Archive for the ‘Words of Gold: The Quran’ Category

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 I

In Anthologies, literature, Literature|Religion, Quran, The Method, Uncategorized, Words of Gold: The Quran on April 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

The Context

Qur’an is an inexhaustible resource whether analysed from literary, philosophical or mathematical points of view or more. There are many aspects of the Qur’an that a current reader might immerse in and glean countless gems for close study. In the current thread of posts, I have been focusing on Qur’anic metaphors, following on from a previous series of posts in which theory and literature on the topic were explored.

In this thread of posts, so far, I have been discussing examples of metaphors in Qur’an as they appear in various forms (such as similie and allegory). Closely related forms which are not exactly metaphors were also considered (such as metonymy).

In the current section I will consider examples from another angle: I came across various ‘types’ of metaphors during my literature search for the previous series of posts. There is no theme uniting these various ‘types’ into a common group. Rather they could not be categorized under any other typology we will be going through in this anthology. We will go through the various types in alphabetical order.

Abstract metaphors↓1

Metaphors typically rely on a concrete sensation to draw it’s vehicle. Such as ‘the rose’ of love, in which the visual beauty, tactile softness, and the ethereal perfume are drawn for their likeness to the beautiful sensations of love. Sometimes, however, the vehicle itself is an abstract noun, such as ‘the force’ of love in which force _ a hypothetical construct in physics__ is equated with the emotional pull of love.

Examples from the Qur’an follow:

يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ لَا تَغْلُوا فِي دِينِكُمْ وَلَا تَقُولُوا عَلَى اللَّـهِ إِلَّا الْحَقَّ ۚ إِنَّمَا الْمَسِيحُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ رَسُولُ اللَّـهِ وَكَلِمَتُهُ أَلْقَاهَا إِلَىٰ مَرْيَمَ وَرُوحٌ مِّنْهُ  

O People of the Scripture, do not commit excess in your religion or say about Allah except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. [in An-Nisa 171]

In this ayah, Hazrat Isa (alaihi-s-salaam) has been identified as a Word of God. This ayah is meant to persuade Christians and Jews about the truth of Hazrat Isa’s birth. His birth was extraordinary in an earthly son since he was born without a father. “Word of God’ is, of course, an abstract concept. It means the will, the command, and the decree of Allah. The birth of Prophet Isa occured the way it died because Allah had ordained it to be so. Moreover, its being no different from any human birth is referenced in ayah 59 of Surah Al-i-Imran↓2.

وَلَا تَزِرُ وَازِرَةٌ وِزْرَ أُخْرَىٰ 

And no bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.

 A classic Qur’anic idiom regarding ‘personal responsibility’, the phrase appears in several places throughout the Qur’an, such as Al-An’am 164, Al-Isra 15, and Surah Fatir 18. It is about the Day of Judgment when every person will be judged on their acts alone. Burden, again, is an abstract noun. The quote below from English Tafhim-yul-Qur’an succintly provides its interpretation.

… everyone is responsible and accountable for his own deeds and this responsibility can, on no account, be shifted from one to another.

This same (or similar) metaphor has been employed with other words too, examplified in the following quotations:

 وَسَاءَ لَهُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ حِمْلًا

and evil it is for them on the Day of Resurrection as a load [in Sura Ta’Ha 101]

 وَلَيَحْمِلُنَّ أَثْقَالَهُمْ وَأَثْقَالًا مَّعَ أَثْقَالِهِمْ ۖ وَلَيُسْأَلُنَّ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ عَمَّا كَانُوا يَفْتَرُونَ

 But they will surely carry their [own] burdens and [other] burdens along with their burdens, [in Al-Ankabut 13]

 وَقَدِمْنَا إِلَىٰ مَا عَمِلُوا مِنْ عَمَلٍ فَجَعَلْنَاهُ هَبَاءً مَّنثُورًا 

And We will regard what they have done of deeds and make them as dust dispersed. [Al-Furqan 23]

 The first two of these, himla and athwqal (plural for thaqal) are plain synonyms for wizr. The meaning of the second of those ayah references ayah 85 of An-Nisa↓3: Additional burdens are those incurred by one’s influences on other people’s character and behavior. The third might be viewed as a different metaphoric image (‘dust dispersed); but, has been drawn from the same abstract category: weight.


Conceptual metaphors

While abstract metaphors are typically cited in literary resources, conceptual metaphors is a popular cognitive theory of metaphorical thinking. In the simplest terms:

 conceptual metaphor, or cognitive metaphor, refers to the understanding of one idea, or conceptual domain, in terms of another

__ wikipedia

[Note that this definition essentially posits metaphor as a case of isomorphism.] This general theory basically encompasses all metaphors, but here some illustrative examples from the Qur’an are provided. Note that Lakoff and Johnson identified three types of conceptual metaphor. The definitions with proper citing has been covered in one of the previous sets of posts on metaphor. 

نَرْفَعُ دَرَجَاتٍ مَّن نَّشَاءُ  

We raise by degrees whom We will. [in Al-An’am 83]

A typical example of a conceptual metaphor, the imagery of the metaphor is not immediately obvious. The use of word ‘raise’ in the sense of qualifying /promoting something to its better or higher value is so common, we don’t realize that the literal meaning of word raise is only in the sense of physically lifting something up. Lakoff and Johnson called this is as an orientational metaphor: in which different gradations of non-physical phenomenon are presented as lined up on a linear up-down (higher/lower) continuum. Another metaphor from the lower end of the continuum is as follows, whereby God refers to the highest and lowest possible states of man in the Surah:

ثُمَّ رَدَدْنَاهُ أَسْفَلَ سَافِلِينَ 

Then We return him to the lowest of the low; [At-Tein 5]

Now consider the following examples:

وَكُلُّ أَمْرٍ مُّسْتَقِرٌّ 

But for every matter is a [time of] place. [in Al-Qamar 3]

وَإِنَّ لَهُ عِندَنَا لَزُلْفَىٰ

And indeed, We have for him a nearness [in Surah Saad 25]

وَلَـٰكِن يَنَالُهُ التَّقْوَىٰ مِنكُمْ  

…but what reaches Him is piety from you. [in Al-Hajj 37]

All these examples treat an abstract noun (respectively, ‘matter/issue’, ‘nearness’, and ‘piety’ as if it’s concrete. Literally, a matter cannot have a physical place, a nearness is not a possession to be had, and piety is not a parcel. Regarding them as such shows the inherent metaphor. A metaphor in which non-matter is treated as a substance is called ontological metaphor. Two more examples in the same category occur in the following classic proclamation from the Qur’an:

وَقُلْ جَاءَ الْحَقُّ وَزَهَقَ الْبَاطِلُ ۚ إِنَّ الْبَاطِلَ كَانَ زَهُوقًا

And say thou: the truth is come, and falsehood hath vanished; verily falsehood is ever vanishing. [Al-Isra 81]

 The third category involves expressing one kind of experience/activity in terms of another. These are called structural metaphors and involve the kind of structural mapping we have already illustrated in this series such as in the very previous post. In fact, the majority of metaphors incuding those considered literary, are based on such a structural map. Other examples that may be outlined through maps have been covered in previous posts on the simple metaphor, personification, and metaphoric symbols.



