Literary Characteristics of the Qur an

Kufi Quran page

The Qur'an [1] is the fundamental document of the religion of Islam. It is regarded by the faithful as the Holy, revealed, eternal Word of God, preserved on the guarded tablets, lawh mahfuz in heaven (Sura 85:22). It was sent down complete to the lowest heaven in Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar[2] and from there it was revealed through the angel Gabriel piecemeal to Muhammad as the occasion required (Sura 2:91). He dictated it to his companions, was written by the hands of the scribes  (Sura 80:50) and the present copy in circulation is the same vowel for vowel  and syllable for syllable  as was first given to Muhammad.[3]

Composition, ta lif

The Qur an is divided into 114 Suras or chapters. The word sura[4] (pl. suwar) occurs in the Qur an nine times. Suras are divided into verses, termed ayat, (sing. aya).[5] The number of verses in the Qur an is 6247 or 6360 if we include with each Sura the opening verse or Bismillah.[6] Each Sura is traditionally labelled as Makkan or Madinan to identify where they were first revealed to Muhammad. Makkan revelations are in some places intermixed with Madinan revelations and thus a sura marked as Makkan may contain verses revealed during the Madinan period, and vice versa.

Style, uslub

In the text of the Qur an one may detect rhymes which occur at the ends of verses and other rhymes which appear in the middle of verses. There are, however, no fixed patterns. Ibn Khaldun (d.1406 AD), the well-known philosopher, historian and author stated that the Qur an is  in prose but it can neither be called straight prose (qafiya) nor rhymed prose (saj ). It is divided into verses. One reaches breaks where taste tells one that the speech stops. It is then resumed and repeated  in the next verse. [7]

Rhymed prose-like form, Saj'

While all Muslims accept the Qur an, there is considerable hesitancy among them concerning the exact nature of the poetic qualities of the Qur an. Still, the most favoured description is that the majority of the text is in rhymed prose, known as Saj . This form was well known among the pre-Islamic poets of Arabia. [8] Saj  has no consistent rhythmic or metrical pattern, but shares with poetry the element of rhyme known as fasila (pl. fawasil), and for some it is that feature which is found in the Qur an.[9]

Those who believe that the Qur an has the attributes of saj  cite verses from Sura al-Ikhlas (Sura 112:1-4),[10] Sura Aly-Imran (Sura 3:191-194), Sura al-Qiyyamah (Sura 75:22-25) [11] and Sura al-Duha (Sura 93:1-11).[12] Parts of a few slightly longer suras can also be described as being saj -like. Examples include the beginning of Sura 75, 82 and 85).[13] In the early Suras, we find that verses are not only short but also rhythmic. Sometimes there is even an element of metre (74:1-7; 91:1-10; 99; 104), but this metre is often the result of repeating certain grammatical forms rather than an effort to carry through a strict metre of syllable or stress.

Some orientalists assert that early Muslims altered the rhyme and verse division in some suras to compete with Arab poets and orators. Others postulate that many passages have been re-arranged, edited and rhymes inserted.[14] Yet others suggest that all or most of the text of the Qur an was re-edited to bring it up to the highest linguistic standard of the time.[15] However, such hypotheses are often hard to justify or substantiate convincingly.

Oral nature, at'tabi'a ashifahi

It is apparent everywhere in the Qur an that it was originally an oral work. The frequent occurrence of the singular imperative Qul Say!  is found more than three hundred times in the Qur an. It frequently serves to indicate liturgical instructions and frequently prayers (Sura 3:26; 10:104; 13:16 and especially Sura 112, 113 and 114). Qul also introduces pronouncements which Muhammad was asked to make (e.g. Sura 6:15; 13:36; 34:50; 38:65).

Other examples of oral characteristics are verses which make direct use of the vocative case: Ya ayyuha O Ye  followed by al-ladhina or al-ladhina Amanu, who have believed  or kafaru, disbelieved  (Sura 24:27; 8:29; 3:49). Some places the address may be just alladhina followed by words like amanu, kafaru or hadu Jews . In other places it may be Ya ayyuha O Ye  followed by rasul, rusul, mursalun, nabi, muzamil, muddathir, etc. Another direct address to hearers is Ya bani Adam (Sura 7:26,27,31,35; 36:60) and some places believers are addressed as ya ibadi (Sura 29:56; 39:10,53; 43:68).

