In the 1890s Richard Moulton, author of The
Literary Study of the Bible, was able to justify the need for his work
by pointing out that ‘Literature’, as opposed to ‘literatures’ – Greek,
Hebrew, and German – ‘is a separate entity’ which, with its ‘foundation
forms … such as Epic, Lyric, Dramatic,’ deserves to be studied in its own
right, and that such a study would break new ground (iv-v). And in 1987
Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors of The Literary Guide to the
Bible, spoke with satisfaction of the proven effectiveness of the literary
approach to the Bible (2), adding that there is ‘a need, felt by clerical
and secular students alike, to achieve a new accommodation with the Bible
as it is, which is to say, as literature of high importance and power’
(4). The Qur’an, like the Bible, is an acknowledged literary masterpiece.
But, unfortunately, it has not yet received the kind of attention Moulton
speaks of with reference to the Bible. And it will probably not be in the
near future that one will be able to speak, as on the literary front regarding
the Qur’an. But, one might ask, does there not exist, at least in
Arabic, a large number of works dealing with the literary qualities of
the Qur’an? Such works certainly exist. But most of them are, in
respect of their orientation, premises, and structure, works of theology
rather than of literary criticism, a typical example being The Inimitability
of the Qur’an by the medieval scholar Abu Bakr Baqillani (950-1013).
This being the case, studying the Qur’an as literature – and purely
as literature – is not unlike setting foot on new territory.
A meaningful literary study of a discourse
assumes that the discourse possesses a certain degree of unity and coherence.
The Qur’an is divided into 114 chapters (Arabic: surahs),
the obvious major units of the scripture. The chapters are of varying lengths,
from three verses to 286. That these units possess any unity or coherence
is a notion foreign to most of the traditional Muslim scholars, to whom
each surah is composed of so many isolated verses or passages.1
This atomistic view of the Qur’an, for which there are historical
reasons,2 has been a great
impediment to a study of the Qur’an as literature. In traditional
works, the Qur’an is made out to be somewhat like the epitaph on
the tomb of Midas the Phrygian: ‘[I]t makes no difference,’ as Socrates
explains to Phaedrus, ‘what order the lines come in’ (264c). This is not
to disparage those works, for they have much to offer, and they must always
serve as a starting point for the literary study of the Qur’an.
It is nevertheless true that the assumption of disjointedness has veiled
much of the Qur’an’s literary excellence from view. An important
way in which twentieth-century Qur’an exegesis differs from classical
exegesis is that many Muslim scholars today regard the Qur’an as
possessing significant coherence. This development, which cannot be discussed
here,3 makes a systematic
literary study of the Qur’an both possible and imperative. Such
a study, if carried out with a properly developed methodology, will for
all practical purposes be new in character.
A systematic literary study of the
Qur’an should be conducted in accordance with the principles of
literary criticism and independently of theological considerations. The
issue of the relationship between the theological and the literary aspects
of a scripture is a difficult one. The two aspects are linked, but not
integrally, which makes it possible, or even desirable, to study them independently
of each other. That they are linked is obvious from the fact that the Qur’an
makes use of literary techniques and devices to present its message:
it tells stories, cites parables, uses figures of speech, and draws character
sketches, for example. That they are not linked integrally needs a little
The Qur’an claims to be inimitable
and challenges its opponents to produce a work like it (e.g. 2:23; 11:13;
17:88; 52:33-34). The inimitability later came to be constructed essentially
in literary terms, and the theologians made belief in the matchlessness
of the Qur’an part of a Muslim’s faith. In its historical exposition,
the doctrine of inimitability made the literary study of the Qur’an
a handmaiden to the theological aspect of the scripture. But the doctrine
overlooks a crucial fact. The Qur’anic challenge was addressed not
to the believers but to the unbelievers, and was not simply denunciation
of the unbelievers, but constituted an invitation to them to carefully
examine the Qur’an and see if it could have been, as they claimed
it was, the product of the mind of a man possessed. Irrespective of what
conclusion one reaches on the question of the Qur’an’s origins,
one must agree that the underlying assumption of the challenge was that
the merit and beauty of the Qur’an could be appreciated even by
those outside the fold of the faith. And if that is the case, then it would
be possible to dissociate the literary study of the Qur’an from
the theological study of it.4
For certain purposes it may even be
necessary to effect such a dissociation. Perhaps a basic difference between
a literary and a theological-legal approach to scripture is that the former
looks for continuities, the latter for discontinuities, in the text. Under
the assumption of continuity, one looks for links and connections between
verses and passages, and only upon failing to find any does one concede
that the text is discontinuous. But a typical Muslim theologian or lawyer
searches for theological or legal content in the Qur’an, and, as
soon as he find such content, focuses on it, often in disregard of the
context. But in so doing he runs the risk of making serious errors of interpretation.
This is a noble Qur’an, [which originates] in
a hidden [or well-protected] book, [and which] no one but the pure touch,
[and which is] a revelation from the Lord of the universe.
Taken in context, these verses draw a
distinction between the revelation of a prophet and the inspiration of
a soothsayer. The Arabs believed that the soothsayers had control over
genies (Arabic: jinn) who brought them reports from the heavens,
and one of the charges against Muhammad (sws) was that he was a soothsayer
pretending to be a prophet. The Qur’an here is saying that Muhammad’s
revelation, unlike the soothsayers’ inspiration, is authentic. It makes
two points, not at all unfamiliar to a student of the Qur’an: (1)
that the Qur’an originates in a well-guarded book (in 43:4 and elsewhere
called ‘The Mother Book’) that is with God – the implication being that
the Qur’an has an unimpeachable source; (2) that it is angels, ‘the
pure ones,’ who bring down the Qur’an – the implication being that
the medium through which the revelation is conveyed to Muhammad is an additional
guarantee of the unadulterated nature of the revelation. The soothsayers’
inspiration, on the other hand, is neither pure of origin nor secure against
tampering by the wicked genies. The conclusion is obvious: Muhammad’s revelation
is from God. This is the internal logic of the verses. But legal scholars
offer a different interpretation. They single out the verse (80), ‘None
but the pure touch it,’ disregard the immediate and wider contexts, and
interpret ‘the pure’ to mean ‘those who are ritually pure,’ thus making
the verse mean that only a person in a state of ritual purity may touch
the Qur’an. If asked what relationship verse 80 would bear to those
preceding and following it, they would have no answer, but that is the
least of their worries: the verse speaks of ‘purity,’ and that is sufficient
warrant to write scores of pages in books of law expounding the need to
he ritually pure before touching the Qur’an. This may be an extreme
example of the ‘manhandling’ of scripture by legalistically-minded scholars,
but the point is clear; looking for continuity rather than discontinuity
in the text could prevent some unwarranted interpretations. Moulton is
right when he says: ‘Historic and literary study are equal in importance;
but for priority in order of time the literary treatment has the first
claim’ (viii-ix). For, as he adds, the text of scripture ‘cannot be truly
interpreted until it has been read in the light of its exact literary structure’
What should one expect to find in
the Qur’an by way of ‘literature’? A brief comparison with the Bible
seems inevitable. Because the Qur’an is composed of Muhammad’s revelations
only and the period of the compilation of the Qur’an is rather short,
the Qur’an does not possess the literary variety of the Bible. There
are, for example, no folk songs in the Qur’an, no elegies and lamentations,
no prophetic rhapsodies, no idyllic poems, and certainly no acrostic. On
the other hand, the Qur’an possesses a rich literary repertoire
of its own. Besides making a masterful use of language on the level of
words and phrases, it contains figures of speech, satire, and irony; employs
a variety of narrative and dramatic techniques; and presents characters
that, is spite of the sparse personal detail provided about them, come
across as vivid figures. For those who can read the Qur’an in Arabic,
the all-pervading rhythm which, in conjunction with the sustained use of
what may be called rhymed prose, creates in many surahs a spellbinding
effect that is impossible to reproduce. There is the characteristic terseness
of the Qur’anic language which makes for some complex constructions,
but which is difficult to convey in English without being awkward. The
existing translations of the Qur’an impose a further limitation,
for they fall so far short of the highly nuanced original that a detailed
study of the Qur’anic language and style on their basis is well-nigh
The Qur’an dealt with a variety
of subjects over a period of more than two decades. It is natural that
it should come to have considerable stylistic variety. Still, in a certain
sense, the Qur’an is marked by a unity of content and style that
admits of taking a synchronic approach, especially in a study like the
present. First, historically as well as theologically, the Qur’anic
revelation was mediated through a single individual, Muhammad (sws).
Second, it is generally agreed that the compilation of the Qur’anic
text was finished, or nearly finished, in a short period of time —
within Muhammad’s lifetime, according to some authorities. On these two
counts, the Qur’an comes to possess a unity that would justify taking
the Qur’an in its finished form as the starting point of a literary
investigation. To the argument that the Makkan-Madinan division
of the Qur’anic surahs calls for a diachronic approach since the
Makkan surahs (revealed from 610 to 622) arc more poetical and rhetorical
and the Madinan (622-632) more discursive and matter-of-fact, one
could reply by saying that many literary devices (such as ellipsis) are
as characteristic of the Madinan urahs as they are of the Makkan.
It is true, however, that, in general, the Meccan surahs, with their
greater narrative and dramatic element, are best suited for such a study.
The Qur’an uses words with
precision and subtlety, and often the text yields its full meaning only
after a careful re-reading of it. For example, an impatient Jonah (sws)
shakes the dust of Nineveh off his feet and, boarding a ship, departs.
The Arabic word used for ‘fled’ is abaqa,
which is specifically used for a runaway slave. Jonah of course is no slave.
But then he is one — a slave of God. This one word imparts a whole new
meaning to the incident. Being in the service of God, Jonah (sws) ought
not to have decided on his own to quit prophesying; he should have waited
for Gods command. His ‘running away’ is thus not simply a physical act
that may be reported as a historical event; it is an act fraught with moral
In 622 AD, Muhammad and his followers
emigrated from Makkah to Madinah. Madinah (literally,
‘city’—short for ‘city of the Prophet’) was formerly known as Yathrib.
In the Qur’an, the city is invariably called ‘Madinah’ —
except once, in 33:13, where it is called ‘Yathrib’. The verse reports
how, at a time of crisis, a certain group of people deserted the ranks
of Muslims, appealing to their compatriots (‘O people of Yathrib!’)
to give up Islam for lost. The use of ‘Yathrib’ instead of ‘Madinah’
graphically portrays the- mentality of the deserters: they were convinced
that Islam was about to be wiped out and that the city would no longer
be the ‘city of the Prophet’ but would revert to its pagan status, becoming
once again ‘Yathrib’ (Islahi V:200).
In another example, ‘To strengthen
someone’s back or arm’ is an Arabic idiom that means ‘to support someone’.
In 20:31, Moses (sws) prays to God that He appoint Aaron (sws) as his assistant.
The Arabic literally translates: ‘Strengthen my back by means of him’.
In 28:35, which is a reply to the prayer, God says: ‘We shall strengthen
your arm by means of him’. The difference between ‘back’ and ‘arm’ in the
two expressions appears to be a slight one, but perhaps it is not. ‘To
strengthen one’s back’ is like providing ‘backing’, while ‘to strengthen
one’s arm’ is like providing ‘muscle’. As such, the former suggests furnishing
A with support through B in a situation where the brunt of the task will
be borne by A but B, who is standing close by—‘in back of him’—may be called
upon to help when necessary. ‘To strengthen one’s arm’, on the other hand,
would suggest providing A with support through B in a situation where B
will be an active partner to A throughout, or will be A’s ‘right arm’.
If this analysis is correct, then the Qur’anic use of each of the
two idioms would be contextually significant: Moses (sws), conscious that
the chief responsibility for carrying out the mission is his own, humbly
prays: ‘Strengthen my back by means of Aaron’. His prayer is more than
answered with: We shall strengthen your arm by means of him.
The Pictorial Element
The Qur’anic language is frequently
picturesque, and among the several devices that account for it are the
simile and the similitude. The similes bear reference to the natural phenomena
and existential situation the Arab was most familiar with, but one does
not have to be an Arab to feel their force. God punished a certain rebellious
people by unleashing upon it a windblast that ‘uprooted people as if they
were stumps of hollow palm-trees’ (54:20). On the Last Day, people will
come out of their graves and will spread out in all directions ‘as if they
were locusts scattered all over’ (54:7). Disbelievers shy away from the
divine message ‘as if they are frightened asses that run away from a lion’
(74:50-51). The crescent moon passes through many phases and, after becoming
a full moon, again ‘becomes like an old twig’ (36:39). The Arabs thought
that the mountains were not subject to change, and called them ‘the eternal
ones’. When Muhammad (sws) warned them of the Last Day, telling them that
the world would be annihilated on that day, they sarcastically asked him,
What about the mountains? Will they be destroyed too? The Qur’an
replied by saying that the seemingly immovable mountains will on that day
float around ‘like carded wool’ (101:5).
24:35-40 contain a series of similitudes,
contrasting the people of faith with the people of disbelief. The contrast
is drawn in terms of light and darkness. Verse 35 makes the point that
the light of divine guidance is given to one who has kept the natural goodness
of his heart intact. Already possessing an inner light, such a person is
prepared to receive ‘the light of God’. His natural goodness reinforced
by faith, he comes to possess ‘light upon light’. The verse reads:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude
of his light is as if there is a niche, in which there is a lamp, the lamp
in a glass; the glass looks as if it is a bright star. It [the lamp] is
kindled from a blessed olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the
west, one whose oil all but lights up, even though no fire has touched
it. Light upon light! God guides to His light whomever He likes. God strikes
similitudes for people, and God has knowledge of all things.
The niche is the heart of the good man,
and in that niche is a lamp that burns with the light of his innate goodness.
The high degree of the purity and brightness of the light is emphasised.
First, the lamp is enclosed in a glass, so that it has a steady and bright
flame and is not put out by the wind. Second, the glass is not dirty but
clear and shiny. It is like ‘a bright star’ so that it reflects the light
well. Third, the lamp is fed with olive oil that has been extracted from
a tree that was planted not on the fringe of the garden—‘neither of the
east nor of the west’-—but right in the middle of it, so that, being secure
against the fury of the elements, it has yielded the purest kind of oil.
The oil, in fact, is so pure that it would catch fire before coming into
contact with fire. And when the oil, or the inner goodness of a man, does
come into contact with fire or divine guidance, the result is ‘light upon
light’. Possessing this ‘double light’, one sees the heavens and the earth
lit up, acquiring the master key to all knowledge and understanding, for,
as the opening part of the verse says, ‘God is the light of the heavens
and the earth.’
While verse 35 describes the state
of the people of faith, verse 40 speaks of the condition of the people
of disbelief. Here there is no light, only utter darkness:
or [their situation is] like layers of darkness out on
a deep sea [the surface of] which is covered by a wave, on top of which
there is another wave, on top of which there are clouds; layers of darkness
piled one upon the other; when he [the disbeliever] puts out his hand he
can hardly see it. And one who is not furnished with light by God has no
As in verse 35, so in verse 40 the details
progressively heighten the effect. A sharper contrast between light and
darkness could hardly be imagined.
Many other devices besides the simile
and the similitude are used in the Qur’an. There is, for example,
anastrophe, in which the sequence of events is purposefully changed or
inverted; zeugma, in which one verb does duty for two; anaphora, in which
a series of verses begins with the same words, creating a crescendo effect
and leading to a climactic point; epenthesis, in winch the medial vowel
of a word is lengthened; and parallelism, with its several types. Another
is significant use of pairs of adjectives or participles7
in which relationships of several types are established between the adjectives
68:10 speaks of a person who is Hallaf
Mahin. Hallaf is ‘an inveterate swearer of oaths’ and Mahin is
‘base or despicable’. The use of the two words next to each other implies
that one who swears oaths right and left does so because lie lacks self-respect
and fears that his word will lack credence unless he supports it with oaths.
In other words, a cause-and-effect relationship is established between
the two words: a person is Hallaf because he is Mahin.
Many verses speak of God as being
‘Aziz (powerful) and Hakim (wise). A ‘powerful’ being often
abuses his power. The word ‘wise’ in this construction provides assurance
that God does not use His power indiscriminately. Conversely speaking,
a wise being may be ineffectual if he lacks the power to enforce a wise
plan. But God does not labour under this limitation, for, besides being
wise, He is also powerful. It can be seen that a relationship of complementarily
exists between ‘Aziz and Hakim. Variations on this relationship,
yielding further subtleties of meaning, are also found. 8:10, referring
to one of the battles Muhammad (sws) fought, says that victory comes from
God alone, the verse ending with the statement that God is powerful and
wise. The meaning is that God grants victory, but, if in the course of
battle the believers suffer a setback, their faith in God’s power should
not be shaken; rather they should understand that some good will come out
of that setback too, for God is not only powerful but also wise. 29:42
threatens the idolaters, saying that He is powerful and wise. The verse
means that God, if He so desired, could punish the idolaters on the spot,
for He is powerful; but that, if He is giving them respite, then it is
in accordance with the principle which, being wise, He has established,
namely, that men will be given an opportunity to mend their ways and thus
Humour, Satire, and Irony
Is not humour out of place in a scripture?
