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date: 07 July 2020

Aesthetically Oriented Interpretations of the Qur’ān

Abstract and Keywords

The tradition of Qurʾānic interpretation is one of the richest aspects of cultural production in Arabic. Its richness goes beyond the question of explaining the content of Qurʾānic verses from a doctrinal point of view to present some brilliant acts of exploration of purely artistic constituents of the text of the Qurʾān as a whole, interconnected, interlaced body of discourse in which the sublime nature of the divine message is embodied in equally powerful, artistically sublime linguistic formulations. A prime example of this holistic nature of the text is seen by many mufassirīn to reside in the various types of majāzī and/or metaphorical language and, in the case of some Sufi mufassirīn, of symbolic language. The chapter explores the three arguably finest tafāsir in which this aesthetically oriented current of thought reaches its zenith: al-Zamakhsharī’s al-Kashshāf, Ibn ʿArabī’s al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, and Abū Ḥayyān’s al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ. While bringing out some of their finest achievements, this study also recognizes their limitations as well as the limitations of contemporary interpretations of the Qur’an and points to urgently needed fresh ways of writing about the Qurʾān from a predominantly aesthetic angle. It offers examples of aspects of this great text which can be understood in anew fashion if such fresh approaches are employed; in this light, the chapter looks at orality as a possible new source of knowledge that may help us understand some complex aspects of the Qur’an that have remained so far little understood or indeed explored.

Keywords: aesthetically oriented, imagination, munasaba, appreciation, ambiguity, inimitability, orality


Soon after its delivery, the Qur’an challenged the Arabs with many problematic issues, amongst which three are extremely relevant for the present chapter. First, the ambiguity of some of its statements; second, verses which appear to be stating contradictory things about two crucial issues: the nature of God and the agency of man’s actions in the world; third, the authenticity of its message, which produced the assertion by the Qur’an that even if the ins (humans) and jinn (genies) helped each other, they could not ‘bring’ something like it. This assertion was coupled with a repeated challenge to the people of Quraysh to author or ‘bring’ something like it, a challenge that came to be contemplated later as the question of iʿjāz al-Qurʾān (the miraculous nature or inimitability of the Qur’an).

Much of what was debated about the Qur’an before the age of writing related to these issues and much of what was written about it from the inception of the age of writing was determined and motivated by a desire to resolve the problems arising from them and their implications. In the process, the Arabs discovered the majāzī (non-literal) use, indeed nature, of language and many questions began to be answered in terms of this immense discovery. Gradually, textual analysis of the Qur’an and poetry began to turn into questions of beauty, artistic qualities, secrets of eloquence, and similar issues of a purely literary nature. Much of this activity involved the interpretation of verses that appeared problematic in various types of writing, from treatises on religion to books on poetry and from debates about Islam and other faiths to books on science. Specialized (p. 795) works began to appear and some major figures made significant contributions to the understanding of many complex issues relating to the Qur’an as well as to other forms of writing. In many works, the issues of beauty in the Qur’an and the enquiry into the language of majāz and the controversial statements of the Qur’an mingled and received attention to varying degrees of focus on one or the other. Amongst the many important figures who made valuable contributions in this domain are al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/868–9), Abū ʿUbayda (d. 209/824), al-Rummānī (d. 384/994), al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 388/998), Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/889), al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013), al-Qāḍī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), and al-Sharīf al-Raḍī (d. 406/1016). A trend began to take shape that attempted to explore beauty in the Qur’an and poetry in equal measure, reaching its maturity in the works of ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 471/1078), who produced a unified theory that sought beauty in the same terms both in the Qur’an and in poetry and prose. Al-Jurjānī assimilated the finest ideas in the ‘great tradition’ that had burgeoned in three different circles: the circle of linguists; the circle of poets; and the circle of Qur’anic commentators. In the process, he established an approach to the beauty of the Qur’an that revealed its secrets as residing in its naẓm (its intricate, exquisite interplay of semantic, syntactic and grammatical elements, from word order to elision, to faṣl and waṣl, etc.), as well as in localized, specific processes of creative activity, thereby covering the entire gamut of the formulation of experience into language.

