“Is Allah a man?”
It’s a question that Lamya H (a pseudonym), author of the new memoir, Hijab Butch Blues, asked her Qur’an teacher as a six-year-old child. “In my mind, Allah is a woman, floating and ethereal in the night sky,” she writes.
“Allah is not a man or a woman,” her teacher replied, giving a traditional Islamic response to such a question, before changing the subject.
Years later, at age 23 in New York, Lamya was at an event for Muslims where a woman spoke about using “she/her” pronouns for God, jarring and angering others who called it disrespectful, even blasphemous.
“All the Islamic feminists have been writing about it,” the woman explained. “It’s a really important way to fight the patriarchy.”
There is indeed a quiet revolution underway within the literary folds of Islamic feminism, wherein Muslim authors, academics, and activists are using female pronouns for Allah in an attempt to separate God from the idea of a “Divine patriarch.”
Many have been inspired by Muslim theologian amina wadud (who spells her name with lowercase letters). Her book, Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, has been foundational to discussions on women’s rights and roles from progressive Muslim perspectives. wadud’s work has also introduced many to the vitality of Islamic feminism.
When I first spoke with wadud over Zoom, she told me she started diversifying Allah’s pronouns after teaching an undergraduate religious studies course at Virginia Commonwealth University in the late 1990s. wadud asked her students to explore the lyrics of Joan Osborne’s song, “What if God Was One of Us.” While discussing pronouns for God, the men in the class told her that they could relate to God when God was referred to as “He,” but not when God was referred to as “She.” In that moment, wadud decided to start using female pronouns for Allah, who, according to traditional Muslim teachings, transcends gender, yet has historically been described with male pronouns.
“It was not common then, and it is still fraught with lots of controversy now,” wadud tells me of the practice of calling God “She.” “People still get into a tizzy, and I think that’s worth exploring – why is there such a tizzy?”
Getting to the Bottom of Arabic Grammar
According to Islamic teachings, the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic and throughout most of the text, the masculine pronoun, Huwa, is used for Allah. Yet, the text also makes clear that Allah is neither male nor female.
“We are obsessed with the masculine pronoun as if it is a literal articulation of Allah, whom we also will say is beyond gender,” exclaims wadud.
wadud currently lives in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and tells me about the local language, Bahasa, which has only one pronoun. “Indonesians, on a regular basis will say things like ‘my husband, she’, or ‘my daughter, he’ because their minds are not used to choosing between these different pronouns in English, so they randomly choose one from their files,” she explains. Languages such as Bengali, Turkish, and Persian are similar.
The masculine pronoun has prevailed for so long in reference to Allah because it presents a literal translation of the Arabic language – the language of the Qur’an. However, wadud points out that there are some cases in the text when Allah uses “we,” a pronoun that typically denotes multiplicity and grammatically seems to clash with the concept of monotheism. Yet, Muslims rarely acknowledge the plural nature of “we” and instead choose to center the singular, masculine pronoun for Allah instead.
In his book Muhammad’s Body, Assistant Professor of Religion and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida, Michael Muhammad Knight writes that modern Muslim discourses “often dismiss God’s masculine pronoun as a mere accident of Arab grammar, which lacks a gender-neutral pronoun and thereby requires the inscription of ‘he’ or ‘she’ on every noun.” He also notes that within developing, gender-progressive Muslim theologies, God’s “transcendence” of gender is a “prerequisite” for true monotheism. That’s because Allah’s tawhid, or one-ness, requires God to be beyond gender – and that any binary view of gender, or perceived preference for one over the other, would negate this concept of unity, which wadud calls “the tawhidic paradigm.”
Ayesha Chaudhry, Professor of Islamic Studies and Gender Studies at the University of British Columbia, explains that all pronouns we use for God ultimately “misgender” God.
“Our language forces God to be constantly misgendered in order to be spoken about,” Chaudhry explains. She released her memoir, The Colour of God, in 2021, and in it, uses both masculine and feminine pronouns for Allah. “I use what feels right to me in context of my writing, and don’t restrict myself to one or the other,” she says. “If what we’re doing by gendering God is always misgendering God, then why misgender only one [way]?”
