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

In Anthologies, Literature|Religion, Quran, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 18, 2012 at 6:52 pm

19th Ramadaan, 1433:

This posts contrasts metaphor with another of its close relation: metonymy.


وَيَبْسُطُوا إِلَيْكُمْ أَيْدِيَهُمْ

AND they will extend against you their hands… [in Al-Mumtahna 2]

When Quran mentions enemies’ hands stretching against you, the meaning of course includes a full-bodied and fully armored attack. Obvious, right? Metonymies are usually that obvious. When a part of the concept or something closely associated with that object is used to refer to the object, we call it a metonymy.

The word metonymy is Greek and means ‘a change of name’, which it is. The attribute selected for reference (or as the new name) might literally be a part of the object (such as hands in the above ayah are a body part of the enemies). This particular way, by the way, is also called a synecdoche.

Or, as in the following ayah, it might be an associated property:

وَالْأَنْعَامَ خَلَقَهَا ۗ لَكُمْ فِيهَا دِفْءٌ وَمَنَافِعُ وَمِنْهَا تَأْكُلُونَ

AND the cattle, He has created them for you; in them there is warmth (warm clothing), and numerous benefits, and of them you eat. [An-Nahl 5]

For us there is warmth in the cattle by dint of their skins; we use those for winter clothing.

Conversely, the referent might be behavior, such as in:

التَّائِبُونَ الْعَابِدُونَ الْحَامِدُونَ السَّائِحُونَ الرَّاكِعُونَ السَّاجِدُونَ الْآمِرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَالنَّاهُونَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَالْحَافِظُونَ لِحُدُودِ اللَّـهِ ۗ وَبَشِّرِ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ

THOSE who repent, those who worship Allah and praise (Him); those who journey, those who bow, those who prostrate themselves; those who order righteousness and forbid evil, and those who observe the limits of Allah give glad tidings to the believers. [At-Tawba 112]

In short whenever a part or portion of the overall idea of something is used to refer to it, it will be a metonymy. The literal meaning shows the part; the real meaning extends to the whole. As such it is very common throughout language, thought processes and, of course, the Holy Book. Below are some ways it has been utilized:



وَهُوَ الَّذِي سَخَّرَ الْبَحْرَ لِتَأْكُلُوا مِنْهُ لَحْمًا طَرِيًّا وَتَسْتَخْرِجُوا مِنْهُ حِلْيَةً تَلْبَسُونَهَا

AND He it is Who has subjected the sea (to you), that you eat thereof fresh tender meat (i.e. fish), and that you bring forth out of it ornaments to wear. [in An-Nahl 14]

Above, out of the general topic of ocean’s services to us, a few select ones have been mentioned.

وَيَمْنَعُونَ الْمَاعُونَ

AND refuses to give even utensils (for neighbourly assistance). [Al-Ma’un 7]

This whole Surah consists of select behaviors of a particular brand of unbelievers. This brand, though might pass as the faithful ones, actually refute in their hearts the idea of the Day of Judgment. It shows through their treatment of orphans and the indigent (ayah 2-3), their dilly-dallying in the way of salat (ayah 5). and their indifference from even basic help to their neighbors in the simplest of needs. Thus we can see tha by selecting behaviors from the societal, the formal religious, and the personality domains of a Muslim’s lifestyle, a whole pattern of life has been highlighted.


Qur’an takes exemplificaion to a level of beauty and significance in form of oaths. Particularly in the shorter Surahs, choice pointers from the Universe of the Lord have been selected and Qur’an’s statements vouchsafed by them. Consider the following beautiful examples:


وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ

BY the glorious morning light;

AND by the night when it grows still; [Ad-Dhuha 1-2]

وَالْعَادِيَاتِ ضَبْحًا

فَالْمُورِيَاتِ قَدْحًا

فَالْمُغِيرَاتِ صُبْحًا

فَأَثَرْنَ بِهِ نَقْعًا

  فَوَسَطْنَ بِهِ جَمْعًا

BY the chargers that run panting, 

BY the strikers of fire,

BY the raiders at dawn,

Raising clouds of dust

Storming into the enemy! [Al-Adiyat 1-5]


وَلَيَالٍ عَشْرٍ

وَالشَّفْعِ وَالْوَتْرِ

وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَسْرِ

 هَلْ فِي ذَٰلِكَ قَسَمٌ لِّذِي حِجْرٍ

BY the daybreak;

BY the Ten Nights;

BY the even and the odd;

BY the night when it departs;

IS there in that an oath for the Man of Reason? [Al-Fajr 1-5]


The way these items have been presented (i.e. as oaths) itself plus the last ayah in the example above, both highlight that metonymic references may hav a significance behind them; as to why a paricular feature, in contrast with others, was preferred. This point is reconsidered later.


