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QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By Type III

In Anthologies, language and communication, Literature|Religion, Quran, Words of Gold: The Quran on April 22, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Conventional metaphors have probably always existed. Many new words or sense-meanings have arisen when old words were metaphorically extended to new ideas/situations. Metaphors hidden in the roots (etymologies) of words are usually labelled as dead metaphors. Their metaphoric imagery is not as vivid, as alive as more regular or novel metaphors. However, understanding them might help understand the role they play in fresh metaphors.


Etymology of a word

The roots of language are irrational and of a
magical nature.

___ Jorge Luis Borges↓1

Etymology is the study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time. By an extension, the term “etymology (of a word)” means the origin of a particular word.

__ wikipedia

To trace this history etymologists look into previous texts to glean former meanings and usages. They also examine word roots to trace the origins. Word root is the most basic part of the word necessary for the word’s meaning. Many more words are derived by adding suffixes or prefixes to the root word.


Metaphoric applications of Qur’anic roots

In the Arabic language, the root of a word typically consists of three, four, or five letters↓2. There may not only be suffixes or prefixes to make words from the root, there are often ‘infixes’, i.e. letter(s) inserted between the root words. For instance, consider the following two ayahs:

 وَالَّذِينَ هُم مِّنْ عَذَابِ رَبِّهِم مُّشْفِقُونَ

 And those who are fearful of the punishment of their Lord; [Al-Ma’arij 27]

فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِالشَّفَقِ

 So I swear by the twilight glow; [Al-Inshiqaq 16]

The highlighted words both share the same root – Sha-Fa-Qa, but very different meanings. The most literal meaning of the root-letters (the one associated with the basic derivation from root words), according to Lane Lexicon are: “being niggardly of provision” and “being fearful and cautious on account of it”. By metaphoric association, the word, especially in its form in the first ayah, has come to mean: being ‘apprehensively fearful’, ‘tender’, ‘compassionate’, and ‘cautious’.

The form used in the second example above is a noun. It refers to “the redness in the horizon from sunset until the time of nightfall”. While the extension of meaning as in the above example is obvious, the one in this later example is not so obvious. It is understandably probable that the same metaphoric process of meaning-extension worked in this case, as well.

Below, I attempt to gather several Qur’anic examples where comparison of a word’s usage with the basic root meaning reveals the application of a metaphor.



وَإِذْ فَرَقْنَا بِكُمُ الْبَحْرَ

AND we parted the sea for you. [Al-Baqarah 50]

Over here the root-letters appear in their most basic form: past tense (plural subjective). Their meaning is literal: to divide or separate something physical into two (or more) portions.

وَقُرْآنًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلَىٰ مُكْثٍ

AND [it is] a Qur’an which We have separated [by intervals] that you might recite it to the people over a prolonged period. [in Al-Isra 106]

The ayah above carries the same word with the same meaning but in a less literal sense. The division mentioned here is not in a physical sense but in the sense of time.

فِيهَا يُفْرَقُ كُلُّ أَمْرٍ حَكِيمٍ

ON this night, every absolute command coming from Us becomes distinguishable. [Ad-Dukhan 4]

Above is the present tense (singular subjective) version of the same basic form utilised in even less literal sense. Speaking of the one blessed night in which God determines every matter of the world that is to take place till the next occurence of the night↓3. When each matter has been ordained, it is as if everything has been ‘clearly seperated’ from every other thing. The metaphorical extension of meaning is clear. Examples of other extensions follow:

 وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا

AND hold fast to the Bond of Allah, together, and do not scatter. [in Al-i-Imran 103

The Qur’anic version of “united we stand; divided we fall”. The word used in a prohibitive version of a derived form signifies both physical, mental and psychosocial lack of unison that results when small disagreements in a group/nation carry more weiht than the major unifying principles.

تَبَارَكَ الَّذِي نَزَّلَ الْفُرْقَانَ عَلَىٰ عَبْدِهِ لِيَكُونَ لِلْعَالَمِينَ نَذِيرًا

 BLESSED is He who has sent down the Criterion to His worshiper (Prophet Muhammad), that he is a warner to all mankind; [Al-Furqan 1]

Finally, the most metaphorical application of the root is this noun-form that is used for things carrying a superlative degree of a property. Al-Qur’an is called as The One that divides the wrong from right; that makes everything clear and distinguishable from one another↓4.  



فَلَمَّا تَرَاءَى الْجَمْعَانِ قَالَ أَصْحَابُ مُوسَىٰ إِنَّا لَمُدْرَكُونَ

AND when the two groups saw each other, Moses’ companions said, “We are sure to be overtaken.” [Ash-Shu’ara 61]

This ayah illustrates this root’s most literal meaning: ‘to be physically overtaken’. The word here is in the noun (plural) form of a derivative version of the root↓. The ayah is from the story when Moses’ companions were afraid they will be caught by Pharoah’s troops when they were stopped by the sea while fleeing from Egypt. In fact, the most literal sense of the root’s simplest derivative is, according to Lanes’s Lexicon, “the dropping of rain with close consecutiveness as though one portion thereof overtook another.” Thus it seems, that the basic meaning from above ayah might itself be a metaphorical extension of rain droplets closely following each other. An even lesser literal application is as follows:

حَتَّىٰ إِذَا ادَّارَكُوا فِيهَا جَمِيعًا قَالَتْ أُخْرَاهُمْ لِأُولَاهُمْ رَبَّنَا هَٰؤُلَاءِ أَضَلُّونَا

 WHEN they are all gathered there, the last of them will say of the first, “Our Lord, it was they who led us astray:…” [in Al-A’raf 38]

Speaking of groups of the punished on the Judgment Day entering hell-fire, the application of da-ra-kaf is in the sense that they all followed each other into hell, as if one party overtook another into the hell-fire.

إِنَّ الْمُنَافِقِينَ فِي الدَّرْكِ الْأَسْفَلِ مِنَ النَّارِ وَلَنْ تَجِدَ لَهُمْ نَصِيرًا

THE Hypocrites will be in the lowest reach (depth) of the Fire: [An-Nisa 145]

Here it seems that the sense of  ‘overtaking’ is extended into that of ‘reaching over’ and the word used in the sense of ‘bottom’.

بَلِ ادَّارَكَ عِلْمُهُمْ فِي الْآخِرَةِ بَلْ هُمْ فِي شَكٍّ مِنْهَا بَلْ هُم مِّنْهَا عَمُونَ

NAY, but their knowledge fails as to the Hereafter; nay, they are in doubt of it; nay, they are blind to it. [An-Naml 66]

Here ‘overtook’ has been metaphorically extended into ‘failure’. Other meanings according to other standard translations include ‘their knowledge’ being ‘lost’ (Maududi) and ‘arrested’ (Sahih International). A sportsman usually ‘fails’ when they are overtaken by another, hence the metaphor. Or, since the root is also extended into ‘reaching over’, the meaning is in the sense: ‘doth their knowledge reach to the hereafter?’ (Pickthall)↓5.



The word shajar is commonly known to Arabic-Urdu-Hindi speaking people as ‘tree’. Indeed that is the common usage in which it is utilised in the Quran as well (See the pertinent Quranic Arabic Corpus page for comparison). However, that is not its literal meaning. The true literal meaning is used in the Qur’an only once, in the following ayah.

فَلَا وَرَبِّكَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ حَتَّىٰ يُحَكِّمُوكَ فِيمَا شَجَرَ بَيْنَهُمْ

 BUT nay, by thy Lord, they will not believe (in truth) until they make thee judge of what is in dispute between them; [in An-Nisa 65]

The literal meaning of shajara (here appearing in its most basic form: past tense singular subjective), according to Lane’s Lexicon, is “being or becoming intricate, complicated, perplexed, confused, or intricately intermixed.” When it is used with baina-hum (‘between them), as above, it is meant as: “an occasion of contention, or dispute, or of disagreement, or of difference…”. The Lexicon cites “intermixing, or confusion of the branches” as the reason for the word’s application to trees.