1. As in Shelestiuk, H. V. (2006). Approaches to metaphor: Structure, classifications, cognate phenomenon. Semiotica, 161 (1/4), 333-343.

2. The ayah was quoted as an example of isomorphism in a post of the previous section of this anthology.

 3. Translation of the referenced ayah from the source linked above: “Whoever intercedes for a good cause will have a reward therefrom; and whoever intercedes for an evil cause will have a burden therefrom. And ever is Allah, over all things, a Keeper.”


QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By Form VII

In Anthologies, literature, Literature|Religion, Quran, Words of Gold: The Quran on April 11, 2013 at 2:47 pm

In this last section, we discuss two literary devices that may be interpreted as extended metaphors: allegory and parable. They are often confused with each other, hence we must be clear of the difference between them.

Of Allegories and Parables…

Kulikovsky (1997)↓1 cites authentic sources in defining parables. The descriptions also clarify each of their relationship to metaphor:

Parables are short stories that are told in order to get a point across… The word “parable” (Gk. parabole) was generally used in reference to any short narrative that had symbolic meaning (Louw & Nida 1989, p. 391)… A true parable … may be regarded as an extended simile (Blomberg 1990, p. 32). It is a story that resembles real-life natural situations and does not contain any mythical or supernatural elements (Kuske 1995, p. 97)… C. H. Dodd (1961, p.16) defines a parable as: “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Allegory, as will be clear, is essentially an extended metaphor.

According to grammar.com:

The rhetorical strategy of extending a metaphor through an entire narrative so that objects, persons, and actions in the text are equated with meanings that lie outside the text.

 According to wikipedia and TheFreeDictionary, respectively:

Allegory is a device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts.


The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.


Examples of Allegory and Parable from the Qur’an 

Consider the following two ayahs:

وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ ۖ

قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِن ۖ قَالَ بَلَىٰ وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي ۖ

قَالَ فَخُذْ أَرْبَعَةً مِّنَ الطَّيْرِ فَصُرْهُنَّ إِلَيْكَ ثُمَّ اجْعَلْ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ جَبَلٍ مِّنْهُنَّ جُزْءًا

ثُمَّ ادْعُهُنَّ يَأْتِينَكَ سَعْيًا ۚ وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ اللَّـهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ

AND when Abraham said, “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.” Allah said, “Have you not believed?” He said, “Yes, but [I ask] only that my heart may be satisfied.” Allah said, “Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then [after slaughtering them] put on each hill a portion of them; then call them – they will come [flying] to you in haste. And know that Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” [Al-Baqara 260]


مَثَلُهُمْ كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي اسْتَوْقَدَ نَارًا فَلَمَّا أَضَاءَتْ مَا حَوْلَهُ ذَهَبَ اللَّـهُ بِنُورِهِمْ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ

Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see. [Al-Baqara 17]

 According to the definitions, the first example is a parable as it recounts an incident involving Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-salaam) to moralize about the prowess of Allah in creation. According to the ayah, Prophet Ibrahim requested Allah ta’ala to illustrate re-creation (or life after death) to him. Allah ta’ala instructed him to tame a bird and then to kill and place its different parts on foud different locations. Then, upon injuction from God, when the prophet called the bird’s name it came flying back to him, alive and whole.

This is a parable since it recounts an actual incidence, based on its similarity to the target problem in question: resurrection. The metaphoricity of the parable thus lies in the semblance of the story-events to the subject matter intended to be illustrated by it.

The second ayah is an allegory since a) it does not recount an actual incidence, b) each specific detail of the story can be mapped on to a concept/item of the specific subject that it illustrates. This ayah occurs in the very beginning of Surah Baqarah when after describing the Faithful people, God proceeds to describe the Hypocrites through several allegories. Above is the first of those. Below, the sturctural map is presented:

Ayah (allegory)                                  :                              Tafseer (target/meaning)

The man who kindled fire                :             Prophet Mohummad (salla-Allahu-alaihi-wasallam)

Fire                                            :                            God’s guidance in the form of Qur’anic verses

Illuminating the surroundings           :             Throwing light on the ignorant lifestyles OR lightening up the straight lifestyle

God snatching away their light            :              God interrupted their ability to perceive the message as it is

Their being left in darkness            :             Their inability to accept Islam

This is the common exegesis of the ayah then, embodied in this English translation of Tafhim-ul-Qur’an:

This means that two opposite effects emerged when a true servant of God radiated the light which made it possible to distinguish true from false and right from wrong, and made the straight way distinct from the ways of error. To those endowed with true perception, all truths became evident. But those who were almost blinded by the worship of their animal desires perceived nothing. 
      The expression, ‘Allah took away the light of their perception’ should not create the impression that these people were not responsible for their stumbling into darkness. Only those who do not seek the Truth, who prefer error to guidance and who are adamantly disinclined to pursue the Truth despite its luminosity, are deprived, by God, of the light of their perception. God simply enables such people to do what they wish.


Typically, allegories are the most vivid, beautiful, visual and literary of the Qur’anic metaphors, hence many more will be presented in a future section. Parables with prominent metaphorical content might also be discussed in various sections.

 In the next post, we move onto another typology of Qur’anic metaphors, InshaAllah.


1. Kulikovsky, A. S. (1997). The interpretation of parables, allegories and types. Accessed online at:


QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By Form VI

In Anthologies, philosophy, Quran, universe, Words of Gold: The Quran on April 10, 2013 at 11:01 am

Metaphors are utilised in the Qur’an in the even broader sense of ‘isomorphism’. As readers of this blog might recall↓, isomorphism is the mirroring of one set of information onto another. This might be examplified by the usage of symbols and literary metaphors or in the way brain processes information coming in from the world, or in the way on-screen pixels take the shape of live-action images in real world.

Thus, whereas in case of metaphors similarity lies in between one piece to another piece of information (source and target), isomorphism is more broad-scale with likenings (or, structural mappings, using Lakoff’s terms) between two series of information.

Evidence of isomorphism in the Qur’an


يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّنَ الْبَعْثِ

فَإِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ مِن نُّطْفَةٍ ثُمَّ مِنْ عَلَقَةٍ ثُمَّ مِن مُّضْغَةٍ مُّخَلَّقَةٍ وَغَيْرِ مُخَلَّقَةٍ لِّنُبَيِّنَ لَكُمْ ۚ

وَنُقِرُّ فِي الْأَرْحَامِ مَا نَشَاءُ إِلَىٰ أَجَلٍ مُّسَمًّى ثُمَّ نُخْرِجُكُمْ طِفْلًا ثُمَّ لِتَبْلُغُوا أَشُدَّكُمْ ۖ

وَمِنكُم مَّن يُتَوَفَّىٰ وَمِنكُم مَّن يُرَدُّ إِلَىٰ أَرْذَلِ الْعُمُرِ لِكَيْلَا يَعْلَمَ مِن بَعْدِ عِلْمٍ شَيْئًا ۚ

وَتَرَى الْأَرْضَ هَامِدَةً فَإِذَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْهَا الْمَاءَ اهْتَزَّتْ وَرَبَتْ وَأَنبَتَتْ مِن كُلِّ زَوْجٍ بَهِيجٍ 

O PEOPLE, if you should be in doubt about the Resurrection, then [consider that] indeed,
We created you from dust, then from a sperm-drop, then from a clinging clot,
and then from a lump of flesh, formed and unformed – that We may show you.
And We settle in the wombs whom We will for a specified term,
then We bring you out as a child, and then [We develop you] that you may reach your [time of] maturity.
And among you is he who is taken in [early] death,
and among you is he who is returned to the most decrepit [old] age so that he knows, after [once having] knowledge, nothing.
And you see the earth barren, but when We send down upon it rain,
it quivers and swells and grows [something] of every beautiful kind. [Al-Hajj 5]
 In the above ayah, three different types of growths have been likened to each other:
  1.  development of the embryo inside the mother’s womb,
  2. progression of the born human from birth till senile age, and,
  3. the blossoming of foliage from barren earth into beautiful grass.

The common thread between all three types of growths is the fruition from a non-existent or immature stage to the fully developed stage. The wilting of luscious grass into brown hay is not mentioned here but has been mentioned in similar vein otherwise. Each living thing’s cycle of growth infact shows similar progression with basically the same two end-points: a) beginning of life and b) reversal of prime followed by death. The ayah thus succintly points out that no matter which stage or whose growth one might look at they all mirror the same pattern. This isomorphism in turn strongly suggests the sameness of the penultimate source of this cycle, in contrast to ‘random mistakes’ as suggested by the evolutionists.


 وَلَقَدْ جِئْتُمُونَا فُرَادَىٰ كَمَا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ أَوَّلَ مَرَّةٍ وَتَرَكْتُم مَّا خَوَّلْنَاكُمْ وَرَاءَ ظُهُورِكُمْ 

“AND you have certainly come to Us alone as We created you the first time, and you have left whatever We bestowed upon you behind you.” [in Al-An’am 94]

As per the above ayah, the two end-points of the cycle of growth themselves mirror each other: a progression from nothing to nothing. We are born empty-handed. Whaterver we acquire during our lifetimes (money, property, skills) is a part of the process of growing up in the world. In the end we leave empty-handed again. This mirroring was also catptured in the second example of the above ayah: God reminded there that after our birth we progress until old age where we become ignorant and unaware just as we were when we were born. The special aspect of the particular ayah now referred is that the sameness of the two unobserved phases of human existence has been implied: the phase before our birth and the phase after our deaths. We came from nothing (nothing here means only in the ‘physical sense’) and we return to nothing: matter and material are a midway stage observed only in this finite world.


إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَىٰ عِندَ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَ ۖ خَلَقَهُ مِن تُرَابٍ ثُمَّ قَالَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ

Indeed, the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam. He created Him from dust; then He said to him, “Be,” and he was. [Al-i-Imran 59]

On a theological subject, the Quran here points out the inherent sameness in the birth of Hazrats Adam and of Isa (alaihima-s-salaam). The Christian tendency is to regard Isa as (na-‘uzubi-Allah) Son of God on account of his fatherless birth to Bibi Maryam. Allah (subhanahu ta’ala) here gently points out how Hazrat Adam was created from scratch without a father or a mother. Birth to all sorts of creation in this world, of indeed the whole universe, and of the universe of heaven and hell that is invisible to us, is by virtue of God’s powers. It is after having descended Hazrat Adam onto earth with wife Hawwa that the familiar system of human reproduction was put in place. However, it goes without saying, that the Creator can re-create another sample of any being in whatever manner He wishes as a miraculous reminder of His Great Powers. Thus the birth of all human beings, indeed all living beings in this world are isomorphic to each other. This agains points to the unity of the Source of all this creation.


Usage of isomorphism in the Qur’an

The three examples we have considered are sufficient to illustrate how isomorphism differs from metaphors in their more narrowed, literary sense. Isomorphisms point out the correspondence and basic sameness of apparently different phenomenae. They seem to be more factual, used to point out big cosmic realities. On the other hand, literary metaphors might be used more often as examples and illustration.



All exposition regarding the ayahs relies on basic exegises as found in Maulana Maududi’s Tafheem-ul-Qur’an and Mir Taqi Uthmani’s Ma’ariful Qur’an.



QUR’AN ANTHOLOGIES: Illuminating Metaphors – By form V

In Anthologies, literature, Quran, Words of Gold: The Quran on April 8, 2013 at 4:31 pm

In this post InshAllah, we see how symbols relate to metaphor.

A symbol is something that represents an idea, a process, or a physical entity. The purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning. For example, a red octagon may be a symbol for “STOP”. On a map, a picture of a tent might represent a campsite. Numerals are symbols for numbers. Personal names are symbols representing individuals. A red rose symbolizes love and compassion. [wikipedia]

Symbols are more general and widely renown and referred-to than metaphors. They might be concrete images or objects, or they might be scribblings created purposely to denote something (numerals and alphabets are obvious examples). Symbols when used as means of expression, however, are derived as metaphors, whereas others may be derived as metonymies.

Symbols that work as metaphors

أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّ اللَّـهَ أَنزَلَ مِنَ السَّمَاءِ مَاءً فَسَلَكَهُ يَنَابِيعَ فِي الْأَرْضِ ثُمَّ يُخْرِجُ بِهِ زَرْعًا مُّخْتَلِفًا أَلْوَانُهُ ثُمَّ يَهِيجُ فَتَرَاهُ مُصْفَرًّا ثُمَّ يَجْعَلُهُ حُطَامًا ۚ إِنَّ فِي ذَٰلِكَ لَذِكْرَىٰ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ

Do you not see that Allah sends down rain from the sky and makes it flow as springs [and rivers] in the earth; then He produces thereby crops of varying colors; then they dry and you see them turned yellow; then He makes them [scattered] debris. Indeed in that is a reminder for those of understanding. [Az-Zumar 21]
In this ayah the natural process of the growth of foliage (and its later dispersion) is cited as a metaphorical representation of the ebb and flow of worldy comfort, and to the cycle of animate / human life on earth. The ultimate intent is to draw attention to the creation of the world/universe itself and its ultimate demise. Note that the targets are many and wider-ranging. Botanical growth on earth thus becomes a symbol of life in general.
Because the symbol works as a metaphor, richer implications may be derived by referring to all the details of the extended metaphor:
1. Despite all the hue and cry of what came before (e.g. the rolling of thunder, the fall of the rains, the gurgling of the springs and the laborious and beautiful shifting stages of growth, it all boils down to …. nothing.
2. It’s almost as if the sounds and the colors of the drama serve to disguise the nothingness of the end-result.
3. All the beauty of this world is transient; its toils lead to quickly-dispensed rewards.
4. While the begetting of earthly comforts or even life may be laborious, the termination is mostly quicker.

إِذْ قَالَ يُوسُفُ لِأَبِيهِ يَا أَبَتِ إِنِّي رَأَيْتُ أَحَدَ عَشَرَ كَوْكَبًا وَالشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ رَأَيْتُهُمْ لِي سَاجِدِينَ

[Of these stories mention] when Joseph said to his father, “O my father, indeed I have seen [in a dream] eleven stars and the sun and the moon; I saw them prostrating to me.” [Yusuf 4]
The symbols in Hazrat Yusuf’s (alaihi-ssalaam) dream have a clear metaphorical relationship to the targets: his father, mother, and his siblings, in terms of the sizes, luminosity and visibility (as seen from earth, i.e.).
Symbols that work as metonymies

إِنِّي وَجَّهْتُ وَجْهِيَ لِلَّذِي فَطَرَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ حَنِيفًا ۖ وَمَا أَنَا مِنَ الْمُشْرِكِينَ 

I HAVE turned my face to Him who originated the heavens and the earth, as a man of pure faith; I am not of the idolaters.’ (Al-An’am, 79)

 In the above ayah, Hazrat Ibrahim realizes and loudly proclaims the Oneness of Allah after having considered and logically rejected cultural idols. Here the word ‘wajh‘ __ ‘face’ __ a common symbol throughout Quran↓ and other literature obviously has a metonymic relation to it’s subject. Face is a stand-in, a representative, of the human presence, not its metaphorical ‘likening’.


In the future we will re-encounter examples of Qur’anic symbols, InshaAllah.



For an interesting discourse on the use of ‘wajh’ in the Qur’an, see: Ayoub, M. M., (2000), Literary exegesis of the Qur’an: The case of Al-Sharif Al-Radi, in Litereary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’an, Ed. by Issa Boullata; Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press. Retrieved online at: http://books.google.ca/books?id=SdgaD-7C6TkC&pg=PA298&dq=wajh+metaphor&hl=en&sa=X&ei=W05jUdi6N-O0yAG5yoGQDQ&ved=0CDwQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=wajh%20metaphor&f=false

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

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

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


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

Example #1:

إِذَا زُلْزِلَتِ الْأَرْضُ زِلْزَالَهَا

وَأَخْرَجَتِ الْأَرْضُ أَثْقَالَهَا

وَقَالَ الْإِنسَانُ مَا لَهَا

 يَوْمَئِذٍ تُحَدِّثُ أَخْبَارَهَا

When the earth will be shaken with a mighty shaking,

and the earth will throw up all her burdens,

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

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


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

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

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

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

inner content of the earth ≡ burdens

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

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

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

As Maulana Maududi explains:

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

Example #2:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next anthology example illustrates this point beautifully. 

Example #3:

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

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

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

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

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

Maulana Maududi

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

Personification by the Almighty

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

بِيَدِكَ الْخَيْرُ

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

وَمَا رَمَيْتَ إِذْ رَمَيْتَ وَلَـٰكِنَّ اللَّـهَ رَمَىٰ

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

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

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

Conclusions about personification in the Qur’an

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

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

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


بَلْ نَقْذِفُ بِالْحَقِّ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ فَيَدْمَغُهُ فَإِذَا هُوَ زَاهِقٌ

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

19th Ramadaan, 1433:

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


وَيَبْسُطُوا إِلَيْكُمْ أَيْدِيَهُمْ

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

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

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

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

وَالْأَنْعَامَ خَلَقَهَا ۗ لَكُمْ فِيهَا دِفْءٌ وَمَنَافِعُ وَمِنْهَا تَأْكُلُونَ

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

وَيَمْنَعُونَ الْمَاعُونَ

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

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


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


وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا سَجَىٰ

BY the glorious morning light;

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

وَالْعَادِيَاتِ ضَبْحًا

فَالْمُورِيَاتِ قَدْحًا

فَالْمُغِيرَاتِ صُبْحًا

فَأَثَرْنَ بِهِ نَقْعًا

  فَوَسَطْنَ بِهِ جَمْعًا

BY the chargers that run panting, 

BY the strikers of fire,

BY the raiders at dawn,

Raising clouds of dust

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


وَلَيَالٍ عَشْرٍ

وَالشَّفْعِ وَالْوَتْرِ

وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَسْرِ

 هَلْ فِي ذَٰلِكَ قَسَمٌ لِّذِي حِجْرٍ

BY the daybreak;

BY the Ten Nights;

BY the even and the odd;

BY the night when it departs;

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


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


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

وَفِرْعَوْنَ ذِي الْأَوْتَادِ

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

يَا أَيُّهَا الْمُزَّمِّلُ

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

وَذَا النُّونِ

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

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

Metonymy, Symbolism and Metaphor

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

دَاوُودَ ذَا الْأَيْدِ

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

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

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

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

Symbolical and Metaphorical metonymies

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

وَأَن لَّوِ اسْتَقَامُوا عَلَى الطَّرِيقَةِ لَأَسْقَيْنَاهُم مَّاءً غَدَقًا

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

وَمِن شَرِّ غَاسِقٍ إِذَا وَقَبَ

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

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

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

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

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

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

إِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لِرَبِّهِ لَكَنُودٌ

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

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


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


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

2. Same as above.

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

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

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

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

11th Ramadaan, 1433:


مَّوْجٌ كَالظُّلَلِ

…waves like shades [in Surah Luqman, 32]

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

Metaphor and Similie

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

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

__Tom MacArthur↓2

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

__Terence Hawkes↓3

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

Plain similies

وَمَا أَمْرُنَا إِلَّا وَاحِدَةٌ كَلَمْحٍ بِالْبَصَرِ

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

وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ الْجَوَارِ فِي الْبَحْرِ كَالْأَعْلَامِ

