Metaphor in the Qur’an

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April 1, 2011
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Reuven Firestone

Qur’an/Koran: The writer has requested this transliteration of the Arabic word “Qur’an,” noting that this style reflects a truer pronunciation of the term, that it is preferred by Muslims, and that it is less associated with colonial legacies. Taking these realities into consideration, Sh’ma, which has long used the transliteration “Koran,” has made a considered decision to change its style to “Qur’an.”

Metaphor (majãz in Arabic), which connects familiar concepts or images with unfamiliar ones, is an important part of the “science of eloquence,” the Arabic term for rhetoric, and it is discussed in treatises on literature including ancient pre-Islamic poetics. Metaphor is common in the Qur’an, but its use in scripture takes on a special meaning because of the creedal presumption that the entire Qur’an is the direct articulation of God. Some common examples of qur’anic metaphor include the references to unbelievers unable to hear or see, meaning that they are incapable of discerning the truth. They have “veils over their hearts, heaviness in their ears” (Qur’an 18:57), or they are covered in darkness (Qur’an 10:27). Note the similar biblical use of darkness in Ecclesiastes 2:14; and the famous, “idols of the nations…have mouths but cannot speak; eyes that cannot see; ears that cannot hear….Those who fashion them …shall become like them.” (Psalms 135:15-17)

Some scholars of the Qur’an point to the inspiring beauty of qur’anic metaphor to argue inimitability unmatched by any human composition (the term is i`jãz, a root form that also means “impossible” or “miracle”). In reference to the requirement of caring for elderly parents, for example, the Qur’an commands, “Never speak to them harshly, and do not rebuff them, but speak to them in kindly terms, and lower the wing of humility to them out of compassion and say, ‘My Lord, have mercy on them as they nurtured me when I was small.’” (Qur’an 17:23-24)

As in the Tanakh, the Qur’an regularly refers to God in anthropomorphic terms. Numerous verses mention the hands (5:64, 48:10) or eyes (20:39; 52:48) of God, or state that God has mercy on believers (11:119, 12:53) and is wrathful toward those who are evil and idolatrous (4:93, 48:6). The difference between the scriptures in terms of anthropomorphic metaphor is quite interesting. In the biblical context, much current scholarship observes an internal development toward biblical monotheism and suggests that anthropomorphic references to God may not have originated as metaphors but came to be read as such in order to establish a consistent image of a transcendent and omnipotent monotheist deity. In contrast, the Qur’an represents a much shorter period of development in the seventh century C.E., when polytheism in Western Asia was nearly extinct outside of Arabia. There can be little doubt of the firm and unwavering monotheist perspective established in the Qur’an from the beginning, so that anthropomorphic imagery must be considered a priori to be metaphorical. Nevertheless, a debate developed early on in the Muslim world over the nature of these images.

The rationalist school known as the Mu`tazila deemed them metaphors, but Hanbalis and others took the creedal position that the Qur’an must be read literally. Eliminating metaphoric reading, though, required that the anthropomorphic divine attributions be understood as real, which would, by necessity, limit God; this was impossible for an omnipresent and omnipotent deity. A “third way” was proposed by the school of Ali ibn Isma`il al-Ash`ari (d.936), which held that the literal meaning of the Qur’an must be upheld without asking “how” (bi-lã kayf), and that such readings need not contradict reason because the mystery of God is beyond human ability to fully comprehend.

This did not resolve the problem fully, and various approaches emerged to treat the issue. Ibn Rushd (d.1198), the greatest Muslim Aristotelian and a contemporary of Maimonides, took what might be a familiar position to readers of the Rambam. He held that while the clearest path to truth is through philosophy, God articulates the divine message in metaphor because few people have the intellectual capacity to engage in the philosophic quest.

Others tended to relate to qur’anic imagery as a means to meditate on the deeper layers of meaning. Sufis and other groups, such as the Shi`ite Isma`ilis, resonated with the esoteric dimensions of interpretation and related to the symbolic language of the Qur’an as points of reflection. A classic example of this approach is found in Muhammad Al-Ghazzali’s (d.1111) treatise, Mishkãt al-anwãr (“The niche for lights”), which is centered around a qur’anic section known as “The Light Verse” and a teaching from the Hadith that every soul passes before birth through 70,000 veils that separate God, the One Reality, from the world of matter and sense. The light verse offers a unique articulation of the divine essence:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of divine light is as of a niche with a lamp inside; the lamp is in a glass; the glass is as if a shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither of the East or the West, its oil nearly luminous without the touch of fire. Light upon light: God guides whomever He will to divine light; and God gives people examples. God has knowledge of everything. [Qur’an 24:35]

Al-Ghazzali teaches that symbols are no mere metaphors. Rather, there is a real and transcendent nexus between symbol and symbolized, type and antitype, outer and inner. The beautiful qur’anic expressions of light, niche, glass, oil, tree, East, and West all contain psychological and religious-metaphysical meaning, as does the symbolism of the 70,000 veils. All elicit contemplation and meditation.

Muslim thinkers continue to muse about the meaning of “The Light Verse” as well as many other aspects of Islam. Qur’anic metaphor, like so much in religion, elicits a broad range of responses that reflect the unique and divergent ways in which God’s creatures derive meaning from the world, in Islam no less than in Judaism and other faith traditions.

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Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. He is also a senior fellow of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, and a founder and co-director of the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement in Los Angeles. His most recent book is Who Are the Real Chosen People? The Meaning of Chosenness in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

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