Divine Plurals in the Bible and the Qur’ān – a response

Denis Giron has produced an article which has stimulated much debate and reflection amongst Christian and Muslim commentators on Blogging Theology. Rather than add to the ever-extending line of comments, and because I wish to cite some academic sources at length, I have decide to write a seperate post here.

Denis suggests we “are faced with the question of what then to do with the singular constructions the Qur’ān employs in reference to God. In other words, how does one reconcile the singular constructions with literal plurals? One easy answer might be that, from a literalist interpretation, God is singular and yet plural. While that might initially strike the mind as counterintuitive, its reconciliation can be found in a multipersonal conception of God.”

Thus Denis somewhat mischievously hints at a Trinitarian conception of God as the solution to the language about the Divine he sees in the Qur’an.

Happily it is not necessary to traverse that particular path. I want to draw attention to a distinctive feature of the Quran’s dynamic style: iltifdt – this is where there is a sudden shift in the pronoun of the speaker or the person spoken about, known as iltifāt in balāgha (Arabic rhetoric). Ibn al-Athīr (637/1239) after studying this stylistic feature, classed it among the ‘remarkable things and exquisite subtleties we have found in the Glorious Qur’ān’.

Examination of where exactly the shift occurs and why, will show how effective the technique is and why Muslim literary critics and exegetes greatly admire iltifāt and its related features.

Muhammad Abdel Haleem is Professor of Islamic Studies at SOAS, University of London, and editor of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies. In an article reproduced here (and linked to below) Dr Abdel Haleem explains the types of iltifāt and related features. This will illuminate a well-known literary feature of the Quran which answers the question Denis poses above.

iltifāt can be of the following types:

Change in person, between 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, which is the most common and is usually divided into six kinds.
Change in number, between singular, dual and plural.
Change in addressee.
Change in the tense of the verb.
Change in case marker.
Using noun in place of pronoun.
No. I is the most commonly known and was called iltifāt before other types were labelled as such or as related to iltifāt.

(1) Transition from 3rd to 1st person. This is the most common type – I have come across over 140 instances in the Qur’ān.
(2) From 1st to 3rd person is second with nearly 100 instances.
(3) From 3rd to 2nd person – nearly 60 instances.
(4) From 2nd to 3rd person – under 30 instances.
(5) From 1st to 2nd person – of which there is only one example which is quoted by every author, but which one could argue is not iltifāt.
(6) From 2nd to 3rd person, of which there is no example in the Qur’ān as Suyūtī himself pointed out (Itqan, III, 254).

Types 5 and 6 need only a brief mention here so that we may return to deal with the other more important cases. For no. 6 Imru’ al-Qays’s lines about his long sleepless night were quoted by Zamakhsharī:

The poet here talks to himself in the 2nd person, then about himself, then he returns to speak in the first person. It is noteworthy that these lines are always quoted to illustrate this type.

For no. 5 it is Q. 36:22 that is always quoted:

‘why should I not worship Him who created me? and to Him you shall return’.

It was suggested that ‘you’ is in place of ‘I shall return’. This, however, does not have to be so, as Suyūtī indeed said (p. 253). The speaker could simply be warning his addressees that they shall return to God, in which case the condition of iltifāt does not obtain here. Suyūtī also quotes Q. 6:73 but this will be discussed under change in tense.

It will be observed for examples of other kinds of iltifāt that a great many of them involve God talking in the 1st person or about Himself in the 3rd person; but He does not talk to himself in the 2nd person. Examples from poetry suggest that a poet talks to himself when he reproaches, pities or encourages himself, which clearly does not befit God as seen in the Qur’ān, where ‘He has power over all things’ (2:20); ‘has knowledge of everything’ (4: 176); He is ‘Performer of what He desires’ (85:16) and is ‘the Creator of all things’ (39:62). This may explain the lack of examples in the Qur’ān of types 5 and 6.

I shall now list occurrences of the four remaining sub-types of iltifāt in person. These lists are not meant to be final but to give what is hoped will be a fair picture of the use of iltifāt in the Qur’ān. It should be pointed out that the word containing the pronoun from which the transition takes place does not necessarily immediately precede that to which the transition occurs; but in any case, nobody makes proximity a condition of iltifāt.

1. 3rd – 1st person

2:23, 47, 73, 83, 118, 160, 172; 3:25, 58, 168; 4:30, 33, 37, 41, 64, 74, 114, 174; 5:14, 15, 19, 32, 70, 86; 6:22. 92. 97, 98, 99, 107, 110, 114, 126; 7:37, 57; 8:9, 41; 10:7, 11, 21, 22, 23, 28; 11:8; 13:4; 14:13; 16:2, 40, 66, 75, 84; 17:1, 21, 33, 97; 18:7; 19:9, 21, 58; 20:53, 113; 21:29, 37; 22:57, 67; 24:55; 25:17, 32, 45, 48, 56; 26:198; 27:60, 81; 28:57, 61, 75; 29:4, 7, 23; 30:16, 28, 34, 47, 51, 58; 31:7, 10, 23; 32:12, 16, 27; 33:9, 31; 34:5, 9; 35:9, 27; 36:8, 37; 37:6; 39:2, 3, 16, 27, 49; 40:5. 70, 84; 41:12, 28, 39; 42:7, 13, 20, 23, 35, 38, 48; 45:31; 46:7, 15; 47:13; 48:25. 49:13; 52:21, 48; 53:29; 54:11; 55:31, 58:5; 59:21; 61:14; 65:8; 66:10; 67:5, 17; 68:15, 35; 69:11; 70:7; 72:16; 76:9; 80:25; 86:15; 87:6; 88:25; 89:29; 92:7; 96:15.

2. 1st – 3rd person

2:5, 23, 37, 161, 172; 3:57, 151; 4:30, 33, 69, 122; 6:90, 95, 111, 112, 127; 7:12, 58, 101, 142; 8:4; 10:22, 25; 14:46; 15:28, 96; 16:52; 17:1; 20:4; 21:19; 22:6; 23:14, 57, 78, 91, 116; 24:35, 46; 25:31, 47, 58; 26:5, 9, 213; 27:6; 28:13, 59, 62; 29:3, 40, 67, 69; 30:54, 59; 31:11, 23; 32:25; 33:9, 46, 50; 34:21; 35:31, 32, 38; 36:36, 74; 37:33; 38:26; 40:61, 85; 41:19, 28, 40, 45, 53; 44:6; 45:22, 30; 48:2; 51:58, 53:30; 54:55; 57:27; 60:3; 65:10; 66:12; 67:19; 68:48; 76:6, 24, 29; 87:6; 94:8; 95:8; 97:4; 108:2.

3. 3rd – 2nd person

1:5; 2:21, 25, 28, 60, 83, 214, 229, 233; 3:180; 4:11; 6:6; 8:7, 14; 9:19, 69; 10:3, 68; 11:14; 16:55, 68, 74; 19:89; 21:37; 23:15, 65; 27:90; 30:34; 31:33; 33:55; 34:37; 35:3; 36:59; 37:25; 38:59; 43:16, 47:22, 30; 50:24; 52:14, 19, 39; 55:13, 56:51, 91; 57:17, 20; 67:13; 75:34; 76:22, 30; 77:38, 43; 78:30, 36; 80:3; 87:16.

4. 2nd – 3rd person

2:54, 57, 85, 88, 187, 200, 216, 226, 229, 286; 4:9; 10:22; 16:69, 72; 24:63; 28:16; 30:38; 31:32; 32:10; 45:35; 47:23; 67:18; 75:31.