Consider the following pairs of ayahs:

كُلُوا وَارْعَوْا أَنْعَامَكُمْ

YOU eat and let your cattle graze’ [in Surah Ta-Ha 54]

أَخْرَجَ مِنْهَا مَاءَهَا وَمَرْعَاهَا 

AND then (Allah) brought from it its water and pasture. [An-Nazi’at 31]


 فَمَا رَعَوْهَا حَقَّ رِعَايَتِهَا

 … THEN they did not observe it as it ought to have been observed; [in Al-Hadid 27]

وَالَّذِينَ هُمْ لِأَمَانَاتِهِمْ وَعَهْدِهِمْ رَاعُونَ

[Those] WHO are true [keepers] to their trusts and their covenants; [Al-Mu’minum 8]

The first two ayahs represent the literal sense of the root-word: to pasture cattle. The first word is in imperative and the second is the derivative noun. The second pair represents the metaphorical extension: tending to, observing, keeping one’s charges.

These examples illustrate in detail how well-integrated metaphors are into language and it’s history and usage.



1. Prologue to “El otro, el mismo”. Taken from Introduction and Abbreviation, Online Etymological Dictionary, Retrieved Online at http://www.etymonline.com/abbr.php?allowed_in_frame=0

 2. Several resources on the internet give a good introduction to Qur’anic language or the Arabic language in general. Examples include the Project Root List, and the http://arabic.tripod.com/

3. Popularly known as the Lailat-ul-Qadar; reference: Surah Al-Qadar.

4. According to Ma’ariful Qur’an (English pdf, Vol. 1, p. 213, under 2:53): “In the language of the Holy Qur’an, al-Furqan is a term signifying something that separates truth from falsehood or distinguishes the one from the other.” Retrieved from: http://www.maarifulquran.net/data/maarifulquran-english-pdf/pdf/Maarifulquran%20English%20PDF%20-%20Vol%201%20-%20Page%20185-234%20by%20Mufti%20Shafi%20Usmani%20Rah.pdf

5. For all translations refer to the Tanzil site linked above.

QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By Type II

In Anthologies, language and communication, Literature|Religion on April 17, 2013 at 11:40 am

The last post essentially revisited the ubiquity and essentiality of metaphor↓1. Metaphors are not only prevalent, they are a part of the way we think, understand and describe things in this world.

Some metaphors are such an integral part of our conceptual system that we do not easily notice them, or understand them plainly. Some others are different in the sense that they are less frequent, unique, unfamiliar, or present new connections between ideas. The former were termed as conventional, while the latter was termed as novel by George Lakoff↓2. He and subsequent research identified several neural and cognitive differences between the two. On the other hand, both are basically a part of the same system (i.e. conceptul system) and arise from the same process (metaphorical thinking).

In this post we focus only on conventional metaphors since they are more frequent and we will move on to special cases of conventional metaphor.

Examples of conventional metaphors

Nearly all the Qur’anic examples of conceptual metaphors in the last post were conventional. Here we consider more examples, highlighting their familiarity and salience. This way, there will be appropriate contrast to novel metaphors when they are presented later in the anthology.

إِنَّكُمْ وَمَا تَعْبُدُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّـهِ حَصَبُ جَهَنَّمَ

Verily you and the gods you worshipped beside Allah are the fuel of Hell. [in Al-Anbiya 98]

 Since hell is supposed to burn those put into it as punishment, calling those fuel is an obvious metaphor.

وَلَا تَعْزِمُوا عُقْدَةَ النِّكَاحِ حَتَّىٰ يَبْلُغَ الْكِتَابُ أَجَلَهُ

 And  do not resolve on the knot of marriage until the waiting term expires; [in Al-Baqarah 235]

This ayah on guidance for another wedlock after the previous one has ended terms it as a ‘knot’. This metaphor calls to mind its English correspondent: the bond (in addition to ‘knot’ which itself is a metaphor’. Since a knot ties two things together and so does marriage in the psychosocial sense, the metaphor is obvious.

وَزَيَّنَّا السَّمَاءَ الدُّنْيَا بِمَصَابِيحَ وَحِفْظًا

And We adorned the nearest heaven with lamps and as protection. [in Sura Fussilat 12]

Stars, while performing their astronomical functions (one of which is hinted in this ayah), also look beautiful from earth because of their twinkling. Hence the metaphorical rendering ‘adorned’ or ‘decorated’ is understandable.

قَالَ سَنَشُدُّ عَضُدَكَ بِأَخِيكَ

[Allah] said, “We will strengthen your arm through your brother…” [in Al-Qasas 35]

A man performs most of his actions with his arm. Sometimes the task is so big, he needs another’s help. A helping hand is, thus, a common universal metaphor. Here God speaks of strengthening Prophet Moses’ (alaihi-s-salaam) arm by bestwoing his brother Haroon (alaihi-s-salaam) with prophethood as well.

 فَأَذَاقَهُمُ اللَّـهُ الْخِزْيَ فِي الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا

So Allah made them taste disgrace in worldly life. [in Az-Zumar 26]

Expressing different experiences in life as ‘food’ is a common conceptual metaphor across cultures. Tasting the flavor of success, failure; acquiring the fruit of labor, patience; and so forth. 

هُنَالِكَ ابْتُلِيَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَزُلْزِلُوا زِلْزَالًا شَدِيدًا

 There the believers were tested and shaken with a severe shaking. [Al-Ahzab 11]

 The metaphor here is an expression of the conceptual metaphor: “emotion is physical force”.  Allah speaks here of the time when Non-believing tribes have gathered around Madina from all over Arab and Muslims had to defend themselves by constructing a big trench on Madina’s front (ghazwa-e-ahzab). At that time some inside groups of hypocrites, and of Jews who were living in Madina had also started brewing trouble, causing Muslims a jolt of worry. Hence the metaphoric image applied is that of an earthquake’s shake to paint the picture of the extreme emotional turbulence the Muslims found themselves in.



This study makes us realize that metaphors are salient and easily understandable when the metaphoric image (the vehicle) shares an obvious connection with the meaning (target/source). Both the aspects of the metaphor (vehicle and target) are familiar to us through our day-to-day observations and experiences. It is these that are termed as ‘conventional’ and many more examples exist in the Qur’an.



1. The topic was covered with detail in the previous series on metaphors.

 2. Such as in Lakoff, G. 1993. The contemporary theory of metaphor. in Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed. Ed. by Andrew Ortony. New York: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved Online: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/lakoff_ps.pdf


QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors

In Anthologies, language and communication, literature, Quran, The Method on July 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm


After a gap of many months, I feel ready to present a (still) tentative outline of my anthology of metaphors in the Qur’an.

This anthology can be presented in many ways. In this introductory part. I lay down my way of grouping the metaphors. I have not strictly followed any typologies from literature and sciences. Rather I have attempted to present all the salient ones as well as culling some examples under other idiosyncratic headings in order to fully cover the diversity of metaphor usage in the Qur’an. In deciphering the meanings I am relying on traditional authentic sources, all referenced in loco. The actual examples will take up many posts, grouping by grouping. These may be considered as bouquets of selected gleanings from the Qur’an rather than as a continual exposition on a uniform topic. Here goes:

1. Metaphors can come clothed in a number of devices (see Illuminating Metaphors Part I of the Qur’an Cycle). Examples will be presented of catachresis, parables, similitude, metonymies, symbols, allegories, irony, personifications, anthropomorphisms, and of course plain metaphor in various rhetorical forms.

2. A series of metaphors often litter a text in various combinations. Examples of how different metaphors in the Qur’an are connected with each other will be presented. There are systems of metaphors, each metaphor corresponding to a place of meaning in the larger conceptual backdrop. Sometimes, a single image or concept of significance is recurently represented through different metaphors (constellations). Some metaphors are contrasted not just meaningfully but also by juxtaposing them in the text.

3. Metaphors serve various specific functions in the text such as achieving comparisons, argumentation, suggestion and persuasion, visualization, etc.; depiction of imagery, emotions, mental states, scientific facts, or conceptual scenarios and of course the metaphysical reality.

4. Finally, assorted types of metphors, described by various authors on the subject are also included, such as conceptual, conventional, literary, mixed types. Metaphors clothed in idiomatic and proverbial expressions and in roots of words are also illustrated under this category.


