Beauty in the Wealth of Literary Quranic Eloquence

Short stories, poetry, esssays

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Beauty in the Wealth of Literary Quranic Eloquence

Postby dralmenoar2006 » Mon Oct 26, 2009 1:42 pm


This paper is essentially a discussion of the language and literary aspects of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran in relation to the original Arabic text. It also seeks to establish the suitability of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran as literary texts in the teaching of imagery, especially at Islamic institutions.A closer look at the presence of figurative language and literary devices embedded in the description of each Quranic image was done. The translators of the original as revealed in Arabic in striving to capture every element of descriptive meaning of the Quranic images have managed leave their readers in awe.


This paper seeks to explain the language and literary aspects of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran in relation to the original text as revealed in Arabic.
The word “literature” is a broad term. Literature can be said to be “showing” human experience. It uses images to convey the very quality of lived experience. The Quran is a book that appeals to the understanding through our imagination. It appeals also to our emotions, reasons and intellect. The writers of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran strive to produce as close an approximation of the Quran as possible.
Literature reveals and exploits literary devices such as metaphors, similes, symbols, etc. These literary devices are the very essence of poetry. These literary devices are found in abundance in the Quran and they are also apparent in the translations of the meaning of the Quran in other languages although it is realized by all translators, scholars and authors that no one has yet been able to convey or translate the exact meaning of the Quran.


(Here is) a Book which
We have sent down
Unto thee, full of blessings,
That they may meditate
On its Signs, and that
Men of understanding may
Receive admonition.
(Verse 29 of Surah Sad)

For Muslims, the above verse from Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s English language translation of the meaning of the Quran communicates a vital message: that the Quran is to be read, understood, reflected upon and used by them to gain enlightenment about all aspects of life and all branches of knowledge. Thus, it is important for Muslim students to have many opportunities to read and study the Quran along with their regular academic coursework. If this is not possible in the language of the Quran, which is Arabic, then these opportunities should be made available through the translations of the meaning of the Quran in other languages.
The majority of Muslims in the world are non-Arabic speakers which indeed makes it a necessity to deal with the Quran through the translations of the meaning of the Quran in various languages. Translations of the meaning of the Quran are of great importance in this ongoing process of Islamic education due to the following two reasons:
1)They enable the message of Islam to be presented to and be shared with non -Muslims.
2) They point out to Muslims who are non-Arabic speakers the revealed guidance which explains what Allah has ordained human beings to observe. Muslims have to be reminded of their duties and obligations towards Allah.
The English language, especially, as the world’s major international language would make a good medium for understanding Quranic teaching and thereby helping Muslims spread peace and harmony internationally through their practice of and commitment to Islam.
According to Abul A’la Mawdudi in Towards Understanding Islam, the Quran provides and assures continued guidance for those who seek Allah’s help. Besides this, the Quran contains warnings for human beings because it depicts human follies of the past. Thus, Muslims can apply this guidance for all time to come and in all situations that they encounter in their daily lives. Mawdudi makes it explicit when he describes the Quran as
“ having embodied a framework for the conduct of the whole of human life” (Mawdudi, 1980:11).

Muslim educationists feel this correct and precious guidance should be made known to all Muslims, especially young Muslim adults, and that the spread of this knowledge can be accomplished through various means.


Since the Quran was revealed in Arabic, it is necessary and of interest for a Muslim to look at the Arabic language of the Quran in more detail. At the time of revelation, the Arabs were astounded by the unmatched clarity and accuracy of the meaning and expression in the Quran.
The style and language that one uses in one’s daily life often changes according to whom one addresses. However, the language of the Quran uses the same language and the same style or expression when directed to anyone whether educated or illiterate.
Muhammad Asad talks about the Arabic language of the Quran in the foreword section of his book, The Message of the Quran:
f, on occasion, I have found myself
constrained to differ from the interpretations
offered by the latter, let the reader remember
that the very uniqueness of the Quran
consists in the fact that the more our
worldly knowledge and historical experience
increase, the more meanings, hitherto
unsuspected, revealed themselves in its pages

Asad refers to the prominent Arab philologists and classical commentators when he mentions “the latter” in the above quotation. Nevertheless, he goes on to say that without the work of these Arab philologists and classical commentators of past centuries, no modern translations of the meaning of the Quran (including his own) would have been done successfully.
Asad also mentions some linguistic considerations of the Quran. He specifically mentions two terms-“al-quran” and “surah” which do not need to be changed or translated in any way since neither of these two terms has ever been used in Arabic to denote anything but the title and sections or chapters respectively. Otherwise, Asad claims to have endeavoured to transfer every Quranic concept to appropriate English expressions, sometimes finding it necessary to use
“whole sentences to convey the meaning of a single Arabic word” (Asad, 1980: p. vi).

