After reading a recent blog discussion about poor translations of Arabic texts, including the Qurʾān, I though it would be worth reconsidering our insistence on using the royal “we”. There are many verses in the Qurʾān where Allāh speaks using the Arabic pronoun “nahnu” (meaning we) or its associated suffix….”we” created, “we” sent down, etc. In Arabic, this is perfectly acceptable, because “nahnu” does not necessarily imply plurality. It can also indicate the speaker's lofty status, and thus, when the Most High uses it, the meaning is evident.
In English, there is technically a linguistic structure known as the “royal 'we',” but it is archaic. In practice, the term “we” is exclusively plural. Translating the Arabic “nahnu” to “we” (when Allāh is referring to himself) is therefore highly problematic, not simply because the awkward use of English alienates and confuses the listener, but more importantly, because it obscures the core message of Islam–tawheed. The most significant aspect of Islam, before any acts of worship, or standards of morality, or rulings of permissibility/prohibition, is the belief that none has the right to be worshiped except the creator of the heavens and the earth, Allāh. And Allāh is one, without partners, offspring, or any other associates. And yet, when communicating some very basic verses expressing the Oneness and uniqueness of Allāh, Muslims stubbornly insist on the literal translation, “we.”
For someone trying to learn about Islam, this is baffling. What on earth do they mean by “we”? How is that consistent with what they just told me about the pure monotheism of Islam? Some outlandish critics even go so far as to say that “we” refers to the trinity, and Muslims have just failed to pick up on that for the past 1400+ years. Some contend that “we” refers the Asiatic Black Man (or men), in accordance with the beliefs of some pseudo-Islamic groups in America.
The question arises: if we translate the relevant verses with the first person singular, “I”, do we thereby corrupt the Qurʾān? Are we changing the meaning of the verses and tampering with revelation? Well, let's consider the basic principle for translating the Qurʾān: that translation, in a strict sense, is impossible. The Qurʾān as revelation, as the speech of Allāh, is Arabic. Once translated, it loses that quality. That is why you often see English Qurans described as “translation of the meaning of the Qurʾān” rather than just “translation of the the Qurʾān.” In practice, however, we often find a “poor translation of the meaning of the Qurʾān.” The use of the royal “we” is a perfect example. It is really puzzling how some vigorously declare that the English translation can never fully capture the meaning of the Arabic Qurʾān, and yet they still insist on awkward, literal translations, sometimes going so far as to Arabize English grammar (as if that will yield a perfect translation). In such cases, not only is the Qurʾān stripped of eloquence, but the reader/listener is not even able to discern the basic meanings.
In other words, this is like saying “It is impossible to translate the Qurʾān perfectly, and we can only translate its meaning. Nevertheless, I'm going to attempt to translate it perfectly, thereby obscuring its meaning, and its beauty.”
Once we recognize that the translation will never live up to the original, we must make every effort to convey the meaning in as clear and eloquent a manner as possible. With this in mind, using the royal “we” in English in ineffective. When conveying the message of the Qurʾān to others, especially in a casual setting, we should consider substituting “I” for “we”.