Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Quranic Style and Narrative

As I said in my last post I will be describing briefly about my role in brother Khalil's conversion to Islam so here goes.

It all begin with a heated debate on the profile of my school mate Shamikh Ahmed and I was debating against a US citizen Faizan Rizvi who also happened to be my class fellow back in school but in the other section so I didn't recall about him immediately. Later on brother Faizan by the grace of Allah realized he was wrong and then began this wonderful mission of ours: the writing of articles for brother Khalil.

Brother Khalil formerly brother Michael has a Ph.D. in English Literature and he wanted to know somethings about Quran's literary style, brother Faizan knew him and wanted my help in this task. This is the paper I wrote which played a large role in his conversion Alhamdullilah:

The Quranic Style and Narrative

The article touches upon the Quran’s style of narration and its supreme literary style. No doubt Quran is a miracle given to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) by Allah (McAuliffe). In the opening part it talks about the structure and history of preservation of the Quran. Later the article focuses on the narrations in the Quran: the unique style of conveying the Message to Mankind through stories repeating the same story and continuing it in several different Surahs, something known in literary terms as cross-referencing. This is a unique literary style found in only the Quran but it serves important purposes as mentioned in the article itself: “1) to sustain interest in the story, 2) to test the reader’s comprehension of its implications and 3) enforce the significance of the story within the text’s context.”
One example the writer has focused and picked is the story of creation which the Quran mentions in several places: Surah 41, Surah 79, Surah 15, Surah 2, Surah 7. The story is narrated in a way that leaves the reader captivated and makes him absorb the sublime message of truth. The creation of “Heavens” serves as a reminder to Mankind of the favors to those who will follow the path prescribed by Allah. Each time the reader reads the story of creation it leaves a different impact on his mind and heart, although the story is the same yet each time the underlying message is different with a unique touch. For example when talking about the unbelievers’ attitude in Surah 41 Allah admonishes them in strong words whereas in Surah 15 the style changes to a less stricter tone but Allah predicts what would unbelievers say even if they were to be taken to the Heavens.
Also the significance of the event of Satan not only stresses the importance but serves as reminder of the challenge he poses for Man, the Satan will continue to divert Man from the way of the Lord till the Judgement Day. The dialogue between the Lord and Satan is repeated many times in the Quran and each time it leaves a different impact on the reader’s mind.
This is enough evidence for a person to see that the Quran is definitely a literary masterpiece and is seen as such by both Muslims and non-Muslims. (Boullata 2000). The Qur'ān never tells a story for its own sake, but rather uses it to drive home the point it happens to be making in a sūrah or in a section of it. As a rule, considerations of the thematic unity determine which portion of a story will be narrated in which sūrah. In other words, the story told in a given sūrah is likely to be sūrah specific, the apparent disjointedness of the Qur'ān in this case concealing a carefully worked-out technique of storytelling.
The literary excellence of the Quran is unmatchable, As a gift from Allah to mankind, the Quran employs the most sublime literary art. The Qur'ān possesses a rich literary repertoire of its own. Besides making a masterful use of language on the level of words and phrases, it contains figures of speech, satire, and irony; employs a variety of narrative and dramatic techniques; and presents characters that is spite of the sparse personal detail provided about them, come across as vivid figures. This is evident from the second series of narrations touched upon in the article which constantly makes mention of the people of the Book and how they treated Moses and then Jesus. After the narrative part is the warning for their deeds and then it goes on to mention the reassurance for those who did not go astray. It so well-connected and appealing and the series of stories seem to follow a connected chain of events. At the same time within these narrations come time and again the legislative aspects of the Holy Book serving as a reminder that Quran’s actual purpose is not simple narration: its ultimate aim is to take Man out from the shackles of human slavery and give him as a sub-ordinate and slave of Allah, the Exalted and High. The challenge of Quran is to replace legislator of law by only Allah and He is the only Legislator alone and this is what is to be kept in mind. (Qutb)