In many ways, all these scholars were presenting tafsīr (interpretation) of the Qur’an on a limited scale, as they often dealt with the problematic issues and verses as part of their enquiries into the secrets of eloquence or developments of new ʿulūm, like al-bayān, al-badīʿ, al-maʿānī, and al-balāgha, as is the case, for instance, with Ibn Qutayba in his Taʾwīl Mushkil al-Qurʾān. Quite significantly, many figures contributing to this process were involved in literary studies as well as Qur’anic commentary. However, a more specialized, systematic, almost autonomous science of tafsīr had also been evolving as from the early days of Islam and many major works of tafsīr had been produced by the end of the fifth/eleventh century.

This chapter explores a vital current of thought in Arabic culture, one that aspired to produce fully-fledged interpretations oriented towards questions of beauty and iʿjāz, while at the same time dealing with the problematic questions outlined earlier in this opening discussion. It will focus on three major works representing three main intellectual and doctrinal currents in Arabic culture. These are al-Zamakhsharī’s al-Kashshāf, Ibn ʿArabī’s al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya, and Abū Ḥayyān al-Andalūsī’s al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ.

It should be stressed right away that none of these interpretations gives priority to the aesthetic appeal despite the fact that their starting point is that the Qur’an is muʿjiz in its beauty, its superior faṣāḥa, balāgha, and artistic language. Their focus is usually on meaning, ideas, legal consequences of readings, etc. Even when they deal with instances of majāz, istiʿāra, or tashbīh or tamthīl, they seek primarily the semantic content in them. Nevertheless, they are remarkably rich with hints and occasional detailed analysis of instances that reveal the ‘amazing’ quality of the imaginative processes of many Qur’anic verses. Ibn ʿArabī pioneers a reading that involves and invokes the real richness of (p. 796) the text and its impact on the soul and visions of the recipient as well as on his sense of magic, beauty, and the beyond.

Yet, these outstanding works do have their own shortcomings which are evident in the comments they make on some of the Qur’an’s most charming images and, especially, in their handling of suras like Sūrat al-Raḥmān, the ‘bride of the Qur’an’, as some call it, with its fabulous description of paradise. Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144) passes by its images without much comment. Aesthetically, he has little to say about the image of the ships like mountains in the sea (al-jawārī al-munshaʾātu fī al-baḥri ka al-aʿlām) or the sky splitting like a rose, ‘faʾidhāinshaqqati al-samāʾu fa kānat wardatan ka’l-dihān.’ (4:446, 449–50). His comments on the verses reach their height in observations about the syntax and why the text mentions rummān (pomegranate) after fākiḥa (fruits) and uses the conjunction (wāw) although pomegranate is a fākiḥa. Abū Ḥayyān (d. 745/1344) (8:193–4) has similar interests and goes into more detail on every level but without truly enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the images. However, precisely because he gives different views and meanings of each word, the image of the sky is massively enriched by what his details invoke: red roses, yellow roses, red paint, oil of different colours and in different states, red skin, a red mare undergoing seasonal change of its colours: red, yellow, dusty, etc., all as different meanings of the two key words: wardatan (rose; red) and dihān (pigment of paint; colour). This fills the imagination with a Salvador Dali composition with bright colours, shooting mares, roses of different colours blooming, mares changing colours from spring to autumn, and skins and red paint and glittering oil, all with a splintered, shattered sky attired in this vast magical cataclysmic explosion. Ibn ʿArabī (d. 638/1240) deals with some of the sura’s statements in the context of his exploration of ideas and visions that are much wider in scope than the sura. However, all of them read the image according to their mindset, or the stereotype process of comparison inherent in their minds and their traditions, treating it as a comparison between the cracked sky and a red rose or red skin or take wardatan to mean red, no rose involved, or red rose, etc. None of them notices that the verse does not say: fa kānat ḥamrāʾa ka’l-wardati (red like a rose) but fa kānat wardatan ka’l-dihān. The sky (as I read it) is thus a warda and is like al-dihān, without the word red appearing anywhere. As significantly, they fail to capture the fact that the verse is depicting a scene never seen before by a human eye, an infinitely indefinable visual space and it brilliantly depicts that in a language itself infinitely indefinable in which the key words are impossible to fix and remain more than ambiguous, more than absent. If dihān is a colour then the simile is saying the sky is wardatan like a (red?) colour (while in reality the (red?) colour is a trait of the rose): a strange ‘cracked’ simile indeed, most unusual and never before seen or portrayed. The syntax, the imaginative process itself is thus cracked, split open in the middle, turned inside out and upside down. The kāf of comparison is split from wardatan and stuck to dihān. The surrealism and indefinability of the image are thus embedded both in the indefinability of language and the surrealism of the syntax and the structure of the mind imagining the sky when it gets split open in a future that remains absent. Not even Dali has managed such a perfect embodiment of his surrealist vision in a surrealist, disorganized structure. One more sign or āya of the superiority of Qur’anic language and aesthetic power.