In the first kind (3rd – 1st) we notice that in the great majority of verses, God is involved in the speech. The transition in this type introduces two powerful elements that accord with the dramatic nature of the language of the Qur’ān, that is: the 1st person itself (which is more powerful than the 3rd as it brings God Himself to speak), and secondly, the element of plurality which expresses more power than does the singular. We may begin by considering the first example Nöldeke introduced after his remark that ‘the grammatical persons change from time to time in the Qur’ān in an unusual and not beautiful way’, Q. 27:61.

Who created the heavens and the earth and sent down for you water from the sky wherewith We caused to grow joyous gardens?’

The point of emphasis here is the great power which caused joyous gardens to grow, a contrast between the abstraction of creative power and the personal involvement of aesthetic creativity. This is not a matter of personal taste or opinion; it is clear from the rest of the verse which goes on to emphasize the point and describe the garden: ‘whose trees you could never cause to grow’. Here God reserves for Himself the power to cause them to grow and hence the shift at this point from 3rd person singular to 1st person plural. As it comes suddenly, the shift makes the listener feel afresh the true meaning of the concepts of both 1st person and of plurality, so that the grammatical forms are here given much more weight than they normally carry.[33] A longer statement in place of this concise, powerful one would have been required if ‘normal’ grammatical rules had been used without the change in person commented on by Nöldeke. The effect in this example is, moreover, achieved with no loss of clarity since it is obvious that the verse speaks about God before and after the transition. Interestingly, such a technique is also often used with other verses dealing with water, with the shift always occurring at a semantically important point as in Q: 6:99, 7:57, 13:4, 15:66, 20:53, 25:48, 31:10, 35:9, 41:39. In 13:4, for instance, the shift does not occur at making the plants grow but at making their produce different in taste, which is the point in context:

‘It is He that… In the land there are adjoining plots: vineyards and cornfields and groves of palms, the single and the clustered. Their fruits are nourished by the same water: yet We make the taste of some more favoured than the taste of others. Surely in this there are signs for men of understanding.’

In the first set of examples cited above as discussed by Nöldeke (7:55; 35:27; 6:99; 20:55; 10:23), all but the last deal with water (Nöldeke does not seem to have noticed this), and exhibit the same feature for the same effect. 10:23 also involves water but in a different context that will be explained later.

The shift to 1st person of majestic plural is also suitable for expressing might, e.g. 14:13:

‘Then their Lord revealed to them: We will surely destroy the evildoers.’

The effect of the particle of oath ‘la‘ and that of emphasis, nūn al-tawkīd, is made much more powerful by the presence of God to announce (in direct speech) the punishment Himself in the plural; see also 32:16, 33:9. Abundant giving is also expressed in 1st person plural as if to emphasize a multiplicity of giving, e.g. 4:114:

‘There is no good in much of their conferences except in his who enjoins charity. kindness, and peace-making among the people. He that does this to please God, We shall bestow on him a vast reward.’

See also 2:172: 32:1G; 42:38. Similarly, reassuring the Prophet who was anxious that he might forget the Qur’ān was suitably expressed by a shift to the first person divine plural

‘… your Lord who… We shall make you recite so that you shall not forget.’

Also 75:16 19.

It should be pointed out that in pre-Islamic literature, and during the time of the revelation of the Qur’ān, pronouns do not appear to have been used as indicative of status; they did not change with social status, and the plural of majesty, in particular, does not appear to have been used by, or for addressing or referring to, kings or chiefs. The Prophet and his early successors did not use it for themselves not – in their letters to address kings or governors.[34] It was clearly in the Qur’ān that such usage was introduced, as has been shown, on the basis of a highly sophisticated application of the concept of plurality.

2. 1st – 3rd person

This category is second in number but it is still large compared to those remaining. It is noteworthy that, with the exception of a small number of cases, the person involved in iltifāt in categories 1 and 2 is God, while in 3 and 4 this is less commonly the case. Again with the exception of four cases, we find when God speaks in categories 1 and 2, He speaks in the first person plural; in the other part of the transition, He is in the 3rd person singular, referred to either as ‘Allāh, ‘He’, ‘He it is who’ or ‘rabb‘ in the form of ‘Your/their/his Lord, Lord of. Two related questions should be discussed here:

  1. Who speaks in the Qur’ān?
  2. How is it that God, who is believed in Islam to be the author of the Qur’ān, speaks about Himself in the 3rd person?

While admitting that it is allowable for a speaker to refer to himself in the third person occasionally, Bell-Watt find that the extent to which the Prophet is being told about God as a third person is unusual.[35] Although ‘it will be found that much of the Qur’ān is thus placed in the mouth of God speaking in the plural of majesty’ (p. 65) they consider that:

difficulties in many passages are removed by interpreting the ‘We’ of angels rather than of God Himself speaking in the plural of majesty. It is not easy to distinguish between the two and nice questions sometimes arise in places where there is a sudden change from God being spoken of in the third person to ‘We’ claiming to do things usually ascribed to God, e.g. 6:99b. 25, 45;7. (p. 67)

It is difficult to agree that the ‘We’, in the two examples Bell-Watt give, refers to the angels since the acts referred to (bringing forth the planets and bringing water down from the sky) are definitely ascribed to God in other parts of the Qur’ān (cf. 50:67, 16:65). Examination of the examples of iltifāt shows that it is difficult from the grammatical point of view to conclude – as Bell-Watt seem to do that a part of the statement is spoken by one person (God) and the rest by another (the angels). Bell-Watt concluded: ‘In the later portions of the Qur’ān, it seems to be an almost invariable rule that the words are addressed by the angels or by Gabriel using the plural “We” to the Prophet.’ No examples are given to substantiate this statement. Does it include a passage like ‘O Messenger, We have sent you’ (33:46)? But we have to understand this in conjunction with Q. 61:9, ‘It is He Who sent His Messenger’ – both verses are taken from ‘the later portions of the Qur’ān’. Such a procedure should be applied to any passage that may be cited as spoken by the angels.

Commenting on Horovitz’s observation that all of the Qur’ān must be regarded as the utterance of God,[36] J. Wansbrough states:

Less dogmatic than Horovitz, Suyūtī adduced five passages in Muslim scripture whose attribution to God was at least disputed: Q. 6:104, 114 were the words of the Arabian Prophet; 19:64 (but curiously, not 19:9, 21 and 51:30) were the words of Gabriel; 37:164-66 were ascribed to the angels; finally verse 4 of the Fātiha may have been uttered by the faithful (‘ibād) or could by insertion (taqdīr) of the imperative qulū be attributed to God.[37]

Suyūtī, however, did not consider 6:104, 114 as ‘the words of the Arabian Prophet’. He discussed the five passages at the end of a chapter entitled fīmā unzil min al-Qur’ān ‘alā lisān ba’d al-sahāba (‘on Qur’ānic passages that have been sent down (revealed), put in the mouth of some of the companions’). The examples include, for instance, passages introducing institutions such as the hijab for the Prophet’s wives, which `Umar had wished the Prophet would adopt. Suyūtī introduced the five passages referred to above by saying: yaqrub min hādhā mā warad fi’l-qur’ān ‘alā lisān ghayr’illah, which again means they were revealed placed on the tongue of other than Allāh. Suyūtī introduces 6:114 thus: ‘ kaqawlihi‘ (i.e. ‘as His [God’s] saying’), then comments ‘fa-innahu awaradahā aydan ‘alā lisānihi‘ (i.e. ‘He presented this verse also placed on his [the Prophet’s] tongue’). The Verse of the Fātiha is an important example of iltifāt (3rd – 2nd), being the first in the Qur’ān and much quoted.