The narrative aspect of Qur'an style remains one of the most creative and innovative of the Holy Book, one which has profoundly influenced and enriched the Arabic language. Whatever narrative style the language had in pre-Islamic times were relatively crude and primitive. Even though the narrative parts of the Qur'an were clearly put to the service of the main theme of the Book, i.e., religion, the narrative was so highly developed and integrated that it became a work of art in itself. The Qur'an is remarkably innovative with respect to its method of presentation, which involves four different techniques. One common technique is that if beginning a story with a short summery, followed by the details from beginning to end, as in sura 18 (al-Kahf). The second technique is that of beginning a story by presenting the conclusion first, then the lesson to be derived from it, and then the story from beginning to end, as in the story of Moses in sura 28 (al-Qasas). The third technique presents the story directly without introduction, as in that of Mary following the birth of Jesus in sura 19 (Maryam), and the story of King Solomon and the ants in sura 27 (al-Naml). The fourth, and perhaps most innovative, technique is that of presenting the story through dramatization. This technique gives only a brief introduction signalling the beginning of the scene, followed by a dramatization of the story with a dialogue among the various characters, as in the story of Abraham and Ismail in Surah 2.
The story of Joseph narrated towards the ending of the article is one of the most beautiful and touching stories found in the Quran. In fact rarely has It left an eye unwept and part of it can be attributed to the unique narrative style in which Joseph’s whole narrative is related. It has a unified plot, and that the plot is organized on (the analogy of the rhetorical device of 'involution and evolution': the first half of the story creates a series of tensions which are resolved in reverse order in the second half (Mir 1986)
One of the elements indispensable to dramatized narrative is change of scenery, which the Qur'an utilizes fully. In the story of Joseph in sura 12, the reader is presented with a succession of scenes, each of which leads to the next, picking up the main thread of the narrative. Joseph's story comprises some twenty-eight scenes, each of which leads to the next in a manner which maintains the organic unity of the entire narrative. All such scenes are presented through dialogues replete with details and ideas. The result of such a well-knit passage is that the reader finds himself drawn to the narrative, moving anxiously from one scene to another. This effect is achieved through a coherent series of events which sustain his curiosity and interest. In one scene, for example, we find one of Joseph's brothers entering the king's court in Egypt where Joseph is the keeper of the store-house. In this scene, Joseph stipulates to his brothers that they should bring their younger brother to the king's court in order to receive provisions. The next scene presents the brothers deliberating among themselves, which is followed by a scene in which they have returned to face their father, Jacob. The following scene takes the brothers back to Egypt to confront Joseph. The presentation of the narrative in dramatic form involving a succession of scenes brings home effortlessly the main theme and the lessons to be derived from the whole narrative. The use of dialogue makes the scenes more vivid and closer to life. This is an art in which the Qur'an excels, and an art in which it is remarkably innovative. It is clearly a form of literary composition which the Qur'an, the first book in Arabic, introduced to the language.
The very aspect of self-referencing in the Quran further stresses its unique literary style; the Quran was very well aware of its literary style. The Qur'ān claims to be inimitable and challenges its opponents to produce a work like it (e.g. 2:23; 11:13; 17:88; 52:33-34). The inimitability later came to be constructed essentially in literary terms, and the theologians made belief in the matchlessness of the Qur'ān part of a Muslim's faith. In its historical exposition, the doctrine of inimitability made the literary study of the Qur'ān a handmaiden to the theological aspect of the scripture. But the doctrine overlooks a crucial fact. The Qur'ānic challenge was addressed not to the believers but to the unbelievers, and was not simply denunciation of the unbelievers, but constituted an invitation to them to carefully examine the Qur'ān and see if it could have been, as they claimed it was, the product of the mind of a man possessed. Irrespective of what conclusion one reaches on the question of the Qur'ān's origins, one must agree that the underlying assumption of the challenge was that the merit and beauty of the Qur'ān could be appreciated even by those outside the fold of the faith. And if that is the case, then it would be possible to dissociate the literary study of the Qur'ān from the theological study of it.
The pagans of Mecca were bent upon proving Muhammad(SAW) as a liar. They were thirsty for his blood and who else could have wanted more to silence that man for the control of whom they were spending huge amounts of money and fought several battles. Had the Quran been the product of a human mind, they could have easily accepted the Quranic challenge to produce the likes of it but they knew in their hearts of hearts that it is a Divine scripture and the “Quran’s challenge” left them speechless. Last but not the least, one of the most fascinating aspects is the language of the Quran: You can never feel the actual literature because the words you are reading is not the word of God, its just a translation. To Feel that you have to know Arabic and its literature. For those who can read the Qur'ān in Arabic, the all-pervading rhythm which, in conjunction with the sustained use of what may be called rhymed prose, creates in many Surahs a spellbinding effect that is impossible to reproduce. There is the characteristic terseness of the Qur'ānic language which makes for some complex constructions, but which is difficult to convey in English without being awkward. The existing translations of the Qur'ān impose a further limitation, for they fall so far short of the highly nuanced original that a detailed study of the Qur'ānic language and style on their basis is well-nigh impossible (Mir 2000).

