Literary Structures of the Qur’ān




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Literary Structures of the Qur’ān


Rhetorical, grammatical and linguistic devices utilized in the conveyance of meaning. The message of the Qur’ān is couched in various literary structures, which are widely considered to be the most perfect example of the Arabic language (q.v.; see also language and style of the qur’ān). Arabic grammars were written based upon the qur’ānic language (see grammar and the qur’ān), and, by the general consensus of Muslim rhetoricians, the qur’ānic idiom is considered to be sublime. This article is concerned with these literary structures and how they produce meaning in the Qur’ān in an effective way.

Muslim doctrine holds that the Qur’ān is inimitable, its inimitability (q.v.) lying not only in its matchless literary style (see form and structure of the qur’ān) but also in its religious content. As such, the Qur’ān is considered the avowed miracle (see miracles) of the prophet Muammad, testifying to the truth (q.v.) of his prophethood and the enduring veracity of his message (see prophets and prophethood; messenger). These doctrinal considerations frame classical Muslim considerations of the literary structures of the Qur’ān and their manner of generating religious meaning. It should be emphasized that these literary structures are not ¶ deemed mere otiose embellishments of the text of the Qur’ān but are rather the factors that produce its powerful effect in the specific forms presented. If the form of a qur’ānic text is changed in any way, however small or seemingly innocent, the meaning is modified, often significantly. Take, for example, “iyyāka na`budu” (q 1:5). By syntactically placing the pronominal object (iyyāka) before the verb (na`budu), rather than after it (as the pronominal suffix -ka), the meaning of the qur’ānic verse is specified to be “only you do we worship.” This is significantly different from “we worship you” (na`buduka), which declares worship of God but does not exclude the possibility of worshiping other deities as well (see polytheism and atheism). Syntax, therefore, is an important element of the literary structures of the Qur’ān, for it helps to determine the specific meaning of the text.

A further example will highlight another aspect of the quality of qur’ānic literary structures: “wa-lakum fī l-qiāi ayātun” (q 2:179), which means “and in retaliation (q.v.), there is life for you.” Muslim rhetoricians have compared this qur’ānic verse with the pre-Islamic Arabian proverb, “al-qatlu anfā lil-qatli,” which means “killing is more likely to preclude killing” (see pre-islamic arabia and the qur’ān; murder; blood money). Although the two statements are not exactly congruent, they both advocate the application of the death penalty in cases of murder, maintaining that such a punishment results in a safer society, as it both deters others and removes the murderer from the community (see community and society in the qur’ān; chastisement and punishment). Attention has been drawn to the sound of the words in these two statements; the phonemes of the pre-Islamic proverb are difficult to pronounce in succession, ¶ alternating — as they do — between the sounds of a and q at opposite ends of the laryngeal uttering process, interposed between the repetitive dental cluster tl, whereas the phonemes of the qur’ānic verse, in contrast, flow easily on one's tongue. Phonology, therefore, is another important element in literary structures, for it governs and ensures the acoustic and phonic fluidity of the qur’ānic text, helping it to achieve good reception and deliver its meaning effectively (see recitation of the qur’ān).

As these examples demonstrate, the Arabic language forms the basis for the literary structures of the Qur’ān, and is the vehicle through which the intended meaning has been conveyed. The Qur’ān was revealed to the prophet Muammad in Arabic, as the text itself reiterates (e.g. q 12:2; 20:113; 39:28; 41:3; 42:7; 43:3) and it is in Arabic that his contemporaries first heard the message, a message that affected both their hearts (see heart) and minds (see intellect). It is in Arabic that later generations of Muslim believers of all ethnic and linguistic backgrounds have continued to hear and recite the qur’ānic text, the text from which they have drawn guidance to shape their lives. To them a translation of the Qur’ān into any other language is not really the Qur’ān (lit. “recitation”; see orality; orality and writing in arabia), irrespective of its accuracy and faithfulness to the Arabic original. Furthermore, like other languages, Arabic has its own specific way of conveying meaning, which has been connected with particular cultural contexts; the Qur’ān's use of this idiom is notably unique and, for believers, miraculous. Muslims therefore celebrate this unique and inimitable Qur’ān, and aspire to retain the authentic association of language, culture and faith (q.v.) so central to their lives.



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The qur’ānic text in the prophet Muammad's lifetime

According to tradition, the Qur’ān was revealed piecemeal to the prophet Muammad in about twenty-three years (between 610 and 632 c.e.). It was orally received and memorized (see memory), and some qur’ānic passages were probably written down by his literate Companions (see companions of the prophet) on flat stones, shoulder blades, palm leaves, parchment and other materials (see codices of the qur’ān; literacy). Although qur’ānic passages of different lengths were revealed intermittently — frequently with specific reference or in response to particular circumstances and events — and were thus not necessarily intended or taken as continuing where the previously revealed text had left off (see occasions of revelation; chronology and the qur’ān), it was the prophet Muammad who — according to tradition — instructed the early believers as to the proper placement of these passages in the larger (and growing) oral text that would become the holy scripture of Islam. By the end of Muammad's life in 10/632, the Qur’ān had 114 sūras ranging from the shortest — with three verses (q 103, 108, and 110) — to the longest, with 286 verses (q 2). Muslim tradition says that Muammad designated the position of every verse but one (q 4:176), since that verse was revealed just before his death. His Companions chose the place for this verse based upon its meaning, context, and style (see Draz, Introduction, 15, n. 3).



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The qur’ānic text after the prophet Muammad's death

When the oral Qur’ān was later “collected” by the Prophet's Companions in “book” form in ca. 28/650, the 114 sūras were arranged largely according to size, and not according to the chronological or-¶ der of revelation; the longer sūras were placed first and the shorter ones followed in a generally descending order of length. The notable exception to this arrangement is q 1, Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (“The Opening”), which, although it has only seven verses, was placed at the beginning of the qur’ānic codex. According to Muslim tradition, copies of the Qur’ān have normally been disseminated in this form since its initial collection (one revisionist theory of the collection and compilation of the Qur’ān is provided by John Wansbrough, who, in his Qur’ānic studies, argues that the Qur’ān did not attain its current form until about the end of the second/eighth and beginning of the third/ninth century; see collection of the qur’ān; muṣḥaf).

One should keep in mind the originally oral character of the Qur’ān and the amount of time that elapsed before each of its sūras, especially the longer ones, were revealed in their entirety. Hence, it is necessary to look at the literary structures of the sūras (q.v.) to discover how each forms a unit, canonically constituting one chapter. Some pre-modern Muslim exegetes (see exegesis of the qur’ān: classical and medieval) examined these structures, and offered theories of nam (lit. “order”) highlighting the verbal organization of the sūra's wording with regard to its syntax and rhetorical figures of speech (see rhetoric and the qur’ān); others offered theories of munāsaba or tanāsub (lit. “relationship”) about the linear relatedness of verses (q.v.) within the sūra, or even of one sūra and the next. But the treatment of the sūra as a unit was not really broached by Muslim scholars until the twentieth century, notably by Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī (1906-97) and Sayyid Quṭb (1906-66).

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The sūra as a unit

In his Tadabbur-i Qur’ān (1967-80), Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī concentrates on the semantic ¶ and thematic content of the sūra as a coherent unit. He finds that, semantically, the sūras are linked in complementary pairs and that the Qur’ān contains seven groups of sūras, each with a block of Meccan sūras and a block of Medinan ones, which deal, respectively, with theoretical and practical aspects of the block's theme. Iṣlāḥī's concept is insightful, if a little too schematized, but it does not give literary structures their due place in generating and conveying the meaning of the qur’ānic sūras in his systematized scheme.

In his ilāl al-Qur’ān (1952-9), Sayyid Quṭb focuses on the coherent unity of each sūra — mostly with regard to its semantic and thematic qualities — but he does identify structural characteristics related to its diction, syntax, imagery and phonology that reflect the intended meaning and mood of the sūra. He finds that each sūra has a core or central point, a theme that he calls its miwar (lit. its “axis”), around which it revolves. In his view, the sūra may have one topic (mawū`) tightly bound to its theme or it may have more topics so bound; the theme may sometimes be double-lined (as in long sūras), but each line (khaṭṭ) of the theme is then strongly bound to the other. For example, Sayyid Quṭb believes that q 2 has a double-lined theme whose two lines are strongly bound together. The first thematic line revolves around the hostile attitude of the Jews (see jews and judaism) to Islam in Medina (q.v.) and their friendly relations with the Arabian polytheists and hypocrites (see hypocrites and hypocrisy). The second thematic line revolves around the corresponding attitude of the Muslims in Medina and their growth as a believing community prepared to carry the responsibility of God's call after Jewish rejection. Both lines are complementary and tightly bound together throughout the sūra, which eventually ends as it began: by exhorting ¶ (see exhortations) human beings to belief in God (see belief and unbelief), his prophets, his scriptures (see book; scripture and the qur’ān) and the metaphysical unseen world (see hidden and the hidden). From beginning to end, the several topics of the sūra are related to this double-lined theme.

In all circumstances, Sayyid Quṭb believes each sūra has a special atmosphere (jaww) integrating its topic or topics harmoniously and a musical rhythm (īqā` mūsīqī) consonant with its topic or topics. He maintains that both jaww and īqā` mūsīqī strengthen the effective delivery of its intended meaning. The aesthetic effects of the Qur’ān's literary structures are discussed at some length by Sayyid Quṭb in his books al-Tawīr al-fannī fī l-Qur’ān (1945) and Mashāhid al-qiyāma fī l-Qur’ān (1947), where he gives a detailed view of the manner in which the structures generate the intended meaning and deliver it with verbal beauty and psychological power.

Some Western scholars, on the other hand, have criticized the Qur’ān because they perceived it as lacking in certain literary virtues. None other than T. Nöldeke stated “dass der gesunde Sprachsinn der Araber sie fast ganz davor beewahrt hat, die eigentlichen Selsamkeiten und Schwächen der Koransprache nachzuahmen” (Zur Sprache, 22; Fr. trans. “Le bon sens linguistique des Arabes les a presque entièrement préservés de l'imitation des étrangetés et faiblesses propres à la langue du Coran,” in id., Remarques critiques, 34). Thomas Carlyle (cf. Arberrry, Koran, i, 12), no mean admirer of the prophet Muammad as a hero, thought of the Qur’ān as “toilsome reading” and considered it to be “a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite.” R.A. Nicholson (cf. Arberry, Koran, ii, 9) referred to European readers of the Qur’ān who held that “it is obscure, tiresome, uninteresting; a farrago of ¶ long-winded narratives and prosaic exhortations.” W. Montgomery Watt (Watt-Bell, Introduction, 73) spoke of “disjointedness” as “a real characteristic of Qur’ānic style.”

Yet Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, the first modern British Muslim to make an English translation of the Qur’ān (which he did not call “The Qur’ān,” but pointedly entitled The meaning of the glorious Koran and subtitled “An explanatory translation”) refers to the Qur’ān in his foreword as “that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy.” Another Englishman, Arthur J. Arberry, who also translated the Qur’ān into English, offered his translation as only The Koran interpreted and devised “rhythmic patterns and sequence-groupings” in it to reflect certain aspects of its literary structures in Arabic. Although in his introduction Arberry admits (Koran, i, 24) that it is “a poor copy of the glittering splendour of the original,” he later says that each “sūra will now be seen to be a unity within itself, and the Koran will be recognized as a simple revelation, self-consistent to the highest degree” (Koran, ii, 15-6). More recently, the works of Angelika Neuwirth have focused on the literary merit and integrity of whole sūras (cf. e.g. Neuwirth, Zur Struktur der Yūsuf-Sure; see also N. Robinson, Discovering the Qur’ān).

The study of the qur’ānic sūra as a unit with coherent unity is still in need of focused, philological elaboration in modern scholarship. With the possible exception of the German school of qur’ānic studies, the analytical tools and categories for such research, as well as the relevant technical methods and terminology, need to be developed and established, as has been achieved — however dissonantly — with the study of other scriptures and of other literary genres. Such a study will help better understand not only the sūra and its literary structures, but also — ulti-¶ mately — the whole Qur’ān as a holy scripture with a singular message. The study of the macrostructure of the Qur’ān should build on the conclusions of studying its microstructures as manifested in the sūra and its individual, componential pericopes (see narratives; for an example of the contemporary German scholarship on the macro- and microstructures of the Qur’ān, see the eq articles by Angelika Neuwirth, esp. sūras; form and structure of the qur’ān; rhetoric of the qur’ān).

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The prose of the Qur’ān

As Arabic is the language of the Qur’ān, its use in a variety of literary forms should be closely examined. To be noted first and foremost is the fact that the qur’ānic text is written in prose. It is a very special kind of prose, to be sure, and it is unique in many ways; but it is definitely prose and not verse. Classical Arabic verse has regular meter and recurring rhyme as two of its basic features, which are partly responsible for its symmetry and harmony. These features are clear in the long tradition of the Arabic qaīda, the ode. The prose of the qur’ānic text, on the other hand, is not at all metrical; furthermore, its rhyme is neither regular nor constantly based on an identical rhyme-letter as in classical Arabic verse. It is often replaced by assonance, and, sometimes, completely ignored.

Muslim scholars have been reluctant to call the prose of the qur’ānic text saj`,rhymed prose” (q.v.), possibly because this term is associated with the prose pronouncements of pagan priests and the prose utterances of fortune-tellers (see foretelling; divination) or soothsayers (q.v.) in pre-Islamic Arabia (see also poetry and poets), as well as with the prose of later Arabic writings in Islamic history characterized by a degree of artificiality or mannerism. The term saj`, how-¶ ever, is not appropriate mainly because not all of the qur’ānic text is written in rhymed prose. Muslim scholars prefer to designate the prose of the qur’ānic text as one divided into fawāil, “rhetorical periods” (singular ila). Each period in the text contains a semantic-grammatical unit forming an āya, “a verse,” usually ending with rhyme or assonance echoing the rhyme or assonance of other verses in the proximate textual neighborhood. Sometimes, however, a rhetorical period ends without such rhyme or assonance.

An āya may be short and can consist of as few as one word (e.g. q 69:1; 101:1) or even a couple of “mysterious letters” (q.v.) at the beginning of certain sūras (e.g. q 20:1; 36:1). It may also be quite long and consist of as many as fifty words or more. When the āyāt are short, the effect of the rhymes or assonances in the text is powerful because, given their proximity to one another, they continue to ring in the immediate memory of the reader or listener and instill the meaning with persistence. When, however, the āyāt are long, the effect of the rhymes or assonances as such is less powerful on account of the distance between one and the next, thus possibly allowing for them to fade in the immediate memory; in these instances, however, their effect is usually reinforced through their inclusion within a brief rhyming phrase or clause tagged to the end of the āya as a coda, a device which can serve to remind the reader or listener of the preceding statement, pressing it home, and clinching the argument of the āya.

A few examples will suffice to demonstrate the nature of rhyme or assonance in both the short and long verses of the Qur’ān. Some examples of the short verses are as follows: 1. After the basmala (q.v.), q 112 (in full) reads: (1) qul huwa llāhu aad (2) Allāhu l-amad (3) lam yalid wa-lam yūlad (4) wa-lam yakun lahu kufuwan aad. Here the ¶ rhyme is -ad. To be noted is the fact that the final inflection of the rhyme-word is disregarded lest the rhyme be broken; otherwise, the final words would not rhyme and would read, respectively: aadun, l-amadu, yūlad, and aadun. 2. Verses 9-11 of q 93 read: (9) fa-ammā l-yatīma fa-lā taqhar (10) wa-ammā l-sā’ila fa-lā tanhar (11) wa-ammā bi-ni`mati rabbika fa-addith. Here the rhyme of verses 9 and 10 is -ar but it is ignored in verse 11. Examples of long verses are as follows: 1. q 2:143 has forty-five words, ending with the coda inna llāha bi-l-nāsi la-ra’ūfun raīm, the rhyme of which is -īm, echoing the majority of the other rhymes in the sūra, which consist of -īm and of the assonantal -īn and -ūn. There are, however, verses in this sūra that end in -īr (q 2:148) or -āb (q 2:165-6), or -ār (q 2:167), as well as other consonantal endings, in which the rhyme or assonance of the majority of the verses of the sūra is ignored. 2. In the same sūra, verse q 2:255 has fifty words and ends with the coda wa-huwa l-`aliyyu l-`aīm. The verse that follows, q 2:256, which consists of twenty-four words, ends with the coda wa-llāhu samī`un `alīm. Both verses rhyme in -īm, echoing most of the other rhymes and assonances in the sūra, and the coda in each reinforces and clinches the argument of the āya.

From the above, it can be observed that the verses of the qur’ānic text are of various lengths. In the longer sūras, the verses are usually long and in the shorter sūras they are usually short, but this is not an invariant rule. Even within a single sūra, the verses vary in length. Although they tend to be of a fairly similar length, they are not necessarily equal in length nor are they composed of parallel and corresponding syllables, as in metrical composition with prosodic feet, to produce the exact symmetry of versification. Nonetheless, the prose of the qur’ānic text has a certain rhythm to it, which varies from sūra to sūra ¶ and even within one sūra, particularly if it is a long one. This rhythm is not that of a fixed meter but that of a unique composition that allows the topic at hand to qualify it and modify its cadences, using verses of varying lengths, mostly with rhymes or assonances and sometimes without. The topic of the sūra may gradually unfold different aspects of its major theme, and the verses of the sūra may accordingly have a different rhyme-letter for each aspect, especially in sūras of some length; but, again, this is not an invariant rule.

In sum, the prose of the Qur’ān is not totally rhymed prose, nor is it totally unrhymed free prose. It is a unique blend of both, with an important contribution by assonance, couched in a variety of short and long verses dispensed in sūras of various lengths. The different patterns of rhymes, assonances and free endings in the verses, as well as the different lengths and rhythms of these verses and the varying lengths of the sūras themselves, are all literary structures related to the meaning offered. In the final analysis, they comprise an essential element of the effective delivery of the total message of the Qur’ān.

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Phonology

From the Arabic text of the Qur’ān, it is obvious that sound plays a major role in the effect its words produce, an effect that a translation of the Qur’ān into other languages fails to preserve, despite the best efforts of the translators. Arthur J. Arberry made a genuine effort in his English translation of the Qur’ān “to devise rhythmic patterns and sequence-groupings in correspondence with what the Arabic presents.” Despite his commendable effort, he admits that, in the end, his interpretation is a poor echo of the original, as noted above.

The sound of Arabic words in the Qur’ān is an important element of literary structure in producing a rhetorical ¶ medium that delivers the meaning effectively. This element functions at different levels. At the level of vocabulary, there is what rhetoricians would come to describe as the “eloquence of the single word” (faāat al-mufrad): the individual words in the Qur’ān consist of letters that flow harmoniously without tongue-twisting difficulties or ear-jarring sounds, each word agreeing with common usage and the morphological rules of Arabic. These later rhetoricians also noted the “eloquence of composition” (faāat al-murakkab) with regards to the wording of individual verses: the order of words is such that their phonemes flow with ease from one word to the next in pronunciation and are aurally perceived with a pleasant sensation. Meanwhile, the construction follows the rules of correct syntax, allowing variations that cater to the rhetorical intention and effectiveness of semantic delivery. At the level of passages consisting of shorter or longer sequences within a sūra, the verses of varying lengths are threaded together by rhymes and assonances, their rhythms varying according to their topics and modulated according to their moods in order to produce maximum effect. At the level of the whole Qur’ān, which consists of short, middle-sized and long sūras, the total message leaves a phonological and semantic impression that is considered absolutely sublime and that has often been said to go beyond the exquisite harmony of music; this is “that inimitable symphony” according to Marmaduke Pickthall. Muslim rhetoricians have called this unique composition of the Qur’ān nam al-Qur’ān (lit. “the order of the Qur’ān”), a reference to the beautiful fusion of its wording and meaning in accordance with principles of grammar, rhetoric, and phonology, briefly outlined above. Considering the Qur’ān's divine provenance to be a matter of faith and deeming its content transcendent and ¶ its composition unique, Muslim theologians have considered it to be the prophet Muammad's miracle and declared it to be beyond human ability to imitate. By the early part of the third/ninth century, they developed the doctrine of i`jāz al-Qur’ān, literally, the Qur’ān's incapacitation (of humans and jinn [q.v.]), but technically denoting the miraculously inimitable character of the Qur’ān. According to the theologians, the doctrine that human beings and jinn are incapable of imitating the Qur’ān has been proven by their continuing inability to meet its clear challenge to them to do so (q 10:38; 11:13; 17:88; see Boullata, Rhetorical interpretation, 149-57).

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Transtextuality

As in music, repetition plays an essential role in any literary text of poetic effectiveness. In the Qur’ān, it takes the form of repeated rhythms, rhymes, assonances, refrains, patterns of structure and variations on the same theme. It is meant to inculcate the qur’ānic message with power while employing a sublime language that seizes the heart and mind — without being enthralling or entrancing in the pejorative, incantatory sense of enslaving comprehension, spiritual absorption, and meaningful reaction.

Transtextuality allows several kinds of repetition, whereby a usage with strong associations of meaning in one part of the Qur’ān is encountered in another part or in other parts of it with echoes of the earlier usage, either at the intratextual level of the same sūra or at the intertextual level of all the sūras. Two obvious examples of refrains may be used to demonstrate this repetition at the intratextual level. The refrains are repeated several times, with a stronger effect each time as the text builds to a climax. The first example is q 55, a sūra consisting of seventy-eight short ¶ verses, of which thirty are a refrain asking the rhetorical question: “Which then of the favors (see grace; blessing) of your lord (q.v.) will you two deny?” The first instance of this refrain occurs after verse 12, and appears thereafter following every verse or two; after verse 44, the refrain alternates with every verse until the end of the sūra. The sūra enumerates the bounties of God to the two kinds of creatures: human beings and jinn (see creation). It mentions God's creation of humankind, the jinn, the orderly universe and the world (see cosmology) with its wonders, blessings, gifts, bounties, and benefits that are granted to all out of his mercy (q.v.). One of these blessings is God's teaching of the Qur’ān. On the day of judgment (see last judgment), all creatures will be rewarded or punished according to their deeds (see good deeds; evil deeds; record of human actions). The sūra describes the physical features of the reward and punishment (q.v.), leaving no excuse for anyone to deny the prior favors of the lord, which are incrementally stressed throughout the sūra, culminating in the climax, with the thirty repetitions of the rhetorical question.

The other example of refrains recurring throughout a single sūra is found in q 77, which consists of fifty short verses, ten of which are a refrain in the form of a threat: “Woe on that day to those who deny” (see lie; gratitude and ingratitude). The day in question is yawm al-fal, “the day of decision,” on which the physical features of the world will collapse and all creatures will be brought before God for judgment (see apocalypse). The sūra begins with a succession of enigmatic oaths (q.v.) assuring everyone that what has been promised will indeed occur. Then it proceeds to a frightening description of the universe as it collapses. Creatures are reminded that God had created them and the world's benefits for them. They are reminded that ¶ God had destroyed the evil-doers of yore (see generations) and will punish all sinners (see sin, major and minor), whose tricks will not avail against them nor protect them from the blazing flames (see fire; hell and hellfire). Meanwhile, the righteous will dwell amid shades and fountains, eating fruits and consuming and drinking what they desire, in just reward for their pious lives (see garden; paradise; food and drink; piety). God's favors and his promised punishment throughout the sūra are punctuated by the repeated threat of woe to those who, on that day of decision, deny the truth of God's power, but will not be permitted to speak and excuse themselves. The repeated threats serve to highlight the fearful punishment and, in contrast, the blissful joy of reward (see joy and misery; hope).

Repetitions in the form of refrains like these two examples do not occur elsewhere in the qur’ānic text. There are, however, other kinds of repetition in the form of words or turns of phrase that are too many to enumerate, which contribute to that specific quality of the qur’ānic style, giving it a particular tone. That which was called coda above, namely a maxim that comes at the end of a verse clinching its purport, is an example of such a repetition, a refrain that occurs in the Qur’ān at both the intratextual and the intertextual levels. An example of such a coda is wa-huwa l-`azīzu l-akīm, “And he is the mighty, the wise” (q 29:42). This also occurs without the definite article but usually with Allāh (“God”) instead of the pronoun huwa (“he”), as in q 5:38: wa-llāhu `azīzun akīm, “And God is mighty, wise.” This coda occurs about forty times in the Qur’ān. Variations — with a different attribute of God (see god and his attributes) — also occur, such as q 44:42: innahu huwa l-`azīzu l-raīm, “Verily, he is the mighty, the merciful,” or q 67:2: wa-huwa l-`azīzu l-ghafūr, ¶ “And he is the mighty, the forgiving” (see forgiveness). Among the many other codas is the one found in q 2:20: inna llāha `alā kulli shay’in qadīr, “Verily, God is powerful over everything,” which also occurs without inna (“verily”) and begins with wa (“and”), as in q 2:284: wa-llāhu `alā kulli shay’in qadīr, “And God is powerful over everything.” The pronoun huwa or hu may also be substituted for Allāh, as in q 30:50 and q 41:39, respectively. This coda occurs about thirty times in the Qur’ān.

Another form of repetition in the Qur’ān is the telling of punishment stories (q.v.), in each of which a messenger is sent by God to a certain people to teach them, to turn them away from their evil deeds and to warn (see warner) them against God's punishment if they do not heed. When they persist in their evil ways, God's punishment is visited upon them in a variety of terrible ways. Such is the story of the messenger Hūd (q.v.) sent to the Arabian pre-Islamic group of people called `Ād (q.v.). Likewise, it is the story of the messenger āli (q.v.) sent to a certain people of ancient Arabia called Thamūd (q.v.). Some of the stories have biblical equivalents, such as the story of the messenger Shu`ayb (q.v.) sent to the people of Midian (q.v.) or the story of Noah (q.v.) and his people or of Lot (q.v.) and his people or some aspects of the story of the prophet Moses (q.v.) and Pharaoh (q.v.). q 26 contains a group of these punishment stories, some of which are repeated with variations in q 54, q 7, q 11, q 51, and elsewhere. Not only is the pattern of events in these stories generally parallel, but the wording is often similar, sometimes even identical in certain parts of the story (see Welch, Formulaic features). The oral nature of the original qur’ānic message is very evident in these stories, repeated in a variety of similar ways to suit different audiences in the Prophet's lifetime. Their purpose, then and later, is to ¶ warn and threaten unbelievers, to convince them of the power of God and the certainty of his punishment, and to reassure those who believe in God and accept Muammad's message that he is truly God's messenger sent to the world as a warner and a bearer of good tidings (see good news) about a new religion and a new societal order. The rhetoric of thematic and verbal repetition in the stories inculcates this purpose strongly and helps instill the meaning effectively.



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Imagery and figurative language

Metaphors (see metaphor) and other figures of speech abound in the Qur’ān. As in the scriptures of other world religions and in the literatures of all nations, figurative language is used to enhance the effect of what is said by making it beautiful, impressive, aesthetically striking, and semantically powerful. It persuades through literary devices that stir the imagination and appeal directly to the senses. On this count, the Qur’ān often offers dramatic uses of figurative language in its literary structures, as well as original and daring insights of unforgettable aesthetic and semantic effect.

There is much in the Qur’ān that continues to adhere to the literal usage of the Arabic language, that is, the use of words for what they have commonly been used to designate. Yet, as in other languages, there are some words whose figurative usage has become so common as to be accepted as normal literal usage. English words like leg, neck, and eye, which originally refer to parts of humans or animals, are no longer considered metaphorical when used in such expressions as “the leg of a table,” “the neck of a bottle” and “the eye of a needle.” In a similar manner, the Arabic word sharī`a, which originally refers to a path leading to water sought for drinking, has come to refer metaphorically to reli-¶ gious law, as attested in q 45:18 (see law and the qur’ān). This religious law is — if obeyed — the path leading to the quenching of spiritual thirst and the preservation of societal health and well-being, hence the connection of sharī`a referring to Islamic law. Another similar qur’ānic use is the Arabic word fatra, which originally meant tepidity, but has been commonly used to mean interval of time between happenings; q 5:19 reads: qad jā’akum rasūlunā yubayyinu lakum `alā fatratin min al-rusuli, “Our messenger has come to you to make things clear to you after an interval between the messengers.” Here fatra may also effectively be read — as originally intended in Arabic — to mean tepidity. The qur’ānic statement can then be understood as saying: “Our messenger has come to you to make things clear to you after the tepidity of [people's faith in earlier] messengers” (for further discussion, see Abu-Deeb, Studies in the majāz). Aside from these matters, however, the Qur’ān has an amazing abundance of fresh and vivid images and figures of speech in its literary structures, an abundance that has made a perceptive modern literary critic and exegete like Sayyid Quṭb argue that what he calls tawīr fannī, “artistic imagery,” is indeed the preferred style of the Qur’ān (see Boullata, Sayyid Quṭb's literary appreciation). Classical rhetoricians and exegetes of the Qur’ān writing in Arabic, like al-Jurjānī (d. 471/1078) and al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144), among others, have long drawn particular attention to this inherent quality of imagery in the qur’ānic style.

The primary instance to be noted is the fact that the Qur’ān speaks of God in anthropomorphic language (see anthropomorphism). Although it says of God laysa ka-mithlihi shay’un (q 42:11), “Nothing is like unto him,” it speaks of the “hand of God” (e.g. q 3:73; 5:64; 48:10) and sometimes speaks of “his hand” (e.g. q 23:88; ¶ 36:83; see hand[s]). Muslim theologians have long discussed such wording and often differ — each according to his theological school — about the explanation. But it appears evident that, linguistically, there is figurative speech here, the word hand metonymically referring to God's power (see power and impotence). The same applies to the “eye of God,” as in li-tuna`a `alā `aynī (q 20:39), i.e. “that you [Moses] may be formed before my eye,” metonymically meaning under God's protection and according to his will (see eyes). In the same manner, the Qur’ān ascribes attributes to God, such as mercy (q.v.), knowledge (see knowledge and learning), hearing (see hearing and deafness), sight (see vision and blindness; seeing and hearing), speech (q.v.), love (see love and affection), justice (see justice and injustice), power, generosity (q.v.), forgiveness, oneness, wisdom (q.v.), glory (q.v.), greatness and so on. God is also said to have sat on the throne (thumma stawā `alā l-`arsh, q 7:54; 10:3; 13:2; 25:59; 32:4; 57:4 and elsewhere), with the word “throne” taken to be a symbol (see symbolic imagery) of his omnipotence and majesty (see throne of god).

Likewise, the afterlife (see eschatology) is described in the Qur’ān in terms of physical pleasure in paradise and physical pain in hell, denoting, respectively, reward and punishment for deeds done on earth (q.v.) in this life, and fulfilling God's promise of reward and his threat of punishment elaborated in the Qur’ān. The material joys of paradise are concurrent with the spiritual satisfaction of being near God, experiencing eternal peace and bliss, and delighting in the beatitude of salvation (q.v.). The material sufferings of hell are concurrent with the spiritual affliction of being exiled from God's presence, the frustrating experience of eternal self-blame and regret, and the permanent agony of ¶ being condemned to the misery of damnation. Jewish and Christian literature have parallel details of the afterlife, but the qur’ānic image is, on the whole, sui generis. This image can be culled from different, scattered texts of various lengths in the Qur’ān, most of them found in the Meccan sūras. Each text concentrates on specific scenes from paradise or hell, or from both, usually presented in a contrastive way. Each text, with its different details, adds to the total picture of the afterlife. In his Mashāhid al-qiyāma fī l-Qur’ān, Sayyid Quṭb surveys 150 scenes taken from eighty sūras of the Qur’ān, sixty-three of them from the Meccan period and seventeen from the Medinan period.

Perhaps even more graphic is the qur’ānic image of the last day, the time when history comes to a climax: the universe is dismantled, the dead are resurrected (see death and the dead; resurrection), the last judgment occurs, and an eternity (q.v.) in paradise or hell begins for those consigned to either according to their deeds. What happens on this last day is described in ominous words such as in q 82:1-5: “(1) When heaven is cleft asunder, (2) When the stars (al-kawākib, see planets and stars) are dispersed, (3) When the seas are burst, (4) And when the tombs are laid open, (5) Each soul shall then know its former and latter deeds.” Or, q 81:1-14, “(1) When the sun is rolled up, (2) When the stars (al-nujūm) are darkened, (3) When the mountains are made to move, (4) When the ten-month pregnant she-camels are abandoned (see camel), (5) When the wild beasts are herded together, (6) When the seas are made to seethe, (7) When the souls are united, (8) When the female infant buried alive (see children; infanticide) is asked, (9) For what sin she was killed, (10) When the scrolls (q.v.) are spread out, (11) When heaven is stripped off, (12) When hell is set ablaze, (13) And ¶ when paradise is brought near, (14) Each soul shall then know what it has produced.” Of grammatical note in these qur’ānic passages is the fact that the main verbs are used in the passive voice and without mention of the specific doer of the action, or that they occur in the seventh or eighth morphological verbal form, forms which usually denote passivity. This structure increases the perception of the passivity of the universe at the end of time as it obeys an omnipotent God who does not even need to be mentioned as the doer because he is known to be the only one with commensurate power and authority to act at that cosmic scale.

There are several other qur’ānic passages with such ominous, eschatological and cataclysmic scenes foreshadowing humans being brought to account on the last day, the day of resurrection and the day of judgment. The event is heralded by a terrible shout (aya, q 36:53), a thunderclap (ākhkha, q 80:33), one blast of a trumpet (q 69:13: nufikha fī l-ūri nafkhatun wāida) or two blasts (q 39:68: nufikha fī l-ūri […] thumma nufikha fīhi ukhrā), and other portents (as mentioned above). The Qur’ān often gives this day a special, alarming attribute such as al-āqqa (q 69:1) or al-qāri`a (q 101:1) or yawm al-fal (q 77:13). In order to magnify the unknown and unexpected dread of the day, it immediately follows this attribute with a rhetorical question or double question, asked in awe-inspiring tones, as in q 69:2-3, “What is al-āqqa? And what shall make you know what al-āqqa is?” or q 101:2-3, “What is al-qāri`a? And what shall make you know what al-qāri`a is?” or q 77:14, “And what shall make you know what yawmu l-fal is?” In a similar way, the Qur’ān gives hell other names, such as saqar (q 74:26) or al-uama (q 104:4) and follows that name with a rhetorical question, asking as in q 74:27, “And what shall make you know what saqar is?”; and ¶ q 104:5, “And what shall make you know what al-uama is?” A menacing description is then provided, with terrifying details.

Among the other qur’ānic names of hell are al-jaīm (“the hot place”), al-sa`īr (“the blaze”), laā (“flame”), and al-nār (“the fire”). These very names evoke the physical torment of the damned by fire and burning, hence the qur’ānic image of hell's inmates asking those in paradise for water but being denied it (q 7:50). To drink, they are given boiling water like molten lead (ka-l-muhli), scalding their faces (q 18:29), or they are given festering liquid pus (mā’in adīdin) which they can hardly swallow (q 14:16-7). They are given to eat from the zaqqūm tree, whose bitter fruits are like heads of devils (q 37:62-5; see agriculture and vegetation). They burn in hell but do not die or live, and they are not consumed; whenever their skins are seared, they are given fresh skins so that they may continue to be tormented (q 4:56). Their torment reaches to their very souls and they wish they could ransom themselves with all their earthly possessions and they feel remorse within them on seeing their punishment (q 10:54; see repentance and penance). They bite their hands in regret and wish they had chosen the messenger's way (q 25:27). They wish they could return to the world and be believers (q 26:102), and they cry for help to the lord to be let out in order to do righteous deeds, but they will not be helped, for they had been forewarned (q 35:37).

In contrast, the eternal reward of the good and just people is a place of physical pleasure and spiritual bliss; it is jannāt al-na`īm (“the gardens of delight”) or jannāt al-firdaws (“the gardens of paradise”) or simply al-janna (“the garden”). Through it, rivers flow (q 5:119), rivers of unpolluted water, rivers of milk (q.v.) unchanging in flavor, rivers of delicious wine (q.v.), and ¶ rivers of clear honey (q.v.; q 47:15). The inmates recline with their spouses on couches in pleasant shades, enjoying fruits and whatever they call for (q 36:56-57). They are adorned with bracelets of gold (q.v.) and wear green garments of silk (q.v.) and brocade (q 18:31). They are served by immortal youths carrying goblets, ewers, and cups filled from a pure spring (see springs and fountains); and they do not have headaches by drinking therefrom, nor are they intoxicated (see intoxicants). They eat fruits and the flesh of fowls as they desire. They have fair wide-eyed maids who are like well-preserved pearls (see houris). No vain or sinful talk do they hear, but rather greetings of peace (q 56:17-26; see gossip). They experience no fear (q.v.) or sorrow (q 7:49) and they are happy forever (q 11:108). Their faces are radiant, looking toward their lord (q 75:22-3); for they are the muqarrabūn, “those brought near” (q 56:11), in the gardens of delight.

Although these contrasting images can be filled out with further details from other qur’ānic passages on the afterlife, they suffice here to give an idea of the impressive imagery of the Qur’ān. They demonstrate some of the most striking aspects of the imaginative power of the Arabic language to paint large scenes. The literary structures of the Qur’ān, however, also use this imaginative power to paint small scenes. This usage is found in many of the Qur’ān's similes (q.v.), metaphors, and figures of speech of every kind. A few examples should give an idea of the wide-ranging qur’ānic employment of such figurative language. The following is one of the complex similes: The futility of praying to false gods who never respond (see idols and images) is likened to a man who stretches out his open palms to scoop water to his mouth but cannot bring any water to ¶ it (q 13:14). One of the metaphors utilizes an oath, swearing by the personified morning as it begins: wa-l-ubi idhā tanaffasa (q 81:18), meaning, “And by morning when it breathes.” The vivid expressiveness comes not from the mere personification of morning, but from the ascription of breathing to the rise of day, denoting the resumption of life and movement after night's stillness. Another example of a metaphor appears when Zechariah (q.v.; Zakariyyā) describes his old age. In q 19:4, he is reported as saying, “And my head is ablaze with hoary hair” (wa-shta`ala l-ra’su shayban). The spread of white hair on his head with advancing age is portrayed as the spread of fire, which may first begin with one or two sparks then grows inexorably into a flame. The image is made more striking by its grammatical construction: the head itself is the subject of burning, not the hoary hair, which is added as an accusative of specification.

In conclusion, it can be said that the Qur’ān utilizes a wide variety of literary devices to convey its message. In its original Arabic idiom, the individual components of the text — sūras and āyāt — employ phonetic and thematic structures that assist the audience's efforts to recall the message of the text. Whereas scholars of Arabic are largely agreed that the Qur’ān represents the standard by which other literary productions in Arabic are measured, believing Muslims maintain that the Qur’ān is inimitable with respect to both content and style (see literature and the qur’ān). From a linguistic standpoint, moreover, an understanding of the harmony within and between the Qur’ān's literary structures will be further enhanced by continuing study of macro and micro units of the text.

Issa J. Boullata



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Citation:


Boullata, Issa J. "Literary Structures of the Qur’ān ." Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2008. Brill Online. DUKE UNIVERSITY. 11 February 2008


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