IN PART 2 we explained that the Arabic name ‘Allah’ is a word in the noun category and as such this name belongs to one of two possible grammatical categories of Arabic nouns. For reasons about which we took an educated guess, ‘Allah’ belongs to the ‘masculine’ noun grammatical category –as evidenced by the fact that the pronoun ‘He’ is used in referring to Allah, never ‘She.’ That is, the name ‘Allah’ does not belong to the ‘feminine’ noun grammatical category, even though this name ‘Allah‘ ends in {-ah}, which makes it look like a grammatically ‘feminine’ noun. This third part of the series is for those readers who would like to delve further into how grammatical gender works in relationship to the question of Allah being referred to as ‘He.’

GRAMMATICAL GENDER

Elaboration of this linguistic category is in order, since here is the heart of the issue (a) in understanding how the name ‘Allah’ takes the pronoun ‘He’ when He –in His essence– is totally unlike human beings in our biological male vs. female categories and in our masculine vs. feminine social groupings.  And (b) in grasping how the masculine grammatical category is proper for Allah, whereas the feminine grammatical category is not.

Languages have various categories, or ‘classes,’ of nouns, technically called ‘gender.’  In biology we can say that there are two genders or sexes: male and female.   In languages there is typically a noun class/ category that includes all biologically female referents, as opposed to another noun class that includes all biologically male referents. These two grammatical categories can be referred to as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ respectively, since they include in their membership those words that contain reference to biological sexual distinctions.

Arabic has the two grammatical gender classes of nouns which, between the two of them, must take in all objects –not only the biologically-differentiated ones– but also those inanimate entities which have no biological ‘gender’ differentiation.  Every noun must belong to one class or the other—and the assignment to one class or the other is mostly without discernible rhyme or reason since there is no biological sex to determine a logic for deciding class membership; the assignment is simply internalized (memorized) by a child growing up in the culture and passed on to the next generation.

END SPELLING

In some languages, the end spelling of the word will tell us which noun class that word belongs to; for example in Arabic nouns ending in   {-ah} typically belong to the ‘feminine’ class.  In French—with few exceptions—a singular noun ending in any of certain list of letters or letter patterns  belong to the ‘masculine’ noun class and if ending in certain other letters or letter patterns belongs to the ’feminine’ noun class.  [1]

ARTICLES

Bound up together with this noun gender-class, there is a corresponding set of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ grammatical words called ‘articles’ that are obligatorily matched with each noun ‘gender’ class.  In French, the article {le} goes before masculine nouns and {la} goes before feminine nouns.

le homme,  the man         (l’homme)

la femme,   the woman

By contrast to French, other languages have  a single article which can be used with any noun, regardless of noun class membership, whether masculine or feminine, etc.  Examples are English {the} and Arabic {al-}.

the man           the woman

al-rijâl             al-nisâ’

In both English and Arabic the article remains the same word (Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:34), whether the noun is masculine or feminine: The Arabic article {al-} –like the English article {the}– does not distinguish grammatical gender. [2]

PRONOUNS

In English and Arabic, although the articles show no distinction of gender, their corresponding pronouns do distinguish grammatical gender, namely, ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’: he / she, and huwa / hiya, respectively:

the man – he             the woman – she

al-rijâl  –  huwa          al-nisâ’  –  hiya

Here we are exploring why Arabic uses the masculine pronoun huwa/ ‘He’–since the name ‘Allah, if anything, looks like it should belong to the feminine grammatical category. In all languages having gender distinctions in nouns and pronouns, the gender of a pronoun must match the gender of the noun to which it refers. That is, if the noun ‘Allah’ were to fall into the feminine category, then its corresponding pronoun would –necessarily– be ‘She.’ Conversely, if the Arabic noun Allah belonged to the masculine noun class, then its corresponding pronoun would necessarily be ‘He. ‘

The same process is at work in French, where there is a corresponding pronoun which will substitute for any member of that noun class: il (substitutes for masculine nouns) and elle (for feminine nouns).

le hommeil       the man  –  he

la femmeelle     the woman  –  she

QUANTITY OF GRAMMATICAL NOUN CLASSES

Some other languages have dozens of noun classes and a separate marker that appears with each.  Languages spoken by large numbers of people, like English and Arabic, generally have fewer noun classes—and generally a more simplified grammar in all areas of linguistic structure.  (When anomalies occur, they are generally due to an uneven or incomplete simplification process.)

