Sunday, December 28, 2014

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 1): Verses 2-4

On studying sūra 18, al-Kahf (“The Cave”), I noticed a number of small chiastic structures.  These are literary patterns in which ideas are presented in one order and then repeated in the opposite order. (See my introductions to chiastic structures here.)  These are really common in the Qur’an, characterizing many passages and sometime entire sūras.  They are really exciting to find because they show a beautiful order and structure that often goes completely unobserved.  It also helps to understand where the meaning and emphasis is within the composition.

In these next several posts, I will be presenting some chiastic structures in Sūrat al-Kahf and also discussing their implications in the context of the sūra.  In the first several posts, I will concentrate just on the introduction of Sūrat al-Kahf, which comprises the first eight verses, or ‘āyas’.  This section lays out most of the major themes that will be further elaborated over the course of the sūra.  Despite the brevity of this section, it contains three small chiastic structures.

Here is a translation of the sūra's introduction:

Description of the Revelation
1. All praise belongs to God, who revealed the Book upon His slave and did not place any crookedness in it—
2.  Straight, to warn of a severe punishment from Him, and to give glad tidings to the believers who perform righteous deeds that for them is a good reward
3.  In which they will remain forever;
4.  And to warn those who say, “God has taken a son.”
5.  They do not have any knowledge of it, neither their forefathers.  Dreadful is the saying that comes out of their mouths.  They say nothing but a lie.

Address to the Prophet (peace be upon him)
6.  Then perhaps you (Muhammad) would kill yourself in grief over them if they do not believe in this message, out of sorrow.
7.  Truly, We have made what is on the earth a beautification for it, so that We may test which of them are the best in deed,
8.  And truly, We will make what is on it barren ground.

Chiastic Structure #1: Āyas 2-4

The first chiastic structure occurs in āyas 2-4:

A.  قَيِّمًا لِّيُنذِرَ بَأْسًا شَدِيدًا مِّن لَّدُنْهُ
   B.  وَيُبَشِّرَ
      C.  الْمُؤْمِنِينَ
      C’. الَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ الصَّالِحَاتِ
   B’. أَنَّ لَهُمْ أَجْرًا حَسَنًا  مَّاكِثِينَ فِيهِ أَبَدًا
A’.  وَيُنذِرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا اتَّخَذَ اللَّهُ وَلَدًا

A.  Straight, to warn of a severe calamity from Him.
   B.  And to give glad tidings
      C.  To the believers,
      C’. Those who perform good deeds,
   B’. That for them is a good reward, in which they will remain forever,
A’.  And to warn those who say, “God has taken a son.”

The corresponding terms in the chiastic structure (for example, A and A’) not only relate to each other semantically, but also explain each other.  Let us look at this specific case.

A and A’ both involve “warning” (َيُنذِرَ).  A warns of “a severe calamity” (بَأْسًا شَدِيدًا) while A’ clarifies who is especially being warned: “those who say, ‘God has taken a son’” (الَّذِينَ قَالُوا اتَّخَذَ اللَّهُ وَلَدًا).

In contrast, B and B’ both involve glad tidings of reward.  B introduces the glad tidings in general terms (َيُبَشِّر), while B’ defines what the glad tidings are about: “that for them is a good reward, in which they will remain forever” (أَنَّ لَهُمْ أَجْرًا حَسَنًا  مَّاكِثِينَ فِيهِ أَبَدًا).  It is also worth noting that the term “glad tidings” or “good news” is reminiscent of the Christian term “Gospel” or “Evangel,” which also mean “good news.”  In this passage, however, the “good news” is directed away towards those who affirm unitarian monotheism, while Christians who hold Christ as divine are warned, in accordance with the Qur’an’s theology.  Since Sūrat al-Kahf largely addressed (in its historical context) Syriac Christians, this issue is a theme that runs throughout the sūra.

In the very center (C and C’), those who are saved from the “severe punishment” and who earn the “good reward” are mentioned, appropriately couched between the mention of “glad tidings” and “good reward.”  They are defined by two qualities: they have faith (in God’s unity and His revelations) and they perform righteous deeds.

