Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah's Use of Plural Pronouns:

A Survey and Critique –

Part II

By Anthony Rogers


The previous article (*) showed some of the problems that exist for saying the plural pronouns used by Allah are, except with certain rare exceptions, used inclusively of Allah and Jibreel and/or Muhammad and/or an angel and/or the angels as a whole. We also saw that this means, at the very least, that most verses where Allah uses first person plural pronouns they are being used exclusively for Allah and cannot be referring to any creature along with him.

The Plural of Majesty

Recognizing that in most cases the divine plurals of the Qur'an must refer to Allah alone, nearly every Muslim authority who believes there is an explanation for them says they are instances of the Majestic Plural or Plural of Respect,1 which is to say they interpret them figuratively. For example, Shaykh Hamza Karamali says:

The nahnu here [S. 15:9] could be the royal we … or Allah may be referring to Himself along with the Angel Jibreel. The dominant interpretation here and elsewhere, though, is that it is the royal we.2 (Bold mine; italics original)

Similarly, Ibn Taymiyyah is often quoted as saying:

Allaah, may He be glorified and exalted, sometimes refers to Himself in the singular, by name or by use of a pronoun, and sometimes by use of the plural, as in the phrase (interpretation of the meaning): ‘Verily, We have given you a manifest victory’ [al-Fath 48:1], and other similar phrases. But Allaah never refers to Himself by use of the dual, because the plural refers to the respect that He deserves, and may refer to His names and attributes, whereas the dual refers to a specific number (and nothing else), and He is far above that.3, 4 (Emphasis mine)

But given that this idiom was not in use in Arabic prior to or contemporaneous with the Qur'an, as Muslim scholar M. A. S. Abdel Haleem admits,

It should be pointed out that in pre-Islamic literature, and during the time of the revelation of the Qur'an, pronouns do not appear to have been used as indicative of status; they did not change with social status, and the plural of majesty, in particular, does not appear to have been used by, or for addressing or referring to, kings or chiefs. The Prophet and his early successors did not use it for themselves nor in their letters to address kings or governors. It was clearly in the Qur'an that such usage was introduced, as has been shown, on the basis of a highly sophisticated application of the concept of plurality.5 (Emphasis mine)

some justification must be given for the assertion that it really explains what is going on in the Qur'an. If such an idiom was introduced into Arabic by the Qur’an, why is this new idiom never explained? Why is there no record of Muhammad explaining it in the Hadith? And since it never is explained in either the Qur’an or the Hadith, what is the proof that the Qur’an introduces such an idiom in the first place?

The oft-repeated justification for this assertion is that Allah speaks in the plural in passages where his transcendence and majesty are in view, which may be taken as a claim that this figure of speech is known and can be justified by how it is used in the Qur’an. This is expressed by Shaykh Karamali in the following words:

When He uses nahnu [“We”] to refer to Himself, nahnu is the royal we, and connotes majesty. Someone steeped in the Quranic language will feel humbled before the divine majesty when reciting such verses. This humbleness is the essence of worship, which defines the relationship between servant and Master. Verses that speak of resurrection and judgment, for example, have a powerful aura of divine majesty.6 (Bold emphasis mine)

Muzzamil Sidiqqi further elaborates on this view, adding that, by way of contrast, singular pronouns are used when Allah’s nearness is in view:

This is a style of speech. Sometime the speaker says I and sometime says we. We also use that in our conversations. In the Qur’an you will see that often the first person singular such as I or My is used, when Allah speaks about His love, care and closeness and forgiveness for His servants. In a similar way the first person plural is often used when Allah speaks about His power, majesty, glory, great deeds or when He speaks about His anger and wrath for the sinners and criminals. (This is, of course, the general use. Sometime the reverse is also the case, depending on the context of the Surah.)7 (Emphasis mine)

A similar statement is made by Yusuf Ali in his commentary on Surah 2:37:

“Note the transition from the plural ‘We’ at the beginning of the verse to the singular ‘Me’ later in the same verse, Allah speaks of Himself usually in the first person plural ‘We’; it is the plural of respect and honour and is used in human language in Royal proclamations and decrees. But where special personal relationship is expressed the singular, ‘I’ or ‘Me’ is used cf. 26:52, etc.”8

This attempt at justifying the plural of majesty explanation for the divine plurals in the Qur’an flounders on the following:

