Rhetoric and the Qur’ān

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Rhetoric and the Qur’ān


The Qur’ān has been judged in Islamic tradition as inimitable; indeed a dogma emerged in the third/ninth century holding that the Qur’ān is, linguistically and stylistically, far superior to all other literary ¶ productions in the Arabic language (q.v.; see also literature and the qur’ān ). Although the belief in the “inimitability of the Qur’ān” ( i`jāz al-Qur’ān, see inimitability ) does not rely exclusively on formal criteria, it has been widely received as a statement about the literary qualities of the Qur’ān both in traditional scholarly literature on Arabic rhetoric (see Heinrichs, Rhetoric and poetics) and in modern scholarship (cf. Bint al-Shāṭi’, al-I`jāz al-bayānī lil-Qur’ān). Kermani (Gott ist schön) has contextualized and traced this claim of inimitability for the Islamic scripture, which was a later development in qur’ānic poetics, back to the early strata of Muslim collective memory. As against that, some recent scholars have completely dismissed the notion of i`jāz as being rooted in the event of the Qur’ān. Some have done so based on the assumption of the impossibility of proving that the entire qur’ānic corpus is genuine, and thus maintain that the Qur’ān does not admit of any conclusions drawn from its self-referential statements. Others have — on the basis of a close reading of the so-called challenge verses ( āyāt al-taaddī) — reached the conclusion that the qur’ānic challenges should be viewed as part of the indoctrination of the believers rather than a genuine polemic (see provocation; belief and unbelief ). The qur’ānic arguments viewed from such a perspective appear topical rather than real, the interlocutors of the qur’ānic speaker being reduced from real to merely imagined, fictitious adversaries (Radscheit, Die koranische Herausforderung; see opposition to muammad ). That assumption, presupposing a strict separation between the biography of the Prophet and the Qur’ān, sets a decisive epistemic course, particularly in a case where matters of prophetic self-image are at stake (see sīra and the qur’ān; prophets and ¶ prophethood ): What may have been an existentially significant self-testimony of the Prophet, when read as a true challenge cast against real adversaries, is reduced to a merely rhetorical pattern, an instance of boasting about doctrinal achievements attained.

In view of the internal evidence, enhanced by external evidence (see for new discoveries concerning the interaction between the Prophet and his doctrinal and political adversaries as attested in secular literature, Imhof, Religiöser Wandel), the author of this article does not share the pessimism of those qur’ānic scholars who totally negate the legitimacy of drawing connections between the biography of the Prophet and the Qur’ān, provided this biography is not understood in the limited sense of a history of the Prophet's personal development. A close reading of the qur’ānic texts — not as a collection of literary remains left by a no longer feasible charismatic figure and later framed as apologetic-polemic discussions by the redactors (see collection of the qur’ān; post-enlightenment academic study of the qur’ān ), but as a sequence of testimonies to an ongoing and progressive communication process (see form and structure of the qur’ān ) between the Prophet and his audience(s) — promises insights into a development of rhetorical phenomena discernible in the process of the qur’ānic genesis.

The extraordinary Islamic claim of inimitability (i`jāz) will be revisited in the context of a synopsis of some particularly striking qur’ānic stylistic phenomena. In view of the scanty scholarly work done in the field of qur’ānic rhetoric, the following article is limited to an outline of diverse aspects that deserve to be studied. As such, it aims at tracing developments in the rhetorical self-expression of the qur’ānic message rather than assembling compre-¶ hensive exemplative material. It will therefore not attempt to study the rhetorical character of the diverse qur’ānic subgenres such as story-telling (see Welch, Formulaic features; see also narratives; literary structures of the qur’ān ), polemic-apologetic debate (see Radscheit, Die koranische Herausforderung; McAuliffe, Debate with them; see also debate and disputation; polemic and polemical language ), or hymnal sections (see Baumstark, Jüdischer und christlicher Gebetstypus), nor will it examine the qur’ānic style as such (see Nöldeke, Zur Sprache des Korans; Müller, Untersuchungen; see also language and style of the qur’ān ). Rather, the following will try to contextualize striking rhetorical phenomena in the text within the qur’ānic communication process. The discussion will proceed from an examination of the stylistic implications of the early allegation that qur’ānic speech should be the speech of a soothsayer or seer ( kāhin, pl. kuhhān or kahana; see soothsayers ), to an inquiry into the relationship between qur’ānic speech and that of a poet ( shā`ir, pl. shu`arā’; see poets and poetry ), with particular emphasis on the stylistic characteristics of the early Meccan sūras (q.v.; see also chronology and the qur’ān ). In the third part it will turn briefly to the rhetorical issues of the later — more biblically inspired — parts of the Qur’ān (see jews and judaism; christians and christianity; people of the book; children of israel; scripture and the qur’ān ).

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The Qur’ān and its local literary forerunners: Kāhin and shā`ir speech

Already at the time of the Prophet, controversy over the new liturgical communication arose among its listeners, as to the character of the speech recited by the Prophet. Early sūras transmit various insinuations raised against the Prophet and ¶ refuted in the text, the most general and unspecified being that he is a kāhin, a “soothsayer” ( q 52:29: fa-dhakkir fa-mā anta bi-ni`mati rabbika bi-kāhinin wa-lā majnūnin), a poet ( q 52:30: am yaqūlūna shā`irun, natarab-bau bihi rayba l-manūni), or a madman, majnūn ( q 68:2: mā anta bi-ni`mati rabbika bi-majnūnin), i.e. a person possessed by (inspiring) demons (jinn) in general (see insanity; jinn ). Another kind of denunciation motivated by the refusal to accept particular messages consisted in calling his recitations fabrications ( q 52:33: am yaqūlūna: taqawwalahu, bal lā yu’minūna), tales or legends ( q 83:13: asāīr al-awwalīn), all of which could equally well have been produced by other humans or were no more than repetitions of earlier-told tales (Boullata, Rhetorical interpretation; see generations; lie; forgery ). Whereas the latter-mentioned verdict may simply be explained as resulting from the desire not to be bothered with the new message, the references to the two types of public spokesmen, soothsayer and poet, appear more serious (see pre-islamic arabia and the qur’ān ). They are not totally arbitrary since a number of sūras employ artistic devices that are usually associated with the speech of inspired individuals.