Titles are typically metonymic. They refer to salient features, prominent qualities, or other associated stuff. Consider the following examples:

وَفِرْعَوْنَ ذِي الْأَوْتَادِ

AND with Pharaoh of the tent pegs. [Al-Fajr 10]

يَا أَيُّهَا الْمُزَّمِّلُ

O THE one who has wrapped himself up with a mantle, [Al-Muzzammil 1]

وَذَا النُّونِ

AND the Man of the Whale.. [Al-Anbiya 87]

In all of these, one item of interest associated with the subject has been abstracted as a title. The Pharoah of Moses’ times was known to vicitimize peope by putting them on stakes (tent-poles). In Al-Muzzammil, a very early Surah↓ in the prophetic tradition, the early ayahs descended at a time when the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) had wrapped himself in a sheet to go to sleep. As for the last example, the story of Prophet Younus (alaihi-s-salaam; Jonah in the Christian tradition) and the Whale is well-known↓.

Metonymy, Symbolism and Metaphor

We began this post with a metonymy of ‘hands’. The mention of hands recurs below, though in a hugely different way:

دَاوُودَ ذَا الْأَيْدِ

Dawood, He of Two Hands [in Surah Saad 17]

To think that out of many remarkable qualities Prophet Dawood (alaihi-s-salaam) is being remembered for his two hands might have seemed plausible if there was a supporting back-story (such as in the case of Pharoah’s title above); but there is none. Hence the typical translation for this phrase across 14 different translators↓1 tends to be strength/might/power.

The above is therefore not an obvious metonymy. It would be a metaphor if there was some basis for similarity between ‘hands’ and ‘power/strength’; or, is there? Its easy to think that hands symbolize strength or might, since, at the human level hands perform all sorts of jobs for their owners. Nearly all the survival skills of mankind depend on hands. All cultural endeavors began and flourished through hands. A man without hands is literally and figuratively powerless.

So are hands merely a ‘symbol’:  something associated with the concept of power; a ‘metaphor’: by virtue of their functional similarity with the concept; or, a ‘metonymy’, because they are literally a part of all human endeavours which ultimately bring them power? Probably the answer is ‘yes’ to all of these.

Symbolical and Metaphorical metonymies

Let us consider a few more examples like that and then we return to some of those already presented and refer to tafseer for their shades of symbolism and metaphoricity.

وَأَن لَّوِ اسْتَقَامُوا عَلَى الطَّرِيقَةِ لَأَسْقَيْنَاهُم مَّاءً غَدَقًا

IF they (non-Muslims) had believed in Allah, and went on the Right Way (i.e. Islam) We should surely have bestowed on them water (rain) in abundance. [Al-Jinn 16]

وَمِن شَرِّ غَاسِقٍ إِذَا وَقَبَ

AND from the evil of darkness when it settles. [Al-Falaq 3]

In the first example here, abundant water is can be viewed as a symbol for prosperity for two reasons: It is actually a major prerequisite for good harvests and consequent well-being and wealth for all agricultural societies; and, it is similar to that abundance itself by immediately quenching and thoroughly satisfying a bunch of human needs thus also directly eliciting the feeling of contentmet and happiness associated with prosperity. The relationship between rains and prosperity is, hence both metonymical and metaphorical.

In the second example, the use of ‘darkness’ to refer to ‘night’ is almost a universal trope. But is it metaphorical or metonymical? While night literally is dark (making the reference metonymical), the association carries more meaning than that especially as the addition of the word شَرِّ (evil) suggests. Evil actions are labelled as dark, whereas light tends to be associated with goodness. Infact Quran makes ample usage of these metaphors as we will see in the subseqent sections of this anthology.

Among the examples already presented, the tent-poles of Pharoah are also interpreted as power and might↓2. The basis for reference to the Prophet’s wrap in Surah Muzzammil seems straightforwardly metonymical as he had it on when those lines descended upon him. However, the following tafseer↓3 by Maulana Maudui calls to mind the metaphorical underspinnings:

Here, to address him with “O you who sleeps covered up” instead of with “O
Prophet, or O Messenger”, is a fine way of address, which by itself gives the
meaning: “Gone is the time when you used to enjoy peaceful sleep at will; now
you lie under the burden of a great mission, whose demands and duties are
different as well as onerous.

Similarly, recall that in Al-Adiyat 1-5, oaths by the charging battle-horses of Arab have been taken to verify the subsequent claim:

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لِرَبِّهِ لَكَنُودٌ

Verily man is most ungrateful to his Lord; [Al-Adiyat 6]

Now Maudidi sees the oaths as a metonymic reminder of how Allah protected the Meccan population day after day where any dawn could bring upon their heads an army of charging horses as depicted in the anthology example; yet they remain ungrateful. On the other hand, Mufti Shafi views the same as a reverse metaphor: contrasting the subjugating gratefulness of horses under their masters’ little caretaking with the stubborn indifference of those masters to their All-providing God.


Although metonymies are created in a manner different from metaphors, the symbolism underneath many of them imbues them with  metaphorical significance. The literature on the topic is still trying to figure out how or why they run together↓4. For our purposes, in the other sections of this anthology we encounter many metaphors that have a metonymical construction.


1. Browse through the translators on the linked page on tanzil.net.

2. Same as above.

3. Online English translation of Tafhim ul Quran, at: http://www.quranenglish.com/tafheem_quran/073.htm

4. For instance see Radden, 2002, How metonymic are metaphors? In Metaphor and Metonymy: In comparison and contrast, (Eds.) R. Dirven and R. Porings, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 407-33.


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