Author Camille Helminski, who is currently working on an English translation of the Qur’an, also avoids attributing only one gender to God. Helminski is a follower of Sufiism, the Islamic mystical tradition, and her book, The Way of Mary: Maryam, Beloved of God, is a comprehensive account of Jesus’s mother that draws on Christian and Islamic sources. When she translates verses of the Qur’an, she refers to God as “He/She,” embracing a gender-inclusive outlook that is often more common in Sufi discourse than it is in orthodox interpretations of faith.
Balancing the Scale within the Framework of Islamic Theology
There have been centuries of debate within Sufism regarding God’s characteristics. Sufis often describe God through metaphors since, according to their teachings, our Earthly words cannot begin to reflect the sheer magnificence of the Divine. “Human language is basically a reflection of our imagination. And it can’t encompass God. So we’re doing our best,” explains Chaudhry.
Sofia Rehman, Islamic scholar, academic, and author of A Treasury of ‘A’ishah: A Guidance from the Beloved of the Beloved, agrees, deeming language – and any pronoun – to be “inept” and “inadequate” in capturing the totality of the Creator. “Allah is not imprisoned by the binary. Allah is a Oneness that none of us can experience,” she says.
Rehman first came across the possibility of using feminine pronouns for God in the 1990s when she was 12 and reading a coffee-table book authored by pop star Michael Jackson, who referred to God as “He/She.” Now, she leads a virtual book club that discusses inclusive and feminist Muslim texts. She says that she personally veers away from “He” and “She,” and uses “Allah,” “God,” and sometimes “They,” when a pronoun is necessary. “It’s the most gender-neutral pronoun that I could use in English – it’s a comfortable medium,” she explains.
Almost three decades after wadud first began proposing alternative pronouns for Allah, both Rehman and Chaudhry keep her practice alive. While teaching, both switch between pronouns – “He”, “She”, “They” and “It” – when discussing God, so students can critically analyze their allegiances to certain pronouns. “The classroom is such a beautiful place, kind of like a laboratory,” says Chaudhry, who has noticed squirming and physical discomfort around this topic, yet believes it’s an important learning moment, because analyzing this discomfort will reveal our beliefs and biases about gender.
In Islamic theology, a central approach to understanding God is through Allah’s 99 names – such as “The loving,” “The merciful,” and “The guide.” These names are categorised as either jamali (feminine) or jalali (masculine) attributes.
“Allah has both jamali and jalali attributes, meaning that Allah’s nature is inclusive, and not exclusive,” explains wadud. She adds that out of all these divine characteristics, two of the most frequent are Ar Rahman (the beneficent) and Ar Rahim (the merciful). These are jamali (feminine) descriptors, coming from the root word meaning “womb.”
“The Divine feminine nature is frequent and abundant – and yet when it comes to looking at how to refer to Allah, this fixation on the ‘He’ has proven that it is more than grammar, more than a literal reading; it’s also political,” says wadud.
Masculine Pronouns Manifest Patriarchy
Emphasizing God’s masculine attributes at the expense of God’s feminine qualities can have political implications. For instance, if Allah is deemed to be a supreme patriarch, being male can be seen as a prerequisite for religious authority. “When the religion is presented to you so patriarchally, at some subconscious level, Allah is being perceived as male, and that’s very problematic for so many reasons, not least because we also end up having religious leaders who are also always male,” points out Rehman. This has the reverse impression too – “if all authority in the human realm is male then all authority in the Divine realm will also be male,” she explains.
Because language is imbued with power, patriarchal authority manifests with zealousness in communities across the globe – from the oppressive regime of the Taliban in Afghanistan, to instances closer to home, where mosques often have all-male leadership and superior prayer spaces for men, instead of being inclusive houses of worship for Muslim women.
Last year, Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis Tazeen M. Ali published The Women’s Mosque of America: Authority and Community in US Islam, which examines how some American Muslim women have created their own worship spaces. Ali tells me that using female pronouns can serve as a “powerful corrective” to help “reclaim one’s faith.” She believes that those who use female pronouns for Allah do so in the pursuit of gender inclusivity in their theological understandings of God.