To be sure, there are not many instances of humour in the Qur’an.
Still, a touch of it is found here and there. During a voyage, Moses (sws),
tired, asks his young companion to bring out the food they have brought
with them. The food consists of fish, but, strangely enough, the fish some
time ago jumped into the water and vanished. The youth is hesitant to tell
Moses (sws) about it, for Moses (sws) is not likely to believe this story.
Little does he know that the disappearance of the fish was a sign appointed
by God: exactly at the spot where the fish disappeared, Moses was to meet
a certain guide. But explain he must, and so he utters a long-drawn-out
sentence (18:63) in which he spends more time apologising than explaining
how the fish disappeared. The comical effect is increased when he notice
that Moses (sws) completely disregards the apology and hastens back to
the designed spot.
Some of the satire in the Qur’an
is blunt. The affluent wicked, when they receive punishment in the
Hereafter, will be told: ‘Taste it [boiling water]! It is you who were
the noble dignitary [in the world]! (44:49). On other occasions, the satire
is pungent in tone, but no less pungent for that. Abraham (sws), finding
his opportunity, is about to smash the idols in the temple. But, upon noticing
the offering of food laid out before them, he decides to take his time.
‘Won’t you eat?’ he asks them in mock seriousness (37:91). Receiving no
response, he pretends to be angry: ‘What is the matter with you that you
are not speaking?’ (verse 92). Humour and satire blend when, after destroying
all but one of the idols in the temple, Abraham, questioned by the temple
custodians, denies that he destroyed the idols, saying: ‘O no, it is their
chief god over here [the one Abraham had spared] who did that; ask them
[idols] if they can speak’ (21:63). The point is driven home and the idolaters
are put to shame.
The Qur’an is quite rich in irony.8
In tempting Adam (sws) and Eve is the garden of Eden, Satan suggests to
them that the fruit of the forbidden tree could transform them into angels,
but that god would not like them to become angels, hence the prohibition
to eat of the tree (7:20). Ironically, the angels have already bowed before
man and acknowledged his supremacy, so that man’s attempt to become an
angel would constitute a descent, and not an ascent, for man.
In an incident from Abraham’s life,
he uses irony to confute his idolatrous people. According to the Qur’an,
Abraham’s people worshipped the heavenly bodies. Worship of the heavenly
bodies is predicated, among other things, on the view that their extraordinary
brilliance entitles them to godhead. In 6:74-79, Abraham (sws) shows the
untenability of this view by arguing that the heavenly bodies not only
rise and dazzle but also set, thereby ‘losing’ their brilliance. But he
chooses a novel method to make his point. The passage reads:
When night enveloped him, he saw a star. He said ‘This
is my Lord’. But when it set, he said ‘I do not like the ones that set.’
When he saw the moon shining, he said ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set,
he said ‘If my Lord does not guide me, I shall become one of the misguided.’
When he saw the sun shining, he said ‘This is my Lord, this is the biggest
[of them all].’ But when it set, he said ‘My people, I have nothing to
do with your idolatry’.
Once can see how Abraham (sws) sets his
people up, so to speak, using irony to systematically cut the ground from
under the belief-system of his people.
Wordplay and Ambiguity
Wordplay is involved in the use of
the word Misr in 2:61. As an indefinite noun, Misr means
‘city’; as a diptote, ‘Egypt’. The Israelites, just out of Egypt, are already
tired of the austere existence of the desert and recall their life in Egypt.
The verse says: ‘Go into some city and you shall have what you have asked
for.’ In the verse, Misr is indefinite, but the pun is obvious:
If you want to enjoy a life of ease and comfort, then go back to your life
in Egypt (Islahi, I:61). Also, ‘What you have asked for’ is quite ambiguous.
