Sudden Changes In Person & Number: Neal Robinson On Iltifāt

M S M Saifullah

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The following material on iltifāt is taken from Neal Robinson's book Discovering The Qur'ān: A Contemporary Approach To A Veiled Text (1996, SCM Press Ltd.). The chapter is "The Dynamics Of The Qur'ānic Discourse", [pp. 245-252]. This is not to be taken as if we approving his book in toto.


For European readers, one of the most disconcerting features of Qur'ānic style is the frequent occurrence of unexpected (and apparently unwarranted) shifts from one pronoun to another. Non-Muslim scholars have tended either to regard these changes as solecisms or simply to ignore them. Muslim specialists in Arabic rhetoric, on the other hand, refer to this phenomenon as iltifāt - literally 'conversion', or 'turning one's face to' - and define it as:

the change of speech from one mode to another, for the sake of freshness and variety for the listener, to renew his interest, and to keep his mind from boredom and frustration, through having the one mode continuously at his ear.

Far from dismissing it as a stylistic imperfection, they have prized it as Shajā`at al-`Arabiyya - 'the audacity of Arabic' - and have attempted to explain the purpose of the various types of shift. As this subject has recently been dealt with at length by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, I shall limit my discussion to a few striking examples which occur within single ayahs or sequences of ayahs devoted to the same theme. In order to facilitate the task of the reader, first-person-plural discourse will be printed in bold type and first-person-singular discourse will be printed in bold italics.

Third Person Singular To First Person Plural

Consider the following extract from the revelation section in Surah 69. After the rebuttals of the accusations, the polemical asides, and the affirmation concerning the status of the message, there is a dramatic disclaimer in the first person plural:

It is not the statement of a poet - little do you believe! Nor is it the statement of a soothsayer - little do you remember! It is something sent down by the Lord of the Worlds. And if he had fabricated against Us some of the sayings, We would certainly have seized him by the right hand. Then We would certainly have cut his main artery and not one of you could have prevented it! (69.41-47).

I have already drawn attention to the way in which this disclaimer achieves its effect by objectifying the Messenger, but that is only part of the story. In addition, there is the shock effect of the sudden shift from third-person discourse about 'the Lord of the Worlds', which makes Him seem distant and transcendent, to the immediacy with which He speaks in the first person. The fact that He employs the first person plural emphasizes His majesty and power.

A similar effect may be observed in the polemical section of Surah 96 in the transition from the first part of the lampoon to the menacing peroration:

Does he not know that Allah sees?
Of course not! Yet if he does not stop We shall drag him by the forelock ... (96:14f.)

Note that here, too, the first person plural is used when violent action is envisaged.

The sudden shift from the third person singular to the first person plural is also common in signs passages, where it invariably occurs at the point where the sending down of life-producing water is mentioned. The following example is typical:

And it is Allah who sends the winds so that they stir up the clouds, and We drive them to a dead land and revive therewith the earth after its death. Such will be the resurrection (35:9)

The reason why the shift occurs at this point is that God's revival of the land is seen as evidence of His power to raise the dead.

Third Person Singular To First Person Singular

Passages in which there is a sudden shift from the third person singular to the first person singular are much less common. In the following example, as with the first passage considered in the previous section, a shock effect is produced by the way in which language which stresses God's transcendence is followed by the irruption of first-person discourse:

The command of Allah comes; so seek not to hasten it. Glory be to Him! High be He exalted above that which they associate with Him. He sends down His angels with the Spirit on whomsoever He wills of His servants, Warn that there is no deity but I. So fear Me! (16:1f).

In this instance, the first person singular is obviously more appropriate than the the first person plural, because it is the unity of God which is in question, rather than His power. The first person singular is also required by the exigencies of rhyme.

A similar effect may be observed in the following passage, which is likewise polemical:

So worship what you like beside Him. Say: 'The losers are those who will lose themselves and their families on the Day of Resurrection. Truly that will be a manifest loss!' They shall have sheets of fire above them and below them. That is how Allah frightens His servants. O My servants, so fear Me! (39:15f.).

Here, too, the unity of God is in question. Moreover, once again the first person singular is also necessitated by the rhyme.

My third example is somewhat different from the previous two, because the first-person discourse represents what God will say on the Day of Resurrection:

So on that day none will punish as He will punish and none will bind as He will bind. O tranquil soul, return to thy Lord well pleased and pleasing. Enter among My servants, and enter My garden (89:25-30).