This is a beautifully arranged chiastic structure.  Moreover, discerning this structure allows us to better understand its parts, since we are able to see the relationships between them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Structure of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Part III)

This is continuing from my previous two posts, The Structure of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa, part I and part II.

Finally, it is also worth noting that the Fātiḥa, as the first sūra of the Qur’an, also relates to the last sūrah of the Qur’an, sūra 114, called an-Nās (“People, Mankind”).  This time I will print the Arabic text in English characters:

Qul aʿūdhu bi rabbi n-nās
   Maliki n-nās,
   Ilāhi ’n-Nās,
Min sharri' l-waswāsi l-khannās,
   Alladhi yuwaswisu fī ṣudūri n-nās,
   Mina l-jinnati wa n-nās.

Say: I take refuge in the Lord of mankind,
   The King of mankind,
   The God of mankind,
From the evil of the slinking whisperer,
   Who whispers into the hearts of mankind,
   From the jinn and mankind.

Like the Fātiḥasūra 114 is a prayer to God.  It consists of two contrasting halves, the first listing attributes of God, and the second listing attributes of certain kinds of people.  

The first name of God mentioned,  Rabbi’n-Nās (“The Lord of Mankind”) corresponds to the first āyah of the Fātiḥa.  The next two names mentioned, “King of Mankind (Maliki ’n-Nās)” and “God of Mankind (Ilāhi ’n-Nās)” correspond to “Master (Mālik) of the Day of Recompense” and “You alone we worship.”  

Both sūras also mention two kinds of people in negative terms: in the Fātiḥa, “those who have earned anger” and “the astray”; in sūrah 114 whisperers from jinn and from mankind.  

There are also some interesting points of contrast.  For example, the Fātiḥa was a collective prayer, while sūra 114 is an individual prayer; and the context of the Fātiḥa was positive, a prayer for guidance, while the context of sūra 114 is negative, a prayer of refuge from harm.  

To cap this all off, the very last āya of the Qur’an, “From the jinn and mankind” goes back to the first, “All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of all peoples,” since “all peoples” here alludes to two kind of personal beings: jinn and mankind!

Here is a video of my teacher, Nouman Ali Khan, talking about the comparison between the Fātiḥa and Surat an-Nās:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Structure of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Part II)

Here, for the reader's convenience, I will reproduce diagram text of the Fātiḥa and its translation from the previous post:

الحمد لله

A.  رب العالمين
   B.  الرحمن
   B'. الرحيم
A'. مالك يوم الدين

C.  إياك نعبد
C'. وإياك نستعين

A.  اهدنا الصراط المستقيم
   B.  صراط الذين أنعمت عليهم
   B'. غير المغضوب عليهم
A'. ولا الضالين


All praise are due to God

A.  The Lord of all peoples,
   B. The All-Merciful,
   B'. The Ever-Merciful,
A'. Master of the Day of Recompense.

C. You alone we worship,
C'. and you alone we ask for help.

A.  Guide us along the Straight Path,
   B.  the path of those whom You have favored,
   B'. not of those who have earned wrath,
A'. nor of the astray.

Continuing from where we left off...

There is still more to be observed in each chiasmus (colored in blue and red respectively).  

The end of the sūra divides those who lack guidance into two groups of people.  The first of these groups are al-maghḍūbi ʿalayhim, literally meaning "those who have earned anger."  From other Qur'anic texts and from the Prophet Muhammad's commentary on these verses, this is understood to refer to people who, despite having knowledge of God’s commandments, resolved to act against them.

The second group of people are aḍ-ḍālīn, meaning “those who are lost” or “those who are astray.” In contrast with the previous group, this refers to people who lack guidance because they do not have proper knowledge about what the Straight Path consists of.

Therefore, the two kinds of people who lack guidance lack either (1) sound knowledge or (2) sound action, so guidance consists of both of these together.  The Fātiḥa itself is structured to remedy both of these problems.  The first chiasmus consists of sound knowledge of God (His attributes), while the second consists of sound action (taking to Him in prayer).  