(p. 797) Some Focal Points of Interest

The texts I have chosen to work with in this chapter represent the zenith of the efforts to present interpretations of the Qur’an that are aesthetically oriented, viewing the Qur’an not only as a statement of dogma and call for belief in God as the only God and in Muḥammad as his prophet but as a text with superior artistic qualities arising from its language. And they are all works by open-minded, questioning, and courageous thinkers albeit belonging to competing schools of thought within Islam. Ibn ʿArabī noted in fact that various schools of thought form a unified whole despite their contrasting views. He thought of himself as belonging there too, despite considering himself one of a few people who really understand and have visions of the Truth. Their courage shows itself precisely in their differences and in the views they express, which often enough go against dominant trends. Al-Zamakhsharī was so faithful to his rationalist Muʿtazilī approach that he invoked harsh criticism by Abū Ḥayyān; furthermore, he made his imaginary interlocutor ask questions that implied negative views of some aspects of Qur’anic expression, of course, using that to validate the Qur’anic choices, no matter how unconvincingly, but he did ask the awkward questions. Ibn ʿArabī risked a great deal, but wrote, taught, and preached his ways to all; Abū Ḥayyān opened up fresh areas for questioning and included the views of critics of the Qur’an, whose thought he totally rejected; he also acknowledged that the Qur’an has tasjīʿ (rhymed prose), a view that was dismissed by most if not all others. Collectively, their studies of the artistic language of the Qur’an were and remain a fabulous achievement. When added to works on metaphorical language in specialized books such as those of Abū ʿUbayda, Ibn Qutayba, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī, and others, including the towering figure of al-Jurjānī, we can see clearly that the ancients produced remarkable and full enquiries into the Qur’an as a text of artistic qualities; these represent the best we have of their kind in the Arabic tradition of Qur’anic commentary. Of the many summits of excellence their works have reached, I would select what may be justifiably called a ‘proto-Structuralist’ approach embodied at its finest in Abū Ḥayyān’s exploration of the relational principle that permeates the entire text of the Qur’an, which he calls al-munāsaba (suitability; harmony). This has its roots in the work of people like al-Jurjānī and al-Zamakhsharī, often under other names, but in Abū Ḥayyān’s analysis it reaches degrees of depth, sophistication, and detail that can compete with some of the finest acts of analysis in modern literary studies. Abū Ḥayyān divides each sura into groups of verses exactly in the order in which they exist in the Qur’an. In his mind, between all groups of verses there is a munāsaba or tanāsub that embodies an inner link, interconnectedness, between each group and what precedes it. What this suggests is that the sura represents a chain of rings, each interconnected to what is before it and after it. In other words, the sura forms one coherent, interlacing structure. But more revolutionary in fact is his tireless effort to show that the munasaba exists also between each sura and the sura that precedes it and the one that follows it. This means that the entire text of the Qur’an, not only of each sura, is a unified, coherent, and tightly knit structure.

(p. 798) The types of bonds that create the munāsaba as seen by Abū Ḥayyān vary; some relate to individual words or semantic links; others to larger aspects of discourse: a character, a narrative episode, a legal doctrine, and many other such things. In some cases, his identification of the link is so subtle, so difficult to have conceived of, that a pleasure of discovery similar to what al-Jurjānī had called hazzatun fi’l-nafs wa-irtiyāḥ (a phrase almost identical with what Roland Barthes was to call 1,000 years later ‘le plaisir du texte’ (the pleasure of the text) is generated. I am not aware that anyone else had actually conceived of the Qur’an in this fashion before Abū Ḥayyān and had tried to demonstrate the validity of this principle in practice through minute textual analysis. In this light, Abū Ḥayyān’s achievement appears truly outstanding and leaves one even more puzzled that no one, as far as we now know, has benefited from his approach in the analysis of poetry and prose texts outside Qur’anic studies.

