Monday, February 8, 2010

A Question About Allah

I know the question has been asked before, but I’m here to ask it again. I’d like to know why Allah refers to himself in the plural number. Why does Allah use the plural pronouns “We”, “Us”, and “Our” in the Qur’an?

To forestall any complaints from Muslims that this has already been answered before, let it be stated that I am well aware that such attempts have been made. My question stems from the fact that no conclusive or even satisfactory answer has ever been given or agreed upon by Muslims.

So, to return to the question, “Why, pray tell, does Muhammad put such words in Allah’s mouth?” Since neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith ever directly address the issue or explain the phenomenon any answer would have to be inferred from Qur’anic usage. What, then, is the explanation, and what are the relevant premises or facts that demonstrate it to be correct?

I take the explanation that its meaning is only known to Allah to be a non-answer, a convenient out for an issue on which the Qur’an gives no guidance. For those Muslims who think Allah's use of plural pronouns means something, and who further think the meaning of these words can be known from the “revelation” of the Qur’an, a word that means nothing in this regard if what is said in the Qur’an on this issue is only intelligible to Allah, then please speak up.

Nota Bene: If you are a Muslim, I am not asking what you think my view is. I’m looking for a positive answer to the question and not a “refutation” of what anyone thinks my view may be.

If you are a non-Muslim, feel free to share any answer from Muslim sources of which you are aware.


Hogan Elijah Hagbard said...

I guess it is ok if I start off here.

So far I have heard of two theories; firstly: that 'We' is an ancient word representing majesty or someone greatly respected. Yet I have never found any Muslim providing the evidence for this claim.

Secondly: a number of Sunni-Islamic websites state that 'We' stands for God including his agents, such the angels. Yet as I understand it 'We' in the Qur'an created the heavens and the earth. I wonder if this is yet another example of Qur'anic authorship including Gnostic and Platonic ideas.

I have recently suspected that the 'title' might derive from the Gospel of John, and the Qur'an seems highly depended upon John indeed (not Mark's Gospel unfortunately for Shabir Ally and all the rest of you Islamic apologists).

It's in John's Gospel that Jesus continually represents himself and the Father as together, mutually witnessing and operating (John 8: 14-18) (John 14: 23).

In John 3: 11, Jesus says:

'I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we know and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony'.

Some scholars have suggested that this could be John himself speaking about the apostolic witness of Jesus, but this not no clear from the text.

In John's Gospel Jesus utilizes the word either to describe his oneness with the Father, or himself being an agent from the Father or mutually operating with the Father. I have my own opinion about this.

However, considering the fact that the author of the Qur'an utilized trinitarian titles such as 'Jesus being the Word of Allah' and 'a Spirit Proceeding from Allah', which were universally recognised terms among the Christian population in Muhammad's time, it would not surprise me that the Qur'anic author obtained additional Johannine terms.

I am not saying that what I am writing here offers the answer to the 'We' problem in the Qur'an, but it is nevertheless a theory worth looking further into.

GreekAsianPanda said...

Whenever I see Allah's plural pronouns in the Quran, I think of Genesis 1:26, where YHWH uses plural pronouns ("Let Us make man in Our image..."). Maybe that's where Muhammad got the idea? Not sure. I think Hogan's theory about Muhammad's use of Johannine terms sounds more likely, though.

Hogan Elijah Hagbard said...

The theory is possible Greekpanda, but it still needs more investigation.

brgulker said...

This isn't really any more a problem for Islam than it is for Christianity.

The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses very similar language throughout.

One helpful resource for this study is John Walton’s Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (Baker Academic, 2006). The Ancient Hebrews believed in some type of "divine council" or "divine assembly." Hence, the plural language (elohim, for example, as well as "Us, We, Our" when YHWH is speaking).

Here's a great quote from that above source:

As we have seen, the gods in the ancient Near East operated in a pantheon and decisions were made in the divine assembly. In addition, the principal deities typically had consorts. The lifestyle and operations system for deity, then, was a community experience. The destinies of the gods were decreed in assembly as were the destinies of kings, cities, temples, and people. The Business of the gods was carried out in the presence of other gods.

Obviously, Jewish monotheism does emerge, but it emerges from this plurality which is clearly evidenced in both Christian, Hebrew, and Islamic Scripture.

Michael Landis said...

How is it a problem for Christianity? Christians believe in a Trinitarian God so 'we' shouldn't be a problem.

