Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 3): Verses 7-8

The final chiastic structure in this section is āyas 7 and 8:

A. إِنَّا جَعَلْنَا مَا عَلَى الْأَرْضِ زِينَةً لَّهَا
   B. لِنَبْلُوَهُمْ أَيُّهُمْ أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا
A’. وَإِنَّا لَجَاعِلُونَ مَا عَلَيْهَا صَعِيدًا جُرُزًا

A.  Truly, We made what is on the earth a beautification for it,
   B.  To test which of them are the best in deed,
A’. And truly, We will make what is on it into barren ground.

This is a simple ring composition, which consists of a center surrounded by two complementary parts.  The beginning of A, “Truly, We have made what is on the earth…” (إِنَّا جَعَلْنَا مَا عَلَى الْأَرْضِ) corresponds to the beginning of A’, “And truly, We will make what is on it…” (وَإِنَّا لَجَاعِلُونَ مَا عَلَيْهَا).  Yet, the outcomes are the opposite: “a beautification for it” (زِينَةً لَّهَا) vs. “barren ground” (صَعِيدًا جُرُزًا).  This reflects another recurring theme in the sūra, the transience of the worldly life.

The centerpiece (B) explains the purpose of this divine scheme of creation and destruction (A and A’): to test who will perform righteous deeds—recalling “those who perform righteous deeds” (الَّذِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ الصَّالِحَاتِ) in āya 2.  It is significant that only the “best in deed” (أَحْسَنُ عَمَلًا) are mentioned, and not evil deeds.  This highlights that the purpose of the test is to bring about good deeds, the good effects of which are permanent—recall āyas 2-3, “For them is a good reward, in which they will remain forever” (أَنَّ لَهُمْ أَجْرًا حَسَنًا  مَّاكِثِينَ فِيهِ أَبَدًا)—while everything else will eventually expire.  The use of “truly” (إِنَّ) removes any doubt about this and reinforces it.  The āyah also shifts the Prophet’s attention away from people’s evil deeds and unbelief to people’s faith and good deeds.  Phonetically, there is also consonance and rhyme throughout verses 6-8 that produce a pleasant sound, particularly with the repetition of ‘ayn and lām.

In the next article, we will look at three more examples of chiastic structures in Sūra 18, in shā’a ’llāh.  

Monday, January 5, 2015

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 2): Verse 5

Let us look at the next āya, in translation: “They have no knowledge of it, neither their forefathers.  Dreadful is the word that comes out of their mouths.  They speak nothing but a lie.”  In translation, this might seem unnecessarily repetitious.  In the Arabic however, this āya has a very effective flow, sound, and rhetorical power.  Yet, this is even further underscored when one discerns how this āya is structured:

A.  مَّا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْم وَلَا لِآبَائِهِمٍْ
   B.  كَبُرَتْ كَلِمَةً
   B’. تَخْرُجُ مِنْ أَفْوَاهِهِمْ
A’. إِن يَقُولُون إِلَّا كَذِبًا

A.  They do not have any knowledge of it, neither their forefathers.
   B.  Dreadful is the saying
   B’. That comes out of their mouths.
A’.  They say nothing but a lie.

When A and A’ are read in relation to one other, they convey the point that asserting something without any basis in knowledge (A) is equivalent to lying (A’).  A similar lesson is found in a Prophetic ḥadīth, “It is enough of a lie that a man narrates everything he hears.”[1]  The issue of asserting things without knowledge, especially about God, is another common theme that runs throughout the sūra.

In B, the “saying” (كَلِمَةً) that “God has taken a son” is deemed “dreadful” (كَبُرَتْ).  In B’, its loathsome nature is fleshed out in intentionally graphic-sounding language: “that comes out their mouths” (تَخْرُجُ مِنْ أَفْوَاهِهِمْ).  This is more apparent in the Arabic.

The phonetics of this āya are also remarkable.  The consonant sounds (bā’, tā’,  khā’, qāf, kāf, lām, mīm) are exceedingly well coordinated in a way that produces tangible effects on the listener.  In “They do not have any knowledge of it, nor their forefathers” (مَّا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْم وَلَا لِآبَائِهِمٍْ), the sounds bā’lām, and mīm repeat and alternate in an impressive fashion.  In “Dreadful is the saying that comes out of their mouths,” the use of velar sounds (khā’ and kāf), tā’jīm, and hamza produces a rough and graphic sound that reflects the condemnatory nature of the speech and evokes a subconscious sense of disgust in the recitor or listener.  Moreover, taken with the end of the preceding verse—“and to warn those who say ‘God has taken a son’” (وَيُنذِرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا اتَّخَذَ اللَّهُ وَلَدًا)—the passage exhibits phonetic consonance, with the repetition of the sounds tā’khā’, dhāl, and qāf throughout.

The combination of structure, semantic coherence, and phonetic consonance makes this brief passage an incredible composition.  Rather than being repetitious, the different terms in the āyah add depth to each other, provide different variations on the same theme, and are rhetorically powerful.

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, “Introduction,” #6, 8, 10.