1) As Sidiqqi himself parenthetically admits above, the use of plural pronouns does not neatly fall into this scheme: there are passages where Allah speaks in the singular even when his transcendence is in view; and there are passages where Allah speaks in the plural even when his nearness is in view. In fact, any comparison of the verses will reveal that there is not even a general pattern to be found in this regard.

a. According to this explanation, one would expect to find plural pronouns used when Allah’s transcendence, majesty, power, glory, great deeds, anger and wrath are in view. While there are such passages:

Then learnt Adam from his Lord words of inspiration, and his Lord turned towards him; for He is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. We said: “Get ye down all from here: and if, as is sure, there comes to you guidance from Me, whosoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs, the shall be Companions of the fire; they shall abide therein.” (S. 2:37-39)

But how (will they fare) when We gather them together against a Day about which there is no doubt, and each soul will be paid out just what it has earned, without (favour or) injustice? (S. 3:25)

Let not the Unbelievers think that Our respite to them is good for themselves: We grant them respite that they may grow in their iniquity: but they will have a shameful punishment. (S. 3:178)

Allah hath heard the taunt of those who say: “Truly, Allah is indigent and we are rich!” – We shall certainly record their word and (their act) of slaying the Prophets in defiance of right, and We shall say: “Taste ye the penalty of the Scorching Fire! (S. 3:181)

If any do that in rancor and injustice – soon shall We cast them into the Fire: and easy it is for Allah. (S. 4:30)

(Nor) those who are niggardly, or enjoin niggardliness on others, or hide the bounties which Allah hath bestowed on them; for We have prepared, for those who resist Faith, a punishment that steeps them in contempt – (S. 4:37)

O Ye People of the Book! Believe in what We have (now) revealed, confirming what was (already) with you, before We change the face and fame of some (of you) beyond all recognition, and turn them hindwards, or curse them as We cursed the Sabbath-breakers, for the decision of Allah must be carried out. (S. 4:47)

If anyone contends with the Messenger even after Guidance has been plainly conveyed to him, and follows a path other than that becoming to men of Faith, We shall leave him in the path he has chosen, and land him in Hell – what an evil refuge! (S. 4:115)

They are in truth (equally) unbelievers; and We have prepared for Unbelievers a humiliating punishment. (S. 4:151)

That they took usury, though they were forbidden; and that they devoured men’s substance wrongfully – We have prepared for those among them who reject Faith a grievous punishment. (S. 4:161)

Those who reject faith and deny Our Signs will be Companions of Hell-fire. (S. 5:10)

But because of their breach of their Covenant, We cursed them, and made their hearts grow hard: they change the words from their (right) places and forget a good part of the Message that was sent them, nor wilt thou cease to find them – barring a few – ever bent on (new) deceits: but forgive them, and overlook (their misdeeds): for Allah loveth those who are kind. From those, too, who call themselves Christians, We did take a Covenant, but they forgot a good part of the Message that was sent them: so We estranged them, with enmity and hatred between the one and the other, to the Day of Judgment. And soon will Allah show them what it is they have done. (S. 5:13-14)

But those who reject Faith and belie Our Signs – they shall be Companions of Hell-fire. (S. 5:86)

One day shall We gather them all together: We shall say to those who ascribed partners (to Us) “Where are the partners whom ye (invented and) talked about!” There will then be (left) no subterfuge for them but to say: “By Allah Our Lord, we were not those who joined gods with Allah.” Behold! How they lie against their own souls! But the (lie) which they invented will leave them in the lurch. Of them there are some who (pretend to) listen to thee: but We have thrown veils on their hearts, so they understand it not, and deafness in their ears; if they saw every one of the Signs, they will not believe in them; … (S. 6:22-25)

Those who reject Our Sings are deaf and dumb – in the midst of darkness profound: whom Allah willeth, He leaveth to wander; whom He willeth, He placeth on the Way that is Straight. (S. 6:39)

Before thee We sent (Messengers) to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they might learn humility. When the suffering reached them from Us, why then did they not learn humility on the contrary their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their (sinful) acts seem alluring to them. But when they forgot the warning they had received, We opened to them the gates of all (good) things, until, in the midst of their enjoyment of Our gifts, on a sudden, We called them to account, when lo! They were plunged in despair! (S. 6:42-44)

But those who reject Our Signs – them shall punishment touch, for that they ceased not from transgressing. (S. 6:49)

So also did We show Abraham the power and the laws of the heavens and the earth, the he might (with understanding) have certitude. (S. 6:75)