When a language, like Arabic, has only two noun classes—that is, two grammatical  ‘genders,’ these are typically referred to as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine,’ since biologically male items are included within one class and are referred to using the ‘masculine’ marker; and the same for the ‘feminine’ class which includes the biologically female referents within its group.

Whereas Arabic has the two grammatical gender choices, English is quite different in that we have three grammatical gender choices: masculine, feminine and neuter –with three separate pronouns to correspond to members of each class: ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it.’

the man  – he

the woman  –  she

the house  –  it

‘It’ covers reference to the majority of nouns in English; the pronoun ‘it’ is used to refer to things having no biological gender:

a box  – it

life  –  it

the length  –  it

There are other cases where ‘it’ may refer to things whose biological gender we do not know (an unfamiliar baby).

That was such a happy baby that we watched play at the park today.  It  smiled and laughed most of the time.

MATCHING NOUN AND PRONOUN GENDER

Normally in English, ‘he’ is  the pronoun which matches exclusively with biologically male persons and ‘she’ matches with biologically female persons, while ‘it’ is for all else.   In Arabic there are the two choices: ‘he’ and ‘she’; there is no third neutral category. The two grammatical noun genders in Arabic are used to separate (a) biological gender of persons, male vs. female—but also to include (b) all other nameable ‘items’ within one grammatical gender noun class (‘masculine’) or the other (‘feminine’).  Thus, ‘Allah’ as a noun must belong to one noun gender class category or the other, even though Allah Himself is neither male nor female; that is, the noun ‘Allah’ must be referred to by one or the other pronoun, either ‘He’ or ‘She.’

ANOMALIES

Such gender classes are not watertight; a gender-specific spelling does not always match its gender class. [3] And thus our suggested explanations (Parts 1 and 2) from cultural heritage and from special usage of the Arabic feminine gender marker { ة } (Arabic: ta marbuta).  If we suspect that the name ‘Allah’ should belong to the feminine noun gender-class based on its ending in     {-ah}, then we can be sure that it does not belong to that class once we know that its corresponding pronoun is always ‘He, ‘ and never ‘She.’  Similarly, in English why a ship is often referred to as a ‘she’ rather than as an ‘it’?  Answer: Since a ship is an inanimate object, it should belong to the neuter gender-class of English nouns; but as a beloved object for some groups of people, a ship has become referred to as a ‘she.’

This is to say that some nouns belong to an unexpected gender category for idiosyncratic reasons. In the case of the noun ‘Allah,’ it belongs, perhaps unexpectedly, to the ‘masculine’ grammatical gender class.  We have given reasons (Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series) which may possibly explain those idiosyncratic reasons.

——————————-

[1]    Rosenthal, Saul H., The Rules for the Gender of French Nouns, 2007, Hats Off Books: Tucson, USA.

[2]    The pronunciation of the article varies in both English and Arabic, according to the phonological (sound) context, but the article itself remains a single word with a single grammatical meaning.

English: thƏ peach; thî apple

Arabic:  ar-rijâl   an-nisâ’   al-bayt

[3]    The form of {Allah} may be due to an incongruity, an anomaly, in Arabic grammar, or, it may be the result of a historical process which resulted in {-ah} as the end sounds of the word, but without association with feminine gender, either biological or grammatical.

Linda Thayer

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as 'divinity' and Jesus as the second 'person' of a 'Godhead' (the doctrine of the 'Trinity') were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books' portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30's, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

6 Comments

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

  • Sass A Frass

    April 19, 2016 - - 10:30 pm

    Kachina- I may have missed part 1, and actually tagged you in part 2. Ack!

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