QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By form – I

In Anthologies, literature, Literature|Religion, Quran on July 23, 2012 at 10:23 pm

3rd Ramadaan, 1433:

A metaphor can come as a part of a simple sentence, or it can be used in various devices. In this section of the thread we consider examples of the various forms.

The simple metaphor

Consider these examples:

وَيَطُوفُ عَلَيْهِمْ وِلْدَانٌ مُّخَلَّدُونَ إِذَا رَأَيْتَهُمْ حَسِبْتَهُمْ لُؤْلُؤًا مَّنثُورًا

IMMORTAL youths will go about them; when you see them, you would suppose them to be scattered pearls. [Al-Insan, 19]

أَلَمْ نَجْعَلِ الْأَرْضَ مِهَادًا

وَالْجِبَالَ أَوْتَادًا

HAVE We not made the earth as a cradle;

and the mountains as pegs? [An-Naba 6-7]

وَمَا خَلَقْنَا السَّمَاءَ وَالْأَرْضَ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا لَاعِبِينَ 

WE created not the heaven and the earth, and whatsoever between them is, as playing; [Al-Abiya, 16]
A simple metaphor is a word/phrase in a statement that grammatically replaces its ‘target’. The first two examples illustrate that in affirmative and interrogative forms (i.e. simpe positive statements and question forms).
The first instance is Sura Insan’s reference to heavenly servant lads of the immortal life. In Heaven everything will be in its most beautiful form and so will be the servants. These servants are the ‘target’ here of the metaphor ‘scattered pearls’ which is, grammar-wise, the object of the verb ‘you will suppose them to be’. We know it is the target because Allah ta’ala directly refers so in the above ayahs. Let us explore the ‘ground’ between the target and the vehicle (i.e metaphorical word/phrase):
       Pearls are fair, sparkling, dazzlingly beautiful, eye-catching and graceful. Scattered pearls create a visual image of numerous pearls all about our area of vision. Scattered pearls may also be moving: rolling about hither to thither. Thus two words create a whole scene of a batch of handsome, beautiful, fair servants in their prime health and grace moving about hither and thither performing their duties from one place to another↓1.  In my humble opinion, this is also an apt example of the memorability of metaphor (see Illuminating Metaphors Part III).

The second instance includes two simple metaphors put inside a question. The vehicles are objects of the word ‘make’, only put down in a query. This type of question is actually rhetorical, as it is meant as a persuasive argument, rather a real query. The metaphors are as follows:

earth ≈ cradle/spread

mountains ≈ pegs

The arabic word for the first metaphor,  مِهَادًا, means something that is spread or made even/smoothed out↓2. Thus the translation of both ‘expanse’ and ‘cradle’ is correct as well as is the more general ‘resting-place’ which highlights the ground between earth and cradle. The upper layer of the earth (called ‘crust’) is spread out well enough for us to be used as a place to lie down by homeless people and tentless travelers. It’s expanse figuratively holds enough room for the world’s populace and by nature allows both humblest and grandest of abodes to be made upon it↓3. It is also supposed to be the literal cradle for our bodies when we die. Geologically, this upper layer consists of huge expanse of plates made up of soil and rock laid around the inner layers of the earth. Thus the metaphor scores from various angles, and seems to be a good example of how a metaphor is a conceptual web holding together related pieces of knowledge, potentially fueling further understanding (see Illuminating Metaphors Part II).

Mountain ranges typically form when crust plates jam into each other causing one to be forced upwards and the other to slide downwards (subduction). Thus mountains can be imagined as a series of pegs going throug both the inner and upper sides of the earth’s expanse, holding the plates together↓4. Al-Qur’an itself states:

وَأَلْقَىٰ فِي الْأَرْضِ رَوَاسِيَ أَن تَمِيدَ بِكُمْ وَأَنْهَارًا

AND He placed mountains as anchors in the earth so that it may not shake along with you, [An-Nahl, 15]

The metaphor thus holds both functional and visual commonality between vehicle and target.

The third instance above illustrates plain metaphor in a unique way: negation. The negative metaphor is لَاعِبِينَ – a noun with many meanings, the apt one here being ‘a plaything’,’game’, or ‘sport’. The only truly intelligent being on earth – humans – have used all sorts of naturally occuring phenomenae and facts inventively for their sport, entertainment and pastime. From national parks to ski resorts to playfields through to the virtual realities in electronic media are pointers that natural potentiality discovries and inventions of the world are all available for recreation. Philosophers have puzzled for centuries over the possibility that whether God has similarly created this universe as mere pastime. The commonality beween target (universe) and vehicle (all means of recreation in the world) is plausible, but here expressly denied by God in order to invite man to ponder more meaningful reasons behind the creation of universe.

Altogether these examples show how even the simple metaphor is used creatively and performs essential functions in the discourse. We move on with other forms of metaphors in the next post, InshaAllah.


1. See Tafseer Ibne Kathir, specifically Urdu version for the referred ayah.

2. Project Root List: Mim-Ha-Dal

3. For concordance see Tafsir Ibne Kathir

4. For relevant geography, see Mountain Formation on wikipedia.


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