Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Allah's Use of Plural Pronouns:

A Survey and Critique –

Part IV

By Anthony Rogers


The previous articles (1, 2, 3) in this series have looked at the three basic approaches that Muslims can and have taken in trying to explain the reason and meaning of Allah’s use of first person plural pronouns in the Qur’an: 1) literal/inclusive; 2) figurative/exclusive; and 3) literal/exclusive. In terms of these approaches Muslims have contrived, seized upon and confidently declared many different answers: the plurals refer to (1a) Allah and the angels, (1b) Allah and Gabriel, or (1c) Allah, Gabriel and Muhammad(?); or they are (2a) majestic plurals, (2b) plurals of respect, or (2c) an indication that Allah is beyond personhood; or they refer to (3a) Allah and his names and attributes (or his signs, or words, or decrees, etc.).1 In no single instance has a justifiable, problem-free explanation been found. Given the insoluble problems that exist for saying that the plural pronouns refer to someone other than or in addition to Allah, or that they refer to Allah in some idiomatic way, or even that they refer to Allah and his names, attributes, deeds or whatever else, it should come as no surprise that some Muslims have, as it were, thrown up their hands, relegating the meaning to Allah alone.

Allah Knows Best (But His Lips Are Sealed)

Unlike the other positions, this trouble-born and problem-riddled “solution” actually has some precedent for it in Islam’s primary sources. The Qur’an itself says there are some verses that are so unclear that only Allah knows their true meanings:

“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meaning, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (Surah 3:7)

According to many authorities (Ibn Kathir, Ibn Abbas, et. al.), the first eighty plus verses of Surah three, inclusive of the above verse, were sent down as a reply to the Christians of Najran who argued for the Trinity and the deity of Christ.

If the phenomena in question are relegated to the category of things “not of well-established meaning”, mutashabihat, and if verses in this category are things that no one knows the true meanings of except Allah, then not only does this confirm that none of the answers critiqued in the previous papers could be (known to be) true, for then someone other than Allah would know their meanings, it means that those Muslims who have tried to explain them are guilty of searching for that which is hidden, thereby intruding upon the secrets of Allah, and speaking presumptuously in his name, which is nothing other than shirk. As the following source says:

Then Allah (swt) clearly says “But none knows their interpretation except Allah”. How can you be more explicit than this? When Allah (swt) Himself, the One Who Knows all things, the One Who sent this Book, is saying that only He (swt) Knows the meaning of these ayahs then how can you go and produce your own interpretation? How dare you show such insolence to the Lord and Master of all things? Since only Allah (swt) Knows the interpretation of these mutashabiyat [sic] ayahs we should refrain from trying to interpret these ayahs at all costs. It is part of our humility and our submission to Allah (swt) that we stop our minds from going into realms concerning which Allah (swt) has not given us any knowledge. Allah (swt) is telling us that only He (swt) Knows the interpretation of these ayahs so we have to stop ourselves from trying to interpret them. We have to submit our minds to Allah (swt) just like we submit our limbs and our hearts to Him (swt). May Allah (swt) give us the ability to do that! May Allah (swt) give us humility before His (swt)’s Book! May Allah (swt) save us from interpreting the ayahs for which only He (swt) Knows the true meaning!2 (Emphasis mine)

Not only does this answer create trouble for the other interpretations; it has troubles of its own.

In the first place, the verses that involve Allah speaking in the first person plural are found all throughout the Qur’an; if such verses cannot be understood, then this renders a large portion of the Qur’an meaningless to everyone except for Allah, which seriously impinges on the claim that the Qur’an is basically a clear book and a source of guidance. It also affects the claim that no one can produce Surahs like those found in the Qur’an, for eloquence and rhetorical frippery are easy enough to produce when not hampered by the demands of saying anything intelligible. (And one may well ask, “If there are a great many passages that can only be understood by Allah, in which cases Allah would simply be talking to himself, then what is the point of revealing such verses in the first place?”)

Secondly, this rejection of any interpretation of the “unclear” verses begs the question: Since the Qur’an does not tell us which verses are unclear, how do Muslims know certain verses are unclear before they even try to understand them? If they start the attempt of understanding and explaining them, they may already commit a sin, if it turns out that this or that verse is one of the unclear ones that are supposed to be left unclear. On the other hand, it cannot be the solution to stay away from understanding all verses out of fear that they might not be supposed to be understood. So, with all the piety that the above quote radiates, it is actually nonsense.