Before discussing this verse, we must deal with the question of why God is referred to, and so frequently, in the Qur’ān, in the 3rd person.

The first and most important reason for God’s speaking about Himself in the 3rd person relates to the fundamental message of the Qur’ān, which is calling men to the religion of tawhīd according to which ‘there is no god but Allāh ‘. The testimony begins with the negation of any other god, then moves on to except only one, who is named Allāh. No pronoun, even of the first person, will do here in place of the name.

‘Call not upon another god with Allāh, lest you incur punishment’ – 26:213.

This is clear in verses that show the contrast between Allāh – in this particular name – and any other assumed deity. In successive verses, for instance (27:60-4) we have a structure such as:

‘ . . . Who created the heavens and the earth and brought down for you water from the sky. . . another god besides Allāh? Yet they make others equal (to Him).’

The sequence ends with ‘Say: ” No one in the heavens or on earth has knowledge of the unseen except Allāh”.’ The Qur’ānic message is meant to be communicated to men naming Allāh as the lord they should serve. Knowledge of the unseen, creation and Judgement are the prerogative of Allāh in the religion of tawhīd and as such frequently accompany His name which is considered in Arabic grammar a’raf al-ma’āirf (the most definite of all definite pro/nouns). Similarly, in the Qur’ān hamd truly belongs to Allāh and it occurs in the text forty odd times together with the name of Allāh or, if it is with His pronoun, comes very soon after the name: in a few cases it combines with rabb (cf. also hudā). The Qur’ān describes Allāh, in His particular name, to believers and non-believers: He does such and such, e.g. 16:65-81; it is He Who…. 16:10-20. Adjectival structures, ordinary or relative, require a noun before them – in this case, Allāh. Such combinations occur frequently in the Qur’ān (e.g. 1:1 4, 59:22 4). The name of Allāh is also used in verses (frequently at the end, commonly introduced by kān) indicating that such is His way, e.g.

‘That was Allāh’s way with those who passed away of old – and the commandment of Allāh is certain destiny.’ (33:38)

‘ Give . . . before death comes to one of you and he says “Reprieve me, Lord a while”. .. But Allāh reprieves no soul when its term comes: Allāh has knowledge of all your actions.’ (63:10-1)

The Qur’ān, it should be remembered, is not an autobiography of Allāh which thus has to be cast wholly in the form of ‘I’ and ‘me’; it is revealed for men who will speak in their prayers and to each other about Allāh. It urges the believers: ‘Call, then unto Allāh, making your religion His sincerely, though the unbelievers be averse’ (Q. 40:14). It teaches them how to call upon Him in this way:  Al-hamdu li’llāh rabbi’l-‘ālamin (40:65). It is not surprising, then, that this comes at the beginning of the Fātiha to be repeated in the obligatory prayers at least 17 times a day.

It should also be noted that in some verses God is mentioned more than once, and is depicted from different perspectives so that we have a multiplicity of viewpoints:

‘We suffice you against the mockers who serve another god with Allāh. Certainly they will soon know. We know you are distressed by what they say. Proclaim your Lord: praise and prostrate yourself and worship your Lord until the certain end comes to you.’ (15:95-99)

Here God Himself speaks in the 1st person plural of majesty to assure the Prophet: from the point of view of the mockers, they serve another God beside Allāh; and from the point of view of the Prophet, he should serve his caring, reassuring Lord. ‘All that is in the heavens and the earth magnifies Allāh’ (57:1, 59: 1, 61: 1, 62:1, 64: 1). From God’s point of view, He proclaims to all that this is the prerogative of Allāh, shared by no other deity, and believers read this from their point of view, which is that of glorifying Allāh. It is important, then, when discussing reference to God in the 3rd person in the Qur’ān to bear in mind two things: the principle of tawhīd and the multiplicity of viewpoints observed in the language of the Muslim scripture.

In the following examples of the second category of iltifāt we see that there is a shift from the 1st person to the 3rd, in which God is referred to as Allāh or rabb, emphasizing tawhīd, and showing the multiplicity of viewpoints: ‘Eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you, and render thanks to Allāh if it is He whom you worship’ (2:172).’We shall cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve, because they ascribe partners to Allāh’ (3:151). ‘David, We have appointed you a viceroy in the land; therefore judge between men justly and follow not caprice lest it leads you astray from the way of Allāh’ (38:26). ‘We have given you a manifest victory, that Allāh may forgive you,… that Allāh may help you.’ (48:1-3). (In this connexion we should remember that the Prophet used to repeat astaghfir Allāh.) (Cf. also Q. 4:106, 8:10). Finally: ‘We have given you abundance: Pray then to your Lord and sacrifice to Him – it is he that hates you who is cut off.’ (Q. 108).

3. 3rd-2nd person

The shift in most examples of this kind appears to be for the purpose of honouring, reproach, threat and sometimes request. The first example of iltifāt in the Qur’ān, much quoted in balāgha books, is of this kind: verse 4 of the Fātiha, coming after praise in the 3rd person:

‘Praise belongs to Allāh, the Lord of all Being, the All-Merciful. the All-Compassionate, the Master of the Day of Judgement. You only we serve, You alone we ask for help.’

Zamakhsharī explains (and he is repeatedly quoted) that when the servant talks about Allāh Who is worthy of praise, and the great qualities mentioned, his mind thinks of this great God who is worthy of praise, of full submission to Him, and whose help should be sought in important matters. The servant then addresses this distinguished Lord, ‘You alone do we worship’: after the introduction which demonstrates that He is truly worthy of being worshipped, direct address is more indicative of the fact that He is being worshipped for that distinction.[38]

One may add that the shift to 2nd person is also important here because the servant is about to ask Him to: ‘Guide us . . .’. The 3rd person was suitable at the beginning to name the Lord Who should be praised and served at the beginning of the book of tawhīd. No pronoun of any kind would have served here, and as was said, in Islam praise most truly belongs to that particular name – Allāh. Honouring by addressing is observed in such examples as those speaking of the blessed in Paradise: ‘Happy in what their Lord has given them . . . ” Eat and drink in health as a reward for what you need to do “‘ (Q. 52:18 – 19). The address here is announced without an introduction such as ‘it will be said to them’ – a feature of Qur’ānic style known as hadhf al-qawl which gives a statement immediate and dramatic effect.[39] Examples of this are found, particularly in the kind of iltifāt under discussion, to be used for various effects. Thus in ‘Their Lord shall give them to drink a pure draught: this is a reward for you and your striving is thanked’ (Q. 72:22), the address is honorific while’ They say: “The All-Merciful has taken unto Himself a son”; you have indeed advanced something hideous! . . .'(Q 19:88 ff.), the address is a threat, as also in Q. 16:55, 36:59. In Q. 2:28. 10:3, 37:25 it is rebuke and scorn. The effect of iltifāt in such examples is that it makes God Himself appear in the midst of a situation to address a particular group at a crucial point.

Shift to 2nd person can be for request as in:

‘And your Lord inspired the bees: “Make your homes in the mountains, trees, and what men thatch. Feed on every kind of fruit and follow the ways of your Lord, easy to go upon.” From their bellies comes forth a syrup of different hues wherein is healing for men. Surely in this is a sign for those who would give thought.’ (Q. 16:68-69)

The switch back to 3rd person in ‘from their bellies comes forth . . .’ emphasizes to men the wondrous act. In Q. 80:1-3, we have an example of how the Qur’ān revitalizes grammatical forms by drawing attention to them afresh. The passage is clearly addressed to the Prophet as a reproach but it begins by talking about him.