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

THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – III

In Admiring Literature, cognition, excerpts and quotes, language and communication, literature, perception, philosophy, poetry, psychology, sources of knowledge, The Method on December 8, 2011 at 12:09 am

Linked to Part I and Part II

The irreplacability of a metaphor

The potential meaningfulness of metaphor does not yield to simple paraphrase, its meaning cannot be reduced to a nonmetaphorical, propositional format without loss. This is the reason for the enormous creativity that metaphor displays not only in poetic discourse: In ordinary everyday life it can restructure ingrained patterns of thinking. And in scientific contexts it can have a heuristic* function.

*heuristic= “serving to indicate or point out; stimulating interest as a means of furthering investigation.” (dictionary.com)

The above ‘creativity hypothesis’ of the cognitive theory of metaphor (as summarized by Jakel↓1) mentions one of the reasons why metaphor is an irrerplacable part of any effective verbal message: it is has no simple substitute for meaning. Its meaning can only be elaborated, explored, interpreted, speculated upon to an extent; but it cannot be specified exactly and absolutely.

We need the metaphor in just the cases when there can be no question as yet of the precision of scientific statement.*

*see the last post for source

As the above quote from the previous post reminds us, we depend upon metaphor to express abstract or obscure phenomenon in terms of familiar, concrete and imaginable terms. As Andrew Ortony (↓2)  puts it, “somethings are by their nature not describable.” (p. 14), and it falls upon the metaphor to express the inexpressible.

My references so far may relegate the ‘irreplacibility’ of a metaphor to the way things are: we simply use the metaphor when we have no way around it, when we lack more straightforward ways of describing something. But that view is certainly wrong. Through a literary example, see how metaphor creates new worlds of meaning to whom no other effective entry might be possible other than through the metaphor itself:


Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho


When free, listen to the sound of the roses’ glee.

This is not speech that has been uttered.

The above is a Nasir Kazmi couplet, both in the original and in translation by me, from a previous blogpost. ‘Roses’ glee’ is a metaphor in itself (to be considered later here as an example), but right now i’m concerned with the ‘sound of’ part. The reader is forced to stop and try imagine what the sound of roses’ glee must be like. Upon analysis (which the readers of that pertinent post linked above may recall), the sound of roses’ glee most likely refers to the many messages of metaphysical nature the poet discerns in the sights and sounds of nature. Yet the interpretation is still open beyond the meaning already considered. And in terms of imagination, the metaphor forges new ground by inviting us to imagine an event that has never been experienced before. Philosopher Mark Johnson↓3 explains well what happens in such cases:

… one experiences the insight that two entire systems of implications… belong together in some fundamental way. The cognitive activity at this level… consists of the alteration of certain experiential structures (e.g. categorizations, concepts), such that one discovers a formal unity between previously unassociated things. 

We automatically associate sound with animate beings; that is the way we experience the world. When presented with Nasir’s couplet, however, we have to re-conceptualize sound as ‘a channel of communication’ or more precisely, as ‘a general aura of meaningfulness that emanates from all beings that have a purpose in their existence’ to get to the meaning of the verse. We similarly recast the flower as ‘an object created with a purpose’ from its foremost conception as ‘a part of the natural world’ or as ‘an object of beauty’.

This is not a rare phenomenon in the rarified arena of literature; more everyday examples abound. For instance, ‘my boss is a shark’ creates a new concept of ‘sharkness in humans’ that is different from both the literal shark and from the usual concept of brutality (for an elaboration of this example and the theory behind it follow the reference in Note 4. below).


The intensity of a metaphor

There is a sense of shock about a metaphor… which results from the clash of juxtaposed literal sense.

__ Paul Henle↓5

One puzzling aspect of the expressive capaciousness of metaphor takes the form of an image’s potential for focusing both thought and emotion in a particularly intense, economical way.  

__ Robert Rogers↓6

…by circumventing discretization [metaphors] enable the communication of ideas with a richness of detail much less likely to come about in the normal course of events.


… the emotive as well as the sensory and cognitive aspects [of the subject of metaphor] are more available [in mind], for they have been left intact in the transferred chunk [of meaning].

__ Andrew Ortony↓7

As Ortony explains so well in his essay, metaphor “lies much closer to perceived experience” in a significant way that makes it a particularly vivid phenomenon. We experience the world in a continuous and holistic fashion. Our stream of consciousness is a flow of sensations of all kind coming in simultaneously, whether at that time we are interacting with the outside world or going through our own ideas, emotions, or memories. We don’t experience things in a discrete, fragmented, one-by-one fashion as when we see concepts graphically displayed in a presentaion, or dissected frog parts laid out on a science lab table. Metaphor does the same by not spelling out the new grounds of meaning: it just poses an image before us and our attempt to apprehend it (holisticall, continuously) does the job. 

The following short poem by Emily Dickinson (found at bartleby) illustrates the point well:

It dropped so low in my regard

I heard it hit the ground,

And go to pieces on the stones

At bottom of my mind;


Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less

Than I reviled myself

For entertaining plated wares

Upon my silver shelf.


Without spelling out what ‘it’ was and why and how it came to be discarded from its high place in the author’s mind, the intensity of the mental event, the vivacity with which the poet experienced it, the emotions associated with the whole episode, and the strong sentiments with which the poet seems to regard in general the contents of her mental life, are all immensely clear from just one reading of the poem.

There is another reason for the vividness of a metaphor, and that is its compactness (Ortony, see notes for source): By juxtaposing two apparently unrelated objects in the readers’ minds (human emotion and a flower in one of Nasir’s examples) and forcing them to envisage a new kind of relationship between them, metaphors posit endless shades of meaning for the reader’s appreciation. For instance roses’ glee could be a reference to their beauty (smiling happy faces have been often likened to flowers), to the emotion that a beautiful sight such flowers create in us (a thing of beauty is a joy forever), to the purity associated with sights of nature, to the freshness of flowers, to their swaying on their stalks like children swinging gaily, to the pleasant sensation generated through their smell, etc. All these shades of meaning and more have been packed into a single two-word phrase, what Ortony calls the ‘compactness thesis’ of his theory.


The memorability of a metaphor

Compactness, vividness, and irreplacibility make for a memorable image: well-suited for educational purposes. In class-room, it were always the skillful lecturers who made the often remote-from-routine-life concepts of __ math, physics, medicine, psychology __ alive in our imagination so that we could picture them easily (and even enjoy the lecture!) that were more successful. Not possible without good metaphors:

The educational power of metaphors is thus twofold. The vivid imagery arising from metaphorical comprehension encourages memorability and generates of necessity a better, more insightful, personal understanding. But also, it is a very effective device for moving from well-known to the less well-known, from vehicle to topic.  

__ Ortony, (p. 17)

Humanliness of the literary metaphor 

Literature’s world is a concrete human world of immediate experience. The poet uses images and objects and sensations much more than he uses abstract ideas … The world of literature is human in shape, … where the primary realities are not atoms or electrons but bodies, and the primary forces are not energy or gravitation but love and death and passion and joy.

__ Northrop Frye↓8

Human beings become human through the acquisition of language, and the acquisition alienates humans from all those things language names. The name is a substitute for the thing, it displaces the thing in the very act of naming it, so that language finally stands even between one human being and another. Much of our poetry has been written to undo this situation, to remove the veil of language that covers everything with a false familiarity… 

__ Robert Scholes↓9

… literary metaphor depicts the themes that occasion it, communicating meaning imagistically by rendering it presentational.

__ Phillip Stambovsky↓10

The success of the  metaphor thus lies in recreating for us the lively vivid life in our reading experience which is so close to us. Thus it most effectively performs its fundamental function in literature: giving it the human shape we need to connect with it; and, as Stambovsky reminds us, performs it in the very manner so essentially familiar to us. This latter feature of the metaphor may be called intimation through a metaphor and is psychologically enticing and influential for the reader…


Intimation through metaphor

There is a unique way in which the maker and appreciator of metaphor are drawn closer to one another. Three aspects are involved: (1) the speaker issues a kind of concealed invitation; (2) the hearer expends a special effort to accept the invitation; and (3) this transaction constitutes the acknowledgment of a community.

