It Definitely Isn’t A Man

So, why do most Quran-readers use the pronoun ‘He’ to describe the Almighty?

Well, there are a few reasons I can think of – perhaps you can comment below to give me your take on this.

The first reason we’ve made ‘Allah’ into a ‘He’ is that the earliest translations of the Quran into English had an on-going theme of trying to sound as biblical as possible. In the Bible, God is a ‘He’ – the ‘Father’ figure for humanity. Imagining God as a father figure creates warm, fuzzy feelings inside you, especially if your father is emotionally and spiritually absent.

However, personalising the Incomparable to this extent has a down side: in the minds of millions of people the Almighty Creator has somehow become a cheerful chap with a Father-Christmas-like beard sitting on a cloud up in Heaven. Even though most Muslims would reject this image of Allah, they wouldn’t reject it strongly enough to not use the pronoun ‘He’ to describe It. (Although I imagine if we started referring to Allah as a ‘She’ it would cause some kind of out-cry, even though the word ‘Ar-Rahman’, The All-Loving and ‘Ar-Raheem’ The Most Kind, both share the same 3 root letters in Arabic as ‘womb’, which is surely feminine.)

The second reason Allah is referred to as ‘He’ in English is that Arabic grammar does not have a neutral gender, and when referring to something neutral of gender, the masculine is used. And, because most translators are just looking for the easiest equivalent in the target language, the pronoun ‘He’ or ‘Him’ is used instead of ‘It’ throughout most (no, all) English translations of the Quran.

The 3rd reason, people use ‘He’ to refer to Allah is that they hear other people, particularly scholars and people of knowledge referring to Allah as ‘He’ when talking about Islam or Allah in English. No doubt such scholars have their own reasons for referring to Allah as ‘He’ rather than ‘It’, but at this point, I couldn’t justify it. I’m guessing most scholars just do it because they’re translating the Quran from Arabic to English in their minds as they speak, and they hope their audience knows enough about Islam to know that “He” isn’t a male.

The 4th reason is that the best alternative to ‘He’ is probably ‘It’, which doesn’t feel good for some people. I can understand that – ‘It’ is so much less personal than ‘He’. ‘It’ sounds like some kind of an alien character in a horror movie. However, the more I use ‘It’, the more I feel close to ‘It’. Besides, when talking about the Indescribable, I’d vote for an Alien Force for Good over a Father-Christmas sitting on a cloud any day.

I also feel like I can use the term ‘It’ to communicate to a broader audience, from different religious, non-religious, and spiritual backgrounds, and maybe help us all see that we probably believe in the same Divine Force, although the words we use to describe It may be different. That’s harder to do if I think and talk about ‘It’ using a male pronoun.

The 5th reason is probably one of the most practical. When translating the Quran accurately, it’s very difficult to refer to Allah as ‘It’ because the ‘It’ could be referring to just about anything else in the sentence. Here’s an example:

“There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear book by which Allah guides those who pursue His pleasure – the way of peace – and brings them out of the darkness into the light, with His permission, and guides them to a straight path” (5: 15-16)

The above verses make a lot more sense, and are easier to read than my preferred translation:

“There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear book by which Allah guides those who pursue Its pleasure – the way of peace – and brings them out of the darkness into the light, with Its permission, and guides them to a straight path” (5: 15-16)

In the 2nd ‘It’ version, the ‘It’ could be referring to ‘a clear book’ in the 1st use, or ‘the light ‘ in the 2nd use. Hmm… tricky. Whilst this happens less with the personal pronoun ‘He’, it still happens. That’s why it’s capitalised. If throughout the translation, ‘It’ is used to refer to Allah when capitalised, using ‘It’ still makes sense. And something awesome happens…

When you read the Quran, replacing the “He’s” with “It’s”, you get a sense of Allah’s Awe, Magnificence and Incomparable nature. You’re referring to Something when you’ve never seen, heard or touched It. Read the second version of the verse again, accepting that ‘It’ (capitalised) refers to Allah. Go ahead. Then, let me know how it feels to you in the comments box below.

The reason I wrote this piece is to let you know that throughout the rest of this blog and in other writings, I’ll be referring to Allah using the equally inadequate, but at least gender-free pronoun, “It” insha’Allah. If you can think of a really good reason not to, let me know below and I’ll judge for myself, with the True Judge watching me.

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Comments

  • mohammed  On October 6, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Salam,
    Brother I don’t get it. When I use the term He for Allah, your assumption that “in the minds of millions of people the Almighty Creator has somehow become a cheerful chap with a Father-Christmas-like beard sitting on a cloud up in Heaven” doesn’t occurs to me. And such thinking never crossed my mind everytime I use “He.” After reading your post,I tried using the ‘it’ but I don’t feel comfortable and I felt like I’m just referring to a “something” and not to “Someone.”

    • quranforbusypeople  On October 9, 2011 at 10:49 am

      Salams Akhi, great! Go ahead and use ‘He’. I’m not saying everyone should change over, I just wanted to let readers know that I prefer ‘It’ – it feels better to me. The pronoun ‘He’ implies gender in English, which it doesn’t in Arabic, which is why I prefer to not use it. I appreciate your feedback 🙂

  • Timur  On October 8, 2011 at 8:36 pm

    mA and JAK! You should touch base on the use of We and Our as well.

  • sif1103  On October 13, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Best way to replace it by saying God or Allah, such as this ——

    “There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear book by which Allah guides those who pursue (Allah’s) pleasure – the way of peace – and brings them out of the darkness into the light, with (Allah’s) permission, and guides them to a straight path”

    this is how i always use it, as a child i heard everyone say he, but once i read that Allah had no gender i disciplined myself to not say it, God is the Greatest, hope this helps.

  • Amee  On August 6, 2012 at 5:21 am

    I was wondering if there are any publishes versions of the Qu’ran that uses ‘It’ instead of ‘He’. I agree with the point of view that “It” actually holds much more greater esteem in my mind than “He”, as there have been many male related issues in my life and I feel beginning with “It” would open my mind to the Qu’ran more easily… If anyone knows these versions do let me know

  • Fathima  On July 17, 2013 at 10:29 am

    Assalaamu alaikum
    Your article is very thought-provoking and certainly makes sense. This is because Allah is everywhere at once, and is an all-seeing and all-hearing entity. All my life I tried to work it out and have come to the conclusion that Allah is this great energy to be able to be everywhere at once, and is a positive energy to which we must adhere for bliss (jannah). Any negativity (wrong action) moves you away from it (ALLAH). Is it a wonder then that no prophet was able to see Allah even in HIS presence? (..to see the energy in its presence? )
    Thank you and may we get closer to Allah..

    • madvilla  On July 30, 2013 at 11:09 am

      Yes, The prophet peace be upon him spoke with Allah without a veil, unlike Musa alaihis Salam. And on the day of judgement we shall all witness the “countenance” of Allah. Allah is not an invisible force – that is what is conjured in minds when the objective pronoun is used. Allah is not of the dimension we can perceive. Allah is beyond matter. And we can only see matter. Hence why we cannot perceive Allah. Not because He is an IT that we cannot see or touch.

  • Faz  On July 8, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    It is usually used in English for animals. For eg “the dog needs to be trained.IT keeps barking at everybody”

    I find it pretty disrespectful to use IT for Allah. Allah himself uses masculine pronoun for himself even though there no concept of gender for him.
    I think it is pointless for us to think about it too much. Just use He because if you don’t it will lead to awkward sounding translations.

    • quranforbusypeople  On July 9, 2015 at 4:47 pm

      Fair point – I’ve found myself having to use He more and more for this exact reason. Hope you’re enjoying all our articles 🙂

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