What Does “SubhanAllah” Mean?

The prhase “subhanAllahi” سبحانَ اللهِ has a considerable amount of discussion and different theories about it. Here I have broken it down into different levels of approaching it, from the basic to the more advanced.

Root Meanings and Basics

This word can get complex, but it is beautiful and rewarding to look deeper into. So let’s start with laying a basic foundation via Hans Wehr’s dictionary.

As you can see, the form one meaning has connotations of swimming and floating. Its infinitive nouns, or masdar, are sabh سَبْح and sibaha سِباحة.
Form two has meanings of praising and glorifying God.

Form one has meanings of floating in the water or air, remaining in its place without dipping into the water. When something stays in its place, it is staying in its position. God is perfect and any description of Him (names & attributes etc.) that is accurate floats where it is supposed to, without sinking down even a little. God “floats above” all imperfections. In the Qur’an when blasphemous things are quoted, the response is often something like subhanAllah.

There are four nouns to be familiar with, as well.

A sabha is a swim. A subha is a rosary.

A masbah is a swimming pool. This form that begins with ma مَ is an adverbial expression denoting the place or time where an action is done, or the ظرف. Then a misbaha is a rosary. This form that begins with mi مِ can denote a tool for doing a verb, or the اسم آلة.

And a small gem I learned here:

The index finger, notorious for its various Islamic usages such as in the tashahhud in worship and pointing it up to indicate tawhid or the oneness of God, is even called a musabbiha.

Tasbih تسبيح

Tasbih is a form II masdar, or infinitive noun.

Tasbih signifies the declaring of God to be far removed, or free, from every imperfection or impurity, or from everything derogatory from His glory.

According to several classical grammarians, tanzih (تَنْزِيهٌ) is a synonym, which is an aqida (creedal) term meaning transcendence. It involves removing from our aqida that which is unbeftting and impossible to believe about Allah ﷻ. This is determined by both reason and revelation.

Taqdis (تَقْدِيسٌ) is also a synonym, meaning to hallow, sanctify, venerate, revere, worship, consecrate. Tasbih is used with regards to Allah’s ﷻ attributes and taqdis تقديس is used concerning His actions.

Verbal Usage of form II: You can say سَبَّحَ اللهَ or سَبَّحَ لِلهِ, where in the latter the لِ is redundant according to Tafsir al-Jalalayn.

Tasbih can also mean the act of praying. You can say سَبَّحَ meaning “he prayed.” The Qur’an states فَلَوْلَا أَنَّهُ كَانَ مِنَ المُسَبِّحِينَ which some grammarians say means “and had he not been of the performers of prayer.”

Subhan سبحان and Tasbih تسبيح

Tighten your belt here, this part has a number of different meanings.

Subhan (سبحان) is a noun with two opinions to its meaning:

  1. It can stand in place of the masdar, tasbih
  2. It is a masdar in itself for form I, سَبَحَ.

The form I (سَبَحَ) can have similar meanings to form II in this context:

  • He declared God to be far removed, or free, from every imperfection or impurity, or from what they say about Him
  • He magnified, celebrated, lauded, or praised, God, by the mention of his names, saying سُبْحَانَ اللّٰهِ and the like

Tasbih can also mean someone saying the phrase, “subhan Allah سُبْحَانَ اللهِ.” When using the verb sabbaha سَبَّحَ alone, it means “he said subhan Allah.”
For example, you may hear people shout “takbir!” And the response is everyone saying, “Allahu akbar!” Similarly, if you were to say “tasbih!” The response is “subhan Allah!”

Subhan is also of the same form of shukran شُكْرَان, which is the form 1 masdar of shakara شَكَرَ. Likewise with غَفَرَ and غُفْرَان.

Al-Mufaddal, an 8th century grammarian, wrote that subhan is the form 1 masdar, meaning he raised his voice with supplication, or prayer, and magnification or celebration or praise [of God, as when one says سُبْحَانَ اللّٰهِ or the like]; and he cites as a proof:

 قَبَحَ الْإِلٰهُ وَجُوهَ تَغْلِبَ كُلَّمَا
سَبَحَ الحَجِيجُ وَ كَبَّرُوا إِهْلَالَا

“May God remove far from good, or prosperity, or success, the persons (وُجُوهَ here meaning نُفُوسَ) of the tribe of Teghlib, whenever the pilgrims raise their voices with supplication, and say اَللّٰهُ أَكْبَرْ, raising the voice with the talbiyah (لَبَّيْكَ)”

An Absolute Object (Maf’ul Mutlaq)?

This phrase gets even more interesting. We know it’s an idafa, which is why the word “Allah” ends with a kasra.

But an interesting question is why is سبحانَ mansub, ending in a fatha? As we know, there are verbal (جملة فعلية) and nounal (جملة اسمية) sentences in Arabic. This phrase has no verb, so you would assume it is nounal and expect the word subhan to end with a damma, like “subhanullahi.” But since it ends with a fatha, grammarians argue that it is actually a verbal sentence with an omitted (محذوف) form II verb:

أُسَبِّحُ سُبْحانَ اللهِ
usabbihu subhanAllahi

This can can be translated as “I praise Allah exalting Him [above all attributes that do not suit His majesty].” But grammtically, what role is “subhan” playing? It’s one of the five objects (المفاعيل الخمسة), so initially you may assume that it is the direct object of the verb (مفعول به). Grammarians argue that it is actually not, because subhan is not the thing that the action was done to (though you could perhaps argue otherwise). Rather, it is describing the type of praise. A masdar that describes the number of times an action has been performed, confirms or emphasizes the action, or describes the nature of the action is called the absolute object (مفعول مطلق).

The absolute object can be a mudaaf as well, IE: شَرِبْتُ شُرْبَ العَطْشانِ “I drank as the thirsty [drink]” (literally: I drank the drinking of the thirsty).

The absolute object is always mansub (ends in fatha) and its verb can be omitted for eloquence and conciseness.

One grammarian argued that the word subhan is a نائِب مَفْعول مُطْلَق, or substitute for the absolute object.

Examples in the Qur’an

The Qur’an is one of the primary sources of the Arabic language, along with the hadith and poetry. You’ll see that it’s frequently used to address allegations about Allah ﷻ in the Qur’an or to refer to prayer in the night and day.

Surat At-Tur أَمْ لَهُمْ إِلَٰهٌ غَيْرُ اللَّهِ ۚ سُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ – 52:43
“Or have they an ilaah (deity) other than Allah? Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him!”

Surat al-‘Alaa: سَبِّحِ اسْمَ رَبِّكَ الْأَعْلَى – 87:1
“Exalt the name of your Lord, the Most High.” Some lessons and tafsir readings from this:

  • When the companions (رضي الله عنهم) heard this verse, they would say “سُبحانَ رَبِِّیَ الْأَعْلَى” subhana rabbiya l-‘ala meaning “I pronounce the purity of my most exalted Lord.”
  • Sayyiduna ‘Uqbah Ibn ‘Amir Al-Juhani (رضي الله عنه) narrates that when the Surah Al-A’la was revealed, the Holy Prophet (صلی اللہ علیہ وآلہ وسلم) instructed: اجعلوا فی سجودکم “do this (say Subhana Rabbiya l-A’la) in your sujud [prostrations].”
  • Allah ﷻ should be remembered by the names which fit Him, and no such name should be used for His exalted Being which does not fit Him, or which reflects some aspect of deficiency, lack of reverence, polytheism about Him, or which refers to some wrong belief in respect of His Being, attributes, or works. So only use His 99 beautiful names or a correct translation of these.
  • Allah ﷻ should not be remembered with names used for the creation, and the creation should not be called names meant for Allah ﷻ. IE do not shorten “Abdur Rahman” to just “Rahman” when calling upon someone.
  • Allah ﷻ should not be mentioned in a way that shows a lack of respect for Him, such as in mockery or joking, in the bathroom, while committing a sin, where people are engaged in absurd things and might laugh off His mention, or when the hearer will hear it disdainfully.
  • Ex: When imam Malik didn’t have anything to give to a beggar, he would not tell him “no, Allah ﷻ will help you,” which was common. He instead would excuse himself in some other way. When asked why, he said “When the beggar is not given anything and one makes an excuse, it displeases him. On such an occasion, I do not like to mention Allah’s name, for I do not like that somebody should hear His name in a state of annoyance and displeasure.”

In surat TaHa we find the following verses:

And appoint for me a minister from my family –
Aaron, my brother.
Increase through him my strength
And let him share my task
That we may exalt You much
And remember You much.

وَاجْعَل لِّي وَزِيرًا مِّنْ أَهْلِي – 20:29
هَارُونَ أَخِي – 20:30
اشْدُدْ بِهِ أَزْرِي – 20:31
وَأَشْرِكْهُ فِي أَمْرِي – 20:32
كَيْ نُسَبِّحَكَ كَثِيرًا – 20:33
وَنَذْكُرَكَ كَثِيرًا – 20:34

The question arises: why was tasbih mentioned here? Maariful Qur’an states that being around others who also glorify Allah (good companionship) causes you both to increase in worship and dhikr.

Another aspect is that things are recognized by their opposites. Perfection can be recognized by imperfection. By supporting each other and covering each other’s flaws, we recognize our flaws. By acknowledging our flaws and saying “subhanAllah,” we recognize that the only one without flaws is Allah ﷻ. When someone refuses to acknowledge their flaws, they’re denying that perfection only belongs to Allah ﷻ.

With Praise

Surah al-Baqara وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً ۖ قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ – 2:30

And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” They said, “Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?” Allah said, “Indeed, I know that which you do not know.”

In the Qur’an the angels said وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ. We already discussed taqdis vs tasbih above. But why is hamd also used here?

Hamd حمد basically includes appreciation and thanks. One way you declare that He is perfect is that you constantly find things to appreciate about Him and acknowledge things to be grateful to Him for. Without appreciate and gratitude, one will not see and appreciate the perfection of Allah ﷻ. Appreciation and gratitude are matters of the heart. This new creation, Adam, who is not able to see God will have to believe in Him in the unseen.

Sources and Further Reading

Lane’s Lexicon
Hans Wehr
The Science of Tawhid by Dr Shadee ElMasry
Maf’ul mutlaq https://billo.wordpress.com/2006/01/14/arabic-grammar-question/
Maariful Qur’an

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