Arab human society is said to have been matriarchal, as reflected in the continuing practice of equine bloodlines running through the dam (mother horse) and not through the sire (horse father). Thus a foal (horse offspring) takes the ‘family’ bloodline name of the mother. While it may not always be possible for people to know who fathered a foal, Islam made it a requirement to know the father of a human child—whose name the child will carry and who will be responsible for the child’s support and wellbeing.

As Muslims we do not talk about Allah except in accordance with the ways that He is Self-revealed to us. The Quran freely refers to Allah using the Arabic pronoun, huwa (which translates as “he”), never hiya (translating as “she”). In polytheistic systems of religion there are posited both ‘male’ gods and ‘female’ goddesses.  In pre-Islamic society, hiya would have been appropriate to refer to any of the alleged goddesses like Al-Lât, AlUzza and Manât, whom people thought of as ‘daughters’ of Allah, with Allah being recognized as their supreme Creator:

Have you then, ever considered [what you are worshipping in] Al-Lât and Al-¢Uzza, as well as [in] Manât, the third and last [of this triad]?  Why – for yourselves [you would choose only] male offspring, whereas to Him [you assign] female [offspring]: that, lo and behold, is an unfair division! 

These [allegedly divine beings] are nothing but empty names which you have invented—you and your forefathers—[and] for which God [Allah] has bestowed no warrant from on high.  They [who worship them] follow nothing but surmise and their own wishful thinking—and right guidance has now indeed come unto them from their Sustainer. [Sûrat Al-Najm, 53:19-23]

The Meccan goddesses were ‘empty names,’ says Allah in the Quran, while the people’s equally wrong-headed preference for male children is used to point out the faulty reasoning  of worshipping the female procreative element instead of the Creator of all.   Al-Lât is said to have been the ‘mother goddess’ figure among the pre-Islamic Arabs.

The Mother Goddess has been a popular figure is many cultures as she is seen to represent the function of reproduction and nurturing, thus controlling soil fertility as well as animal and human pregnancy, delivery and other “female concerns.” Is the “mother goddess” figure to be seen as a precursor of the modern sentiment: “Pray to God—She will answer you”? Or is this slogan simply in reaction to the implication that God (‘He’) might be male, as opposed to female?

The common Western misconception of Islam as a male-dominated religion and of Islamic law as an authoritarian straight jacket, stifling the female contribution to Muslim society and to the family cannot be laid at the feet of the use of “He” (huwa) in the Arabic Quran for Allah—nor for the use in English of “He” for God in the Jewish and Christian Bibles.

The Creation of Mankind and the Individual as a Responsible Soul

The Quran stands stanchly against credence in all elemental deities, male or female (or even neuter)—just as it stands for the value of all children, female as well as male. Furthermore, the Quran presents to us a Creator Who brings into being everything by His command—not through an elemental female power in the natural world.  Accordingly, the Creator is not to be identified with, or remotely associated with, a Mother Goddess who reigns over procreative functions. The fact that an individual soul is enabled to enter this world through a process of biological interaction between a particular male and a particular female has social, psychological and political implications.

O mankind! Reverence your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the two has spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Reverence God, through Whom you demand your rights of one another, and family relations. Truly God is a Watcher over you. [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:1]

Contrary to the reasoning of atheists, the biological relationship amongst the members of a family does not do away with the existential “need” for a Creator who has engineered the biological process and who implants a soul into each viable fetus at a particular stage of biological development.

And your creation or your resurrection is in no wise but as an individual soul…  [Sûrat Luqmân, 31:28]

Does man [Adam/humanity] suppose that he would be left aimless? Was he not a drop of semen emitted?  Then he was a blood clot; whereupon He created, then fashioned, and made from it the two genders, male and female. [Sûrat Al-Mu’minûn, 75:36-39]

On the authority of ‘Abdullah ibn Masood who said: The Messenger of Allâh and he is the truthful, the believed, narrated to us:

Verily, each of you is brought together in his mother’s abdomen for forty days in the form of a drop of fluid. Then it is a clinging object for a similar [period]. Thereafter, it is a lump looking like it has been chewed for a similar [period]. The angel is then sent to him and he breathes into him the spirit. He is also commanded to issue four decrees: to record his sustenance, his life span, his deeds and [whether he will be] unhappy [by entering Hell] or happy [by entering Paradise]…. (Bukhâri and Muslim)

Adam and Eve – the First Couple

One of the most widely known Biblical stories is that of Adam, the first human being, brought into being by an act of God; subsequently, by a further act of God, a second human was formed from the same biological material of the first. In the Biblical account, Adam, meaning “man” was formed from earth: [2] that is, from watered rock-soil, jump-started with air-breathing life (Genesis 22:6-7); as for the second human, referred to as a “woman,” [3] Eve (Arabic, awwâ’), she was formed from bone and flesh sourced from the biological material of the first (Genesis 2: 21-23). Many Quranic âyât reference the stages of the process through which the human fetus progresses before it can exit its mother’s womb. In the Biblical account, we take the pair to be what we recognize as a human male as distinct from a human female in that they are referred to as a “man” and his “wife” (Genesis 2: 24) and in that they had sexual relations resulting in pregnancy and children (Genesis 4:1-2, 17, 25; 5:1). Accordingly, male and female human beings seem to have existed from the initial creation of humanity in the Biblical narrative.

Some interesting details arise when we look at careful wording of the Quranic text concerning Allah’s creation of humanity as a single kind of being:

O mankind! … your Lord … created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the two has spread abroad a multitude of men and women… [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:1]

“A single soul” has been understood as “Adam,” and “its mate” as Eve. Interestingly, “soul” (Arabic nafs) is grammatically feminine—even though it refers to the first male human being (Adam); just as intriguing, “mate” (Arabic zawj)—even though it refers to the first female human being—is grammatically masculine. Again, the grammatical gender in language is not set up always to reflect biological gender.

Clearly, in the Quran, the mate is of the same nature as the original single soul, and clearly there is a reciprocity between the first pair of humans. But whether we can say that the nafs and its zawj were, at that initial stage, fully distinct male and female in the present biological sense, that would be a trail-blazing topic for modern-day genome researchers to take on—perhaps eventually tracing our genetic material back to mankind’s beginning! Was that initial nafs neither male nor female in the current biological sense? Did a male vs. female biology come into being with the fashioning of the “mate”? Or perhaps the bifurcation into male and female began only with the children of Adam and Ḥawwâ’? I do not pretend to know the answer to such questions, but the Quranic text does not seem to have closed the door to such “outside-the-box” possibility.

The point for us to realize here is that our present-day notion of masculinity vs. femininity does not reflect the nature of our Creator, Who is not a participant in the male-female reciprocity that He has built into the nature of our world—whether done instantly or in stages. Maleness and femaleness are reciprocal elements of humankind, like the positive and negative electrical charges that make up the matter of the physical world in which we exist, including the make-up of our physical bodies. Allah created a biological reproductive mechanism for the proliferation of life forms on earth, but He Himself is independent of that created system:

Say, “He, God, is One, God, the Eternally Sufficient unto Himself.  He begets not; nor was He begotten. And none is like unto Him.” [Sûrat Al-Ikhlâṣ, 112: 1-4]

But we have not yet exhausted our observations on gender in relation to Allah, His Revelation and the world He created and fashioned.

To be continued, inshâ’Allah, in Part 2…

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[1] One can characterize the multiplicity of gods and goddesses in non-revealed religion as felt forces of nature. In some cultures, these forces of nature are represented as idols with intercessory powers between humans and the Creator, as in pre-Islamic Arabia—or, as in Greek-Roman and Indian mythology, they are personified as a society of interacting male and female immortal beings with names, stories and spheres of influence in the human world, often with highly immoral behavior.

Islam, of course has strictly denied the existence of any creative or controlling force other than Allah, the sole Creator and Sustainer of all realms of existence and being.

[2]    The Biblical Hebrew words or “man” and “ground” are similar in sound (Good News Bible/ TEV footnote, p. 3).

[3]     The Biblical Hebrew words for “woman” and “man” are similar in sound (Good News Bible/ TEV footnote, p. 3).

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."

15 Comments

  • I think the early English translators of the Qur’an were profoundly influenced by translations of the Bible. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how history happened. But the Qur’an still shows signs of that influence. We’ve already turned away from using words like “thee” and “thou” in translation. But changing “he” to “she” seems a bridge too far for me. It’s not an improvement. “She” isn’t any more correct for describing Allah than “He” is.

  • Cool that it didn’t cross your mind. But it did cross mine, and lots of other people’s, I’m sure.
    People should fear the day when the public stops asking questions indicating that they have no interest rather than asking questions with keen interest.

  • Asad,

    Thank you for commenting upon the content of the piece and seeing the larger implications. I think we agree: the question of “He” versus “She” arises for us English speaking readers through the eyes of English language tradition and the grammar of our language. It is a problem for English speaking readers of the Bible as well, where ‘God’ is always referred to –in pronoun form– as “he” (no capitalization of ‘he’ in the English translation practice of modern Christians).

    Since we Muslims stick close to the Arabic Text of the Quran and recite the Quran exclusively in Arabic, we cannot depart from the grammar of the Arabic Quran. We must work with huwa (“He”). But for those who approach Islam from an English-speaking background, they will want to understand WHY the Arabic uses a word translated “He” in English (implying opposition to ‘She’), and that is why I’ve approached this subject.

    Yes, as translation of the Quran has evolved, first from a literal, word-for-word concept to a more ‘dynamic equivalence’ (thought-for-thought, or, concept-for-concept) basis, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been able to benefit from having a bridge to greater understanding. I mention a couple of recent milestones in this evolution of the ‘English Quran’:

    The first duly qualified Islamics scholar, the Egyptian Dr. Ahmad Zaki Hammad –a product of Al-Azhar University as well as of the University of Chicago– when he did his translation (‘The Gracious Quran…’), he employed a newly revived means [with scholarly precedence] to properly communicate the full Arabic meaning without departing from the word-for-word representation of the Arabic text: He made use of added explanatory phrases, clearly indicated as such in square brackets.

    Just last year ‘The Study Quran’ (Harper One / Harper Collins publisher) was done by committee (Ed. S. H. Nasr) on the principle of an Arabic-to-English basic-word equivalence whose main purpose was to support a summary of all the major traditional commentary materials. Thereby the English basic-word translation of the Text would have to show the reader, as a point of departure, how diverse interpretations could be derived from the Arabic. That basic-word translation, then, is simply an intermediary step to entering upon the wealth of traditional scholarly commentary. Through this approach the reader is removed only one step from the Arabic text. With this basic-word translation basis, ‘He’ would be the only possible English translation of ‘huwa’

    There is a reason for sticking to ‘He’ in English, but many potential readers will want to untangled the misconceptions surrounding this fact. In a rationalistic-thinking-based West, many feel a need to have rationalistic explanations. That is the purpose of this series on Allah as ‘He.’

  • if you come to understand it Allah has 99 names so he is also known to be any of these names, “he’ and ‘we’ are also mentioned, in surah al fatiha name and attributes are mentioned too, so would this even be an issue?, one doesn’t even need to call Allah a “He’ you can call Allah, Al wahid, in many verses ALLAH is called “his’ in his blessings and his highness, why would any one introduce ‘she’ when it is quite clear that ‘she’ is not at all mentioned? it doesn’t necessarily mean mean he is a male but rather Strong, masculine and mighty.

  • Actually, in English as well as in Arabic grammar, “He(Huwa)” is used not just for males, but also used for those things whose gender is unknown and they are huge in size, potency or influence. Similarly “she(hiya)” is also used for those things whose gender is unknown and they are soft in nature. Therefore, “He(Huwa)” has nothing to do with Allaah’s gender. Allaah has no gender. The Qur’an says: “There is none like unto Him.” (42: 11) To know more about Allaah, read the book, how to find the true religion, here: https://app.box.com/s/got76eywa5 ez7d7cq1tbk7j38vxv6b6p

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