In fact, does a Muslim have any chance at NOT transgressing? Given that one cannot know which verses are clear or unclear before they try to examine and understand them, they either transgress by being haughty and insolent by attempting to understand what only Allah can understand, or they transgress against the command of Allah to seek understanding when they do not try to understand what may or may not be unclear. Because, if at first attempt one does not understand a certain verse, does that mean they should not try, or they did not try hard enough?

Thirdly, this apparent dodge does not seem to take seriously into account the fact that there is a limited range to the kinds of answers that could possibly be given to explain such passages – 1) literal/inclusive, 2) figurative/exclusive, and 3) literal/exclusive – all of which Muslims have spent themselves on. Whatever answer Allah would have for the meaning of these plurals would necessarily fall into one or another of the three categories in terms of which Muslims have already tried to explain them; there simply is no fourth way available to Allah anymore than Muslims that would be consistent with Islamic teaching. But answers that fall into the first category are not possible for reason of what was discussed in the first article in this series, and the answers generated by the second and third categories were shown to be problematic in the second and third articles.

Finally, passing off the meaning to Allah, looks like little more than employing a “pious” device to get out of answering something that seems to clearly demand some kind of explanation. The use of first person plurals by Allah appears contrary not just to some peripheral teaching of Islam, nor even to one core teaching of Islam among many others of equal importance; rather, it conflicts with what is purportedly the foremost teaching of Islam – Tawhid or Islamic monotheism. This is the doctrine Muhammad supposedly brought in its purity and with pristine clarity. Any failure or refusal to resolve the meaning of these verses brings this claim into serious question and looks like an attempt at damage control on the part of Muhammad and those who follow him in applying Surah 3:7 to issues like the one before us.3

Allah Knows Best (Or Does He?)

With that said, not all Quranic interpreters agree on the meaning of Surah 3:7 (a fact that is more than a little bit ironic since it raises the possibility that this passage is one of those that are ambiguous). While many authorities say this passage means that no one knows the true exegesis of the verses which are “not of well-established meaning” except for Allah; other authorities say Surah 3:7 means that the verses that are “not of well-established meaning” are known by no one except for Allah and those with knowledge. Muslim Mahmoud Ayoub explains these different interpretations and their pedigree:

The phrase “Yet no one knows its exegesis except God, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say” raised two important questions for commentators: (1) What is the aspect or level of the exegesis of the Qu’ran which God alone knows, and which He has withheld from His creatures? and, (2) Is knowledge of the ultimate interpretation (ta’wil) hidden from all men or is it disclosed to “those who are firmly rooted in knowledge”? We shall discuss these two related issues together….

Tabari … notes the disagreement among commentators concerning the reading of this part of the verse. He writes: “Are those who are firmly rooted in knowledge to be conjoined to the name of God, in that they too possess knowledge of the mutashabih? or is this the beginning of a new statement in which they say, “We believe in the mutashabih, and we believe that knowledge of it is with God alone?’” The question which Tabari poses here is whether the verse should read “Yet no one knows its exegesis except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge. They say …” or “Yet no one knows its exegesis except God, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say …” It is important to observe here that the second is the more widely accepted reading, as it is the reading of the official Egyptian edition. This reading is reported on many authorities including those of Ibn ‘Abbas, A’ishah, Hisham b. ‘Urwah b. al-Zubayr, the pious caliph ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, and others.

The other reading is likewise reported on the authority of many important early traditionists. Tabari expresses their view as follows: “Rather the meaning of the verse is ‘No one knows its exegesis except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge’, for, even though they have knowledge of it, as they are firmly rooted in knowledge, they still say, ‘We have faith in it, for it is all from our Lord.’” This view is likewise reported on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas and his famous disciple Mujahid, as well as the authority al-Rabi b. Anas and Muhammad b. Ja`far b. al-Zubayr …4

The interpretation that those with knowledge are to be conjoined with Allah is the view represented in Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, one of Islam’s earliest sources. Moreover, Ibn Ishaq’s account also tells us that this verse, Surah 3:7, was part of the response sent down to Muhammad to give in reply to the Christians of Najran, and includes the fact that they argued with Muhammad saying that Allah should simply say “I” and not also “We” if he is only one and not also many.

A deputation of the Christians of Najran came to the apostle….

… They were Christians according to the Byzantine rite, though they differed among themselves in some points, saying He is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity. They argue that he is God because he used to raise the dead, and heal the sick, and declare the unseen; and make clay birds and then breathe into them so that they flew away; and all this was by the command of God Almighty, ‘We shall make him a sign to men.’ They argue that he is the son of God in that they say he had no known father; and he spoke in the cradle and this is something that no child of Adam has ever done. They argue that he is the third of three in that God says: We have done, We have commanded, We have created and We have decreed, and they say, If He were only one he would have said I have done, I have created, and so on, because He is He and Jesus and Mary. Concerning all these assertions the Quran came down.

