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

In Anthologies, literature, Literature|Religion, Quran, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm

11th Ramadaan, 1433:


مَّوْجٌ كَالظُّلَلِ

…waves like shades [in Surah Luqman, 32]

The above is a typical example of a similie: a figure of speech that directly compares two different things by using words ‘like’ or ‘as’ between its two subjects.

Metaphor and Similie

Metaphor is traditionally contrasted with similie: the commonality between the compared entities is more explicitly stated in a similie by adding the terms ‘is like’ or ‘as’. Reseaerch papers have pondered the question how the two are different in effect and import and which of the two is stronger↓1.

The relationship between simile and metaphor is close, metaphor often being defined as a condensed simile, that is, someone who runs like lightning can be called a lightning runner. Sometimes, simile and metaphor blend so well that the join is hard to find . . .

__Tom MacArthur↓2

Metaphor conveys a relationship between two things by using a word or words figuratively, not literally; that is, in a special sense which is different from the sense it has in the contexts noted by the dictionary.
“By contrast, in simile, words are used literally, or ‘normally.’ This thing A is said to be ‘like’ that thing, B. The description given to A and to B is as accurate as literal words can make it, and the reader is confronted by a kind of fait accompli, where sense-impressions are often the final test of success. Thus ‘my car is like a beetle’ uses the words ‘car’ and ‘beetle’ literally, and the simile depends for its success on the literal–even visual–accuracy of the comparison.

__Terence Hawkes↓3

Let us continue the discussion with the help of anthology examples:

Plain similies

وَمَا أَمْرُنَا إِلَّا وَاحِدَةٌ كَلَمْحٍ بِالْبَصَرِ

AND Our commandment shall be but one, as the twinkling of an eye. [Al-Qamar, 50]

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ الْجَوَارِ فِي الْبَحْرِ كَالْأَعْلَامِ

AND among His Signs are the ships, in the sea, like mountains. [As-Shura, 32]


In the above two ayahs the following comparisons are made:

Commencement of Doomsday ≈ Batting of an eye-lid

Ships in the ocean ≈ Huge signs/ landmarks

Both seem to be rather straightforward similies where A is directly likened to B based on an attribute they share. Batting of an eye-lid is a split-second occurence and so will be God’s final order for this world. The two share the commanility of ultra-quickness. Landmarks on earth usually rise high above ground level and their hugeness can be seen from distance — so do the ships on sea.

Stronger similies

On the other hand, the following example is not only variously stated, it is also broader in scope:

مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُوا مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ كَمَثَلِ الْعَنكَبُوتِ اتَّخَذَتْ بَيْتًا ۖ وَإِنَّ أَوْهَنَ الْبُيُوتِ لَبَيْتُ الْعَنكَبُوتِ ۖ لَوْ كَانُوا يَعْلَمُونَ

THE example of those who take guardians besides Allah is as the example of the spider that makes for itself a house; and most surely the frailest of the houses is the spider’s house did they but know. [Al-Ankabut, 41]


The meaning of the above example can be best summarized as in Tafhimul Quran:

The reality of the toy-house of expectations that you have built on your faith in the powerless servants and imaginary deities, apart from the real Master and Ruler of the universe, is no more than the cobweb of a spider. Just as a cobweb cannot stand the slightest interference by a finger, so will the toy-house of your expectations collapse in its first clash with the scheme of Allah. It is nothing but ignorance that you are involved in the web of superstition. Had you any knowledge of the Reality you would not have built your system of life on baseless props. The fact is that none other than the One Lord of the worlds in this universe is the Owner of power and authority, and His support is the only support which is reliable.

__ Maulana Maududi↓4

This tafseer is in concurrence with Maulana Taqi Uthmani, and Ibne Kathir.

Although it has been stated as a similie (كَمَثَلِ = ‘like/as the example of’), the reason why it seems more of a metaphor is its scope. The subject is not a single feature of an object. A whole system of thought (idol worship / shirk) has been compared with an instance from the natural world based on multiple tapped (and potentially untapped) comparisons. A spider weaves its web with a very fine type of silk which has almost no weight and can be blown away by the slightest of breezes. Thus it is ‘without weight’, ‘is barely suspended in thin air’, ‘falls through at the slightest of disturbances’, hence ‘unreliable as a base or support’ __ all attributes that alternative systems of belief carry.