Abul A’la Mawdudi agrees with the above point when he mentions that
"the literature of the Quran is so rich and powerful that explanation of the most subtle aspect of the Divine knowledge or revelation is made possible"(Mawdudi,1980:42).

The authors of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran try to capture this special feature of the Quran- the exact expressions and meaning in the Arabic language. Although not entirely possible, as mentioned by all translators, with extra reading and guidance, a reader will be able to understand most, if not all, of what is being said in the Quran.


According to Ahmad von Denffer,
the particular style used in the Quran is said to be like saj’ or rhymed prose which is “a literary form with some emphasis on rhythm and rhyme, but distinct from poetry” (Von Denffer, 1985:74).
Von Denffer furnishes his readers with an example of saj’: a passage in the Quran- Surah Al-Ikhlas. He describes
"this passage as having irregular rhythm and having rhyme ending with the syllable ad" (Von Denffer, 1985:75):

Qul huwallahhuahad
Lamyalid was lam
Yu lad
Wa lam yakullahu
Kufuwan ahad

Mohamed Khalifa explains that literary authorities at Al-Azhar University in Cairo have pointed out the ways in which the Quranic style is unmatched, some of which are the following:
1)The rhythms of the syllables are more sustained than in prose and less patterned than poetry. The pauses come neither in prose form nor in the manner of poetry but with a harmonious and melodic flow.
2)The sentences are constructed in an elegant manner which uses the smallest number of words, without sounding too brief, to express ideas of utmost richness.
3)The conciseness of expressions attains such a striking clarity that the least learned Arabic-speaking person can understand the Quran without difficulty. At the same time, there is such a profundity, flexibility, inspiration and radiance in the Quran that it serves as the basis for the principles and the rules of Islamic sciences and the arts, for theology, and for the judicial schools. Thus, it is almost impossible to express the ideas of the text by only one interpretation, either in Arabic or in any other language, even with the greatest care (Khalifa,1983:24).

Al-Sha’rawi mentions a miraculous feature of a literary aspect of the Quran –
"its use of both metrical composition and prose, in such exquisite harmony that the shift from one style to the other is barely perceptible. This intermingling of metrical and non-metrical composition is present throughout the whole of the Quran" (Al-Sha’rawi,1980:31).

Thus, it is clear that the literary style of the Quran is not poetry per se, but a unique literary style.
Muhammad Asad explains the need for the use of imagery in the Quran.
This being so, it is not enough for man to be
told, “If you behave righteously in this world,
you will attain to happiness in the happiness in
the life to come”, or alternatively, “If you do wrong
in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter”.
Such statements would be far too general and abstract
to appeal to man’s imagination and, thus, to influence
his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal
to the intellect, resulting in a kind of “visualization”
of the consequences of one’s conscious acts and omissions:
and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means
of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them
stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all
that man will experience after resurrection from whatever
he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other
hand, establishing means of comparison between these
two categories of experience (Asad, 1980:990).

The Quran contains an abundance of imagery. Imagery as a general term covers the use of language to represent objects, actions, feelings, thoughts, ideas, states of mind and any sensory or extra-sensory experience. Many Quranic images are conveyed literally. These constitute descriptive imagery whereby they clarify or give a vivid picture of something. Then, there are images which are conveyed by figurative language, such as in metaphors similes, symbols, etc. These images when projected , appeal to one’s senses. A Quranic image, like other images, may be visual (pertaining to the eye), olfactory (smell), tactile (touch), auditory (hearing), or gustatory (taste).
As mentioned above, there are images which are conveyed through the use of figurative language usually using these three literary devices-metaphors, similes and symbols. As readers of the Quran, whether in Arabic or in any other language, one needs to identify and be able to interpret figurative language so as to achieve understanding and be able to extract the deepest meaning of the message of the Quran.


The discussion in this paper of the language and literary aspects of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran in relation to the original Arabic text (the Quran) leads readers to envision the suitability of using the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran as literary texts in the teaching of literature, specifically figurative language and literary devices.
In the academic setting, especially at Islamic institutions, the introduction of the use of the English language translations of the meaning of the Quran as literary texts into the English language curriculum, would be a sure way of incorporating Islam to a larger extent.


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