Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah's Use of Plural Pronouns:

A Survey and Critique –

Part I

By Anthony Rogers

To keep the following series of articles from being unmanageably long and too ponderous for readers, quotations will primarily be culled from Surahs two through seven,1 which are roughly equivalent to a fourth of the entire Qur’an. If the number of verses that are quoted still prove to be too daunting, the reader may safely read a few in each category to get the point, and pass on to my remarks. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations will be from Yusuf Ali’s translation, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an.2


A very pronounced problem facing Muslims concerns the self-referential use by Allah of the plural pronouns “We”, “Us” and “Our”. At first blush these divine plurals appear to contradict the Muslim understanding of Allah’s unity. Whereas Muslim apologists are quick to claim that this is not really the case, even going as far as saying that such is part and parcel of the eloquence of the Qur’an, the claim is not so easily vindicated by the evidence.

To Translate or Not to Translate

That this practice is at least an apparent problem can be illustrated by the following comments from a Muslim:

… Translating the Arabic “nahnu” to “we” (when Allah is referring to himself) is … highly problematic, not simply because the awkward use of English confuses and alienates the listener, but more importantly, because it obscures the core message of Islam – tawheed ...3 (Emphasis mine)

In context the author is arguing that this is an Arabic idiom similar to the royal we in English, the latter of which he says is now archaic. This interpretation, along with many others, will be challenged later in this series. At this point it is important to observe the author’s admission that, as it stands, this manner of speaking confuses and obscures Islam’s teaching on Allah’s unity, i.e. tawhid. Thus the author advocates translating the Arabic word nahnu, a first person plural pronoun, we, in the singular in order to bring it into line with what Muslims believe is taught in other places in the Qur’an about Allah’s unity.4

What Does It Mean?

The fact of the matter is, neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith directly explain why Allah speaks this way, and the proliferation of different answers on this from Muslims doesn’t give us a great deal of confidence that the Qur’an supplies us with any clear and indubitable premises from which a conclusive answer can be deduced. Accordingly, any authoritative answer that could be given would have to be discerned from Quranic usage. But as this series of articles will labor to show, there does not appear to be any clearly discernible pattern to how these terms are used by Allah. That being so the possibility of an answer coming forth from the proponents of Islam appears to be exceedingly grim.

Three Basic Categories

The answers that have been put forward by Muslims can be categorized in the following three ways: the use of first person plurals are to be understood: 1) literally and inclusively, i.e. they are genuine plurals and include Allah and others along with him; or 2) exclusively and figuratively, i.e. they are used for Allah alone but are not used as genuine plurals; or 3) exclusively and literally, i.e. they refer to Allah alone and point to some kind of plurality (albeit an impersonal plurality). These views are mutually exclusive and exhaust the range of possible answers that could be given by Muslims. The meaning and relevance of all of this will become more apparent as this series progresses.

Allah, Muhammad and the Angels

In an effort to resolve the problem, some Muslims have alleged that the plural pronouns are used inclusively and refer to Allah and the angel Jibreel5 or Allah and the angels in general or maybe even Allah, Jibreel and Muhammad. This approach attributes the first person plural pronouns in Allah’s speech to the fact that Allah does things through his agents; Allah says “We” because what Jibreel says or what the angels say and do is according to Allah’s command and by his power. An example of this interpretation can be found in the following fatwa, which attributes the following to Ibn Taymiyyah:

The view of the salaf (early generations) of this ummah and of its imams and later generations is that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) heard the Qur’aan from Jibreel, and Jibreel heard it from Allaah. The use of plural forms in such phrases is the style of Arabic speech used to refer to one who is of high standing and has helpers who obey him. So if his helpers do something by his command, he says, “we did it”. This is like when a king says, “We conquered this land, we defeated this army” and so on. Because he did that through the actions of his helpers. Allaah is the Lord of the angels and they speak not until He has spoken, and they act in accordance with His commands; they do not disobey the commands of Allaah, rather they do what He commands. Moreover He is their Creator and the creator of their deeds and their power. But He has no need of them; He is not like a king whose helpers do things by their own strength. So what He says when He does something through His angels is, “We did it”, this is more appropriate and He is more entitled to say it than some king.6 (Emphasis mine)

Another example is provided by Shaykh Hamza Karamali:

