Artistic Imagery in the Quran
Translation of part of “Artistic Imagery in the Quran” by Syed Qutb. Originally published at Muslimology blog.
I have found the Qur’an!
This book is a story from within my soul. It would have been my right to keep this story for myself, and this book would have remained nothing but a passing thought in my conscience. However, this story no longer belongs to me.
I read the Qur’an when I was a young child, and my intellect could not reach the levels of its meanings, nor could my understanding encompass its great objectives, but still I would find something of it in myself. My naïve and young imagination would conjure up some images through the expressions of the Qur’an. They were naïve images, but they would create a longing in my soul and a pleasure in my senses, so that I would spend long periods of time reflecting on these images, happily and actively contemplating them.
Of the naïve images that would paint themselves in my mind is that image that came to me whenever I read the following verse:
- And among people is he who worships Allah as if on an edge. If good befalls him, he stands securely (on that edge), but if a trial befalls him he falls over on his face. He has lost this lesser world and the hereafter. (Surat al-Hajj [The Pilgrimage] 22:11)
And please, nobody laugh when I tell you about the images that this verse created in my mind. This verse would create in my imagination a man standing on the edge of a high place – like the peak of a narrow mountain. And he is standing in prayer, but he is not stable, for he swings back and forth with every move, and comes close to falling several times, and I watch him closely, following his moves with a strange passion and anxiety!
Another of those naïve images is one that came to me whenever I read the following verse:
- And recite unto them the tiding of him to whom We brought Our signs, then he stripped himself from them, then Satan overtook him, and he became of the misguided ones.
- If We willed We would certainly have elevated him with Our signs, but he clung to the earth and followed his own vain/low desire. So his likeness is as the likeness of a dog: if you attack him he lolls out his tongue panting, or if you leave him alone he still lolls out his tongue panting. (Surat al-A’raf [The Heights] 7:175-176)
I did not understand anything of the meanings or objectives of this verse, but an image would be conjured in my mind: The image of a man, open-mouthed, his tongue hanging out, panting and panting incessantly. And I am watching him, unable to take my eyes off him, and I don’t understand why he’s panting, but I don’t dare turn away from him!
And many images of this kind would paint themselves in my young imagination, and I delighted in contemplating them, and I would long to read the Quran because of them, and I would search for them within its folds whenever I read it.
Those days passed with their lovely memories and their naïve thoughts and I entered educational institutes where I read the explanation of the Quran in the books of tafseer(Quranic interpretation and exegeses), and I listened to its explanation from the teachers. But I could not find in what I read or heard that delicious beautiful Quran that I used to find in my childhood years.
What a shame!
All symbols of beauty were nowhere to be found, and it became free of delectation and excitement. I wondered: Are they two Qurans? The sweet, easy, exciting Quran of my childhood and the difficult and complicated Quran of my youth? Or are the methods used in explaining the Quran to be blamed for this crime?
So I went back to reading the Quran from the original book and not in the books of tafseer. And I once again found my beautiful beloved Quran, and I found my exciting delightful images. They were not at the same level of naivety that they were before; my understanding of them has evolved, for I now see their goals and objectives, and I understand that they are parables that are given, not actual events that are taking place. But their magic still exists, and their attractiveness remains. Praise to Allah, I have found the Quran!
I started researching, with the Quran as my primary source, to gather the artistic images in the Quran and present them and explain the imagery in them and the artistic consistency in their expression – as my sole concern was devoted purely to the artistic aspect, with none of my attention paid to the linguistic, oratory, or fiqh (jurisprudence) aspects or other research areas of the Quran. A new truth is becoming clear to me: the images in the Qur’an are not a part of it that is separate from the rest of it. Rather, the imagery is the theme and mode of expression in this beautiful book. The basic rule followed towards all objectives – except for legal objectives due to their nature. Thus, the search is not for a set of images that can be collected and arranged in order, but rather for a theme that can be discovered and showcased.
That was a success I was not aiming for, until I met it!
And on this basis the research started, and everything in it is merely a presentation of this rule, a dissection of its phenomena, and an exposition of this Quranic attribute that has not been exposed before.
The Source of Enchantment in the Qur’an
How did the Quran captivate the Arabs the way it did? And how is it that both the believers and non-believers have agreed upon the Quran’s ability to enchant?
Some researchers into the virtues of the Quran look at it as a whole and point to its overall beauty and artistic consistency. Others mention different reasons extracted from the topics addressed by the Quran as a whole, such as the intricate legislation that is fit for any time and place, predictions of future events that end up taking place years later, and scientific information about the creation of the universe and the human being.