What have the Israelites really asked for. The good food they used to eat
in Egypt, or the life of slavery? They would not, of course, opt for slavery,
but then they must remember that a life of hardship in a state of freedom
is preferable to a comfortable existence in a state of servitude.
In another instance of ambiguity, the Makkan opponents
of Muhammad (sws) accused him of fabricating the Qur’an and passing
it off as divine speech. 11:13 challenges them to produce ten chapters
like it, and then adds the word Muftarayat, which means ‘fabricated’.
In the context, the word gives two different but equally applicable meanings:
(a) if you succeed in producing a discourse like the Qur’an, you
will have proved that Muhammad (sws) has fabricated the Qur’an,
so go ahead and make your attempt; (b) it is the discourse produced by
you that will be a fabrication, so go ahead and fabricate.
To begin with, there is the graphic
description. The theme of the Last Day occasions many passages that would
fall in this category. Cataclysmic changes will take place on that fateful
When the heavens explode,
When the stars are scattered,
When the oceans are poured out,
When the graves are ransacked:
On that day one will find out the
[value of] actions one has performed or failed to perform.
Again: ‘The entire earth will be [no
more than] His handful on the Day of Resurrection, and the heavens, all
rolled up, will be in His right hand’ (39:67). And there is the haunting
picture of the Zaqqum (37:62), the ‘accursed tree’ (17:60) that
will grow in hell: ‘It is a tree that sprouts in the very core of Hell.
Its spathes make it out to be like so many heads of devils; (37:64-65).
A reader of the Qur’an will
notice that the Qur’an does not usually tell a complete story in
one place but relates different parts of it different surahs. This
may cause bewilderment. But if the ideas of the surah unity is accepted,
the Qur’anic narrative might appear in a new light. The Qur’an
never tells a story for its own sake, but rather uses it to drive home
the point it happens to be making in a surah or in a section of
it. As a rule, considerations of the thematic unity determine which portion
of a story will be narrated in which surah. In other words, the
story told in a given surah is likely to be surah specific,
the apparent disjointedness of the Qur’an in this case concealing
a carefully worked-out technique of storytelling.
Among the surahs that narrate
the story of Abraham (sws) are 6, 21, 51, and 609
In each of these surahs, a different portion of the Abraham story
is told. Surah 6 is mainly addressed to the idolaters of Makkah,
and criticism of idolatry figures prominently in it. The opening verse
of the surah, for example, reads: ‘Grateful praise is due to God,
Who created the heavens and the earth and made darkness and light; and
yet the disbelievers set up partners To God’. Now the Makkan idolaters
regarded Abraham (sws) as their ancestor. Surah 6, therefore, selects
from Abraham’s life (verse 74-83) that incident in which he is shown as
refuting his idolatrous people. The connection between the incident and
the surah’s theme is obvious, the surah and the incident
both making the point that the Makkans, if they wish to follow Abraham
(sws), must abandon their idolatry and worship the one true God.
The thesis of Surah 21 is that
defeat of the Makkans at the hands of the Muslims is imminent. Verse
18, for example, says: ‘Rather, We launch the truth at falsehood and it
[the truth] crushes it [the falsehood], the latter taking flight’. Verse
44 is more explicit, as it refers to the steady advance of the Muslim faith,
from its base in Madinah, toward Makkah: ‘Do they not see that We
arc approaching the land [of Makkah], shrinking its borders? Is it they
[idolaters] who are going to be victorious?’. The portion selected from
Abraham’s story (verses 51-70) for this chapter relates how Abraham (sws)
breaks the idols worshipped by his people. The image-breaking signifies
the defeat of idolatry, and it should be remembered that, upon conquering
Makkah, Muhammad ordered that all the images in the sanctuary of
the Ka‘bah be destroyed. In other words, Abraham’s action in the
surah prefigures Muhammad’s action in later history.
The theme of Surah 51 is reward
for the virtuous and punishment for the evil in the hereafter. Verse 6
announces the theme: ‘Recompense is certainly going to take place’. The
incident related from Abraham’s (and Lot’s) life (verses 24-34) illustrates
the theme: Abraham (sws) will be rewarded with a son in old age, and the
people of Lot (sws) will be destroyed for their evil; the reward-and-punishment
system in this world thus serves as a pointer to the reward-and-punishment
system that will operate in the hereafter.