This concerns particularly the speech of the pre-Islamic kāhin, a religious functionary about whom we know very little (Wellhausen, Reste). The kāhin was a man with occult powers that he exercised as a profession and for which he received a remuneration. He gave his utterances in a particular rhythmic form known as saj` consisting in a sequence of short pregnant sentences, usually with a single rhyme (see rhymed prose ).

All speech-act that had its origin in the unseen powers, all speech-act that was not a daily mundane use of words, but had something to do with the unseen powers, ¶ such as cursing (see curse ), blessing (q.v.), divination (q.v.), incantation, inspiration and revelation (see revelation and inspiration ), had to be couched in this form…. The magical words uttered by a competent soothsayer are often compared in old Arabic literature to deadly arrows shot by night which fly unseen by their victims (Izutsu, God, 183 f.; see magic ).

The specimens of kāhin sayings that have been transmitted in early Islamic literature are, however, not always assuredly genuine. In some cases, they even appear to be modeled after qur’ānic verses, such as parts of the Satīḥ-story (Neuwirth, Der historische Muhammad) transmitted by Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767; Sīra, i, 10-11) and adduced by Izutsu (God, 174). The literary form of this sparse material has, furthermore, never been studied systematically. It is difficult, therefore, to draw secure conclusions about the relationship between pre-Islamic kāhin speech and stylistic phenomena in the Qur’ān. Yet, the identification that is found in traditional literature (Ṭabarī, Ta’rīkh, i, 1933 f.) of certain sections of the qur’ānic text with kāhin speech has been widely accepted in scholarship; this identification has even led to the assumption that some qur’ānic sūras represent the most reliable evidence for kāhin speech itself (Wellhausen, Reste, 135). What can be asserted, however, is the similarity between kāhin speech and the qur’ānic device of rhymed prose, of saj`. Rhymed prose in the strict sense of the word — consisting of clusters of very short and thus syntactically stereotyped speech units, marked by rhymes of a phonetically striking pattern — is characteristic of the early sūras.

But though the old traditional form of supernatural communication is used, it ¶ serves as a vehicle for conveying a new content, no longer for the purpose of releasing the magical power of words, nor as a form in which to couch “prophecy” in the sense of foretelling (q.v.) future events (Izutsu, God, 184).


Saj` is given up completely in the later sūras where the rhyme makes use of a simple -ūn/-īn — scheme to mark the end of rather long and syntactically complex verses. In these verses, the rhyming end-syllable has ceased to be the truly relevant closing device; that function is transferred to a particular syntactic structure, the clausula or rhyming cadenza (see below; see also form and structure of the qur’ān ). Saj` style is thus exclusively characteristic of the early sūras, those texts that aroused — and therefore explicitly transmit — the impression in some listeners that they were related to kāhin speech. In the following, the relationship between kāhin speech and the early sūras will be elucidated by focusing on a group of initiatory sections that in western scholarship have been associated with kāhin speech, namely the introductory oaths (q.v.) of a series of early Meccan sūras. These introductory oaths (though never studied in context) have traditionally been considered dark, obscure, enigmatic.

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The “kāhin-model”: Oath clusters, idhā/yawma-clause-clusters, etc.

The introductory oaths that in twenty-one cases initiate a sūra, and in six cases mark the beginning of a new section, are completely devoid of legal connotations (see law and the qur’ān; contracts and alliances; covenant ). Several formal characteristics prove their exclusively literary function, the most striking being the multiplicity and diversity of the objects conjured. A second characteristic is their complex formulaic character: they either appear in the form wa-X or lā uqsimu bi-X, ¶ in most cases (eighteen times, all of them early Meccan) continued by further oaths amounting to extended oath clusters. The oaths are usually followed by a statement worded inna A la-B. Though the oaths most frequently refer to inanimate objects and thus do not appeal to a superior power whose revenge has to be feared, they do convey a particularly serious mood since the objects conjured in some cases project a catastrophic situation; in other cases they pose disquieting enigmas to the listeners. The oath clusters in the Qur’ān may be classified as follows (see Neuwirth, Images):

(1) Oath clusters of the type wa-l-fā`ilāt that conjure a catastrophic scenario: q 37:1-3; 51:1-4; 77:1-5; 79:1-5; 100:1-5 (see apocalypse; punishment stories )

(2) Oath clusters alluding to particular sacred localities: q 52:1-6; 90:1-3; 95:1-3 (see profane and sacred; sacred precincts )

(3) Oath clusters calling upon cosmic phenomena and certain time periods of the day or the night: q 85:1-3; 86:1, 11-2; 89:1-4; 91:1-7; 92:1-3; 93:1-2 (see weather; cosmology; day and night; day, times of )

A few representative examples will be discussed.

Oath clusters that do not explicitly name their objects but only refer to them as unknown, frightening and rapidly approaching phenomena (feminine participles of words of motion or sound appear as harbingers of a catastrophe) have been considered to be the most intricate both by traditional exegetes (see exegesis of the qur’ān: classical and medieval ) and by modern scholars, e.g. q 100:1-5, 6-11:

Wa-l-`ādiyāti abā/fa-l-mūriyāti qadā/fa-l-mughīrāti ubā/fa-atharna bihi naq`ā/fa-wasana bihi jam`ā/inna l-insāna li-rabbihi la-kanūd/wa-innahu `alā dhālika la-shahīd/wa-innahu li-ubbi l-khayri la-shadīd/a-fa-lā ya`lamu idhā bu`thira mā fī l-qubūr/wa-uṣṣila mā fī l-udūr/inna rabbahum bihim yawma’idhin la-khabīr

By the panting runners/striking fire in sparks/storming forward in the morning/their track a dust-cloud/that finally appear in the center of a crowd/verily humankind is to its lord (q.v.) ungrateful/verily, he to that is witness/and verily he for the love of good (al-khayr) is violent/does he know? When what is in the graves is ransacked (see burial; death and the dead )/and what is in the breasts is extracted/verily, their lord that day will of them be well informed.