We (too) shall turn to (confusion) their hearts and their eyes, even as they refused to believe in this in the first instance: We shall leave them in their trespasses, to wander in distraction. (S. 6:110)

Those who give partners (To Allah) will say: “If Allah had wished, we should not have given partners to Him nor would our fathers: nor should we have had any taboos.” So did their ancestors argue falsely, until they tasted of Our wrath. Say: “Have ye any (certain) knowledge? If so, produce it before us. Ye follow nothing but conjecture: ye do nothing but lie. (S. 6:148)

How many towns have We destroyed (for their sins)? Our punishment took them on a sudden by night or while they slept for their afternoon rest. When (thus) Our punishment took them, no cry did they utter but this: “Indeed we did wrong.” Then shall We question those to whom Our Message was sent and those by whom We sent it. And verily We shall recount their whole story with knowledge, for We were never absent (at any time or place). (S. 7:4-7)

Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity, in order that they might learn humility. Then We changed their suffering into prosperity, until they grew and multiplied, and began to say: “Our fathers (too) were touched by suffering and affluence”…Behold! We called them to account of a sudden, while they realized not (their peril). If the people of the towns had but believed and feared Allah, We should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds of) blessing from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth), and We brought them to book for their misdeeds. Did the people of the towns feel secure against the coming of Our wrath by night while they were asleep? (S. 7:94-97)

To those who inherit the earth in succession to its (previous) possessors, is it not a guiding (lesson) that, if We so willed, We could punish them (too) for their sins, and seal up their hearts so that they could not hear? Such were the towns whose story We (thus) relate unto thee: there came indeed to them their Messengers with clear (Signs). But they would not believe what they had rejected before. Thus doth Allah seal up the hearts of those who reject Faith. Most of them We found not men (true) to their covenant: but most of them We found rebellious and disobedient. Then after them We sent Moses with Our Signs to Pharaoh and his chiefs, but they wrongfully rejected them: So see what was the end of those who made mischief. (S. 7:100)

We punished the people of Pharaoh with years (of drought) and shortness of crops; that they might receive admonition. (S. 7:130)

So We sent (plagues) on them: Wholesale death, Locusts, Lice, Frogs, And Blood: Signs openly self-explained: but they were steeped in arrogance,- a people given to sin. (S. 7:133)

Those who took the calf (for worship) will indeed be overwhelmed with wrath from their Lord, and with shame in this life: thus do We recompense those who invent (falsehoods). (S. 7:152)

Many are the Jinns and men We have made for Hell: they have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not, and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle – nay more misguided: for they are heedless (of warning). (S. 7:179)

Frequently enough, and quite unexpectedly on this theory, we find the exact opposite to be the case.

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: "I will create a vicegerent on earth." They said: "Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?" He said: "I know what ye know not." And He taught Adam the nature of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: "Tell me the nature of these if ye are right." They said: "Glory to Thee, of knowledge we have none, save what Thou hast taught us: In truth it is Thou Who art perfect in knowledge and wisdom." He said: "O Adam! Tell them their natures." When he had told them, Allah said: "Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?" (S. 2:30-33)

And remember Abraham said: “My Lord, make this a City of Peace, and feed its people with fruits – such of them as believe in Allah and the Last Day.” He said: “(Yea), and such as reject Faith – for a while will I grant them their pleasure, but will soon drive them to the torment of Fire – an evil destination (indeed)!” (S. 2:126)

So from whencesoever Thou startest forth, turn thy face in the direction of the sacred Mosque; and wheresoever ye are, turn your face thither: that there be no ground of dispute against you among the people, except those of them that are bent on wickedness; so fear them not, but fear Me; and that I may complete My favours on you, and ye May (consent to) be guided; (S. 2:150)

"As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help." (S. 3:56)

Allah said: "I will send it down unto you: But if any of you after that resisteth faith, I will punish him with a penalty such as I have not inflicted on any one among all the peoples." (S. 5:115)

(Allah) said: "Get out from this, disgraced and expelled. If any of them follow thee,- Hell will I fill with you all. (S. 7:18)

When Moses came to the place appointed by Us, and his Lord addressed him, He said: “O my Lord! Show (thyself) to me, that I may look upon thee.” Allah said: “By no means canst thou see Me (direct): but look upon the mount; if it abide in its place, then shalt thou see Me” When his Lord manifested His glory on the Mount, He made it as dust, and Moses fell down in a swoon. When he recovered his senses he said: “Glory be to Thee! To Thee I turn in repentance, and I am the first to believe.” (S. 7:143)