But researching from this perspective only proves the exalted nature of the Qur’an as a whole. So what is said of those few chapters that do not contain legislation nor predictions of the future nor scientific information? These few chapters enchanted the Arabs from the moment they heard it, and in a time where neither advanced legislation nor great objectives were what captivated their senses and grasped their admiration.
It must be, then, that these few chapters contained that element that enchants the listeners and captivates both believers and non-believers. If we calculate the Quranic effect on the numbers of those embracing Islam, then these early chapters surely get the largest share, regardless of how small in numbers Muslims were at that time. This is because at that time they were affected, for the most part, by the Quran alone. It is the Quran alone that led them to believe. As for the large numbers of those coming to Islam in later years after the Muslims became visible and Islam became strong, they had other factors affecting their choices aside from the Quran, depending on each individual’s nature. And the Quran alone was not the deciding factor in their decision to embrace Islam. Some became believers because they were moved by the character of the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) and the characters of his companions. Some became believers because they found Muslims enduring great harm and strife and persecution, and giving up their wealth, families and friends to be able to practice their religion and to flee to their Lord. Others embraced Islam because they found that Muhammad (pbuh), aided only by a small group of people, was becoming victorious over great numbers of persecutors and deceivers, and they believed that Allah was the source of their victory. Others embraced Islam after the sharia (Islamic law and way of life) was implemented in their countries and they found in it justice, forgiveness and tolerance they did not see in any previous governing regimes. And many others believed for different reasons; the magic of the Quran may have been one factor among other factors, but it was not the deciding factor as it was in the early days of Islam.
We must, then, search for the source of enchantment in the Quran before we look at legislation or predictions or scientific information, and before we treat the Quran as a complete unit that contains all these attributes; for the few chapters that were revealed in the early days of Islam did not contain these attributes which only came later. And yet, it still contained that fundamental quality that the Arabs tasted, and savoured, and said “this is but sorcery”.
If we look at the story of how Umar ibn al-Khattab came to embrace Islam, it mentions that he heard or read a part of Surat Taha, which is the 45th chapter of the Quran to be revealed, preceded by: al-Alaq, al-Muzzammil, al-Muddathir, al-Qalam, al-Fatiha, al-Masad, al-Takwir, al-A’la, al-Lail, al-Fajr, al-Duha, al-Inshirah, al-Asr, al-Adeyat, al-Kawthar, al-Takathur, al-Maauun, al-Kafiruun, al-Fil, al-Falaq, al-Nas, al-Ikhlas, al-Najm, Abas, al-Qadr, al-Shams, al-Burooj, al-Teen, Quraish, al-Qare’a, al-Qiyama, al-Humaza, al-Mursalat, Qaf, al-Balad, al-Tariq, al-Qamar, Sad, al-A’raf, al-Jin, Yassin, al-Furqan, Fatir, and Mariam. T
hese are all Meccan chapters except for a few verses that were revealed in Madina.
So let us look at these chapters together as a whole – for looking into each one of them in detail is impossible in this context – to see what magic or enchantment in them captivated the early Muslims who followed Muhammad even before Islam was strengthened with Umar, and before the Prophet went public with the call to Islam in broad daylight, after hiding and secrecy.
And when we look into these chapters together we find that there exists but little of those attributes previously mentioned that some researchers claim as the loftiest attributes of the Quran. Except for a hasty mention of the creation of the human being, and the variety and diversity of colours and shapes described in the chapter of Fatir, and the creation of man from in the chapter of al-Tariq, we don’t find any scientific information in these chapters, nor legislation nor future predictions.
However, we find in these chapters – as we find in many other Meccan and Madinan chapters – examples of that artistic beauty to which we’ve been referring. And if we set aside – temporarily – the holiness and religious sacredness of the Quran, and the objectives of the call to Islam, and if we move beyond the constraints of time and space, we will see beyond all of this that pure artistic beauty as an independent element in its own essence, immortal in the Quran itself, where art can contemplate it and reflect on it in isolation of all other goals and messages of the Quran.
So let us look into how people understood this beauty over the generations.
How was the Qur’an understood?
If we bypass the age of the revelation, we see some of the companions treading lightly in the waters of Quranic exegeses based on the little interpretation transmitted from the Prophet (pbuh), and some of them would do this with such trepidation lest they misinterpret some of the verses, while others would avoid this altogether such as what was said about Saeed bin al-Musaeb that if he was asked about something in the Quran he would say “I don’t speak about the Quran”. And Ibn Sireen said “I asked Ubaida about something in the Quran and he said ‘fear Allah, for those who have knowledge about the revelation have gone”.
