Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah's Use of Plural Pronouns:

A Survey and Critique –

Part III

By Anthony Rogers


The previous two articles (1, 2) pointed out significant problems with certain attempts at explaining Allah’s use of plural pronouns for himself in the Qur’an. As we have seen, the plural expressions used by Allah cannot ordinarily refer to other creatures along with him, such as an angel or the angels and/or Muhammad; and neither do they refer to Allah in some idiomatic way, as in the view of those who appeal to linguistic conventions like the plural of majesty or the plural of respect. We are still left then with the question, “What do these plurals mean?”

Allah’s Names and Attributes

Perhaps the answer suggested by some Muslims, which they usually conjoin with the other views already looked at, can make sense out of Allah’s use of first person plurals: according to this view the plurals are a reference to the great number of Allah’s names and attributes. This view can be found for example in Ibn Taymiyyah’s remark:

“Every time Allaah uses the plural to refer to Himself, it is based on the respect and honour that He deserves, and on the great number of His names and attributes, and on the great number of His troops and angels.”1 (Emphasis mine)

While this view may initially appear to escape the problems that plague the other views we have looked at – indeed, it is the only solution offered by Muslims that deals squarely with the fact that the plurals are used literally rather than figuratively and that they refer exclusively to Allah – it is still fraught with major problems.

To begin with, as with other views, this claim is not found in either the Qur’an or the Hadith, and there is nothing about how the Qur’an uses these terms that would lead us to conclude that this is why Allah speaks in such a way: Allah is not portrayed as consistently using “We”, “Us”, and “Our” in passages that speak of his many names and attributes; singular rather than plural expressions are sometimes used when his various names and attributes are mentioned; and in many cases plural pronouns are used when there is no mention of one of Allah’s names or attributes at all. If it is neither declared by the Qur’an nor the Hadith, and if there is no basis for inferring it from the way these terms are used in the Qur’an, what basis is there for believing it to be true? As on other issues, Muslims are long on assertions and short on arguments for their claim here.

Not only is there no evidence for this view, there are solid reasons to reject it:

First, if Allah speaks of himself in the plural because of his many names and attributes, then it should also be appropriate for others to refer to Allah with plural pronouns such as “they” and “them”, even though such language would not then be thought of along personal lines, but not only is this not in evidence in the Qur’an,

Whenever in the Qur’an Allah is mentioned in the third person there are always singular pronouns used, such as He, him (Huwa or Hu). Whenever Allah is spoken to in the second person there are also singular pronouns, such as Thou, Thine, and Thee (Anta, Ka). However only in the first person some times the pronouns I, My or Mine (Ana, Iyaya, ya) are used and sometimes We, Us and Our (Nahnu, Na) are used.2

But according to Muslim logic it is not even permissible for others to speak of Allah this way. Ahmadiyya Muslim Naseer Ahmad Faruqui, in a statement that orthodox Muslims would be forced to agree with, says:

For Allah, according to the context, the Holy Quran uses all the three pronouns of the first person, the second person and third person. Please note, that so far as the second or third persons are concerned, the Holy Quran uses the singular pronoun only, i.e., Thee or He, and that these are the only pronouns that man can possibly use to address Allah, or to speak of Him. To quote examples: "Thee do we serve and Thee do we beseech for help" (1:4) and "Say: He, Allah, is One"(112:1).3 (Bold original; underline mine)

But why is it illegitimate for others to refer to Allah in the plural if the basis for Allah speaking this way is because of his many names and attributes? Are Allah’s names and attributes only relevant or real when Allah is speaking about himself but not when others are speaking about him or to him?

Second, in everything a plurality of attributes inheres, and yet one doesn’t on this account use first person plural pronouns to speak of oneself. If using first person plurals can be justified on this basis, then it would be appropriate for each and every individual to speak about themselves this way, for there would be no fundamental difference between the reason Allah has for speaking after this fashion and the reason each individual would have.4

Third, Allah is said to be absolutely one, such that he is above all plurality, including a plurality of attributes. His unity is said to be higher than ours; he is said to transcend the kind of unity that applies to creatures. So if Allah is one in the same sense that everything else is one, i.e. one being with many properties or attributes, as this explanation of the pronouns requires, than he is not one and unique in the sense that the Qur’an (in other places) allegedly says that he is.5

Finally, if Allah, in spite of the contradiction involved, is one in every sense and yet has many attributes, and if this is consistent with using first person plural pronouns, then the view that God exists as a plurality of persons is all the more fitting and consistent with such language, and this for at least two reasons: a) the latter is truer to the actual meaning of these terms, for the pronouns are personal rather than impersonal; and b) if the unitarian deity of Islam possessing multiple attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence, is reason for using first person plural pronouns for him, how much more would such language point to the Biblical God, who, by virtue of His Tri-personal nature, possesses a fullness of attributes. The Biblical God not only has attributes like the aforementioned, but He eternally, independently and immutably possesses such personal attributes as love, fellowship, communication, harmony, etc. These are eternal, necessary and essential attributes of the Biblical God, but on the view of Allah held by Muslims such attributes could at best only be contingent, i.e. dependent. In other words, even if, to make Allah appear more personal and to allow for his having many attributes, his transcendence, uniqueness and unity are watered down, the Allah of Islam would still fall short of the fullness of being that characterizes the true God. So even if one grants that Allah has certain attributes, he still appears altogether bland compared to the living and true God who is tri-personal: “Unless we grasp these [the persons of the Godhead], only the bare and empty name of deity flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God,”6 and by comparison only a scant number of attributes could even be predicated of such a being.7 This means that if God says “We” and “Us” because he has many attributes, Allah would have less warrant for speaking this way than does the Living and True God.

Allah and His Signs

Although no Muslim (at least that I am aware of) has taught the following idea, perhaps one could say that the plural pronouns refer to Allah and his signs, which are frequently mentioned together in the Qur’an. This view will not work, but it is no more or less justifiable or problematic than the other views that Muslims have come up with, and so a brief word can be said about it here.

In the first place, there are indeed many passages where Allah says We in the same context where he mentions his signs, but most of the occasions where plural pronouns are used are in passages where there is no mention made of Allah’s signs.

Secondly, there are times when Allah speaks of his signs in the first person singular (rather than the plural as this view requires), such as the following:

And believe in what I reveal, confirming the revelation which is with you, and be not the first to reject faith therein, nor sell My Signs for a small price; and fear Me, and Me alone. (S. 2:41)

It was We who revealed the Law (to Moses): therein was guidance and light. By its standard have been judged the Jews, by the Prophets who bowed (as in Islam) to Allah’s Will, by the Rabbis and the Doctors of Law: for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah’s Book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear Me, and sell not My Signs for a miserable price. If any do fail to judge by (the light of) what Allah hath revealed, they are (no better than) Unbelievers. (S. 5:44)

O ye assembly of Jinns and men! Came there not unto you messengers from amongst you, setting forth unto you My Signs, and warning you of the meeting of this Day of yours? They will say: “We bear witness against Ourselves.” It was the life of this world that deceived them. So against themselves will they bear witness that they rejected Faith. (S. 6:130)

There are also passages where Allah uses both the first person singular and the first person plural to speak of his signs.

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). (S. 7:35-36)

Those who behave arrogantly on the earth in defiance of right – them will I turn away from My Signs: even if they see all the Signs, they will not believe in them; and if they see the way of right conduct they will not adopt it as the Way; but if they see the way of error, that is the Way they will adopt. For they have rejected Our Signs, and failed to take warning from them. Those who reject Our Sings and the Meeting in the hereafter – vain are their deeds: can they expect to be rewarded except as they have wrought? (S. 7:146-147)

Third, many passages distinguish between the “We” and the “signs” of Allah. For example:

