In many instances throughout the Qur’an, we find that Allah speaks in different modes. In some places, we find that Allah uses plural pronouns such as “WE” and “OUR”. In other places, Allah uses the singular pronouns “I”, “MY/MYSELF” and “ME”, and then in other places, Allah refers to Himself in the third person by using His personal name ALLAH, and third person pronouns such as “HE”, and “HIM”. This style of literacy leads some to cast doubts about the integrity and authorship of the Qur’an. So if the Qur’an is truly from God, why does He use this style of literacy?
Before we get into this, we have to take into consideration the fact that no ‘Arab has ever had a problem with the style of literacy found within the Qur’an. They not only understood that Allah was One, but they have understood that the Qur’an was the direct speech of Allah, even when He was referring to Himself with plural pronouns, or speaking in the third person about Himself. Even the enemies of the Qur’an, the pagan ‘Arabs, never raised any objection to the Qur’an’s style of literacy. In fact, though they denied the Qur’an to be the revelation of Allah, they did not deny its eloquence and grammatical magnificence.
Many languages use exceptions in grammar in unique circumstances. Why should ‘Arabic be any different? We can only put this, problem for some, down to the dictates of grammar. Even in the English language we use plurals in place of the singular. Take for example the fact YOU ARE reading this right now. Notice I have used “ARE” instead of the singular IS? This is an exception within the rules of English grammar. It would be wrong for somebody, not knowing the English style of literacy, to insinuate that the grammar being used, in the English language, is fallacious. Likewise, careful consideration should be undertaken when studying the Qur’an and understanding the different modes of speech contained therein.
In ‘Arabic, the plural is preferred to singular, when the speaker wants to demonstrate the magnificence of the act being done or the subject itself. So when Allah refers to Himself in the plural “We” or “Our”, this style of literacy denotes His majesty, greatness, and glorification. This is known in grammar as the “plural of majesty”. We see the same style of literacy also used throughout the Bible. One such example is the verse “Then God said, “Let us make man in OUR image”. Trinitarian Christians argue that this is a proof of the Trinity, however, the Hebrew speaking Jews always understood that this style of literacy does not at all suggest there is a triune god-head, but rather that the pronoun used is a plural of majesty, and the same view is held by Muslims when understanding such passages found within the Qur’an.
We will also notice that, depending on the context, Allah’s mode of speech will appear differently. For example, as discussed, Allah uses the plural “We” it is to denote His greatness, rank, and even an action, or something of magnificence.
“WE have given thee (O Muhammad) a great victory” The Qur’an, chapter 48, Surat al-Fath, passage 1
“WE did not send you (O Muhammad) except as a mercy to the world.” The Qur’an, chapter 21, Surat al-Anbiyaa, passage 107
“Only those believe in Our Signs, who, when they are recited to them, fall down in prostration, and celebrate the praises of their Lord, nor are they (ever) puffed up with pride.” The Qur’an, chapter 32, Surat as-Sajdah, passage 15
We will also notice that Allah uses the singular I, My, Me, and Myself when speaking of care, closeness and forgiveness for His servants, and at times, the call to His worship:
‘And when MY slaves ask you (O Muhammad) concerning ME, then (answer them) I am indeed near. I respond to the invocations of the supplicant when he calls on ME…’ The Qur’an, chapter 2, Surat al-Baqarah, passage 186
“Without doubt, I am (also) He that forgives again and again, to those who repent, believe, and do right, who, in fine, are ready to receive true guidance.” The Qur’an, chapter 20, Surah Ta ha, passage 82
“Surely, I am ALLAH, there is no god but I, so serve ME and keep up prayer for ME remembrance” The Qur’an, chapter 20, Surah Ta ha, passage 14
We will also notice that Allah refers to Himself by using His proper name, or a third person pronoun:
“Allah – there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires Him not. And He is the Most-High, the Most Great.” The Qur’an, chapter 2, Surat al-Baqarah, passage 255
As seen, there are different reasons why Allah uses different modes of speech. But, perhaps one of the main reasons why Allah especially speaks in the third person throughout many passages of the Qur’an is due to the nature of the revelation. Allah revealed His speech to Prophet Muhammad, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wasallam, though the medium of Angel Jibaareel [‘Arabic for Gabriel]. At times, Allah is directly addressing the Prophet, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wasallam.
“Read in the name of your Lord”
“O Prophet! Truly We have sent thee as a Witness, a Bearer of Glad Tidings, and Warner,- The Qur’an, chapter 33, Surat al-Ahzaab, passage 45
Other times, Allah is commanding the Prophet, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wasallam, to address the people with a direct advice. In such passages, it begins with “Say!”
“Say, He is Allah the One, Allah the self-subsisting…” The Qur’an, chapter 112, Surat al-Ikhlaas
At other times Allah is directly addressing mankind:
“O Mankind! Worship your Lord who created you and those before you, so that you may become of those who practice God-consciousness” The Qur’an, chapter 2, Surat al-Baqarah, passage 21
From the aforementioned passages from the Qur’an, we can easily deduce why Allah speaks in different modes. It is especially important to note that the Qur’an is not a book that runs in a chronological order. Many people have difficulty with the Qur’an for this very reason. It is because they expect a book to run from beginning to end chronologically. However, the Qur’an was revealed piecemeal over a period of twenty-five years, and the Prophet, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wasallam, would order his scribes to arrange the Qur’an is a specific order by placing such and such passages in such and such chapter, and the chapters in an order that does not coincide with any timeline.
Therefore, we have early revelations appearing, not only in the beginning, but also the middle and the very end. With understanding this unique feature of the Qur’an, it is also important to be able to distinguish between the interchanging passages that personally address the Prophet, sal Allahu ‘alayhi wasallam, those which are commanding him to say, and Allah’s direct address to mankind. Once this is understood, one can enjoy the delights of the Qur’an without becoming confused and falling into doubts regarding the authorship and integrity of the Qur’an.