Note, however, that although the unity of God is not mentioned explicitly, the words 'return to thy Lord' are a reminder of the primordial covenant with Adam's descendants (7:172f), in which they ascribed to the exclusive Lordship of Allah. Note too that the shift is highly effective because it occurs at the very end of a surah in which there is no other first-person discourse, but in which Allah is repeatedly referred to as 'thy Lord'.

First Person Plural Or Singular To Third Person Singular

A shift from the first person plural to the third person singular generally marks a transition from the expressive function to the cognitive function, as in the following example:

Thus We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'ān and We have turned about in it something of threats in order that they may be godfearing or it may arouse in them remembrance. Exalted be Allah the True King . . . (20:113f.).

In this instance, the shift not only ensures the presence of a message, by furnishing a statement which can be re-employed by believers, but also serves to efface the Messenger by making it clear that it is not he who is to be extolled.

The same process is at work where the shift is from the first person singular to the third person singular, as in the following two passages:

Their predecessors cried lies and how great was My horror! Have they not regarded the birds above them, spreading their wings and closing them? Nought holds them but the All-merciful. Surely He sees everything (67:18f.).

Therefore fear not humankind but fear Me and sell not My signs for a paltry price. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has sent down - they are the losers (5.44).

In both instances, the shift furnishes a message which can be repeated. It also affirms Allah's transcendence.

First Person Singular To First Person Plural

A shift from the first person singular to the first person plural often occurs in order to stress the power and majesty of the speaker, as in the following passage:

And whoever turns away from My reminder, his shall be a straitened life, and We shall raise him on the day of resurrection, blind (20:124f.).

Shifts of this kind occur in four surahs which begin with oaths. The following is typical:

Nay I swear by the Day of Resurrection!
Nay I swear by the self-accusing soul!

Does Man think that We shall not gather his bones?
(75:1-3).

Because the oaths are in the first person singular, they establish direct and immediate communication, but the shift to the first person plural is necessary in order to safeguard against the reader wrongly inferring that it is Muhammad who is swearing them.

First Person Plural To First Person Singular

A shift from the first person plural to the first person singular introduces a note of intimacy or immediacy. The context may concern the provision of guidance, as in God's words when expelling Adam from paradise:

We said: 'Get down all of you from this place. So surely there will come to you a guidance from Me, then whoever follows My guidance, no fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve ... '(2:38).

Alternatively, the shift may mark the transition from instruction to threat, as in God's words to Noah:

And make the ark before Our eyes and [in accordance with] Our revelation, and do not speak to Me in respect of those who are unjust; surely they shall he drowned. (11:37).

The following passage, in which God addresses Muhammad, is another example of this:

We know best what they say, and thou art not one to compel them; therefore remind by means of the Qur'ān him who fears My threat. (50:45).

In this instance, the shift to the first person singular is also necessitated by the rhyme. It is particularly effective, coming as it does at the very end of the surah.

From The Third Person To The Second Person

All the passages examined so far have involved a change in the person or number of the pronouns representing the speaker, but iltifaat also occurs with respect to the addressee. Most commonly this involves a shift from the third person to the second person, which I shall indicate by changing from roman to italic. The best-known example occurs in the fatihah, where it marks the worshippers' turning to God in request:

Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds
The Most-merciful, the All-Merciful,
the Master of the Day of Recompense.
Thee only do we worship, thee only do we ask for help (1:2-5).

Usually, however, shifts of this kind occur when God is the speaker. Sometimes He turns to address those whom He has been speaking about, in order to threaten them:

They say the All-merciful has taken to Himself a son. You have advanced something monstrous! (19:88f.).

Sometimes, on the contrary, He turns to address them in order to honour them by His nearness:

Surely the godfearing shall be in gardens and bliss, rejoicing in what their Lord has given them. And their Lord will guard them against the punishment of Hell. Eat and drink with wholesome appetite because of what you used to do (52:17-19).

From The Second Person To The Third Person

More rarely, the shift may be from the second person to the third person This has the effect of objectifying the addressees. It may be done in order to enable them to gain self-knowledge by seeing themselves externally, as in the following example:

And Allah has given you wives of your oarn kind, and has given you sons and grandchildren from your wives, and has 6estowed good things on you. Do they then believe in falsehood and disbelieve in Allah's favour? (16:72).

Alternatively, the speaker may wish to distance himself from the addressees in order to humiliate them,

That is because you took Allah's signs for a jest and the life of the world deceived you. So on that day they shall not be brought forth from it, nor shall they be granted goodwill (45:35),

or in order to honour them,

Then give to the near of kin his due, and to the needy and the wayfarer; this is best for those who desire Allah's pleasure, and these it is who are successful (30:38).

More Complex Examples

There are in the Qur'ān a number of passages which contain two or more pronominal shifts in the space of a few ayahs. To the reader who is familiar with the different types of shift and their significance, these should not pose too many problems. My first example is relatively straightforward, despite the fact that the speaker shifts from the first person plural to the first person singular, and then to the third person singular, before finally reverting to the first person plural:

By no means! Surely We have created them of what they know. But nay! I swear by the Lord of the eastern places and of the western places that We are certainly able to replace them by others better than them ... (70:39-41).

The two pieces of first-person-plural discourse would be perfectly intelligible if read consecutively, ignoring the intervening material. God is the speaker, and His use of 'We' is entirely appropriate in this context where He speaks of His power to create human beings. The temporary adoption of the first person singular establishes the immediacy of the oath, while thc reference to God as 'the Lord of the eastern places and of the western places' ensures that the cognitive function of the Qur'ānic discourse is not neglected.

My next example is the celebrated reference to the Night Journey, together with the two ayahs which follow it:

Glory be to Him who caused His servant to travel by night from the inviolable place of worship to the furthest place of worship, the neighbourhood whereof We have blessed, in order that We might show him some of Our signs; surely He is the All-hearing, the All-seeing And We gave Moses the Scripture and made it a guidance to the Children of Israel, 'Do not take a protector hesides Me'. [They were] the offspring of those whom We bore with Noah; surely he was a grateful servant (17:1-3).

The words in ordinary type, with which the surah opens, correspond to the language which human beings customarily employ when engaging in worship, but the reference to Muhammad as 'His servant' safeguards against the inference that these words are uttered by him. The sudden shift to the first person plural is appropriate in view of the fact that the Night Journey was an expression of God's majesty and power. This shift also makes clear that God is the speaker. The shift back to third-person discourse maintains the sense of worship and ensures the cognitive function of the communication. The resumption of the first person plural for the references to Moses and Noah serves to put what happened at the furthest place of worship on a par with two previous demonstrations of God's majesty and power: the revelation of the Torah and the preservation of Noah's family from the flood. Within this first-person-plural discourse, the brief quotation in which God speaks in the first person singular strikes a note of peculiar intimacy and draws attention to the central importance of the exclusive claims of the One God. . Now let us examine three ayahs which begin with the singular imperative 'Say', but which include words spoken by God in the first person:

Say, 'It the sea were ink [for writing] the words of my Lord, surely the sea would be used up before the words of my Lord were completed, even if We brought another like it to replenish it' (18:109).

Say, 'If there were on the earth angels walking about in peace and security, We would certainly have sent down for them from the sky an angel as a messenger' (17:95).

Say, 'O My servants who have transgressed against themselves, do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Truly Allah forgives sins He is the All-forgiving, All-merciful' (39:53).

In the first of these, a surprise effect is achieved by the sudden shift to the first person plural. God Himself intervenes in all His majesty to utter fresh words, thereby showing that (as stated) His words will never be complete. In the second, the intervention is again in the first person plural, but it coincides with a shift to the third person plural 'them' to refer to the addressees. Thus, at the moment when God intervenes to express His power and majesty, He also distances Himself from the unbelievers in order to humiliate them. The third ayah is more puzzling because the imperative 'Say' is immediately followed by God's speech in the first person singular. Although this strains the normal rules of syntax, it establishes intimate communication between God and the believers, thus making them more receptive to the cognitive element of the message which is to follow.

My final example is a passage which non-Muslim scholars have frequently treated with scorn:

He it is who makes you travel by land and sea; until when you are in the ships and they sail on with them in a pleasant breeze, and they rejoice, a violent wind overtakes them and the billows surge in on them from all sides, and they become certain that they are encompassed about, they pray to Allah, being sincere to Him in obedience: 'If Thou dost deliver us from this, we shall most certainly be of the grateful ones.' But when He delivers them, lo! they are unjustly rebellious in the earth. O humankind! your rebellion is against your own souls - provision of this world's life - then to Us shall be your return, so We shall inform you of what you did (10:22f.).

At first sight it may appear hopelessly garbled, but the three consecutive pronominal shifts are all perfectly logical. The shift from the second person plural to the third person plural objectifies the addressees and enables them to see themselves as God sees them, and to recognize how ridiculous and hypocritical their behaviour is. The shift back to the second person plural marks God's turning to admonish them. Finally the speaker's shift from the third person singular to the first person plural expresses His majesty and power, which is appropriate in view of the allusion to the resurrection and judgment.

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