The Qur’an: An Aesthetic Treasure Trove

The cosmos held its breath in anticipation. The fabric of the Unseen dilated and grew infinitely thin. Rip! It irrupted with the Divine Command, Iqra’! Revealed piecemeal over the next twenty three years, the unrivaled speech of God was to bewilder, bewitch and dumbfound its audience, scholarly and laymen alike, till the end of time. Expressed in sapid prose with mellifluous verses coupled with enchanting internal rhythmic symmetry, the Qur’an invokes aesthetic wonder and contemplation. It is simultaneously laconic and loquacious. It compels the listener to slow down, pause and reflect to discover what is being conveyed. The text is replete with occurrences that deserve scrutiny. 

If I was asked out of the blue, to give one such example, I’d find myself inadvertently blurting out the āyah,

“… my bones have weakened and my hair is ashen grey “(19:4)

Now, imagine a wildfire devouring a derelict savanna. In the dictionary sense, the verb ‘shta’ala‘ means to blaze and spread like a fire. The verse exemplifies the rapidity, reach and proliferation of greying hair with that of a fire that cannot be smothered. Even if someone wants to extinguish it, he is incapable of doing it. The blackness of the hair becomes scarce and the whiteness of it, vivid. Furthermore, this verse is a confluence of another evocative metaphor. The speaker says that his bones have become dilapidated and infirm. The particle “al” before the word “bone” in the original Arabic signifies that, it is not just that  some bones have become weak, but each and every one of them. This hyperbole intensifies the plight of the speaker immeasurably. Similarly, the Qur’an contains a cornucopia of such instances of exquisite expression. 

For example, 15:94,

“Therefore expound openly what thou art commanded, and turn away from those who join false gods with Allah”

This verse is a quintessential example of what was previously described as “laconic yet loquacious.” The initial three-word mantra encapsulates the basic aim of the Prophetic mission. The verb ṣadaʿa-yaṣdaʿu is a jam-packed term bursting with meaning. It originally denotes a break, crack, divide or split. So, imagine the sound of cracking mud pots or shattering glass shards. Figuratively, the verb connotes proclaiming, expounding and the like. This vital connection of the abstract to the tangible proves to be eye-opening. The second half of the verse bids the Prophet (ﷺ) to distance himself from his deriding opponents. The breviloquent command tells him (ﷺ) to unfetteredly let loose his inspirations in the face of adversity. Additionally, something I have noticed is how this verse fits seamlessly into the larger concept of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) role as an iconoclast — from the Greek eikonoklastēs, taken literally to mean, “an image-breaker.” He took the Jahili Arabs from believing in the ephemerality of the world to a belief in an eternal afterlife and from incessant tribal feuds to a belief in higher morality. Indeed, he shattered the existing image of their world. Then, it comes as no surprise that a Bedouin, listening to this verse, threw himself down onto the ground and said, “I prostrated for the eloquence of this speech.”

Another fascinating feature is displayed in the verse 74:4,

“And thy garments, purify!”

What appears to be a mundane instruction to the Prophet ﷺ to keep his clothes clean, can also mean, as a metaphor, to purify his deeds, acts or inner self. In fact, Hasan al-Basri commented on this verse saying that it commands one to beautify his character. Furthermore, a much more idiosyncratic interpretation rends “garments” to mean couples, since God has called them clothing for each other elsewhere (“hunna libāsun lakum wa antum libāsun lahunna”). Then, the command would mean to be choosy in selecting pure women, those who haven’t been touched by the filth of kufr, because they are the agents of procreation and vessels of nurturance for the young. To crown it all, the grammatical structure of this verse is peculiar in nature, in that the conjunctive (fa) is used to join the direct object and the imperative verb rather than two nouns or verbs. 

Another case of wondrous metaphor turned out to be so bizarre, that it was taken for its literal meaning. ‘Adi ibn Hatim narrates that when God prescribed the time for the fast in 2:187; “And eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread,” he took two hair strings, one black and the other white and kept them under his pillow. Throughout the night, he looked at them but could not make anything of it. The next morning when he went to the Prophet (ﷺ) and told him the whole story, it was discerned for him that the description of the threads figuratively implied the whiteness of the dawn and blackness of the night. This imagery stands out brilliantly as it illustrates the piercing sunray encroaching the still and unaware night sky. 

Another instance of artistic intensification of expression is found in 12:30,

“… Indeed, he has impassioned her with love”

The particular word for passion šaġaf used here originally meant the bark or husk of a tree. Figuratively, it meant “to envelop a thing completely.” When Zulaikha was enamored of a certain man, it was as if her love had encased her whole being. Therefore, it was befitting to describe her ineffable passion in these pithy words. 

Oftentimes, the Qur’an offers opportunities for the wings of our intellect to take flight. Open-ended hypothetical images are runways for the daring thinkers. Try now to relish these images with me, slowly and pensively, as we soar high:

When the sky is rent asunder, and it becomes red like oil” (55:37)

Depicting an apocalyptic scene never seen before by a human eye, “red like oil” is an enigmatic simile, indeed! When “red like a rose” would have been more conventional, the kāf (particle) of comparison is hindered and applied to dihān (lit. oil). It is preceded by wardatan (lit. rose) while mysteriously making no mention of the color red. The simile with a gaping void in the middle invites us to great imaginative depths. The syntax perfectly coheres with the idea conveyed. Both are surreal to a degree that even Salvador Dali would envy. 

Amongst the numerous awe-inspiring majestic verses in the Qur’an, 6:103 is a unique gem. 

“No human vision can encompass Him, whereas he compasses all human vision”

The wings of our intellect are clipped from perceiving Him, let alone capturing Him with our myopic eye-sights. Whatever occurs to our minds when we say “God,” is not God. On the other hand, not even a black ant crawling on the underside of a boulder on a pitch-dark night escapes the vigilance of the All-Seeing God. Even The susurrus of an insignificant leaf does not stand a chance of evading His glimpse. Therefore, what we divulge and disguise are on par for the Vigilant one.

Despite all of this poetic prowess, the Qur’an is often reprimanded for its repetitive verses and discourses to the point of tedium. However, a pedantic perusal of the text reveals that it contains no verbatim repetition. To some, at first this might sound outright false but what the Qur’an does is re-contextualize its delivery, portraying new shades of meaning every time. Even the selection of synonyms are chosen and distinguished from the other available words through painstakingly subtle details. Though it is tempting to corroborate these claims with examples, it is beyond the scope of this article. The syntax, word order, sentence structure and placement, harmonious intra-sura symmetry and overarching inter-sura congruity all adorn God’s Final Book to humanity leaving us to infinitely muse over the resplendence of this timeless masterpiece.

Photo by Faruk Kaymak on Unsplash

About the Author: Muhammed Raazi is a rising sophomore prospectively majoring in Literature at Ashoka University. His interests span across tasawwuf, theology, tafsir, Islamic history and law. You can connect with him here

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One thought on “The Qur’an: An Aesthetic Treasure Trove

  1. Beautifully put. It really is worth it to learn the entire Arabic language just to be able to understand the Koran, both in its written form but even more so when listening to it recited. There really is a world of difference between the original and the translations, it goes beyond just language differences. It is a bit of a shame that there are many English translations that are written very awkwardly. They get the meaning correctly but communicate it so stiffly and unpleasantly, completely eradicating all the beauty of the original. I heavily recommend reading translations done only by experienced authors who actually have an understanding of the art of language. The best English translation I read is AJ Arberry’s, I really feel that translation comes the closest possible to even doing slight justice to the original Arabic rhythm and beauty. Marmaduke Pickthall’s is also good, and there are a few other good translations too. For those who don’t know Arabic I highly recommend being selective with what Koran translations to choose, because your experience of the book can change almost entirely based on the quality of the translation.

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