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

In Anthologies, Literature|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on September 22, 2012 at 2:00 pm

In this post we consider two more related devices, namely, personification and catachresis.


In an example from a previous post, stones were mentioned by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala as falling down due to fear of Allah. When things are described as having animate properties__ trees whistling, daffodils dancing __ it is said to be personification.

Example #1:

إِذَا زُلْزِلَتِ الْأَرْضُ زِلْزَالَهَا

وَأَخْرَجَتِ الْأَرْضُ أَثْقَالَهَا

وَقَالَ الْإِنسَانُ مَا لَهَا

 يَوْمَئِذٍ تُحَدِّثُ أَخْبَارَهَا

When the earth will be shaken with a mighty shaking,

and the earth will throw up all her burdens,

and man will cry out: “What is the matter with her?”

On that Day it will relate all her news, [Az-Zalazala 1-4]


In the above, two ayahs clearly demonstrate personificati0n (the rest have been quoted for context).  Here’s the break down of the metaphors:

 human act of throwing up ≡ inner contents of earth bursting out

inner contents of earth bursting out ≡ human act of revealing one’s secrets

Note that the first personifying phrase in turns carries a simple metaphor as follows:

inner content of the earth ≡ burdens

The linked and nested nature of these metaphors is clear and makes for a riveting read. The inner contents have been likened to secrets probably because they remain hidden until explicitly revealed. The word ‘burden’ in a way presages the later metaphor: whatever thoughts and feelings we keep held inside are our personal burden: They carry the weight of emotion, and of loneliness. Thus the ‘burden’ metaphor itself turns out to be a personification.

The exact nature of these burdens is specified by the following hadeeth mentioned in the pertinent section of Tafhimul Quran:

According to Hadrat Abu Hurairah, the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) recited this verse and asked: “Do you know what annals it will relate ?” The people said: “Allah and His Messenger have the best knowledge.” Thereupon the Holy Prophet said: “The annals are that the earth will testify to the deeds which every tnan and woman has done on its back.” She will say: “He or she had done such and such a thing on such and such a day. These will be the annals the earth will narrate.” (Musnad Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i, Ibn Jarir, ‘Abd bin Humaid, Ibn al-Mundhir, Hakim, Ibn Marduyah, Baihaqi in Ash-Sbu’ab).

As Maulana Maududi explains:

It might have been difficult for a man of ancient times to understand how the earth will speak and narrate the annals and events happening on it on the Resurrection Day, but in the present age of scientific discoveries and the inventions of cinema, loudspeaker, radio, television, tape-recorder, electronic equipment, etc., it is no longer difficult to understand how the earth will narrate its annals. The impression of whatever man speaks is preserved in the air, in the radio waves, on the particles of the walls and floors and ceilings of the houses, and on the environments of the road, plain or field if he spoke outside the house. If AIlah so wills He can make these things repeat all these voices precisely in the way these were uttered in the first instance by tnan.

Example #2:

إِنَّا عَرَضْنَا الْأَمَانَةَ عَلَى السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَالْجِبَالِ فَأَبَيْنَ أَن يَحْمِلْنَهَا وَأَشْفَقْنَ مِنْهَا وَحَمَلَهَا الْإِنسَانُ

Verily, We did offer the trust [of reason and volition] to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains: but they refused to bear it because they were afraid of it. Yet man took it up – [In Al-Ahzab 72]

Of the many metaphors in the above ayah, two are personifications:

inability of celestial creations to carry God’s load ≈ their deliberate refusal to same

((same as above )) ≈ their being afraid of the load

The interpretations popular among the exegesis-writers for the term ‘trust’ are intelligence/reason or volition (M. Asad), muslim obigations (Taqi Uthmani and Ibne Kathir); khalifat (i.e. carrying out God’s instructions for the life on earth; Maududi). As remarked by Maulana Taqi, all are essentially the same: Muslim obligations to obey Allah’s commands on earth arises from the fact that they can choose (volition) to obey for His love and reward or to disobey despite warnings of banishment to Hell. The obligations also propel Muslims to establish the rule of Allah in the human society (khalifah).

As for presenting heavens’ and earth’s inability for these responsibilities as their deliberate refusal and lack of courage, Maududi reasons:

We can neither know nor can comprehend Allah’s relationship with His creations. The eanh and the sun and the moon and the mountains are dumb, deaf and lifeless for us but they may not be so also for Allah. Allah can speak to each of His creations and it can respond to Him, though its nature is incomprehensible for us. Therefore, it is just possible that Allah, in fact, might have presented this heavy trust before them, and they might have shuddered to see it, and they might have made this submission before their Master and Creator. “Lord, we find our good and our convenience only in remaining as Your powerless servants: we do not find courage to ask for the freedom to disobey and do justice to it, and then suffer Your punishment in case we cannot do justice to it.”

If that is true, is the Qur’anic statement literal or metaphorical? The answer is, it could be both:

Inasmuch as there was a communication of the above sort between God and creation, the Qur’an’s verse becomes literally true. On the other hand, inasmuch as the exact form of that communication differs from a similar communication between God and a human creature (for instance, recall Prophet Moses alaihi-s-salam and his initial hesitancy to go to Pharoah due to his speech difficulty; reference), the verse remains metaphorical.

