Why Do We Refer to God Using the Masculine Pronoun?

๐–๐ก๐ฒ ๐ƒ๐จ ๐–๐ž ๐‘๐ž๐Ÿ๐ž๐ซ ๐ญ๐จ ๐†๐จ๐ ๐”๐ฌ๐ข๐ง๐  ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐Œ๐š๐ฌ๐œ๐ฎ๐ฅ๐ข๐ง๐ž ๐๐ซ๐จ๐ง๐จ๐ฎ๐ง?

Mohamad Mostafa Nassar


๐…๐ข๐ซ๐ฌ๐ญ ๐‹๐ž๐ญ ๐ฎ๐ฌ ๐ฐ๐š๐ญ๐œ๐ก ๐ญ๐ก๐ข๐ฌ ๐ฏ๐ข๐๐ž๐จ: ๐–๐ก๐ฒ ๐ข๐ฌ ๐€๐ฅ๐ฅ๐š๐ก ๐š๐ฅ๐ฐ๐š๐ฒ๐ฌ ๐ซ๐ž๐Ÿ๐ž๐ซ๐ซ๐ž๐ ๐ญ๐จ ๐š๐ฌ ‘๐‡๐ž/ ู‡ูˆ’ ๐š๐ง๐ ๐๐จ๐ญ ‘๐ฌ๐ก๐ž/ ู‡ูŠ’ | ๐€๐ซ๐š๐›๐ข๐œ๐Ÿ๐ŸŽ๐Ÿ


Feminist insecurities over the use of the pronoun โ€œHeโ€ for God stem from three mistakes: (a) imagining that huwa in Arabic carries the same biological connotations that โ€œheโ€ does in English, (b) an anthropomorphic conception of God, and (c) a modern humanist worldview.

๐Ÿ. ๐†๐ซ๐š๐ฆ๐ฆ๐š๐ญ๐ข๐œ๐š๐ฅ ๐š๐ง๐ ๐๐š๐ญ๐ฎ๐ซ๐š๐ฅ ๐†๐ž๐ง๐๐ž๐ซ

Modern linguists distinguish between natural gender and grammatical gender. Natural gender is determined by physiology: an animal with a male sex organ is naturally masculine, and an animal with a female sex organ is naturally feminine. [1]

Grammatical gender is determined by language convention, not physiology. To clearly understand the distinction between natural and grammatical gender, one must examine languages like French or Arabic, where nouns are always grammatically masculine or feminine, even when they donโ€™t have a natural gender.

Chaise (French for โ€œchairโ€), for example, is grammatically feminine, hence one refers to it with the same pronoun that one uses for โ€œMarieโ€ or โ€œFatimaโ€, i.e., elle (French for โ€œsheโ€). Kursiyy (Arabic for โ€œchairโ€), however, is grammatically masculine, so one refers to it with the same pronoun that one uses for โ€œJohnโ€ or โ€œAhmedโ€, i.e., huwa (Arabic for โ€œheโ€).

The distinction between natural and grammatical gender is blurred in English because words are only grammatically masculine or feminine if they are correspondingly naturally masculine or feminine. When a word doesnโ€™t have a natural genderโ€”like โ€œchairโ€โ€”it is grammatically neutral and one refers to it with the neuter pronoun, โ€œitโ€, not the masculine pronoun โ€œheโ€, nor the feminine pronoun โ€œsheโ€.

2. Personifying Gender-Neutral Nouns

The presence of the neuter gender in English and its absence in Arabic (or French) causes a linguistic mismatch. A consequence of this mismatch is that in English, if one uses the masculine or feminine pronoun to refer to something that is without natural gender, one is representing the thing as a person, usually for powerful rhetorical effect. This rhetorical device is called personification and is often used by poets. [2] William Wordsworth, for example, wrote,

In thoughtless gaiety, I coursed the plain,

And hope itself was all I knew of pain;

For then, the inexperienced heart would beat

At times, while young Content forsook her seat,

And wild Impatience, pointing upward, showed,

Through passes yet unreached, a brighter road โ€ฆ[3]

Note how Wordsworth personifies the gender-neutral abstract nouns “Content” and “Impatience”, referring to the former with the feminine personal pronoun, โ€œherโ€.

Languages like Arabic, though, have no neuter gender, and such masculine or feminine pronominal references carry no connotations of humanness. The femininity of shams (Arabic for โ€œsunโ€) or the masculinity of qamar (Arabic for โ€œmoonโ€) is grammatical gender based purely on language convention. It is normal and expected, in other words, to refer to shams with hiya (Arabic for โ€œsheโ€), and to qamar with huwa (Arabic for โ€œheโ€).

๐Ÿ‘. ๐†๐ซ๐š๐ฆ๐ฆ๐š๐ญ๐ข๐œ๐š๐ฅ ๐†๐ž๐ง๐๐ž๐ซ ๐ข๐ฌ ๐๐จ๐ญ ๐Œ๐ข๐ฌ๐จ๐ ๐ฒ๐ง๐ข๐ฌ๐ญ๐ข๐œ

If inferring personification from this Arabic-language convention is a mistake, inferring misogyny is plain contradiction, for the feminine shams is greater than the masculine qamar. The great Muslim poet, Mutannabbi, wrote,

wa ma al-taโ€™nithu li ismi al-shamsi `aybun

wa la al-tadhkiru fakhrun li al-hilali

Neither is femininity a defect for the word, shams,

nor masculinity a source of pride for qamar [or, al-hilal]

๐Ÿ’. ๐ƒ๐ข๐ฏ๐ข๐ง๐ž ๐“๐ซ๐š๐ง๐ฌ๐œ๐ž๐ง๐๐ž๐ง๐œ๐ž

The Quran refers to Allah using the masculine pronoun huwa because the word โ€œAllahโ€ is grammatically masculine, not because Allah is naturally masculine (Allah be our refuge from saying that!). In English, using โ€œHeโ€ for something without natural gender connotes personification, but not in Arabic. There is no implied anthropomorphism whatsoever. Neither, as explained above, is there any trace of misogyny.

To affirm a natural gender for Allah Most High flatly contradicts the clear Quranic verse, โ€œThere is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.โ€ (Quran, 42:11) While this is plain for Muslims, it is confusing for others, not merely because purely grammatical masculinity is alien to the English mind, but also because no religion besides Islam affirms divine transcendence with such force.

Christians, for example, imagine that the Prophet Jesus (upon him be peace) himself was God (Allah be our refuge!) and that he was also a man. Feminist thought was born in predominantly Christian societies, where speaking of God as โ€œHeโ€ confirmed the biologically masculine God of the Trinity. Modern feminist arguments for gender-neutral references to God are reactions to the masculine portrayal of God in Christianity. [4] 

Polytheism, too, anthropomorphizes its gods. Idols everywhere inevitably assume human or animal form, and humans and animals are both biologically gendered. With the exception of Islam, every religion that believes in a personal god anthropomorphizes its deity to some extent. Absolute divine transcendence requires tawhid (pure divine unity), and the only religion of tawhid is Islam.

To a Muslim who is grounded in the transcendent tawhid of Islam, ascribing biological gender to God is unimaginable heresy. The great jurist and theologian, Imam al-Tahawi, wrote in his celebrated creed,

He is exalted beyond limits, ends, parts, limbs, and instruments, andโ€”unlike all created thingsโ€”the six directions do not encompass Him. [5]


Whoever ascribes any human attribute to Allah has disbelieved. Whoever understands this will take heed, refrain from speaking as the disbelievers do, and know that Allahโ€™s attributes do not resemble those of humans. [6]

Allah Most High does refer to Himself in the Quran using the masculine pronoun huwa, but this is in the context of an uncompromising Quranic transcendence. He says, โ€œThere is nothing whatsoever like unto Him.โ€ (42:11) And Surat al-Ikhlas, one of the first suras memorized by Muslim children everywhere, reads, โ€ Say, โ€œThe truth is that Allah is One. Allah is Besought of all, needing none. He begot not, nor was He begotten. And like Him has never been anyone.โ€ (Quran, 112:1โ€”4) In this context, the masculinity of huwa with respect to Allah is unmistakably a purely grammatical masculinity without even a hint of anthropomorphism.

๐Ÿ“. ๐’๐ž๐ซ๐ฏ๐š๐ง๐ญ๐ก๐จ๐จ๐

If huwa here implies no anthropomorphism, then neither would hiya. Why, then, choose huwa over hiya?

By convention of the Arabic language, grammatical masculinity is the norm, and grammatical femininity is the exception. Since most words are grammatically masculine, the expected grammatical gender of the word Allah is masculinity. [7]

There may, however, be a deeper wisdom. When I asked my teacher Shaykh `Abdul Karim Tattan (Allah preserve him) this question, he told me that the Quran normally mentions destructive winds of punishment in the singularโ€”rihโ€”and gentle winds of rain in the pluralโ€”riyah. The singular rih is grammatically masculine, but the plural riyah is grammatically feminine. [8] Masculinity connotes powerful majesty; femininity connotes gentle mercy. [9]

Our primary relationship with Allah Most High is worship: โ€œI created men and jinn for aught but to worship Me.โ€ (51:56) Worship is the realization of the servantโ€™s utter neediness before the Masterโ€™s complete majesty (just imagine the prostration position). Like the powerful winds, the grammatical masculinity of the word Allah connotes majesty that helps us realize our servanthood to our Lord. [10]

๐Ÿ”. ๐‚๐จ๐ง๐œ๐ฅ๐ฎ๐ฌ๐ข๐จ๐ง

Feminist insecurities over the use of the pronoun โ€œHeโ€ for Allah Most High stem from three mistakes.

The first is imagining that huwa in Arabic carries the same biological connotations that โ€œheโ€ does in English. Whereas the masculine pronoun carries definite biological connotations in English, it does not in Arabic because Arabic has no neuter grammatical gender, and all nouns are either grammatically masculine or feminine.

The second is an anthropomorphic conception of God. Whereas every other religion is marred by anthropomorphism, in whose context a masculine pronominal reference connotes the masculinization of God, the transcendent tawhid of Islam considers it disbelief to ascribe human likeness to God.

The third is an incorrect worldview. Whereas a humanist worldview makes indignant demands of God, the humble Islamic worldview of slavehood uses the grammatical masculinity of the word โ€œAllahโ€ to find peace in the worship of its majestic Master.

And Allah Most High knows best.


๐ˆ๐ง ๐œ๐š๐ฌ๐ž ๐ญ๐ก๐ž ๐‚๐ก๐ซ๐ข๐ฌ๐ญ๐ข๐š๐ง๐ฌ ๐š๐ญ๐ญ๐š๐œ๐ค ๐ˆ๐ฌ๐ฅ๐š๐ฆ ๐š๐›๐จ๐ฎ๐ญ ๐ญ๐ก๐ž โ€œ๐‘๐จ๐ฒ๐š๐ฅ ๐–๐žโ€ (๐–๐ž, ๐”๐ฌ, ๐Ž๐ฎ๐ซ) ๐ข๐ง ๐“๐ก๐ž ๐†๐ฅ๐จ๐ซ๐ข๐จ๐ฎ๐ฌ ๐‡๐จ๐ฅ๐ฒ ๐๐ฎ๐ซ๐š๐ง. ๐‘๐จ๐ฒ๐š๐ฅ ๐–๐ž (๐Œ๐š๐ฃ๐ž๐ฌ๐ญ๐ข๐œ ๐๐ฅ๐ฎ๐ซ๐š๐ฅ) ๐š๐ฅ๐ฌ๐จ ๐ž๐ฑ๐ข๐ฌ๐ญ ๐ข๐ง ๐ญ๐ก๐ž๐ข๐ซ ๐๐ข๐›๐ฅ๐ž.

[1] Grammarians of the Arabic language make a similar distinction. One of the earliest Arabic lexicographers, Ibn Sidah, quotes Abu `Ali al-Farisi, โ€œA feminine thing is a living thing that has a female sex organ (i.e., the opposite of a masculine thing). This is femininity of meaning โ€ฆ There are two kinds of femininity: femininity of meaning and femininity of wording.โ€ (Ibn Sidah, al-Mukhassas, Abwab al-mudhakkar wa al-muโ€™annath) “Femininity of meaning” corresponds to what a modern linguist would call natural femininity; “femininity of wording” corresponds to what a modern linguist would call grammatical femininity.

[2] This wasnโ€™t always the case. Old English, like Arabic and French, had no neuter gender. As the neuter gender became more common, the use of masculine and feminine pronominal references for things without natural gender increasingly connoted personification. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) comments on the gradual incorporation of the neuter gender over centuries, saying, โ€œIt is not easy to say when grammatical gender ceased to be used, this differing according to dialect.โ€ The OED then quotes masculine pronominal references to inanimate things from the 13th to the 19th centuries. (The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, (Oxford University Press, 1971) 1.1269)

[3] William Wordsworth, An Evening Walk.

[4] Abu Ja`far al-Tahawi, al-`Aqida al-Tahawiyya, Section 7 (unpublished translation by Hamza Karamali).

[5] Abu Ja`far al-Tahawi, al-`Aqida al-Tahawiyya, Section 5 (unpublished translation by Hamza Karamali).

[6] โ€œNouns are masculine by default and femininity is secondary.โ€ (Ibn Sida, al-Mukhassas, Abwab al-mudhakkar wa al-muโ€™annath)

[9] Non-human plurals in Arabic are grammatically feminine.

[10] Ibn Kathir cites Ibn Abi Hatimโ€™s chain of transmission to the Companion `Abdullah Ibn `Umar that he said, โ€œThere are eight kinds of wind: four of them are mercy, and four are punishment. The winds of mercy are the nashirat, the mubashshirat, the mursalat, and the dhariyat. The winds of punishment are the `aqim, the sarsar (these two are on land), the `asif, and the qasif (these two are on sea).โ€ (Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Commentary on Quran, 30:51) The italicized Arabic adjectives are all Quranic adjectives for various kinds of wind. The adjectives for winds of mercy are all feminine plurals, and the adjectives for winds of punishment are all masculine singulars.

[11] โ€œIn fact, by far the most conspicuous of the Divine Names in the Qurโ€™an is al-Rahman, the All-Compassionate. And the explicitly feminine resonances of this name were remarked upon by the Prophet (s.w.s.) himself, who taught that rahma, loving compassion, is an attribute derived from the word rahim, meaning a womb. (Bukhari, Adab, 13) The cosmic matrix from which differentiated being is fashioned is thus, as in all primordial systems, explicitly feminine; although Allah โ€˜an sichโ€™ remains outside qualification by gender or by any other property.โ€

Allah knows Best

Allah and the pronoun โ€˜Heโ€™

The use of the plural โ€œWeโ€ by God in the Quran- The Majestic We

Why Quran uses masculine pronouns (He/Him/His) for Allah?

GOD says โ€œLet us createโ€โ€ฆ. in the book of Genesis: (Does โ€œusโ€ mean GOD and Jesus?) Let us look at the verses in question: Genesis 1:26-27

God using the plural for Himself

The Concept of โ€œWeโ€ as used in The Qurโ€™an by Allah

Source: Basria Education