Servants of Allah or of the Messengerﷺ? Neither mistake nor blasphemy!

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم الحمد لله وحده و الصلاة و السلام على من لا نبي بعده و على آله و أصحابه أجمعين

In this article, we discuss whether the Qur’an calls the believers as “slaves” or “servants” of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) instead of slaves of Allah and hence either the Qur’an makes a mistake or commits shirk (associating partners with Allah).

The verse under discussion is as follows:

قُلْ يٰعِبَادِيَ ٱلَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُواْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ لاَ تَقْنَطُواْ مِن رَّحْمَةِ ٱللَّهِ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ ٱلذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعاً إِنَّهُ هُوَ ٱلْغَفُورُ ٱلرَّحِيمُ
 Qul (Say/Proclaim/Declare), “O ‘Ibadi (My servants/slaves) who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.”[1]
The argument derived from the quoted verse is as follows:
Adding “Qul” before the statement in quotation marks means that the speaker (Allah) asks/ orders/ informs the recipient of the revelation (the Prophet) to say or declare to the people the message spoken after “Qul” and hence the speaker then changes from Allah to Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) and hence “O My servants” would mean the servants of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ).
Maulana Abul A’la Maududi mentions, for this verse, in his tafsir of the Qur’an as follows:
Some commentators have given a strange interpretation to these words. They say that Allah Himself has commanded the Holy Prophet to address the people as “My servants” therefore, all men are the servants of the Holy Prophet. This interpretation is no interpretation at all but a worst distortion of the meaning of the Qur’an and indeed tampering with the Word of Allah. If this interpretation were correct, it would falsify and negate the whole Qur’an.
For the Qur’an, from the beginning to the end, establishes the concept that men are the servants of Allah alone, and its whole message revolves around the point that they should serve none but One Allah alone. The Noble Prophet (ﷺ) himself was Allah’s servant. Allah had sent him not as rabb (sustainer, providence) but as a Messenger so that he should himself serve Him and teach the other people also to serve Him alone. After all, how can a sensible person believe that the Holy Prophet might have one day stood up before the disbelieving Quraish of Makkah and made the sudden proclamation: “You are in fact the slaves of Muhammad and not of al- `Uzzah and ash-Shams.” (We seek Allah’s refuge from this).
The explanation for the verse can be sufficient for a Muslim but for someone having a bias against Islam, this could be a confirmation of his allegation that this mistake has negated and falsified the whole Qur’an. We find answers to their claims in the second part of the same verse:
Do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful: The address here is to all mankind. There is no weighty argument to regard only the believers as the addressees. As has been observed by Ibn Kathir, to address such a thing to the common men does not mean that Allah forgives all sins without repentance, but Allah Himself has explained in the following verses that sins are forgiven only when the sinner turns to Allah’s worship and service and adopts obedience to the message sent down by Him. As a matter of fact, this verse brought a message of hope for those people who had committed mortal sins like murder, adultery, theft, robbery, etc. in the days of ignorance, and had despaired whether they would ever be forgiven. To them it has been said: “Do not despair of Allah’s mercy: whatever you might have done in the past, if you sincerely turn to your Lord’s obedience, you will be forgiven every sin.” The same interpretation of this verse has been given by Ibn `Abbas, Qatadah, Mujahid and Ibn Zaid.[2]

Non-Muslims who have not accepted Islam or who even hate the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) cannot and will not accept to be servants of him whereas the verse speaks of all mankind. We can therefore, conclude based on the same verse that the servants mentioned are none other than the servants of Allah as also understood by the companions of the Prophet and earliest scholars. A person who denies Allah is still under the complete Lordship of Allah. Allah mentions elsewhere which further confirms our understanding:

أَلَمْ يَعْلَمُوۤاْ أَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ يَقْبَلُ ٱلتَّوْبَةَ عَنْ عِبَادِهِ وَيَأْخُذُ ٱلصَّدَقَاتِ وَأَنَّ ٱللَّهَ هُوَ ٱلتَّوَّابُ ٱلرَّحِيمُ

“Know they not that Allah accepts repentance from His servants.”[3]

The theological aspect to the argument should be clear to everyone by now since it is also approved by the Prophet and his companions themselves. However, another issue that still remains under question and that is the linguistic part. Those having further questions on the My servants part, state either the Qur’an made a mistake in choice of words while it meant something else or it uses casual human way of explaining the matter both indicating serious issues regarding the Qur’an.

It appears that this criticism comes up with the understanding whenever Allah says “Qul” in the Qur’an, the next words are of that of the Prophet (ﷺ). This is, however, not exactly true. The Qur’an is the complete word of Allah without a single letter being from anyone else. With this in mind, consider the following verse:

قُلْ يَتَوَفَّاكُم مَّلَكُ ٱلْمَوْتِ ٱلَّذِي وُكِّلَ بِكُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكُمْ تُرْجَعُونَ

Say, “The angel of death will take you who has been entrusted with you. Then to your Lord you will be returned.”[4]

Here, Allah is the One who speaks after Say. He mentions to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) to proclaim to the people what Allah is saying. The speaker of these words becomes Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) but he is merely conveying or forwarding the words of Allah. Allah is speaking through the Prophet. When Allah says Say, the words spoken afterwards do not become the words of the speaker.
In fact, the greatest example where Allah changes the grammatical person from third person to second person could be the first chapter of the Qur’an i.e. Fatiha (The Opening) where All praise is [due] to Allah (Qur’an 1:2) changes to It is You we worship and You we ask for help (Qur’an 1:5). Here Allah is praised at the start and then the Servant addresses His Master directly.
The key is in the context and the translation:
An earlier verse of the same chapter speaks in similar words:
قُلْ يٰعِبَادِ ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ ٱتَّقُواْ رَبَّكُمْ لِلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُواْ فِي هَـٰذِهِ ٱلدُّنْيَا حَسَنَةٌ وَأَرْضُ ٱللَّهِ وَاسِعَةٌ إِنَّمَا يُوَفَّى ٱلصَّابِرُونَ أَجْرَهُمْ بِغَيْرِ حِسَابٍ
Qul (Say/Proclaim/Declare/State/Mention), “O My servants who have believed, fear your Lord. For those who do good in this world is good, and the earth of Allah is spacious. Indeed, the patient will be given their reward without account.”[5]
The word Qul has several meanings. If translated as Say” in every verse, it does give rise to questions of the kind discussed above. However, if it translated using a different words such as Proclaim or Declare or Tell them, then the reader would not have any question at all and would simply understand it as an order of Allah to declare to the people His words or message. Translations have their limitations and this is the reason anyone conversant with the Arabic literature does not raise such silly questions.
Indeed, Allah knows best.

[1] Qur’an 39:53
[2] Ibn Jarir, Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Da’ud, Tirmidhi
[3] Qur’an 9:104
[4] Qur’an 32:11
[5] Qur’an 39:10
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