By comparison with these scholars and their collective achievement, contemporary scholarship on the Qur’an from this specific angle is poor, fragmentary, and mostly superficial. Despite great advances in linguistic and literary analysis, there is not a single fully-fledged study of the Qur’an as a whole text that is both a tafsīr and an exploration of its literary merits. One of the greatest and richest literary treasures in the world has thus been left almost untouched by scholarship for the past seven centuries or so, that is since Abū Ḥayyān produced his great work. This is not to say that literary aspects of the Qur’an have not been examined; not at all. For, there have been studies of specific aspects, such as the stories of the Qur’an, al-taṣwīr al-fannī in it (artistic portrayal?), and the like. But these are specialized studies in narrowly selected aspects of this treasure trove of literary and artistic phenomena. What has been lacking is a comprehensive modern work, armed with all the knowledge we have today, on the Qur’an as a text to be interpreted and to have its artistic constituents revealed by one scholar—or a group of scholars—dealing with the totality as a totality, exploring questions of interconnectedness, interlacing, unity, imagery, significance of metaphorical language and the language of the imagination, and tens of other features. Hundreds of thousands of pages on the internet now offer students of the Qur’an infinite resources but most of them produce almost the same material under different names or categories or websites. Throughout the Arab world, the most widely published books are religious works on the Qur’an, but nowhere is there a modern text to rival Abū Ḥayyān’s or compete with al-Zamakhsharī’s or be as courageous, visionary, intellectually stimulating, and meticulous as Ibn ʿArabī’s. There have been some attempts, and some have had the courage to suggest a fresh look at certain aspects of the Qur’an (Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd stands out here) but again these are fragmentary, narrowly focused, and are not of a literary or aesthetically oriented nature. One book stands out in its scope and impressionistic responses, that of Sayyid Quṭb, Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurʾān, but not in much more; its analysis of the artistic language of the Qur’an is limited (his comment on ‘wardatan ka al-dihān’ is a simple ‘wardatan sāʾilatan ka al-dihān’ (a liquid rose like al-dihān) (6:456) and the literary training of its author, though at times sensitive and clever, was limiting and it lacks the questioning, acceptance of multiplicity, and open-minded touches we find in the works of the ancients. It is almost a feeling of what Ibn ʿArabī calls tawahhum that we are, after so many centuries (p. 799) of activity, standing on virgin ground, moving in an unexplored space or rather one that was invaded centuries ago and has remained as it was left by the last significant invader, Abū Ḥayyān al-Andalūsī.

Broaching the Unity of Structure in the Qur’an

Taking our cue from Abū Ḥayyān’s effort to establish munāsaba, we need to further explore questions of the unity of structure in the Qur’an, within the individual suras and within the text as a total structure. We need to explore issues such as, ‘why do the same epithets of Allāh close a verse in two or more different positions? Why does the same verse end with two different epithets in two different positions? Does this variation serve a specific purpose in the places where it occurs?’ Abū Ḥayyān and al-Zamakhsharī both make some significant hints at such an approach, but they do not ask enough questions and do not go far enough in scope. The former makes the brilliant statement that in one verse a specific epithet is used in order to achieve tasjīʿ, but does not ask about the aesthetic or semantic value of the tasjīʿ that is achieved in the manner, for instance, of al-Jurjānī asking whether tajnis (paronomasia) in many places he examines is artistically good or bad. For instance: verse 34 in Sūrat Ibrāhīm occurs again as verse 18 of Sūrat al-Naḥl, but ends in different epithets in these two positions. The version in Sūrat Ibrāhīm (14) ends with ‘inna al-insāna la ẓalūmun kaffār’, while the version in Sūrat al-Naḥl (16) ends with ‘inna Allāha la ghafūrun raḥīm’:

‘If you numerate the beneficence of Allāh you will not be able to quantify it; man indeed is unjust unbelieving.’