__ Ted Cohen↓11

Perhaps the reason why so many metaphors have a peculiarly poignant beauty is because each of them kindles in us momentarily a dim memory of the time when we lost the outer world–when we first realized the outer world is outside, and we are unbridgeably apart from it, and alone. Furthermore, the mutual sharing of such metaphorical experience would seem, thus, to be about as intimate a psychological contact as adult human beings can have with one another.

__ Harold Searle↓12

Some authors even believe that the force of a metaphor’s image can lead to an exchange of material from the unconscious to conscious mind in the reader (in Rogers, p. 11). We must now consider what exactly constitutes this force; what is it in a metaphor that leads to such influence. Let us see.


The metaphor can be disclosive in the sense of being an eye-opener, helping us to understand hidden relations between the [target and source].


Poetic devices and imaginative literature do not necessarily provide us with new information. What they do best is to give us insight into the (tacit) knowledge we already possess.

__ Snaevarr↓13

Both Snaevarr and Stambovsky associate certain terms with metaphorical comprehension that help us realize how metaphor induces an intimate connection with the author, the subject-matter, and, potentially, the world at large. Snaevarr argues how, when we understand a metaphor, we go through the same process of ‘seeing something as something’ involved in many instances of purely sense-based perception. For instance, when an object (such as a cat) is before us, typically, we merely notice what it is. Here our knowledge/concept of the object helps us quickly recognize it: perception nearly depends here on pre-existing knowledge. But when an ambiguous oil painting is presented before us and, while appreciating it, it suddenly ‘dawns’ on us that it depicts a beautiful cat: that is what Wittgenstein↓14 called ‘seeing as’.

from wikipedia 

An easy-to-relate example would be of the famous Necker cube which can be seen either as a cube projecting away from us on its northeast side or as a cube projecting on its southwest side. This kind of seeing-as is internal and spontaneous: external descriptions do not necessarily lead us to see the two different possible cubes in our mind, it has to come from within. There is also a kind of filtering and ‘foregrounding’ involved. When our mental image switches from one possible cube to the other, the first one seems to disappear and certain features of the new cube seem to ‘lighten up’ in the image. The same happens when the meaning intended by the metaphor dawns on us. The metaphor foregrounds a part and when we appreciate it a new meaning dawns on us, or an old obscure or forgotten meaning lightens up with new significance, or a subtly familiar one is brought into explicit focus.

When applied to less visual material, such a seeing-as is better termed ‘insight’: understanding the inner nature of things. The process of insight is both intuitive (that is, it does not involve conscious reasoning) and spontaneous. It also has the quality of an ‘enlightment’ and is often (specially in problem solving) sudden. It gives a feeling of familiarity with the subject in question by suddenly casting it for us in a new light (in the above stated ‘seeing as’ fashion) that we were not able to appreciate before (see famous cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon‘s paper for good descriptions of both intuition and insight). The kind of effective lectures I mentioned before created this in us: a feeling that now we really knew the topic, we knew how things really worked, how it really feels. Good metaphors achieve the same effect. Perhaps that is why:

Metaphors which provide insight into an unknown, transcendent, or mysterious subject thus can have an extremely powerful effect on those who accept them.

__ Stallman↓15 

As Snaevarr clarifies, what metaphor really does is to lighten up a piece of tacit knowledge we already possessed. The most comprehensive definition of tacit knowledge that I could find online is that it is:

Unwritten, unspoken, and hidden vast storehouse of knowledge held by practically every normal human being, based on his or her emotions, experiences, insights, intuitions, observations and internalized information. 

Indeed the feeling of intimacy and closeness will not be produced if we did not realize that the metaphor focused us on a thought or feeling we were familiar with but had never been consciously aware of. For instance consider the following verses by Nasir Kazmi, in translation by me along with the original Urdu in Roman script:


On the town’s vacant station

A passenger must have alighted

[shehr ke khali station per

koi musafir utra hoga]


 Hear it immersed in the depths of heart

No song is indeed a song of glee…

[dil ki gehrayion mein doob ke dekh

koi naghma khushi ka naghma nahin]


Shivering, the long nights put to us a haunting question

Their laden sound-like silence hisses answers…

[ye thitri hue lambi raaten kuch poochti hein

ye khamushi-e avaaz numa kuch kehti he]


In your lane all day

I pick the pebbles of grief

[teri gali mein sara din

dukh ke kankar chunta hoon]


From the nameless reaches of the islands of memory

The waves of your voice still reach

 [yad ke benishan jazeeron se

teri avaaz arehi he abhi]


These verses conjure up in us strange unspeakable feelings (and certainly many more shades of the atmosphere related to) respectively, lonely change or movement through life; the sombre sadness associated with awareness of existential realities that give rise to creative expression; introspection on the nature of our existence that typically transpires in the dark and silent moments of night before we fall asleep; the rambling recall of the many pleasures of a friendship after it has terminated; and the persisting subconscious connection with a long lost love… experiences we have all encountered in life, directlyor indirectly. That is why we relate to them and their author, and feel affected by them.

Metaphors are closer to emotional reality for the same reasons that they are closer to perceptual experience. To say of an unexpexted event that it was a miracle is to say far more than that it was inexplicable: it is to express joy, admiration , wonder, awe and a host of other things without mentioning any of them.

__ Andrew Ortony↓16

Remember that tacit knowledge encompasses a great number of sources such as bits and pieces picked up incidentally, subconsciuosly or by implication; by engaging in non-verbal skills; through general observations and readings; and knowledge of internal states personally experienced or understood through empathy. That is why, metaphor is a powerful and often the sole means of expressing our internal states. And “the particular ability of imaginative literature to disclose the unique, not least the uniquely personal” (Snaevarr, p. 361) most probably depends on metaphor.


The psychological power of metaphor

If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter the conceptual system and the perceptions and actions that the system gives rise to.

__ Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 111

In their book Metaphors We Live By (1980), Lakoff and Johnson make the case of how metaphors do not just represent our perception of common realities, they have the power to create realities themselves. For instance, the prevalence and conventionality of the metaphor “argument is war” not only represents but also reinforces in turn a culture of argumentation where it is viewed as competitive rather than as a cooperative social exercise; whereby it is supposed to be won or lost rather than as taken to be a means of forwarding consensual decisions.

Consider the example of a fresh metaphor: ‘problems are solutions’, where solution is used in the chemical sense of the word. Actually, the authors took the metaphor from a real example of their Iranian student who thought that the expression ‘the solution of my problems’ was metaphorical. The student visualized “a large volume of liquid, bubbling and smoking, containing all of your problems, either dissolved or in the form of precipitates, with catalysts constantly dissolving some problems (for the time being) and precipitating out others”. The metaphor is not actually in use anywhere, but, as Lakoff and Johnson demonstrate how this metaphor creates a new, more profitable view of ‘problems’ than is currently prevalent. In this new view, derived from the new meaning constructed by the metaphorical comparison of real-life problems with a chemical solution, problems are accepted as a more or less recurring part of life. We use certain catalysts which temporarily solve some problems but the same process, or the disturbance in the combinations of catalysts created by a single-instance usage may lead to the precipitation of some other problem. “Rather than direct your energies toward solving your problems once and for all, you would direct your energies toward finding out what catalysts will dissolve your most pressing problems for the longest time without precipitating out worse ones. The reappearance of a problem is viewed as a natural occurence rather than as a failure on your part to find “the right way to solve it”.”

In contrast the more current view of problems as puzzles reinforces the expectation that there is one solution to each problem, that once applied, it will make the problem go forever. Recurrence of the problem implies a failure on the part of our ability to solve it. While the problem lasts, a state of confusion and frantic attempts to solve it and resolve it continue. Etc, etc.

Similarly, James Geary mentions research to the effect that when finance journalists use ‘agent metaphors’ to describe stock market behavior (such as ‘prices climbed higher’, or ‘the market fought back’) “an enduring internal goal or disposition” is inferred with the implication that the trend “is likely to continue tomorrow” (p. 31). In fact, it is in this sense of metaphor’s effects that scholars such as Lakoff and Johnson have highlighted the political, or let’s say, ideological power of metaphor…


The ideological power of metaphor


The people who get to impose their metaphors on the culture get to define what we consider to be true.