The five oaths depict a kind of canvas or “tableau” of one and the same object viewed in several successive stages of a continuous and rapid motion: a group of horses, whose riders are carrying out a raid, ghazwa ( q 100:3: al-mughīrāt; see expeditions and battles; fighting; war ). The progression of their movement ( q 100:1, 5: al-`ādiyāt/fa-wasana), which ends with a sudden standstill at its destination in the camp of the enemy, is stressed by the particle fa-. The movement is directed towards a fixed aim: to overcome the enemy by surprise, perhaps even while still asleep ( q 100:3: uban).

On closer examination the tableau depicted in the oath cluster appears incomplete, its immanent tension unresolved. The description is interrupted at the very point where the attack on the enemy camp would be expected to start. Instead, a general statement about human ingratitude to God (see gratitude and ingratitude ), their obstinacy (see insolence and obstinacy ) and greediness (see avarice ) is made — a focus on two vehement human psychic movements that may be taken to echo the violent movements of the horses (see violence ). The statement leads up to a rhetorical question about human knowl-¶ edge of their eschatological fate ( q 100:9 f.; see eschatology ) which again extends into a description of the psychic situation of humanity on that day (see last judgment; resurrection ). At this point the imagery of the interrupted panel of the ghazwa is continued: the eschatological scenery (structured in a likewise ecstatically accelerating form of an idhā-clause cluster: q 100:9 f.: idhā bu`thira mā fī l-qubūri/wa-uṣṣila mā fī l-udūri ) presents a picture that precisely presupposes a violent attack leading to the overturn of everything, since it portrays devastation: the awakening and dispersal (bu`thira b-q-y, 425a ) of the sleepers (mā fī l-qubūri), the emptying of the most concealed receptacles ( q 100:10: mā fī l-udūri). The attack presupposed here has already been presumed prototypically by the panel of the ghazwa-riders portrayed in the oath cluster. The threatening scenario of the introductory sections, whose effect is enhanced through the equally frightening associations conjured by the kāhin speech style, thus relies on a deeper subtext: the panel of Bedouin (q.v.) attackers taking the enemy by surprise after a rapid and violent ride — perhaps the fear-inducing scenario par excellence in the pre-Islamic context — reveals itself as an image of the last day (see symbolic imagery ). It serves as a prototype, easily understandable for the listeners as it derives from genuine social experience, for the as yet not-experienced incidents leading up to the last judgment.

The oath cluster in q 77:1-6, though usually interpreted as a reference to angels in their various activities (see angel ), refers “to the winds bringing up the storm-clouds which give the picture of approaching doom” (Bell, Qur’ān, ii, 626; see air and wind ). Once more we are confronted with a tableau of violently moving beings — from the time of their earlier use in q 100 feminine plural participles in qur’ānic speech have a catastrophic connotation — that prototypically ¶ anticipate the eschatological events to be expected. Although the eschatological topic itself is not raised until the end of the sūra, the matrix of images created by the oath cluster remains continuously effective. The refrain repeated ten times throughout the text: “woe that day to those who count false!” (see cheating; weights and measures; measurement ) serves to make audible something of the recitation, the reminder ( dhikr; see remembrance ), meant to be a warning, which was part of the appearance of the enigmatic beings projected in the oath cluster ( q 77:5: fa-l-mulqiyāti dhikrā). This type of oath cluster soon goes through a change. In the somewhat later text q 51:1-4, again presenting a panel of clouds that signal a rainstorm, the structural function of the introductory oath clusters has changed. Though it still introduces a prototypical tableau of imminent eschatological incidents, the sense of an “enigma” that had marked the early cases, has now disappeared, and the anticipation of the explicit mention of eschatological phenomena is immediately dissipated. By this stage, the listener is sufficiently accustomed to the prototypical representation of the last day that he or she can immediately translate.

A further step towards the demystification of enigmatic speech is achieved in q 37:1-5, a sūra of the second Meccan period where an oath cluster of the type wa-l-fā`ilāt appears for the last time. Here, the objects conjured no longer belong to the empirical sphere of human experience but to the realm of celestial beings, angels. On the formal side there is a change, too: The usual semantic caesura between the oath formulae and the ensuing statement has vanished, and both textual units display a strong conceptual coherence: the oath cluster involving angels singing hymns ( q 37:3: fa-l-tāliyāti dhikrā) is continued by a ¶ statement that itself presents the text of that angelical recitation ( q 37:4: inna ilāhakum la-wāidun ). With this last wa-l-fā`ilāt-cluster, the earlier function of the oath clusters, i.e. to depict a prototypical panel of the eschatological events, has ceased to operate.

The second and third kinds of oath clusters are less enigmatically coded: they are phrased either wa-l-X or lā uqsimu bi-X. A group of these clusters alludes to sacred localities. An early example is q 95:1-3:



wa-l-tīni wa-l-zaytūn/wa-ūri sīnīn/wa-hādhā l-baladi l-amīn/la-qad khalaqnā l-insāna fī asani taqwīm/thumma radadnāhu asfala sāfilīn/illā lladhīna āmanū wa-`amilū l-āliāti fa-hum ajrun ghayru mamnūn/fa-mā yukadhdhibuka ba`du bi-l-dīn/a-laysa llāhu bi-akami l-ākimīn

By the fig and the olive/by Mount Sinai/and this land secure/surely, we have created man most beautifully erect/then have rendered him the lowest of the low/except those who have believed and wrought the works of righteousness for them is a reward rightfully theirs/what then, after that will make you declare false in regard to the judgment?/is not God the best of judges?