Double divine epithet

Most of the longer Suras, and some short Madinan ones (60 and 65), have longer and more prosaic verses, often with short statements or formulas attached to the ends, apparently in order to provide the rhyme. For example, the rhyme in about three quarters of Sura 2 is formed by divine epithets or aphorisms. In verses 127-268 double divine epithets occur over 30 times (e.g. sami ul aliim hearer knower  occurs seven times; azizun hakiim mighty wise  six times and ghafurur rahiim, forgiving compassionate  six times).

The refrain, takrir

We find another type of rhyme-formula in a number of suras, the refrain, takrir, i.e. repeating an entire verse at more or less regular intervals. The most striking example of this is the question: Then which of the favours of your Lord will ye deny?  in Sura 55. It has 78 verses, 31 of which contain this refrain. Structurally, it produces the effect of a litany, similar to that which one may find in the Psalms of David, Zabur (e.g. Psalm 136).

Narratives, qisas

The Qur an does not have literary continuity in its presentation of its many narratives, qisas (sing. qissa). Some non-Muslim readers are often put off by the sudden and unexpected changes in subject matter. However, for Muslims, the Qur an, as in Kamil Hussain s opinion, is not concerned to be a record, but an education, not a narrative but a nurture for souls. [16] This is not a defect but rather an advantage for Muslims.

Certain narratives are repeated and expressed in different phraseology, in new forms and with stylistic variations.[17] In some places they are long while in other places they are concise, mukhtasar, sometimes only a verse or two. Yet in other places there may be just a passing remark, isharah. In other places there may be an omission hadhf  of part of the narrative and the reader has to fill in the blank. For example in Sura 12, the end of verse 45 and the beginning of verse 46 suggests that some narrative is missing between Send ye me  and O Joseph ... . To solve this abrupt jump from one scene to another, Suyuti (d. 1505) says that it should be read, Send ye me to Joseph to ask him for the interpretation of the dream. So he did. He came to him and said, O Joseph! ... [18]

Similarity of situation, mumatalat fi wad

In many passages of the Qur an we find that Muhammad s situation is perceived to be similar to that of previous prophets. For example, one may find a similarity between the prayer of Moses (Sura 20:25-30) and what is said to Muhammad in the Qur an (Sura 94:1-5). On comparing both cases we see a similarity in terms of the opening of the heart and granting clear language . An interesting example is the way that, in the appointing of a family member as assistant to Muhammad (like Aaron was to Moses), the Qur'an does not mention anyone, although a tradition held by Shi a Muslims state that Muhammad nominated his cousin Ali as his deputy at Madina during the expedition to Tabuk. On this occasion he said to Ali, You are to me what Aaron was to Moses. [19]

Illustrations and metaphors, amthal wa isti arat

Parables and similies, amthal (sing. mathal) are given abundantly in the Qur an (Sura 2:26; Sura 39:27; 14:25).[20] We find for example, the sending of the rain, the lamp and its light, the man who kindled a fire; examples of a bee, an ant, a donkey, the jinn, the spider etc. Some are explicit, zahir while others are implicit, kamin. The term mathal occurs in the Qur an 88 times often with daraba to propound  as in Sura 30:58 and occasionally with sarrafa to explain  as in Sura 17:89. Muslims also believe that illustrations and even simple verses may come into categories known as clear and unclear, known as muhkamat or mutashabihat respectively (Sura 3:7).[21]

The isolated letters, haruf muqata at

There are twenty nine suras which begin with certain letters of the Arabic alphabet, and are known as haruf muqata at. For example, six suras begin with the letters alif, lam, mim (Sura 2, 3, 29, 30, 31, 32). Some Western scholars regard these letters as abbreviations of the names of the people who were the scribes of the most important suras, while other less important suras had no letters at their head, and were thus presumably general property. [22] As an example of such a theory, some have tried to take Sad as standing for Hafsah, Kaf for Abu Bakr and nun for Uthman. This theory finds little support from available history, however.

