Why is Allah Referred to as “He” in the Qur’an? | Blog
Published: March 1, 2023 • Updated: March 1, 2023
Author: Sh. Mohammad Elshinawy
In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Grantor of Mercy
Is God male because masculine pronouns are used to refer to Him? This is a normal thing to wonder about, but there are several things to keep in mind. First, the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic and not in English, so Allah never self-identified using an English pronoun. There is no such thing as a perfect translation. Languages function best within their respective connotative frameworks. This is why extrapolating nuance and deeper technicalities (like legal rulings) from a translation, without being grounded in traditional Arabic and other disciplines, can result in a grave departure from the intended meanings of God’s Revelation. Let’s keep this in mind and explore the question further.
It is lost in translation
Translators generally consider “He” to be the best translation for “huwa” (هو), which is the pronoun used throughout the Qur’an in reference to the Divine. However, this is not because they believe that huwa being grammatically masculine implies that Allah is male or male-like. For them, it is just like inna (إنا) and nahnu (نحن)—consistently translated as “We” without implying that Allah is plural or refers to multiple deities. Even in English, the “royal we” is a known linguistic convention for denoting greatness and sovereignty, not plurality.
Of course, unlike the “royal we,” which is recognized in English and Arabic alike, “he” is only used in English for males. However, Arabic is a gendered language, so all nouns are grammatically masculine or feminine even if they are inanimate objects. The Arabic “he” is also the default pronoun, and hence it is invoked for the genderless third person singular. The Divine Name would linguistically fall into that final category.
They are Allah’s words
It is therefore understandable that there may be greater contention over the use of “he” in English, as opposed to huwa in the original Arabic. But we must never forget that the Arabic “he” has a wider usage than maleness. Additionally, God has afforded us sacred principles for not swerving in our conception of Him. For instance, Allah says,
لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ وَهُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِير
There is nothing like Him and He is the Hearing and Seeing.
[ Qur’an, 42:11 ]
Interestingly in this verse, Allah negates any likeness to His creation, yet affirms that He hears and sees–attributes that we have as humans. Allah knows His creation, so He reveals Himself to us in words that we can understand, even though language can never encapsulate His true reality. So that’s our golden rule: commit yourself to speaking about Allah as He spoke of Himself, as best you can, and recognize that the Divine Traits transcend in their realities whatever may be inherent in His creation. As Allah also says,
سُبْحَانَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ الْأَزْوَاجَ كُلَّهَا
“Transcendent is He who created all the pairs.”
[ Qur’an, 36:36 ]
Due to human limitations
Someone may wonder: if the realities between created beings and the Transcendent are so different, then why is language used that can be misunderstood to be human-like? It is because we humans can only understand anthropocentric language—we can only extrapolate based on our human experience. Would it be wise to address us with expressions we cannot relate to, using terms and describing realities with which we are unfamiliar and therefore cannot grasp?
With all this in mind, and considering the more problematic connotations of “it” (usually reserved for animals and objects) and “they/them” (used for plurality), it makes sense that “he” is elected as the best analogue for “huwa” with the qualifiers above. And Allah knows best.