And you do correctly understand what many other ancient near east religions. However, it's only a rollover to the Hebrew religion as long as you presuppose that there's nothing special to the Judaic/Christian story.

Anthony Rogers said...


If we adopt assumptions that are quite antithetical to OT theology, such as that OT religion develops out of an original polytheism, rather than seeing polytheism and unitarianism as post-lapsarian corruptions of the truth that God is a uni-plural being, then a problem may be said to exist for Christians.

If, on the other hand, the OT is read on its own terms, then there is no problem with the use of both singular and plural terms for God, at least as far as Christians are concerned.

Also, I don't think that Walton holds your "emergence" view. He may believe there is some analogy or similarity between the Biblical account and ANE myths, but he strenuously argues against the notion that this is evidence that the former grew out of the latter. He explicity rejects the notion of literary dependence of the Biblical accounts, and argues that there are not only points of continuity but a great many more points of discontinuity between the two.

I don't have the book you quote from, but judging from his other material, and assuming his position has not changed on this, I would venture to guess that what he is arguing in context is that in Genesis the notion of a divine council includes God and the angels rather than God and other gods. He would likely hold that ANE mythology is a corruption of this. Here is an example from Walton:

It has been common in some scholarly circles to view Genesis as containing adapted versions of Babylonian mythology....

According to this theory, Israelites borrowed the basic mythological concepts from the Babylonian material but over the centuries adapted them to their distinctive monotheistic outlook....

How then should we approach comparative studies? Though much is at stake, we cannot afford to ignore the similarities between biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature and hope they will go away. Rather, the ancient Near Eastern material needs to be used to help us gain an appropriate perspective on the Israelite literature preserved for us in the pages of Scripture. The Bible affirms the Mesopotamian roots of the Israelites, and the fact that God chose to use human authors to write the Bible should lead us to expect that there will be some similarities to other literature of the same period. However, we cannot stop there. Comparative studies demand that we examine both the similarities and the differences.

When we undertake this type of analysis with the primeval history, we find that differences outnumber similarities and that the similarities can be explained more easily in other ways than by resorting to theories of literary borrowing....
(Andrew Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament, 2000, p. 65-66)

Elsewhere Walton also rejects the notion of "tradition dependence" of the Bible on ANE literature rather than the other way around. (e.g., See Ancient Israelite Literature in its Historical Context: A Survey of Parallels, p. 34ff.)

For all that, I still would disagree with Walton's interpretation of the "Us" and "Our" language even if he does interpret it as a reference to God and a council of angels, but that is all neither here nor there. In this post I am interested in what Muslims, who also reject the assumption of an original polytheism out of which OT religion develops, have to say about this phenomenon in the Qur'an.

In any event, thanks for contributing.

Anthony Rogers said...

In fact, my suspicions that you may be misunderstanding or misusing Walton are all the more accentuated by the following statement from another book by Walton:

"Since Israel's faith was monotheistic, Israel's God was understood to be the ultimate force in the universe. There were no other gods to compete with....When he said that they should have no other gods before him, he indicated, perhaps among other things, that there were no other gods in his presence serving as a divine assembly (a view that was common in the ancient Near East)." (Walton and Hill, Old Testament Today: A Journey from Original Meaning to Contemporary Significance, p. 33)

brgulker said...

If, on the other hand, the OT is read on its own terms, then there is no problem with the use of both singular and plural terms for God, at least as far as Christians are concerned.

Yes, I think there is a problem, especially if you read the OT on its own terms, and especially in light of critical readings of it.

The ancient Hebrews were not monotheists in the sense that contemporary Christians are now. Especially early in their history, the ancient Hebrews acknowledged -- and even worshiped!! -- many other gods. YHWH was thought to be chief among those gods, and eventually thought to be the one, true God. But that's my point -- that monotheism developed over time; it didn't just fall out of the sky with the Ten Commandments.

I'm not saying anything novel here; this is pretty well-accepted OT scholarship I think.

Also, I don't think that Walton holds your "emergence" view.

I didn't mean to imply that he did, but reading my comment back I see how it seems that way. Let me make an attempt at clarity, and let's disconnect Walton from what I'm arguing (because I think his work is taking you and I off track).

I think it's very clear from what we know about the ANE and how the Hebrews/Israelites interacted with that larger culture (and potentially how the OT redactors interacted with those extra-biblical texts) that monotheism developed over time, and that we have the remnants of that development in the Hebrew text.

"You shall have no other gods before me..." is in my view one of those remnants. It is not a direct denial that other gods exist in its original context, or at least that's the case I would make.

I don't think it's exactly clear what specific point in history monotheism won, but to me, it's overwhelmingly clear -- from history, the biblical text, and the practices of the Hebrews that the biblical text reports -- that monotheism competed with other views of YHWH and other gods and eventually won.

Now, that is why I don't see the passages you cited as any more a problem for a contemporary, monotheistic Muslim than certain OT texts are for contemporary, monotheistic Christians.

Both of our histories include references to some form of polytheism, because the Hebrews were at some point in history polytheists themselves in the sense that they acknowledge the existence of and worshiped idols that represented other gods. Even if that was not the "official" theology, that is what happened in practice.

As to your second comment, I simply don't agree with Walton's conclusion. Even if the text eventually rejects any notion of polytheism (and I would argue that redaction was probably at play here), the ancient Hebrews clearly worshiped other gods at various points in history -- that practice was eventually condemned in favor of monotheism.

Even if we disagree about the final form of the text, the plural nouns and verbage with respect to elohim, and ultimately whether or not certain OT passages are problematic for Christian monotheism -- I think we are forced to agree about the idolatrous and polytheistic practices of the ancient Hebrews as they are recorded on the OT, right?

If we do agree on that point and that point only, doesn't that have at least some bearing on the question at hand?

ned said...

Please visit the clip to see what allah does to those who beleive him.

Anthony Rogers said...



What you are saying may not be novel relative to certain strains of OT scholarship, but the position of the scholars who take the position you are arguing for is novel in relation to church history and isn't representative of what all scholars say today. That means that you actually have to argue for the position you take if you want it to play a constructive role in how other people read the Old Testament. Of course, even if all scholars agreed, that still wouldn't make it true. Whether it is true or not rests upon the strength of the case that can be made for it, a case that you have not given.

When it comes to my approach, what I have referred to as reading the Old Testament on its own terms, it is actually basically the same as Walton's on this score: OT revelation, which isn't synonymous with what every Hebrew has believed in history, is not a product of human speculation, as if monotheism, among other things, ought to be thought of as emerging or developing out of a primitive polytheism. The OT calls people away from polytheism, but that doesn't mean that what they are called to or eventually come to adopt developed out of what they previously believed.

For example, there is no question that the generation of Israelites to whom Moses was sent was given over to idolatry. But the religious beliefs of that generation were not "original", i.e. they were not what the patriarchs before them came to believe by divine revelation. Furthermore, when the heavens were opened and the truth of God "fell from the sky", as you say, and God came to Moses, calling and commissioning him to deliver the people out of Egypt so that the people might worship and serve Yahweh alone, what Moses said did not "develop" out of the polytheistic beliefs into which the nation had fallen. It was a matter of divine revelation.

In other words, your remarks simply beg the question. Of course I haven't presented evidence that the OT should be read on its own terms any more than you have presented evidence for reading it in light of critical assumptions (Indeed, even the one scholar you did originally appeal to you have now decided to drop as unhelpful to the discussion.) But that is because my post isn't about this topic.

Orthodox Christians and Muslims simply do not share your evolutionaty or "history of religions" approach. Both believe in divine revelation. Although the former do speak of God's revelation progressively unfolding, the progression is viewed organicaly, such that what becomes clearer later, which is not the same as to say that it wasn't clear before, is thought of as growing out of the latter in a way that is consistent with it rather than being a radical departure from it. It is in this context that Muslims have to provide an answer. No appeal to the (allegedly) evolving teaching of the OT is available to Muslims in order to explain the phonomenon in question - i.e. the self-referential use of plural pronouns by Allah - in the Qur'an.

Anthony Rogers said...


Putting Islam aside for the moment and getting back to our discussion, when the OT is read in a way that is consistent with what it presents itself to be - i.e. a revelation from God - the singular and plural expressions found in the Old Testament are not problematic for Christians. You can continue to say they are problematic, but your assertions will have minimal impact. Christians believe that God is Triune. We believe that God is neither a group of many gods nor a solitary monad. Although there is no other god besides Him, He is not a barren or colorless monad devoid of attributes and interpersonal distinctions.

In fact, if I were to argue for why one ought to take the general approach I am advocating in this discussion over against the approach you hold to, it would begin right here, with a discussion of the fact that God is both one and many (in the different senses set forth above). I would maintain that any attempt to begin one's reasoning from some other starting point, or from a set of assumptions that are not true to or consistent with the Triune God and what He has revealed, destorys the very possibility of knowing anything at all, not just whether or not one ought to take a revelational as opposed to a evolutionary approach to OT religion. Although I would relish such a conversation - indeed, I engage in such discussions al the time in other forums, both on the net and out in various public settings - this isn't the place for it.

Neverhteless, you are free to hold your view. Unlike Muslims I believe there is no compulsion in religion.

skipper said...

Allow me my 2 cents.

Here's a theory: much of the OT writings, and especially the Genesis chapter, were lifted from Babylonian mythology, which in turn were adaptations of Sumerian versions of the Beginning (Enuma Elish). Historians place Sumeria's existence as far back as 4000 BCE, which would be considered ancient even in biblical times. So the statement that the ANE texts could have been copied from the OT may not have credence to it.

In Sumerian religious texts, a few gods are mentioned, some benign, others not so nice. When the Hebrew writers of the OT consolidated these stories, they rolled the various gods into one single god, to suit their ideal of monotheism. El Shaddai was essentially a tribal god and the principle god worshipped by the Hebrews, and that's how he attained a level of supremacy over the other deities of his time (in the eyes of the Hebrews).

This could be the reason the OT god addresses himself in the plural, seems to talk to himself (it is really 2 people having a conversation) and why his actions seem a bit schizophrenic, ie, sometimes benign and sometimes malignant.

Jeff said...

I'm not sure how you would demonstrate that the so-called "Majestic Plural" exists in Arabic. I think you would have to find examples of it before its use in the Quran. But the Quran is almost the earliest Arabic we have.

Or you might look for examples of it in other Semitic languages.

I don't know if the fact that everyone says there is a Majestic Plural in Arabic means that it's so commonly known that people scarcely think it needs demonstrating or that it is an urban myth, as it were.

But the majestic plural is a well known phenomenon in world languages generally. So it seems a plausible explanation.

It appears that Arabic speaking monarchs use the majestic plural today. Here is an example of the Sultan of Oman using it:

"On the Issue of the Basic Law of the State
We11, Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman, In confirmation of the principles which have guided State policy in various fields during the past period, and in asserting our determination to continue efforts to create a better future characterised by further achievements which will bring benefits to the Country and its Citizens."

Jeff said...

It may just be as simple as asking a fluent native Arabic speaker, Hogan. Here is something I found on the question, though it's not written over a scholarly name:

"Does the "majestic plural" occur in other instances (in cases not referring to God) in the Hebrew language (or even in other languages)?
In Arabic, yes; except you can't really call it 'majestic', because it's not only used for those of higher level. The plural is used to refer to the singular (whether one is referring to oneself or others or both) when you want to be formal, impersonal and distant; when you use the singular you are more informal, personal and close. This is not a rule because you can still be formal using the singular.

Examples of use:

* the plural is very common in business communications and almost a must in business correspondence in Arabic, regardless of who is speaking to whom.

* when you want to distant yourself from those you are speaking to, regardless social standing. You can both be of the same social level but you don't like that person or you want him/her to know/feel that they are "they" not "us".

* the plural is common in some cases in dialogue between male and female where if it were singular it would give a different impression such as a male saying "I missed you" to a female colleague - using the plural would make it sound impersonal , using the singular would make her say something like (since when were we 'romantic'?!!!)."

I think if the forum answer about ordinary Arabic usage is true, then we have a very plausible answer--there is nothing strange about Allah or anyone else in fact saying "we" instead of "I". It's just and idiom of the language.

Hogan Elijah Hagbard said...

Hi Jeff

I have heard about that, but I wonder if the usage was common prior to Islam. Also a number of Sunni scholars (I need to look for the sources) state that 'We' does describe plurality and includes agents.

As I said I am not an expert on this, I am not gona make any presumptions only light theories. Hopefully some Muslims could be so kind to educate us.

Anthony Rogers said...


Your remarks are just a variation of what brgulker said above. I'll let my response to him do double-duty and serve as a reply to you as well.

To repeat something again, this blog post isn’t about the OT per se. If you and brgulker are interested in what the OT is talking about, see my article: Let Us Make Man

Anthony Rogers said...

As for the suggestion that Allah's words are to be construed as instances of the so-called plural of majesty, although I think a better case can be made for it than the overly anachronistic one offered by Jeff above, it still faces insuperable difficulties. On this, see my article: The Plural of Majesty (

Muslims have given many answers to this question. The plural of majesty explanation is only one of many. Simply asserting the existence of such an idiom would not prove it to be the correct view over against that of others who say it is a reference to Allah and the angels or Allah and Gabriel or Allah and Muhammad or the view of those who say it is proof that Allah is above personhood. Other answers have been given. Hopefully some Muslims will speak up; otherwise they are leaving the job of playing Muslim apologist to Jeff and I think a better job can be done.

I would like for people to point me to what they consider to be the best defenses from a Muslim perspective for the above views and if anyone knows of an answer I have not yet considered or run across. Lord willing, I will include and respond in detail to all answers in a future article on Answering Islam.

minoria said...

Part 1:

Hello:here I will copy-paste myself.Most Christians don't know much about HOW early Christian leaders give evidence of what the beleifs of the FIRST disciples were.Here is about IGNATIUS,POLYCARP,IRENEUS and CLEMENT.POLYCARP was a disciple of JOHN(who knew JESUS),according to IRENEUS,his disciple.


Historians do it.What do we know?
1.IRENEUS and IGNATIUS of ANTIONCH in their OWN writings say:
a.Jesus was GOD.
b.He died-physically resurrected.

2.IGNATIUS and POLYCARP were MARTYRED:their death showed their sincerity.Historians don't doubt their martyrdom.

3.IGNATIUS wrote to POLYCARP PRAISING him.IF POLYCARP had NOT believed in Jesus as God/death-physical resurrection then Ignatius would have CONDEMNED him.

4.IRENEUS wrote a book AGAINST FALSE TEACHERS("Against Heresies").IF his teacher POLYCARP had NOT believed in Jesus as God/death-physical reurrection then HE would have CONDEMNED Polycarp in his book.

5.CLEMENT was the 3rd bishop of Rome.He wrote a letter "Letter to the Corinthians",where he calls PETER and PAUL PILLARS of the faith,and says the first disciples preached the RESURRECTION"(NOT to be confused with PAUL's 2 letters to the Corinthians).IRENEUS in his book mentions CLEMENT as suceeding the church in ROME BUILT by PAUL and PETER.IF Clement had NOT believed in Jesus as God/physical resurrection,then HE would have CONDEMNED Clement in his book "Against Heresies".

6.Finally POLYCARP in his only letter "Letter to the PHILIPPIANS" greatly PRAISES PAUL.Now PAUL himself wrote his own LETTER TO THE PHILIPPIANS(considered authentic by all scholars).The church of the Philippians was one of PAUL's churches.It has the CARMEN CHRISTI creed(where Jesus is called GOD/and said to have died on the CROSS).

minoria said...

Part 2:
Part 2:


"Letter to the PHILIPPIANS(by POLYCARP),chapter 13:"

"Both you and IGNATIUS wrote to me, that if any one went [from this] into Syria, he should carry your letter with him; which request I will attend to if I find a fitting opportunity, either personally, or through some other acting for me, that your desire may be fulfilled. The EPISTLES of IGANTIUS written by him to us, and all the rest [of his Epistles] which we have by us, we have sent to you, as you requested. They are subjoined to this Epistle, and by them you may be greatly profited; for they treat of FAITH and PATIENCE, and ALL THINGS that tend to EDIFICATION in our LORD. Any more certain information you may have obtained respecting both Ignatius himself, and those that were with him, have the goodness to make known to us."


The PHILIPPIAN church UNDENIABLY believed in Jesus as GOD/physical resurrection.It was PAUL's own church.IF POLYCARP had NOT also believed in Jesus as God/physical resurrection then:

1.POLYCARP would NOT have PRAISED Paul in his letter.
2.Would NOT have PRAISED IGNATIUS(who believed in Jesus as God/resurrection).
3.POLYCARP HIMSELF would have been CONDEMNED by IGNATIUS and IRENEUS in their writings.

All these connections shows they all 3 believed the same thing.And Polycarp was a disciple of JOHN,who would have TOLD Polycarp that Jesus was God/had physically resurrected.

Anthony Rogers said...

I wrote this post a long time ago, and the original reason was to get some potential feedback for a series of articles I was planning on writing on Allah's use of plural pronouns in the Qur'an. When I wrote the post, I planned to return here and link to those articles when they were finished. It has been a while now and it occurred to me that I neglected to provide the links. So here they are:

Allah's Use of Plural Pronouns - Part I

At the end of this article there is a link to part two. Ditto for article three, etc.