Hence the structure of the above statement is just like a similie; still, it’s the import that makes it a metaphor. If there are degrees of metaphoricity, than the above similie is clearly more metaphorical than the previous two examples.

Here is another example:

وَلَن تَسْتَطِيعُوا أَن تَعْدِلُوا بَيْنَ النِّسَاءِ وَلَوْ حَرَصْتُمْ ۖ فَلَا تَمِيلُوا كُلَّ الْمَيْلِ فَتَذَرُوهَا كَالْمُعَلَّقَةِ

YOU will never be able to do perfect justice between wives even if it is your ardent desire, so do not incline too much to one of them (by giving her more of your time and provision) so as to leave the other hanging (i.e. neither divorced nor married). [in An-Nisa, 129]

The above example is again broader in scope, hence stronger as a similie: If a husband of two wives leans towards only one of them, than the other wife remains stuck in an uncomfortable position. By law she is a wife, but actually not treated as one. She is not getting her rightful needs met with her husband, nor can she currently expect them to be met by anybody else: like someone literally hanging on a hook: static, unable to move to any position of comfort, not moving anywhere in life. A whole life situation is captured through the use of one apt image.↓5


Similies as strong as metaphors

ثُمَّ قَسَتْ قُلُوبُكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ فَهِيَ كَالْحِجَارَةِ أَوْ أَشَدُّ قَسْوَةً

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنَ الْحِجَارَةِ لَمَا يَتَفَجَّرُ مِنْهُ الْأَنْهَارُ

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنْهَا لَمَا يَشَّقَّقُ فَيَخْرُجُ مِنْهُ الْمَاءُ

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنْهَا لَمَا يَهْبِطُ مِنْ خَشْيَةِ اللَّـهِ

ۗ وَمَا اللَّـهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ

THEN your hearts were hardened and became as stones or even worse in hardness.
And indeed, there are stones out of which rivers gush forth;
and indeed, there are of them (stones) which split asunder so that water flows from them;
and indeed, there are of them (stones) which fall down for fear of Allah.
And Allah is not unaware of what you do. [Al-Baqarah, 74]

This is the first, and the most imaginative, of 6 different occasions on which Al-Qur’an depicts a particular state of unbelief as the heardness of heart. According to the Quran, hardness of the heart is a result of repeated digression from major pacts with Allah ta’ala (see Al-Ma’ida 13), usually happens with loss of perseverence and patience following the termination of Allah’s prohpecies through the prophet (see tafseer ibne kathir for Al-Hadeed 16, both in urdu and in english), takes away the ability to learn lessons from Allah’s warnings (in Al-An’am, 43), and the capacity to remember God (Az-Zumar 22), and makes it easier to turn away from God following trials and tribulations (in Al-Hajj 53).

All that has been catpured pictorially by association in the anthology selection from Surah Baqarah. Stones are known for their hardness, but not all stones are hard enough to capture the unmoving stubbornness of those unbelieving hearts. For stones are known to have cloven apart making way for beautiful life-giving flowing water, and stones do not remain high up in the air, defiant in their solidity against gravity; they stumble and crash down before the decree of God. They are not as rigid and as indifferent to the inspiring, softening yet, awe-inducing power of God’s messages as some hearts be..

For a concept illustrated on different occasions in the Quran and using terms other than the one used here (of hardness: Qaf-Sin-Wao), the image of life-carrying and humble yielding stones reaches metaphorical heights, only that the real comparison is by contrast: hard hearts are harder than these stones. In the different examples of the stones, we can read how the deeply sentient and emotional states of belief and realization of the truth are mapped.

In short, although similies may be supposed to be literal, direct and weaker compared with metaphor, they have been used to amazing metaphorical effects in Al-Quran. Regular similies as well as more divergent versions appear numerously in future sections of this anthology.

Till next form, fi Aman-Allah.


1. Previously referenced The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought contains essays on metaphor understanding and category creation comparing it to similies.

2. Tom McArthur, The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford Univ. Press, 1992; found on About.com.

3. Metaphor. Methuen, 1972; found as above.

4. Online Tafhim ul Quran, English version.

5. For instance see Tafhim ul Quran, and M’ariful Quran, both English versions.


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