The next anthology example illustrates this point beautifully. 

Example #3:

تُسَبِّحُ لَهُ السَّمَاوَاتُ السَّبْعُ وَالْأَرْضُ وَمَن فِيهِنَّ ۚ وَإِن مِّن شَيْءٍ إِلَّا يُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِهِ وَلَـٰكِن لَّا تَفْقَهُونَ تَسْبِيحَهُمْ

The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein praise Him, and there is not a thing but hymneth His praise; but ye understand not their praise. [In Al-Isra 44]

This ayah carries a personification since it credits the universe and everything in it with the same act of chanting God Almighty’s praises that we are familiar with as Muslims. This ayah can also be taken literally as it puts the point we have just discussed with the previous example:

All the inhuman and inanimate creatures of this universe experience the different aspects of their relationship with their Creator just like we, the humans, do. Only, as the above ayah itself clarifies: the apparent form of the experience might be different so that we, the humans, cannot perceive or comprehend it. Additionally,

Everything is not only singing hymns of the glory of its Creator but isaffording the proof that He is perfect in every respect and worthy of all praise. Everything is an embodiment of the proof that its Creator and Administrator is the one in whom there is perfection of every quality.

Maulana Maududi

Thus the metaphor works at another level as well: it represents Allah’s powers as the Creator and sole Lord of this universe.

Personification by the Almighty

In Qur’an a different, interesting case of personification occurs. Consider the following examples:

بِيَدِكَ الْخَيْرُ

In Your Hand is all good [In Al-i-Imran 26]

وَمَا رَمَيْتَ إِذْ رَمَيْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ اللَّـهَ رَمَىٰ

and it was not you [o prophet Muhammed] when you threw [sand at them], but it was Allah Who threw it, [In Al-Anfal 17]

In both these examples, personification occurs by crediting a human feature or action with the God Almighty. Of course Allah Sub’hana’hu wa Ta’ala is above any literal comparisons to any creature of His own. However, for ease of communication and translability to His human subjects, He makes ample use of personification in the Qur’an and applies it to His own case.

The first instance here is a common proverbial expression in this case applied to God. In the second instance, there is a very deliberate personification by attributing an act by the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wasallam) to His ownself. This technique achieves particular effects in meaning. For one it suggests that all rightful action by His subjects, in particular, by His prophets, represent the authority and decree of His Lordship. For another, it shows that great courageous acts performed under devotion to one’s God are appreciated and endearing so that God Himself attaches His name and agency to those deeds; thus, declaring the high status of such actions in God’s reckoning. Note that these effects are not particular to the Last Prophet as might be suggested by the wording of the above ayah. In the opening section of this ayah (right before the quoted one), Allah Ta’ala attributes the general actions of the Muslim army against the enemy to Himself in the same manner.

Conclusions about personification in the Qur’an

The above study leads to two clear conclusions about the way personification is employed in the Qur’an:

1. Applied to earth and the heavens, personification brings to our grasp great metaphysical facts of God’s created universe. As such, personification clothes and translates literal truths about the universe while also helping bridge the gap inthe ‘form’ of human vs inanimate spirituality.

2. Allaha ta’ala applies personification to His own case by using human action/body parts idioms to His own doings. This certainly broadens the usage of personification and its definition: Personification is a metaphor wherein an event caused by any non-human entity is described using words that literally show human agency.


بَلْ نَقْذِفُ بِالْحَقِّ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ فَيَدْمَغُهُ فَإِذَا هُوَ زَاهِقٌ

But in fact We hurl the truth upon falsehood, so it scatters its brains – thereupon it vanishes; [In Al-Anbiya 18]

Catachresis is a deliberate or accidental mispplication of a word giving rise to a mixing up of meanings/senses that reads absurd at the literal level. The metaphor it creates is called as mixed (relevant wikipedia sections will be helpful). In the above example, Truth and Falsehood are abstract nouns given to concepts, on the other hand, ‘hammering away one’s brains’, ‘striking something with something else’ are clearly physical and concrete events.

The general meaning of the Quranic statement (also corroborated by other tafseers) is well captured by Maulana Maududi as follows:

“The object for which this world has been created is to stage a conflict between the Truth and falsehood. And you yourselves know that in this conflict falsehood has always been defeated and destroyed: You should, therefore, consider this reality seriously, for, if you build the system of your life on the false presumption that it is mere fun, you will meet with the same consequences as the former people did, who presumed that the world was a mere show and pastime. Therefore you should reconsider your whole attitude towards the Message which has come to you. Instead of making fun of it and scoffing at the Messenger, you should take a warning from the fate of the former peoples.”

The catachresis employed towards this ends certainly adds intensity and forcefulness to the Quranic claim. Falsehood would be destroyed as definitiely and as powerfully as a large stone taking out brains when thrown on a head. Truth being ‘thrown’ at the falsehood not only implies the ‘high/righteous’ vs. ‘low/wrongful’ designation of truth vs falsehood,  it also implies a clear out-in-the-open type of strategy of coming up against the former.

Thus the catachresis not only makes the claim more memorable and striking, it actually contributes a dimension of meaning to the interpretation.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: