Why Does The Qur’an Use a Masculine Pronoun For Something Feminine?

Question:
Assalamu ‘alaykum. I was reading Sura al Nahl (Qur’an, 16:66) and it said:

وَاِنَّ لَـكُمۡ فِىۡ الۡاَنۡعَامِ لَعِبۡرَةً​ ؕ نُّسۡقِيۡكُمۡ مِّمَّا فِىۡ بُطُوۡنِهٖ مِنۡۢ بَيۡنِ فَرۡثٍ وَّدَمٍ لَّبَنًا خَالِصًا سَآئِغًا لِّلشّٰرِبِيۡنَ‏

“And indeed, for you in grazing livestock is a lesson. We give you drink from what is in their bellies – between excretion and blood – pure milk, palatable to drinkers.”

The word used for “bellies” is بُطُوۡنِهٖ and not بُطُوْنِهَا. The former is in masculine form and the latter is in feminine form; the Quran uses the former. But masculine cattle do not produce milk. Why does the Quran use the former then?

Answer:

Wa ‘alaykum assalam wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh.

I pray you are well.

Thank you for your question. The answer is that in the Arabic language pronouns referring back to certain types of words can be masculine or feminine. This is based on the word and the meaning that word refers to.

In this situation, the word “al-An’am” – Cattle – is a masculine word – as in the letters that constitute this word have a masculine composition. It is categorized as an Ism Jam’. This is something the master of Arabic Grammar, Sibawayh, mentioned too.

The meaning of the word refers to male and female cattle, but because only the females produce milk – the blessing this verse sets out to highlight – there no confusion as to which gender is meant by the word, so usage of the male pronoun for the word does not lead to confusion. This is something a native Arabic speaker would pick up without any confusion.

Also, just like men are usually stronger than women, the masculine and feminine pronouns are often used in Arabic to convey nuances of strength and weakness or other opposing matters. So, the other reason the masculine pronoun is used to refer to the bellies of the female cattle is to highlight the wonder of this phenomenon. From a place where there are two types of impurities, Allah gives us wholesome, pure milk that is unaffected by those impurities. [Biqa’i, Nazm al Durar, Abu al Su’ud, Irshad al ‘Aql al Salim]

 

Understanding the Qur’an Requires Deep Knowledge of Arabic

I hope that clarifies matters. There are many wonders and nuances in the Qur’an, some of which require one to plunge to the depths of the Arabic language to attain. What you will also find is that many a time people with an agenda will study the basics of Arabic Grammar and then try to insinuate that there are mistakes in it.

Fully grasping the nuances of the Qur’an requires a deep understanding of the mechanics of the Arabic language on many levels. That is why we are blessed to have many detailed explanations of the Qur’an from expert scholars since the beginning of the umma. May Allah benefit us through them, and may He reward them with being the greatest of gifts. Amin.

[Shaykh] Abdul-Rahim Reasat

Checked and Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Shaykh Abdul-Rahim Reasat began his studies in Arabic Grammar and Morphology in 2005. After graduating with a degree in English and History he moved to Damascus in 2007 where, for 18 months, he studied with many erudite scholars. In late 2008 he moved to Amman, Jordan, where he continued his studies for the next six years in Sacred Law (fiqh), legal theory (Usul al-fiqh), theology, hadith methodology, hadith commentary, and Logic. He was also given licenses of mastery in the science of Quranic recital and he was able to study an extensive curriculum of Quranic sciences, tafsir, Arabic grammar, and Arabic eloquence.