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.