One of the earliest and most authoritative Quranic lexicologists, al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 425 A.H.), explained that nahnu (Arabic for we) is normally a pronominal reference that a speaker makes to himself when speaking of himself along with others. When Allah Most High uses nahnu to refer to Himself [sic] the Quran, He may either be using it solely for Himself, or, if the He speaks of an action that He creates at the hands of His angels, for example, He may be referring to the [sic] Himself along with His angels.7

The first part of Ibn Taymiyyah’s remark above might be read as an indication that the “We” includes not only Allah and Jibreel but Muhammad also.8 However, in light of the fact that Ibn Taymiyyah goes on to speak only of Allah and the angels, and since no tafsir that I am aware of includes Muhammad in the divine We spoken by Allah, it seems much more likely that he is only saying that We refers to Allah and Jibreel (or Allah and the angels). Nevertheless, in order to leave no stone unturned some remarks will be made to show that even if it is thought by someone that some passages could possibly include Muhammad, it must be seen that this interpretation could hardly account for all such passages or even a majority of them. For example, the following passages quite clearly could not include Muhammad in the “We” spoken by Allah:

And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a Surah like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (if there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. (S. 2:23)

Verily, We have sent thee in truth as a bearer of glad tidings and a warner: but of thee no question shall be asked of the companions of the Blazing Fire. (S. 2:119)

Thus have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations, and the Messenger a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qiblah to which thou was used, only to test those who followed the Messenger from those who would turn on their heels. (S. 2:143-144)

A similar (favour have ye already received) in that We have sent among you a Messenger of you own, rehearsing to you Our Signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in Scripture and Wisdom, and in new knowledge. (S. 2:151)

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

This is part of the tidings of the things unseen, which We reveal unto thee (O Prophet!) by inspiration: thou was not with them when they cast lots with arrows, as to which of them should be charged with the care of Mary: nor wast thou with them when they disputed (the point). (S. 3:44)

We sent not a Messenger, but to be obeyed, in accordance with the Will of Allah. If they had only, when they were unjust to themselves, come unto thee and asked Allah’s forgiveness, and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them, they would have found Allah indeed Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. (S. 4:64)

Whatever good, (O man!) happens to thee, is from Allah; but whatever evil happens to thee, is from thy (own) soul. And We have sent thee as a Messenger to (instruct) mankind. And enough is Allah for a witness. He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah; but if any turn away, We have not sent thee to watch over their (evil deeds). (S. 4:79-80)

Others you will find that wish to gain your confidence as well as that of their people: every time they are sent back to temptation, they succumb thereto; if they withdraw not from you nor give you (guarantees) of peace besides restraining their hands, seize them and slay them wherever ye get them; in their case We have provided you with a clear argument against them. (S. 4:91)

We have sent down to thee the Book in truth, that thou mightiest judge between men, as guided by Allah: so be not (used) as an advocate by those who betray their trust;… (S. 4:105)

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)

We have sent thee inspiration, as We sent it to Noah and the Messengers after him: We sent inspiration to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah, Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms. Of some messengers We have already told thee the story; of others we have not – and to Moses Allah spoke direct – (S. 4:163-164)9

O People of the Book! There hath come to you Our Messenger, revealing to you much that ye used to hide in the Book, and passing over much (that is now unnecessary): There hath come to you from Allah a (new) light and a perspicuous Book – (S. 5:15)

O People of the Book! Now hath come unto you, making (things) clear unto you Our Messenger, after the break in (the series of) our messengers, lest ye should say: “There came unto us no bringer of glad tidings and no warner (from evil)”; but now hath come unto you a bringer of glad tidings and a warner (from evil). And Allah hath power over all things. (S. 5:19)10

Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger, and beware (of evil); if ye do turn back, know ye that it is Our Messenger’s duty to proclaim (the Message) in the clearest manner. (S. 5:92)

If We had sent unto thee a written (Message) on parchment so that they could touch it with their hands, the Unbelievers would have been sure to say: “This is nothing but obvious magic!” They say: “Why is not an angel sent down to him?” If We did send down an angel, the matter would be settled at once, and no respite would be granted them. If We had made it an angel, We should have sent him as a man, and We should certainly have caused them confusion in a matter which they have already covered with confusion. (S. 6:7-9)

Before thee We sent (Messenger) to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they might learn humility. (S. 6:42)

