When Allah azza wa jal address His servants, He subhanahu wa ta’ala will say “‘ebaadi” - My servants. Sometimes the ‘yaa’ pronoun (yaa al-mutakalim, meaning “my”) will be there and sometimes it be omitted, while still retaining the meaning of “my”. Why this change?
Get ready to dive into the beauty of the Qur’an :)
When Allah ta’ala uses the ‘yaa’ at the end of عبادي, it signifies that the servants He is addressing or talking about are many in number. The yaa shows a wider audience.
قُلْ يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ أَسْرَفُوا عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ لَا تَقْنَطُوا مِن رَّحْمَةِ اللَّهِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَغْفِرُ الذُّنُوبَ جَمِيعًا ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ الْغَفُورُ الرَّحِيمُ
“Say, “O My servants 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.”‘ (39:53)
Allah ta’ala is addressing a wider audience here because the majority of His servants are sinners.
In another ayah, Allah ta’ala says:
وَقَلِيلٌ مِّنْ عِبَادِيَ الشَّكُورُ
And few of My servants are grateful. (34:13)
Only a few of all of these slaves are grateful to Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, the yaa is again signifying a wider group.
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala also says:
وَإِذَا سَأَلَكَ عِبَادِي عَنِّي فَإِنِّي قَرِيبٌ ۖ أُجِيبُ دَعْوَةَ الدَّاعِ إِذَا دَعَانِ ۖ فَلْيَسْتَجِيبُوا لِي وَلْيُؤْمِنُوا بِي لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْشُدُونَ
And when My servants ask you, concerning Me - indeed 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. (2:186)
Allah ta’ala is addressing all of His slaves here, in their entirety - when they call upon Him, He is near to every single one of them and will respond to every single one of their duaas.
Similarly, Allah ta’ala says:
وَقُل لِّعِبَادِي يَقُولُوا الَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ يَنزَغُ بَيْنَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ كَانَ لِلْإِنسَانِ عَدُوًّا مُّبِينًا
And tell My servants to say that which is best. Indeed, Satan induces [dissension] among them. Indeed Satan is ever, to mankind, a clear enemy. (17:53)
Allah ta’ala is speaking to all of His servants here, commanding them to speak what is good in the best of manners, so He ta’ala used the ‘yaa’ pronoun.
Even when Allah azza wa jal address the Servants with emaan, He ta’ala uses the ‘yaa’. He says:
يَا عِبَادِيَ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنَّ أَرْضِي وَاسِعَةٌ فَإِيَّايَ فَاعْبُدُونِ
O My servants who have believed, indeed My earth is spacious, so worship only Me. (29:56)
But, when Allah azza wa jal is addressing a specific group among these believers, He omits the ‘yaa’:
قُلْ يَا عِبَادِ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمْ ۚ لِلَّذِينَ أَحْسَنُوا فِي هَٰذِهِ الدُّنْيَا حَسَنَةٌ ۗ وَأَرْضُ اللَّهِ وَاسِعَةٌ ۗ إِنَّمَا يُوَفَّى الصَّابِرُونَ أَجْرَهُم بِغَيْرِ حِسَابٍ
Say, “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.” (39:10)
Allah azza wa jal attributes these believing servants with taqwaa, which restricts that group of believing servants even more.
The scholars mention yet another reason why the yaa is removed, which is to show affection and love.
You may be thinking, how can an ayah about Hell-fire and fearing Allah show Allah’s affection?
It is said that the removal of the yaa here resembles ‘tarkheem’ which is shortening of names when calling someone to show affection. For example, A’ishah becomes A’ish and Fatimah becomes Fatim and Maalik becomes Maali. This shows that although Allah ta’ala is telling us about Hell-Fire to bring about the fear in our hearts, He is doing so out of love. This threat of Hell-Fire is coming from the One who loves you.
Our obedience to Allah will not benefit Him, nor will our disobedience to Him harm Him. Allah azza wa jal is not frightening us in this heart-jolting way so that He may hasten the punishment to us nor is He ta’ala frightening us to make us worry, grieve or cause discomfort in this life. Rather He is reminding us to fear Him in this way to warn us against this punishment that is incumbent upon those who sin. He is warning us, reminding us because He loves us, not because He is spiteful.
يَا عِبَادِ فَاتَّقُونِ
O My dear slaves, have taqwa of Me.
-Taken from Dr Fadil as-Samara’i hafidhahullah (Balaghatul Kalimah)