Greetings, all. As I read through Muhammad Abdel Haleem’s English translation of the Qur’an recently, I highlighted everything that either didn’t make sense to me or that I found interesting in relation to Christianity and/or my own philosophical perspective. What I would like to do is share these thoughts in a series and invite reflections from people of any faith background (I don’t know if any Muslims read this blog, but I will tag the posts in such a way that Muslims may see them in the Reader). This series will hopefully be educational for me, and perhaps for you as well.
I will run this series dealing with a different issue in each ‘episode’. Today, we begin with Episode 1:
The First Person Plural of Majesty
In the Qur’an, God often speaks about Himself using the plural, ‘We’. This is known as the ‘first person plural of majesty’. It is an interesting phenomenon that God refers to Himself in the plural in Islam, because in Islam God is considered a unity, not a trinity like in Christianity.
Here’s an example of God referring to Himself in the plural in the Qur’an:
It was We who created you: will you not believe? Consider [the semen] you eject — do you create it yourselves or are We the creator? We ordained death to be among you. Nothing could stop Us if We intended to change you and recreate you in a way unknown to you.(Sura 56, v57-61)
It’s worth pointing out that God does not refer to Himself in the plural at all times in the Qur’an, but alternates between the first person plural and first person singular. So, for example, in the same sura I quoted above, a few verses later, God refers to Himself in the first person singular:
I swear by the positions of the stars — a mighty oath, if you only knew — that this is a truly noble Qur’an, in a protected Record, that only the purified can touch, sent down from the Lord of all being.(Sura 56: v75-77)
Interestingly, in the Bible, in the book of Genesis (Holy Scripture in both Christianity and Judaism), God is quoted as referring to Himself in the plural:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”(Genesis 1:26 ESV)
But then immediately after, in the very next verse, God is referred to in the singular:
So God created mankind in his own image,(Genesis 1:27 ESV)
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
One might wonder whether, in terms of literary consistency, the latter quotation should read, “So God created man in their own image”. But it seems to be the case that God is quite happy to alternate between singular and plural when referring to Himself in all the Abrahamic sacred Scriptures.
I considered whether it is the case that when referred to in the third person, God is always spoken about as a unity, and whether when speaking directly Himself (in the Bible and the Qur’an) He always uses the plural. But this is not the case, as in both the Bible and the Qur’an, God is quoted as speaking about Himself in both the singular and the plural. There are, it would seem to me, no hard and fast rules in relation to this; God does as He pleases in relation to which pronoun He considers fitting in a particular context.
I have heard Christians say that the use of the plural in the book of Genesis is evidence for the doctrine of the trinity. However, in light of the use of the plural in both Judaism and Islam where there is no trinity, it seems the plural is more likely to be a literary device than evidence that the being of God consists of multiple persons.
In conclusion, my personal experience is that the use of the plural does feel more majestic. God seems to use the first person plural as a literary device in all of the Scriptures of the major Abrahamic religions to convey majesty. But, philosophically, why is the first person plural more ‘majestic’ than the first person singular? Is it the case that greatness in number (in the plural) reflects greatness in being?
Hermeneutically, the reason why when God says ‘We’ as opposed to when I say ‘we’ this evokes a different feeling (or interpretation), is because God impresses upon our minds and bodies a different sensation when the word is used in different contexts. I make this point to draw reference to my own philosophy, in which we understand things because God creates impressions in our consciousness as we read and reflect (in contrast with the scientific view that understanding is a neurophysiological process carried out by our brains, with no direct involvement from God).
God clearly wants us to be mindful of His majestic nature, and this is perhaps the biggest takeaway from this article; whether we are Christian, Muslim, or Jew, we should find time to bow in awe at the supreme majesty of our Creator — and read His sacred Scriptures as a means by which to do so.
What are your thoughts in relation to the first person plural of majesty? You are welcome to leave a comment below. Please be polite and respectful. You are also welcome to subscribe to this blog if you would like to follow along with the series and receive an email notifying you of each new post. Whether it’s your first time here, or you’re a regular reader, you are most welcome and thank you for reading.
To see all posts in this series, click here.
2 responses to “Understanding the Qur’an (Episode 1: The First Person Plural of Majesty)”
Interesting observations, Steven! An idea to consider is whether God sometimes uses ‘we’ to indicate that he is not just a man. After all, if God were male, how could He create males and females in His image? We call God Father and often refer to Him like a male, but it’s important to remember that God is not male OR female but, rather, something greater than both yet somehow encompassing the broad traits of both–warrior and protector, provider and nurturer, etc. Not to imply that all men and all women are the same, just saying that He encompasses masculine and feminine traits.
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Very interesting points, Lily, thank you!