If it had been Allah’s Plan, they would not have taken false gods: but We made thee not one to watch over their doings, nor art thou set over them to dispose of their affairs. (S. 6:107)

Likewise did We make for every Messenger an enemy – evil ones among men and Jinns inspiring each other with flowery discourses by way of deception. If thy Lord had so planned, they would not have done it: so leave them alone and their inventions alone. (S. 6:112)

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. (S. 7:94)

We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption). We did send messengers before thee amongst the religious sects of old. (S. 15:9-10)

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)

With that said, the same problem applies to the idea that is actually advocated by many Muslims, namely that We refers to Allah and Jibreel or the other angels. While a handful of “We” passages could be read as a reference to Jibreel (or Michael and/or the other angels), such as the following verses,

(The angels say:) “We descend not but by command of thy Lord: To Him belongeth what is before us, and what is behind us, and what is between: and thy Lord never doth forget. Lord of the heavens and of the earth, and of all that is between them: so worship Him, and be constant and patient in His worship: knowest thou of any who is worthy of the same Name as He?” (S. 19:64-65)11

(Those ranged in the ranks say): “Not one of us but has a place appointed; and we are verily ranged in ranks (for service); and we are verily those who declare (Allah’s) glory!” (37:164-166)12

A great many more could not have this meaning since they distinguish between Allah, speaking in the plural, and an angel and/or the angels in general.

And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam:” and they bowed down: not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: he was of those who reject Faith. (S. 2:34)

If We had sent unto thee a written (Message) on parchment so that they could touch it with their hands, the Unbelievers would have been sure to say: “This is nothing but obvious magic!” They say: “Why is not an angel sent down to him?” If We did send down an angel, the matter would be settled at once, and no respite would be granted them. If We had made it an angel, We should have sent him as a man, and We should certainly have caused them confusion in a matter which they have already covered with confusion. (S. 6:7-9)

He is Irresistible, (watching) from above over His worshippers, and He sets guardians over you. At length when death approaches one of you, Our angels take his soul, and they never fail in their duty. (S. 6:61)

Even if We did send unto them angels, and the dead did speak unto them, and We gathered together all things before their very eyes they are not the ones to believe, unless it is in Allah’s Plan. But most of them ignore (the truth). (S. 6:111)

It is We Who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels bow down to Adam, and they bowed down; not so Iblis; he refused to be of those who bow down. (S. 7:11)

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?” They will reply, “They have left us in the lurch,” and they will bear witness against themselves, that they had rejected Allah. (S. 7:37)

We send not the angels down except for just cause: if they came (to the ungodly), Behold! No respite would they have!” We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption). (S. 15:8-9)

Relate in the Book (the story of) Mary, when she withdrew from her family to a place in the East. She placed a screen (to screen herself) from them; then We sent to her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects. She said: “I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (come not near) if thou dost fear Allah.” He said: “Nay, I am only a messenger from thy Lord, (to announce) to thee the gift of a holy son.” She said: “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?” He said: So (it will be) thy Lord saith, ‘That is easy for Me: and (We wish) to appoint him as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us’: it is a matter (so) decreed.” (S. 19:16-21)13

We will call on the angels of punishment (to deal with him)! (S. 96:17)

In fact, while Surah 2:30-33 might also initially appear to offer indirect evidence for the angels being included in the use of first person plurals by Allah, for in these verses Allah speaks to the angels using singular rather than plural pronouns, yet the two verses that immediately follow them, verses 34-35, show that this is not the case. In the last two verses Allah shifts from using “I” and “Me” to “We” when speaking in contradistinction to the angels.

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 names of all things; then He placed them before the angels, and said: “Tell Me the names 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 names.” 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?” And behold, We said to the angels: “Bow down to Adam:” and they bowed down: Not so Iblis: he refused and was haughty: He was of those who reject Faith. (S. 2:30-35)

This should give us pause in the case of even the handful of other passages that might initially appear to include the angels with Allah when speaking in the plural.