He frowned and turned away that the blind man came to him. How could you tell? He might have sought to purify himself. . . but to the one who reckons he is self-sufficient you pay attention?’

By merely using the 3rd person at the beginning, God is already expressing displeasure at what the Prophet did and upbraiding him before all listeners; turning to the 2nd person after that is in itself a reprimand; the shift is sudden and powerful. The grammatical concept of 2nd person is here given an added effect which is maintained in a number of the following verses.

4. 2nd-3rd Person

This is less frequent than the previous three kinds. We have had in 16:69 an example of how the use of 3rd person expresses wonder and in 80:1 displeasure, making listeners a witness to this. 16:72 shows a similar effect:

‘Allāh has given you spouses from among yourselves and through them has given you sons and grandsons. He has provided you with good things: will they then believe in falsehood and deny Allāh’s favours?’

In 47:23 we have:

‘If you turned away, would you than haply work corruption in the land and break your bonds of kin? Those are they whom Allāh has cursed . . .’.

The indicative pronoun ‘ulā’ika (those) expresses ib’ād li’l-tahqīr (distancing for humiliation). But distancing can also be for honouring, as is recognized in virtually all balāgha books[40] as a feature of Arabic rhetoric. Thus in 30:38 which was cited by Nöldeke, we have an example of honouring:

‘That which you give in usury, that it may increase upon the people’s wealth, increases not with Allāh; but what you give in alms desiring Allāh’s face, those [who do it for the face of God] – they receive recompense manifold!’

Nöldeke also cited 10:22. This reads:

‘It is Allāh that conveys you by land and sea, and when you are in the ships – and the ships run with them rejoicing in a favouring wind, a raging tempest overtakes them. Billows surge upon them from every side and they fear they are encompassed by death. They pray to Allāh with all fervour: “Deliver us from this peril and we will be truly thankful.” Yet when He does deliver them, they rebel in the earth wrongfully. O Men, your insolence is only against yourselves.’

Here, the shift to 3rd person adds another dimension, making the sea travellers seem truly helpless, far away, cut off from anyone to aid them except the Lord they feel they have to turn to. This would have been lost if the verse continued in the initial second person. Moreover, had the verse continued to address them in the 2nd person, then listeners to the Qur’ān who sit in the security of their homes, some never going to sea, would have been less convinced and less affected. He shifted to addressing them again only when the travellers had landed and began, in safety, ‘to rebel wrongfully’. Moreover, as Arab writers of tafsīr and balāgha have observed, when He spoke of the travellers in the 3rd person, He made others witness how they behaved in their helplessness compared to their subsequent behaviour in safety.

In tafsīr and balāgha hooks writers are moved to high praise of iltifāt in this verse, which Nöldeke, clearly viewing it from a purely formal standpoint, failed to appreciate. Nor is this verse an exception in the Qur’ān: the same idea of seafarers is expressed in 31:31- 2 with iltifāt to 3rd person producing the same effect, and the theme of helplessness at sea is particularly emphasized in such verses as 17:69, 36:43. 42:32 – 4.

II. Change In Number

The shift here is between singular, dual and plural of which over fifty examples can be found: 2:34, 38, 40, 106, 123, 217: 7:24, 127, 14:31, 37; 15:49; 16:65; 17:36; 20:37, 40, 41, 81, 124; 22:45; 23:51, 66; 27:84; 29:8, 57; 31:15; 32:13; 34:12, 45; 35:40; 43:32, 69; 46:5; 50:30; 54:17, 22, 32, 40; 55:31; 65:11; 68:44; 69:44; 70:40; 73:12; 74:16, 31; 75:3; 77:39; 90:4; 98:8; 100:11.

In many of these examples it is God that is involved in iltifāt; the shift to the plural of majesty expresses power with remarkable effect, e.g.:

‘No! I swear by the reproachful soul! What, does man reckon We shall not gather his bones? Yes indeed; We are able to shape again his fingers.'(Q. 75:1 – 4)

It is the singular that is fitting for ‘I swear’; the sudden shift to the plural expresses, as it were, multiplicity of power in answer to the pre-Islamic Arabs’ incredulity at the idea of putting scattered bones together again at the resurrection. The sudden shift recharges the concept of plural as a grammatical form with its full sense of majesty (see also 55:31. 73:22, 2:40, 13:31, 43:32). The Qur’ān uses the singular pronoun for God particularly in such contexts as those expressing worship (yā ib’ādī), prohibition of shirk and wrath; the use of the singular is clearly important in such contexts, and when there is a sudden shift to the plural of majesty it sharpens the listener’s sense of the contrast between the two grammatical forms, investing ‘we’ when it comes after ‘I’ with enhanced meaning. The Qur’ān thus revitalizes grammatical forms (2:32. 14:31, 20:71, 29:8, 31:15).

This type was regarded as yaqrub min al-iltifāt (related to iltifāt) by such writers as Zarkashī,[41] and Suyūtī.[42]

III. Change Of Addressee

Various addressees within the same or adjacent verses are sometimes spoken to in the Qur’ān. Iltifāt in such verses has the original lexical meaning of actually turning from one direction/person to another. In these examples we normally find the first addressee addressed again with others when there is a request that applies to them all. Thus in 2:144:

‘Turn your face towards the Holy Mosque; and wherever you (Muslims) are, turn your faces towards it.’

The Prophet, in answer to his personal prayer to be directed to a new qibla, is requested to turn his face to the mosque in Makka. Then he and all the Muslims are requested to do so wherever they may be. In 10:87 there is more than one shift:

‘We revealed to Moses and his brother: ” Take you (dual) for your people in Egypt certain houses; and make your (pl.) houses a direction for prayer and perform the prayers; and do thou give good tidings to the believers.”‘

The second addressee may not have been there at the moment the first was originally spoken to, but a shift is made as when, in the Qur’ān, God addresses Moses and his people. Thus Satan is addressed, when he requests a respite in order to tempt the children of Adam (who were not yet born). He is told:

‘Depart (sing.)! Those of them that follow thee – surely Hell will be your (pl.) recompense.’

The shift has a powerful effect: anyone that follows Satan at any time or place is thus addressed directly by God with this strong warning, rather than merely being informed that any one of ‘them’ will meet with such a reward. Although iltifāt of this kind has its real lexical meaning, it has, in addition, a rhetorical effect, since a person in the second group of addressees can see that he is connected with what has been requested of the first addressee, be it favourable or otherwise. Since the person who is the first addressee is normally included in the second address, this type meets the condition of iltifāt mentioned earlier. God as seen in the Qur’ān has access to everybody and may address them whenever He wishes, as is seen in some examples of this type of iltifāt in the Qur’ān. Since no distinction is shown in contemporary English between singular, dual and plural second person pronouns, in translations of such Qur’ānic passages the shift may go unobserved and its effect be lost.

Here is a list of over twenty examples of this type: 2:144, 148, 150; 4:109; 5:48; 6:133; 7:3; 10:87; 12:29; 16:2; 17:63; 27:93; 28:35; 29:46; 31:31; 33:4, 19, 51; 39:31; 42:13; 48:9; 58:2; 65:1; 69:18; 73:20.

This category was considered yaqrub min al-iltifāt by such writers as Suyūtī,[43] Zarkashī,[44] Subkī.[45] In fact the name iltifāt fits this category well, as it is a turning from one person to another.

IV. Change In Verb Tense/Mood

A shift to the imperfect tense serves a number of purposes. It may conjure up an important action to the mind as if it were happening in the present.

