Conventional metaphors have probably always existed. Many new words or sense-meanings have arisen when old words were metaphorically extended to new ideas/situations. Metaphors hidden in the roots (etymologies) of words are usually labelled as dead metaphors. Their metaphoric imagery is not as vivid, as alive as more regular or novel metaphors. However, understanding them might help understand the role they play in fresh metaphors.
Etymology of a word
The roots of language are irrational and of a
___ Jorge Luis Borges↓1
Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. By an extension, the term “etymology (of a word)” means the origin of a particular word.
To trace this history etymologists look into previous texts to glean former meanings and usages. They also examine word roots to trace the origins. Word root is the most basic part of the word necessary for the word’s meaning. Many more words are derived by adding suffixes or prefixes to the root word.
Metaphoric applications of Qur’anic roots
In the Arabic language, the root of a word typically consists of three, four, or five letters↓2. There may not only be suffixes or prefixes to make words from the root, there are often ‘infixes’, i.e. letter(s) inserted between the root words. For instance, consider the following two ayahs:
وَالَّذِينَ هُم مِّنْ عَذَابِ رَبِّهِم مُّشْفِقُونَ
And those who are fearful of the punishment of their Lord; [Al-Ma’arij 27]
فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالشَّفَقِ
So I swear by the twilight glow; [Al-Inshiqaq 16]
The highlighted words both share the same root – Sha-Fa-Qa, but very different meanings. The most literal meaning of the root-letters (the one associated with the basic derivation from root words), according to Lane Lexicon are: “being niggardly of provision” and “being fearful and cautious on account of it”. By metaphoric association, the word, especially in its form in the first ayah, has come to mean: being ‘apprehensively fearful’, ‘tender’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘cautious’.
The form used in the second example above is a noun. It refers to “the redness in the horizon from sunset until the time of nightfall”. While the extension of meaning as in the above example is obvious, the one in this later example is not so obvious. It is understandably probable that the same metaphoric process of meaning-extension worked in this case, as well.
Below, I attempt to gather several Qur’anic examples where comparison of a word’s usage with the basic root meaning reveals the application of a metaphor.
وَإِذْ فَرَقْنَا بِكُمُ الْبَحْرَ
AND we parted the sea for you. [Al-Baqarah 50]
Over here the root-letters appear in their most basic form: past tense (plural subjective). Their meaning is literal: to divide or separate something physical into two (or more) portions.
وَقُرْآنًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلَىٰ مُكْثٍ
AND [it is] a Qur’an which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. [in Al-Isra 106]
The ayah above carries the same word with the same meaning but in a less literal sense. The division mentioned here is not in a physical sense but in the sense of time.
فِيهَا يُفْرَقُ كُلُّ أَمْرٍ حَكِيمٍ
Above is the present tense (singular subjective) version of the same basic form utilised in even less literal sense. Speaking of the one blessed night in which God determines every matter of the world that is to take place till the next occurence of the night↓3. When each matter has been ordained, it is as if everything has been ‘clearly seperated’ from every other thing. The metaphorical extension of meaning is clear. Examples of other extensions follow:
وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا
AND hold fast to the Bond of Allah, together, and do not scatter. [in Al-i-Imran 103]
The Qur’anic version of “united we stand; divided we fall”. The word used in a prohibitive version of a derived form signifies both physical, mental and psychosocial lack of unison that results when small disagreements in a group/nation carry more weiht than the major unifying principles.
تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ الْفُرْقَانَ عَلَىٰ عَبْدِهِ لِيَكُونَ لِلْعَالَمِينَ نَذِيرًا
BLESSED is He who has sent down the Criterion to His worshiper (Prophet Muhammad), that he is a warner to all mankind; [Al-Furqan 1]
Finally, the most metaphorical application of the root is this noun-form that is used for things carrying a superlative degree of a property. Al-Qur’an is called as The One that divides the wrong from right; that makes everything clear and distinguishable from one another↓4.
فَلَمَّا تَرَاءَى الْجَمْعَانِ قَالَ أَصْحَابُ مُوسَىٰ إِنَّا لَمُدْرَكُونَ
This ayah illustrates this root’s most literal meaning: ‘to be physically overtaken’. The word here is in the noun (plural) form of a derivative version of the root↓. The ayah is from the story when Moses’ companions were afraid they will be caught by Pharoah’s troops when they were stopped by the sea while fleeing from Egypt. In fact, the most literal sense of the root’s simplest derivative is, according to Lanes’s Lexicon, “the dropping of rain with close consecutiveness as though one portion thereof overtook another.” Thus it seems, that the basic meaning from above ayah might itself be a metaphorical extension of rain droplets closely following each other. An even lesser literal application is as follows:
حَتَّىٰ إِذَا ادَّارَكُوا فِيهَا جَمِيعًا قَالَتْ أُخْرَاهُمْ لِأُولَاهُمْ رَبَّنَا هَٰؤُلَاءِ أَضَلُّونَا
WHEN they are all gathered there, the last of them will say of the first, “Our Lord, it was they who led us astray:…” [in Al-A’raf 38]
Speaking of groups of the punished on the Judgment Day entering hell-fire, the application of da-ra-kaf is in the sense that they all followed each other into hell, as if one party overtook another into the hell-fire.
إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ فِي الدَّرْكِ الْأَسْفَلِ مِنَ النَّارِ وَلَنْ تَجِدَ لَهُمْ نَصِيرًا
THE Hypocrites will be in the lowest reach (depth) of the Fire: [An-Nisa 145]
Here it seems that the sense of ‘overtaking’ is extended into that of ‘reaching over’ and the word used in the sense of ‘bottom’.
بَلِ ادَّارَكَ عِلْمُهُمْ فِي الْآخِرَةِ بَلْ هُمْ فِي شَكٍّ مِنْهَا بَلْ هُم مِّنْهَا عَمُونَ
Here ‘overtook’ has been metaphorically extended into ‘failure’. Other meanings according to other standard translations include ‘their knowledge’ being ‘lost’ (Maududi) and ‘arrested’ (Sahih International). A sportsman usually ‘fails’ when they are overtaken by another, hence the metaphor. Or, since the root is also extended into ‘reaching over’, the meaning is in the sense: ‘doth their knowledge reach to the hereafter?’ (Pickthall)↓5.
The word shajar is commonly known to Arabic-Urdu-Hindi speaking people as ‘tree’. Indeed that is the common usage in which it is utilised in the Quran as well (See the pertinent Quranic Arabic Corpus page for comparison). However, that is not its literal meaning. The true literal meaning is used in the Qur’an only once, in the following ayah.
فَلَا وَرَبِّكَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ حَتَّىٰ يُحَكِّمُوكَ فِيمَا شَجَرَ بَيْنَهُمْ
BUT nay, by thy Lord, they will not believe (in truth) until they make thee judge of what is in dispute between them; [in An-Nisa 65]
The literal meaning of shajara (here appearing in its most basic form: past tense singular subjective), according to Lane’s Lexicon, is “being or becoming intricate, complicated, perplexed, confused, or intricately intermixed.” When it is used with baina-hum (‘between them), as above, it is meant as: “an occasion of contention, or dispute, or of disagreement, or of difference…”. The Lexicon cites “intermixing, or confusion of the branches” as the reason for the word’s application to trees.
Consider the following pairs of ayahs:
كُلُوا وَارْعَوْا أَنْعَامَكُمْ
YOU eat and let your cattle graze’… [in Surah Ta-Ha 54]
أَخْرَجَ مِنْهَا مَاءَهَا وَمَرْعَاهَا
فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا
… THEN they did not observe it as it ought to have been observed; [in Al-Hadid 27]
وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِأَمَانَاتِهِمْ وَعَهْدِهِمْ رَاعُونَ
The first two ayahs represent the literal sense of the root-word: to pasture cattle. The first word is in imperative and the second is the derivative noun. The second pair represents the metaphorical extension: tending to, observing, keeping one’s charges.
These examples illustrate in detail how well-integrated metaphors are into language and it’s history and usage.
1. Prologue to “El otro, el mismo”. Taken from Introduction and Abbreviation, Online Etymological Dictionary, Retrieved Online at http://www.etymonline.com/abbr.php?allowed_in_frame=0
3. Popularly known as the Lailat-ul-Qadar; reference: Surah Al-Qadar.
4. According to Ma’ariful Qur’an (English pdf, Vol. 1, p. 213, under 2:53): “In the language of the Holy Qur’an, al-Furqan is a term signifying something that separates truth from falsehood or distinguishes the one from the other.” Retrieved from: http://www.maarifulquran.net/data/maarifulquran-english-pdf/pdf/Maarifulquran%20English%20PDF%20-%20Vol%201%20-%20Page%20185-234%20by%20Mufti%20Shafi%20Usmani%20Rah.pdf
5. For all translations refer to the Tanzil site linked above.