While some Muslim exegetes declare such letters are of mutashabihat verses declaring that God alone knows the meaning of them,[23] others have insisted on an explanation. Tabari (d. 923) gives a great detail how the companions of Muhammad and their successors viewed these letters. While some are mentioned to assert that alif lam mim were one of the names of the Qur an, others declared that they were simply openings with which God opens the Qur an. [24] Ibn Abbas (d. 687) is stated to have said that alif lam mim stood for ana allahu alim I am God, most knowing .[25] Among several interpretations, Baydawi (d. 1286) states that alif stands for Allah, lam stands for Gabriel and mim for Muhammad.[26] Zamakhshari (d. 1144) mentions differing views but gives also the general consensus that the letters may serve as a name of a sura.[27] According to Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), God has referred in these three letters to the entire existence from the point of view of its totality. [28]

Arabicized vocabulary, al-lugha al-mu arrab

Linguists believe that like any other language, Arabic contains some vocabulary that is borrowed from other languages. Some of these words appear in the Qur an. Though there are Muslim scholars who reject the idea of the Qur an having non-Arabic expressions, others like Tabari and Baqillani (d. 1013) agree that words of non-Arabic origin are found in the Qur an. Several scholars, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, have written in detail on this topic.[29] According to their opinion, the Qur an does contain words that were not used in the Arabic language, such as al-Qistas (Sura 17:35), al-Ghassaq (Sura 78:25), al-Tur (Sura 2:63), al-Kifl (Sura 57:28), Injil (Sura 3:3), al-Sakinah (Sura 9:26), etc.

The inimitable nature, I jaz

Among Muslims a popular belief is that the Qur an is of miraculous nature known as I jaz al-Qur an.[30] They believe that because of its divine origin, no text like  the Qur an can be produced. It is claimed that in the Prophet s time, eloquence and rhetoric were highly prized among the Arabs. The Qur an, revealed at the high point of this culture, excelled all others in its eloquence and vividness. When some people did not accept the message, they were told: If you are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our Servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto ...  (Sura 2:23-4; also Sura 28:49; Sura 11:16; Sura 10:39 and Sura 7:90).

Though there have been people like Nadhir ibn Haritha (d. 624)[31] , Maslama, called Musailma, (d. 633)[32] and the Syrian poet al-Ma rri (d.1058)[33] who tried to compete, nonetheless Muslims claim that they failed. The Qur an claims that its text is not such as can be produced by other than Allah  (Sura 10:37; 17:88). However, somewhat controversial groups like Mu tazila and Nizamiah believed that people were indeed capable of writing something like the Qur an. Abu Musa (d. 841), known as al-Murdar, maintained that man is able to (produce) something like the Qur an as regards the purity of its language, its arrangement and eloquence. [34] Similarly Ibrahim al-Nazzam (d. 835) believed that Muhammad s pagan adversaries were not permanently incapable of producing anything linguistically comparable to his revelations, but temporarily averted  from using their rhetorical and poetical skill (sarfa). [35]

In spite of these claims, the majority of Muslims believe that the challenge of the Qur an cannot be met because God himself says: wa lan taf-alu, and you cannot do it  (Sura 2:24).

End notes:

[1] Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti gives a list of fifty-five special titles. In early Kufic manuscripts, the word Qur an was written without a hamza. It is stated that Abu Qatada (credited with having related 170 hadiths) and Abu Ubayda (d. 639) believed that the word Qur an was from Qarna, he put or bound together (Suyuti, Itqan fi Ulum al-Qur an, vol 1. pp.117, 135; The Encyclopaedia of Islam [EI 2 ], vol. v, p. 400). However, the majority uphold the view that Qur an is derived from Qara, he read or recited . (Subhi Salih, Ulum al-Qur an, p.25.). Some orientalists believe that it is derived from the Syriac Qeryana, scripture reading, lesson  as was used in Christian liturgy in those days known as Qeryana d-yom ba awatta, reading of the day of supplication  (EI 2 , vol. v, p. 400)

[2] Subhi Salih, Ulum al-Qur an,  p.74.

[3] Abul A la Mawdudi, The Message of the Prophet s Seerat, p.14.

[4] One view among the orientalists is that it comes from Hebrew Shurah, a row , used of bricks in a wall and of vines (Arthur Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur an, pp. 180-182).

[5] It is related to the Hebrew oth and Syriac atha. Sign  is evidently the basic meaning (Arthur Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur an, pp.72-73).

[6] There are different systems of numbering the verses: a. Kufi: 6239; b. Shami: 6225; c. Makki: 6219; d. Madni: 6211. e. Basri: 6204 (Qamar Naqvi, Sahayef , p. 395).

[7] Ibn Khaldun, Ta rikh, vol. 1, chapter 52, p. 781; (The Muqaddimah, [Abridged English translation], p. 442).

[8] Arthur Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion, p.47.

[9] Subhi Salih, Ulum al-Qur an,  p.466.

[10] Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al-Qur an, p.75.

[11] Subhi Salih, Ulum al-Qur an,  p.470.

[12] Helmut Gattje, The Qur an and its Eexegesis, p.6

[13] On Fawasil and Saj  see Itqan, vol. 2, pp. 239-261.

[14] William, M. Watt & R. Bell, Introduction to the Qur an, p.89 ff.

[15] John Wansborough, Quranic Studies, p. 102

[16] Kenneth Cragg, The Pen and the Faith: Eight Modern Muslim Writers and the Qur an, p. 66.

[17] Abul A la Mawdudi, Towards Understanding the Qur an, vol. 1, pp. 1-5.

[18]   Suyuti, Itqan, vol. 2. p. 160.

[19] S. Husain M. Jafri, The Origins and Early Development of Shi a Islam, p.18

[20] For a comprehensive discussion on the subject see: Suyuti, Itqan, vol. 2., pp 110-189

[21] On this subject see: Leah Kindberg, Muhkamat and Mutashabihat (Koran 3/7): Implications of a Koranic Pair of Terms in Medieval Exegesis  in Andrew Rippen (ed.), The Qur an: Formative Interpretation, pp. 283-312.

[22] William, M. Watt & R. Bell, Introduction to the Qur an,  p.63

[23] Qurtubi, al-Jami  li-Ahkam al-Qur an, vol. 1, pp. 108-109.

[24] Tabari, Tafsir al-Tabari, vol. 1, p.

[25] For a detail discussion on the subject see Itqan, vol. 2, pp. 19-29.

[26] Baydawi, Tafsir al-Baydawi, vol. 1, p. 14.

[27] Zamakhshari, Al-Kashshaf, vol. 1, pp. 20-21.

[28] Ibn Arabi, Tafsir Ibn Arabi, vol. 1, p. 10.

[29] Arthur Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur an, and Suyuti s Itqan, Vol. 1, pp.355-372.

[30] On the miraculous nature of the Qur an see Baqillani (d. 1013), I jaz al-Qur an, pp. 13, 36-38; Arthur Jeffery, Islam: Muhammad and His Religion, pp. 54-57; Steven Masood, The Bible and the Qur an: A Question of Integrity, pp. 170-194)

[31] Nadhir produced the tales of Persian Kings in a style similar to the Qur an. His response was rejected, however (Sura 31:5). He was taken prisoner at the Battle of Badr and put to death. (Edward Sell, The Historical Development of the Qur an, p.52).

[32] Musailama claimed to have received Qur an-like revelation from Allah. About 100,000 followed him. In the Battle of al-Yamama (633 AD), he and most of his followers were killed (Allamah Abdul Haqq, Madarij-e-Nabbuwat, Part II, pp. 687-689).

[33] Abul-Ala al-Ma rri (979-1058) wrote (or dictated) his Kitabul Fusul wa al-Ghayat in imitation, aiming to excel the Qur an in its I jaz. (EI 2 , vol. v, p. 932; Ali Dashti, 23 Years, p. 48).

[34] EI 2 , vol. vii, p. 604.

[35] EI 2 , vol. vii, p.1058.



All sources are in the English language unless otherwise indicated: the exceptions are {A} = Arabic; {U} = Urdu

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Leah Kinberg, Muhkamat and Mutashibihat (Koran 3/7): Implications of a Koranic Pair of Terms in Medieval Exegesis , in Andrew Rippin (ed.), The Qur an: Formative Interpretation, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 199), pp. 283-312.

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