The 99 Names: Allah is not
He or She

The Qur’an says: “to Allah belongs the most beautiful names al-Asmaa’ al-Husnaa’, so call upon Her with these.” Some one asked me why I used ‘She’ with Allah so here is my chance to explain. First of all, we should all note that using the word ‘She’ invokes a question. Meanwhile, why is there no question when I use ‘He’? Because I use that too.

I intentionally use all three pronouns available in English; Arabic has just two. This was easiest of all to explain to Indonesians, because bahasa has only one pronoun. It is clear to me that a pronoun is only a function of language. It does not convey or express gender politics. The trouble is, of course, when we choose one pronoun of the English three, some people take it literally; use the ‘She’ word and we think it is because I mean that Allah is female. I don’t believe God/Allah is female. On the contrary, I think God transcends gender. So the only way to remind myself (and others) of this is to use all of the English pronouns; but especially to use ‘She’. It became clear that we are so comfortable with using ‘He’ with Allah that we slip into thinking Allah is male, a literal ‘He’.

If we take ‘He’ unquestionably, then we should be able to take ‘She’ equally unquestionably—but we don’t. That’s why we need to use ‘She’ more often. I use ‘It’ too, but not as often as the other two because we have all three pronouns in English. A pronoun is a certain kind of marker in language, not the essence of the divine. But I have other reasons too.

Arabic-speaking people take the gender of “things” literally: they start giving social or anthropological characteristics to inanimate objects. The table is feminine and they start making a social analysis of why it feminine. Oddly enough, in Arabic, the sun is feminine and the moon is masculine. Think about that for a minute. We tend to think in opposite gender terms about the sun and the moon in English. But it is not literal; it’s a metaphor.

It’s true the Qur’an only uses the Arabic masculine (singular) pronoun and not the feminine. But that’s not literal either. You know how I know? the Qur’an uses the first-person singular, ‘I’ and ‘Me’ for Allah, and also uses the first-person plural, ‘We’ and ‘Us’. However, no one ever takes that literally, proposing that Allah is more than one! In fact, they make excuses for this occurrence in the sacred text. They give reasons for not taking it literally (“It’s the royal we”). However, you can’t imagine how many people get literal about the pronoun ‘He’—they get crazy about it.

Another reason is when the Qur’an says laysa ka mithlihi shay’un: “there is no thing like Him.” This, and where it also says wa min kulli shay’un khalaqnaa zawjayn: “(from) all things We have created (in) pairs.” Thus pairedness is a characteristic of that which is created. Here the word shay’ means “created thing or the thing-ness of creation.” But Allah is not created and does not share in this paired reality; either by the dualism of it or even by being one part of a pair, implying the relationship of being in opposition. This is not a characteristic of the Creator. In other places, the Qur’an clarifies the (human) pairs as male and female: “‘We’ created ‘You’ (humans) from (or of) male and female.” Pretty straightforward if you think about it. But since we as human beings have been affected by patriarchy, then we reflect that onto God/Allah. The divine cannot have gender.

Now, Allah does have a lot of characteristics—according to traditions, 99 in fact. These are what the Qur’an refers to as al-Asmaa’ al-Husnaa’, the most beautiful names. These are not like 99 different gods. These are descriptions or characteristics of The One God. God has all of these 99 attributes (and more, actually) simultaneous with Himself as unified (or tawhid). Some of these characteristics (or sifaat) are literally opposites of others. For example, God is both Wrathful and Merciful; both a Punisher and a Forgiver.

These mutually existing attributes or characteristics can be easily clustered into two main groups: those known as Jalal and those known as Jamal. This is like the yin and yang of the names. Jalal refers to those characteristics of Allah’s God-ness or uluhiyyah. The other characteristics, the Jamal ones, are with reference to Allah’s rububiyyah or (nurturing) Lordship. Attributes like Creator, Raiser from the Dead, Ultimate Judge, and Master of the Universe are clearly God-like, exclusive. Attributes like Merciful, Compassionate, and Loving, are relational, Lordly. In fact, we humans can possess these Jamal attributes in the form of virtues, where Allah has them in the form of essence.

Recently some superheros were created using the 99 names, known as The Super 99. While I want to applaud the possibility of infusion of all dimensions of all cultures with things that remind us of the divine, here’s the thing: I have noticed that we have a tendency to defer mostly or sometimes only to these powerful, or masculine, yang attributes. This has consequences on us culturally. There is an overemphasis on these traits that runs right alongside our tendency toward patriarchy. Patriarchy is a kind of istikbar, with one gender, male, considered better then the other, female. Plus when one has the power to assert this sense of different values because of different genders, it turns into zulm, or oppression.

I keep thinking about ways to move out of gender oppression. So it occurred to me that we could resume the harmonious balance in creation by shifting our emphasis onto the Jamal names, the yin or feminine aspects of the divine. Clearly we need more mercy, compassion, forgiveness and love. This is not a question of either/or: All these belong equally to Allah. It’s just a question of emphasis in our everyday, ordinary circumstances.

It’s fairly self-evident that the idea of the beauty in Allah and Allah’s names really should incline us toward the Jamal names, since the word Jamal also means beauty. We need more of this divine beauty in our world. We are the agents of this. As Ghandi said, we must be the change we want to see in the world, and I want to see more compassion and beauty. What better inspiration than that which is already available to us in the form of 99 beautiful names?