‘Remember Allāh’s favour when there came against you hosts… from above you and below you, when eyes grew wild and hearts reached the throats and you think (wa tazunnūn) vain thoughts about Allāh. There were the believers sorely tried.’ (33:10-11)

‘He it is Who created you from dust, then from a drop (of seed) then from a clot, then He brings you forth as a child.’ (Q. 40:67)

The shift may take place because the second remarkable action continues to happen now:

‘He sent down water from the sky . . . and then the earth becomes green upon the morrow.’ (Q. 22:63)

‘Allāh has made all that is in the earth subservient to you and the ships run upon sea by His command.’ (Q. 22:65)

A shift to the perfect tense has the effect of making the act appear already completed, hence its frequent use in talking about the hereafter:

‘On the day when We shall set the mountains in motion… and We mustered them (hasharnāhum) . . .’. (Q. 18:47)

‘When the trumpet is blown and all in heavens and earth became terrified (fuzi’a).’ (Q. 27:87)

A shift from the indicative to the imperative mood highlights a requested act:

‘We appointed the House to be a place of visitation for the people, and a sanctuary and: Take to yourselves Abraham’s station for a place of prayer!’ (Q. 2:125)

‘Say: “My Lord has enjoined justice, and set your faces upright (toward Him) at every place of worship!”‘ (Q. 7:29)

Prayer being a pillar of Islam, the imperative here is more effective than the indicative which gives a piece of information. Similarly, highlighting a good thing is sometimes effectively achieved by a shift from the indicative to the imperative mood:

‘…. the fire which has been prepared for the disbelievers, whose fuel is men and stones; and give glad tidings to those who believe and do good works! ‘ (Q. 2:23-4)

The shift to the imperative bashshir is employed in such other instances as 36:11, 39:17, 61: 13. In addition to these, there are more examples of category IV at: 2:25, 125; 7:29; 11:54; 16:11; 18:47; 22:25, 31, 63, 65; 27:87; 33:10; 35:9; 36:33; 39:68; 40:67.

The shift in the tense of the verb was considered iltifāt by Sakkākī, as mentioned earlier, and also by Ibn al-Athīr.[46] It was considered related to iltifāt – (yaqrub min al-iltifāt) by other writers such as Qazwīnī,[47] Zarkashī,[48] Suyūtī,[49] and al-Hashimī.[50] What is involved in this and in the earlier types of iltifāt is the same phenomenon, a grammatical shift for a rhetorical purpose.

V. Change In Case Marker

This category differs from other categories discussed here in three respects:

  1. It involves only a very limited number of examples, two of which have been called iltifāt by some (2:177; 4:162). What is said of these two applies also to 5:69;
  2. It was said to be iltifāt only according to one reading which involves a shift in the words concerned, but in each case there is another (if less common) reading that does not involve a shift;
  3. According to the reading involving a shift, explanations of the shift have been advanced on other grammatical grounds; but explanation on the ground of iltifāt remains at least as strong as, if not stronger than other explanations.

In spite of these restrictions, examples of this type have been called iltifāt and, at the very least, we may legitimately recognize that such a construction has by its very nature the right to be considered in terms of iltifāt.

Zarkashī reports that 2:177 and 4:162 have been considered iltifāt according to some,[51] and the claim appears to have justification as a shift is involved, and it appears to be employed for rhetorical effect. Q. 2:177 counts those who are truly pious, who believe, observe the prayers, give of their substance, however cherished:

‘but the righteous. . . and those who fulfill their covenant (al-mūfūn) when they have one and endure with fortitude (al-sābirīn) misfortune hardship and peril (of conflict), those are they who are true in faith.’

Al-sābirīn is in parallel with al-mūfūn, which is a nominative, and should therefore be nominative (al-sābirūn), but there is a shift to the accusative case. How is this to be explained? According to the reports of Zarkashī, it is iltifāt. As will be seen below, departure from what is normally expected is done only for a special purpose. Here it can be seen to emphasize the importance of al-sābirīn. The need to emphasize the importance of this particular class of people is borne out by the fact that al-sābirīn is mentioned four times in the same sūra, being associated particularly with misfortune, hardship, and the battlefield (2:153, 155, 177, 249). The verse following our example of iltifāt here speaks of retaliation in homicide, and fighting comes in the sūra soon after.

While emphasizing the importance of al-sābirīn, the shift in the case marker does not cause any confusion about the role of the word involved and its relationship to other parts of the sentence. The case marker is only one of many (stronger) indications of that relationship, including the order within a series of conjunctions, the adjectival form in the masculine plural.[52]

Before we go any further, we would consider other opinions about the explanation of this type of shift. In this connexion, J. Burton[53] quotes a hadīth that involves examples discussed here (4:162).[54]

‘Urwah questions: ‘A’ishah about a number of verses:

4:162 lākin al-rāsikhūna fī’l’ilm minhum
wa’l-mu’minūna yu’minūna bi-mā unzila ilaika
wa mā unzila min qablika wa’l-muqīmīna
al-Sālat wa’l-mu’tuūna al-zākat wa’l-mu’minūna
bi’llahi wa’l-yawm’l-ākhir ula’ika sanu’tīhim
ajran ‘aziman.

5:69 inna ‘lladhīna āmanū wa ‘lladhīna hādū
wa’l sabi’una

20:63 qālū: inna hādhāni la-sāhirāni

‘A’ishah replied: ‘That was the doing of the scribes. They wrote it out wrongly.’

Burton does not appear to question the refutation by Muslims of another report of `Uthmān that speaks of wrong writing, and concentrates on that of `A’isha, commenting, ‘as the isnāds of `A’isha’s reports are sound, the reports themselves could not just be spirited away’[55] (p. 182). He does not give a source for the soundness of the isnād, nor for isnāds in general. He gives an account of what Suyūtī said about the difficulties seen in such reports.[56] But Suyūtī speaks only of an isnād of ‘A’isha’s hadīth which he regards as sound.[57] This, however is questionable. Suyūtī gives the isnād as: [58]

Here we have Abū Mu’āwiya as a link in the isnād, and he has been weakened by such hadīth scholars as Tirmidhī, Ibn Hanbal and al-Hākim in a way that makes it difficult to consider the hadīth sound;[59] it is moreover not included in any of the authoritative al-kuttab al-sitta.[60]

In his article, Burton discusses three verses: 2:177; 4:162; 5:69. In the case of 2:177, he gives a lengthy report on the various opinions of Muslim authors on wa’l-sābirīn (which, incidentally, does not occur in ‘A’isha’s hadīth, which he quotes). These opinions can be divided into the following categories.[61]

  1. There is another reading, wa’l-sābirūn, which does not involve a shift;
  2. Sābirīn may be the direct object of ‘give money to’:
  3. Sābirīn is made accusative in order to indicate praise;
  4. Varying the inflection of one or more conjoined epithets for the specific purpose of drawing attention to their isolation intending to express praise or blame (in our case the former).

No. 4 amounts to the same thing as iltifāt: a grammatical shift for a rhetorical purpose. No. 3 has the same intention but 4 is preferable since it does not require implying such things as an omitted verb like amdah.

The second example given by Zarkashī as iltifāt in case marker is Q. 4 162.

‘But those of them that are firmly rooted in knowledge, and the believers . . . that perform the prayer and pay the alms. . .’

