THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – I

In Admiring Literature, language and communication, Literature|Religion, The Method on September 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm

18 Shawwal, 1432:

Welcome back to the Qur’an Cycle!

The ayah I’m inspired with today is one of the many of Qur’an which use metaphor as a device for presenting a concept. Although familiar for students of language and literature, ‘metaphor’ is a now well-developed topic in both psychology and philosophy and it is taking me a long time (I started work on this topic way back during Ramadaan) to amass, collate and selectively integrate and present the multitude of illuminating information on this ‘new’ topic __ new not just for me, I’m sure, but for the majority of my readers as well.

Here is the subject ayah:

أَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَسَالَتْ أَوْدِيَةٌ بِقَدَرِهَا فَاحْتَمَلَ السَّيْلُ زَبَدًا رَّابِيًا ۚ وَمِمَّا يُوقِدُونَ عَلَيْهِ فِي النَّارِ ابْتِغَاءَ حِلْيَةٍ أَوْ مَتَاعٍ زَبَدٌ مِّثْلُهُ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ يَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْحَقَّ وَالْبَاطِلَ ۚ فَأَمَّا الزَّبَدُ فَيَذْهَبُ جُفَاءً ۖ وَأَمَّا مَا يَنفَعُ النَّاسَ فَيَمْكُثُ فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ يَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ

HE sends down out of heaven water, and the wadis flow each in its measure, and the torrent carries a swelling scum; and out of that over which they kindle fire, being desirous of ornament or ware, out of that rises a scum the like of it. So God strikes both the true and the false. As for the scum, it vanishes as jetsam, and what profits men abides in the earth. Even so God strikes His similitudes. (Ar-Ra’d, 17)  


What’s in a metaphor? ↓1

According to Janet Martin Soscike’s working definition (1985) “metaphor is that figure of speech whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.”↓2

In common descriptions, a metaphor is seen as having two components: vehicle and tenor. In the above example from Quran, زَبَدًا رَّابِيًا  is the vehicle being the main figure of speech utilized. The tenor, as clarified in the ayah itself, and confirmed by common tafaseer such Ma’ariful Quran, is Falsehood (actually, false beliefs).

In linguistics, the terms vehicle and tenor are replaced by ‘source’ and ‘target’, respectively. 

The commonality between the target (or tenor) and source (or vehicle) may be referred to as a ‘ground’.


[Click the picture to view large version at original source.]


Types of metaphors↓3

Metaphors are widespread. Some are so common that we don’t even notice the figure of speech or visualize anything pictorial __ our focus goes directly onto the target rather than the source. Such metaphors may be labelled as dead metaphors.↓4 An example is the use of the word ‘fall’ in the expression ‘falling in love’.  Sometimes, a part of an image/figure is used as a metaphor (submerged metaphor). For instance in the Quranic ayah numbered 64, Sura Al-Maida, hand, a part of body, is used to refer to the generosity of God. Sometimes the part itself is used as a source to refer to a whole target (synechdochic metaphor) for instance meaning ‘car’ when saying ‘I like your wheels’.  

An extended metaphor is like a series of related or hierarchical metaphors such as “the world is a stage metaphor” in Shakespeare where men and women are also mentioned as ‘actors’. In a compound metaphor, the figure of speech is further qualified through adjectives or adverbs (for example ‘the car screeched in hated anguish‘). When the subject is clearly understandable from the context or from familiarity, the metaphor may be merely implied rather than stated explicitly. For example saying ‘we are burning today’ on a very hot today will be  well-understood.

Not in all cases is the similarity between the target and the source very obvious such as in the example of ‘rose and love’. Or in the Qur’anic subject ayah of the post. Such an absolute metaphor↓5 makes people think hard about it’s meaning, has the potential to become a permanent ‘image’ in people’s mind associated with distinct, broad and significant phenomenon of life (such as the use of ‘light’ for ‘truth’). The powerful image may be the only source of expressing the complex of ideas. Finally, an original metaphor represents an important message from the author that should be understood in terms of the author’s situation.↓6 Although the use of metaphor as a linguistic device is certainly widespread in the Qur’an, our Book is rich in both original and absolute metaphors.




Metaphorical devices

The essence of the concept of metaphor is that it is a pictorial way of expressing a quality of an unstated and intangible entity by stating (or by implying) it’s similarity/equality with a visualizable object. As such parable, similitudes, allegory, synecdoche, catachresis, metonymy are all special cases of metaphors↓7.

A parable uses metaphorical language in a short story form to present a clear, unambiguous, and usually moral, lesson. An allegory is a more general narrative type using any form of literary or artistic presentations and relying on figurative, symbolic representation (hence metaphorical) to present usually several lesson points. It’s interpretations may be unambiguous or less so.

A similie presents the comparison/likeness between two distinct entitites more explicitly by juxtaposing them, commonly through the use of words such ‘like’ or ‘as’, though other ways of presenting the comparison are also possible. Some metaphors rely on metonymy in which a thing is not called by it’s own name rather than by something intimately associated with it. When the associated thing is a specific part of the former, whole thing, this is a special case of metonymy called as synecdoche.

Finally, catachresis is an intended or unintended misapplication of a word to a situation where it does not logically belong; it’s the contrast that sets the scene for a vivid and highly pictorial metaphorical presentation. An example would be ‘to fly down the stairs’. Such a metaphor is then called a mixed metaphor.

This post might turn into a dry textbook type if I don’t rescue it with some Quranic examples. I’ll try to analyze the examples in light of the typologies considered. May Allah Ta’ala guide me.


Some Qur’anic metaphors


وَمَثَلُهُمْ فِي الْإِنجِيلِ كَزَرْعٍ أَخْرَجَ شَطْأَهُ فَآزَرَهُ فَاسْتَغْلَظَ فَاسْتَوَىٰ عَلَىٰ سُوقِهِ يُعْجِبُ الزُّرَّاعَ لِيَغِيظَ بِهِمُ الْكُفَّارَ

… THEIR likeness in the Gospel, is like a seed that sends out a stalk, then makes it firm, and it becomes strong and rises straight upon its stem, gladdening the cultivator’s heart, in order to fill the unbelievers with dismay. (in Al-Fat’h, 29)

1. One of the beautiful metaphors in Quran, this ayah is about the companions of the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wasallam) on how their example was described in the original Gospel of Hazrat Isa’s (Jesus). The metaphor begins with the conjunction ك (with fat’ha on it) meaning ‘like’; thus it is in the category of a similie. The main source is ‘seed’ developed further in the ayah thus becoming an ‘extended metaphor’. At a pure literary level, we might interpret every single element of the extended metaphor, attributing a target to each feature of the process of the seed’s growing up (such as it’s standing straight, it’s gaining strength, finally it’s becoming a strong trunk, etc.). According to Mariful Qur’an, however, it seems, that the interpreted meaning of the overall metaphor is the growth in numbers of the believers and followers when Prophet Mohammad (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) started preaching his religion. As such the metaphor might be viewed as a compound one, in which details are added to amplify the main source.


 يُكْشَفُ عَن سَاقٍ

ON THE day when the Shin shall be exposed. (in Al-Qalam, 42)

2. Apparently, this metaphor looks like a synecdoche, but that is not the case. In context, the ayah refers to the Day of Judgement when people will be called upon to bow down on the day of this Exposure, but those who never bothered to bow down in the world will be revealed here by being unable to do so again over here. According to Tafseer Ibne-Katheer, the pertinent ahadith in both Bukhari and Muslim reiterate the metaphorical concept of Shin exposure without elaborating it more explicitly. However, both the context of the ayah and according to a hadith with weaker sources, the Shin refers to the Exposure of our Lord the Al-mighty’s Light. Or it could be some other Attribute of His, according to Mariful Qur’an.

Also, according to an interpretation by Hazrat Ibne Abbas (razi Allahu unh), the meaning refers to the bone-renching terror of that hard day (this interpretation is shared in both the linked sources). This last meaning is also supported by reference to Arabic idiom, since shins are bared by lifting up of one’s garment when one is running away on a day of intense calamity↓8. By similar token, the Attribute or Light interpretation also gains support since women were supposed to cover till their shins, and in both situations (assuming former to be the target, and the latter to be the source) have the commonality of laying bare something meant to be otherwise concealed. Overall, this review informs us that this is certainly an original metaphor, the true meaning of which is only with the Author of the words, Himself.  


مَّثَلُ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ حَبَّةٍ أَنبَتَتْ سَبْعَ سَنَابِلَ فِي كُلِّ سُنبُلَةٍ مِّائَةُ حَبَّةٍ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ يُضَاعِفُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

THE example of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is similar to that of a grain which has sprouted seven stalks and in each stalk are a hundred grains; and Allah may increase it still more than this, for whomever He wills; and Allah is Most Capable, All Knowing. (in Al-Baqara, 261)
3.  This is another extended and compound metaphor in which the metaphorical relationship is established explicitly hence it is technically a similie. Although the target referred to is the people who do the spending, the target is their wealth spent in the way of Allah, which when spent is like a seed sown and will bring as much reward from God’s bounty as a single seed sprouting into a bushelful of grain.


فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا 

… HIS example is like that of a [large] smooth stone upon which is dust and is hit by a downpour that leaves it bare. (in Al-Baqara, 264)

4. In context, the above ayah is about the spending of those who do it merely for show; evidenced by the fact that their giving is usually followed by flaunting it in society or reminding of their ‘good deed’ to the taker, or it is followed by some kind of inferior treatment towards the taker. Again a similitude developed through compound elements, the main target is the true nature of their spending (likened to a hard, bare rock on which nothing of worth can grow). The spending itself was like some dust gathered on the flat stone; as soon as some wordly temptation came along (the rains), the true nature was revealed underneath.

لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَـٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ

… IT IS not the eyes that are blind, but it is the hearts in the bosoms, that are blind. (in Al-Hajj, 46)

5. There are two metaphors in here, both absolute. Heart is a well-known idiomatic reference to ‘sense’, ‘affect’, and ‘feeling’. Blindness is also a rather common representation of the state of senselessness, lack of insight, and affective insensitivity.


 In the next post, InshaAllah, I will follow with the theory of metaphor which will be the heart of this thread. I intend to return to the subject ayah and consider it’s interpretation in light of our understanding of how a metaphor works for us. Our Beautiful Qur’an is full of beautiful metaphors. I intend to streamline my current thread with an anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. The examples shared here were presented as an introduction.



1. For a very interesting introduction on metaphors in communication and language: http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/June2009/53-LA-Metaphor.htm

2. In Metaphor and Religious Language, Cross Reference: a study of metaphor. Ch 2

3. I’ve only considered here types which are pertinent to our context of ‘metaphor in Qur’an’.

4.Other than common sources this study of problems in metaphoric translation and it’s application to the Qur’an lists a lot of typologies.

5. Sources: Wikipedia, Changing Minds, & About.com.

6. According to Newmark (1988) in above.

7. Wikipedia is the source for all the definitions in this section.

8. Refer to the site Linguistic Miracle, devoted to a study of the linguistic beauty of the Qur’an.

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