So God sent down concerning their words and their incoherence the beginning of the sura of the Family of ‘Imran up to more than eighty verses, and He said: ‘Alif Lam Mim. God there is no God but He the Living the Ever-existent.’…. ‘He it is who has sent down to thee the book which has plain verses: they are the core of the book’, in them is the divine argument, the protection of (His) creatures, and the thrusting aside of controversy and falsehood. These are not subject to modification or alteration in the meaning which has been given. ‘And others are obscure’, they are subject to modification and interpretation. By them God tests His creatures as He tests them with things permitted and forbidden that they should not be changed into what is false and altered by declining from the truth. ‘But as to those in whose hearts is a deviation,’ i.e. turning away from true guidance, ‘they follow what is ambiguous,’ i.e. what can be otherwise interpreted to substantiate thereby what they have invented and introduced anew that they may have an argument and a plausible reason for their doctrine, ‘desiring fitna,’ i.e. confusion, and ‘desiring an arbitrary interpretation,’ e.g. the error they adopted in explaining ‘We created’ and ‘We decreed’. ‘And none knows its interpretation,’ i.e. what they mean by it, ‘except God; and those grounded in knowledge.’ They say, ‘We believe in it. Everything comes from our Lord.’ So how can there be any controversy when it is one speech from one Lord? Then they carry over the interpretation of the obscure to the plain which can have only one meaning and thus the book becomes consistent, one part confirming another, the argument effective and the case clear; falsehood is excluded and unbelief is overcome. ‘None but the intelligent take heed’ in this way. ‘O Lord, Suffer not our hearts to go astray after Thou has guided us,’ i.e. Do not let our hearts swerve, though we swerve aside through our sins. ‘Grant us mercy from Thy presence. Thou art the Generous Giver.’ Then He says, ‘God witnesses that there is no God but He, and the angels and the men of knowledge too’ contrary to what they say ‘subsisting ever in justice,’ i.e. in equity. ‘There is no God but He, the Mighty the Wise. The religion with God is Islam,’ i.e. the religion you practice, O Muhammad, acknowledging the oneness of God and confirming the apostles. ‘Those to whom the book was brought differed only after knowledge had come to them,’ i.e. that which came to thee, namely that God is one without associate, ‘through transgression among themselves. And whosoever disbelieves in God’s revelations – God is swift to take into account. And if they argue with thee,’ i.e. with the false doctrine they produce about ‘We created,’ ‘We did’, and ‘We commanded’, it is only a specious argument devoid of truth. ‘Say, I have surrendered my purpose to God,’ i.e. to Him alone, ‘as have those who follow me. And say to those who received the book and to the gentile (converts) who have no book, ‘Have you surrendered? For if they have surrendered they will be rightly guided and if they turn their backs it is only incumbent on thee to deliver the message. And God sees (His) servants.’5 (Emphasis mine)

This answer ascribed to Muhammad likewise adds its support to the argument of the previous papers, for in Ibn Ishaq’s account Muhammad does not explain the first person plurals as somehow a reference to himself, Jibreel, or the angels along with Allah, and neither does he resolve them as a “plural of majesty” or as a reference to Allah’s names and attributes.6

As well, this answer also empties all the unclear and ambiguous passages which are subject to alteration, modification, and interpretation – among which are not only passages about Christ, but also those where Allah uses first person plurals – of all value, since only those that are clear and are part of the core of the book contain “the divine argument” and are useful for “the protection of (His) creatures, and the thrusting aside of controversy.” If it is replied that these passages still serve some purpose, namely so that Allah may test “His creatures as He tests them with things permitted and forbidden that they should not be changed into what is false and altered by declining from the truth”, then their only value is in providing the occasion for testing but not also for passing the test, since the test is to see if they will obey certain parts of the Qur’an, i.e. those that are clear, and ignore the other parts, i.e. those that are not clear. And this of course raises the thorny problem of how one discerns which verses are clear and which are not since the Qur’an does not delineate them. And even if Muslim authorities are given primacy here in making up for this deficiency in the Qur’an, so that they get to pronounce which verses are clear and which are unclear, how does one decide what authority to follow in cases where such authorities contradict each other (as they often do)?

Worse still, and notwithstanding the above, although Ibn Ishaq’s account follows the interpretation that conjoins Allah and those with knowledge so that the latter are also said to know what is meant by the unclear passages, this story actually ends up bringing into question whether anyone – Allah, Muhammad, and those with knowledge included – knows what such verses mean, for the proffered answer is nothing more than a makeshift response.

To say that the clear passages are to be given priority of place over the supposedly unclear passages is not to tell us what the “unclear” passages mean or how they harmonize with the “clear” passages. According to the above, the “unclear” passages are unclear because they are ambiguous, meaning they could have more than one meaning. The clear passages are supposed to tell us which one of these many meanings to select for.

Allah states that in the Qur’an, there are Ayat that are Muhkamat, entirely clear and plain, and these are the foundations of the Book which are plain for everyone. And there are Ayat in the Qur’an that are Mutashabihat not entirely clear for many, or some people. So those who refer to the Muhkam Ayat to understand the Mutashabih Ayat, will have acquired the correct guidance, and vice versa. This is why Allah said,

(They are the foundations of the Book), meaning they are the basis of the Qur’an, and should be referred to for clarification, when warranted.

(And others not entirely clear) as they have several meanings, some that agree with the Muhkam and some that carry other literal indications, although these meaning [sic] might not be desired.7 (Emphasis mine)

While it is obvious how these “unclear” passages could be understood to communicate personal plurality as in the case of the Christian belief in the Trinity, and Ibn Ishaq’s account admits that the (alleged) ambiguity of such verses makes it possible to “have an argument and a plausible reason for their doctrine”, what is the other interpretation of these passages that make it possible to explain them in a way that does not point to Allah being a plurality of persons or, worse yet for the Muslim perspective, a plurality of gods? If the clear passages tell us to select for the interpretation that agrees with Tawhid, what is that interpretation? On what interpretation or theory do the otherwise “unclear” passages teach that Allah is one in every sense? Muhammad’s purported reply does not answer this at all.

The above artifice was recognized for what it was long before Muhammad decided to employ this ruse. According to the following Jewish midrash dating from around the third century after Christ, and much evidence exists showing Muhammad had some familiarity with rabbinic teachings,8 this is the way some unbelieving Jews after the coming of Christ sough to deal with the passages in the Bible where God uses first person plurals (e.g. Genesis 1:26, 3:22, 11:7, etc.).

Rabbi Simlai said: “Wherever you find a point supporting the heretics [e.g., Trinitarians], you find the refutation at its side.” They asked him again: “What is meant by, AND GOD SAID: LET US MAKE MAN?” [Genesis 1:26] “Read what follows,” replied he: “Not, ‘and gods created man’ is written here, but ‘And God created (Gen. 1:27).’” When they [the heretics] went out his disciples said to him: “Them you have dismissed with a mere makeshift, but how will you answer us?9 (Emphasis mine)

In the above account, the attempt is made to dismiss what is taught in one verse with what is supposedly taught in the next. This does nothing to explain how both passages teach the same thing and that God’s revealed truth is internally consistent. As the disciples of this Rabbi realized, deflecting attention away from a “problem” passage does not address the problem. And in the case of the Qur’an, there are an incredible number of such problem passages.

The above illustrates that Muhammad did not have an explanation for these passages even though he thought he was offering one, and this in turn points up the fact that Muhammad was not one of “those with knowledge”. Moreover, since this non-answer purportedly came down from Allah, it suggests that Allah was just as ill-informed and ill-equipped to answer this question as Muhammad was.


In conclusion, to say that only Allah (and possibly those with knowledge) can be said to know what these expressions mean is either a cop-out at best or a makeshift impugning Allah’s knowledge at worst. This is an implicit acknowledgment that the passages do not teach what others have asserted; Muslims do not know what these passages mean (and Muhammad didn’t either); and Allah does not know best.

Continue with Part V.


1 The very existence of so many divergent answers suggests that the Qur’an does not clearly establish the meaning of first person plurals when uttered by Allah.

2 Abdur Raheem As-Saranbi, Tafsir Surah Ale-Imran, part I (Ayahs 1-100), p. 24-25

3 For more on this, refer to the following article: Muhammad’s Attempt of Damage Control.

4 Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qur’an and Its Interpreters: The House of Imran, Vol. II (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1992), p. 39-40. A partial view of this book is available online, see here.

5 A Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 271-274

6 In addition it may be noted that the Christians of Najran, who also spoke Arabic, don’t appear to know anything about the plural of majesty so readily suggested by later Muslims as somehow a feature of Arabic grammar.

7 Ibn Kathir, Tafsir on Surah 3:7. Online source.

9 Genesis Rabbah, VIII. 8

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