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Why some Muslim women are using different pronouns for Allah

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a quiet revolution happening among some Islamic scholars and feminists. They're using female or gender-neutral pronouns to refer to the divine, Allah.

SOFIA REHMAN: I don't need to think of Allah as a loving mother or a protecting father.

SHAPIRO: Sofia Rehman is a scholar of gender and Islam.

REHMAN: So, for me, Allah is just this perfect blend of everything that is on a plane that is much higher and transcends these sort of, you know, gender binaries and, you know, the stickiness of that.

SHAPIRO: This shift raises questions about how Islam understands women, gender and God. Hafsa Lodi wrote about this movement in The Revealer. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

HAFSA LODI: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about this quiet revolution. What's revolutionary about it?

LODI: Yes. I guess what's revolutionary about it is just hearing the female pronouns or the feminine pronouns - she and her - when referring to Allah, God, who has traditionally in Islamic thought and in Islamic scholarship always been referred to as he in the masculine pronoun in English. So to hear Allah being referred to as she at a time when Islamic feminism is gaining so much traction, it's really revolutionary.

SHAPIRO: So God has traditionally been referred to using masculine pronouns, but in Islam, although I know it's a vast and diverse religion, is Allah generally understood to have a gender?

LODI: No, definitely not. I mean, the Quran, the holy text of Islam implies time and again that Allah has no gender. Allah is beyond gender. Allah is no man, no woman. Allah has no spouse or children. But the Quran was revealed (ph) in Arabic, and linguistically, Allah's referred to as he, which is the masculine pronoun howwa in Arabic, throughout the Quran.

SHAPIRO: You talked to a number of scholars and academics for your article. We heard from one in the intro. Here's another. Ayesha Chaudhry is a gender and Islamic studies professor at the University of British Columbia.

AYESHA CHAUDHRY: Using these different genders for God, I think, helps me personally come up against the limitations of my imagination of God. And it helps maintain the mystery around God and help me understand that, like, I can't encompass all of God and that, actually, God is always beyond me.

SHAPIRO: And so, Hafsa Lodi, what other reasons did people give you for this exploration?

LODI: Yeah. So many. I mean, one of my friends, actually after the article was published, she pointed out something that I hadn't even thought about before was that, you know, for some females, the pronoun he might be triggering if they've had negative experiences with abuse with males in positions of authority. And so for them, she might be a better way, a way for them to connect better with the creator, with the divine. And I found that kind of beautiful in a way.

SHAPIRO: One expert told you people still get into a tizzy about this. So...

LODI: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Tell us about the tizzy. What's the pushback?

LODI: So, yeah, there's a lot of pushback. You'd think it would be mainly from men, but it's from women as well. The pushback is that the Quran is perceived to be an immutable text in Islam. You know, it's never been changed, and we can't change it. In the Quran, Allah is referred to as he, huwa, the Arabic pronoun for he. So we cannot go in and change that. Allah never self-identified using an English pronoun, so there's no wiggle room to call Allah she. That's what the pushback would say.

SHAPIRO: I could imagine a hundred arguments in response to that. But is it really about authenticity and devotion to the original text or do you think it's about something more?

LODI: Yeah, definitely. I think Muslim cultures particularly take patriarchal forms historically, and so those in power don't want to see these gender hierarchies changed. They don't want to see them rocked in any way. And calling God she is like a big linguistic shift. Also, we are in a time when there's a lot of anxieties regarding pronouns in general, so just the small matter of a pronoun shift, which in itself shouldn't be so controversial, there are all these kind of wider arguments and conversations going around that kind of are influencing the pushback to this.

SHAPIRO: Has writing about it changed your ideas about God's gender and how it is talked about in Islam?

LODI: A few months ago, before I even started working on this story, I was stuck in traffic at a traffic light with my daughter. My 4-year-old daughter was in the back. This is right after picking her up from school. She really had to use the restroom. And she's saying, no, mom, hurry up, hurry up. I really need to go. I really need to go. And so, exasperated, I said, OK, pray to Allah that he turns the traffic light green really quickly. And so she, like, whispered something under her breath and says, OK, I did my prayer. I pray that she changes the traffic light to green.

And so instinctively I said he, you know, like, I kind of barked it. And it was so interesting because I caught myself. And I thought, no, it's so good. My daughter is, you know, like, praying to God to turn something as minute as turning a traffic light green. But, you know, she's connecting. And she kind of envisions God with this she or female form. She's 4 years old. There's no harm in this. Why am I being that kind of upholder of the patriarchy and correcting her to he?

And it really made me rethink how I teach religion to my children and how I kind of carry over these values that were kind of instilled in all of us in previous generations of Muslims. At the same time, I feel like my perspective has been broadened knowing that there are scholars who argue the permissibility of using the feminine pronoun, knowing that, you know, everything's not black and white, changing the pronoun that you refer to your creator by, it really doesn't change your belief system. It doesn't change your religiosity in any sense. It's just helping you connect with your creator in a deeper way. And I think that's really profound.

SHAPIRO: Hafsa Lodi's piece for The Revealer is called "The Muslim Women Using Feminine Pronouns For Allah." Thank you.

LODI: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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