By Samuel Gonzalez
Like many other Arabic words that get translated into English, subhanallah is another one whose meaning gets diluted, impoverished, and weakened in the process of translation. While there is no precise translation in English, various options have been suggested, each one having to do with the attributes of Allah, His bounties, or the marvels of Creation. Unlike Allahu Akbar or La ilaha illa Allah, the word is a response of awe and reverence to the created order of Allah (sometimes even being translated as just, “Wow!”). However, even though the translations of such words don’t do it justice, in this article I hope to break it down enough so that its meaning is clear, concise, and as accurate as possible to its original Arabic meaning.
Breaking it Down
This phrase, as well as its root word, is solely reserved for Allah, characterizing Him and emphasizing His overwhelming might. It comes from the root subha which means ‘glorifying,’ ‘praying,’ and ‘worshiping’ -it draws attention to the absolutely perfect nature of God as Sovereign, and gives the sense of being enveloped, immersed in something vast. Given the Quranic contexts in which this word appears, this phrase paints the Creator as a being who is highly glorified, worthy of worship, and mightily distinguished from that which He has created.
If worship is a matter of priority and attention, the main purpose of this root is dynamic, distinguishing the Creator from the Creation and stimulating the worshiper to ask him or herself, “Is not One Sovereign better than diverse lords?” In fact, the phrase has been used to reject heresies that are incommensurate with the greatness of Allah. In a deeper sense, the contemplation of this word invites the reciter into a delightfully expansive world supported by a magnificently perfect Creator. It suggests that the Universe and its workings have always been in tune with the blueprints of Allah, but humans often lack the eyes to see its glory.
Subhanallah in the Noble Qur’an
The seven heavens, the earth, and all those in them glorify Him. There is not a single thing that does not glorify His praises—but you ˹simply˺ cannot comprehend their glorification. He is indeed Most Forbearing, All-Forgiving. [The Noble Qur’an 17:43]
Exalted is Allah beyond what they ascribe to Him. [The Noble Qur’an 23:91]
The command of Allah is at hand, so do not hasten it. Glorified and Exalted is He above what they associate with Him in worship! [The Noble Qur’an 16:1]
In this Universe, everything praises Allah in its own particular way, and even though we may have trouble seeing how a mosquito or a toad praises Allah, this just shows the limitations of the human mind, the vastness of Allah’s creative activity, and the immeasurable abyss between the two. Subhanallah usually appears as a statement of praise and a declaration of one’s awe before the beauty and power infused into this world. Subhanallah rectifies faith, since the invocation of a divine name brings about the remembrance of Allah and an awakening from the state of forgetfulness.
Furthermore, alongside Allah’s qualities of perfection and power, these verses also address the divine attributes of patience, forbearance, and forgiveness. Truly, when one examines this created order it ought to become apparent that we are not deserving of its beauty, glory, and the enjoyment we derive from it. Nevertheless, Allah grants us life so that we may cherish His bounties abundantly. Above all, He is so patient with humanity that He gives long enough respite to individuals, their communities, and their nations to correct themselves and follow the path of righteousness. Throughout time, Allah sends His prophets and messengers for the admonition and guidance of humanity, forgiving past wrongs and errors if one sincerely repents and adopts the right way.
What have we gathered so far from this article? To say subhanallah is to reject any small-view of Allah in exchange for an overwhelming portrait of an All-Powerful, Oft-Forgiving Giver of Life; to say subhanallah is to view the world as a vast ocean of God’s love and to pay attention to His limitless bounties; to say subhanallah means to marvel at more than just human prowess, extraordinary luck, or weird coincidences, rather it means wonder before an exquisite sunrise, at the top of a mountain, or at the diversity of creatures that claim earth as their home planet. With this in mind, here are a few possible translations:
- May Allah be exalted
- May Allah be raised
- May Allah be free from any deficiency
- Allah is perfect
- Allah is free from imperfection
- Glory be to Allah
- Glorified and exalted is Allah
- Exalted is Allah beyond what they ascribe to Him
Subhanallah as Powerful Prayer and Remembrance
Now, although there is still a blessing in reciting the Qur’an or certain prayers in Arabic without understanding the words (this is, indeed, a very noble good deed), it is even more important to be alert and aware and understand what one is saying, otherwise, praising the Lord seems like a dull, boring chore that has to be ticked off the spiritual checklist rather than a living encounter with the Lord of All Worlds – hence the reason for this article. When the verses and chapters and surahs are understood, the heart is more fully moved and the mind is more fully engaged in prayer. Because of this, it is very important for Muslims, especially non-native Arabic speakers, to have some (however limited) knowledge of Arabic and the meanings of what we recite.
Within Muslim communities, the phrase Subhanallah forms part of the tasbih, a set of prayer beads divided into 3 sets of 33 meant to be used as a guide for keeping track of certain phrases after prayer. This practice was recommended and practiced by the Messenger of Allah (see Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 53, Hadith no. 344). Among the many benefits of mindfully reciting these holy words include: remembrance of the Lord, drawing nearer to our Creator, mental stillness, physical calmness, better stress-management, a reduction in negative emotions, and increased focus and concentration. In fact, when done under the right circumstances, using the tasbih to keep count of one’s recitations functions as a powerful form of meditation which, in itself, provides a multitude of blessings for the one who performs it.
The Honorable Prophet Mohammad taught that: “Every utterance of Allah’s Glorification (subhanallah) is an act of charity, and every utterance of praise of Him (alhamdulillah) is an act of charity, and every utterance of profession of Faith (la ilaha illa allah) is an act of charity, and every utterance of His Greatness (allahu akbar) is an act of charity.” [Riyad as-Salihin Book 15, Hadith no. 25]
To sum it up, subhanallah is a powerful phrase that can only be interpreted into the English language rather than translated. In essence, it is a declaration of awe and reverence upon experiencing the universe created by Allah; it rectifies faith by indirectly implying certain powerful attributes of Allah (i.e. Supreme Power, Sovereignty, Divine Wisdom, etc.); it is a reminder of our dependence upon Allah and that, despite ourselves, He graciously bestows these blessings upon us every day! Recite this phrase often if you can, but if not, remember to invoke Allah with this phrase whenever you are in the presence of a marvelous sunset or whenever the waves of the ocean kiss your feet or as you lay in bed and reflect on your day. Subhanallah for life, love, and peace.
Albayrak, Ahmet. Subhan. The Quran: An Encyclopedia; Routledge; 270 Madison Ave., New York, NY. 2006.
Riyad as-Salihin Book 15, Hadith no.25
Sahih al-Bukhari Vol. 4, Book 53, Hadith no.344
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