Those who reject Our Signs, We shall gradually visit with punishment, in ways they perceive not; respite will I grant unto them: for My scheme is strong (and unfailing). (S. 7:182-183)

“Verily, I am God: there is no god but I: so serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” (S. 20:14)

“O Moses! Verily, I am God, the Exalted in Might, the Wise!” (S. 27:9)

But how (terrible) was My Penalty and My Warning? (S. 54:16)

b. On this approach we would also expect singular pronouns to be used when Allah’s love, care, favor, closeness and forgiveness are in view. While we do find such passages:

When My servants ask thee concerning Me, I am indeed close (to them): I listen to the prayer of every suppliant when he calleth on Me: Let them also, with a will, listen to My call and believe in Me: that they may walk in the right way. (S. 2:186)

Behold! Allah said: “O Jesus! I will take thee and raise thee to Myself and clear thee (of the falsehoods) of those who blaspheme; I will make those who follow thee superior to those who reject faith, to the Day of Resurrection: then shall ye all return unto me, and I will judge between you of the matters wherein ye dispute. (S. 3:55)9

Behold! Allah took the Covenant of the Prophets, saying: “I give you a Book and Wisdom; then comes to you a Messenger, confirming what is with you; do you believe in him and render him help.” Allah said: Do ye agree, and take this my covenant as biding on you?” They said: “We agree.” He said: “Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses.” (S. 3:81)

And heir Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: ye are members, one of another; those who have left their homes, and were driven out therefrom, and suffered harm in My Cause, and fought and were slain – verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them into Gardens with rivers flowing beneath – a reward from the Presence of Allah, and from His Presence is the best of rewards. (S. 3:195)

….This day have those who reject Faith given up all hope of your religion: yet fear them not but fear Me. This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion….(S. 5:3)

Then will Allah say: “O Jesus the son of Mary! Recount My favour to thee and to thy mother. Behold! I strengthened thee with the holy spirit, so that thou didst speak to the people in childhood and in maturity. Behold! I taught thee the Book and Wisdom, and the Law and the Gospel. And behold! Thou makest out of clay, as it were, the figure of a bird, by My leave. And thou breathest into it, and it becometh a bird by My leave, and thou healest those born blind, and the lepers by My leave. And behold! Thou bringest forth the dead by My leave. And behold! I did restrain the Children of Israel from (violence to) thee when thou didst show them the Clear signs, and the unbelievers among them said: ‘This is nothing but evident magic.’ And behold! I inspired the Disciples to have faith in Me and Mine Messenger; they said, ‘We have faith, and do thou bear witness that we bow to Allah as Muslims.’ (S. 5:110-111)

When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): “Am I not your Lord (Who cherishes and sustains you)?” They said: “Yea! We do testify!” (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgement: “Of this we were never mindful.” (S. 7:172)

We also find, again, quite unexpectedly, precisely the opposite in many cases:

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah; who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; (S. 2:2-3)

We said: “O Adam! Dwell thou and thy wife in the Garden and eat of the bountiful things therein as (where and when) ye will; but approach not this tree, or ye run into harm and transgression.” (S. 2:35)

And remember We said: “Enter this town, and eat of the plenty therein as ye wish; but enter the gate with humility, in posture and in words, and We shall forgive you your faults and increase (the portion of) those who do good.” (S. 2:58)

Ask the Children of Israel how many Clear (Signs) We have sent them. But if anyone, after Allah’s favour has come to him, substitutes (something else), Allah is strict in punishment. (S. 2:211)

To (benefit) every one, We have appointed sharers and heirs to property left by parents and relatives. To those, also, to whom your right hand was pledged, give their due portion. For truly Allah is witness to all things. (S. 4:33)

But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness, We shall soon admit to Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – their eternal home; therein shall they have companions pure and holy: We shall admit them to shades, cool and ever deepening. (S. 4:57)

If We had ordered them to sacrifice their lives or to leave their homes, very few of them would have done it: but if they had done what they were (actually) told, it would have been best for them, and would have gone farthest to strengthen their (faith); and We should then have given them from Our Presence a great reward; and We should have shown them the Straight Way. (S. 4:66-68)

But those who believe and do deeds of righteousness – We shall soon admit them to Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath – to dwell therein forever. Allah’s promise is the truth, and whose word can be truer than Allah’s? (S. 4:122)

To those who believe in Allah and His Messengers and make no distinction between any of the messengers, We shall soon give their (due) rewards: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (S. 4:152-153)