In the age of the followers of the companions (al-tabiun), Quranic interpretation developed vastly, but they restricted their interpretation to clarifying linguistic meanings of specific words. Quranic interpretation began to really grow towards the end of the 2nd century. But rather than looking into the artistic beauty in the Quran, it delved into jurisprudence and argumentation, language and grammar, creation and philosophy, and history and myth. With that was lost an opportunity that was available to Quranic interpreters to paint clear pictures of the artistic beauty of the Quran.
Didn’t do p.28-35
Imagery is the preferred tool in the style of the Quran. Expression through images that can be sensed and imagined by intellectual understanding, and by psychological state, and by sensory experience, and by visual scenes, and by human nature. It then elevates the image it portrays and gives it life, personality, and movement, and if dialogue is added to this then it is given all the elements necessary for the imagination. The scene barely begins and the listeners become observers, and they are transported to the scene of the first events, and they stare intently, and they forget that these are words being recited, and examples that are being struck, and they imagine that this is a scene being played out, and an event that is taking place.
And if we remind ourselves that the tool being used to portray these meanings and psychological states are words, neither colours nor characters, we can begin to understand some of the secrets of the miraculous nature of Quranic expressions.
Let’s start with the meanings that are expressed in sensory images:
- The intended meaning is that those who disbelieve and cover up the truth will not achieve Allah’s acceptance and will never enter Paradise, and that acceptance is something impossible. That is the intellectual way to express these meanings, but using the tool of imagery presents these meanings in the following way:
- “Lo! They who deny Our revelations and scorn them with arrogance, for them the gates of heaven will never be opened nor will they enter the Garden until the camel can pass through the eye of the needle” (Al-Araf 7:40).
It allows you to use your imagination to paint a picture of the gates of heaven opening, and another picture of a large thread being put through a needle’s eye. It chooses the word ’camel’ to represent this, and it lets the senses be moved by the imagination through these two images, so that in the end the two meanings of “acceptance into the Garden” and “impossibility” are engrained together, through the eye and the senses, deep within the soul of the listener.
- The intended meaning is that Allah will erase the deeds of the disbelievers as if they never existed, and those deeds will be lost forever with no way for them to be recovered. This meaning is presented as follows:
- “And We will proceed to what they have done of deeds, so We shall render them as scattered floating dust” (Al-Furqan 25:23).
It lets you imagine the scattered dust so as to present to the listener more clearly and certainly the meaning of total and absolute loss.
- It paints this somewhat longer image of the same meaning:
- “The parable of those who disbelieve in their Lord: their actions are like ashes on which the wind blows hard on a stormy day; they shall not have power over any thing out of what they have earned” (Ibrahim 14:18).
So the image increases in movement and life through the movement of the winds on a stormy day that continuously blows a group of ashes to and fro such that they never settle down.
- The intended meaning is to show people that alms that are given to show off in front of people, or that are followed with hurtful words or harm, will never be of any lasting benefit to the giver. This meaning is presented in the following image:
- “O you who believe! Do not make your charity worthless by reproach and injury, like him who spends his property to be seen of men and does not believe in Allah and the last day; his parable is as the parable of a smooth rock with earth upon it, then a heavy rain falls upon it, so it leaves it bare” (Al-Baqara 2:264).
This image lets listeners contemplate the state of the hard smooth rock, covered by a thin layer of earth in a manner that gives one the impression that it is fertile. But once a heavy rain falls upon it, instead of preparing it for growth – which is what one would expect when rain falls upon fertile earth – it leaves it bare, and that thin layer of earth that covered it and gave one the impression of fertility disperses.
It then juxtaposes this image with another one meant to represent an opposite meaning:
- “And the parable of those who spend their property to seek the pleasure of Allah and for the certainty of their souls is as the parable of a garden on an elevated ground, upon which heavy rain falls so it brings forth its fruit twofold, but if heavy rain does not fall upon it, then light rain (is sufficient)” (Al-Baqara 2:265).
Here we see the opposing side of the previous image. For these alms that are given to seek Allah’s pleasure are compared to a garden rather than a dusty rock, and rather than being a rock low on the earth, this garden is on an elevated ground. The heavy rain befalls both of them, but in the first case it erases and destroys, and the second case it fertilizes and grows. In the first case it befalls the dusty rock and exposes it and leaves it bare, and in the second case it befalls the garden and mixes with it and produces fruit. Even if this heavy rain had not befallen the garden, it is so fertile and ready to produce that even a light rain would have been enough to revitalize it!