Ask (practically) anyone what gender God is and they will, most likely without hesitation, tell you that God is male. But why is that? Why are people so readily willing to ascribe God, an almighty being much greater than ourselves, to a measly socially constructed gender? The consensus seems to be (according to some friends I’ve interviewed) that in society, men hold more power than women. Therefore, if God is a powerful being, then God must be male. But what these people who’ve accepted God’s maleness fail to understand is that, often times, men hold power in patriarchal societies because God is said to be male.
To borrow a quote from Mary Daly, “If God is male, then male is God.” To my understanding, this means that if God is perceived as male, and God is the “Ruler” and “Lord” of the people, then men in the human world can use this perception as a “template” (in a sense) to structure their societies. However, in her work “Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an, Asma Barlas pushes against this idea. She quotes the Qur’an in order to introduce the principle of Divine Unity, a concept which introduces to us that “God is One.”
“Your God is One God” (16:22; in Ali, 661), a verse that Barlas takes directly from the Qur’an. This particular verse is essential to our understanding of Divine Unity. According to Barlas’ argument, what this verse means is that (in Islam, particularly) God is a single being. God cannot be divided and, as a result, cannot and does not share divine power with anyone.
She says, “Monotheism would not be monotheism if it were not based in the idea of God’s Indivisible Unity.” As we know, Islam is a monotheistic religion — the prefix “mono” meaning “one.” Barlas is getting at the Qur’anic fact that God is a unified being, meaning that God’s power and authority can be ascribed to God and only God. This, then, calls into question particular Islamic patriarchal societies that empower men and in turn enforce the routine subjugation of women. Men, in these societies, claim the right to power by extension of God. They feel that if God is male and God has power, then they, by the sheer random luck of being born with a penis, have earned some authority as well. But this is simply not the case; in her argument, Barlas complicates this “assumed right” by taking us right back to Qur’anic verses (and her interpretations of some) which directly contradict any extension of God’s power to men in the human world.
Where Divine Unity is concerned, God shares power and authority with no one. This means that whatever power that men claim they have by extension to God (who they assume is also male) is false. Barlas says, “Since God is Indivisible, God’s Sovereignty also is indivisible. No one — other deities, divine consorts and offspring or humans — can partake in it; shirk, the symbolic extension of God’s Sovereignty to others, is the only unpardonable sin mentioned in the Qur’an.”
Based on this, it is absolutely impermissible for men to be demanding any kind of authority in relation to God’s Sovereignty. In fact, it’s the only thing that is inexcusable by the Qur’an and Islam. Men cannot declare God’s power because there is no power that is being shared with them, or anyone else for that matter.
So what is to be done about this assumption that so many hold to be true? The assumption that men, by way of God, have the right to dominate society. We could potentially spell it out for them, show them exactly where the Qur’an says, “God is God, The One and Only…And there is none, Like unto [God]” (Surah 112, in Ali, 1806) as Barlas has done for us.
But maybe that is not the right approach. Maybe we need to head back to the root of the assumption: the idea that God is male. After all, as I mentioned before, men think they deserve power because they have long accepted God’s maleness. But to complicate this even further, we must question why this is such a widely accepted idea in the first place. Why have the general population come to the conclusion that God is a man?
Barlas tells us that the problem isn’t that this particular gender has been ascribed to God, but rather “that a specific meaning has been ascribed to this sex historically, one that has served to legitimize sexual hierarchy and inequalities.” What she is trying to get at is that what’s more problematic than God’s ascribed maleness is our interpretation of said maleness. What we take to be “male” or “masculine” is the real issue at hand. It’s commonly believed that power and dominance are both masculine traits, so it is no wonder why people believe that God is a man (since God is both powerful and dominant).
As long as we continue to associate such characteristics with masculinity, God will continually be mistaken as male. Men will maintain their claiming of power by extension of God and God’s supposed “maleness.” The problem, as Barlas has explained in her work, is that their claims can’t be accurate. God cannot allot power to men because God is One and, therefore, God’s Sovereignty is also One: Indivisible. In addition, God is unrepresentable and as a result, incomparable to human categories. This means that God simply cannot be engendered, especially when said genders are nothing more than social constructions based on our preconceived ideas of masculinity and femininity. So whatever claims are being made to justify patriarchal and androcentric societies / ideas with an extension of God’s power by way of maleness, are debunked. God is One. God is Indivisible. God is Incomparable. God is not male, and male is most certainly not God.