But those among them who are well-grounded in knowledge, and the Believers, believe in what hath been revealed to thee and what was revealed before thee: and (especially) those who establish regular prayer and practices regular charity and believe in Allah and in the Last Day; to them shall We soon give a great reward. (S. 4:162)

If only the People of the Book had believed and been righteous, We should indeed have blotted out their iniquities and admitted them to Gardens of Bliss. S. 5:65

Rejected were the Messengers before thee: with patience and constancy they bore their rejection and their wrongs, until Our aid did reach them: there is none that can alter the Words (and Decrees) of Allah. Already hast thou received some account of those Messengers. (S. 6:34)

And this is a Book which We have sent down, bringing blessings, and confirming (the revelations) which came before it: that thou mayest warn the Mother of Cities and all around her. Those who believe in the Hereafter, believe in this (Book), and they are constant in guarding their Prayers. (S. 6:92)

Moreover, We gave Moses the Book, completing (Our favour) to those who would do right, and explaining all things in detail – and a guide and a mercy, that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord. And this is a book which We have revealed as a blessing: so follow it and be righteous, that ye may receive mercy. (S. 6:154-155)

O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness – that is the best. Such are among the Signs of Allah, that they may receive admonition! (S. 7:26)

And We shall remove from their hearts any lurking sense of injury – beneath them will be rivers flowing – and they shall say: “Praise be to Allah, Who hath guided us to this (felicity): never could we have found guidance, had it not been for the guidance of Allah … (S. 7:43)

And remember We rescued you from Pharaoh’s people, who afflicted you with the worst of penalties, who slew you your male children and saved alive your females in that was a momentous trail from your Lord. (S. 7:141)

We divided them into twelve Tribes or nations. We directed Moses by inspiration, when his (thirsty) people asked him for water: “Strike the rock with thy staff”: out of it there gushed forth twelve springs: each group knew its own place for water. We gave them the shade of clouds, and sent down to them manna and quails, (Saying): “Eat of the good things We have provided for you”: (But they rebelled); to Us they did no harm, but they harmed their own souls. (S. 7:160)

c. If this explanation were correct, we would also not expect to find “We” used in the same breath when speaking both of Allah’s anger and favor, as we in fact find in passages like the following:

And remember We said: “Enter this town, and eat of the plenty therein as ye wish; but enter the gate with humility, in posture and in words, and We shall forgive you your faults and increase (the portion of) those who do good.” But the transgressors changed the word from that which had been given them; so We sent on the transgressors a plague from heaven, for that they infringed (Our command) repeatedly. (S. 2:58)

And remember We took your Covenant and We raised above you (the towering height of) Mount (Sinai) (Saying): “Hold firmly to what We have given you and bring (ever) to remembrance what is therein: perchance ye may fear Allah.” But ye turned back thereafter; had it not been for the Grace and Mercy of Allah to you, ye had surely been among the lost. And well ye knew those amongst you who transgressed in the matter of the Sabbath; We said to them: “Be ye apes, despised and rejected.” So We made it an example to their own time and to their posterity, and a lesson to those who fear Allah. (S. 2:63-66)

The Jews say: “Allah’s hand is tied up.” Be their hands tied up and be they accursed for the (blasphemy) they utter. Nay, both His hands are widely outstretched: He giveth and spendeth (of His bounty) as He pleaseth. But the revelation that cometh to thee from Allah increaseth in most of them their obstinate rebellion and blasphemy. Amongst them We have placed enmity and hatred till the Day of Judgment. Every time they kindle the fire of war, Allah doth extinguish it; but they (ever) strive to do mischief on earth and Allah loveth not those who do mischief. If only the People of the Book had believed and been righteous, We should indeed have blotted out their iniquities and admitted them to Gardens of Bliss. (S. 5:64-65)

Thus did We try some of them by comparison with others, that they should say: “Is it these then that Allah hath favoured from amongst us?” Doth not Allah know best those who are grateful? When those come to thee who believe in Our Signs say: “Peace be on you;” Your Lord hath inscribed for Himself (the rule of) Mercy: verily, if any of you did evil in ignorance, and thereafter repented, and amended (his conduct), lo! He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. Thus do We explain the Signs in detail: that the way of the sinners may be shown up. (S. 6:53-55)

But they rejected him, and We delivered him, and those with him in the Ark: But We overwhelmed in the Flood those who rejected Our Signs. They were indeed a blind people! (S. 7:64)