The first oaths invoke a pair of fruits (resp. fruit-bearing trees; see agriculture and vegetation; trees ), followed by another pair mentioning two localities (see geography ). The ensuing statement takes a different semantic direction, speaking about human instability from the time of their creation and their falling back, after perfection, into the decrepitude of old age (see biology as the creation and stages of life ). From this bipartite argument — q 95:6 should be considered a later addition, and not part of the sūra's discourse — the conclusion (fa-) is drawn, ¶ clad in a rhetorical question, that the truth of the last judgment can no longer be denied. The discursive thread that holds the three verse groups together becomes visible through a close look at the imagery of the oath cluster. The two kinds of trees may simply be taken as signs of divine bounty granted with creation (q.v.); the ensemble of fig and olive, however, suggests a symbolic meaning, advocated already by the traditional Muslim exegetes who read the two verses as an allusion to al-Shām, the biblical holy land (see syria ). Of the two localities that follow in the next oath pair, the first recalls the theophany (q.v.) on Mount Sinai (q.v.) granted to Moses (q.v.), whereas the second alludes to Mecca (q.v.), and is associated with its sanctuary, its aram. Theophanies symbolize divine communication and ultimately the divine instruction granted to people that marks the true, significant beginning of human time (q.v.). Though physical time ( q 95:4) that runs in a cyclical way ultimately causes humanity's downfall, within the paradigm of salvation (q.v.) history human longevity is secured. For human beings, historical salvific time eclipses the cyclical movement, running linearly towards the point where the pledge (q.v.) of divine instruction is to be rendered, i.e. toward the last judgment (see history and the qur’ān ). The oath cluster referring to creation (nature being an allusion to the divine preservation of humanity) and instruction (theophany-localities symbolizing divine communication with people) serves to arouse the listeners' anticipation of the dissolution of both: the dissolution of creation in physical annihilation at the end of “natural time,” and the closure wrought by rendering account for the received instruction at the end of “historical salvific time,” on judgment day. The solution of the enigma posed in the oath cluster is fulfilled only at ¶ the very end of the sūra where God is praised as the best judge (see judgment ) and the tenor of the sūra returns to the hymn-like tone of the beginning (see nature as signs; psalms ).

A parallel case is q 90:1-3, where the introductory oaths again raise the two ideas of creation and instruction, arousing the expectation of a closure that presents the rendering of the pledge of instruction at the last judgment. The somewhat later q 52, however, starting with a complex oath cluster made up of diverse objects like two sacred sites, the holy scripture (see book ) and the — perhaps apocalyptically — turbulent sea: “by the mount/and a book written/in parchment unrolled (see scrolls )/by the house frequented/by the roof upraised/by the sea filled full,” attests a development. Here the statement ( q 52:7-8) about the imminence of the punishment (see chastisement and punishment; reward and punishment ) immediately starts to resolve the tension in the listeners' minds, their expectation — prompted by the initial introduction of symbols of divine instruction (sacred sites and scripture) and allusions to the dissolution of nature (sea filled full) — of the explication of eschatological fulfillment, of human rendering of the pledge of divine instruction (see error; astray ). An eschatological scene constituted by a yawma-clause-cluster ( q 52:9-10) follows immediately. This leads to a diptych portraying the blessed and the cursed in the beyond ( q 52:23-8), thus completing the fulfillment of the listeners' anticipation of the eschatological account (see hell and hellfire; garden; paradise ).

All of the oath-cluster sūras demonstrate a similar development of the oath clusters and their ensuing statement: from functional units exhibiting a tension between ¶ each other, to purely ornamental elements without any sensible semantic caesura between the two parts and thus without the power to build up a structure of anticipation (see Neuwirth, Images, for a detailed discussion of the sūras introduced by references to celestial phenomena, i.e. q 81:15-9; 89:1-30; 90:1-11; 91:1-15; 92:1-21; and of phases of day and night, i.e. q 51:7-9; 75:1-22; 85:1-7; 86:1-17; see planets and stars ). The sūras with introductory oath clusters still closely associated with the tradition of earlier Arabian sacred language (see south arabia, religion in pre-islamic ) certainly deserve to be considered as a type of their own, in view of the immanent dynamics that dominates them. This effect — that scholarship has neglected completely (see e.g. Welch, Ḳur’ān) — is formally due to the accumulation of parallel phrases in the introductory section, which creates a rhythm of its own. It is structurally due to the anticipation of a solution for the enigma aroused in the listeners' minds by the amassed metaphorical elements, not immediately comprehensible or at least plausible to them. The “dynamization” of the entire composition produced by the introductory section is the main characteristic of this very early text group and has remained exemplary for the structure of the sūra as such.

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Yawma/idhā-clause-clusters, isolated oaths and later kitāb-annunciations

There are introductory sections in the Qur’an that are closely related typologically, especially the eschatological scenes with their clusters of yawma/idhā-l-X-fa`ala-phrases, that build up a comparably strong rhythmical incipit. Many of these clusters, however, have the tension resolved immediately in the closely following apodosis; with only a few extended clusters is the solution suspended (e.g. q 56:1-6; ¶ 81:1-3; 82:1-4; see Neuwirth, Studien, 188 f.). Yet, in no case of the yawma/idhā-l-X-fa`ala-clusters does the tension affect the entire sūra. It is different with the oath clusters. In the case of the wa-l-fā`ilāt-clusters, the anticipation of an explication of the enigma posed in the cluster — the translation of the events presented metaphorically, through their empirically known prototypes, into their eschatological analogues — is fulfilled only at the end of the sūra or of its first main part. The immediate fulfillment of the anticipation roused in the oath cluster occurs only in the later texts where oath clusters have lost their tension-creating function.

It is not merely by coincidence that the standard incipit, characteristic of so many later sūras, emerges from these powerful oath-cluster introductions. In the end, among the originally numerous images projected in the oath, only that of the book, of al-kitāb (or al-qur’ān), remains in use. This is the most abstract of all the different symbols used, essentially no more than a mere sign. Six sūras start with an oath by the book: q 36:2; 38:1; 43:2; 44:2; 50:1; 52:2. The book is thus the only relic from among a complex ensemble of manifold accessories of revelation used as objects of oaths, originally comprising cosmic ( q 51:1-4; 77:1-5 [clouds]; 51:7; 53:1; 74:32; 85:1; 86:1; 91:1-2 [celestial bodies]), vegetative ( q 95:1), topographic ( q 52:1, 4; 90:1; 95:2-3), cultic ( q 52:3; 68:1) and social ( q 90:2) elements. The book as the symbol of revelation par excellence thus acquires, already in early Meccan times, but particularly during the later Meccan periods — hādhā/dhālika l-kitāb becomes the standard initial sign of nearly all the later sūras — the dignity which it has preserved until the present day, i.e. that of representing the noblest emblem of the Islamic religion.



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Further rhetorical characteristics of early sūras

An early device introduced to arouse attention is the twofold rhetorical question, the “Lehrfrage” (cf. Neuwirth, Studien, 132 f.) attached to a newly introduced but enigmatic term. The new notion is named (al-X) and is immediately followed by its echo in simple and then extended question form (mā l-X? Wa-mā adrāka mā l-X?) — leading to an explanatory gloss, as in q 101:1-3: al-qāri`a/mā l-qāri`a?/Wa-mā adrāka mā l-qāri`a?/yawma takūnu… (for a stylistic evaluation of the entire sūra, see Sells, Sound and meaning; further examples are q 69:1-3; 83:7-9, 18-20; 90:11-13; 101:9-11; 104:4-6). A new term — particularly a threatening indirect evocation of the imminent eschatological events — can thus be impressed onto the minds. The mā-adrāka-question remains limited to early sūras; after having changed into a simple al-X mā l-X? at a later stage ( q 56:27 f., 41-2) it disappears completely from the qur’ānic rhetorical spectrum.

Repetition of elements is characteristic of the early texts. It ranges from the repetition of a completely identical phrase (as in q 94:5-6: inna ma`a l-`usri yusrā/inna ma`a l-`usri yusrā, “So, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief, verily, with every difficulty, there is relief”) to repetitions of structural elements, thus the isocolon is frequent: q 88:12-6: fīhā `aynun jāriya/fīhā sururun marfū`a/wa-akwābun mawū`a/wa-namāriqu mafūfa/wa-zarābiyyu mabthūtha, “Therein will be a bubbling spring (see springs and fountains )/therein will be thrones raised on high/goblets (see cups and vessels ) placed and cushions set in rows/and rich carpets spread out.” Of course, the oath cluster relies on the repetition of strictly parallel elements: wa-l-shamsi wa-uāhā/wa-l-qamari idhā talāhā/wa-l-nahāri idhā jallāhā/…, “By the sun (q.v.) and his splendor/by the moon (q.v.) as she follows him/by the day as it shows up its glory….” ¶ ( q 91:1-3). Equally, the idhā-clause-cluster is made up of identical structures forming a series of parallelisms or even isocola, as in q 81:1-13:

idhā l-shamsu kuwwirat/wa-idhā l-nujūmu nkadarat/wa-idhā l-jibālu suyyirat/wa-idhā l-`ishāru `uṭṭilat/wa-idhā l-wuūshu ush-shirat/wa-idhā l-biāru sujjirat/wa-idhā l-nufūsu zuwwijat/wa-idhā l-maw’ūdatu su’ilat/bi-ayyi dhanbin qutilat/wa-idhā l-uufu nushirat/wa-idhā l-samā’u kushiat/wa-idhā l-jaīmu su``irat/wa-idhā l-jannatu uzlifat

When the sun is wound round/and when the stars fall/and when the mountains are made to pass away/and when the pregnant she-camels are neglected/and when the wild beasts are gathered together/and when the seas overflow/and when the souls are joined/and when the infant buried alive is questioned/for what sin was she killed (see infanticide )/and when the pages are laid open/and when the heaven is stripped off (see heaven and sky )/and when hellfire is set ablaze/and when paradise is brought near/[then…]

It is noteworthy that in these clusters, the conditional clauses that normally would be idhā fa`ala l-X display the inverted syntactic sequence idhā l-X fa`ala, otherwise familiar only from poetry.

In Arabic, etymologic repetitions in morphologically different shape are particularly frequent in madar-constructions (see grammar and the qur’ān ); paranomasias of this type appear in early sūras (cf. q 52:9-10: yawma tamūru l-samā’u mawrā/wa-tasīru l-jibālu sayrā, “On the day when the firmament will be in dreadful commotion and the mountains will fly hither and thither,” and frequently elsewhere).

It is evident that, from the perspective of the transmission of information, many of these devices are not efficient, since they ¶ are apt to suspend rather than to convey information; their function is revealed, however, once the text is performed orally (see recitation of the qur’ān ). The Qur’ān, abounding in imperatives addressed to the Prophet and/or the believers (see exhortations ): to recite ( q 96:1: iqra’, and often) or to chant ( q 73:4: rattili l-qur’āna tartīlā, and often) the text, to recall by reciting ( q 19:16: udhkur, or q 88:21: dhakkir, and often; see memory ) the text, itself presents the claim of being an oral communication (see orality; orality and writing in arabia ). Navid Kermani (Gott ist schön, 197) has gone so far as to claim:

If a text is explicitly composed for recitation, fulfilling its poetic purpose only when recited or — more generally speaking — performed, it should be viewed as a score, not as a literary work, as Paul Valéry once said of the poem. Although a score can be read or hummed quietly in private, it is ultimately intended to be performed.

