After reading a recent blog discussion about poor translations of Arabic texts, including the Qur'an, I though it would be worth reconsidering our insistence on using the royal “we”. There are many verses in the Qur'an where Allah 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 Allah 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, Allah. And Allah is one, without partners, offspring, or any other associates. And yet, when communicating some very basic verses expressing the Oneness and uniqueness of Allah, 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 Qur'an? Are we changing the meaning of the verses and tampering with revelation? Well, let's consider the basic principle for translating the Qur'an: that translation, in a strict sense, is impossible. The Qur'an as revelation, as the speech of Allah, is Arabic. Once translated, it loses that quality. That is why you often see English Qurans described as “translation of the meaning of the Qur'an” rather than just “translation of the the Qur'an.” In practice, however, we often find a “poor translation of the meaning of the Qur'an.” 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 Qur'an, 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 Qur'an 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 Qur'an 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 Qur'an to others, especially in a casual setting, we should consider substituting “I” for “we”.

28 Responses

  1. Navaid Aziz

    As salaam ‘alaikum Br. Musa,

    Jazaaka Allahu khairan for sharing your thoughts on this very insightful indeed. Ibn Taymmiyyah (RH) addresses this issue in his various books, and more specifically in minhaaj as-sunnah (if my memory serves me correctly), and that is the fact that when Allah utilizes the term “We” it usually is in a matter that Allah uses the angels as well. Such as revelation, certain aspects of creation, granting of rizq etc.. How ever when Allah talks about obedience and worship, Allah always refers to Himself in the singular as none of the creation have a share in this. Hope that adds some extra insight. Baaraka Allahu feekum.

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  2. Harun

    Assalamu ‘alaykum br. Navaid,

    The view of Ibn Taymiyah also makes sense, but what about those ayaat where Allah says “wa ith qulnaa lil mala’ikat is-judu li Adam” (and when WE said to the angels bow down to Adam). How could the angels be included here if they were being addressed?

    JazakAllah khayr

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  3. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    As salaamu ‘alaykum yaa Musa,

    I wouldn’t necessarily oppose someone trying to come up with a different translation but the “problems” you mentioned would not be “solved” this way, would they.

    If some new convert has a problem understanding why the Qur’an uses “We” don’t you think they would have just as big or a bigger problem if someone told them, “those Muslims tell you that the Qur’an says I when referring to Allaah but the actual Arabic word nahnu means we, so they are changing the meaning on you, just like they accuse us (Christians or Jews) of doing.” So then you’d have to explain the whole concept of “royal we” and Arabic usage anyways.

    Allaah knows best.

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    • Amanda

      Assalamu alaikum,

      very true. and as a new convert, this would be so hard on him/her that it could definitely challenge their faith in Islam

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  4. Navaid Aziz

    Br. Harun,

    Wa ‘alaikum as salaam wa rahamatullahi wa barakaatuhu,

    You have raised an excellent question, baaraka Allahu feek.

    Firstly, it should be noted that Ibn Taymiyyah (RH) didn’t deny the presence of the “royal we” but rather suggested that just because the plural pronoun is used one should not assume by default that it is the plural we.

    Secondly, in terms of the ayah you mentioned I believe the “royal we” is more appropriate based upon the fact that Allah is showing his true authority over a creation that is made of light and getting them to prostrate to (or in the direction of, in another opinion) Adam (AS) who is made out of clay. Thus the “royal we” seems to be the most appropriate. Wallahu ‘aalam.

    Also keeping in mind that Al-Baghawi (RH) does mention a difference of opinion in Ma’aalim at-tanzeel as to which angels were asked to prostrate to Adam, was it all of them or just a group of them? Based upon that premise it is possible to assume that Allah could have asked one group of angels to command the other group of angels to prostrate to Adam and since this is a matter of the ghaib the ultimate truth is with Allah alone.

    I hope that helped. Baaraka Allahu feekum.

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  5. Umm Reem

    My children always asked me this question whenever they would be reading the translation…i guess it was hard for them to understand.

    But I grew up hearing my parents use this word ‘we’ (in Urdu) all the time. The kind of Urdu my parents speak (classical or ‘fusha’ if u like:)), it is quite normal to refer to oneself as ‘we’.
    In fact, up to junior high, I used to call myself ‘we’ (in Urdu) until my desi friends started making fun of me that ‘how many are you’!
    (Multiple personality syndrome!!) :)

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    • shahgul

       In my time, the joke was that ‘hum’ or ‘we’ was used either because you had lice in the hair or fleas in your clothes. Its usage is limited to the UP area.

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  6. Imtiaz

    Quote:
    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.

    This is something I have run into when discussing Islam with many non-muslims. In doing so I brought up various analogies as well as the “Royal WE” .

    Jazzak Allah Khair, this is definitely needed.

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  7. AbdulHasib

    I actually like the da’wah opportunity.

    It’s something that I’ve seldom come across or that people have addressed, because there is a linguistic ‘license’ in most languages.

    Even if it doesn’t grammatically ‘exist’ in english, it is well known, at least in concept..

    It’s a rarety of contention.
    And personally I gained a lot through understanding arabic through a close-to-the-literal-meaning rather than the translations through meaning types.

    I think both are needed though

    As for “WE” to “I”..
    Allahu ‘Alam.

    Maybe Brother Nouman Ali can give us his insight bi idhnillah

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  8. theManOfFewWords

    I think that keeping the royal ‘we’ and other idiosyncratic translations is very valuable if they come with the proper explanation.

    The Quran is to be studied and reflected upon. The benefits of preserving some words are as follows:

    1. when a strange term is introduced it becomes an opportunity for the English speaking reader to dig deeper into the meaning of the Quran and discover something new.

    1.5 In the beginning of Surat al Baqara the translation of dhalika al kitab … is not “this is the book…” rather it is “that is the book.” Tell me, had dhalika been translated as “that” wouldn’t you be wondering why? Wouldn’t the inquiry have brought you to a better understanding of what exactly is going on in that ayah that ALLAH is refering to the Quran as that book rather than this book. What is going on indeed? Hmm?

    2. Learning about the nuance of the Arabic language becomes yet another motivation to learn the Arabic.

    3. It is indeed more accurate than replacing it with I. Furthermore, it is easily explained and more honest to preserve the ‘we.’

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  9. Musa Maguire

    I can certainly appreciate the importance of studying Arabic in depth, and using one’s native language is part of that process. But I personally sat staring at translations of the Quran for years wondering what “we” meant, thinking up all sorts of possible interpretations. And then even after hearing explanations of the “royal we”, it took some time to sink in before I could really appreciate that it is not plural. In the end, without a very clear explanation, it is a bad translation, and a bad translation should never be termed “accurate”.

    That said, I can understand preserving the “royal we” in print, as long as an effective explanation is also included. But if you are at a bus stop and explaining Islam to someone who has never met a Muslim, and may never meet one again, you certainly don’t want him to leave thinking that Muslims worship more than one God. That is what the common sense understanding of the English word “we” implies.

    The other issue is eloquence. No English translation can be as eloquent as the Quran, but we can at least try. You can’t present people with the most awkward, confusing English that they’ve ever seen and then convince them that it is a literary miracle. The fact is that standards of eloquence do not transfer from language to language. A perfect example is the use of repition in Arabic–using several different permutations of the same root. Even a non-Arabic speaker can appreciate the eloquence of such statements. In English, however, such repitition is about as awkward as you can get. Take, for example, this translation:

    Itha rujjati alardu rajjan

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with a shaking [severe],

    This is an attempt to preserve the Arabic repetition which results in very awkward English. Then consider:

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with a shock

    OR
    56:4 When the earth shall be shaken to its depths

    OR

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with convulsion

    All of these are more eloquent because they avoid repetition while trying to convey the amplification of meaning that is found in Arabic. There is no perfect translation in this regard, but clarity and eloquence are more likely to connect with the hearts of listeners/readers…which of course is what would lead them to a deeper study of Arabic and the Quran.

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  10. Nazia

    Hmm, I never had a problem with the royal “we’ because, like UmmReem, I am also Pakistani and so I was familiar with the concept from Urdu.

    However, I agree with Br. Musa on the awkward English translations, but I thought that translators were bound to literally translate the meaning of the Quran…even if that takes away from the beauty? Because there is this rigid adherence to translation, at least we can be sure that almost all English Qurans will say about the same thing. But if you open the door to allowing translators to attempt to convey the inherent beauty, even if it moves away from literal translation, it might lead to made up translations?

    I don’t know. That would be my major fear when considering something like this. But, being an English speaker with only a minimal skill in Arabic, I would LOVE if there was an English translation that remained true to the meaning while possessing a greater degree of fluidity and clarity.

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  11. Abu Zayd

    I don’t have a comment on the royal We, but Musa’s comments ignited a particular pet peeve of mine: why in the world can’t we have an eloquent, poetic translation of the Qur’an that is a pleasure to read as an independent work?

    I have every translation under the sun, and keep ordering any new ones I hear of, but none of them tickles my fancy. The latest I got just a few days ago is one by Laleh Bakhtiar (which, by the way, translates dhalikal-kitab as “That is the book”), but it is again cumbersome and uneloquent, and has been placed in my REJECTED list.

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  12. Ahmad AlFarsi

    The latest I got just a few days ago is one by Laleh Bakhtiar

    this translation (Bakhtiar’s) is also a modernist translation, so beware.

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  13. Ahmad AlFarsi

    I heard from ibnabeeomar that the translation by Abdul Haleem (from Cambridge, UK) is very good in preserving the meaning (however, also a pre-cautionary note on that one as it contains Asharite theology).

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  14. Amad

    Calling Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation modernist is an understatement. Her background, lack of hijab, and so many other facts belie her claimed “objectivity”. Her objective is clear: reinterpret Quran by removing it from ahadith and other required texts.

    Bakhtiar has been schooled in Sufism which includes both the Shia and Sunni points of view. As an adult, she lived nine years in a Shia community in Iran and has lived in a Sunni community in Chicago for the past 15 years.

    Comeon, you are a shia. Just admit it. If you search google, the first link is an intro by her on shia.com. I am not sure what the point of hiding this fact, other than the obvious trouble she will have with getting Sunnis to accept her unsupported, shia-slanted interpretation of what SHE thinks Allah is saying.

    If you want to read this translation, might as well pick up one from the Ahmedis too. Both pretty much junk.

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  15. Ahmad AlFarsi

    recall, on the Bakhtiar translation fiasco:

    Amad: “Isn’t it amazing that someone who ADMITS that she doesn’t know Arabic, can claim to ‘translate’ Quran? And because that translation conforms to how ‘they’ like it, she gets NY Times coverage?! It is like the major newspapers and media outlets are announcing:

    “All Muslims, once-Muslims, Muslim-apostates, or never- Muslim – but – your – name – is-Muslim: Come one, come all, for free coverage and free promotion. All you have to do is either (a) claim to reform Islam or (b) tell us how bad Islam really was to you and is for all Muslims. This is your ticket to the American dream, fame and the almighty dollars. You’ll get it all!
    Disclaimer: Please note that any real Islamic knowledge or really any knowledge at all is not a prerequisite for the promotion”.

    Which reminds me that I am working on a translation of the Hebrew-edition of Old Testament. My zero knowledge of Hebrew should be no impediment, as there are plenty of google translation engines available. I will also promise all humanity that the new translation will include a clear reference to Muhammad, as the Messenger of Allah. That way Moslems and Jews can have peace in the Middle-East. The end justifies the means of course. Stay tuned… (NY Times, you can reach me on my personal email for the scoop, please also mention the moolah ;) ).”

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  16. AnonyMouse

    Although English is my first and pretty much only language, I’ve never had a problem understanding the “Royal We” – possibly because I used to be in love with the medieval ages and knew that “we” was used by rulers to sound “bigger” and more powerful… it made sense that the King of Kings would use similar terminology to convey His Power!

    Speaking of translations of the meaning of the Qur’an, the one we refer to most in my house is the one published by Saheeh International… I like the footnotes in that they’re generally short, explanatory, AND not confusing!

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  17. Musa Maguire

    Amad, thanks for the suggestion. Maybe I should play the disgruntled convert card to get some money and publicity. Fox News take note. I’m not sure what I’d say though, maybe “The Muslims told me I’d get to rule the world and have four wives and I didn’t get neither!”

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  18. Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    I, like Abu Zayd, try to get all the English translations of the Qur’an I come across, hoping to find something special. And surely I have benefitted from some of them.

    But, in my experience, once you learn how to read the Arabic letters, even if slowly and with mistakes at first, and if you can understand even a quarter to a half of the words you come across (which is pretty easy) then you will never again be able to read the translation for more than about half a page again…you will just keep realizing this is not the Qur’an, I want to read the Qur’an and if the Arabic is there on the page you will find yourself reading it because you just want to hear the Qur’an…reading a translation may help you to start understanding more of the meaning but just sitting to read a translation for any length of time is just a painful experience. This is of course, if you can at least read the letters — if one can’t read the Arabic letters, then I see why we read the translation…but I don’t think we get much out of that either.

    If there is any Muslim out there reading this who does not know how to read the Arabic. start trying to learn now. Maybe this experience was unique to me, but I know for the first couple of years I was Muslim, the task of learning to read a whole other alphabet was daunting and although I always “wanted to,” I didn’t know where to start. When a brother finally started teaching me, it was amazing how quick and easy it was. May Allaah (swt) reward that brother immensely! Imagine the reward he receives for every single letter than I or anyone else he taught reads of the Qur’an!

    At least that’s my experience.

    Allaah knows best.

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  19. imran khan

    And now BBC playing their part to promote her….
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7265021.stm

    “Bhaktiar’s English text has removed derogatory references to Christians and Jews. Most controversially, her Koran rejects the idea, in Chapter Four, verse 34, that men may beat their wives.
    “The word for “beat” has 25 meanings”, she says. “We need to look therefore at what Muhammad did. He didn’t beat but walked away. So why are we saying ‘beat’ when we can say ‘go away’ – which is what he did.” “

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  20. shahgul

    In living Urdu language, you can tse either ‘mein’, the singular or ‘hum’ the plural for ‘I’, depending on local custom. Those using ‘hum’, though, are usually fom the uppity, sophisticated, Muslim nawab ruled areas of UP and Oudh in India. It therefore involves a certain degree of pomp and pride which is suitable for Iz u Jal only.

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  21. shahgul

    Alhamdo lillah,

    Urdu translations used ‘hum’ for we, so we were never aware of this problem. Culture plays a big role. A sister from America was furious at a new Indian revert who named himself Alla Rakhha. She was angry at him for keeping his first name Allah.
    What she did not understand was that all cultures do not have a concept of first and last name. Also, Allah Rakhha means ‘kept by Allah .”

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