It should also be noted that the first chiasmus (including “All praise is due to God”) is entirely a nominal sentence, and the second chiasmus is entirely a verbal sentence.  The use of the nominal sentence is rhetorically suited to speaking about God because nouns are more stable and permanent.  Conversely, the use of the verbal sentences is suited to speaking about human beings because verbs are subject to time and change.  The center, “You alone we worship and You alone we ask for help,” in the Arabic shares qualities of both nominal and verbal sentences (both clauses are verb-based but begin with nouns), which is fitting because it concerns both God and us.

As a ring composition, the end of the Fātiḥa also comes back to the beginning.  The first āya described God as the “Lord of all peoples.”  The last two āyas classify all people into three categories: those whom God has favored, those who have earned wrath, and those who are lost and astray.

There is one more thing I would like to draw attention to about the Fātiḥa.  I will do that in the next post, in shā'a 'llāh.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Structure of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (Part I)

I recently read Raymond Farrin's analysis of Sūrat al-Fātiḥa in his new book, Structure and Qur'anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam's Holy Text.  Farrin is a scholar of classical Arabic literature and has written a number of fascinating studies of ring composition in classical Arabic poetry and the Qur'an, the book I just mentioned being his most recent contribution.  I hope to give more examples from his work later on in this blog.

One thing he argues is that Sūrat al-Fātiḥa is a ring composition.  In Muslim faith and practice, the Fātiḥa (literally meaning, "The Opening") is not only the first sūra ("chapter," for lack of a better term) in the Qur'an, but it is also the perfect prayer taught to them by God to be recited as the most important part of the daily prayers, and also represents a summary of the main themes of the Qur'an.

I agree with Farrin's observation about the sūra's chiastic structure, but I have a slightly different take on the explanation of the relationship between the different terms in this structure.  Here I will diagram the structure of the sūra and then explain what I believe is its precise import.

الحمد لله

A.  رب العالمين
   B.  الرحمن
   B'. الرحيم
A'. مالك يوم الدين

C.  إياك نعبد
C'. وإياك نستعين

A.  اهدنا الصراط المستقيم
   B.  صراط الذين أنعمت عليهم
   B'. غير المغضوب عليهم
A'. ولا الضالين


All praise are due to God

A.  The Lord of all peoples,
   B. The All-Merciful,
   B'. The Ever-Merciful,
A'. Master of the Day of Recompense.

C. You alone we worship,
C'. and you alone we ask for help.

A.  Guide us along the Straight Path,
   B.  the path of those whom You have favored,
   B'. not of those who have earned wrath,
A'. nor of the astray.

As Farrin points out, this sūra is composed of two chiasmi fit into a ring composition.  The structure gives profound insight into the meaning of the individual verses of the sūra.  However, the following is what I believe to be a more accurate account of the meaning within the two chiasmi.

Let me begin by explaining the first chiasmus (in blue):

A describes God's relationship with people in this world, while A' describes his relationship with them in the afterlife.  A uses the term rabb (translated as "Lord") while A' uses the term mālik (translated as "Master").  These are synonyms in the Arabic language, mālik being one of the meanings of the word rabb.

The relationship between B and B' is obvious.  They are both names of God highlighting his mercy (raḥma).  However the nuance in their meanings is brought out by their placement in the chiasmus.  B is closely tied to A, because they primarily concern this world.  B' is closely tied to A' because they primarily concern the next world.[1]

Let us skip C-C' for a moment and look at the second chiasmus (in red):

The relationship between A and B is obvious, and the relationship between B' and A' is obvious.  The former concern those who are guided, while the latter concern those who are not.

What is really interesting is the relationship between A and A', and B and B'.  A concerns guidance (hidāya) while A' concerns its antithesis, misguidance/going astray (ḍalāl).  B concerns a class of people labeled alladhīna anʿamta ʿalayhim ("those whom You have favored"), while B' concerns a class of people labeled al-maghḍūbi ʿalayhim ("those who have earned wrath").  These are not exact antithesis, but this appears to be an example of a literary device the Qur'an uses in which it juxtaposes two not-quite opposite terms in order to create a four-way comparison.  The antithesis of niʿmah ("favor" - B) in Arabic is niqma ("retribution, punishment"), while the antithesis of ghaḍab ("wrath" - B') is riḍā ("satisfaction").  The implication is that those who are qualified of God's favor (niʿmah) are also qualified by His satisfaction (riḍā), while those who have brought on His wrath (ghaḍab) have also brought on His retribution (niqma).

Now returning to the center (C-C'):

"You alone we worship and You alone we ask for help" is the central idea of this sūrah.  By implication, since this sūrah summarizes the contents of the Qur'an, the verse embodies the main idea of the entire Qur'an.  It is the relationship of the worshiper (ʿābid) with his God (ilāh), and of the slave (ʿabd) with his Lord (rabb).  It is equivalent to the Muslim declaration of faith, "there is nothing worthy of worship except God" (lā illāha illā 'llāh).

C concerns the exclusive worship of God.  Now look at the entire first half of the sūra ending with C—from "All praise are due to God" until "You alone we worship."  The whole first half in fact consists of exactly that: worship of God.

C' concerns praying exclusively to God for help.  Now look at the entire second of the sūra beginning with C'—from "You alone we ask for help" until "nor of the astray."  The whole second half of the sūra actually consists entirely of praying to God for help!

So the sūra has an extremely brilliant structure which is closely tied to its meanings.[2]  It is so precisely worded and arranged that nothing could be added or taken away from it without  breaking the entire composition.  Moreover it beautifully summarizes the main themes of the Qur'an. 

There is a lot more that can be said about the precise wording of the sūra, how the verses connect linearly, and other features of its naẓm (coherence and arrangement).  I do not intend to discuss all of these here.  However I would like to devote the next post to a few more observations about the implication of the structure of this sūrah, shown above, on its meanings as well as how it connects with the final sūra of the Qur'an.  In shā’a 'llāh.

[1] There is a lot of commentary on the precise distinctions between two names.  To summarize what is relevant here, it can be said that ar-Raḥmān (which I have translated as "the All-Merciful") connotes God's mercy towards all of His creatures, deserving and undeserving alike; while ar-Raḥīm highlights the permanence of God's mercy, but which is more selective and excludes some types of people in the afterlife.

[2] The bipartite structure of this sūra is alluded to in a famous ḥadīth qudṣī ("sacred tradition") in which the Prophet related on behalf of God "I have divided the prayer [i.e. Sūrat al-Fātiḥa] into two halves between Myself and My slave, and My slave shall have what he asks for."

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chiastic Structuring in Āyat al-Kursī and Sūrat al-Qāri'a

In the previous post, I talked about the use of parallelism and chiastic structures in the Qur'an.  I showed how Sūra 12, "Joseph," is a type of chiastic structure called a ring composition.  Here I will give two more examples of chiastic structures in the Qur'an.

The first example is the famous Āyat al-Kursī (2:255), usually rendered as the "Throne verse":

الله لا إله إلا هو

A. الحي القيوم
   B.  لا تأخذه سنة ولا نوم
      C.  له ما في السماوات وما في الأرض
        D.   من ذا الذي يشفع عنده إلا بإذنه
           E.   يعلم ما بين أيديهم
           E'.  وما خلفهم
         D'.  ولا يحيطون بشيء من علمه إلا بما شاء
     C'.   وسع كرسيه السماوات والأرض
   B'.  ولا يئوده حفظهما
A'.  وهو العلي العظيم


God, there is none worthy of worship but He,

A.  The Living, the Self-Existent.
   B.  Neither drowsiness or sleep overtake Him.
      C.  His is whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.
         D.  Who can intercede before Him except by His permission?
            E.  He knows what is in front of them
            E'. and what is behind them.
         D'.  They do not encompass anything of His knowledge except what He wills.
      C'. His Throne extends over the heavens and the earth
   B'. and their preservation does not burden Him.
A'. He is the Most High, the Great.

Notice how the corresponding terms, A - A', B - B', C - C', correspond to each other in very obvious and intuitive ways.  As Mehdi Azaiez explains:
The relationship between those units is one of identity: terms and segments have similar meanings, and each segment responds or corresponds to its pair. The first segments (A and A’) possess three words each. Both share an identical term (huwa) and use synonymy which corresponds to attributes of God (al-ḥayyu al-qayyūmu [cor]responding to al-ʿaliyyu al-ʿaẓīmu). The second segments (B and B’) highlight the role of God as one who maintains the existence of the Universe...The parallelism of the third segments (C, C’) refers to the cosmology and sovereignty of God...And finally, the parallelism of the fourth segments (D,D’) draws attention to God’s will...These four main topics—God’s attributes, God’s power, God’s sovereignty, and God’s will—converge on one central idea: the knowledge of God embraces all things... 
The second example is sūra 101, al-Qāri'a ("The Crashing Blow"):

A.  القارعة
   B.  ما القارعةوما أدراك ما القارعة
      C.  يوم يكون الناس كالفراش المبثوث
           وتكون الجبال كالعهن المنفوش  
      C’. فأما من ثقلت موازينه فهو في عيشة راضية
            وأما من خفت موازينه فأمه هاوية
   B’. وما أدراك ما هيه
A’. نار حامية


A.  The Crashing Blow!
   B.  What is the Crashing Blow? And what will tell you what the Crashing Blow is?
      C.  On a Day people will be like scattered moths,
            and the mountains like tufts of carded wool,
      C'. the one whose good deeds are heavy on the scales will have a pleasant life,
           but the one whose good deeds are light will have the Abyss for his home.
   B'. What will explain to you what that is?
A'.  A blazing fire.[1]

Michel Cuypers explains the structure of this sūra as follows:

At the two ends (AA’) isolated terms appear: “the calamity” (evoking a cosmic upheaval)/“a burning fire” (evoking Hell). The correspondence of these two extreme terms is emphasized by their assonance: qÂrI‘A/hÂmIyA. In median position (BB’) appears questions, partly identical. In central position CC’ appears two segments, each one of strictly parallel grammatical structure. Moreover, the two segments form between them a complementary parallelism: the first (C) describes the cataclysm of the Last Day, the second (C’) the Judgment. 
From the rhetorical point of view, the Sura is thus constituted of a single part, evoking the Day of Judgment in two complementary pieces, set out in a mirror composition or chiasmus, the first describing the cosmic upheaval of this day, the second the Judgment and its retribution.[2]
The more the composition of the various sūras and sections of the Qur'an is studied, the more obvious it becomes that it is exquisitely structured and that this structure is important for both understanding what it means to convey and the elegance with which it conveys it.


[1] Here I used M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem's translation, slightly modified.

[2] Quoted from his concise essay on chiastic structures in the Qur'an, specifically surahs 101 (al-Qāri'a) and 114 (an-Nās): Michel Cuypers, "The Semitic Rhetoric in the Koran and a Pharaonic Papyrus."


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Introduction to Parallelisms and Chiastic Structures in the Qur'an

Over the next several posts I want to talk about one of the subjects that has fascinated me the most recently, namely chiasmi and ring compositions in the Qur’an.  But first, let me explain what those are.

In Biblical studies (particularly of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), the focus of most scholars over the last two centuries has been on historical and textual criticism: the historical context of the books of the Hebrew Bible, the dates of their composition, their authorship, how the stories developed and how they correlate with archaeological discoveries.  Those are all fascinating and important subjects, but in recent decades there has emerged a greater focus on the literary study of the Bible: its poetics, literary devices, literary composition, and its narrative qualities.

Scholars with a literary focus have discerned that various biblical authors employed considerations of symmetry as major principles of composition.  (The use of these compositional techniques has since been discerned in ancient Greek, Persian, Indian, and Chinese writings as well, and even in medieval and modern writings and oral literature)  There are three major types of symmetrical composition, though they contain many subtypes.  Each of these types, as we will see, are also important for the study of the Qur’an.

1. Parallelism

A parallelism follows a simple pattern of A B A' B'.  This is central to Hebrew poetry, such as the Psalms, but is also common in literature and rhetoric in all languages.

An example would be the beginning of Isaiah 2:4:
He shall judge between the nations, 
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples
The structure is:
  A' B'
In this example, typical of Hebrew poetry, the relationships between A ("shall judge") and A' ("shall arbitrate") and between B ("the nations") and B' ("many peoples") is that of synonymity, similarity, or close association.  However, the relationship between the parallel terms does not have to be one of similarity.  They could also be direct opposites, as in the following quote from Malcolm X:
A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.
Here A ("stands") and A' ("falls"), and B ("nothing") and B' ("anything"), are opposites.  The point is that A and A' have to have some clear relationship, as well as B and B', C and C', and so on.

A simple example of a parallelism in the Qur'an would be 28:73:
وَمِن رَّحْمَتِهِ جَعَلَ لَكُمُ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ لِتَسْكُنُوا فِيهِ وَلِتَبْتَغُوا مِن فَضْلِهِ 
And from His mercy He made for you 
A. the night
   B. and the day
A'. so that you may rest in it
   B.' and pursue from His bounty.

Sūra 91 ("The Sun") opens with a complex divine oath comprised of a series of parallelisms:
وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا
   وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا

وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا
   وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا

وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا
   وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا

By the sun and its brightness
   By the moon when it follows it,

By the day when it displays it,
   By the night when it veils it,

By sky and the One who built it,
   By the earth and the One who spread it...

2. Chiasmus

The chiasmus (pronounced kai-az-muhs; plural 'chiasmi') is sometimes also referred to as a “reverse parallelism."  This time, the terms are presented and then repeated in the reverse order - A B B A.  For example, in Matthew 19:30 Jesus says:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The chiasmus can also be mapped out like this:
A. But many who are first
   B. will be last,
   B.' and the last
A.' will be first.

An example in the Qur'an would be 6:95:
يُخْرِجُ الْحَيَّ مِنَ الْمَيِّتِ وَمُخْرِجُ الْمَيِّتِ مِنَ الْحَيِّ  
A. He brings out the living
   B. from the dead
   B'. and brings out the dead
A'. from the living.

3. Ring Composition

While these terms are not always used with precise consistency, the word "chiasmus" is often used on a small scale, such as the sentence clause-level.  However a much larger piece of writing, even a whole narrative or an entire book, may also constitute a chiastic structure.

The most interesting kind of chiastic structure is a ring composition.  A ring composition (or ring structure) is a chiastic structure in which "a center connects the opposite sides of an inverted parallelism," to quote one scholar.  It therefore has the structure ABCAB.  (Another definition of a ring composition is simply any chiastic structure beyond the clause-scale, so under this definition it could also have the pattern of, e.g., ABCCBA.)  The most important parts of a ring composition are the beginning and end, which frame the ring, and the center, which draws the successive rings to a central statement or idea.  Ring composition can occur on the scale of a single passage or an entire book.

Recent Qur'anic scholarship in French and English has observed that entire sūras of the Qur'an are ring compositions.  An example of this is Sūra Yūsuf (Joseph):

A. Joseph’s dream (vv. 4-6)
   B. The brothers’ plot against Joseph (vv. 7-22)
      C. Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce Joseph (vv. 23-29)
         D . A similar attempt by Egyptian ladies (vv. 30-34)
            E. Joseph’s imprisonment (vv. 35-42) 
               F. The king’s dream (vv. 43-44) 
               F’. The king’s dream interpreted (vv. 45-49)
            E’. Joseph’s release from prison (v. 50)
         D’. Confession of the Egyptian ladies (v. 51a)
      C’. Confession of Potiphar’s wife (vv. 51b-57)
   B’. The brothers learn their lesson (vv. 58-99)
A’. Fulfillment of Joseph’s dream (vv. 100-101)

In the next several posts, I will provide further examples of chiastic structures in the Qur'an and explain why are important (in shā’a 'llāh).