The frequency of appellative expressions presupposing the presence of addressees is particularly striking in the beginnings of early sūras, where the attention of the listeners is sometimes aroused directly through an imperative ( q 73:1-2; 74:1-2; 87:1; 96:1, calling to proclaim), or a related form ( q 106:3, with a preceding address). Polemic introductory parts start with a waylun li-, “woe to-,” exclamation ( q 83:1-3; 104:1-2; cf. q 77:24 f.; 107:4-7) or a curse-formula ( q 111:1 tabbat yadā X, “may the hands of X perish”), or with a deictic formula, also familiar from interior sections of sūras ( q 107:1: a-ra’ayta lladhī, “did you see him who…”).

It might, on first sight, appear that the hymnic introductory sections stand by themselves. They are strongly reminiscent of biblical models and, more precisely, of ¶ liturgical texts such as the Jewish berākhōt that are likewise made up of relative clauses (bārūkh attā adonai asher…). In three instances both creation and divine instruction are recalled as is the case in the berākhōt: q 87:1-5, sabbii sma rabbika l-a`lā/lladhī khalaqa fa-sawwā…; q 96:1-5, iqra’ bi-smi rabbika lladhī khalaq/khalaqa l-insāna min `alaq/iqra…; and q 55:1-3, al-ramān/`allama l-qur’ān/khalaqa l-insān/`allamahu…. Equally biblically-tuned are hymnic sections in the interior of sūras, like q 85:13-6 and, particularly, q 53:43-9, which seems to echo the famous hymn from 1 Samuel 2:6. In the same vein, a number of sūras conclude with a final exclamation clad in an imperative that in most cases calls for a liturgical activity: q 96:19 (call for prostration; see bowing and prostration ), q 69:52 (call for divine praise; cf. q 56:74; see also laudation; glory; glorification of god; praise ), q 52:48 f. (call for patience; see trust and patience ), q 84:24 (announcement of punishment); see also the final exclamations of q 53:62 (prostration), q 93:11 (recitation), q 94:7-8 (segregation from unbelievers), q 86:15-7 (patience), q 51:60 (exclamation of woe); only the final exclamation in q 55:78 takes the shape of a doxology (see Baumstark, Gebetstypus): tabāraka smu rabbika, “blessed is the name of your lord.” But in view of the composition of most early sūras made up of diverse elements, it appears problematic to attempt an unambiguous distinction between texts imprinted by ancient Arabian literary traditions and others more biblically styled.



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The “poet-model”: similes and metaphors, structures of discourse

The allegation that the Prophet was a poet would likely have been based less on particular stylistic evidence than on the general similarity between qur’ānic diction ¶ and other genres of elevated, non-ordinary speech (cf. Gilliot, Poète ou prophète?, 380-8: “Prophétie contre poésie. De la construction d'un prophète”). It is true that the early sūras, which — though not metrically bound nor carrying a monorhyme — prompted that particular accusation, are highly poetic (for a study in their stylistic devices, see Sells, Sound and meaning, and id., Sounds, spirit and gender). Indeed, the “kāhin-model” of speech is only a special case of poetic diction. As Kermani has shown, a high degree of “poeticity” (“Poetizität”) cannot be denied to the Qur’ān as a whole. Not only does the entire Qur’ān morphologically and syntactically adhere closely to what has been termed poetic `arabiyya (see grammar and the qur’ān ), but it also makes extensive use of a selected vocabulary that — lending itself easily to the demands of the familiar meters — had established itself as poetic (Bloch, Vers und Sprache). J.J. Gluck (Is there poetry) has tried to trace rhetorical devices employed by poets. Above all, the priority given in most qur’ānic texts to adornments of speech and devices of appeal to the listeners that are completely unnecessary for the raw transmission of information is a convincing proof of its proximity to the realm of poetry. (For a discussion of the medieval learned debates about the relation between Qur’ān and poetry, see Kermani, Gott ist schön, 233-314; von Grunebaum, A tenth century document.)

Similes (q.v.; tashbīh) and metaphors (isti`āra; see metaphor ) are, of course, the most striking evocations of poetic speech. A modern survey of these tropes in the Qur’ān — as achieved for pre-Islamic poetry by Renate Jacobi (Studien zur Poetik, 115-27, 153-67) and Thomas Bauer (Altarabische Dichtkunst, 181-204) — is still to be done. T. Sabbagh (Le métaphore dans le Coran) is only an inventory; his classifica-¶ tion of metaphorical usages does not consider the contexts in which the words are used, nor the fields of their metaphorical application. More research has been done on the theologically controversial aspect of tashbīh, namely the cases of qur’ānic anthropomorphism (q.v.), e.g. God's cunning ( makr, e.g. q 3:54; 4:142) and the like (see van Ess, Tashbīh wa-tanzīh; see theology and the qur’ān ). Since the appearance in 1892 of the study by C.C. Torrey, The commercial theological terms in the Koran, that provides a thorough survey of a number of words touching on commerce and their often metaphoric use in the Qur’ān, commerce had been identified as one major realm of images in the Qur’ān. Torrey, and later scholars following him, suggested that the words and metaphors from the commercial realm form a cluster of terms derived from commercial applications which have taken on theological overtones in the Qur’ān (see e.g. reward and punishment; also, economics; weights and measures; trade and commerce ). As against Torrey who “assumed a mercantile background of Muḥammad and Mecca and then found evidence for that in the Qur’ān” (Rippin, Commerce, 128), Andrew Rippin (The commerce of eschatology) presents a reversal of the commercial-background-theory. He demonstrates that Torrey's terms are employed in three contexts in the Qur’ān, in speaking about the prophets of the past, in legislating the Muslim community and in descriptions of eschatology. Inverting Torrey's argument, he concludes that the

symbolism of eschatology is partially derived from the image of the foundations of a moral and flourishing society, the symbolism resolves the seeming iniquities of life as it is actually lived — the presence of suffering and injustice as basic facts — by reflecting a divinely-ruled society in which ¶ evil gets its proper reward. The symbolism gives a higher meaning to history by relating it to transcendental mythic patterns (Rippin, Commerce, 134; see ethics and the qur’ān; good and evil; sin, major and minor; oppression; oppressed on earth, the ).

Rippin advocates utmost caution in attempting a historical contextualization of the symbolism of the text, which he regards as a product of later Muslim readings tailored towards particular ideological ends. A comparative study juxtaposing qur’ānic and poetic similes and metaphors is still a desideratum.

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The qaṣīda and the sūra

Though the allegation identifying qur’ānic speech with poetical speech arises from observations made on the basis of the earliest texts, it is noteworthy that an intriguing relationship between Qur’ān and poetry can be discerned. This relationship relies less on small isolated speech units — such as the various tropes in both canonical corpora (that still await a comparison) — than on the overall structure of both qaīda and sūra (see sūras ). At a certain stage in the qur’ānic development, the sūra as a literary unit seems to reflect the structure of the dominating poetical genre, the qaīda. The qaīda was the standard form of pre-Islamic poetry consisting of a sequence of three sections, each conveying a different mood: a nostalgic nasīb, lamenting the loss of stability by recalling the disrupted relation between the poet and a beloved, was followed by the description of a movement in space, a journey (q.v.), raīl or, more often, a description of the riding camel (q.v.) used by the poet — a section that portrayed the poet regaining his self-consciousness and reattaching himself to the world through recalling instances of his past activities, his ¶ interfering with reality through exploitation of the “kairos,” the crucial moment for achieving a change. After evoking his heroic achievements, the poet concluded his poem with an evocative fakhr, a self-praise or praise of the collective confirming the heroic virtues of tribal society. The social status of the recitation of these poems, as Andras Hamori (The art of medieval Arabic literature, 21 f.) stressed, must have come close to that of a ritual:

The extreme conventionality, repetitiousness, and thematic limitation of the qaīda need not astonish us…. Already in the sixth century, before the coming of Islam, these poems, rather than myths or religious rituals, served as the vehicle for the conception that sorted out the emotionally incoherent facts of life and death, and by the sorting set them at the bearable remove of contemplation. Qaīda poets spoke in affirmation of a model they shared, their poetry tended to become a shared experience, all the more as the affirmation was through the replay of prototypal events which the model so successfully charted.

The poet, then, is located in the center of the poem; the one who establishes the model for identification through his word, is at the same time the figure standing in the center of the artifice. Looking at the fully developed (most often) tripartite sūras of the middle and late Meccan periods (see Neuwirth, Rezitationstext) we can trace a comparable structure: The sūra starts with a section that draws on various standard themes such as hymns, lists of virtues or vices (see virtues and vices, commanding and forbidding ), polemic against unbelievers and affirmations of the divine origin of the message; most of these themes also serve to furnish the final part which should, ideally, be concluded with the topic of affirming the revelation. The ¶ center of the sūra, however, is fixed over a longer period of qur’ānic development. It contains one or more stereotyped narratives about prophets, portraying them in their struggle to achieve an ideological reorientation in their communities, announcing that the “kairos,” the unique moment to gain salvation, has come, thus exemplifying the chance granted to Muḥammad's listeners in the light of history. Functioning both as a fixed part in the liturgy of the community and as a mirror of contemporary history, these sūras provide ritualized memory and at the same time real experience. In view of the structure of the extremely powerful genre of the qaīda, where the poet appears at once as the protagonist in and the transmitter of the message that contains the rules of what should be, it is perhaps not surprising to find the figure of the Prophet — or a whole group of representatives of this type — as the protagonist of the drama and the bearer of the word (see word of god ) again in the middle part of the sūra. The Prophet is thus, like the qaīda poet in the poem, the exemplary figure and the speaker in one person. Here, as in the case of the ancient kāhin speech, it appears that an earlier genre has been absorbed to shape the foundation of a new sacred canon.

This suggestion does not imply that the stance taken in the Qur’ān towards poets should have developed positively. In q 26:224-6 we read: wa-l-shu`arā’u yattabi`uhumu l-ghāwūna/a-lam tara annahum fī kulli wādin yahīmūna/wa-annahum yaqūlūna mā lā yaf`alūna, “And the poets, the beguiled follow them/do you not see that in every wadi they err about madly in love/and that they say what they do not do?” These verses should be distinguished from the later addition of q 26:227 (see Neuwirth, Der historische Muḥammad, 103) that reflects a late Medinan development. In q 26:224-6 the poets are accused of not ¶ coming up to the high claims raised in their poetry (“to do what they say”) and thus of being incapable of functioning as spokespeople of their collective. The spokesperson of society is no longer the poet but the prophet. The Medinan addition q 26:227 excludes from the verdict those poets who have actively sided with the community, which, as an ecclesia militans, cannot afford to have itself satirized (see Imhof, Religiöser Wandel).

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The Qur’ān and the Bible: Refrains and cadenzas

Although the Qur’ān contains no explicit allegations that it is modeled on biblical speech, some accusations that he was taught by a mortal ( q 16:103: innamā yu`allimuhu basharun) were raised against the Prophet and are refuted in the Qur’ān. It is, however, much more relevant that the Qur’ān as a message communicated in the Arabian peninsula of late antiquity necessarily draws from both pagan and monotheistic traditions. The qur’ānic message soon presented itself as a re-narration of the earlier biblical scriptures and one serving analogous purposes, namely to provide a liturgical base for the communication between God and humanity. We can even locate in the Qur’ān the decisive turn from the communication of a divine message to the celebration of liturgy with the memory of salvation history (i.e. biblical stories) placed in its center (see Neuwirth, Referentiality). Those middle and late Meccan sūras that appear to constitute complex liturgies resembling roughly those of the older monotheistic religions are comprised of the following: an introductory section, reading from the scriptures, and a closing section. The presentation of the biblical story is sometimes explicitly introduced by an announcement, as if a pericope to be read in church were being announced: q 15:51, “Bring them news (q.v.) about the guests of Abraham” (q.v.; nabbi’hum `an ayfiIbrāhīm; cf. q 19:2: dhikru ramati rabbika `abdahu Zakariyya, “This is a recital of the mercy [q.v.] of your lord to his servant Zechariah [q.v.]”). Qurānic re-narrations of biblical texts are enough to fill a comprehensive reference book (see Speyer, Erzählungen). It is particularly in this stage of Meccan development that liturgical formulae familiar from Judaism and Christianity become frequent in the Qur’ān, like q 27:59: al- amdu lillāhi wa-salāmun `alā `ibādihi lladhīna ṣṭafā, “Praise be to God and peace be on his elected servants” (cf. doxa en hypsistois theō kai epi gēs eirēnē en anthrōpois eudokias, Luke 2:14; see for the Christian doxology and the Jewish berākhā reflected in the frequent qur’ānic exclamations al-amdu lillāh and subāna rabbinā/llāhi, Baumstark, Gebetstypus; a complete introitus may be identified in the Fātia [q.v.], see Neuwirth and Neuwirth, Fātiḥa).

The question, however, of the stylistic and rhetorical impact of biblical texts on the Qur’ān has not yet been studied. Only a few isolated parallels strike the eye, such as the pronouncedly biblical sounding hyperboles in q 7:40: inna lladhīna kadhdhabū bi-āyātinā wa-stakbarū `anhā lā tufattau lahumu abwābu l-samā’i wa-lā yadkhulūna l-jannata attā yalija l-jamalu fī sammi l-khiyāi, “To those who reject our signs (q.v.) and treat them with arrogance (q.v.), the gates of heaven will not open for them, nor will they enter the garden, until the camel can pass through the eye of the needle” (cf. Matthew 19:24; Mark 10:25; Luke 18:25; see parables ) or q 39:67: wa-l-aru jamī`an qabatuhu yawma l-qiyāmati wa-l-samāwātu mawiyyatun bi-yamīnihi, “And on the day of resurrection (q.v.) the whole of the earth (q.v.) will be grasped by his hand and the heavens will be rolled up in his right hand” (cf. Isaiah 34:4, 40:12; see for further examples Speyer, Erzählungen; see left hand and right hand ).

¶ A more prominent stylistic issue shared by the Bible and Qur’ān is certainly the refrain which appears four times in the Qur’ān ( q 26, 54, 55, 77), again mostly in middle Meccan sūras where the focus has shifted from the ancient Arabian tradition to the biblical. Although there are instances of anaphors and even longer speech units repeated in pre-Islamic and muaram poetry (i.e. poetry that spans the pre-Islamic and the Islamic eras), a refrain appearing with the frequency of the verse fa-bi-ayyi ālā’i rabbikumā tukadhdhibān, “Then which of the benefits of your lord will you two deny?” (e.g. q 55:13) is not found in poetry (see blessing; grace ). That refrain has, however, a close counterpart in the refrain kīle-ōlām asdō in Psalm 136, a text that in many respects resembles the sophisticated composition of Sūrat al-Raḥmān (“The Merciful,” q 55) and must have been well known in monotheistic circles since it plays a major role in Jewish liturgy (see Neuwirth, Qur’ānic literary structure). We can conclude that refrains in the Qur’ān may have been inspired by the Psalms (q.v.) or else by liturgical poetry shaped after the model of the Psalms.

Another major rhetorical phenomenon that appears to have a strong biblical imprint is the clausula — or the cadenza, as it might be termed in analogy to the final part of speech units in Gregorian chant — which, through their particular sound pattern, arouse the expectation of an ending as, for example, the concluding colon of the later Meccan and Medinan long verses of the Qur’ān (see Neuwirth, Studien, 157-70; see also form and structure of the qur’ān ). In the Qur’ān the cadenza relies less on an identical musical sound than on a widely stereotyped phrasing. It is easily identifiable as an end marker since it is semantically distinguished from its context: it does not partake in the main theme of the discourse ¶ but adds a moral, polemic or hymnal comment to it. Although it is true that not all multipartite verses bear such formulaic endings, cadenzas may be considered characteristic of the later Meccan and all the Medinan qur’ānic texts. On a social level, they betray a novel narrative pact between the speaker and his audience, the consciousness that there is a basic consensus not only on human moral behavior but also on the image of God as a powerful co-agent ever-present in human interaction (see god and his attributes; power and impotence; fate; destiny ). But cadenzas achieve even more in terms of constructing a new identity: they provide markers of the sacred that transform narrative events into stages of salvation history, changing the ordinary chronometric time of the narratives into signifying time. An observation of Aziz al-Azmeh (Chronophagous discourse, 193 f.) is useful to illuminate this point:

The vacuous syntagms of ordinary time is the instrument of a finalist paradigm whose instances punctuate the course of this flow at certain loci of accentuation that enclose values of sacredness, lending a sense of sacredness to historical succession. These values are, primarily, an integrality of divine order which reigned with the creation of Adam (see adam and eve ), the imperative of its complete restoration in paradise and the intermittent attempts to calque this order in the history of prophecy.

It goes without saying that the cadenzas owe their aesthetic effect to their widely predictable sound. Their stereotypical appearance, which is due to the morphological and syntactical constraints imposed by the rhyme (see Müller, Untersuchungen) would, in a written text, appear awkward. In the recited text, however, the double-¶ edged style of the long verses, consisting of naturally flowing prose merging into artificial, sacred, speech in the formulaic conclusion, powerfully reflects the bi-dimensionality of qur’ānic speech which evokes simultaneously world and hereafter, time (q.v.) and eternity (q.v.).

Angelika Neuwirth



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Citation:


Neuwirth, Angelika. "Rhetoric and the Qur’ān ." Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2008. Brill Online. DUKE UNIVERSITY. 11 February 2008


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