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


In the above two ayahs the following comparisons are made:

Commencement of Doomsday ≈ Batting of an eye-lid

Ships in the ocean ≈ Huge signs/ landmarks

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

Stronger similies

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

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

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


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

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

__ Maulana Maududi↓4

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

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

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

Here is another example:

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

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

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


Similies as strong as metaphors

ثُمَّ قَسَتْ قُلُوبُكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ فَهِيَ كَالْحِجَارَةِ أَوْ أَشَدُّ قَسْوَةً

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنَ الْحِجَارَةِ لَمَا يَتَفَجَّرُ مِنْهُ الْأَنْهَارُ

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنْهَا لَمَا يَشَّقَّقُ فَيَخْرُجُ مِنْهُ الْمَاءُ

ۚ وَإِنَّ مِنْهَا لَمَا يَهْبِطُ مِنْ خَشْيَةِ اللَّـهِ

ۗ وَمَا اللَّـهُ بِغَافِلٍ عَمَّا تَعْمَلُونَ

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

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

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

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

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

Till next form, fi Aman-Allah.


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

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

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

4. Online Tafhim ul Quran, English version.

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

THE QURAN CYCLE: Assumptions or Certainty? — Synopsis

In research, The Method, Words of Gold: The Quran on September 3, 2011 at 5:12 pm


Starting with Part I of this post, I began with ayah 42 of Surah Yusuf which clarifies a distinction between worldly knowledge based on human-dependent capacities and the divine knowledge which comes directly from the Creator of the universe. The key distinction is of doubt. All human knowledge, by it’s very nature, must contain a portion of doubt in it. Consequently, Part II and Part III of this post were devoted to a survey of sample sciences with an overview of the issue of uncertainty in the sciences from different angles.

This post attempts to round-off this broad topic, by presenting certain delimitations of the survey, and by offering some key explanations, and by asnwering certain questions that must arise in a reader’s mind. 


What the uncertainty survey is not meant to be 

In-depth: Of course, that is never possible in such ‘general reading’ blogposts. The concern is not just about the length of posting, but also about the technicality of the subject. It was important to present the concepts as close to laymen terms of understanding as possible.

Systematic: Now this point is important. With ‘systematic’, I’m referring to the various scenarios of uncertainty covered through the survey. That one scenario was presented under the head of one type of science doesn’t restrict it to that science. All angles of doubt actually pertain to all sciences more or less.

For instance, the issue of sampling (whom, and where, you observe in the study?) is as important in biological sciences as in the social/behavioral ones. Making observations on animals and then applying them on humans may be the only way in much of medical science research, but it leaves wide open grave questions on how far we can trust conclusions based on organisms fundamentally different from us, mammals or not. The same holds even for physics. If an experiment proves hypotheses in a European lab, an Asian lab is not correct in ‘building upon’ the results of it before first repeating the original experiment and confirming the findings. If they ignore this step, and this is common (as Richard Feynman lamented in his lecture on the issue of integrity of science↓1), doubt will remain as to whether their follow-up experiment really leads to reliable conclusions.

Similarly, the fact that I mentioned measurement uncertainty in the section on physical sciences, doesn’t lessen the issue’s significance for sciences I surveyed before. In fact, measurement uncertainty rises manifolds as you move down on the scale of the ‘concreteness’ of your subject. That is, the less ‘tangible’ your subject (for instance brain activity is less tangible than the weight of an object), and the more ‘conceptual’ your variable (for instance ‘intelligence’ is more conceptual and abstract than ‘heart rate’), the greater rise there will be in doubt of accurate measurement. We have already seen how physicists have to agree on definitions of common physical quantities such as kg or metre and they even review and revise their definitions in the quest for further accuracy. In social/behavioral sciences, even the ‘agreeing’ part is difficult as the definition of any abstract concept often depends on one’s perspective, preference, and on what and how you choose to emphasize things. There are but few undebatable definitions in these fields.

Scholarly: Readers may have noticed the lack of references in portions of the post where a general discussion on doubt was presented rather than presenting a specific example such as cholesterol. Although, many general readers may be unfamiliar with the topic or its various angles, the issue is well-known and basic for any student of science. University departments emphasizing research as much as theory feed their students well on the relevent fields of knowledge: research methodology and statistics. Textbook stuff. Websites on the topic, however, are also of the technical, rather than layman, type that is why I refrained from linking to them.

Deprecative: Pointing out problems with the very roots from which the fountain of scientific knowledge springs forth is not meant to belittle the vast quantity of achievements humans have aquired, particularly in the last two centuries. They have discovered countless phenomena harnessed for therir advantage such as X-rays, electricity, and semiconduction. They have left their footmarks on the moon; acquired evidence of life from Mars, and have collected enough astronomical observations to formulate theories on both the beginning and end of the universe. They have eradicated numerous diseases from the face of the earth, and have invented numerous medical technologies to help in diagnoses, surgery and research.

And yet, to date, plenty of areas remain in which human knowledge is certainly speculative even in the case of wide-spread theories and beliefs. Pick any topic in medicine and psychology and, more often than not, (such as link between a food item and a disease, a personality trait and marital discord) and you will find plenty of negative as well as positive findings. Even where positive findings exceed the negative ones, the nature of the evidence remains speculative and formulated theories fail in explaining away many contradictory findings (as we have seen in the case of cholesterol). You will notice that the broader, the complicated, and the more abstract the variable, the more difficult it is to be measured, to be controlled and observed in experiments, and to obtain consistent findings about. As the ultimate and the truly dependable source of knowledge, science as a method does and will remain defective.

Indeed, you will attest that true advancements have been made only in two areas pertinent to the human condition: in theoretical knowledge and in living comfort or luxuries. Health levels _ physical, societal, environmental, and mental __ keep steadily declining.

Physical sciences may be defended here with the majority of the blame for declining healths levied on the more human sciences. Yet, there have been plentiful hints and even theories around which suggest that there is more to reality than is apparent to the physicist eye and that the true reality may be cloaked by this ‘physical’ layer of reality for us the observers↓2.


Why doubt must be there

Doubt must be there given the nature of things. Whether deep beneath the human skin, or deep within the seed of a fruit, or deep under the earth we walk on, or far far away among the stars that blink at us, things are plainly beyond our direct (and certain) observation. We can tear up the human body and confirm the presence of a heart and liver in it, but it’s not the same when we try to observe how DNA really works, and how light interacts with atom, and how the brain creates ‘a mind’. We must create technologies to capture some of the ‘signs’ which ‘point’ to the deep mysterious workings of things. We must speculate on what signs really show, and what signs are the best ones (the accurate, the measurable, the comprehensive and the reliable ones) to point to a variable not directly observable↓3.

