Structure as Metaphor in the Qur’an


The Qur’an is usually interpreted and studied based directly on the meanings of the ayat, just as one interprets any other book. Style, appearance, frequency of occurrence of specific phrases and words, the appearance of individual letters at the beginning of some Suras (“Quranic Initials”), and even the more symbolic meaning of certain narratives, such as the lives of prophets, and “graphic” elements such as the physical appearance of letters or size of Suras, are rarely studied with an eye to discover their importance or meaning in the Qur’an.

But because the higher the “style” of writing, the more closely its style will relate to and illuminate its content, in a book whose style is of the highest order such as the Qur’an, this would be even more true, and of greater significance. In the process, I will not use hadeeths or other religious texts as they are often used to explicate the Qur’an, but try instead as much as possible to examine the Qur’an itself for guidance in this matter.

The Qur’an itself uses metaphor extensively, as stated in Surat al-Zumar 39:27:

سُوۡرَةُ الزُّمَر

وَلَقَدۡ ضَرَبۡنَا لِلنَّاسِ فِى هَـٰذَا ٱلۡقُرۡءَانِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ۬ لَّعَلَّهُمۡ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ (٢٧)

And We have put forth for the people in this Qur’an every metaphor (“example”), that they may take heed.

This is also emphasized in Surat Al-Baqara (the Heifer) 2:26:

سُوۡرَةُ البَقَرَة

۞ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ لَا يَسۡتَحۡىِۦۤ أَن يَضۡرِبَ مَثَلاً۬ مَّا بَعُوضَةً۬ فَمَا فَوۡقَهَا‌ۚ فَأَمَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ فَيَعۡلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ ٱلۡحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمۡ‌ۖ وَأَمَّا ٱلَّذِينَ ڪَفَرُواْ فَيَقُولُونَ مَاذَآ أَرَادَ ٱللَّهُ بِهَـٰذَا مَثَلاً۬‌ۘ يُضِلُّ بِهِۦ ڪَثِيرً۬ا وَيَهۡدِى بِهِۦ كَثِيرً۬ا‌ۚ وَمَا يُضِلُّ بِهِۦۤ إِلَّا ٱلۡفَـٰسِقِينَ (٢٦)

Allah does not shy away from putting forth the example (or metaphor) of a mosquito, or anything above it. As for those who believe, they know that it is the truth from their Lord. As for the rejecters, they say: “What does God intend with this example (metaphor)?” By this He throws off (allows to be misguided) many, and with this He guides many; but with this He only throws off (the right path) the wicked.

The use of examples or metaphors in the Qur’an is itself a gigantic topic, but we are here mainly concerned with metaphors that arise out of structural elements, or in the process of trying to find meaning in them, and their relationship to examples and metaphors in the Qur’an.

Ordering of Suras
As discussed previously, the actual ordering of Suras in the Qur’an is a significant structural element that conveys the concept of time and all that this entails. I have suggested that placing them in order into nine concentric circles divided into twelve “chambers” each, the last six Suras forming a half-circle at the center, is a useful graphic that aids in memorization of the placement of Suras, and also gives a sense of the scope of the Qur’an as a totality. The shape thus formed appears like a graphic of a chambered nautilus, a symbolic depiction of this structure that enhances and enables a greater understanding of the meaning and purpose of the Qur’an as a whole.

I have presented a rather cursory introduction to the structural feature of the order of Suras in the Qur’an as being like the shell of a chambered nautilus. This image is never specifically mentioned in the Qur’an, nor is it the only possible way to view this structural element. But I found it to be the most useful one in both assisting in memorizing placement of ayat and Suras in the Qur’an as well as understanding major concepts presented therein.

The shell of the nautilus is its ark, one might say. The ocean is its “flood,” its overwhelming element that provides both sustenance and challenges. One of these challenges is the water pressure at depths where the nautilus descends as a part of its way of life, wherein it rises to the surface during the night to feed and descends to greater depths where it spends much of its time.

Here is a brief description of its life, where these details are noted:

“The shell of the nautilus is comprised of many individual chambers. Each chamber is individually sealed and contains an amount of gas. This provides the animal with buoyancy. The nautilus can regulate its density by injecting or removing fluid into these chambers through a system of tubes. This strong shell also provides protection for the animal’s soft body.”

This is where the metaphor begins to make sense: the shell represents an ark to preserve something soft and vulnerable. The chambers provide buoyancy and help protect the nautilus from the pressures of the deep. If we are then a soft, vulnerable creature like the nautilus, this Qur’an provides us not only guidance, but an ark, which protects us from the “pressures” of life and of “evil” or Satanic influences, and also gives us “buoyancy,” helps us “rise” above our own failings. The nautilus itself adds new chambers to its shell as it grows in size, some have said approximately one per month, although since they live about twenty years, they more likely grow less frequently. I have read that the chambers form a sort of calendar or calendric record for the nautilus’ life. So as a metaphor, there is room for comparison with our life and our relationship to Allah’s final revelatory book, the Qur’an.

Pivotal Phrases
Another element of “structure” in the Qur’an are what I call pivotal phrases, which are phrases that are repeated throughout the Qur’an in various contexts, and whose meaning is enhanced by those placements. These are, at the same time, “anchor” concepts whose importance to the entire message is pivotal, crucial. If one ignores these phrases, or does not understand them, one’s entire reading of the Qur’an may be weaker as a result. An example of this is “afa la taaqiloon?” Or “will you not use your minds?” This one question, threaded through the message, helps to “ground” our understanding of the Qur’an in logic rather than blind rote, mindless, word-mouthing. The Qur’an is a book to be read mindfully, to be understood as to its meanings, not recited without understanding as a sort of magic formula, a talisman or incantation. This pivotal phrase is a critical guidepost as to how to approach the Qur’an and even the religion itself. Islam does not espouse “blind faith.”

Symbolic Narratives
Yet another “structural” feature of the Qur’an is the symbolic elements in narratives, such as the lives of the prophets. The narratives are both straight histories and allegorical/symbolic narratives — not “myth,” a much-maligned word in the Muslim world, but symbolic examples taken from actual events and personalities. Their symbolic content can be clearly seen when these narratives are viewed in the context of the whole message and its many elements.

An excellent example of this, as the structural metaphor of the nautilus is presented, is the narrative of Nooh (Noah) and the ark. We are familiar with this narrative from the Biblical version. Some differences in the Qur’anic narrative include no mention of there having been rain for forty days and forty nights, and the description of waves “like mountains,” suggestive of a more cataclysmic flood than one resulting from a severe or prolonged weather incident. But the important issue in this context is that a prophet, Nooh, with an important message (orally transmitted, hence his person was important as a source), was given specific instructions to build an “ark” to protect him and his followers, and thus also the message, and to survive a cataclysm. The narrative clearly forms a metaphor for the Day of Judgment/Resurrection, and the “ark” is a metaphor for that which preserves and carries us through that cataclysm, enabling survival. The “ark” then is a metaphor for the sacred text itself, the text being a divine message presented to humans in human language in such a way that the human language itself constructs an “ark,” a sacred Book, the only fully intact and unadulterated example of which exists today is the Qur’an.

Numbers are another structural element that can assist us in studying and understanding the Qur’an. These include actual numbers mentioned in the text itself, such as “seven pairs”, the mention that the carriers of Allah’s throne (presumed to be angels but not mentioned as such, as if to highlight the number itself) are eight, many references to the number twelve (months of the year, number of tribes of the children of Israel, number of the sons of Yaqub (Jacob, also known as Israel, among others). They also include the number of elements within the Qur’an, such as the number of words in Al-Fatiha (29) or the number of Suras in the Qur’an (114), or the number of times Allah’s name is mentioned, or even the number of Arabic letters in the name Allah. These elements help us in organizing the meanings in the Qur’an, in determining the relative importance of various concepts and rules, etc., and in highlighting meanings as well as symbolic references.

Symbolic Images
This structural element consists of specific “things” of importance, which can be thought of as images, in the sense of a graphic that represents a real thing. They are repeated fairly frequently or at least significantly throughout the Qur’an. I choose the word “image” because in some cases, the words used to convey the image may vary, but the image/concept remains the same. Examples of such “images” are: mountains, an ark, water, fire, planets, womb, borders/walls, openings, and doors, among many others.

Sometimes an image derives from another structural element, as for example, my extrapolation of an ark from the nautilus shell suggested by the ordering of Suras. This image of “ark” as a vessel of some kind which protects a sacred message or messenger or followers of a messenger from harm or danger, a vessel which is also left “under Allah’s eyes (watch)” away from society, has many other applications in the Qur’an. The “ark” which protected the infant Moosa (Moses) from the murderous plans of the Pharoah, a small basket or vessel made of reed and left only under Allah’s watch and guidance alone, led to his “rebirth” and survival in the house of the very Pharoah who had planned to kill him.

Another example is the ark of the Covenant, mentioned extensively in the Old Testament, but also in the Qur’an, as for example, from Surat al-Baqara 2:248:

سُوۡرَةُ البَقَرَة

وَقَالَ لَهُمۡ نَبِيُّهُمۡ إِنَّ ءَايَةَ مُلۡڪِهِۦۤ أَن يَأۡتِيَڪُمُ ٱلتَّابُوتُ فِيهِ سَڪِينَةٌ۬ مِّن رَّبِّڪُمۡ وَبَقِيَّةٌ۬ مِّمَّا تَرَكَ ءَالُ مُوسَىٰ وَءَالُ هَـٰرُونَ تَحۡمِلُهُ ٱلۡمَلَـٰٓٮِٕكَةُ‌ۚ إِنَّ فِى ذَٲلِكَ لَأَيَةً۬ لَّڪُمۡ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤۡمِنِينَ (٢٤٨)

And their prophet said to them: “The sign of his kingship shall be that he brings to you the ark of the covenant in which there is tranquility from your Lord and the legacy of what was left behind by the descendants of Moses and the descendants of Aaron being carried by the angels. In this is a sign for you if you are believers.”

This “ark” also carried the sacred message of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, and was given strict protocols for its transport and use, where it gave protection to the Israelites from their enemies. Its construction was sent down by Jibreel as part of the message. The Qur’an, which was sent down as a message for later generations, to which we belong, is sent to “people who use their minds,” for whom the physical ark has been replaced with a protective and sacred structure of language/words/numbers (as described above), and so the “style” or architecture of the Qur’an becomes its ark. Or one could even say the Qur’an, inseparable from its own structure, IS an ark.

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