Why the Hebrew Prophets say ‘I’ and Prophet Muhammad says ‘We’

In the last dozen years I have written over 100 articles about Islam and Judaism for Islamic magazines and web sites. Recently I have placed a few of them on my blog in the Times of Israel. This is one of my recent articles that appeared in the English edition of the Arabic Islamic magazine Al-Jumuah.

The Qur’an teaches:

Say, [O believers], “We believed in Allah and what has been revealed to us [the Qur’an] and what has been revealed to Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and the Descendants [of Jacob] and what was given to Moses and Jesus and what was given to the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between any of them, and we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah, 2:136]

While Christians, Jews and Muslims should make no disrespectful distinction between any of their prophets or their sacred scriptures, we cannot help but notice that the circumstances and style of each of the three written revelations are very distinct.

The Hebrew Sacred Scriptures are a vast collection of books (305,358 Hebrew words) written over a period of almost a thousand years, by more than two dozen different named Jewish Prophets, plus many more anonymous inspired Historians, Poets, and Philosophers.

The Greek New Testament is much shorter (a total of 138,162 Greek words) and was written over a period of less than 70 years, by four biographers plus maybe a half dozen other writers whose writings exist in a language (Greek) that Prophet Jesus and Prophet John never spoke.

The Arabic Qur’an is still shorter (a total of 77,934 Arabic words) recited by Prophet Muhammad during a period of less than only two dozen years and written down by his own disciples/scribes.

The most shocking thing that a rabbi notices when reading the Qur’an is that Allah continually refers to himself as “We.” This reiteration of the pronoun “We” referring to God occurs over 2100 times in the Qur’an.

In the Hebrew Scriptures the “Royal We”(or, the Plural of Majesty”) is very rarely used for God, except most noticeably in the creation narrative, where God says, “Let us make…”

And God said, “Let us make a human, in our image, according to our likeness, and …And God created the human in His image. He created it in the image of God; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

All the Jewish Prophets declare God’s words using “I.” Of course, I know that “we” in the Qur’an never means that God is plural or trinitarian. It is a matter of style that might also be meant as an important correction to the error that many of Prophet Jesus’ disciples entered into.

Many disciples of Jesus took Prophet Jesus’ use of “my father in heaven” literally when it was of course meant metaphorically. They also misunderstood the statement of Prophet Jesus:

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Gospel of John 10:11)

The Hebrew Bible’s metaphor of a shepherd describes both God and a human ruler. Jesus was saying that a good leader puts the good of the flock ahead of his own good. The writer John wrongly understood that “I” [God] will sacrifice [“My Son”] to save all humanity.

In the same way, many Muslim readers of the Hebrew Bible are shocked by the frequent use of metaphors to describe the Divine One. The Jewish People were the only on-going monotheistic Ummah in the world for more than a thousand years; so using anthropomorphic descriptions of God was a minor difficulty compared to the on-going religious struggle (“Jihad”) to eliminate the polytheism and idolatry that many Jews engaged in —from within the Jewish nation.

As the Qur’an states:

“They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord.” [Sûrah Âl-CImrân, 3:113]

God created Man in His own moral image, meaning that He wished humanity to live a life marked by justice, equality, fair dealing, mutual respect, sympathy, love, compassion, and charity, etc. Many humans on the other hand chose to violate some or even many basic moral commandments of God, including that they created God in Mankind’s own physical image.

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to Prophet Mûsâ (Moses) state:

(Verse 3) ‘Thou shalt have no other gods’…. (Verse 4) ‘Thou shalt not make for yourself any graven image, or any likeness (picture) of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath’…. (Verse 5) ‘Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them’… (Torah, Exodus 20:3‑5)

All cases of Biblical Anthropomorphism (tashbih) are to be taken non-literally. They are metaphors or poetic expressions for ideas that cannot be expressed more concretely. For example, the metaphor of stubborn uncaring people as having an “uncircumcised heart” can be found repeatedly in Biblical verses:

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn… (Deuteronomy 10:16)

…if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity. (Leviticus 26:41)

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD; remove the foreskin of your hearts, O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. (Jeremiah 4:4)

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ears are uncircumcised, they cannot listen. (Jeremiah 6:10)

These are all like the Qur’an’s statement:

“And do not invoke Allah along with another deity. There is no deity except Him. Everything will be destroyed except His Face. His is the judgement, and to Him you will be returned” [Sûrah Al-Qaṣaṣ, 28:88]

To me as a student of the Hebrew Bible, it is clear that ‘face’ is simply a metaphor for God’s Presence.