Not only does this view not explain many of the verses previously quoted, it also conflicts with passages that attribute to Allah, speaking in plural form, what can only be said of God. Unless the Qur’an itself is guilty of shirk,14 this necessarily rules out any and all reference to Muhammad or Jibreel or any and all other angels in such verses. For example,

O ye who believe! Give of the good things which ye have (honourably) earned, and of the fruits of the earth which We have produced for you, and do not even aim at getting anything which is bad, in order that out of it ye may give away something, when ye yourselves would not receive it except with closed eyes. And know that Allah is free of all wants, and worthy of all praise. (S. 2:267)

If ye (but) eschew the most heinous of the things which ye are forbidden to do, We shall expel out of you all the evil in you, and admit you to a gate of great honour. (S. 4:31)

Those who reject Our Signs, We shall soon cast into the Fire; as often as their skins are roasted through, We shall change them for fresh skins, that they may taste the Penalty: for Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise. (S. 4:56)

And for their Covenant We raised over them (the towering height) of Mount (Sinai); and (on another occasion) We said: “Enter the gate with humility”; and (once again) We commanded them: “Transgress not in the matter of the Sabbath.” And We took from them a solemn Covenant. (S. 4:154)

For the iniquity of the Jews We made unlawful for them certain (foods) good and wholesome which had been lawful for them – in that they hindered many from Allah’s way. (S. 4:160)

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)

See they not how many of those before them We did destroy? – Generations We had established on the earth, in strength such as We have not given to you – for whom We poured out rain from the skies in abundance, and gave (fertile) streams flowing beneath their (feet): yet for their sins We destroyed them, and raised in their wake fresh generations (to succeed them). (S. 6:6)

There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end. (S. 6:38)

That was the reasoning about Us, which We gave to Abraham (to use) against his people: We raise whom We will, degree after degree: for thy Lord is full of wisdom and knowledge. We gave him Isaac and Jacob: all (three) We guided: and before him We guided Noah, and among his progeny, David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron: thus do We reward those who do good: and Zakariya and Yahya, and Jesus and Elias all in the ranks of the Righteous: and Ismail and Elisha, and Jonah, and Lot: and to all We gave favour above the nations: (to them) and to their fathers, and progeny and brethren: We chose them, and We guided them to a straight Way. This is the Guidance of Allah: He giveth that guidance to whom He pleaseth of His worshippers. If they were to join other gods with Him, all that they did would be vain for them. These were the men to whom We gave the Book, and Authority, and Prophethood: if these (their descendants) reject them, Behold! We shall entrust their charge to a new People who reject them not. Those were the (prophets) who received Allah’s guidance: copy the guidance they received; “Say: No reward for this do I ask of you: this is no less than a Message for the nations.” (S. 6:83-90)

“And behold! Ye come to Us bare and alone as We created you for the first time: ye have left behind you all (the favours) which We bestowed on you: We see not with you your intercessors whom ye thought to be partners in your affairs: so now all relations between you have been cut off, and your (pet) fancies have left you in the lurch!” (S. 6:94)

It is He Who maketh the stars (as beacons) for you, that ye may guide yourselves, with their help, through the dark spaces of land and sea: We detail Our signs for people who understand. It is He Who hath produced you from a single Person; here is a place of sojourn and a place of departure: We detail Our signs for people who understand. It is He Who sendeth down rain from the skies; with it We produce vegetation of all kinds: from some We produce green (crops), out of which We produce grain, heaped up (at harvest); out of the date palm and its sheaths (or spathes) (come) clusters of dates hanging low and near: and (then there are) gardens of grapes, and olives, and pomegranates, each similar (in kind) yet different (in variety): when they begin to bear fruit, feast your eyes with the fruit and the ripeness thereof. Behold! In these things there are Signs for people who believe. (S. 6:97-99)

Revile not ye those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest they out of spite revile Allah in their ignorance. Thus have We made alluring to each people its own doings. In the end will they return to their Lord, and We shall then tell them the truth of all that they did. (S. 6:108)

Can he who was dead to whom We gave life, and a Light whereby he can walk amongst men, be like him who is in the depths of darkness, from which he can never come out? Thus to those without Faith their own deeds seem pleasing. (S. 6:122)

For those who followed the Jewish Law, We forbade every (animal) with undivided hoof, and We forbade them the fat of the ox and the sheep, except what adheres to their back or their entrails, or is mixed up with a bone: this in recompense for their willful disobedience: for We are True (in Our ordinances). (S. 6:146)

Say: “Come, I will rehearse what Allah hath (really) prohibited you from”: join not anything as equal with Him; be good to your parents; kill not your children on a plea of want – We provide sustenance for you and for them – Come not nigh to shameful deeds, whether open or secret; take not life, which Allah hath made sacred, except by way of justice and law: thus doth He command you, that ye may learn wisdom. (S. 6:151)

And verily We shall recount their whole story with knowledge, for We were never absent (at any time or place). (S. 7:7)

It is We who have placed you with authority on earth, and provided you therein with means for the fulfillment of your life: small are the thanks that ye give. It is We Who created you and gave you shape; then We bade the angels bow down to Adam, and they bowed down; not so Iblis; he refused to be of those who bow down. (S. 7:10-11)

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 ever kind of harvest therewith: thus shall We raise up the dead: perchance you 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)15

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? (S. 7:100)

We put it into Moses’s mind by inspiration: “Throw (now) thy rod”: and behold! It swallows up straightaway all the falsehoods which they fake! (S. 7:117)

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)

When We shook the Mount over them, as if it had been a canopy, and they thought it was going to fall on them (We said): “Hold firmly to what We have given you, and bring (ever) to remembrance what is therein; perchance ye may fear Allah.” (S. 7:171)

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)

Of those We have created are people who direct (others) with truth, and dispense justice therewith. (S. 7:181)

We have indeed created man in the best of moulds, then do We abase him (to be) the lowest of the low – except such as believe and do righteous deeds: for they shall have a reward unfailing. (S. 95:4-6)

Unless Muslims are willing to say that Muhammad and/or the angels were present with Allah and acted as his helper(s) when he made the Jinns for hell, created man in the best of moulds, granted man authority and established him in the earth, provided him with light and sustenance, etc., then it can hardly be gainsaid that the plurals in such instances refer not to Muhammad or the angels or anyone else but to Allah alone.

This basic conclusion has also been arrived at by Muslim scholar Neal Robinson. After granting that the Quranic use of pronouns is “highly unusual”,16 and mentioning H. M. Watt’s observation that it is one thing for a speaker to do this on a handful of occasions and another for him to do so with the kind of frequency found in the Qur’an, an observation that played a role in leading Watt to conclude, at least when it comes to the later portions of the Qur’an, that “We” refers to the revelatory angels, Robinson challenges the idea that it ordinarily refers to the angels (or anyone other than Allah).

Toward this end, Robinson analyzes Surahs 94, 12, and 5, all of which feature Allah speaking in the first person plural pronoun, and shows why it is not likely that the plurals in such cases include the revelatory angels. According to Robinson, the words and actions ascribed to the speaker are elsewhere attributed to Allah in the Qur’an in the third and first person singular. Here are Robinson’s comments on Surah five, which mirrors his analyses of Surah 94 and Surah 12:

Because of Watt’s claim that the angelic discourse predominates in the later portions of the Qur’an, I have chosen Surah 5, a late Madinan Surah, as my third example. The speaker employs the first person plural in vv. 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 32, 44, 45, 46, 48, 64-65, and 70. Once again, I shall tabulate the evidence giving third-person-singular (or occasionally first-person-singular) parallels from elsewhere in the Qur’an.

Those who disbelieve and reject Our signs … (5:10)
   Who does evil greater than he who forges a lie
   against Allah and rejects His signs? (6:21)

We raised up from among them twelve chieftains … (5:12)
   So Allah raised up prophets as proclaimers of good tidings
   and warners … (2:213)

We cursed them and made their hearts hard … (5:13)
   Allah cursed them … (2:88)
   Allah has set a seal on their hearts … (2:7)

We accepted their agreement … (5:14, cf. 70)
   Allah accepted an agreement with the children of Israel … (5:10)

We have stirred up among them enmity and hatred … (5:14, cf. 64)
   - no close parallel.

Our Messenger has come to you … (5:15, 19)
   He it is who has sent His messenger with guidance … (9:33)

On account of that, we prescribed for the children of Israel that … (5:32, cf. 45)
   … Seek what Allah has prescribed for you … (2:187)

We sent down the Torah … (5:44)
   He sent down the Torah … (3:3)

We caused Jesus the Son of Mary to follow in their footsteps … (5:46)
   - no close parallel.

We gave him the Gospel … (5:46)
   … When I taught thee … the Gospel … (5:109)

We have sent down to thee the Scripture … (5:48)
   It is He who has sent down to thee the Scripture … (3:7)

… to everyone of you We have appointed a right way (SHiR‘atan) and a program of action … (5:48)
   He has laid down (SHaRa‘a) for you as religion … (42:13)

We would have acquitted them of their evil deeds and admitted them to gardens … (5:65)
   … I shall acquit you of your evil deeds and admit you to gardens … (5:12)
   … He will acquit you of your evil deeds … (8:29)
   … Allah will admit those who believe and do good works to gardens … (4:122)

Once again [as in the case of Surah 94 and 12 - AR], the sceptic might wish to argue that the existence of third-person parallels is not conclusive and that ‘We’ is the self-designation of the angels. It is difficult, however, to envisage the angels speaking of ‘Our Messenger’ (5:15, 19) or claiming ‘We would have acquitted them of their evil deeds’ (5:65).17

Furthermore, according to Robinson, Surah 19:64 and 37:164-6 are isolated exceptions to the rule that the Quranic We-discourse refers to Allah (and not also to the angels along with him).


Although there may be a handful of passages that could perhaps be understood to include Muhammad or Jibreel or the angels (in the plural pronoun “We”), this long exercise shows that the explanatory power of the above answers, again, when (and if) they ever apply, which is certainly not that often, is extremely limited; the overwhelming number of instances where Allah says “We”, “Us” or “Our” can refer only to Allah. Another explanation must, therefore, be brought in to account for what is going on here in the Qur’an, at least in most cases.

Continue with Part II.


1 Because Muslims believe Surah 1 was revealed as a prayer for the Muslim community, such that when it says “We” or “Us” it is not a reference to Allah, it will be excluded from this study. But see the following article: The Unsurpassable Eloquence of the Qur’an.

2 Yusuf Ali’s translation has gone through a number of revisions. The one being used in this paper is The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, New Edition with Revised Translation, Commentary and Newly Compiled Comprehensive Index, 8th edition (Beltsville, Maryland: amana publications, 1996).

3 The Royal “We”. Remarks made in the comment section of this article are also illustrative of the point. A number of Muslims mention how they stumble over Allah’s use of “We” in the Qur’an. There are others who say it is no problem at all, but in their case, as they go on to say, it is because they grew up in an Islamic culture or speaking a language where “we” is sometimes just a plural of majesty. This of course is entirely anachronistic and doesn’t automatically explain Quranic usage. For a full fledged refutation of this, see Part II.

4 I assume the author would also like to do the same thing with inna, “Verily We”.

5 The “fully detailed” Qur’an does not identify Jibreel as an angel; this extra-Quranic assumption held by Muslims is being taken for granted in this paper. For an article challenging this assumption in Islam, see: Is Gabriel Really An Angel?

6 Fatwa 12713. See also here: Fatwa 606

7 Why does Allah refer to Himself with the plural pronoun? Karamali references the following source in a footnote: al-Raghib al-Asfahani, Mufradat Alfadh al-Quran, Entry Title: n.h.n.

8 Ibn Taymiyyah’s statement speaks of a chain for the transmission of the Qur’an. Before the Qur’an became generally available and was put into writing for the believers, the companions heard it recited “from the Prophet who heard it from Jibreel who heard it from Allah.” If this revelatory chain is a reason to include anyone into the plural “We”, then Muhammad and Jibreel have the same claim on it as they are both equally essential links in this chain of revealing the Qur’an from Allah to the Muslims.

9 For some unknown reason the last “we” in this verse is not capitalized in YA’s translation. In other translations, it is.

10 Again, the second “our” is not capitalized in YA though it is in other translations.

11 This is conjecture as the words in parentheses, “The angels say”, are not found in the Arabic text.

12 Once again the words in parenthesis are not really found in the Arabic text but have been supplied by the translator to enforce (force?) this meaning.

13 This verse does not really say an angel appeared to Mary; it actually says “Our Spirit” appeared to her.

14 The Qur’an is guilty of “shirk” in many ways, but the Muslim claim is being taken for granted at this point. See the articles in the section on The Deification of Muhammmad as well as the following articles for some further examples of how the Qur’an is guilty of teaching shirk: (*, *, *, *, *)

15 Not capitalized in YA.

16 Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to A Veiled Text (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2003), p. 224

17 Ibid., p. 228-229

Articles by Anthony Rogers
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