THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – Part IV

In language and communication, Literature|Religion, Quran, The Method on January 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm


Continued with Parts I, II, & III.

Unlike the previous posts in this thread, this one actually considers the topic in light of the Qur’an.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ why

How is it possible to comprehend a world which goes beyond human cognitive abilities and which can not be grasped by means of any kind of cognition available? The answer is: thanks to metaphor.

__ Sławomir Sztajer↓1

In dealing with expressions related to the divine, the subject of study becomes not a matter of one “thing” being “symbolized” as another in the manner of a literary figure. Rather, what is at stake is the way in which “things” are “captured” in language in a form which is necessarily symbolic due to the use of language itself. It is here that Paul Ricoeur’s maxim “metaphor gives rise to thought” has its meaning: in expressing something in language, thinking about that “thing” becomes possible.

__ Andrew Rippin↓2

… it is not enough for man to be told, “If you behave righteously in this world, you will attain to happiness in the life to come”, or alternatively, “If you do wrong in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter”. Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man’s imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of “visualization” of the consequences of one’s conscious acts and omissions and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.

__Muhammad Asad↓3


The above quotes fully echo our esablished understanding of the metaphor with reference to religious discourse. In addition, they point us to reasons as to why we must not be surprised at finding the Qur’an filled with meaphor. In Qur’anic terms, these reasons are presented in the section below.


Metaphor in Qur’anic terms 


هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

HE has sent down this Book which contains some verses that are of established meaning and basic to the Book, and others allegorical. But those who are twisted of mind look for verses metaphorical, seeking deviation and giving to them interpretations of their own; but none knows their meaning except God; and those who are steeped in knowledge affirm: “We believe in them as all of them are from the Lord.” But only those who have wisdom understand. [Al-i-Imran 7]


 The key word here is mutashabih. According to the online Project Root List, its root shim-ba-ha means:

to be like, to resemble/assimilate/liken/imitate, to compare one thing with another due to an attribute connecting them or is common to them…, appear like another thing, ambiguous/dubious/obscure, comparison/similitude/parable/similie… With reference to the Quran is that of which the meaning is not to be learned from its words and this is of two sorts: one is that of which the meaning is known by referrinhgg to what is termed “muhkam“, and the other is that of which the knowledge of its real meaning is not attainable in any way or it means what is not understood without repeated consideration.*

 *this description raises technical issues of differentiating metaphor with its related devices which are dealt with later. 

 Thus while the guidelines for living and statements of belief are clearly stated, other explications about matters not directly available to the human senses are inevitably described in metaphor.

Apart from necessity, simplification and a persuasive and educative presentation are also a major reasons for use of metaphor in the Qur’an. As Alla Ta’ala reminds us, Qur’an is a book that addresses issues related to us, the humans –

 لَقَدْ أَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكُمْ كِتَابًا فِيهِ ذِكْرُكُمْ ۖ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ

WE have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Then will you not reason? [Al-Anbiya 10]


 – our natures, our creation, our destiny, our guidance. Metaphor, hence becomes a natural mode of communication, since it gives a text a humanly shape more closer to the hearts and thoughts of us mortal beings (see Part III for reference). Moreover, when reinforced with metaphor, the language  “mediates certain human experiences, ideas and ideals which would otherwise be inexpressible.”↓4.


ۚ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

AND Allah speaketh to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things. [An-Nur 35]


Allah ta’ala knows everything there is to know in all its complexity, intricacy and detail because He is the Creator of it all. For humans, given their limitations, some of it is presented in forms of examples: metaphorical snapshots of Reality in comprehensible terms…


 وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

 GOD sets forth parables for people so they may take reminder. [in Surah Ibrahim 25]


… examples so beautiful, and forceful that those with the readiness to learn cannot but stop, and be immersed in reflection… 

… terms which return the tide of their and the surge of their feelings to the Source from which they and their world arose…

…except for those who are not willisng to know..

 وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ ۖ وَمَا يَعْقِلُهَا إِلَّا الْعَالِمُونَ

AND those similitudes — We strike them for the people, but none understands them save those who know. [Al-Ankabut 43]

As Stallman puts it in his thesis: “This relational function of metaphor is typically not felt or highly valued by readers who seek to be purely objective.”↓5, i.e. to those who like to restrict themselves to the observable and immediate. 


