On Gender, God, and Grammar

On Gender, God, and Grammar February 24, 2014


As we draw close to International Women’s Day, I have been thinking about the impact of language and our perceptions of God.  Take for instance, this passage from the Qur’an, Surah Shams:

Chapter 91. THE SUN

1  By the sun in its morning brightness
2  And by the moon as it follows it,
3  By the day as it displays the sun’s glory
4  And by the night as it conceals it,
5  By the sky and how He built it
6  And by the earth and how He spread it,
7  By the soul and how He formed it
8  And inspired it [to know] its own rebellion and piety!
9  The one who purifies his soul succeeds
10 And the one who corrupts it fails.

Or perhaps this translation:

1  By the sun and his brightness,
2  And the moon when she followeth him,
3  And the day when it revealeth him,
4 And the night when it enshroudeth him,
5  And the heaven and Him who built it,
6  And the earth and Him who spread it,
7  And a soul and Him who perfected it
8  And inspired it (with conscience of) what is wrong for it and (what is) right for it.
9  He is indeed successful who causeth it to grow,
10  And he is indeed a failure who stunteth it.

Reading these two translations, one gets the sense that women have little place in the Qur’an. There is clear indication that God is masculine; and not only male, but male with all the stereotypical characteristics assigned to men…  constructive, creative,  expansive, instructive, imbued with moral sensibility.   The second translation (by Muhammad Picktall) also reinforces Western notions of the shining, leading sun as the powerful male, with the passive, feminine moon following behind, reflecting his glory with none of her own to add. All followed by a bit of masculine camaraderie as  the encouragement and warning at the end are addressed to men — from one male being to another — with little or no role for women at all.

A more literal translation of the verse gives a hugely different picture:

1. By the sun and her morning glory
2. And the moon as she follows her
3. And the day as it reveals her
4. And the night as it conceals her
5. And the sky and that which built her
6. And the earth and that which spread her out
7. And the soul and that which formed her
8. And then infused her with immorality and piety.
9. Surely he who purifies her (his soul) succeeds
10. And he who corrupts her fails.

The entire masculine structure falls away. God is neither male nor female, but a neutral being (verses 5 and 6 using the pronoun “ma” which is usually translated as “it” in English). The world is not created as a duality between leading men and following women, but as a glorious, wondrous sign of a compassionate creator. And the moral warning and encouragement at the end is for all humans.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that simply because the Arabic words for the sun, the moon, the sky, the earth are all feminine words, that we should then jump to the conclusion that all the world is feminine with little use for maleness, rather, it points to the fact that grammatical constructs do not project masculinity or femininity upon things —  that God, the world, and human nature cannot be encapsulated by grammar, or by narrow perceptions of gender. Rather, we all possess masculine and feminine traits and to speak of God in terms of maleness or femaleness is not only inaccurate, but putting a gender structure on a thing that is beyond gender.

In talking about God, I try not to use pronouns, because English genderizes pronouns.  And when we consistently use one gender or the other to refer to God, we create false impressions of His/Her/Its identity. God is not He nor She, but in our careless use of language, we project that upon God. And in turn, use that false gender identity to discriminate and create false understandings of what it means to be a man or a woman.  If you ask Muslims, conservative or progressive or something in between, the vast majority will agree that God is not a man or a woman,  or, even, that God is neither masculine nor feminine. We point to the 99 names of Allah as encompassing both that which is stereotypically masculine and that which is stereotypically feminine. Let us try, then, to be more aware in our use of language when referring to the Divine, and of the impressions that language create of Divine Masculinity, of religion being a boy’s club, of the world reflecting stereotypical gender roles. Let’s resolve to do better!

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