The shift (from nominative to accusative again) occurs here with those ‘that perform the prayer’ (wa’l-muqīmīn). Highlighting prayer here is understandable in the light of the fact that prayer is mentioned nine times in sūra 4, including a long passage about its importance in war, peculiar to this sūra, and how the hypocrites perform it languidly (43:77, 101-3, 142, 167). Here again Burton has detailed the views of Muslim scholars in connexion with the verse,[62] which can be summarized as follows:

  1. Some read al-muqīmūn, without a shift;
  2. Al-muqīmīn describes al-rāsikhūn, but is an accusative of praise;
  3. Abān b. `Uthmān describes the copying of the text: ‘Having written the first part, the scribe asked: ” What shall I write?” They replied: “Write wa’l-muqīmīn and he wrote down what he heard’ – i.e. wa’l-muqīmīn which is the direct object of write’. This is rejected on the ground that it appears in the accusative in Ubayy’s mushaf and in other copies of that of `Uthmān. The isnād, has, moreover, been considered weak.[63]
  4. Al-muqīmīn is a genitive governed either by: ‘they believe in what has been revealed… and [in] those who maintain worship’, i.e. the angels; or governed by min or ila, etc.

No. 4 is less likely to be the case as it requires taqdīr or separation of the noun from the preposition that governs it. No. 2 is the more plausible explanation and it has the same function as that suggested for iltifāt.

Zamakhsharī, whose views on this verse are not included in the account Burton gives of the views of Muslim authors, recognized the rhetorical effect, rejecting any claim that it was a case of grammatical error in the written text of the Qur’ān, a claim which, in his opinion, could be advanced only by someone who did not read through al-kitāb, and did not know the ways of the Arabs in their speech, particularly in their use of the accusative case for singling something out.[64]

Similar to Q. 2:177 and 4:162, which Zarkashī reported were considered iltifāt by some, is Q. 5:69, which is the last of the three verses discussed by Burton.

‘Those who believe and those who are Jews, and Sabaeans and Christians – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good work – there shall no fear come upon them, neither shall they grieve’

Sābi’ūn appears to he a coordinate with the accusative nouns before it and should accordingly have been accusative, but it is nominative. Here again there is another (if less common) reading wa’l-sābi’īn making it accusative with no shift. Muslim scholars have expressed various views to explain the nominative sābi’ūn. Burton has given an extensive report of these grammatical views. Some, for instance, see the nominative as justifiable because when inna is followed by an invariable noun (here al-ladhina), a following noun in conjunction could either be accusative governed by inna, or nominative, canceling the government of inna.[65] Rāzī prefers this view. Others see the nominative as marking a fresh sentence, with an unexpressed predicate, i.e.: wa’l-sābi’ūn kadhālik in the sense that those who believe, the Jews, the Christians, those who believe in God and the Last Day and do good work shall not fear nor shall they grieve, and this also applies to the sābi’ūn. As Khalīl and Sibawaih put it (Burton p. 193).

The sābi’ūn have not been co-ordinated with the foregoing groups to bring out that, of all the groups mentioned, they are the most forward. The intended effect of the verse is something like: ‘God will accept repentance from these groups, should they believe and do good works and He will wash away their sins, so that even the sābi’ūn will be treated in this manner if they too believe’.

Burton remarks that men who knew the Qur’ān by heart could make the mental comparison between this verse and Q. 2:62, and we may also add Q 22: 17 – in both of these, sābi’īn is in the accusative in a sequence of accusatives, thus giving rise to no question such as we have in Q. 5:69.

Burton continues (p. 189):

There does not appear to be anything in the grammatical structure of the two contexts that would adequately explain the differing inflections assumed by the same word: sābi’īn/ūn

Rāzī has, in fact, made the comparison between the three verses: Burton ends his article by remarking (p. 196) that:

placing Q. 5:69 alongside Q. 2:62 and Q. 22:17: . . . Rāzī argues that God Most High must have had His reasons for the distinctions between the inflections of the verses. Were we capable of fathoming those reasons, we should indeed have achieved perfection. When we admit that we are incapable of divining those reasons, we recognize the weakness of our human intellects, not any weakness in the Divine Word.

Rāzī’s Arabic version is:

It appears from Burton’s translation that Rāzī is of the view that we are incapable of perceiving the reasons for these divine variations. In fact, Rāzī preferred the view of Farra’ for justifying the nominative. This preference, however, is not specifically attributed to Rāzī in Burton’s article (which would have made Rāzī’s view clear), but is merely given as ‘now seen to be preferable’ (p. 194).[66]

It was also Rāzī who refuted Zamakhsharī’s view that a noun coordinated with inna and its ism could be made nominative only after the predicate had been expressed, but again this refutation was not clearly attributed to Rāzī in Burton’s article. Rāzī, moreover, included the views of other Muslim authors which Burton also included. Thus Rāzī and other Muslims have produced explanations for the shift. In fact, closer reading of Rāzī’s statement quoted above gives a different view from that presented by Burton:

Since the speaker has the most perfect judgement, these variations must have their sound reasons and benefits; if we are able to understand those reasons we will attain (the desired) perfection (in understanding these matters) but if we fail, we should attribute any failure to the shortcomings of our perception rather than blame them on the speech of the Most Wise.

Thus, it is not ‘His [God’s] reasons’ but ‘their sound reasons’, the word fawa’id ‘benefits’ was left out in Burton’s version and obviously these benefits are for men, not God, and it is not the hypothetical ‘were we capable of fathoming those reasons’, but the open conditional ‘if we are able to understand’ – the conditional particle Rāzī used is in, not law. He used in again, in ‘if we fail’, not ‘when‘, implying that scholars try and some succeed in attaining the desired perfection of understanding. He himself has preferred one opinion Rāzī is simply being modest in not asserting categorically that his opinion is right – which is traditional in Islamic religious scholarship.

As regards Burton’s statement that ‘there does not appear to be anything in the grammatical structure of the. . . contexts that would adequately explain the differing inflections’, if we look beyond the grammatical structure to the semantic context of the situation in 5:69, it is, in fact, different from those of 2:62 and 20:17. Before this verse we read:

O People of the Book: you do not stand on anything, until you perform the Torah and the Gospel and what was sent down to you from your Lord. (Q. 5:68)

In 5:65 after reporting grave misdeeds of the People of the Book, it goes on:

If the People of the Book would believe and be Godfearing, surely We should remit their sins and admit them to Gardens of Bliss.

Likewise Q. 5:73-3 reads:

They are unbelievers who say ‘God is one of three in a trinity’: for there is no god except one God. If they desist not from their word, verily a grievous penalty will befall the unbelievers. Will they not turn to God and seek his forgiveness, for God is all-forgiving, all-compassionate.

Thus, before and after 5:69 the importance of true belief and good deeds are stressed: in spite of any straying, even by the sābi’ūn, those who return to true belief and good work shall not fear or grieve. The context of 2:62 and 22:17 is quite different from this. Judging from the context of the situation, then, sābi’ūn in 5:69 could be said to require highlighting in the way suggested by Zamakhsharī, Khalīl and Sībawaih:[67] even the Sābi’ūn will be forgiven if they believe. . . others will the more readily be forgiven, the Sābi’ūn being of all the categories listed the most clearly astray. According to this opinion, sābi’ūn has been singled out by a shift in the case marker for special effect. In this case it would not differ from 2:177 and 4:162, both of which had been understood as iltifāt.

