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Gender Neutrality in the Arabic Language

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Question:

When I tell this hadith (report of the sayings or actions of the Prophet ﷺ) to a Christian woman, or any woman, how do I explain to her that when the Prophet ﷺ said “man” he is actually referring to a person regardless of gender?

The hadith cited is quoted thus in Riyad-us-Saliheen:

Abu Umamah Al-Bahili (radi Allahu `anhu – may Allah be pleased with him) reported: the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “I guarantee a house in Jannah for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a home in the middle of Jannah for one who abandons lying even for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Jannah for one who has good manners.” [Abu Dawud]

Answer:

There is an important axiom noted by scholars, such as Ibn Rushd al-Hafd and Ibn al-Qayyim, that whenever male nouns, verbs or pronouns are used, they are understood to include both genders, unless it is made clear that they are gender specific. Based on that, the legal ramifications of verses and hadith are applied to males and females. Thus, the word kana (he) in the hadith above, based on this axiom, is understood to include both males and females. The same could be said of the verse of Qur’an, “Successful are the believers.” While the word for believers is a sound male plural, it is understood to encompass females as well.

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship.

Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010 and his website, www.SuhaibWebb.com, was voted the best “Blog of the Year” by the 2009 Brass Crescent awards.

Suhaib Webb has lectured extensively around the world including in the Middle East, East Asia, Europe, North Africa and North America. Upon returning from his studies in Egypt, Webb lived in the Bay Area, California, where he worked with the Muslim American Society from Fall 2010 to Winter 2011. He currently serves as the Imam of the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cultural Center (ISBCC).

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  • I think a lot of people have the impression that the Quran, hadith and Islam in general is directed mainly to men, because of the way the pronoun mentioned is translated. Yet another reason why we need to learn arabic lol.

    But what would you recommend a person who has not yet learned arabic do to determine if an ayah or hadith is speaking about both men or women, or men exclusively.

  • alsalamo alaikom wa rahmat allah wa barakatoh
    you can use the word human instead of man in the sentence that meant to be directed to both men and women.

  • Dear Brother Suhaib..

    I would be really grateful to you if you could provide a detailed answer quoting some verses as examples….

    During my dialogue with several non-muslims I have had trouble in describing the gender issue …..

    May Allah reward you for this help…

    Sincere Regards…

    Yahya

  • Assalamu Alaikum, I’ve heard an explanation before that used biological science as a proof, which was great since western non-muslims rely on empirical scientific data as ‘solid evidence’…..males carry the XY (female/male) chromosome, both genders, in their reproductive cells. Whereas females carry the XX (female/female) chromosome, female gender only. Hence the Arabic language speaks the language of nature.
    Forgive me if I’ve conveyed this incorrectly.

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