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ how

As in the above ayahs, Qur’an directly refers to its use of metaphor. The word most commonly used for this purpose is ‘mathal’. While derivattives of the root letters mim tha lam are used for various meanings, its relevant derivatives are mithlun, mathalun, and mithaalun. According to the PRL’s reference to Lane’s Lexiconmithlun means something that is alike, similar, analougous; a resemblance, semblance, a requital, an equivalent; mathalun means condition, state, a case, a description by way of comparison; and, mithaalun means a model, quality, mode, pattern, example. That these variations are cognitively related should be clear enough considering the nature of metaphor as established in Part I of this thread. To reinforce the point, here is the relevant entry from the an encyclopedia of the Qur’an:


Mathala is a root verb that means to resemble, imitate, compare anyone with or to someone else or to bear a likeness. Mithl means likeness, like, similar or resemblance. Mathal is a noun meaning parable, likeness, similitude, like, reason or proverb.


Relevant search on tanzil.net will reveal that in the Qur’an the word mithlun tends to be employed when likening or equating something as something else as part of the general discourse; wherease the word mathalun is utilized to refer to more formally stated  ‘examples’, parables, similitdues, and case descriptions. Using a simultaneous survey of both tanzil.net and M. Asad’s The Message(see note 3 below), I was able to come across various examples of the use of these words in relevant meanings.   

In the sense 0f ‘equal’:

يُوصِيكُمُ اللَّـهُ فِي أَوْلَادِكُمْ ۖ لِلذَّكَرِ مِثْلُ حَظِّ الْأُنثَيَيْنِ

 ALLAH enjoins you concerning your children: The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; [in An-Nisa 11]


In the sense of similarity:

فَلَا تَقْعُدُوا مَعَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ ۚ إِنَّكُمْ إِذًا مِّثْلُهُمْ

 … SO do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation. Indeed, you would then be like them. [in An-Nisa 140]


In the sense of ‘example’:

وَيَسْتَعْجِلُونَكَ بِالسَّيِّئَةِ قَبْلَ الْحَسَنَةِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِمُ الْمَثُلَاتُ

 THEY bid you to hasten the evil before the good, yet examples have passed away before them. [in Ar-Ra’d 6]


In the sense of case description:

مَّثَلُ الْجَنَّةِ الَّتِي وُعِدَ الْمُتَّقُونَ ۖ فِيهَا

HERE is a description of the Garden promised to the righteous: therein… [in Surah Mohammed 15]

In the sense of ‘attribute’:

لِلَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْآخِرَةِ مَثَلُ السَّوْءِ ۖ وَلِلَّـهِ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَىٰ ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ 

FOR those who do not believe in the Hereafter is the description of evil; and for Allah is the highest attribute. And He is Exalted in Might, the Wise. [An-Nahl 60]

 In the sense of ‘point of argumentation’:

وَلَا يَأْتُونَكَ بِمَثَلٍ إِلَّا جِئْنَاكَ بِالْحَقِّ وَأَحْسَنَ تَفْسِيرًا

THEY bring not to thee any similitude (as argument) but that We bring thee the truth, and better in exposition. [Al-Furqan 33]

In the sense of ‘sign’:


إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي أَن يَضْرِبَ مَثَلًا مَّا بَعُوضَةً فَمَا فَوْقَهَا ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَيَقُولُونَ مَاذَا أَرَادَ اللَّـهُ بِهَـٰذَا مَثَلًا ۘ يُضِلُّ بِهِ كَثِيرًا وَيَهْدِي بِهِ كَثِيرًا ۚ وَمَا يُضِلُّ بِهِ إِلَّا الْفَاسِقِينَ

 WELL, Allah is not ashamed to cite the similitude of a gnat or of something even more insignificant than this. And those who have believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, they say, “What did Allah intend by this as an example?” He causes many to err by it and many He leads aright by it! but He does not cause to err by it (any) except the transgressors. [Al-Baqarah 26]


I have deliberately ignored the senses of similitude and parable over here as plentiful examples will be found in the relevant portion of the upcoming anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. 


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ the forms:

The above enumeration supplies us with two forms that metaphor takes in the Qur’an, but actually it comes employed with plenty of devices. According to the encyclopedic entry already referred to above, the two major kinds of forms are: apparent and hidden. I begin with the two already encountered and apparent forms of metaphor in the Qur’an.

 The first apparent form is the use of the word mithl as described and examplified above and seems to have less of a literary quality. The second apparent form is the explicit declaration of a similitude using the word mathal and might be a similie, a parable, or a case description. This form typically includes the conjunction ka in its syntaxt, literal for ‘like’. To refresh the readers, similie is a simple explicitly stated comparison while a parable is an extended story-like similitude containing a series of metaphorical relationships. Thus the first, third and fourth of the Qur’anic metaphor examples from Part I are parables. All three of them have the obligatory ka in them. Example of a likeness made explicit with mathal and ka but not extended into a parable is:

إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَىٰ عِندَ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَ

INDEED, the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam.. [in Al-i-Imran 59


مَثَلُ الْفَرِيقَيْنِ كَالْأَعْمَىٰ وَالْأَصَمِّ وَالْبَصِيرِ وَالسَّمِيعِ

THESE two groups are like the blind and the deaf as compared with those who can see and hear. [in Surah Hud 24]


Another apparent form involves the use of ka (as plain ka or as ka-anna كَأَنَّ or ka-ma كَمَا) without an accompanying mathal. These too are either part of general discourse likening or equating one thing with another without necessarily a literary significance; or, they are the prototypical syntatical construction a::b of a plain similie. An example of the latter follows:

ثُمَّ قَسَتْ قُلُوبُكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ فَهِيَ كَالْحِجَارَةِ أَوْ أَشَدُّ قَسْوَةً

THEREAFTER, your hearts turned as hard as rocks or even harder [in Al-Baqarah 74]


A metaphor is in hidden form whereby the ‘likeness’ is not explicitly acknowledged by using ka, mathal, or mithl. Rather the target is simply said to be the source, or the source totally replaces the target with the latter usually inferable with reference to context. The source might be a word, an expression, or a narrative structure. In addition to the simple metaphor, it may appear as one of several devices such as metonymy, irony/humor, anthropomorphism, personification, parable, allegory, or symbolism.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ the range:

In Qur’an, just like in general language, metaphors span the whole range of areas we have seen them parading in the previous posts. There are metaphors of the conceptual-structural and -ontological type. There are metaphorical extensions of root letter meanings, proverbial and idiomatic proclamations are clothed in metaphor. Attributes are often metaphorically stated. Many key concepts of the Quran are described through systems of related metaphors. I’m striving to represent this diversity in the upcoming anthology of metaphors.


وَلَقَدْ صَرَّفْنَا لِلنَّاسِ فِي هَـٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ

AND We have certainly diversified for the people in this Qur’an from every [kind] of example,  [Al-Asra 89]

Topically too, metaphor covers a variety of topics in the Qur’an ranging from common idiomatic expressions, to depictions of psychological states, key living guidelines to descriptions of things of both this and that other world. Regarding descriptions of the afterlife, Qur’an directly teaches us that the described items have only a semblance to corresponding objects in this world:

كُلَّمَا رُزِقُوا مِنْهَا مِن ثَمَرَةٍ رِّزْقًا ۙ قَالُوا هَـٰذَا الَّذِي رُزِقْنَا مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَأُتُوا بِهِ مُتَشَابِهًا 

WHEN they are provided with a fruit of the Gardens, they will say, “This is the same food as what was given to us before” whereas it is only in resemblance; [in Al-Baqarah 25]

In Mohd. Asad’s words “we are here reminded that the Qur’anic descriptions of what awaits man after resurrection are, of necessity, metaphorical, since the human mind cannot conceive of anything that is – both in its elements and its totality – entirely different from anything that can be experienced in this world”↓6.  This point does give rise to questions of interpretation which are briefly dealt with below.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ interpretation:

Since the exact intention of the second kind of verses, i.e., the Mutashabihat, remains ambiguous and uncertain, therefore the correct method of their interpretation would be to harmonize them with the first kind, i.e., the Muhkamat. Then, the rule is that any interpretation of the Mutashabihat which goes against the first kind should be rejected absolutely and only the interpretation should be given credence which is not against the verses of established meaning.

__ Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi↓7

The language of the Qur’an must not be parsed, analyzed, and discussed as if it were a treatise of logic. A proper understanding of that language requires that it be seen as belonging to the living context which gave rise to it;

__ Mustansir Mir↓8

A significant aspect of these metaphors is that many of them encapsulate meaning which is gradually being unravelled with the increase in man’s knowledge.

__ Fauzia Tanveer Sheikh↓9


Several points on the relationship between metaphor and intrerpretation of the Qur’an may be made:

1. Incidence of metaphor in Qur’an does not lead to Qur’an being uninterpretable.

2. As a rule, all the ayahs of Qur’an, whether metaphor is involved or not, are interpreted with reference to: i) the historical context in which they arrived (when, where and why); ii) the broader context of Prophet Mohammed’s (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) life and sayings; iii) the general contexts of the then Arabic language usage, customs and history; and iv) the immediate context of the surrounfing Qur’anic ayahs and others topically related.

3. The special case of mutashabihat (including metaphor) is additionally dealt with the way so clearly described in Mariful Qur’an (quoted above).

4. The case of metaphysical descriptions is dealt with at face value: Allah ta’ala repeatedly describes the system of judgment and concequence; if the details of what is in store for us are necessarily or technically metaphorical does not make them less real just as the impossibility of our ever sensorily experiencing atoms and particles therein makes them any less real.

5. As for the topic of the nature of God the Almighty, Qur’an is clear on that point too:

لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ 

THERE is nothing like a likeness of Him; [in Ash-Shura 11]

Thus given “the impossibility of defining God even by means of a metaphor or a parable”↓[M. Asad, note 50 under 24:35]  the wise ones don’t even attempt to roam in that quarter.

6. Many ayahs of Qur’an metaphorically describing phenomenon of the universe (some, even those of the other world) are becoming more and more understandable with scientific accumulation of knowledge.

7. Qur’an’s reliance on metaphor does not question its veracity/authenticity. Treating metaphor as a reference to ‘fantasy’ was an attitude of old-times thrown clearly overboard by later and continuing researches in linguistics, cognitive sciences, neurology and related philosophies. See Part II of this thread for reference.



With the help of related literature and a surah by surah survey of the Qur’an, I’m attempting to compile an anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. I wish to present the range and diversity of metaphors in the Qur’an by organizing examples through various classifications. The anthology will, of necessity, also be presented as a thread of sectioned posts, InshaAllah.   



1. 2006. How is religious discourse possible? The constitutive role of metaphor in religious discourse. in Lingua ac Communittas, vol. 6, p. 51. Found online at http://www.lingua.amu.edu.pl/Lingua_16/SZTAJER.pdf

2. 2006. God. in The Blackwell companion to the Qur’an,  ed. by Andrew Rippin, Blackwell Publishing, p.224. Found online at http://sufibooks.info/Islam/Blackwell_Companion-to-the-Quran_Andrew-Rippin.pdf

3. 1980. Appendix I. in The Message of the Qur’an: translated and explained by Muhammad Asad. Found at http://arthursclassicnovels.com/koran/koran-asad10.html 

4. Andrew Rippin (2000),  The Qur’anic Symbolism of personal responsibility, in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning, ed. by Issa J. Boullata, Routledge, p. 117

5. Bob Stallman (1999), Divine hospitality in the Pentateuch: A metaphorical perspective on God as host. PhD Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, p. 43. Found at http://eagle.northwestu.edu/faculty/bob-stallman/files/2011/03/2.pdf

6. in The Message as in note 3, Commentatory note #65 under 13:35

7. in Ma’ariful Qur’an, translated into English by Prof M. Hasan Askari and Prof M. Shamim, found at http://www.islamibayanaat.com/MQ/English-MaarifulQuran-MuftiShafiUsmaniRA-Vol-2-IntroAndPage-0-60.pdf)

8. (2000). Language, in The Blackwell companion to the Qur’an,  ed. by Andrew Rippin, Blackwell Publishing, p. 106. Found online at http://sufibooks.info/Islam/Blackwell_Companion-to-the-Quran_Andrew-Rippin.pdf

9. (1992). Nature imagery in Al-Qur’an. PhD Dissertation, Faculty of Advanced Integrated Stusies and Research, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad; p. 118

  1. […] THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – Part IV […]

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