(Q. 14:34)

‘If you numerate the beneficence of Allāh you will not be able to quantify it; Allāh indeed is forgiving merciful.’

(Q. 16:18)

The first version occurs after two verses ending with the phonemes/sounds ār (anhār, nahār), so it rhymes with what is before it and, importantly, it completes a pattern of three, whereas the second version falls between verses ending with ūn (tadhkurūn/tuʿlinūn), so it does not rhyme with them, yet it is the closest rhyming sound in the Qur’an to them. However, perhaps immensely significantly, it repeats the word raḥīm that occurs in v. 7 as raʾufun raḥīm, and comes again in v. 18 ghafūrun raḥīm, then in 47, 58, 60, 63, 76, 94, 98, 104, 106, 110, 115, 117, 119, 121.

In other words, in a sura consisting of 128 verses, ghafūrun raḥīm/raʾūfun raḥīm occurs six times, at certain distances, and a very close rhyme īm occurs with it ten times, with only two occurrences (in 70, 77) of not so different a rhyming element īr (qadīr) that relates to ghafūrun raḥīm in meaning. What is truly stunning about these facts of the text, (p. 800) and no metaphysics here, is that the text almost in its entirety, that is, 110 verses, with the exception of 2 qadīr, is based on a single rhyme: īn, ūn, and variations come with a close phoneme īm to form a structure of 126 harmonious, extended, relaxed sound effects free even of a single hard rhyme like ḥadda, azza, etc. (which we see in the debating parts of Sūrat Maryam). Now as we look at the semantic structure of Sūrat al-Naḥl, at its emotional ambience or climate, so to speak, do we not find the message (as the jargon of linguistics propagated by Roman Jakobson goes nowadays) exactly of the same nature?

Further, the ghafūrun/raʾūfun raḥīm attributed to Allāh occurs in this relaxed content while ẓalūmun kaffār as epithets of man occurs in Sūrat Ibrāhīm within a much different content packed with arguments against the unbelievers, with tensions and infighting over the authenticity of God’s message, with threats by Him to people who reject this message as well as with tensions between other people holding to the ideas of their fathers and the new religions being preached to them. Add to these the implicit tension, possibly within Ibrāhīm’s inner world but certainly between his action here and his action in other suras (as here he asks for forgiveness for his parents who were kuffār, a questionable act noted by commentators including al-Zamakhsharī). As significantly, the immediate contexts of the version in Sūrat Ibrāhīm and the version in Sūrat al-Naḥl are diametrically opposed: in the former, God has already referred to those who ‘changed the beneficence of God into infidelity (kufr) and landed their people in the abode of bareness which is Jahannam (Hell) into whose fires they will go; they established false deities whom they deemed as God’s equals in order to lead people astray from His path. Tell them: ‘Take your pleasure now, for truly your destination is the Fire’ (Q.14:31), then addressed the Prophet telling him to command the believers to act in accordance with His teachings and mentioning his niʿam (beneficence) upon them. As opposed to that, in the version in Sūrat al-Naḥl the sura opens with ‘atā amru Allāhi’ (God’s command has come) followed by three verses which glorify God, then from 5 to 17 He counts niʿam that He bestowed upon the believers, then comes no. 18 to crown the beautiful sense of harmony between the believers and God with ghafūrun raḥīm. Moreover, the central figure in al-Naḥl is God and His actions, whereas the central figure in Sūrat Ibrāhīm is man and his actions. This is evident even in the name given to each sura, be it tawqīf or tawfīq: Ibrāhīm is a man, al-naḥl is symbolically the embodiment of the Creator, who presents bees as a central icon of His power as well as of His being the Creator of the world, who has created these small creatures who themselves are active creators in the way they construct their amazingly intricate beehives, mirroring the intricate construction of everything He has created in His world, as well as in creating honey (niʿam) to enrich and help preserve the life of man. Furthermore, bees actually receive waḥī (inspiration to act) from God (awḥaynā ilā’l-naḥli) and they are the only living creatures of the non-human world who receive waḥī from Him, as though they were in the rank of prophets, which places them in a special bond with God and elevates them above mere symbolism. And the verses describing the bees are amongst the most beautiful in the Qur’an. That centrality of figure is thus embodied in Sūrat al-Naḥl in two of God’s most caring attributes, ghafūrun raḥīm, and in the Sūrat Ibrāhīm it is embodied in two of man’s most negative attributes in the eyes of God, ẓalūmun kaffār, epithets repeatedly used throughout the (p. 801) Qur’an by God to describe man (a centrality which is also embodied, in a most striking, incomprehensible manner, by the fact—no metaphysics here either—that the verse which has man as ẓalūmun kaffār is almost exactly in the middle, the centre, of Sūrat Ibrāhīm (no. 24 out of 52). Similarly, God as ghafūrun raḥīm not only occurs close to the centre of al-Naḥl but also permeates the entire texture of the sura (and at symmetrical positions from the beginning and end of the sura: 7, 121 out of 128).