We saved him and those who adhered to him, by Our Mercy and We cut off the roots of those who rejected Our Signs and did not believe. (S. 7:72)

But We saved him and his family, except his wife: she was of those who lagged behind. And we rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime! (S. 7:83-84)

Whenever We sent a prophet to a town, We took up its people in suffering and adversity in order that they might learn humility. Then We changed their suffering into prosperity, until they grew and multiplied, and began to say: “Our fathers (too) were touched by suffering and affluence”…Behold! We called them to account of a sudden, while they realized not (their peril). If the people of the towns had but believed and feared Allah, We should indeed have opened out to them (all kinds of) blessing from heaven and earth; but they rejected (the truth), and We brought them to book for their misdeeds. Did the people of the towns feel secure against the coming of Our wrath by night while they were asleep? (S. 7:94-97)

O ye Children of Adam! Whenever there come to you Messengers from amongst you, rehearsing My Signs unto you – those who are righteous and mend (their lives) – on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve. But those who reject Our Signs and treat them with arrogance – they are Companions of the Fire to dwell therein (forever). Who is more unjust than one who invents a lie Against Allah or rejects His Signs? For such, their portion appointed must reach them from the Book (of Decrees): Until, when Our messengers (of death) arrive and take their souls, they say: “Where are the things that ye used to invoke besides Allah?” The will reply, “They have left us in the lurch,” and they will bear witness against themselves, that they had rejected Allah. (S. 7:35-37)

When they disregarded the warnings that had been given them, We rescued those who forbade evil; but We visited the wrongdoers with a grievous punishment, because they were given to transgression. (S. 7:165)

We broke them up into sections on this earth. There are among them some that are the righteous, and some that are the opposite. We have tried them with both prosperity and adversity: in order that they might turn (to Us). After them succeeded an (evil) generation: they inherited the Book, but they chose (for themselves) the vanities of this world … (S. 7:168-169)

d. The same goes for the use of the word “I”, which is used in some passages to refer both to things like Allah’s transcendence, wrath, etc., and intimacy, favor, etc.:

Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: they are the ones that believe therein: those who reject faith therein – the loss is their own. O Children of Israel! Call to mind the special favour which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others (for My Message). (S. 2:121-122)

“And ordain for us that which is good in this life and in the Hereafter: For we have turned unto Thee.” He said: “With My Punishment I visit whom I will; but My Mercy extendeth to all things. That (Mercy) I shall ordain for those who do right and practice regular charity, and those who believe in Our Signs.” (S. 7:156)

e. Or both “My” and “We” used to speak of Allah’s punishment in the same section:

Before them the People of Noah rejected (their messenger): they rejected Our servant, and said, “Here is one possessed!”, and he was driven out. Then he called on his Lord: “I am one overcome: Do Thou then help (me)!: So We opened the gates of heaven, with water pouring forth. And We caused the earth to gush forth with springs. So the waters met (and rose) to the extent decreed. But We bore him on an (Ark) made of broad planks and caulked with palm-fibre: she floates under Our eyes (and care): a recompense to one who had been rejected (with scorn)! And We have left this as a Sign (for all time) then is there any that will receive admonition? But how (terrible) was My Penalty and My Warning?” And We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to understand and remember: then is there any that will receive admonition? The ‘Ad (people) (too) rejected (Truth): then how terrible was My Penalty and My Warning? For We sent against them a furious wind, on a Day of violent Disaster, plucking out men as if they were roots of palm-trees torn up (from the ground). Yea, how (terrible) was My Penalty and My Warning! (S. 54:9-21)

f. Or both “I” and “We” used to speak of Allah’s blessing:

Those to whom We have sent the Book study it as it should be studied: they are the ones that believe therein: those who reject faith therein – the loss is their own. O Children of Israel! Call to mind the special favour which I bestowed upon you, and that I preferred you to all others (for My Message). (S. 2:121-122)

Allah did aforetime take a Covenant from the Children of Israel and We appointed twelve captains among them. And Allah said: “I am with you: if ye (but) establish regular Prayers, practice regular Charity, believe in My Messengers, honour and assist them, and loan to Allah a beautiful loan, verily will I wipe out from you your evils, and admit you to Gardens with rivers flowing beneath; but if any of you, after this, resisteth faith, he hath truly wandered from the path of rectitude.” (S. 5:12)

There are far too many anomalies in Allah’s use of plural pronouns to claim that there is any general pattern to be found in the Qur’an, at least along the lines that have been suggested by Muslim scholars and dawagandists.

2) Another problem with this view is that when kings speak in the plural of majesty (we) it is nearly always necessary for others to refer to them in the plural of respect (“plural” you – which modern English does not really have but Arabic does). So, if the Qur’an has a plural of majesty, if plurality expresses majesty, why is the most majestic of all, and the one to be respected the most, Allah, not addressed in the plural of respect? If Haleem, quoted above, and others so easily confuse the royal we with the plural of respect as if they belong together, why does the Quran so sharply draw the dividing line that Allah can often speak in the plural but he is not to be addressed in the plural?

3) Furthermore, the underlying idea of such an idiom, even if we were to grant that it had anything to do with what is going on in the Qur’an, is that plurality and majesty relate in a fundamental way, a notion that squares with the Christian rather than the Muslim understanding of God. For example, in summarizing the Bible’s teaching on God’s majesty, theologian Douglas Kelly writes:

… the majesty of God involves vastness of Being, infinite, sovereign power, outrayed splendor and glory, [and] absolute perfection of beauty in His Triune personhood …10

This Christian view of God as a rich diversity of attributes and persons existing in a perfect unity of essence or being is very different than the Islamic view of Allah, who is thought by Muslims to be a unity that transcends all diversity and interpersonal distinctions. If the transcendent God is absolutely one in every sense of the term, then why should plurality stir up notions of fullness, splendor, richness, beauty and majesty? Shouldn’t the notion of a barren deity evoke such notions all on its own?

The connection between majesty and plurality that such a figure of speech assumes is just not the kind of association one ought to make on a unitarian conception of God and therefore not the sort of idiom we would expect such a “god” to introduce into a “perfect” book.

In spite of all this, Muslims themselves can’t escape making just such a connection. In fact, in another article, Muzammil Sidiqqi, quoted earlier, recognizes and acknowledges this kind of connection:

Islam teaches us that diversity is a fact of nature and it makes the nature beautiful. God has created this whole universe with diversity … These diversities are considered natural and are called God’s signs in the Quran (30:20-22). They are indicative of God’s creative power and wisdom and are good and healthy since they endow human life with richness and beauty. God wants human beings to derive benefit from this diversity and not to allow it to generate unhealthy schisms and divisions in their ranks.11

According to Sidiqqi, diversity is a fact of nature, and the richness that such plurality imparts is what makes it beautiful. Since Allah is not characterized by diversity, this would seem to imply that Allah is not sublimely rich and majestic and beautiful. Hence, when Allah speaks of himself in plural fashion it is just sound and fury signifying nothing, an attempt to achieve by rhetoric and bombast what he lacks in reality.

Impersonal Majesty

While treated separately, the following view, here exemplified by Muhammad Asad, may be taken as an extension or a more extreme form of the plural of majesty view, but as such it deserves separate treatment. In the course of trying to account for the apparent incoherence of the way the Qur’an banters back and forth in its use of first and third person singular and first person plural pronouns when the speaker is supposed to be Allah, Muhammad Asad says:

… Western critics of the Qur’an frequently point to the allegedly “incoherent” references to God – often in one and the same phrase – as “He”, “God”, or “I”, with the corresponding changes of the pronoun from “His” to “Ours” or “My”, or from “Him” to “Us” or “Me”. They seem to be unaware of the fact that these changes are not accidental, and not even what one might describe as “poetic licence”, but are obviously deliberate: a linguistic device meant to stress the idea that God is not a “person” and cannot, therefore, be really circumscribed by the pronouns applicable to finite beings.12 (Italics original; bold mine)

In calling this view extreme I am not suggesting that it is less Quranic. Indeed, Asad is simply integrating the plural of majesty view into the overall picture of Allah painted in the Qur’an; he is explicating Allah’s “transcendence” and “majesty” along Quranic lines and trying to understand Allah’s apparently indiscriminate use of singular and plural pronouns accordingly. For example, reflecting on Surah 112, Asad said:

The fact that God is one and unique in every respect, without beginning and without end, has its logical correlate in the statement that “there is nothing that could be compared with Him” – thus precluding any possibility of describing or defining Him … Consequently, the quality of His being is beyond the range of human comprehension or imagination: which also explains why any attempt at “depicting” God by means of figurative representations or even abstract symbols must be qualified as a blasphemous denial of the truth.13 (Italics original; bold mine)