__ Lakoff and Johnson↓17  

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which became poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, canonic and binding;

 __ Friedrich Nietzsche↓18 (in James Geary, p. 116)

Indeed we are familiar with presidential candidates, regimes, or factions in society popularizing and reinforcing ‘pet metaphors’ in their followers’ minds to ingrain their preferred sets of attitudes — their ideology. Similar examples can be given from the domain of religion. The budhist’s wheel of life and the muslim’s Straight Path are presented metaphorically, binding important aspects of their faith, creating their spiritual reality for them, defining the meaning and purpose of life to them, and motivating important attitudes and behaviors in each.

[This is not the place to argue, however, on the absolute relativity (or not) of truth (a topic with which this blog though is very much concerned and is yet to present a full-fledged treatment of the problem; though the topic has been touched upon in various posts).]

After having explored the concept of metaphor, establishing its power and significance from the point of view of both the sender and receiver of a communication, we are now set to see how the topic relates to the Quranic corpus. It’s easy to find all kinds of metaphors in Qur’an; important systems of extended conceptual metaphors that present, educate, and penetrate to the heart and mind of it’s readers; beautiful, visualizable, and novel, original metaphors that capture the sentient nature of its target audience and leave lasting and powerful impressions; metaphors so original and absolute as they must be for depicting realities beyond the periphery of ordinary human perception.

I feel excited at this point of my journey in the realm of the Metaphor. For these past few months, having thought about familiar metaphors from the Quran against all my developing understanding of metaphors in general now makes me feel as if I am approaching the great universe of the Qur’an with fresh eyes.

Till then, fi aman-i Allah


1. Olaf Jakel (2002). Hypotheses revisited: The cognitive theory of metaphor applied to religious texts, metaphoric.de, vol. 2, pp. 20-42. Found at http://www.metaphorik.de/02/jaekel.pdf

2. Ortony, A. (1975). Why metaphors are necessary and not just nice. Reprinted in Cultural Metaphors: Readings, research translations, and commentary, Ed. M. J. Gannon, 2001, Sage Publications. Found at http://books.google.co.in/books?id=Ih0BUezsl6kC&printsec=frontcover

3. Johnson (1980), taken from Bob Stallman (1999), Divine hospitality in the Pentateuch: A metaphorical perspective on God as host. PhD Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, pp. 40-41. Found at http://eagle.northwestu.edu/faculty/bob-stallman/files/2011/03/2.pdf

4. Sam Gluckseburg (2008). How metaphors create categories — quickly. In Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., Ed. Raymond W. Gibbs. Cambridge University Press. Found at ftp://ftp.turingbirds.com/ai/The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Metaphor%20and%20Thought.pdf

5. Paul Henle, (1958), Metaphor. Reprinted in Philosphical Perspectives on Metaphor, Ed. Mark Johnson, 1980, University of Minnesota Press, p. 102

6. Rogers, R. (1978). Metaphor: A psychoanalytical perspective. University of California Press, p. 7. Found at http://books.google.com/books?id=zxH3W27COqgC&printsec=frontcover

7. (1975), from Cultural metaphors, pp. 16-17

8. N. Frye (1964) found in Phillip Stambovsky’s (1988), The depictive image: Metaphor and literary experience, University of Massachusetts Press, p. 50.

9. Scholes (1985) in Stambovsky, 1988, p. 89.

10. Stambovsky, 1988, p. 3

11. T. Cohen (1978) from Stallman (1999), p. 44

12. Harold Searle, Collected Papers on Schizophrenia. Quoted in Rogers, 1978, p. xi

13. Stefan Snaevarr (2010). Metaphors, narratives, emotions: Their interplay and impact, Rodopi, Amsterdam, p. 83 and p. 360 respectively.

14. Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is credited with this conceptamong many others he theorized upon in his now classic Philosophical investigations. For a simple explanation of his concept read point 1 of this lecture presentation: http://www.phil.cam.ac.uk/teaching_staff/ahmed/WittgensteinPhilosophicalInvestigationsLecture15.pdf

15. Stallman (1999), p. 41

16. in Cultural metaphors, p. 17

17. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors we live by. Originally published by University of Chicago Press. Found online at: http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O’Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

18. in James Geary, (2011), I is an Other: The secret life of metaphor and how it shapes the way we see the world, Harper Collins, p. 116.



THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – II

In cognition, language and communication, Literature|Religion, The Method on October 18, 2011 at 6:21 pm


Continued from Part I

The significance of Metaphor

The word metaphor consists of two Latin roots: ‘meta’ which means over, and ‘pherein’ meaning ‘to carry, to bear’; thus literally meaning ‘to carry over’. Thus the essence of a metaphor lies in the carry over of meaning, and as we consider the true purport of this ‘transfer of meaning’ concept we realize that the significance of metaphor underlies much broader areas of life than mere literary effectiveness.

Indeed, historically, metaphor was considered only a rhetorical device: a way of embelleshing (or adorning) the language to make the presentation of an idea more beautiful, effective, and vivid. However, scholars have come to acknowledge the almost universal presence of metaphor in all our speech and even thought, coming to much broader conclusions about the nature, function, and power of metaphor in human culture. Detailed analysis of the current theory of metaphor reveales that metaphor is a part and parcel of our thought processes. It’s neither unique nor restricted to any ‘special usages’ in literature.

As Lakoff and Turner claimed in their seminal paper titled Metaphors We Live By (1980) studying metaphors may be “one of the more fruitful ways of approaching fundamental logic, epistemological and ontological issues central to any philosophical understanding of human experience.”

We, unfamiliar readers, cannot fully appreciate the significance of metaphor unless we first consider the theoretical underpinnings of the concept and what current scholars in philosophy, psychology, and cognitive scientists have to say about it. Apart from that, and as a pretext, overviewing the omnipresence of metaphors in our life will help us realize just how broad the topic is, rather than being restricted, as traditionally thought, to the area of effective language skills.


The ubiquity of metaphors

We don’t realize when we speak but we are using metaphors all the time. Most of our speech is made of idiomatic expressions of some sort or another. A majority of those involve metaphor. To fall in love, to burn in anger, apple of the eye, hand in hand with, flying colors, sunny smiles, radiant beauty, snail mail, black death, dove as a symbol for peace, heart as a symbol for love, color red as a symbol for danger, all of these are specific examples of metaphor in various means of communication.

Apart from idiomatic expression, the very roots of words are pictorial, transfering meaning from something concrete and picturable to some other situation which may or may not go on to become so abstract that the combination loses it’s metaphoric significance (see dead metaphor in the last post). Examples of such words in which metaphorical origins are still obvious are: coinage, leggings, leap-frog, to moonlight, yardstick, heading, etc. For examples in which the meaning has become more abstract and conceptual we have to look into their etymology to reach their pictorial origins. For instance the word diverge comes from the latin di for two and vergere for ‘to incline’. Thus the literal meaning of ‘diverge‘ is to incline in two different directions. Similarly, the word delineate, meaning to outline and to portray, consists of de: completely, and lineare: to draw lines. The word confront consists of com-: together, and frontem: forehead; leading to the originally prevalent meaning of ‘to stand in front of’. Further metaphorical application lead to the current meaning of: to present with, to oppose, to find in one’s way, etc.

Traditionally, metaphor has been associated with literature. However, in his book, I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way we See the World, James Geary presents examples of use of metaphor in common cultural enterprises such as advertising, finance, politics, entertainment, science and innovation. Stock exchange, the great depression, dead cat bounce, ‘fringe’ benefits, are some examples of metaphorical description of things related to finance, economics, and business. In advertising, personification of products is metaphorical since the intention is to imbue the product with some valued or desirable characteristics of humans/animals. Thus Explorer, Warrior, Mustang, Cougar, Jaguar are all metaphorical names of cars. In politics, slogans in times of war and conflicts, floursihing desrcriptors used to describe world or national affairs, and the metaphors used in politicians’ addresses all exude and cast certain meaning on the subject situation through the associations and implications of the metaphor.