Does all this tell us anything? What do we learn from it? Are we faced with a single, unified totality in al-Naḥl? Well, we are, although historical data tells us that al-Naḥl is Meccan except for the last three verses, which are Medinan. Separated by time, but not so separated by rhyme and harmony. How did they fit there? By accident? Who fitted them there? Why? What determines these choices? Are they determined by any factors within their immediate context or the context of each sura as a whole? Are they simply formulaic events which occur for no specific structural reasons? Let us contemplate such features, such facts, as part of a total, comprehensive, new aesthetically oriented tafsīr of the Qur’an. We need one. But, alas, we do not find it here.

Do Other Suras Present Such Well-Wrought Urns? How?

As a crucial part of such an approach we need to go far beyond ancient and modern studies in handling all elements of the text but specifically the elements of majāz, badīʿ, bayān, etc. and poetic imagery in all its forms. It is not sufficient to say this is an istiʿāra: we must do what we do in all other texts and ask: what is the structural role of this istiʿāra in the context in which it appears. And do the group of images in a sura form a network of relationships, illuminating one another, enriching, as a formative part of the text, a texture that vitalizes the text more, enhances its aesthetic appeal, or do they stand as autonomous images each serving only its localized context? Approaches like the one outlined here are amongst the best ways to understand, appreciate, and feel confident that we have a better comprehension of the mysteries and power of one of the most influential texts in human history.

I have sketched some of the questions that modern scholarship needs to raise and seek answers to. But I shall raise now what I believe to be the most important single question about the Qur’an, a question that I have raised in my studies in Arabic and tried to answer indirectly by exploring the nature of poeticality. The question is about the rhythm of the Qur’an or, more precisely, its rhythmic structure, sura by sura. Qur’anic scholarship has covered immensely rich and complex aspects of the text but I am not aware that anyone has busied himself/herself with its rhythmic structure, part of which I have explored in a study of Sūrat Maryam and other shorter suras. A fundamental aspect of that rhythmic structure is generated by the sound patterns woven into sharp, strong beats and patterns of stress on individual words and on the entire series of verses in the (p. 802) early shorter suras as distinct from the contrasting, more extended and relaxed patterns in the longer suras; such patterns are extremely prominent in particular in the paired last words of the verses that produce sajʿ. Studying the sajʿ across the whole of the Qur’an is a task that has been rendered difficult to carry out by purely ideological beliefs related to what has been interpreted as a prohibition of sajʿ in a hadith attributed to the prophet. Nevertheless, it is an immensely important, albeit difficult, and highly rewarding task that will enhance not only our understanding of its powerful aesthetic impact but also of aspects of its authenticity and the historical evolution of its language and its message. There are documented reports about people crying when reading the Qur’an; the Arabs called the Qur’anic verses they first heard poetry. What is it that drove them, the very people who took so much pride in their poetic traditions and had instinctive feelings for what was poetry and what was not, to respond by saying that the Qur’an was poetry and Muḥammad was a poet, a response that ultimately invoked the counter-response: ‘this is not poetry, Muḥammad is not a poet, wa-mā ʿallamnāhu al-shiʿra wa mā yanbaghī lahu. We did not teach him poetry’ (Q. 21:5; 26:224; 36:69; 37:36; 52:30; 69:41).These exchanges generated ultimately the challenge by the Qur’an to people to bring something like it and led to the inception and evolution of the science of iʿjāz al-Qurʾān; some of its fruits this study has revealed. But I am not aware that any of the old commentators dealt with this question of the presumed poeticality of the Qur’an with a view to understanding it. This is a task that modern scholarship needs to undertake, an undertaking which might bear far more fruit than any that we have seen since al-Jurjānī brought to a high degree of maturity the idea of iʿjāz residing in the naẓm of the Qur’an and nowhere else. It is a huge task, but great texts deserve huge undertakings to understand and appreciate them. It is certainly worthy of a great text like the Qur’an: that Book that is the ‘Grand World’, as Ibn ʿArabī has beautifully described it.