In another place Asad says,

I.e., utterly remote is He from all imperfection and from the incompleteness which is implied in the concept of having progeny. The very concept of “definition” implies the possibility of a comparison or correlation of an object with other objects; God, however, is unique, there being “nothing like unto Him” (42:11) and, therefore, “nothing that could be compared with Him” (112:4) – with the result that any attempt at defining Him or His “attributes” is a logical impossibility and, from the ethical point of view, a sin. The fact that He is undefinable makes it clear that the “attributes” (sifat) of God mentioned in the Qur’an do not circumscribe His reality but, rather, the perceptible effect of His activity on and within the universe created by Him.14 (Italics original; bold mine)

But if the divine plurals are understood in the way suggested by Muslims like Muhammad Asad, then they are explained at the expense of the knowableness of Allah and his attributes and in a way contrary to the claim that Allah relates to his followers in an intimate and personal way. And this brings the use of plural words for Allah into conflict with those passages that speak of Allah’s attributes and his supposed imminence or nearness.15

What Asad, hampered by the teaching of the Qur’an, is groping after here is actually found clearly and palpably in the doctrine of the Trinity as it is set forth in the pages of the Bible. After all, the Trinitarian view says precisely that God is not circumscribed by the pronouns applicable to finite beings. The true God may indiscriminately refer to Himself through singular or plural pronouns precisely because He is a person, and yet, not a mere person but a tri-personal being. On this view God can be majestic and yet still relate to people, and in the most personal way. As one Christian theologian put it, “The Godhead is personal, because it is tripersonal. Being three persons, the Godhead cannot help but be personal rather than impersonal, in character.”16

(More will be said in part V about the incoherent bantering back and forth in the use of pronouns by Allah in the Qur’an.)


The plural of majesty explanation has been tried and found wanting. The Qur’an nowhere explains Allah speaking this way as a figure of speech and it does not display any clearly discernible pattern in the divine use of plural pronouns that would enable us to conclude that they are being used figuratively or in what way. Moreover, such an idiom seems quite out of step with Islam’s conception of God, and when, as per the explanation of Asad, it is fleshed out so that it is consistent with what the Qur’an is thought to say about Allah’s transcendence and uniqueness, it does so at the cost of “his” personality, knowableness and imminence, which are also held to be taught in the Qur’an. Accordingly, some other explanation must be sought and found.

Continue with Part III.


1 Muslims, as well as others, often conflate the plural of majesty with the plural of respect, but these are actually two different idioms. As for the former, which is a comparatively rare idiom in ancient languages, the plural is spoken by and refers to the speaker, i.e. it is used self-referentially; as for the latter, which is commonplace in many languages, the plural is used for addressing someone other than the speaker. For more on this, see here: The Likeness of A Donkey Carrying Books.

3 Al-‘Aqeedah al-Tadmuriyyah by Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah, p. 75, as cited in various places (*,*)

4 Why is the plural used for Allah if the reason for not using the dual is because Allah is “far above that”? Isn’t Allah “far above” the plural as well?

5 M. A. S. Abdel Haleem, “Grammatical Shift For Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifat and Related Features in the Qur’an”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 55, No. 3 (1992), p. 414. Haleem provides the following footnote in connection with this observation: M. Sa'rān, al-Lugha wa'l-mujtama' (Cairo, 1963), 139-58.

Nota Bene: This quote from Haleem makes the sophomoric mistake mentioned earlier of comingling two different figures of speech, a fact that is all the more inexcusable since in this case it is committed by a scholar. Nonetheless, Haleem’s contention that the plural of majesty was not evidently in use prior to or contemporaneous with the crafting of the Qur’an is on point.

An inferior version of Haleem’s article consisting of several typos, from the title of the article to the quote used in the present paper and beyond, can be found online here: Grammatical Shift For the Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifat and Related Features in the Qur’an.

6 Shaykh Karamali, Ibid.

8 YA, fn #56

9 “Me” not capitalized in YA

10 Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology: Grounded In Holy Scripture and understood in the light of the Church, Vol. I, The God Who Is: the Holy Trinity (Scotland, Great Britain: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2008), p. 344-345

12 Muhammad Asad, The Message of the Qur’an (Bristol, England: The Book Foundation, 2003), p. ii, fn#2

13 Ibid., p. 1124, fn#2

14 Ibid., p. 214-215, fn#88

15 Asad’s explanation is similar to Grape-Nuts cereal, which contains neither grapes nor nuts. After all, Asad tells us that the plural personal pronouns teach us that Allah is neither plural nor personal.

16 John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Philipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 2002), p. 704

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