The rabbinic Tafsir/midrash (Ecclesiastes Rabba 1:16) actually gathers 50+ different metaphors of the heart that are implied by various verses in the Hebrew Bible. The list begins describing that the heart:

sees (Ecclesiastes 1:16),
hears (I Kings 3:9),
speaks (Ecclesiastes 1:16),
walks (2 Kings 5:26),
falls (I Samuel 17:32),
stands (Ezekiel 22:14),
rejoices (Psalms 16:9),
cries out (Lamentations 2:18),
is consoled (Isaiah 40:2),
is pained (Deuteronomy 15:10),
is hardened (Exodus 9:12),
fears (Deuteronomy 28:67),
breaks (Psalms 51:19),
is prideful (Deuteronomy 8:14),
refuses (Jeremiah 5:12),
imagines (Deuteronomy 29:18),
feels (Psalms 45:2),
thinks (Proverbs 19:21),
desires (Psalms 21:3),
strays (Proverbs 7:25),
desires sin (Numbers 15:39),
eats (Genesis 18:5),
convinces (Genesis 34:3), and
errs (Isaiah 21:4)
All of these are clearly intended metaphorically.

The issue of anthropomorphism (tashbih) in Islam is over the very few anthropomorphic “descriptions” of God in the Qur’an or in the Hadith, where it is said that God is depicted in anthropomorphic language, as is well known to Muslim scholars:

God’s ‘hand’:
Say: “All bounties are in the hand of Allah: He grants them to whom He pleases. And Allah cares for all and He knows all things. [Sûrah Âl-CImrân, 3:73]

God’s ‘laughter’ [i] (see endnote)
..it is He who grants laughter and tears [Sûrah Al-Najm, 53:43]

God’s ‘sitting firmly on the heavenly throne’:
Your Guardian-Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six Days; then He set Himself firmly on the Throne [of Authority]… [Sûrah Al-ACraf, 7:54]

In the verse:

“…There is nothing like unto Him; and He is All-Hearing and All-Seeing. [Sûrah Al-Shûrâ, 42:1 [

Allāh first negated that anything else could be like Him but then named ‘attributes’ that can be applied also to some of the creatures of creation.

“And (the unbelievers) plotted and planned and Allah too planned; and the best of planners is Allah.” [Sûrah Âl-CImrân, 3:54]

The Quran refers in a similar way to Allah’s “Face”:

“Send not away those who call on their Lord morning and evening seeking His Face.” [Sûrah Al-AnCâm, 6:52]

And in the aḥadith al-ṣifat we find reference to Allah’s “Throne”:

Narrated Abu Hurairah that Allah’s Messenger said:

“When Allah completed the creation, He wrote in His Book which is with Him on His Throne, ‘My Mercy overpowers My Anger.’” (Sahih Al-Bukhari, 4.54.416; 3194)

And Sahih Al-Bukhari 5.58.147; 3803:

Narrated Jabir: “I heard the Prophet saying,

‘The Throne (of Allah) shook at the death of Sa’d bin Mu’adh.’ ”

These few anthropomorphisms in Islamic sources, like the much more frequent use of anthropomorphisms in the Hebrew Bible are all to be understood as metaphors that should never be taken literally.

The Hebrew Bible uses frequent anthropomorphic descriptions of God because the Jewish minority that worshipped idols did so, not as a metaphor for God, but as projecting a disgusting literal reality to mimic the pagan practices of the peoples around them. After the exile to Babylonia (6th Century BCE) this party of idol worshippers disappeared.

Then came, along with the Gospel writings, a belief system using not verbal anthropomorphisms, but the disgusting literal reality of a [supposed] Divinely embodied “sonship,” followed by reintroducing human statues and paintings into places of prayer.

The Qur’an rebukes the Christian style of worship using pagan-style art work and concepts of a [supposed] incarnation of the Divine into a human being; and since the Christians defended their actions by pointing to the frequent use of metaphors to describe the Divine One in the Hebrew Bible, it is not surprising that the Qur’an only rarely uses metaphors for God at all.

Indeed, Allah is the Unseen One who sees but is not seen. Allah’s Presence is always accessible to all those who open their hearts and minds to Him. This is a metaphor for a reality that is a far greater reality than any physical, material, literal reality.

And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed [tell them simply that] I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided. [Sûrah Al-Baqarah, 2:186]

[i] In the Biblical narrative, when God informed Abraham [Ibrâhîm] that his 90-year old, barren wife Sarah would have a son, Abraham’s reaction was to laugh (“va’yitzchak” – Genesis 17:17). When Sarah heard about this prophecy, she also laughed (Genesis 18:12). When Isaac [Arabic, Isḥâq] was born, Sarah exclaimed, “God is making ‘laughter’ [tzchok] for me; whoever hears will laugh (yitzchak) for me (Genesis (21:6).” God Himself said that Sarah’s son would be called Yitzchak (Genesis 17:19) – a name that literally means “he will laugh.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 250 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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