The Quest for Aesthetic Effect

The point I have made above about understanding and appreciation is crucial for my argument. Modern scholarship needs to prioritize understanding as opposed to glorification. Much of the explicit and implicit motive of work on the Qur’an by devout Muslim scholars is meant to affirm, prove, and glorify the divine qualities of every aspect of the Qur’an. This is a perfectly legitimate cause and some wonderful works have been produced with this motive. But such works fail to show how this superiority is achieved, why a certain feature of the Qur’anic text is inimitable, brilliant, amazingly beautiful, etc. This is especially true of the way metaphorical language (and poetic imagery in all its forms) is treated. In most cases, scholars simply identify a linguistic item as an istiʿāra, a tamthīl or a tashbīh or a majāz, but with few, yet significant exceptions, they do not explore the aesthetic effect of what they identify or try to reveal their significant role within the structures in which they occur. We need to go far beyond that in understanding, allowing the affirmation of superiority to come as a result of this understanding not (p. 803) to be a motive for seeking it. We also need to look at new approaches that can enhance the understanding regardless of whether or not that leads to glorification. One domain of study of great interest and value in this respect is the untouched exploration of the sources of poetic images, the domains from which the constituents of a tashbīh, a tamthīl, or an istiʿāra, for instance, come from throughout each sura then throughout the Qur’an. The consequences of understanding such aspects can be hugely significant not only on an aesthetic level but on a much more crucial level: that of the authenticity of the text. Vicious things have been said about the Qur’an and many things have been fabricated to undermine its authenticity, but no one has carried out exhaustive analysis of the domains of its imagery to see where they belong and from what environment they flow. I have tried to do some of this in a forthcoming book of mine and some results have proved to be extremely interesting. But a lot more needs to be done. When the Qur’an, for instance, uses the language of commerce, of writing, of gardens and farms and when its images derive from a desert environment and scenes deeply rooted in pre-Islamic poetry, does this have serious implications for fantasies about it having been composed by people around the Dead Sea or by ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Marwān in Damascus at the end of the first/seventh century? We need to see. Take this image from Sūrat al-Muddaththir, said to be the first sura to be delivered to Muḥammad:

What is the matter with them, away from piety they turn, like startled wild asses escaping from a group of hunters, yet each of them wants to be sent open sheets of paper; no they do not; they just do not fear the last day. (Q. 74:49–53)

Al-Zamakhsharī portrays the setting of this verse as follows:

The word al-mustanfira means that their nifār (shooting out running) is very strong and hard, as though they were seeking nifar from their inner selves and urging them to perform it; … al-qaswara is a group of hunters chasing them to hunt them, He compared them in avoiding to listen to the Qur’an and turning away from it to wild asses running hard when terrified; in comparing them to wild asses a satire for them and assertion of their foolishness, stupidity and lack of reason as is the case in His saying ‘like an ass carrying books’ … You never see anything faster than wild asses when suspicious of something dangerous; that is why you see most similes by the Arabs describing camels comparing them to wild asses if they sense a hunter when they come to a water source to drink.

