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."


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