VI. Using A Noun In Place Of A Pronoun

This is a substantial category of which I have recorded well over a hundred examples from the Qur’ān; in fact there are many more. Writers on balāgha place it along with iltifāt under the broader heading of al-khurūj ‘alā muqtadat’l-zāhir (departure from what is normally expected).[68] In both there is actually a departure of one kind or another, be it in person, number, addressee, case, reference (noun/pronoun), or tense/mood of a verb. There is no difference between replacing a pronoun by a noun for special effect and replacing 1st person by the 2nd, or singular by plural, for a similar effect. The condition of iltifāt obtains in the present category since the person is the same in the noun used and the pronoun it has replaced. To that extent, there is no reason to treat examples of this category in the Qur’ān differently from those treated under iltifāt and related features. In fact, when Zarkashī was discussing the reasons for iltifāt and giving examples to illustrate his point he included an example[69] involving the use of a noun in place of a pronoun (Q. 44:4-6). This category comprises the following: 2:59, 60, 64, 105, 107, 109, 112, 115, 153, 157, 207; 3:5; 4:26, 27, 28, 32, 80, 81, 84, 87, 88, 92, 94, 95, 99, 100, 103, 104, 106, 110, 113, 176; 5:39, 40, 54, 83, 97, 98; 6:1, 21; 8:13; 12:87, 90: 13:2, 3; 14:1, 6, 11, 20, 21, 25, 27, 34, 47, 51; 16:18, 19, 84; 17:22; 19:19, 56, 69, 91, 92, 93; 20:130; 21:39; 22:31 58, 60, 61, 62, 72, 78, 23:27, 58, 59; 24:38. 62, 64; 25:17; 28:64, 56, 68, 70, 75, 87, 29:5, 10, 20, 45, 63; 32:3; 33:2, 13, 17, 25, 50; 35:3, 28; 38:4, 26, 27; 39:2, 3, 22; 40:6, 21, 44; 41:27; 42:5, 47, 49, 53; 46:11; 47:4; 57:9, 21, 29; 59:18; 60:1; 61:13; 63:1, 9; 67:11; 74:31; 110:3.

A large number of the examples involve substituting the name of Allāh (sometimes rabb) for His pronoun. Thus: ‘To Allāh belongs the East and the West; whithersoever you turn there is the face of AllāhAllāh is all-embracing, all-knowing’ (1:115). Instead of ‘His face’ and ‘He is’ we have the name, which is more important than the pronoun; it makes the matter explicitly exclusive to Allāh. Stating the name of Allāh, moreover, in the three successive statements makes each of them absolute, independent and quotable. This is a common feature in the language of the Qur’ān appropriate to a book which asserts that it is the word of God for all times and places. A great many verses end with such absolute, independent, quotable statements as: ‘Allāh has power over all things’, ‘Allāh is all-hearing, all-knowing’. ‘Allāh is with the stead-fast’, ‘Allāh is merciful, compassionate’, and the like. Such endings give the statements force and conclusiveness. There are moreover, certain words in the Qur’ān that tend to collocate specifically with the noun Allāh (and less frequently with rabb) rather than with the pronoun. We have already mentioned al-hamd (praise); other such words are: fadl (bounty), rizq (provision), sabīl (the way), ajal (the term set by Allāh), ba’th (resurrection) and, to a certain extent, huda (guidance). This collocation highlights exclusivity, and contrast with other than Allāh is normally implied.

When a derived (mushtaqq) noun is used instead of a pronoun, it indicates causality. Thus in Q. 38:27:

‘We have not created the heaven and earth and all that is between them in vain. That is the opinion of those who disbelieve, and woe to those who disbelieve from Hell-fire.’

Repeating the noun (lilladhīna kafaru), instead of using a pronoun (lahum) indicates that their disbelief is the cause of their opinion and their doom. Indication of causality in such cases is expressed in Islamic jurisprudence in the formula:

‘Linking the judgement/proposition to a derived noun (rather than to a pronoun) indicates the causality of the derivational origin.’

A frequently quoted example of the technique of using a noun in place of a pronoun is Q. 33:50:

‘O Prophet, We have made lawful for you . . . and a believing woman, if she gives herself to the Prophet, if the Prophet desires to take her in marriage, this is for you only, not for the rest of the believers.’

‘- if she gives herself “to the Prophet” rather than “to you”.’ This restricts the ordinance to the person of the Prophet, emphasized by the repetition of the Prophet’. Q. 110:2-3 gives us two examples of this technique.

‘When Allāh’s help and victory come, and you see men entering the religion of Allāh in throngs, then proclaim the praise of your Lord. . .’

In ‘the religion of Allāh’ in place of ‘His’ there is emphasis and contrast with the religion of others, ‘the praise of your Lord’ instead of ‘His’ reminds the Prophet at the time of victory of the care of his Lord and echoes the request made repeatedly early in his career: ‘Be thou patient under the judgement of your Lord’ and ‘proclaim the praise of your Lord’. (Q. 15:98, 52:48; 68:48).

Iltifāt And Related Features: A Characteristic Of The Style Of The Qur’ān

There are examples of iltifāt in pre-Islamic Arabic. Indeed nearly all authors on iltifāt as well as early writers on the Qur’ān, and Zamakhsharī in his tafsīr who was frequently quoted by subsequent authors, state that it is a well-known feature in Arabic, well established in pre-Islamic poetry. Yet even what these authors themselves say makes it clear that the extent and variety of iltifāt in the Qur’ān goes far beyond what they have cited in poetry. Even Ibn al-Athīr, whose book was not on the Qur’ān but on adab al-kātib wa’l-sha’ir, recognized this:

If you examine the text of the Qur’ān you will find much iltifāt (ashya’ kathīra); something of this (shay’ min dhālik) is also found in poetry.[70]

The overwhelming majority of his examples are from the Qur’ān. The lists included above give a clear picture of the extent of the feature in the Qur’ān. As was said earlier, it has been suggested that almost all examples of iltifāt in the Qur’ān are to be found in the Makkan sūras. This is not so. As is clear from the lists provided, sūra 2 (which was revealed over a long period in Madina) contains many instances of iltifāt (see also sūras 6 and 8). Even in a very late, very short, Madinan sūra (110) we find iltifāt.

As God speaks in the Qur’ān, He is seen to have access to everybody present or absent, in time (past or future) and place. We have seen in examples of type I (iltifāt in person) how God addressed generations not yet born (to warn them against following Satan, for instance). Only limited kinds of iltifāt can be expected in poetry, as is observed in examples quoted in balāgha books: Imru’ al-Qays’s lines, for instance, are a form of monologue. This may be partly explained by the fact that, with a few exceptions, such as the poetry of ‘Umbar b. Abī Rabī’a, there is very little dialogue in Arabic poetry. God also speaks about Himself in various ways:

‘A book We have sent down to thee that thou mayst bring forth mankind from darkness to light by the leave of their Lord to the path of the All-Might, the All-laudable, Allāh, to Whom belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth.’ (Q. 14:2)

Here we have various aspects, shown in italics each with a shift – either in number person or reference (noun in place of pronoun). In the Qur’ān Allāh speaks to the Prophet, the believers, the unbelievers, and sometimes to things; and He speaks about them, sometimes commenting on or addressing them at an important point with approval or disapproval. He informs, orders, prohibits, urges, reprimands, promises or warns, all with reference to this world and the next. The limits of a Qur’ānic verse are different from those of an ordinary sentence and many encompass a number of sentences, with different persons, with Allāh at the centre of the situation with access to all, speaking from the viewpoint of various aspects of His Godhead about the various persons/things or talking to them from their multiple viewpoints – this can hardly be expected in poetry. Qur’ānic material is complex and dense: in addition to al-jumla’l-khabariyya (declarative statements) there is an unusually high frequency of al-jumla’l-inshā’iyya (affective statements). All this facilitates the frequent use of iltifāt and its related features.

The use of direct speech is, moreover, an obvious feature of the style of the Qur’ān: so is the omission of the introductory ‘he says’. Thus God addresses bees (16:68-9) and mountains (34:10) for instance. The use of the direct speech of the unbelievers in the Qur’ān is important as it records exactly what they utter so that they may be judged by what they themselves have professed rather than by what anybody has reported (see for instance 22:51-69, 26:16-31). Such techniques frequently give rise to the employment of iltifāt.