Surah 60 stresses the need
for the Muslims to make a break with the Makkans, in whose midst
they had lived for so long. This theme is stated in the opening verse,
which enjoins Muslims not to lake ‘My enemies and your enemies for friends’,
and in the concluding verse, which rephrases that thought. Abraham (sws)
is mentioned in verses 4-6, which present him as a model for Muslims: he
broke with his people when the latter turned hostile to him. The lesson
is clear: the Muslims must likewise dissociate themselves from the Makkans.
As in Surahs 6, 21, and 51, the incident related in Surah 60
is found to be surah-specific.
Although the Qur’an usually
describes only a portion of a story at a time, the portion given in any
place is usually self-contained. The story of Adam (sws) told in 2:30-39,
for example, is complete in itself, as is the story of Abraham (sws) and
Lot (sws) in 11:69-83. Just as only that part of a story will be told in
a surah that contributes to the surah’s overall theme, so
if several stories contribute to that end, they will be combined in a single
surah. Surahs 18, 21, and 25 contain some obvious examples.
Despite what has been said about the narrative technique of the Qur’an,
one should not think that there is no sustained storytelling in file Qur’an.
Surah 12, ‘Joseph’, is the longest uninterrupted story in the Qur’an.
In a published study of it,10
I have tried to show that it has a unified plot, and that the plot is organised
on (the analogy of the rhetorical device of ‘involution and evolution’:
the first half of the story creates a series of tensions which are resolved
in reverse order in the second half.
One of the features of the Qur’anic
style that has received practically no attention is the dramatic dialogue.
A close study of the Qur’anic dialogue reveals that its usually
simple text contains profound insights into the workings of the human mind
and the motives behind human conduct. Abraham’s dialogues are eminently
suited for such a study. Here we shall confine ourselves to a few remarks
about the dialogue of Moses (sws) and Pharaoh in 26:16 ff. This is a fast-paced
dialogue in which the character of Moses (sws) is contrasted with that
of Pharaoh. The cunning Pharaoh, initially on the offensive, soon finds
himself beating a retreat before the relentless attack of a self-confident
Moses (sws), his (Pharaoh’s) mood changing from mock gentleness and condescension
to that of satire and ridicule to that of utter frustration and indignation.
An interesting feature of the dialogue is that while Pharaoh continually
changes his stance, Moses (sws) sticks with the position he states in the
beginning and only reinforces it with his subsequent remarks.
The dialogue opens with Moses’ (sws)
declaration that he is a prophet sent by the ‘Lord of the universe’, and
with his demand that Pharaoh allow the Israelites to go with him. Pharaoh
condescendingly reminds Moses (sws) of the upbringing he received in Pharaoh’s
palace, and, by reminding Moses (sws) that he is guilty of killing a Copt,
also makes an unambiguous threat (verse 19). Moses (sws) replies that his
killing of the Copt was an accident. As for his upbringing in Pharaoh’s
house, he acknowledges it as a favour by Pharaoh, but curtly tells him
that he cannot on that count enslave the Israelites (verses 20-21). Cornered
by this trenchant reply, Pharaoh makes another move, asking Moses (sws)
in an obviously satirical tone: ‘Who is this ‘Lord of the universe’ you
speak of?’ (verse 24). Moses’ (sws) reply is brief but to the point: ‘The
Lord of the heavens and the earth.’ Pharaoh, who claims to be the supreme
lord, feels the blow of the answer. At the same time, he senses that some
of his courtiers may have been unduly impressed with the boldness of Moses
(sws), and so, in an attempt to laugh Moses off (sws), he turns to his
courtiers, saying: ‘You hear that, don’t you?’ (verse 25). Undaunted, Moses
(sws) presses the attack: ‘Your Lord, and also the Lord of your ancestors
of former times’. A powerful dent is made in the ancestral religion of
Egypt, and Pharaoh, until now feigning self-control, shows visible signs
of impatience. He suggests to his courtiers that Moses (sws) is insane
(verse 27), hoping to put an abrupt end to the discussion. Moses (sws)
refuses to let up: ‘Lord of the East and the West’, he adds. This is the
last straw. Pharaoh threatens to imprison Moses (sws) (verse 30). ‘Even
if I should present a clear sign [miracle]’ asks Moses (sws). Pharaoh has
to consent, for his courtiers must have been intrigued by the offer of
Moses (sws), and it would be imprudent of Pharaoh to disregard the mood
of the court. It might also have occurred to him that if Moses (sws) showed
a miracle, then he (Pharaoh) might be able to explain it away as a cheap
trick. At any rate, he consents, probably grudgingly. When Moses (sws)
performs his miracles, Pharaoh is perplexed, but soon pulls himself together,
observing that Moses (sws) is at best an accomplished sorcerer. But something
must be done about this sorcerer if he is not to steal the show. The courtiers
advise that the official magicians be summoned to compete with Moses (sws).
It is not necessary to recount the rest of the story, for the above analysis
should make it sufficiently clear that the Qur’anic dialogue can
be a rewarding field of study.
Seen from a theological standpoint,
the Qur’anic characters would appear to be embodiments of abstract
traits rather than real flesh-and-blood figures which I believe they are.
Obvious candidates for a study of Qur’anic characterisation would
be like prophets, particularly figures like Abraham (sws) and Moses (sws).
Here I will confine my remarks to the Qur’anic technique of presenting
memorable characters in a few lines – the vignettes. One such vignette
is to be found in 74:18-25.11
The context presents before us a typical rich leader of Makkah who
is worried by the spread of Muhammad’s message in the city. He is in danger
of losing his following, unless he can convince his followers that the
Qur’an is Muhammad’s own speech falsely attributed to God. How does
he accomplish his purpose? Finding himself in the company of his followers,
who look up to him for a response to Muhammad’s message, he plays a game.
His mind is of course made up, hut he does not want to give the impression
that he is rejecting that message without giving it a serious thought.
So he reflects on the message, and appears to be making a careful assessment
of it (verse 18). In a parenthetic remark (verses 19-20) the Qur’an
suggests that he is only going through the motions. But his followers,
unable to see through his game, are impressed by the careful thought lie
is devoting to the whole matter. Then, serious thinker that he is, he looks
up, as if weighing an idea that has just flashed into his mind. But no,
he must give it more thought, and so he knits his brows, not forgetting
to contort some of his facial features (verse 22). He is about to deliver
his verdict and his followers await the moment anxiously. What does he
do? Issue a statement rashly? That would not be prudent. He slowly turns
around, takes a step backward, and gives his judgement: the Qur’an is
not divine in origin; it is at best an eloquent discourse that, like magic,
has a spellbinding effect on its audience. This is a complete portrait,
and it is presented in only a few short verses.
This brief survey has left out many
literary features of the Qur’an, some of which arc symmetrical structures;
ellipsis; implicit transitional links; parenthetic extension; use of motif
words; use of passives to convey certain shades of meaning; periphrasis;
and oaths. But I hope it has succeeded in suggesting that the Qur’an
is a vast quarry that awaits the attention of literary scholars.
This study is by no means the very
first to be written on the subject of the Qur’an as literature.
A few, if not many, works dealing with some literary aspect of the Qur’an
exist in European languages. There is, however, a great need for developing
a theory that is, on the one hand, based on a recognition of the subject
as an independent field, and that will, on the other hand, take an integrated
view of the various literary aspects of the Qur’an. Western scholars
with their highly developed discipline of literary criticism can make a
significant contribution in this regard. Should they undertake to do so,
the ‘Qur’an as literature’ might well become an important meeting-ground
for Muslim and Orientalist scholars.
1. Alter, Robert, and Frank Kermode. The Literary Guide to the Bible.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard/Belknap, 1987.
2. Draz, M. A. Initiation au Koran. Paris: Presses Universitaires
de France, 1951.
3. Islahi, Amin Ahsan Tadabbur-i-Qur’an (Urdu; ‘Reflection on
the Qur’an’), 8 vols.(Lahore, 1967-80).
4. Mir, Mustansir. Coherence in the Qur'an: A Study of Islahi's
Concept of Nazm in Tadabbur-i-Qur’an. Indianapolis: American
Trust Publications, 1986.
5. ‘The Qur’anic Story of Joseph: Plot, Themes, and Characters,’
Muslim World,76 (1986).
6. Moulton, Richard. The Literary Study of the Rible, 2nd ed.
Boston: D.C. Heath & Co.,1899; 1909 reprint.
7. Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. R. Hackforth. The Collected Dialogues
of Plato. Ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton