The earth is rotating through the hot season, and the month of Ramazan is upon us. One of the virtues of these 29 or 30 lunar days — a fundamental virtue for Muslims all over the globe — is the declaration of the Quran that this Book was revealed in this very month. Then, there is a further Quranic specification in its 97th surah [chapter] that it was brought down “in the Night of Power (Qadr).” To be accurate, in fact, this latter pronouncement occurs in the active voice with the subject of the verb made explicit, “Indeed, We have brought it down in the Night of Power.” The chapter in which this specification unfolds ends with tremendous verbal force and sublime imagery: “Peace! … This until the break of dawn.” Note the cosmic balance between power and peace. And more, the two universals also embody a moral balance, balancing power against peace. The semantic range here is wide, for the first word in this pair, Qadr, can also be legitimately translated as ‘honour,’ ‘value,’ ‘determination,’ ‘measure.’
It has been some time since the famous scholar of Arabo-Islamic intellectual history, George Hourani — a non-Muslim scholar, let us note — made an insightful comment. He wrote that the Quran uses the Arabic language “with semantic depth where one meaning leads to another by a fertile fusion of associated ideas.” Then comes a resounding observation: “Such a use of language may set problems for analytical minds, but the Quran must be understood not as a mere textbook of religious and ethical doctrines, but more valuably as a rich and subtle stimulus to the religious imagination.”
Yes, a sacred text promoting and nourishing imagination, and this is a glorious quality unique to the Quran. Among other things, this quality is embodied in the cadence and the sweep, the imagery and the similes, the rhythms and the rhymes, and in the linguistic modulations of the text. Surely, so perfectly confident is the Book about the inimitability of its supreme linguistic virtuosity that it challenges its detractors to produce verses such as those it carries — you have failed do so, and you will fail to do so, it announces. That the stylistics of the Quran cannot be imitated, then, becomes one of the decisive proofs of its Divine origins.
The point is not merely rhetorical. We have noted that the stylistics of the Quran are not just a device for embellishment, but happen to be its integral feature and one of its very defining attributes. Given this, it ought to be recognised that it cannot be fully understood in isolation from its mode of expression, its language, its diction. Many Quranic surahs, particularly the ones revealed in Makkah, have rhyming schemes, sometimes highly complex. Take, for instance, the sonorous Surah 101, al-Qaari‘a (“That which produces noise and clamour”; “that which rattles”; “the clatterer”). In the fullness of its stylistic richness, this 11-verse surah has an intricate, complex and truly fascinating rhyming scheme and rhythmic pattern.
So the first three verses of al-Qaari‘a have an unchanging rhyme (a); the next two end with metrically identical passive nouns incorporating identical particles; the sixth verse has new rhyme (b); the seventh brings back the original rhyme (a); the eighth rhymes with the sixth (b); and finally the last three return to the original rhyme (a), thus completing the circle. So, speaking somewhat crudely, we have the rhyming scheme: a, a, a, blank, blank, b, a, b, a, a, a. See how involved this is! And more, the rhymes do not change arbitrarily but are keyed to the substance; they change as the subject matter shifts.
Note the cosmic balance between power and peace. And more, the two universals also embody a moral balance.
There is yet another stylistic feature here, something that is found not infrequently in the Makkah surahs. It is the pattern: assertion-interrogation-interrogation-assertion. So we have:
That which rattles —
What is it that rattles?
And what will make you understand that
It is a day when people will be like moths, scattered …
Sometimes, as in the 97th surah already referred to, we have the pattern: assertion-interrogation-assertion. Then, interrogative expressions often carry a negation which give them a massive verbal strength: “Did you not see how your Lord dealt with the people of the elephant?” Or, “Did we not open your breast?” Or, “Is God not the best of judges?” Or, “Am I not your Lord?” Why would the Quran do this? We need to ponder over the question.
Again, these and numerous other stylistic characteristics of the Quran widen the semantic net of the text and have concrete implications; in other words, what we have is not sheer poetry for indulgence. The use of the subjunctive grammatical mood, for example, is significant —“Perhaps you might reflect!” “Maybe you would recognise the truth!” “Perchance you would exercise reason!”— such expressions are studded all over the Quran. Here, what is being expressed is not an explicit command, a transgression of which would carry punishment, but a possibility and a potential, thereby transforming and relaxing the moral onus.
The mechanics of verse sequencing, too, yield meaningful and concrete implications. So we see, for example, the Quran talking about harsh punishments for transgressors, but then appended to it, or close to it, the text is also pronouncing emphatically that God is indeed Most Forgiving (al-Tawwaab) and Most Kind (al-Raheem). This creates a cosmic balance between God’s wrath and His mercy. In this month of Ramazan, how illuminating it would be if one attended to these stylistic treasure-houses, going beyond preaching traditional morality ...
*Translation of the Quranic verses is by Syed Nomanul Haq, benefitting from the renderings of Abdullah Yusuf Ali
The columnist is a professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in near eastern languages and civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 11th, 2017