(al-Zamakhsharī, 4:656)

The domains of the images in this early sura are striking: first the tashbīh of the unbelievers to the wild asses startled and running in fear of the hunters; second the reference to the open pages each inscribed with the name of a person. Two contrasting images from two different domains of existence: an almost purely pre-Islamic desert scene and an urban one in which writing is a very common activity. Similarly, when Sūrat al-Raḥmān (55:72–6) describe the scenes in paradise they create a context for the beautiful women who will be enjoyed by the [male] believers in the following terms: ‘They are ḥuriyyāt housed in tents … never taken before them by human or jinn … [the males] reclining on (p. 804) green rugs of fabulous beauty.’ One wonders where else, other than in Mecca and its environment, or the pre-Islamic setting of Arabia generally, could an image like this have originated with its description of the ultimate luxury as a green rug and nice ʿabqarī ḥisān; ʿabqarī is attributed to wādi ʿabqar, the land of the jinn in pre-Islamic Arabia which we encounter in the poetry of the period. From it comes the meaning of ʿabqarī as fantastic, fabulous, brilliant, genius. Furthermore, in the many tamthīls in the Qur’an where natural elements are used to represent the believers and unbelievers using very limited items of plant life and scenes of lighting fire in a dry landscape (e.g. Sūrat Ibrāhīm 14:18, 14:24–6, discussed above) do we have material evidence to support claims that the Qur’an was composed in fertile lands where people were farmers who raised cattle, produced various crops, had irrigation systems running across vast areas of rich soil with olive groves and vineyards and woodlands? Or do we have evidence to the contrary?

I am not suggesting anything here, because single images can come into a text from countless directions and sources without them having any definite physical relationship with the producer. But systematic analysis of such things can reveal dominant images or clusters of images in a text, and dominance cannot be accidental or infiltrate a text via outside influence; dominance is the nearest thing we can get to an authentic source. And exploring the Qur’anic text from such a perspective may lead to some remarkable hypotheses and further exploration. It is a task as important as it is fascinating. And the Qur’an is one of the richest texts in the world that lends itself to such a fascinating exploration with a promise of rich, seductive harvests.


Thus we are still waiting for a new tafsīr of the Qur’an that foregrounds those aspects of it which are—or are believed to be—the causes of its superiority, its iʿjāz. The main glimpses of such a tafsīr that relate to aesthetic appeal are those in al-Jurjānī’s studies of a limited number of verses. But al-Jurjānī was not writing a tafsīr, he was writing a study of asrār al-balāgha and the secrets of beauty that arise in texts wholly from their linguistic properties. Perhaps we need a new al-Jurjānī who looks at the Qur’an from the same perspective and has the same type of interest in it but who also wants to write a systematic tafsīr in the light of the advances which have been made in the analysis of poetics and aesthetics as well as linguistics and stylistics and other semiotically based approaches. Will we ever have one? I doubt it.


Abū-Deeb, Kamāl. Al-Jurjānī’s Theory of Poetic Imagery. Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 1979.Find this resource:

Abū-Deeb, Kamāl. ‘Studies in the Majāz and Metaphorical Language of the Qurʾān: Abū ʿUbayda and al-Sharīf al-Raḍī’. In: Isa Boullata (ed.). Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’ān, pp. 310–53. London: Curzon Press, 2000.Find this resource:

(p. 805) Abū Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī Athīr al-Dīn Muḥammad. Tafsīr al-baḥr al-muḥīṭ. Ed. ʿĀdil Aḥmad ʿAbd al-Mawjūd et al. 3rd edn. (in 9 vols.). Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2010.Find this resource:

Ibn ʿArabī Muḥyī al-Dīn. al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya. 4 vols. Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, n.d.Find this resource:

Quṭb, Sayyid. Fī Ẓilāl al-Qurʾān. 6 vols. 17th edn. Cairo: Dār al-Shurūq. Published in the 1960s in thirty volumes as was the 2nd edn. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-ʿArabī, 1967.Find this resource:

Al-Rummānī, Abū’l-Ḥasan ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā. al-Nukat fī iʿjāz al-Qurʾān. Published with two other monographs on the inimitability of the Qur’an by al-Jurjānī and al-Khaṭṭābī. Ed. Muḥammad Khalafallāh Aḥmad and Muḥammad Zaghlūl Sallām. Cairo: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1991.Find this resource:

Al-Zamakhsharī Maḥmūd ibn ʿUmar. Al-Kashshāf ʿan ḥaqāʾiq ghawāmid al-tanzīl wa ʿuyūn al-aqāwīl fi wujūh al-taʾwīl. 4 vols. Beirut: Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1947.Find this resource: