Opinion – God is beyond any gender: Understanding limitations of language

Jalees Ahmad, London

Today, on Wednesday 8 February, Sky News released a story titled: ‘God is neither male nor female’: Church of England is considering gender-neutral terms. I am sure this headline has garnered much attention, particularly among students of religion. I, as a Muslim, reading this headline, naturally wanted to see what Sky News published.  The report read, “The Church of England is considering whether to stop referring to God as “he” after questions concerning the use of gender-neutral terms were raised by priests.” (news.sky.com/story/god-is-neither-male-nor-female-church-of-england-is-considering-gender-neutral-terms-12805759)

In Islam, God Almighty is seen as the Creator of the Universe, and the Lord of all the worlds. He is one and has no partner. “‘He begets not, nor is He begotten’” (Surah al-Ikhlas, Ch. 112: V.4) The Holy Quran states, “He is Allah, the Creator, the Maker, the Fashioner. His are the most beautiful names. All that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies Him, and He is the Mighty, the Wise.” (Surah al-Hashr, Ch.59: V25)

In Islam, God is neither male nor female. He has no gender. However, it is sometimes asked why the masculine pronoun is used for God and not the female pronoun. We must remember, however, that this question has less to do with religion and more to do with language.

In the Holy Quran, which was revealed in Arabic, we read about Allah:

ہُوَ اللّٰہُ الَّذِیۡ لَاۤ اِلٰہَ اِلَّا ہُوَ

“He is Allah, and there is no God beside Him” (Surah al-Hashr, Ch.59: V23)

The Holy Quran refers to the Almighty using the masculine pronoun ہُوَ in many verses, including the one mentioned above. You may wonder why the Holy Quran employs the masculine pronoun for God if God transcends gender. This is the central question at hand.

First and foremost, as Muslims, we believe that the Holy Quran was revealed to the Holy Prophet Muhammadsa by Allah, and it was God Who chose to use the word ہُوَ, meaning ‘He’. And as Muslims, we submit to His Will alone.

The question, however, still lingers for some as to why one should use the masculine pronoun? To answer this, albeit briefly, we must delve into the realm of linguistics and see what is on the other side. 

As mentioned above, the Holy Quran was revealed in Arabic and the use of the masculine form in Arabic encompasses more than just gender description. There are additional reasons for its use. It is vital to keep in mind that the Arabic language does not possess a neutral pronoun, hence, the use of the masculine pronoun is a default.

For anyone new to Arabic, it is worth mentioning that diving into the complexities of Arabic grammar, or even the language itself, is beyond the scope of this discussion as it would require extensive coverage. To keep things simple, I will attempt to merely stick to the basics and give examples in easy, digestible terms.

In addition to referring to something we know is male, the masculine pronoun in Arabic is also used for objects or individuals who are yet unknown. For instance, in a scenario where the gender of a doctor has not been specified to the patient, the masculine pronoun may be used to refer to them.

For instance, consider the case of Tom and Harry. If Tom has a doctor’s appointment and goes to the hospital, he may ask Harry about the doctor. In Arabic, one would ask:

من الطبيب؟

Meaning, who is the doctor? Since the gender of the doctor has not been established to Tom, the masculine pronoun is used. This is because the masculine pronoun is the default form in Arabic and to make a word feminine, a suffix is added. For example, the word tabeeb (doctor) becomes tabeebah (female doctor) with the addition of the suffix.

As a general rule of thumb, it is important to remember that in Arabic, the masculine pronoun is typically used, while the feminine pronoun is used only when necessary.

Additionally, any object, entity that is not specified as either masculine or feminine is given the masculine pronoun. This explains why the masculine pronoun, in Arabic, is used to refer to God, as God’s gender cannot be determined as either male or female.

Therefore, when the masculine pronoun is used in Arabic, it should not be understood as referring specifically to males. Meanwhile, the use of the feminine pronoun in Arabic is reserved exclusively for females.

And so, after a brief explanation, let be clear that the reason why the masculine form is used to describe Allah in Arabic is not to say Allah is male, but because it is the standard form used for those things that are not explicitly described as male or female. The use of the feminine form would imply that Allah has a gender, but as a Muslim belief, Allah is beyond gender.

Hazrat Khalifatul Masih Vaa was asked why the Holy Quran uses masculine pronouns for Allah. In response, Huzooraa replied:

“[…] In the different languages of the world, masculine and feminine pronouns are used to differentiate between the sexes. However, Allah the Exalted, Who is One without any partners, is above such distinctions. It is to only help us understand that Allah the Exalted has used certain phrases to describe Himself, but they are all metaphors. Otherwise, Allah the Exalted is neither male nor female and He is above all kinds of gender.” (Al Hakam, Issue 234)

The Holy Quran states:

لَیۡسَ کَمِثۡلِہٖ شَیۡءٌ

“There is nothing whatever like unto Him” (Surah Ash-Shura, Ch.42: V.12)

In the Five Volume Commentary – an English commentary of the Holy Quran – under this verse, it is explained:

“The words signify that it is impossible to conceive of anything like God. He is far above human perception and comprehension. It is, therefore, foolish to try to find a likeness between Divine and human attributes though the two possess some very remote and incomplete resemblance.” (Surah Ash-Shura, Ch.42: V.12)

And so, I conclude, the idea or question that God, Who is the Lord of all the worlds, is either male or female is a man-made construct and does not and, simply, cannot apply to Allah the Exalted. The Holy Quran, as quoted above, says “There is nothing whatever like unto Him”. This clearly indicates that Allah transcends all human limitations and definitions, and yes, that includes the question of gender. It is, in fact, language that dictates the use of masculine pronouns for Allah the Almighty; however, that should not be taken as an indication of His gender. As Muslims, who submit to the Will of the Creator of the universe, we accept that Allah is far beyond our comprehension and understanding. Hence, instead of engaging in fruitless debates that will get mankind nowhere, it is far more advantageous to focus on building a relationship with Allah and knowing Him by His attributes. 

Where this debate takes us, only time will tell. People could soon be asking why countries are referred to as “she” and not “he”!

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  1. Excellent!
    This is highly educational especially when it comes to the fruitless and rather annoying ’pro-noun’ debates nowadays


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