Say: Whoever is an enemy to Gabriel – for he brings down the (revelation) to thy heart by Allah’s will, a confirmation of what went before, and guidance and glad tidings for those who believe – Whoever is an enemy to Allah and His angels and prophets, to Gabriel and Michael – Lo! Allah is an enemy to those who reject Faith. We have sent down to thee manifest Signs (ayat); and none reject them but those who are perverse. (S. 2:97-99)

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)

These are the Signs of Allah: We rehearse them to thee in truth: verily thou art one of the Messengers. (S. 2:252)

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our Messengers with Clear Signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land. (S. 5:32)

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 sinners may be shown up. (S. 6:53-55)

It is He Who sendeth the Winds like heralds of glad tidings, going before His Mercy: when they have carried the heavy-laden clouds, We drive them to a land that is dead, make rain to descend thereon, and produce every kind of harvest therewith: thus shall We raise up the dead: perchance ye may remember. From the land that is clean and good, by the Will of its Cherisher, springs up produce, (rich) after its kind: but from the land that is bad, springs up nothing but that which is niggardly: thus do we explain the Signs by various (symbols) to those who are grateful. (S. 7:57-58)8

Such are Signs of Allah, which We rehearse to thee in truth: then in what exposition will they believe after (rejecting) Allah and His Signs? (S. 45:6)

Per the above, Allah’s signs are that which he, speaking in the first person plural, sends down, rehearses, explains, etc. If “We” send down, rehearse, and explain the signs, then “We” are not the signs but are separate from them.

Fourth, Allah says “We” when saying or doing something that could not be done by his signs. A few examples shall suffice:

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 an hatred till the Day of Judgement. 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. (S. 5:64-65)

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. 7:5-7)

Quite clearly the signs of Allah did not “place enmity” among the Jews, and neither shall they “question” anyone or “recount their whole story with knowledge”.

The same sort of analysis could be given to any similar view that one might offer, such as: it refers to Allah and his words; Allah and his decrees; etc.


Once again we have seen the difficulty of trying to explain the first person plural pronouns in a way that is consistent with the Islamic understanding of Allah and the way Muslims read their Qur’an. Whereas the attempt to say they refer to Allah and his names and attributes represents an improvement upon the other views, for it at least partially recognizes the fact that the terms are to be taken literally and are being used almost exclusively for Allah, at the same time this view still does not withstand scrutiny. Moreover, we’ve also seen that such language, when taken literally and exclusively for Allah, and when explained by an appeal to the divine attributes, is much more consistent with the Christian rather than the orthodox Muslim view of God, for the Biblical God is not only a plurality of persons, but as such is a self-contained fullness of divine perfections or attributes. For these reasons, another explanation for Allah’s use of first person plurals must be sought and found by Muslims, for this one not only does not succeed, it backfires.

Continue with Part IV.


1 Ibn Taymiyah, Ibid., p. 109. Notice that, as Ibn Taymiyyah formulates it, every time Allah uses first person plurals they carry these three meanings, which is absurd. Since these views are mutually exclusive, at best a passage could have one or another meaning; certainly no passage, much less every passage, could bear all three senses at once. The plurals cannot be understood literally and inclusively at the same time they are understood figuratively and exclusively or literally and exclusively (and vice versa). These categories and explanations are mutually exclusive.

4 Just because a person has a plurality of attributes doesn’t mean he gets to drive in the carpool lane or receive a group discount.

5 If one believes that the logical contradiction between saying Allah is absolutely one and that he has many attributes can be resolved, then in principle Muslims cannot object to Trinitarianism for its teaching that God is both one and many, especially since the latter does not assert something so patently irrational. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity does not try to wed the misguided Islamic notion of God as one in every respect with the Biblically revealed truth that God is many in other respects. Christians believe that God is one in certain senses of the term (essence, nature, being, etc.) and many in other respects (attributes, persons, etc.).

6 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press), p. 122

7 This observation will become particularly relevant in Part IV.

8 “We” not capitalized in YA.

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