Fields of science and innovation are again rife with metaphors. Talk of “first line of defense”, engulfing microphages, cells, transportation and carriage in the blood, assimilation, genetic transmission, inheritance, transcriptions, genetic code, neuronal triggers and wiring, killer T-cells, imprinting, the food web, lock-and-key position, chemistry, half life, (chemical) affinity, catalysts, electric current and flow of heat, black holes, dark energy, the big bang, space-time curve, dwarf and supergiant stars, spectrum, and many more↓1.


Metaphors enhance understanding and organize knowledge

We need the metaphor in just the cases when there can be no question as yet of the precision of scientific statement.

__ Black, (1962)↓2

In summarizing tenets of a cognitive theory of metaphor, Jakel Olaf (2002) wrote that metaphors commonly form “coherent cognitive models: complex gestalt structures of organized knowledge” that serve as “pragmatic simplifications of an even more complex reality.”  An example is the concept of ‘commucination’ whose metaphorical nature was illustrated by Reddy (1979)↓3. We conceive of communication as sending of ideas from one person to another through the use of language. This conceptualization entails equalizing ‘idea’ with an object, with ‘language’ as their container.

In Metaphors We Live By↓4, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) explain: “Metaphor is one of our most important tools for trying to comprehend partially what cannot be comprehended totally: our feelings, aesthetics, moral practices, and spiritual awareness.”

This fact holds not just for ordinary experience but also for the scientific endeavor to understand the world. According to one scientist, Eugene Garfield: “metaphor enters into the communication of scientific ideas and at times influences the formulation of scientific problems and the ways in which problems are conceptualized and approached.” For instance Frued’s ‘topography of the mind’ uses a submerged iceberg as a metaphor for the levels of consciousness in human thought. Current cognitive science deploys a model of human mind as a computer to understand it’s working. The heart has long been viewed as a pump and blood as a transportation mechanism. The interiors of an atom have long been conceptualized as a ‘planetary system’ with electrons floating and revolving in orbits around a nucleus. Patterns of food consumption across animal species have been conceptualized as a web. Immunse system has been conceptualized as an army lined for defense of the body and deploying attack when foreign agents infiltrate the body.

The reason for this dependence on metaphor is that a majority of the concepts we utilize in scientific endeavor and in philosophy are abstract, not concrete. As such they are not directly observable or accessible by the human senses. Their presence must be inferred through their discernable characteristics which serve as ‘indications’ pointing to the underlying ‘hypothetical construct’. Thus in defining an emotion such as an anger we refer to the visible effects of anger and describe them metaphorically: a red face, a warm skin, etc. In referring to something as anxiety we rely on the metaphorical expression of butterflies in the stomach.

Furthermore, applying metaphor to scientific theory guides further quest for knowledge; an example of how  is the theory of light waves. Scientists applied to light the metaphor of water waves and wondered about the medium in which light waves propogate, given the fact that water waves do not exist outside of its medium. Thus scientific models, essentially metaphorical in nature, not only help us think about abstract phenomenon beyond our sensorial grasp, they also help us organize our understandings into a visualizable and manipulable form, ultimately becoming vehicles of further generation of knowledge. I will explore this power of metaphorical constructions further in the next post, InshaAllah, as this current part is devoted to understanding the nature of metaphor.


Metaphors and the human conceptual system

Lakoff and Johnson (1980) in The Metaphorical Structure of the Human Conceptual System, have classified human concepts into metaphorical and non-metaphorical. Examples of the latter include spatial orientations (down, near, etc), ontological concepts (person, substance, etc), and structured experiences and activities (eating, moving, etc.). In contrast, the three type of metaphorical concepts described by the authors are:

i) Orientational metaphors: “These structure concepts linearly, orienting them with respect to nonmetaphorical linear orientations.” (p. 196). For instance in statements ‘higher no. of mistakes’, ‘at the height of power’, ‘feeling down’, ‘high intellectuality’, etc have the metaphorical structuring of ‘more’ in terms of the spatial orientation of up (and vice versa for ‘less’ and ‘down’).

ii) Ontological metaphors: “These involve the projection of entity or substance status on something that does not have that status inherently.” (p. 196). Examples include Reddy’s example of language as container of ideas which themselves are conceptualized as objects to be contained. Expressions such as ‘getting something out of one’s head’, ’empty-headedness’, ‘clear one’s head’, etc imply the metaphorical view of ‘mind’ as a container.

iii) Structural metaphors: “These involve structuring of one kind of experience or activity in terms of another kind of experience or activity.” (p. 196) Examples include understanding as seeing in ‘I see what you mean’, and life as gamble in “taking one’s chances’.

As such these metaphors have rationally derived entailments just like non-metaphorical ones. Thus given the metaphor of time as a resource, some of its entailments show in the following expressions: ‘spend time wisely’, ‘it will cost me too much time’, ‘investing one’s time’, ‘profitable use of time’, etc.

Thus some of our very basic semantic concepts are metaphorical. Thus categories are viewed as containers: we place items in and out of them. Linear scales are viewed as paths with quantites measured along the path.


Metaphors, symbols, isomorphisms, and structural mapping

Lakoff further elaborated the process underlying the metaphorical representation of concepts. They call this process structural mapping. Before I come to that, however, I would like to relate the nature of metaphor with concepts I have learned from Hofstadter’s iconic Godel, Escher, Bach regarding the construction of meaning in the human mind.

According to Hofstadter, patterns of neuronal activation (one neuron activating and leading to the activation of another and so on and so forth) become associated with chains of bits of information in the real world giving rise to symbols in our mind. Thus when we associate certain sounds with certain shapes (letters of alphabets) connected in our brains through neurons linking up one bit of inforation in the brain area for sounds, with the pertinent paired information in the brain area for shapes, these are ‘signals’. It is when these signals are chained to for a pattern of sound which refers to some object in the real world (such as the sound pattern ‘table’ referring to the actual table), that a symbol is formed. Meaning, Hofstadter stresses, is not contained in the symbol (call it the sound pattern or the underlying neuronal pattern); rather, it lies in the association with the real-life object.

The concept of metaphor is similar to this symbolization process. Indeed, Lakoff, in his 2008 article on the neural basis of metaphor↓5, relies on the same phenomenon of neural circuitry that Hofstadter relies (as explained in laymen terms above) for his own concepts. Again, the value of metaphor lies not in the target or source stimulus alone, it lies in the comparison (a kind of association) between the two. More importantly, it is the reading of one thing onto another that redefines metaphor as type of symbol, hence a central vehicle of thought. When we read ‘cat’ we recall the real life cat we are familiar with. When we read ‘the poem is a diamond’ we read features of diamonds__’pricelessness’, ‘value’, ‘brilliance’, ‘an object of beauty and admiration’__onto the poem. This phenomenon of carrying meaning from one level of data onto another was referred to as isomorphism by Hofstadter. Again the meaning lies in the ‘carriage’ or ‘transfer’ of attributes from one level onto another, an assertion that clearly reminds one of the definition of metaphor.

Now the kind of isomorphism that exists between the target and source stimuli of a metaphor was elaborated as ‘structural mapping’ by Lakoff (1993)↓6. According to Lakoff there is one ot one correspondence between features of the target and source domains. This idea is excellently elaborated by the example presented by Lakoff himself (p. 217):


Times are things.

The passing of time is motion.

Future times are in front of the observer; past times are behind the observer.

Along with his students, Lakoff identified a general mapping scheme which underlies our metaphorical understanding of several “states, changes, processes, actions, causes, purposes and means” (p. 220), which he called as ‘event structure’:

States are locations (bounded regions in space).

Changes are movements (into or out of bounded regions).

Causes are forces.

Actions are self-propelled movements.

Purposes are destinations.

Means are paths (to destinations).

Difficulties are impediments to motion.

Expected progress is a travel schedule….

Long-term purposeful activities are journeys.


Different parts of this mapping schemes are evident in expressions such as ‘leaving life’, ‘achieving milestones’, ‘overcoming obstacles in one’s way’, ‘reaching maturity’, ‘stagnant career’, ‘moving ahead in life’, etc.


More on metaphor and meaning


 I want a naturalized theory of meaning: a theory that articulates in nonsemantic and nonintentional terms, sufficient conditions for one bit of the world to be about (to express, represent, or be true of) another bit.

Fodor (1987)↓7

… every single sentence may give rise to an open array of interpretations which go well beyond the encoded senses. Some of the best examples of this are … creative metaphors.

Sperber and Wilson (2008)↓8

People are simply unwilling to be silent about what they cannot talk about — they use metaphor instead. [And] while [metaphor and literal comprehension] clearly differ in linguistic analysis, in terms of psychological processes their underlying continuity should be emphasized.

Kintsch (2008)↓9

The discussion using Hofstadter’s concepts and the quotes above make it clear that as far as cognition is concerned, the case of metaphor is neither special nor limited. Human thought can never be direct: we can never access reality directly in a pure sense__ a much discussed topic on this blog. What cognition does is approximately represent some part of the outer world internally, supported by the underlying physical base: the brain. Metaphor is one way how that happens. When metaphor is used explicitly in communication (as apart from it’s implicit presence in our conceptual system), it may be viewed as an endeavor to create the same cognitive scenario in the audience’ mind as in the communicator’s.

In the words of Sperber and Wilson (2008, p. 87): “[Paul] Grice characterized a speaker’s meaning as an overt intention to cause a certain cognitive effect in an audience … A speaker’s meaning is … [thus] a mental state. The mental states of others cannot be simply perceived or decoded, but must be inferred from their behaviour, together with background information. … speakers intend their audience to discover their meaning, and provide evidence to that effect, in the form of communicative behavior.”

 Thus what matters in communication is not the nature of the input, but it’s relevance in guaging the speaker’s intention or it’s relevance to the context of communication such that it succeeds in eliciting a cognitive effect in the audience’s mind. “The input may answer a question the individual had in mind, it may raise or settle a doubt, suggest a hypothesis or a course of action, confirm or disconfirm a suspicion, correct a mistake. … The greater the cognitive effects produced by processing an input, the greater its relevance… [Also] the smaller the processing effort required to achieve these effects, the greater the relevance. (p. 88)”

 Therefore, as Sperber and Wilson (2008) clarify, as far as construction of meaning in the audience’s mind is concerned, literal meanings go through the same process as non-literal ones. It is by referrence to the context and to non-verbal and non-literal cues in the communicating situation that the reader’s mind arrives on the right interpretation back and forth between literal and non-literal connotations. Indeed these two authors propose a continuum of verbal communications ranging from ‘literal’, as in ‘I have a diamond’, through ‘loose’, as in ‘I have some carbon’ (with ‘carbon’ applied to the same literal ‘diamond’), to metaphorical, as in ‘This poem is a diamond’ applications of the same verbal inputs.


Summary and Post-Script

In summary, metaphor is not merely a linguistic device for creating pretty images in literature. Merely considering the omnipresence of metaphor across human media and culture is enough to persuade us of this point. Metaphor is part and parcel of the human conceptual system. It is a necessary fall-back mechanism for understanding the world and for communicating that understanding to others, for the simple reason that we can neither access the outside world directly nor communicate our internal states to others directly. Indeed, the research on how parts and cells of the brain represent the world, and theories on meaning construction support this point. Moreover, metaphor is not even unique or special when compared with more literal ways of expressing throught: the same context- and association-based processes underly comprehension of both literal and nonliteral expressions.

There is much more on the nature and significance of metaphor. How it generates emotion, it’s relationship with beauty, it’s link with imagination and it’s powerful hold on human culture. Contrasting and comparing metaphor to similar devices such as similitude and analogies also sheds further light on the nature of metaphor and how it works. However, this post was devoted to a basic understanding of it and for reinforcing it’s deep and irrefutable link with human cognition, given the fact that Quran relies primarily on metaphor for its beautiful and heart-rending messages.

So, fare well until Part III. 



1. Those unfamiliar with any of these terms and wishing to know more, please find them on wikipedia. Two links other than that have been inserted in place.

2. Quoted in the online Chapter 2 of the PhD dissertation by Bob Stallman.

3. From Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Conceptual metaphor in everyday language. The Journal of Philosophy, 77 (8), pp. 453-486. Available online: http://www.cse.buffalo.edu/~rapaport/575/F01/lakoff.johnson80.pdf

4. Available for online study: http://www.pineforge.com/upm-data/6031_Chapter_10_O’Brien_I_Proof_5.pdf

5. Lakoff, G., (2008), The neural theory of metaphor, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, 3rd ed., edited by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr., Cambridge University Press. The book is available online at: ftp://ftp.turingbirds.com/ai/The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Metaphor%20and%20Thought.pdf#page=100

6. George Lakoff (1993), The contemporary theory of metaphor, in Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed., edited by Andrew Ortony, printed by Cambridge University Press. Available online at: http://www.cogsci.ucsd.edu/~coulson/203/lakoff_ps.pdf

7. in Mark Johnson, 2008, Philosophy’s Debt to Metaphor, The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 49

8. A deflationary account of metaphors, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 87

9. How the mind computes the meaning of metaphor, in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, p. 141

THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – I

In Admiring Literature, language and communication, Literature|Religion, The Method on September 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm

18 Shawwal, 1432:

Welcome back to the Qur’an Cycle!

The ayah I’m inspired with today is one of the many of Qur’an which use metaphor as a device for presenting a concept. Although familiar for students of language and literature, ‘metaphor’ is a now well-developed topic in both psychology and philosophy and it is taking me a long time (I started work on this topic way back during Ramadaan) to amass, collate and selectively integrate and present the multitude of illuminating information on this ‘new’ topic __ new not just for me, I’m sure, but for the majority of my readers as well.

Here is the subject ayah:

أَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَسَالَتْ أَوْدِيَةٌ بِقَدَرِهَا فَاحْتَمَلَ السَّيْلُ زَبَدًا رَّابِيًا ۚ وَمِمَّا يُوقِدُونَ عَلَيْهِ فِي النَّارِ ابْتِغَاءَ حِلْيَةٍ أَوْ مَتَاعٍ زَبَدٌ مِّثْلُهُ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ يَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْحَقَّ وَالْبَاطِلَ ۚ فَأَمَّا الزَّبَدُ فَيَذْهَبُ جُفَاءً ۖ وَأَمَّا مَا يَنفَعُ النَّاسَ فَيَمْكُثُ فِي الْأَرْضِ ۚ كَذَٰلِكَ يَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ

HE sends down out of heaven water, and the wadis flow each in its measure, and the torrent carries a swelling scum; and out of that over which they kindle fire, being desirous of ornament or ware, out of that rises a scum the like of it. So God strikes both the true and the false. As for the scum, it vanishes as jetsam, and what profits men abides in the earth. Even so God strikes His similitudes. (Ar-Ra’d, 17)  


What’s in a metaphor? ↓1

According to Janet Martin Soscike’s working definition (1985) “metaphor is that figure of speech whereby we speak about one thing in terms which are seen to be suggestive of another.”↓2

In common descriptions, a metaphor is seen as having two components: vehicle and tenor. In the above example from Quran, زَبَدًا رَّابِيًا  is the vehicle being the main figure of speech utilized. The tenor, as clarified in the ayah itself, and confirmed by common tafaseer such Ma’ariful Quran, is Falsehood (actually, false beliefs).

In linguistics, the terms vehicle and tenor are replaced by ‘source’ and ‘target’, respectively. 

The commonality between the target (or tenor) and source (or vehicle) may be referred to as a ‘ground’.


[Click the picture to view large version at original source.]


Types of metaphors↓3

Metaphors are widespread. Some are so common that we don’t even notice the figure of speech or visualize anything pictorial __ our focus goes directly onto the target rather than the source. Such metaphors may be labelled as dead metaphors.↓4 An example is the use of the word ‘fall’ in the expression ‘falling in love’.  Sometimes, a part of an image/figure is used as a metaphor (submerged metaphor). For instance in the Quranic ayah numbered 64, Sura Al-Maida, hand, a part of body, is used to refer to the generosity of God. Sometimes the part itself is used as a source to refer to a whole target (synechdochic metaphor) for instance meaning ‘car’ when saying ‘I like your wheels’.  

An extended metaphor is like a series of related or hierarchical metaphors such as “the world is a stage metaphor” in Shakespeare where men and women are also mentioned as ‘actors’. In a compound metaphor, the figure of speech is further qualified through adjectives or adverbs (for example ‘the car screeched in hated anguish‘). When the subject is clearly understandable from the context or from familiarity, the metaphor may be merely implied rather than stated explicitly. For example saying ‘we are burning today’ on a very hot today will be  well-understood.

Not in all cases is the similarity between the target and the source very obvious such as in the example of ‘rose and love’. Or in the Qur’anic subject ayah of the post. Such an absolute metaphor↓5 makes people think hard about it’s meaning, has the potential to become a permanent ‘image’ in people’s mind associated with distinct, broad and significant phenomenon of life (such as the use of ‘light’ for ‘truth’). The powerful image may be the only source of expressing the complex of ideas. Finally, an original metaphor represents an important message from the author that should be understood in terms of the author’s situation.↓6 Although the use of metaphor as a linguistic device is certainly widespread in the Qur’an, our Book is rich in both original and absolute metaphors.




Metaphorical devices

The essence of the concept of metaphor is that it is a pictorial way of expressing a quality of an unstated and intangible entity by stating (or by implying) it’s similarity/equality with a visualizable object. As such parable, similitudes, allegory, synecdoche, catachresis, metonymy are all special cases of metaphors↓7.

A parable uses metaphorical language in a short story form to present a clear, unambiguous, and usually moral, lesson. An allegory is a more general narrative type using any form of literary or artistic presentations and relying on figurative, symbolic representation (hence metaphorical) to present usually several lesson points. It’s interpretations may be unambiguous or less so.

A similie presents the comparison/likeness between two distinct entitites more explicitly by juxtaposing them, commonly through the use of words such ‘like’ or ‘as’, though other ways of presenting the comparison are also possible. Some metaphors rely on metonymy in which a thing is not called by it’s own name rather than by something intimately associated with it. When the associated thing is a specific part of the former, whole thing, this is a special case of metonymy called as synecdoche.

Finally, catachresis is an intended or unintended misapplication of a word to a situation where it does not logically belong; it’s the contrast that sets the scene for a vivid and highly pictorial metaphorical presentation. An example would be ‘to fly down the stairs’. Such a metaphor is then called a mixed metaphor.

This post might turn into a dry textbook type if I don’t rescue it with some Quranic examples. I’ll try to analyze the examples in light of the typologies considered. May Allah Ta’ala guide me.


Some Qur’anic metaphors


وَمَثَلُهُمْ فِي الْإِنجِيلِ كَزَرْعٍ أَخْرَجَ شَطْأَهُ فَآزَرَهُ فَاسْتَغْلَظَ فَاسْتَوَىٰ عَلَىٰ سُوقِهِ يُعْجِبُ الزُّرَّاعَ لِيَغِيظَ بِهِمُ الْكُفَّارَ

… THEIR likeness in the Gospel, is like a seed that sends out a stalk, then makes it firm, and it becomes strong and rises straight upon its stem, gladdening the cultivator’s heart, in order to fill the unbelievers with dismay. (in Al-Fat’h, 29)

1. One of the beautiful metaphors in Quran, this ayah is about the companions of the Prophet (salla Allahu alaihi wasallam) on how their example was described in the original Gospel of Hazrat Isa’s (Jesus). The metaphor begins with the conjunction ك (with fat’ha on it) meaning ‘like’; thus it is in the category of a similie. The main source is ‘seed’ developed further in the ayah thus becoming an ‘extended metaphor’. At a pure literary level, we might interpret every single element of the extended metaphor, attributing a target to each feature of the process of the seed’s growing up (such as it’s standing straight, it’s gaining strength, finally it’s becoming a strong trunk, etc.). According to Mariful Qur’an, however, it seems, that the interpreted meaning of the overall metaphor is the growth in numbers of the believers and followers when Prophet Mohammad (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) started preaching his religion. As such the metaphor might be viewed as a compound one, in which details are added to amplify the main source.


 يُكْشَفُ عَن سَاقٍ

ON THE day when the Shin shall be exposed. (in Al-Qalam, 42)

2. Apparently, this metaphor looks like a synecdoche, but that is not the case. In context, the ayah refers to the Day of Judgement when people will be called upon to bow down on the day of this Exposure, but those who never bothered to bow down in the world will be revealed here by being unable to do so again over here. According to Tafseer Ibne-Katheer, the pertinent ahadith in both Bukhari and Muslim reiterate the metaphorical concept of Shin exposure without elaborating it more explicitly. However, both the context of the ayah and according to a hadith with weaker sources, the Shin refers to the Exposure of our Lord the Al-mighty’s Light. Or it could be some other Attribute of His, according to Mariful Qur’an.

Also, according to an interpretation by Hazrat Ibne Abbas (razi Allahu unh), the meaning refers to the bone-renching terror of that hard day (this interpretation is shared in both the linked sources). This last meaning is also supported by reference to Arabic idiom, since shins are bared by lifting up of one’s garment when one is running away on a day of intense calamity↓8. By similar token, the Attribute or Light interpretation also gains support since women were supposed to cover till their shins, and in both situations (assuming former to be the target, and the latter to be the source) have the commonality of laying bare something meant to be otherwise concealed. Overall, this review informs us that this is certainly an original metaphor, the true meaning of which is only with the Author of the words, Himself.  


مَّثَلُ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ حَبَّةٍ أَنبَتَتْ سَبْعَ سَنَابِلَ فِي كُلِّ سُنبُلَةٍ مِّائَةُ حَبَّةٍ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ يُضَاعِفُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

THE example of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is similar to that of a grain which has sprouted seven stalks and in each stalk are a hundred grains; and Allah may increase it still more than this, for whomever He wills; and Allah is Most Capable, All Knowing. (in Al-Baqara, 261)
3.  This is another extended and compound metaphor in which the metaphorical relationship is established explicitly hence it is technically a similie. Although the target referred to is the people who do the spending, the target is their wealth spent in the way of Allah, which when spent is like a seed sown and will bring as much reward from God’s bounty as a single seed sprouting into a bushelful of grain.


فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا 

… HIS example is like that of a [large] smooth stone upon which is dust and is hit by a downpour that leaves it bare. (in Al-Baqara, 264)

4. In context, the above ayah is about the spending of those who do it merely for show; evidenced by the fact that their giving is usually followed by flaunting it in society or reminding of their ‘good deed’ to the taker, or it is followed by some kind of inferior treatment towards the taker. Again a similitude developed through compound elements, the main target is the true nature of their spending (likened to a hard, bare rock on which nothing of worth can grow). The spending itself was like some dust gathered on the flat stone; as soon as some wordly temptation came along (the rains), the true nature was revealed underneath.

لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَـٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ

… IT IS not the eyes that are blind, but it is the hearts in the bosoms, that are blind. (in Al-Hajj, 46)

5. There are two metaphors in here, both absolute. Heart is a well-known idiomatic reference to ‘sense’, ‘affect’, and ‘feeling’. Blindness is also a rather common representation of the state of senselessness, lack of insight, and affective insensitivity.


 In the next post, InshaAllah, I will follow with the theory of metaphor which will be the heart of this thread. I intend to return to the subject ayah and consider it’s interpretation in light of our understanding of how a metaphor works for us. Our Beautiful Qur’an is full of beautiful metaphors. I intend to streamline my current thread with an anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. The examples shared here were presented as an introduction.



1. For a very interesting introduction on metaphors in communication and language: http://www.macmillandictionaries.com/MED-Magazine/June2009/53-LA-Metaphor.htm

2. In Metaphor and Religious Language, Cross Reference: a study of metaphor. Ch 2

3. I’ve only considered here types which are pertinent to our context of ‘metaphor in Qur’an’.

4.Other than common sources this study of problems in metaphoric translation and it’s application to the Qur’an lists a lot of typologies.

5. Sources: Wikipedia, Changing Minds, & About.com.

6. According to Newmark (1988) in above.

7. Wikipedia is the source for all the definitions in this section.

8. Refer to the site Linguistic Miracle, devoted to a study of the linguistic beauty of the Qur’an.