We have also seen how for various theological and rhetorical reasons, certain words collocate with others in the Qur’ān; and how the principle of tawhīd and the technique of contrast, the multiplicity of viewpoints, the use of independent, quotable statements, together all affect grammatical forms and give rise to shifts in these which could not be expected in other Arabic poetry or prose, not even the hadīth of the Prophet or hadīth Qudsi.[71]

As can be attested by examining the Arabic text of the Qur’ān and books on balāgha and tafsīr such as those by `Abd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī and Zamakhsharī, for instance, there are two general features that mark the use of language in the Qur’ān conciseness of statement, and the loading of economical statement with maximum effect. These, together with the other factors mentioned, account for the high frequency of the employment of iltifāt, and its related features.

The Place Of Iltifāt And Related Features In Balāgha Books

In balāgha hooks, this phenomenon is normally discussed under `ilm al-mā`anī, for instance, by Sakkākī and Qazwīnī and modern writers. Some classical authors, however, treated it under `ilm al-badī’, as did al-Tībī, placing it under tahsīn ma’nawī (semantic refinement/enhancement), as opposed to tahsīn lafzī (verbal embellishment). Sakkākī mentioned it briefly under badī’ and referred to his earlier discussion under mā’anī. Suyūtī treats iltifāt as a type of badī’ in the Qur’ān. The former (`anī school) saw it as a departure from what is normally expected, a type of khurūj al-kalām ‘alā muqtada’l-zāhir. This represents a formal viewpoint. The latter (badī’ school), on the other hand, looked at it as the effect of rhetorical shift – that is, semantic enhancement – as observed in Tībī’s analysis. This represents a functional viewpoint. The discussion of iltifāt is, however, the same in both schools, and the difference is merely one of a heading. Authors of balāgha books recognize that a speaker departs from what is normally expected only ‘for considerations required by the situation in certain contexts’, as Al-Hāshimī puts it:[72]

Meeting this requirement of the context is the central issue in `ilm al-mā`anī. The ‘semantic enhancement’ as viewed in badī’‘ is rather general; departure from what is normally expected for considerations seen by the speaker, as viewed in `anī, is more specific and to the point. In the final analysis, what various authors discuss under fawā’id al-iltifāt[73] are detailed examples of semantic enhancement and the considerations seen by the speaker.

The Functions Of Iltifāt And Its Related Features

As we have seen, iltifāt and the related features discussed above involve a grammatical shift. They are discussed in `anī, under the general heading of khurūj al-kalām ‘alā muqtada’l-zāhir. Departure from what is expected is done li’qtida’ al-hal lidhalik li-‘urūd i’tibār ākhar altaf min dhālik al-zāhir[74] (because the situation requires such departure, to meet a consideration more subtle than is normally expected). Departure from the normal without benefit is forbidden in balāgha mumtani’ fi bāb al-balāgha.[75] Ibn al-Athīr explains that the shift from one form to another is done only when it is required for some special reason: al-‘udūl ‘an sīgha min al-alfāz ilā ukhrā lā yakūn illā li-naw’ khusūsiyya iqtadat dhālik.[76] With every shift, then, it is natural to ask the reason for such a departure from the norm. Thus Muslim writers on iltifāt normally include a section on asbāb/fawā’id al-iltifāt (the reasons for/beneficial effects of iltifāt). Zamakhsharī[77] who presents the material in his tafsīr mainly in a question and answer format introduced by ‘If you said why? how? etc….’, ‘ I would say …’, gives a threefold answer to explain iltifāt:

  1. This is a technique of balāgha well known to scholars in the field, has a technical name, and is of many types.
  2. It is a habit of speech of the Arabs, as in the three lines of Imru’ al-Qays cited earlier where the shift occurs three times in accordance with the Arabs’ way of varying their speech, and because when speech is changed from one style to another this is more likely to raise the interest of the listener than it would if it were all in a uniform style.
  3. In specific contexts iltilat has its own particular benefits.

This explanation was copied, nearly always verbatim, by subsequent authors. The general observation about the Arabs’ habit of seeking to raise the interest of the listener made by Zamakhsharī in connexion with Imru’ al-Qays’s lines was taken unfairly by some authors as representing the reason given by writers of balāgha for iltifāt. Such authors then retorted that this could not be the reason, since there are long stretches of material without iltifāt.[78] Zamakhsharī, was not of course, setting out to write a chapter on iltifāt, but dealing with examples as he met them in his tafsīr, and offering eloquent elucidation of the powerful effect of iltifāt in such examples.

Zarkashī presents a representative section on the asbāb of iltifāt (pp. 325- 33). After referring to the general benefit of raising interest and the objections levelled at this by some authors, he gives examples of specific benefits. There is, for instance, the intention to honour the addressee, as in Q. 1:4; adding a useful piece of information contained in a noun used in place of a pronoun (44:6); showing others by a change from 2nd to 3rd person how badly the original addressees have behaved, so that they are turned away from (10:22); the explicit indication by the speaker, through change from 1st singular to 1st plural, that the action is exclusively his (35:9); showing a particular interest in something at which the shift takes place (41: 12) and reproving by suddenly turning to address someone you have been talking about (19:99).

Muslim writers on balāgha and tafsīr and Arab literary critics who discussed examples of iltifāt in the Qur’ān (including those cited by Nöldeke and mentioned at the beginning of this article) showed the beneficial points and powerful effect of iltifāt. It should be pointed out that the finer points of certain types of iltifāt may not appear in the translation of the Qur’ān into a European language (like English or German) which naturally differs from Arabic in certain aspects of style. This, however, is a problem of translation for which solution should be sought. We are here concerned with Qur’ānic material in Arabic and a feature of style of the Arabic language in general. It was suggested earlier that Nöldeke viewed the examples he cited from a purely formal, grammatical standpoint. As has been observed, he did not mention the term iltifāt in discussing the examples he cited. Recognizing that the feature under discussion is very old in Arabic (and is still used in modern Arabic),[79] has a technical name and countless examples, and recognizing further that a shift or departure from what is normally expected for no reason is inadmissible (mumtani’) in balāgha, Arab critics, rhetoricians and exegetes have, on the other hand, considered the rhetorical purpose and explained the powerful effect of the grammatical shift.

Muhammad Abdel Haleem is Professor of Islamic Studies at SOAS, University of London, and editor of the Journal of Qur’anic Studies.

Grammatical Shift For Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifat and Related Features in the Qur’an by M. A. S. ABDEL HALEEM of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Categories: Bible, Biblical Hebrew, Denis Giron, God, Hebrew, Islam, Judaism, Qur'an, Tanakh, Theology, Trinity

5 replies

  1. God/Allah is beyond conceptions of “person”—and this includes not only uni/multi conceptions but also male/female conceptions. The Divine names may use gendered attributes/names, but God/Allah is beyond such limitations.

    God’s mercy and compassion fall on ALL of his creations, human and non-human. Such an expansive pov is more beneficial to humanity than one that limits God’s mercy and compassion to a limited group…a privileged few.

    It is only with such an unlimiting conception Of God that human responsibility of being a Khalifa on earth, can be comprehensively understood.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. According to Denis’s concept ““there is only one X” will not tell us if it is unipersonal or multipersonal.”

    That’s mean:
    – The Father is also possibility singular or plural.
    – Jesus is also possibility singular or plural.
    – The Holy Spirit is also possibility singular or plural.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Why the need to resort to such methods?
    A lie for stylistic effect?


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