Doubt must be there because you cannot manipulate every situation according to your scientific vigor to remove as much doubt from your conclusions as possible. You can seat people in a lab with high noise, and more people in a lab with low or no noise, and compare how much they can concentrate on a math task; but you cannot make people divorce their wives to observe how divorce effects the future development of their children. And you cannot control the kind of education people have while growing up, to see the quality of their later lives. And you cannot perform experimental surgeries on their brain areas, to see how altering the brain physiology affects their personality or intellectual functioning. Thus you simply have no choice but to take huge liberties with the amount of control you exert in an experiment, or to put up with merely observing two things occuring together, or to conduct experiments on non-humans and assume the conclusions can be applicable to humans, or to just plainly record observations or conduct interviews and try to conclude stuff from that alone.

Doubt must be there because even in cases where these problems do not arise and a nice, neat experiment is possible, the global scientific community is simply not organized or efficient enough to systematically repeat already conducted experiments around the world. At least that would help establish the consistency of the derived conclusions before assuming they readily apply to whole humanity. Numerous research topics have indeed received such attention but more often then not, this is a serious problem in the ‘spread’ of ‘knowledge’ around the world and its firm establishment as ‘certain facts’ in the public mind.

Doubt must be there since (as the uncertainty principle establishes with such finality) no matter how perfectly and ideally you carry on with research on a given ‘lucky’ topic, the influence of the ‘observer’ cannot be ruled out from what is being observed. Even the best of measuring technologies must be handled and interpreted by humans. And even if we designed robots to conduct each and every step of the research process (so that experimenter bias and weakness will not affect subjects, or will not make it a different experience for every other subject) what will observations made in such an artificial situation (of absolute handling by robots) tell us about the human situation? For, as Heisenberg’s principle highlights, the observer effects do not arise from the humanity of the observers, they arise from the situation of being observed.

To quote:

If we take Heisenberg’s view for granted, strict causality is broken, or better: the past and future events of particles are indeterminate. One cannot calculate the precise future motion of a particle, but only a range of possibilities. Physics loses its grip. The dream of physicists, to be able to predict any future event in the universe based on its present state, meets its certain death. 

And (from the same source):

If in an exact science, such as physics, the outcome of an experiment depends on the view of the observer, then what does this imply for other fields of human knowledge? It would seem that in any faculty of science, there are different interpretations of the same phenomena. More often than occasionally, these interpretations are in conflict with each other. Does this mean that ultimate truth is unknowable*?

 *underlining is mine


Howcome the public and the practitioners remain ignorant of the uncertainties

… it is the paradigm itself that guides the scientific process, so when these anomalies do appear the tendency has been to force them to fit the current theory, to explain them away, or to simply overlook them. (p. 6 Mythbusters: Cholesterol)

When a theory gains popularity in the public through media, such as in the case of cholesterol-heart disease link, a lot of processes follow that ensure that the above happens. It’s human nature to keep face, to maintain repute, and to wish to bask in the glory of ‘human progress’. As the Neuroskeptic blog quotes from a published study on the effect of popularity on the research process:

In highly competitive fields there might be stronger incentives to “manufacture” positive results by, for example, modifying data or statistical tests until formal statistical significance is obtained. This leads to inflated error rates for individual findings… We refer to this mechanism as “inflated error effect”.↓4

 There may also be an increase in positive findings just because of the fact that a lot of researchers wishing to partake in the potluck start testing the popular hypotheses; alternative hypotheses get neglected or forgotten __ a phenomenon the above cited authors call “multiple testing effect”.

When negative findings are found, human nature again comes into play: It’s an age-old tendency of researchers in general that they tend to publish positive findings more often than negative findings. Negatively conclusive studies (results of these studies have contradicted the hypothesis/theory) are somehow treated as not worthy of reporting although they are ‘findings’ as much as positive ones. This is a well-known bane of research called as ‘publication bias‘.

It is worth noting that the pressures that often drive researchers to these errors are not just psychological. In many cases funding and grant for research projects depends upon the apparent worth of the study being conducted; usually, further and further research building upon a popular theory gets funded easily rather than ideas that ‘go away from the mainstream’ or that are clearly ‘dissenting voices’. In medicine, pharmaceutical companies are a huge factor in channelling research in well-beaten tracks: investments of millions behind drugs and treatments (such as cancer-preventing sun screens) springing from the popular theory are at stake. The best resource for insights on how popularity in media distorts the truly scientific research process is a book I have already referred to in Part II of this post: Fragile Science: the reality behind the headlines by Robin Baker.

The facility of advanced measurement technologies, statistical softwares, and computer aids in research seem to be encouraging the bias of scientists towards findings of their liking. So much so that the number of published papers that are later retracted (i.e. taken off) by the journal  after being challenged or closely scrutinized has been increasing in recent years↓5.

Being ignorant and unscientific, popular media itself might promote wrong leaps of rather ‘expansive’ conclusions from its own reading of research: conclusions which are false, baseless, and create a rosy picture of ‘human scientific power’ in the public mind. For an example, where results of primitive fMRI (brain scanning) studies were wrongly promoted as an advance in mind-reading technology by popular media, go to this Neuroskeptic blogpost.

Target of such rash attitudes on the part of researchers, investing companies, and sensationalist media are not just the general public but practicitioners of professions as well. Research is in focus for the academic side of the professional fields: the university departments and the research institutes. Professional degrees’ students (such as medical students) may get a basic know-how of how research works, but they are fed all of their knowledge not as findings of research but as textbook-published theoretical statements about their field. After getting their degrees, they get immersed in the throes of practice: that’s what motivated their studies in the first place __ generally interested in only new findings (that come with the background just described), with no hint of the ups and downs of the process through which those findings came by.


Why scientists sometimes make claims and promote them as near-certain truth despite all the doubt inherent in the very mechanics of their profession

Some reasons I have already quoted, but those reasons focused on ‘pressures’ on the researchers’ psyche. Here my focus is on deliberate promotion and belief-making that some scientists engage in: beliefs such as “the God delusion“, and “the evolution, not creationism” idea.

The two examples I have quoted above (they are same actually) are theories: conclusions derived from research in areas that are riddled with huge gaps in knowledge, difficulties of doing experimental research, measurement uncertainties, as well as the kind of researching pressures already described. In your mind try to apply all the uncertainty scenarios to the situation of ascertaining facts about the reality of the universe from observations collected from the comparitive variation and living patterns in various life forms; such that many of those life forms are not even directly observable today, only their fossils are available.

These scientists promote their theories by referring to divince sources of knowledge as ‘human constructed beliefs’. How come, when they are aware of the pitfalls of their own research and even admit the huge gaps of knowledge and the impassable difficulties of their methods, they promote their own ‘science constructed beliefs’ as the Certain Truth replacing the Divine?

An apt comment in the Qur’an springs to mind:

بَلْ كَذَّبُوا بِمَا لَمْ يُحِيطُوا بِعِلْمِهِ وَلَمَّا يَأْتِهِمْ تَأْوِيلُهُ

IN FACT, they deny what is beyond the reach of their knowledge, whose explanation has not reached them yet. (in Sura Younus, 39)

Some more pertinent commentary from the Qur’an:  

أَمْ جَعَلُوا لِلَّـهِ شُرَكَاءَ خَلَقُوا كَخَلْقِهِ فَتَشَابَهَ الْخَلْقُ عَلَيْهِمْ

… have those whom they associate with Allah in His Divinity ever created anything like what Allah did so that the question of creation has become dubious to them? (in Ar-Ra’d, 16)


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

STILL less do they comprehend the life to come. In fact they are in doubt about it. Still more, they are blind to it. (An-Naml, 66)


فَإِنَّهَا لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَـٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ

Verily, it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts which are in the breasts that grow blind. (in Al-Hajj, 46)

And so, many scientists commit the same kinds of prejudice and bigotism in their attitudes that they accuse religions of promoting.



1. Read the last chapter (“Cargo Cult Science”) in Richard Feynman’s autobiographical memoirs “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”.

2. See my previous blogposts Outrageous Sensations and The Enjoining Light, as well as the synopsis of Michael Talbot’s book: The Holographic Universe.

3. To read more on the topic, see hypothetical construct on wikipedia.

4. Statistical significance means a conclusion with enough percentage of confidence interval that is accepted in that particular field. An inflated error rate entails that conclusions get wrongly labelled as ‘positive’ (i.e. confirming the hypothesized effect of a on b) more often than they should be.

5. See: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/08/why-are-scientific-retractions-increasing/


Post Script

This sprawling post covered a major theme of the blog: the inadequacy of science in the quest for definite answers on the nature of the world and reality. To complete the argument initiated in this thread, however, will require many sister posts of perhaps same comprehensiveness. Following topics must be elucidated to make a complete case for the certainty of Divine knowledge and the contrasting failure of science-promoted no-God propoganda:

  • Irrefutable evidence of the Divinity of the Quran and the authenticity of prophethood.
  • Review of research in evolution with the same truly objective perspective as some researchers have applied in cholesterol and other cases.
  • A more developed discussion of why scientists and general people ignore the weaknesses in their own theories while staying indifferent or ‘finding faults’ with the Divince sources of knowledge.

May Allah Ta’ala bring these necessities to realization. Ameen.


Previously related in this blog:

On Prophetic Revelation and “Subjectivity”: How the choice between belief in a prophet’s revelations and belief in science-promoted theory of the world is a subjective choice.
On the arrogance of scientists: Open-minded scientists reflect on the limitations of aspects of sciences in revealing reality.
Observations of a scientist upon science and reality: Prize-winning scientist on the impossibility of accessing reality given observer effects, yet the coneptual necessity for this “ultimate reality”.
Pirsig, scientific relativism, and rational knowledge: What the nature of research methods really achieve in the realm of ‘answering questions’.
Outrageous sensations: What can we learn from LSD? Part I and Part II: Potentialities of perception once ordinary limitations on the brain are removed through a drug.

Quran in Ramadaan: The enjoining Light: Hints in physics development toward a reality based on Light.

Quran in Ramadaan: The determined vs the uncertain: How those who recognize the Truth, stay on it? and why others don’t.

On loosing sight of God: Illuminating quotes on how current lifestyles make it easy to forget about God.

QURAN IN RAMADAAN: Assumptions or Certainty? Part III

In Science|Religion, Words of Gold: The Quran on August 31, 2011 at 12:16 am


Continued from Part II.

In the last part of this post, I gave an introductory idea of the meaning of doubt or uncertainty in sciences. Then I proceeded with a selective survey of fields of knowledge organizing them in levels from areas with the most doubt in their conclusions upward. Briefly, I covered parasciences, social sciences, behavioral sciences, and biological sciences. In this post I intend to end my survey with physical sciences and mathematics.

Given the depth and breadth of this topic this overview is very general and needs clarifications. There is also a need to be more aritulate on how this survey relates to the initial idea (that certain knowledge comes only from the Divine). Hence I have decided to end this post with a final section, Part IV, to be presented as a concluding synopsis.

Now let us continue with the survey.


Physical sciences

I have selected two fields for my sruvey: physics and meteorology. Being pertinent to inanimate things, one might assume that such scienes should be free of doubt. However, uncertainty pervades even the very basic task of measuring physial quantities such as length, and air pressure – an issue which is definitely even more stronger in case of the non-physical sciences, particularly the socio-psychological domains.  

Am I measuring it accurately?

A lot depends on the answer to this question for a scientist. Measurements are the building blocks on which the high rise of scientific progress is construted: observations taken, experiments planned, hypotheses tested, ultimately paving the way for theories. For practial purposes, a 0.1% or lesser inaccuracy of measurement will not make a differene in real life, but will do so in research — which, in physical sciences today ranges from the nano-scale of subparticles making up electrons and protons, through the global variables of hurricane velocity and the density of ozone layer, all the way to observations of astronomical proportions such as the desplacement of stars, and the velocity of a meteor coming towards earth.

An idea of how relative our standards of measurement are (even such common every-day quantities such as length and weight), requiring constant research to keep them as accurate and uniform in time as possible, will be gained through the following examples:

  1. ” The international prototype of the kilogram, an artefact made of platinum-iridium, is kept at the BIPM↓1 under the conditions specified by the 1st CGPM in 1889 … It follows that the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram is always 1 kilogram exactly, m(grand K) = 1 kg. However, due to the inevitable accumulation of contaminants on surfaces, the international prototype is subject to reversible surface contamination that approaches 1 µg per year in mass. For this reason, the CIPM declared that, pending further research, the reference mass of the international prototype is that immediately after cleaning and washing by a specified method”
  2. “From 1889 to 1960, the metre was defined to be the distance between two scratches in a platinum-iridium bar kept in the vault beside the Standard Kilogram at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris.

    This replaced an earlier definition as 10^-7 times the distance between the North Pole and the Equator along a meridian through Paris; unfortunately, this had been based on an inexact value of the circumference of the Earth.

    From 1960 to 1984 it was defined to be 1650763.73 wavelengths of the orange-red line of krypton-86 propagating in a vacuum.

    It is now defined as the length of the path traveled by light in a vacuum in the time interval of 1/299,792,458 of a second.” (From the online Hyper Dictionary)

  3. “A measurement process such as this one (i.e. measuring metre through the platinum-iridium prototype), which runs for decades, should have dimensionally stable control standards, but completely stable materials are rare and perhaps non-existent.”↓2 [The underlining is mine].


This relativity of measurement seems to exist because, in order to establish a standard for the unit of a quantity (for instance, the standard for 1 kg, 1 lt, and 1 sec, etc), we must rely on certain other substanes (such as the platinum-iridium rod) which are subject to change over time (such as erosion, or loss of mass through radiation) or on other quantities (such as the speed of light) which in turn are subject to uncertainty of measurement.

Of course, a special twist to the scenario is added by the famous special theory of relativity, which showed (and was proved through later experiments) that measurement of quantities such as time, length and weight, depends upon the frame of reference of the observer.


The vagaries of predicting weather

 A recent series of catastrophi weather events in the US history have prompted me to include this area of science. Just this last weekend, those of us living in the western side of the world were harrassed by the certain looking possibility of horrific and massive damages from Hurricane Irene. It’s size alone was one-third the length of the entire east coast of the United States, and it was expected to (and certainly did) sweep that entire coast-line even upwards into the Canadian side of the coast. It did, but it turned out to be much more slower and certaintly less horrifying than it was predicted to be; however, it did cause huge damages in certain areas and through some of its features which were being highlighted to a lesser degree by the forecasters.


Weather forecasting has been traditionally performed using numerical weather prediction. As wikipedia explains, even in the modern day:

Manipulating the vast datasets and performing the complex calculations necessary to modern numerical weather prediction requires some of the most powerful supercomputers in the world. Even with the increasing power of supercomputers, the forecast skill of numerical weather models extends to about only six days. Factors affecting the accuracy of numerical predictions include the density and quality of observations used as input to the forecasts, along with deficiencies in the numerical models themselves.

 The problems are really aggravated by the fact that even small differences in observing or predicting conditions on a day can lead to widely different forecast predictions for the follow-up days. This is because weather systems are of such massive and time-dependent nature, they exhibit a strongly sensitive dependence on the initial conditions↓3. That is, even short-term future scenarios in weather can vary hugely depending upon the set of currently existing conditions. As a result, meteorologists have switched to a different form of forecasting called as ensemble forecasting, requiring multiple predictions from the same set of initial data. Each prediction is made along with an estimate of it’s accuracy (actually, uncertainty in the accuracy of the prediction), but even that doesn’t help ensure freedom from the errors: “Sometimes the atmosphere behaves more chaotically, and small errors amplify rapidly. At other times the various forecasts stay within a narrow range, therefore they can be treated with more confidence”↓4.


Uncertainty at the very core of physics

I have mentioned this type of uncertainty in a biographial post before. It’s the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle I’m talking about. I quote directly from the webpage I’ve linked the principle to:

“… the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly, at the same time, even in theory. The very concepts of exact position and exact velocity together, in fact, have no meaning in nature… Ordinary experience provides no clue of this principle. It is easy to measure both the position and the velocity of, say, an automobile, because the uncertainties implied by this principle for ordinary objects are too small to be observed…”


Any attempt to measure precisely the velocity of a subatomic particle, such as an electron, will knock it about in an unpredictable way, so that a simultaneous measurement of its position has no validity. This result has nothing to do with inadequacies in the measuring instruments, the technique, or the observer; it arises out of the intimate connection in nature between particles and waves in the realm of subatomic dimensions.


Every particle has a wave associated with it; each particle actually exhibits wavelike behavior. The particle is most likely to be found in those places where the undulations of the wave are greatest, or most intense. The more intense the undulations of the associated wave become, however, the more ill defined becomes the wavelength, which in turn determines the momentum of the particle. So a strictly localized wave has an indeterminate wavelength; its associated particle, while having a definite position, has no certain velocity. A particle wave having a well-defined wavelength, on the other hand, is spread out; the associated particle, while having a rather precise velocity, may be almost anywhere. A quite accurate measurement of one observable involves a relatively large uncertainty in the measurement of the other.

In other words (from my own post linked above):

What this law in physics boils down to is, that the position of one of the smallest particles that we are made of cannot be firmly located [if we are trying to measure it’s velocity at the same time. In layman terms, an electron assumes its position when it is being observed. And when its not being observed noone can predict its location. Rather, its in a state of ‘suspension’, its literally not there; however, as soon as it is observed it (magically!) assumes a specific position in time and place! Wow!

In a way, this uncertainty is the same kind which taints all of science, only Heisenberg states it much more outrightly with a sense of finality of the impossibility of measurement of two quantities at once that is rare in other sciences: As soon as we perfectly control one variable for an experiment/measurement, we totally loose our grip on another.


It was Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle from which quantum physics sprang forth (the theory that assumes that an atom behaves like a wave and a particle at the same time. Interestingly, this theoretical arena challenges Einstein’s theory of general relativity which helps explain all the observable phenomenon at the astronomical scale. Conversely, quantum physics explains today everything known about the subatomic level of things (the particles and subparticles in an atom). And yet, when considered together, both the theories cannot be right at the same time!↓5  

This puzzle, although interesting and worth considering, is beyond the scope of the current post, however.



The queen of sciences, mathematics is certainly not free of uncertainty of doubt, despite being considered the most ‘tight’ and ‘rigorous’ of all fields of knowledge.

Given the current specialization and sophistication of it’s subfields, the trend these days is that published mathematical proofs of theorems are so prolonged and complicated that it may take a great amount of reviewer time to confirm or refute them. The result is that the publishers and critics have began talking in terms of percent of certainty of a proof being correct↓6.

 The more interesting seed of doubt in the domain of maths however is the idea, that if a system set out to represent all the mathematical statements there were (such as a computer), there will be one true statement which would be unprovable by the system. This is the Gödel’s incompleteness theorem which I attempted to present in my review of the book  Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to wikipedia, the theorem unsettles the foundation of mathematics  ___ those subfields of the queen of field that search for the ultimate basis on which math statements can be called as true.  Gödel essentially proved that there are limits to what we can expect from a tightly logical system.

Thus not even the apparently most rigorous of sciences is free of uncertainty and doubt.



A synopsis tying the various threads of this prolonged post as well as presenting certain important clarifications will be presented in the fourth part of this post.



1. The BIMP is the International Bureau of Weights and Measures responsible for maintaining the current system of measurement units universally adopted (suh as kiloggram and metre). The above passage has been taken from their website at the following page: http://www.bipm.org/en/si/si_brochure/chapter2/2-1/kilogram.html

2. In a research paper found at: 


3. In http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ensemble_forecasting

 4. In http://www-das.uwyo.edu/~geerts/cwx/notes/chap13/ensemble.html

5. See: http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/g/greene-universe.html

6. See: http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/mathematical_uncertainty/