On the pronoun “we” in the Quran
It was not in my plans to explore matters that are extremely theological in this Sermon today. In fact I had thought of continuing our reflections on the realities of life some portents of which I discussed last week on this page. I received a call from a senior colleague and Professor from that state in the eastern parts of this country. He called to inform me that he took interest in the Ayat that reads: “The likeness of the life of the present is as the rain which We send down from the skies… (Quran 10:24). “Now if it is true that Muhammad refers to the Almighty with the pronoun “We” in the Quran”, my esteemed senior colleague queried, “does that not mean the Quran confirms Trinity in line with the Christian theological posture in regard to same?”
Let me state ab initio that I stand where the Almighty has instructed all Muslims to stand in regard to faiths other than Islam. Thus I recognize the multiplexity of faiths, like the colours in a rainbow, in our world. I affirm that it is in line with His will that humanity do not belong and has never been adherents of one single faith. I avouch that all faiths, particularly the Abrahmic, are all paths which are meant to lead back to the Almighty.
I also approbate, the same way I did while in conversation with that senior colleague of ours, that the touchstone of the religious in the scholar is his preparedness to recognize that which he is not prepared to believe; the hallmark of our faith as men and women of faith would sometimes be benchmarked against our preparedness to see the faithless and concede to him or her his or her faithlessness.
There should be no compulsion in religion, so says the Quran (Quran2: 257).
Thus, I began by requesting this senior colleague: that he should be willing to concede to me my hermeneutical approach to and interpretation of the Quran as a practicing Muslim and as a Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies as necessarily superior or prepositus to his the same way I am always prepared to concede to my colleagues the superiority of their hermeneutical postures in relation to the Bible in comparison to mine. I remember I once told an audience at a public lecture that for me, the real, or in line with Samir Amin, the “generic” scholar is he who understands what he cannot believe.
I proceeded to inform our colleague who happens to be well-learned Professor in Christian theology that the employment of the pronoun “We” by the Quran, not Prophet Muhammad since the latter did not and could not have brought the Quran into being out of nothing, is simply to underscore the transcendental and pansophical nature of the Almighty. I then recalled some styles and usages in our languages as Africans; that it is common knowledge that people in authority particularly kings sometimes refer to themselves in the plural and as ‘We” on occasions when the need to establish their authority becomes urgent and important.
Brethren, further excursus into the Quranic style in the employment of pronouns in reference to the Almighty shows that it is not only the plural “We” that is used. It is evident that the Almighty sometimes refer to Himself in the first person singular as “I” (Ana), sometimes in the first person plural “We” (Nahnu) and atimes in the second person singular as He (Huwa). While it is true that in ordinary usage the pronoun “We” could refer to one person speaking on behalf of a group, the Quranic usage however is to the contrary.
It is used by the Almighty as a signifier, the signified being His munificence and magnificence, not His essence. It is a style copied or emulated by some monarchs when they issue statements or decrees which are prefaced by the phrase: “We have decided…”. Experts in Socio-linguistics and discourse analyses would refer to this type of usage and style as “The Royal We”. It could not but be for glorification and deification. Anything contrary would run counter to fundamental principles of Islamic faith and creed; principles which abhor, anathemize, and abominate all references to His essence either in the dual or the plural.
“And your god is One God, there is none who has the right to be worshipped but He, the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful” (Quran 2: 163). Thus whenever the Quran refers to the Almighty using the pronoun “We”, it is to call our attention to the honour and exaltation that He deserves. Not to hold this to be true is to indulge in the fatuous and specious pursuit, in the Quran, of the validation of certain creedal or theological positions which would never enjoy patronage from the book no matter how wacky such interpretive or hermeneutic styles and approaches may be.
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Oladosu is Professor of Middle Eastern, North African and Cultural Studies Dean, Faculty of Arts, University of Ibadan, Ibadan, Nigeria.