Works Cited
McAuliffe, Jane Dame. Encyclopaedia of the Quran. Brill, 2002-2004.
Boullata, Issa. Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Quran. Curzon Studies Int He Qur'an Series, 2000.
Qutb, Sayyed. “In the Shade of the Quran” v. 14 Islamic Foundation.
Mir, Mustansir. The Qur'ānic Story Of Joseph: Plot, Themes, And Characters, The Muslim World, 76 (1986) 1:15.
Mir, Mustansir. Islamic Awareness: The Quran as Literature, Renaissance, 2000.


  1. Sister Arjamand


    You and Dr Faizan have made a huge impact in my life and I seriously don’t know how to repay you guys. This article above was one of the turning points in my life , Faizan told me that you worked intensively for the completion and I really appreciate it. I pray for your health and blessings from Allah SWT.
    This is just a side note – back in the 1990’s I was a prominent Christian figure in Houston and use to “own” of the biggest church here. Now I just wish that somehow I could turn back time and use it for the benefit of Islam during my youth years. I get watery eyes when I remember my past and the kind of sinful life I was spending that had no meaning of ”good” as the bible preaches. But I guess I was never satisfied with my soul and I wanted to seek the truth and thankfully Allah SWT guided me to Islam. I clearly remember It was late October of 2006 that I found this gem of a guy Faizan, he helped me distinguish between what is righteous and what’s not. I don’t want to go forever since im on a tableeq mission here in Toronto Canada been giving a lot of speeches in universities and colleges now ive to catch up on some sleep. Please stay in contact and if I could be of assistance please do let me know.

    Khalil Tores

  2. Walikum Asalam,

    JazakAllah Khair.
    May Allah bless your soul, Ameen.

    I am just writing to let readers know that the brother who commented just above has passed away in an accident that took place yesterday. I am happy that Allah saved brother recently and he reverted to Islam. At the moment I am speechless for any reaction because I have mixed thoughts

    1) I am happy he left the world after accepting Islam few months back.
    2) I lost one innocent brother of mine in Ummah for whom I have very good feelings out of his pure decision to accept Islam.

    May Allah bless the brother, Ameen.

  3. Thanks alot for this article Arjumand it was a life changer for me and my husband Micheal. Allah has blessed us with a sister like you. May He bless you with all the happiness in the world and here after. Sadly , Micheal's reply to your blog post was probably his last but I'm glad he conveyed the message. May his soul rest in peace Ameen!
    Thanks alot again.

    Michelle R
    Houston Texas

  4. Thanks for your comments Mich . Arjumand you're a true blessing from Allah SWT. I don't have any vocabulary left to add further, what you've done for this family is mind boggling and i pray to Allah to bless you with everything you ever desired.

    Jazakallah for everything!

    Faizan Rizvi

    Intern- Memorial Herman Hospital
    Internal Medicine
    Houston ,Texas

  5. Dear sister Arjumand!

    May Allah's blessings be upon you. I am a student, admirer and follower of Quran. I am a linguist by qualification. I always wished to write about the narrative mode of the Quran. Story, dialogues, commandments, turn taking, expilicit and iimplicit speech modes.
    I never found an extensive study, so I de ided to learn Arabic and decided to put my modest effort in this regard. I have to go a long way. You wrote this article six years ago, but have equally motivated me to be steadfast for my purpose. Jazakkhairun khairun for this.
    May Allah make you the nafs-e-mutmain. AMEN