Archive for the ‘The Method’ Category

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – Part IV

In language and communication, Literature|Religion, Quran, The Method on January 25, 2012 at 3:46 pm


Continued with Parts I, II, & III.

Unlike the previous posts in this thread, this one actually considers the topic in light of the Qur’an.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ why

How is it possible to comprehend a world which goes beyond human cognitive abilities and which can not be grasped by means of any kind of cognition available? The answer is: thanks to metaphor.

__ Sławomir Sztajer↓1

In dealing with expressions related to the divine, the subject of study becomes not a matter of one “thing” being “symbolized” as another in the manner of a literary figure. Rather, what is at stake is the way in which “things” are “captured” in language in a form which is necessarily symbolic due to the use of language itself. It is here that Paul Ricoeur’s maxim “metaphor gives rise to thought” has its meaning: in expressing something in language, thinking about that “thing” becomes possible.

__ Andrew Rippin↓2

… it is not enough for man to be told, “If you behave righteously in this world, you will attain to happiness in the life to come”, or alternatively, “If you do wrong in this world, you will suffer for it in the hereafter”. Such statements would be far too general and abstract to appeal to man’s imagination and, thus, to influence his behaviour. What is needed is a more direct appeal to the intellect, resulting in a kind of “visualization” of the consequences of one’s conscious acts and omissions and such an appeal can be effectively produced by means of metaphors, allegories and parables, each of them stressing, on the one hand, the absolute dissimilarity of all that man will experience after resurrection from whatever he did or could experience in this world; and, on the other hand, establishing means of comparison between these two categories of experience.

__Muhammad Asad↓3


The above quotes fully echo our esablished understanding of the metaphor with reference to religious discourse. In addition, they point us to reasons as to why we must not be surprised at finding the Qur’an filled with meaphor. In Qur’anic terms, these reasons are presented in the section below.


Metaphor in Qur’anic terms 


هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

HE has sent down this Book which contains some verses that are of established meaning and basic to the Book, and others allegorical. But those who are twisted of mind look for verses metaphorical, seeking deviation and giving to them interpretations of their own; but none knows their meaning except God; and those who are steeped in knowledge affirm: “We believe in them as all of them are from the Lord.” But only those who have wisdom understand. [Al-i-Imran 7]


 The key word here is mutashabih. According to the online Project Root List, its root shim-ba-ha means:

to be like, to resemble/assimilate/liken/imitate, to compare one thing with another due to an attribute connecting them or is common to them…, appear like another thing, ambiguous/dubious/obscure, comparison/similitude/parable/similie… With reference to the Quran is that of which the meaning is not to be learned from its words and this is of two sorts: one is that of which the meaning is known by referrinhgg to what is termed “muhkam“, and the other is that of which the knowledge of its real meaning is not attainable in any way or it means what is not understood without repeated consideration.*

 *this description raises technical issues of differentiating metaphor with its related devices which are dealt with later. 

 Thus while the guidelines for living and statements of belief are clearly stated, other explications about matters not directly available to the human senses are inevitably described in metaphor.

Apart from necessity, simplification and a persuasive and educative presentation are also a major reasons for use of metaphor in the Qur’an. As Alla Ta’ala reminds us, Qur’an is a book that addresses issues related to us, the humans –

 لَقَدْ أَنزَلْنَا إِلَيْكُمْ كِتَابًا فِيهِ ذِكْرُكُمْ ۖ أَفَلَا تَعْقِلُونَ

WE have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention. Then will you not reason? [Al-Anbiya 10]


 – our natures, our creation, our destiny, our guidance. Metaphor, hence becomes a natural mode of communication, since it gives a text a humanly shape more closer to the hearts and thoughts of us mortal beings (see Part III for reference). Moreover, when reinforced with metaphor, the language  “mediates certain human experiences, ideas and ideals which would otherwise be inexpressible.”↓4.


ۚ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ ۗ وَاللَّـهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ

AND Allah speaketh to mankind in allegories, for Allah is Knower of all things. [An-Nur 35]


Allah ta’ala knows everything there is to know in all its complexity, intricacy and detail because He is the Creator of it all. For humans, given their limitations, some of it is presented in forms of examples: metaphorical snapshots of Reality in comprehensible terms…


 وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّـهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ

 GOD sets forth parables for people so they may take reminder. [in Surah Ibrahim 25]


… examples so beautiful, and forceful that those with the readiness to learn cannot but stop, and be immersed in reflection… 

… terms which return the tide of their and the surge of their feelings to the Source from which they and their world arose…

…except for those who are not willisng to know..

 وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ ۖ وَمَا يَعْقِلُهَا إِلَّا الْعَالِمُونَ

AND those similitudes — We strike them for the people, but none understands them save those who know. [Al-Ankabut 43]

As Stallman puts it in his thesis: “This relational function of metaphor is typically not felt or highly valued by readers who seek to be purely objective.”↓5, i.e. to those who like to restrict themselves to the observable and immediate. 


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ how

As in the above ayahs, Qur’an directly refers to its use of metaphor. The word most commonly used for this purpose is ‘mathal’. While derivattives of the root letters mim tha lam are used for various meanings, its relevant derivatives are mithlun, mathalun, and mithaalun. According to the PRL’s reference to Lane’s Lexiconmithlun means something that is alike, similar, analougous; a resemblance, semblance, a requital, an equivalent; mathalun means condition, state, a case, a description by way of comparison; and, mithaalun means a model, quality, mode, pattern, example. That these variations are cognitively related should be clear enough considering the nature of metaphor as established in Part I of this thread. To reinforce the point, here is the relevant entry from the an encyclopedia of the Qur’an:


Mathala is a root verb that means to resemble, imitate, compare anyone with or to someone else or to bear a likeness. Mithl means likeness, like, similar or resemblance. Mathal is a noun meaning parable, likeness, similitude, like, reason or proverb.


Relevant search on tanzil.net will reveal that in the Qur’an the word mithlun tends to be employed when likening or equating something as something else as part of the general discourse; wherease the word mathalun is utilized to refer to more formally stated  ‘examples’, parables, similitdues, and case descriptions. Using a simultaneous survey of both tanzil.net and M. Asad’s The Message(see note 3 below), I was able to come across various examples of the use of these words in relevant meanings.   

In the sense 0f ‘equal’:

يُوصِيكُمُ اللَّـهُ فِي أَوْلَادِكُمْ ۖ لِلذَّكَرِ مِثْلُ حَظِّ الْأُنثَيَيْنِ

 ALLAH enjoins you concerning your children: The male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; [in An-Nisa 11]


In the sense of similarity:

فَلَا تَقْعُدُوا مَعَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ ۚ إِنَّكُمْ إِذًا مِّثْلُهُمْ

 … SO do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation. Indeed, you would then be like them. [in An-Nisa 140]


In the sense of ‘example’:

وَيَسْتَعْجِلُونَكَ بِالسَّيِّئَةِ قَبْلَ الْحَسَنَةِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلِهِمُ الْمَثُلَاتُ

 THEY bid you to hasten the evil before the good, yet examples have passed away before them. [in Ar-Ra’d 6]


In the sense of case description:

مَّثَلُ الْجَنَّةِ الَّتِي وُعِدَ الْمُتَّقُونَ ۖ فِيهَا

HERE is a description of the Garden promised to the righteous: therein… [in Surah Mohammed 15]

In the sense of ‘attribute’:

لِلَّذِينَ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْآخِرَةِ مَثَلُ السَّوْءِ ۖ وَلِلَّـهِ الْمَثَلُ الْأَعْلَىٰ ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ 

FOR those who do not believe in the Hereafter is the description of evil; and for Allah is the highest attribute. And He is Exalted in Might, the Wise. [An-Nahl 60]

 In the sense of ‘point of argumentation’:

وَلَا يَأْتُونَكَ بِمَثَلٍ إِلَّا جِئْنَاكَ بِالْحَقِّ وَأَحْسَنَ تَفْسِيرًا

THEY bring not to thee any similitude (as argument) but that We bring thee the truth, and better in exposition. [Al-Furqan 33]

In the sense of ‘sign’:


إِنَّ اللَّـهَ لَا يَسْتَحْيِي أَن يَضْرِبَ مَثَلًا مَّا بَعُوضَةً فَمَا فَوْقَهَا ۚ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا فَيَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّهِمْ ۖ وَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَيَقُولُونَ مَاذَا أَرَادَ اللَّـهُ بِهَـٰذَا مَثَلًا ۘ يُضِلُّ بِهِ كَثِيرًا وَيَهْدِي بِهِ كَثِيرًا ۚ وَمَا يُضِلُّ بِهِ إِلَّا الْفَاسِقِينَ

 WELL, Allah is not ashamed to cite the similitude of a gnat or of something even more insignificant than this. And those who have believed know that it is the truth from their Lord. But as for those who disbelieve, they say, “What did Allah intend by this as an example?” He causes many to err by it and many He leads aright by it! but He does not cause to err by it (any) except the transgressors. [Al-Baqarah 26]


I have deliberately ignored the senses of similitude and parable over here as plentiful examples will be found in the relevant portion of the upcoming anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. 


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ the forms:

The above enumeration supplies us with two forms that metaphor takes in the Qur’an, but actually it comes employed with plenty of devices. According to the encyclopedic entry already referred to above, the two major kinds of forms are: apparent and hidden. I begin with the two already encountered and apparent forms of metaphor in the Qur’an.

 The first apparent form is the use of the word mithl as described and examplified above and seems to have less of a literary quality. The second apparent form is the explicit declaration of a similitude using the word mathal and might be a similie, a parable, or a case description. This form typically includes the conjunction ka in its syntaxt, literal for ‘like’. To refresh the readers, similie is a simple explicitly stated comparison while a parable is an extended story-like similitude containing a series of metaphorical relationships. Thus the first, third and fourth of the Qur’anic metaphor examples from Part I are parables. All three of them have the obligatory ka in them. Example of a likeness made explicit with mathal and ka but not extended into a parable is:

إِنَّ مَثَلَ عِيسَىٰ عِندَ اللَّـهِ كَمَثَلِ آدَمَ

INDEED, the example of Jesus to Allah is like that of Adam.. [in Al-i-Imran 59


مَثَلُ الْفَرِيقَيْنِ كَالْأَعْمَىٰ وَالْأَصَمِّ وَالْبَصِيرِ وَالسَّمِيعِ

THESE two groups are like the blind and the deaf as compared with those who can see and hear. [in Surah Hud 24]


Another apparent form involves the use of ka (as plain ka or as ka-anna كَأَنَّ or ka-ma كَمَا) without an accompanying mathal. These too are either part of general discourse likening or equating one thing with another without necessarily a literary significance; or, they are the prototypical syntatical construction a::b of a plain similie. An example of the latter follows:

ثُمَّ قَسَتْ قُلُوبُكُم مِّن بَعْدِ ذَٰلِكَ فَهِيَ كَالْحِجَارَةِ أَوْ أَشَدُّ قَسْوَةً

THEREAFTER, your hearts turned as hard as rocks or even harder [in Al-Baqarah 74]


A metaphor is in hidden form whereby the ‘likeness’ is not explicitly acknowledged by using ka, mathal, or mithl. Rather the target is simply said to be the source, or the source totally replaces the target with the latter usually inferable with reference to context. The source might be a word, an expression, or a narrative structure. In addition to the simple metaphor, it may appear as one of several devices such as metonymy, irony/humor, anthropomorphism, personification, parable, allegory, or symbolism.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ the range:

In Qur’an, just like in general language, metaphors span the whole range of areas we have seen them parading in the previous posts. There are metaphors of the conceptual-structural and -ontological type. There are metaphorical extensions of root letter meanings, proverbial and idiomatic proclamations are clothed in metaphor. Attributes are often metaphorically stated. Many key concepts of the Quran are described through systems of related metaphors. I’m striving to represent this diversity in the upcoming anthology of metaphors.


وَلَقَدْ صَرَّفْنَا لِلنَّاسِ فِي هَـٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ

AND We have certainly diversified for the people in this Qur’an from every [kind] of example,  [Al-Asra 89]

Topically too, metaphor covers a variety of topics in the Qur’an ranging from common idiomatic expressions, to depictions of psychological states, key living guidelines to descriptions of things of both this and that other world. Regarding descriptions of the afterlife, Qur’an directly teaches us that the described items have only a semblance to corresponding objects in this world:

كُلَّمَا رُزِقُوا مِنْهَا مِن ثَمَرَةٍ رِّزْقًا ۙ قَالُوا هَـٰذَا الَّذِي رُزِقْنَا مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَأُتُوا بِهِ مُتَشَابِهًا 

WHEN they are provided with a fruit of the Gardens, they will say, “This is the same food as what was given to us before” whereas it is only in resemblance; [in Al-Baqarah 25]

In Mohd. Asad’s words “we are here reminded that the Qur’anic descriptions of what awaits man after resurrection are, of necessity, metaphorical, since the human mind cannot conceive of anything that is – both in its elements and its totality – entirely different from anything that can be experienced in this world”↓6.  This point does give rise to questions of interpretation which are briefly dealt with below.


Metaphor in the Qur’an _ interpretation:

Since the exact intention of the second kind of verses, i.e., the Mutashabihat, remains ambiguous and uncertain, therefore the correct method of their interpretation would be to harmonize them with the first kind, i.e., the Muhkamat. Then, the rule is that any interpretation of the Mutashabihat which goes against the first kind should be rejected absolutely and only the interpretation should be given credence which is not against the verses of established meaning.

__ Maulana Mufti Muhammad Shafi↓7

The language of the Qur’an must not be parsed, analyzed, and discussed as if it were a treatise of logic. A proper understanding of that language requires that it be seen as belonging to the living context which gave rise to it;

__ Mustansir Mir↓8

A significant aspect of these metaphors is that many of them encapsulate meaning which is gradually being unravelled with the increase in man’s knowledge.

__ Fauzia Tanveer Sheikh↓9


Several points on the relationship between metaphor and intrerpretation of the Qur’an may be made:

1. Incidence of metaphor in Qur’an does not lead to Qur’an being uninterpretable.

2. As a rule, all the ayahs of Qur’an, whether metaphor is involved or not, are interpreted with reference to: i) the historical context in which they arrived (when, where and why); ii) the broader context of Prophet Mohammed’s (salla Allahu alaihi wa sallam) life and sayings; iii) the general contexts of the then Arabic language usage, customs and history; and iv) the immediate context of the surrounfing Qur’anic ayahs and others topically related.

3. The special case of mutashabihat (including metaphor) is additionally dealt with the way so clearly described in Mariful Qur’an (quoted above).

4. The case of metaphysical descriptions is dealt with at face value: Allah ta’ala repeatedly describes the system of judgment and concequence; if the details of what is in store for us are necessarily or technically metaphorical does not make them less real just as the impossibility of our ever sensorily experiencing atoms and particles therein makes them any less real.

5. As for the topic of the nature of God the Almighty, Qur’an is clear on that point too:

لَيْسَ كَمِثْلِهِ شَيْءٌ 

THERE is nothing like a likeness of Him; [in Ash-Shura 11]

Thus given “the impossibility of defining God even by means of a metaphor or a parable”↓[M. Asad, note 50 under 24:35]  the wise ones don’t even attempt to roam in that quarter.

6. Many ayahs of Qur’an metaphorically describing phenomenon of the universe (some, even those of the other world) are becoming more and more understandable with scientific accumulation of knowledge.

7. Qur’an’s reliance on metaphor does not question its veracity/authenticity. Treating metaphor as a reference to ‘fantasy’ was an attitude of old-times thrown clearly overboard by later and continuing researches in linguistics, cognitive sciences, neurology and related philosophies. See Part II of this thread for reference.



With the help of related literature and a surah by surah survey of the Qur’an, I’m attempting to compile an anthology of Qur’anic metaphors. I wish to present the range and diversity of metaphors in the Qur’an by organizing examples through various classifications. The anthology will, of necessity, also be presented as a thread of sectioned posts, InshaAllah.   



1. 2006. How is religious discourse possible? The constitutive role of metaphor in religious discourse. in Lingua ac Communittas, vol. 6, p. 51. Found online at http://www.lingua.amu.edu.pl/Lingua_16/SZTAJER.pdf

2. 2006. God. in The Blackwell companion to the Qur’an,  ed. by Andrew Rippin, Blackwell Publishing, p.224. Found online at http://sufibooks.info/Islam/Blackwell_Companion-to-the-Quran_Andrew-Rippin.pdf

3. 1980. Appendix I. in The Message of the Qur’an: translated and explained by Muhammad Asad. Found at http://arthursclassicnovels.com/koran/koran-asad10.html 

4. Andrew Rippin (2000),  The Qur’anic Symbolism of personal responsibility, in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning, ed. by Issa J. Boullata, Routledge, p. 117

5. Bob Stallman (1999), Divine hospitality in the Pentateuch: A metaphorical perspective on God as host. PhD Dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, p. 43. Found at http://eagle.northwestu.edu/faculty/bob-stallman/files/2011/03/2.pdf

6. in The Message as in note 3, Commentatory note #65 under 13:35

7. in Ma’ariful Qur’an, translated into English by Prof M. Hasan Askari and Prof M. Shamim, found at http://www.islamibayanaat.com/MQ/English-MaarifulQuran-MuftiShafiUsmaniRA-Vol-2-IntroAndPage-0-60.pdf)

8. (2000). Language, in The Blackwell companion to the Qur’an,  ed. by Andrew Rippin, Blackwell Publishing, p. 106. Found online at http://sufibooks.info/Islam/Blackwell_Companion-to-the-Quran_Andrew-Rippin.pdf

9. (1992). Nature imagery in Al-Qur’an. PhD Dissertation, Faculty of Advanced Integrated Stusies and Research, National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad; p. 118

THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – III

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

Linked to Part I and Part II

The irreplacability of a metaphor

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

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

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

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

*see the last post for source

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

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


Fursat mein sun shaguftgi-e-ghuncha ki sada

ye wo sukhan nahi jo kisi ne keha bhi ho


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

This is not speech that has been uttered.

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

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

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

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


The intensity of a metaphor

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

__ Paul Henle↓5

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

__ Robert Rogers↓6

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


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

__ Andrew Ortony↓7

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

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

It dropped so low in my regard

I heard it hit the ground,

And go to pieces on the stones

At bottom of my mind;


Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less

Than I reviled myself

For entertaining plated wares

Upon my silver shelf.


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

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


The memorability of a metaphor

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

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

__ Ortony, (p. 17)

Humanliness of the literary metaphor 

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

__ Northrop Frye↓8

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

__ Robert Scholes↓9

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

__ Phillip Stambovsky↓10

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


Intimation through metaphor

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

__ Ted Cohen↓11

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

__ Harold Searle↓12

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


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


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

__ Snaevarr↓13

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

from wikipedia 

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

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

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

__ Stallman↓15 

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

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

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


On the town’s vacant station

A passenger must have alighted

[shehr ke khali station per

koi musafir utra hoga]


 Hear it immersed in the depths of heart

No song is indeed a song of glee…

[dil ki gehrayion mein doob ke dekh

koi naghma khushi ka naghma nahin]


Shivering, the long nights put to us a haunting question

Their laden sound-like silence hisses answers…

[ye thitri hue lambi raaten kuch poochti hein

ye khamushi-e avaaz numa kuch kehti he]


In your lane all day

I pick the pebbles of grief

[teri gali mein sara din

dukh ke kankar chunta hoon]


From the nameless reaches of the islands of memory

The waves of your voice still reach

 [yad ke benishan jazeeron se

teri avaaz arehi he abhi]


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

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

__ Andrew Ortony↓16

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


The psychological power of metaphor

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

__ Lakoff and Johnson, 1980, p. 111

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

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

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

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


The ideological power of metaphor


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

__ Lakoff and Johnson↓17  

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till then, fi aman-i Allah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Stambovsky, 1988, p. 3

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

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

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

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

15. Stallman (1999), p. 41

16. in Cultural metaphors, p. 17

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

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



THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – II

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


Continued from Part I

The significance of Metaphor

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

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

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

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


The ubiquity of metaphors

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

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

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

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


Metaphors enhance understanding and organize knowledge

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

__ Black, (1962)↓2

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

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

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

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

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


Metaphors and the human conceptual system

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

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

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

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

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

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


Metaphors, symbols, isomorphisms, and structural mapping

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

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

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

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


Times are things.

The passing of time is motion.

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

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

States are locations (bounded regions in space).

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

Causes are forces.

Actions are self-propelled movements.

Purposes are destinations.

Means are paths (to destinations).

Difficulties are impediments to motion.

Expected progress is a travel schedule….

Long-term purposeful activities are journeys.


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


More on metaphor and meaning


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

Fodor (1987)↓7

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

Sperber and Wilson (2008)↓8

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

Kintsch (2008)↓9

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

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

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

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


Summary and Post-Script

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

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

So, fare well until Part III. 



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE QURAN CYCLE: Illuminating Metaphors – I

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

18 Shawwal, 1432:

Welcome back to the Qur’an Cycle!

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

Here is the subject ayah:

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

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


What’s in a metaphor? ↓1

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

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

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

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


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


Types of metaphors↓3

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

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

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




Metaphorical devices

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

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

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

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

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


Some Qur’anic metaphors


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

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

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


 يُكْشَفُ عَن سَاقٍ

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

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

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


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

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


فَمَثَلُهُ كَمَثَلِ صَفْوَانٍ عَلَيْهِ تُرَابٌ فَأَصَابَهُ وَابِلٌ فَتَرَكَهُ صَلْدًا 

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

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

لَا تَعْمَى الْأَبْصَارُ وَلَـٰكِن تَعْمَى الْقُلُوبُ الَّتِي فِي الصُّدُورِ

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

6. According to Newmark (1988) in above.

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

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

MIND’S I EXPLORATIONS: The Wise Window on the World

In consciousness, Mind's I Explorations, Mind|Body|World, perception, psychology, psychology of religion, Psychology|Religion, Quran, sources of knowledge, The Method, universe on September 11, 2011 at 8:26 pm

This is the second edition of Mind’s I Explorations, a series I began with a view to base my reflections on the nature of reality (and how we come to learn it) on the anthology: The Mind’s I: Fantasies and Reflections on Self and Soul.


On having no head

The second piece of the anthology is a ‘charmingly childish’* narration of how one day in the Hamalyas, the author↓1  discovered (or rather realized) that he had in fact no head on his shoulders! In his own words, the discovery (or rediscovery) was an ultimate outcome of pondering a question for a long time: “What am I?”

*according to editors of the anthology, in their commnetary following the original piece.

If there was no head, what was there?:

It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything—room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world.

Indeed imagine not having grown up mentally, only developing the sharpened skill of seeing. And what would you have seen? No, you won’t see a head on your shoulders!

We conclude the presence of this head by comparing ourselves with others who have two sets of limbs and an overall physique similar to ours, and who speak, walk, eat and generally live like us. And based on this comparison, we deduce, that if they have a head, we must have one too. For although we can see our heads in the mirrors, can the testimony of a mirror (in a way, an optical illusion) be trusted?

This is the apparently naive explanation of the author. It’s not a philosophical explanation, rather it’s intuitive, describing things on an strictly ‘as is’ basis rather than distorting the first native experience of the world through rational logic. When we are born we have no idea of how the ‘uppermost part’ of our body looks. Our view is just like those film camera views when the directors are trying to show things from the ‘eyes’ of a particular character. Again, no head is visible in that view, only the body and limbs. And in place of the head is the view, the scene, itself.

In the author’s own words:

It was self-luminous reality for once swept clean of all obscuring mind … It was a ceasing to ignore something which (since early childhood at any rate) I had always been too busy or too clever to see.

The essence of this way of thinking really is: that the experience we go through at first hand must always be fundamentally different from all others. Yet, in this subjective experience lies a greater and more peaceful unity with the external world, than in reliance on logically deduced objective experiences.↓2(the anthology editors who comment on every piece seem to have interpreted it slightly differently).

All twoness—all duality of subject and object—has vanished.


The subject and the object: dichotomous, complementary, or uniform?

A duality or dichotomy refers to “two mutually exclusive, opposed or contradictory groups (such as): a dichotomy between thought and action”. Such dichotomies or dualities are of concern in nearly all major fields of knowledge. In human sciences and philosophy, often such dichotomies are subject of much debate as to their respective significance in some area and as to how much in distinction &/or opposition they stand with respect to each other. Examples include wave-particle duality, mind and matter/body, good and evil, creationism vs evolution, etc. Complement is what supplies the lack of another entity; literally, something which makes another thing complete, whole, or perfect. Uniformity may refer to an overall sameness, homogeneity and regularity.

In philosophy, the subject-object problem is concerned with delineating what is objective and what is subjective in our experience. As a starting point, we can think of ‘objects’, different beings in the universe, being perceived by an observer: the ‘subject’.  Thus on the face of it, the two entities appear to be dichotomous. However, we encounter various problems when we attempt to further elaborate this basic premise. For instance, if we depend on our own sensory experience to perceive an object, discerning only those properties which our capacities enable us to, can we really know the object objectively, as it really is?↓3 This also relates to the ‘observer vs the observed’ problem in physics epitomzied by the uncertainty principle so recently discussed on this blog. And then, to what extent our own properties (i.e. the subject’s) affect what has been observed?  

Thus, the way we actually experience the object (or the universe) certaintly seems to unify us (the subject) with it (the object). This is despite the fact that, through logical analysis, we may feel certain that the object (or the universe) has its own reality independent of our sensibility of it↓4, and also despite the fact that the total dependence for our own experience on our own devises of sensation and perception may also lead us to doubt whether ‘it’s all in the head’ or not↓5. Perhaps it’s best to say that what is out there complements what is in here (in me and in you), and that they are unified into one experience by the device of the mind which has no way to see the separation of the two.

Now, let us return to the original piece for further deliberations:


On regaining the pure nativity of one’s original perspective on the world:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking … as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories … like a sudden waking from the sleep of ordinary life, an end to dreaming.

I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed—to this marvellous substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is—rather than contains—all things.

…no arguement can add to or take away from an experience which is as plain and incotrovertible as hearing middle-C* or tasting strawberry jam.

— *a note in music

There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.


These quotes let us infer four different aspects about the experience.

i) Our intuitive experience is pre-verbal; language is not involved. All thinking and speaking is learned from the world. The nature of the kind of thinking and speaking we learn from the world is rational: we learn to associate features with specific objects, objects with specific categories. We usually learn not to cross-over between concepts. As we grow older our creativity dies down since we are taught to think in terms of what’s rational and familiar, not what’s new and different.

ii) The ‘burden’ of all this rational knowledge and way of thinking tends to bury our own sources of pre-verbal thought (let’s call them intuition and the freshness and naitvity of creativity) farther and farther beyond the boundaries of conscious life. Whereas, the fact remains that this intuitive thought is as basic and primary to us as ‘tasting jam’ or hearing a melody.

iii) The burden is not just metaphorical, it’s literal: The more thought we put into issues, the more we experience generally negative emotions and the more the issue (that we have been thinking on) seems like a ‘pressure’ or ‘full of stress’. The most peaceful moments of our lives are indeed those when we are simply submerged in an experience rather than caught in the tangles of thought.

iv) Hence, the sense of joy and peace on having reconnected with one’s innate perspective on the world: that the whole world is unified by the fabric of first-hand experience. It’s the artifact of logic that ‘divides’ the world into things and categories and hierarchies, and into I and it. This is this and that is that. The author has replaced it with the original ‘I≡universe≡reality’ kind of experience that would have remained in our consciousness if we had not been trained otherwise by the rigors of reason.

In addition to explaining how we come to loose the freshness of our inborn perspective, these conclusions also touch upon another commonly discussed ‘duality’: nature and environment. However, the whole discussion might remain a heady philosphical or incomprehensibly mystical narrative if not made plainer.


How the world conditions us

The best way to clarify the subject is to recast it in terms of a famous (though not very widely known in mass media) person-centered theory of personality by Carl Rogers. In addition to becoming more familiar, an additional advantage in speaking in terms of this theory is that a lot of general psychological insights abour how life works might be gained.

In Rogers’ theory, the counterpart of the ‘native perspective on things’ is a process called ‘organismic valuing’. The counterpart for ‘the perspective the world imposes on us’ is ‘conditions of worth’. Before coming to these concepts, however, we must first consider what Rogers meant by conditional and unconditional positive regard.

When we give a person our trust and acceptance, with an expression of genuine positive sentiment towards them, despite their shortcomings, faults and mistakes, they have recieved ‘unconditional positive regard’.

On the other hand, when we treat a person based on how they behave, and how well they perform tasks, we are treating them with conditional positive regard: we love them when they are good to us, and neglect or mistreat them when they are incapable of goodness. In a way, we expect them to ‘conform’ to our standards of behavior; if they don’t meet those standards they are somehow worthy of inferior treatment.

These standards that others must meet to obtain our regard are what Rogers called as the conditions of worth.

Typically, learning takes place through the application of these conditions on the growing child. The child is given the impression of being a ‘bad child’ and treated with various forms of punishments (at the very least, the withdrawal of positive objects such as attention, praise or toys), when he/she fails in behaving as expected. It is the incentives of parents’ love and attention (positive regard) that prompts the child to learn speech, get toilet-trained, and learn to eat with manners. If parents are not very mindful of the balance in their attitude (specifically, in giving the child a steady sense of unconditional positive regard through all the ups and downs of child development) the child might well loose the innate interest and ‘fun’ in learning and exploring new things. As such, the child will learn to do every new thing just to obtain someone’s regard or to avoid someone’s punishment. That is also how many children come to despise any new learning, except what they learn from play-at-will.

Many a children have ‘discovered’ that playing with a certain child was ‘bad’ given his/her background; that someone we never thought of as good or bad is now definitely good or certainly bad since we have heard some of our elders announce and reinforce that; that even thought the idea that an act of dishonesty is unjust and harmful makes perfect sense, whether it’s ok to engage in it or not depends on who does it. Thus even when children have received noble and valuable guidelines for living at a formal level, they are more often than not negated by actual conditioning.

In adulthood, the primary forms of conditions may be replaced by other more sophisticated ones: money, power, status, achievement, renown and fame, and a luxurious life. Even though we come to experience them as our own needs, their common sense definitions contain the sense of comparison with ‘others’: more money than others, power over others, satus higher than others, achievement better than or different from others’, renown and fame among others, more luxury and comfort than others…. Our life is reduced to nothing but a race for meeting more and more worthy conditions of being.


What we loose in the process

What we loose in the process is our own pre-verbal, intuitive, and emotionally tinged sense of things—what Rogers called as ‘organismic valuing’. According to Rogers, all organisms (humans or lower) have a tendecy to develop as fully as possible. For lower organisms, this is restricted more or less to the physical sense: body needs and survival. For humans however, there is an additional dimension called as self-actualizing. This tendency refers to our innermost urge to realize all the possibilities of experience and capacity innate to us. This urge creates in us ‘organismic valuing’: an inner voice (of course, experienced as a feeling rather than a thought) that tells us that some things are superior and make us more content and peacefully satisfied from the inside than some other things, without anybody’s commentary as a go-between. In cases where conditioning has been rather foolproof, we never even come to realize that there are whole undiscovered, and unexplored sides of us suppressed beneath the life of society-imposed ‘values’ we are pursuing.

This rosy existence is unfortunately uncommon. We remain pressurized by the need to do more for others and for ourselves as our worth has been attached to certain objects valued by our society. We have to force ourselves to ways of behaving and thinking that are inferior in our own eyes, but suit others. We have to hide our true inclinations, attitudes, and opinions on grave matters of character and way of life so that they don’t meet with censure, ridicule, indifference, bigotry, or plain misunderstanding. Our happiness comes to reside solely in other’s being happy with us; moments of peace, contentment, and joy that originate solely from inside are few and far between.

And buried deep beneath the compost of all the negated inner and intuitive knowledge of good and right, bad and wrong, must be that original and fresh perspective on the world: of being at one with the whole universe, of experiencing the whole universe at first hand.↓6


Where do our innate knowledge and perspective come from

Scientists may call it nature; but nature means what is there already existing before worldly learning takes place. Hence ‘nature’ is not an answer to the above question; if used, it’d merely be a ‘circular’ definition. Nature is what has been created by God:

فِطْرَتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي فَطَرَ النَّاسَ عَلَيْهَا

 … this (faith) being the nature designed by Allah on which He has originated mankind. (in Ar-Rum, 30)

According to the Ma’ariful- Qur’an, English version,  two interpretations of ‘nature’ are derivable from sources. One is that nature here means Islam, in reference to the following Ahadith in Sahih Muslim, Book 33, Chapter 6:

There is none born but is created to his true nature. It is his parents who make him a Jew or a Christian or a Majoosi… (#6423)


Every new-born babe is born on the millat, and remains on this until his tongue is enabled to express himself. (#6427)

According to the second, equally acceptable interpretation, “Allah Ta’ala has bestowed the capability to every human being to discern his Creator and believe in Him”. Once this capacity is allowed to develop, it will ultimately lead the person to submission to God in the form of Islam. In fact, Maulana Taqi (the author of the Tafseer) presents arguments clarifying that the meaning that resonates with both the context of the full ayah and the ahadith quoted above is this second one:

All children are born with the natural instinct to perceive and identify the truth through an observation of their environment; however, once they develop the skill of speaking (which actually means the ability to understand logical concepts and think accordingly) their conscious development falls dependent on the teachings of their respective social environments.


Where does it all fit in the subject-object problem?

 In Qur’an the world has been described many times as a thing of play and pastime:

وَمَا هَـٰذِهِ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا لَهْوٌ وَلَعِبٌ

… the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play… (in Al-Ankabut, 64)

And it’s objects a vehicle of deception:

وَمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا إِلَّا مَتَاعُ الْغُرُورِ

THE worldly life is no more than a deceitful possession. (in Al-i-Imran, 185)

And it has indeed succeded in deceiving a majority of the people:

وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا

 … and they have been deceived by the life in this world… (in Al-An’am, 70)

And the real life will be the one to come after:

وَإِنَّ الدَّارَ الْآخِرَةَ لَهِيَ الْحَيَوَانُ 

whereas, the life in the hereafter is indeed the real life: if they but knew this! (in Al-Ankabut, 64)


Even research in astrophysics has progressed to the point that some authors have speculated on the ‘tentative’ and ‘image-like’ nature of this world. According to Michael Talbot, in his book The Holographic Universe:

… there is evidence to suggest that our world and everything in it. . . are also only ghostly images, projections from a level of reality so beyond our own it is literally beyond both space and time.

The interesting part is that the way we experience it, we are never in a position to ascertain whether this world is a literal inter-play of light and other energies. All our experience tells us directly is the uniqueness of one’s own window on the world — a window we cannot share with anyone else, nor can we ever succeed in ‘peeping’ out from any one else’s window. What we call red, is what we have heard others calling red and teaching us to do the same; we are not even sure (by direct experience) that what looks as red in our eyes looks the same in anyone else’s eye or not!

On the other hand, the tangibility of the objects of this world is also directly experienced by us. So we can’t be inherently sure of any ‘philosophical idealism’ either (the idea that we experience nothing but what our minds make up). Moreover, at the level of daily life, questions of what is good and bad behavior, what is just and unjust, etc affect us more though deeper deliberations do have their effect.

We also get a similar attitude from the Qur’an. While, at least at the meaningful level, the belief in the transience of this life (meant to be ever inexplicable at the level of this world and this humanity) is a direct corollary of the belief in a more real and eternal life; pondering too much on ‘how to explain it all in terms understandable to us’ won’t serve us in any practical matters:

هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ

وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗ وَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا

وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

He it is Who has revealed the Book to you; some of its verses are decisive, they are the basis of the Book, and others are allegorical; then as for those in whose hearts there is perversity they follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. but none knows its interpretation except Allah, and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it, it is all from our Lord’; and only people of who are wise take heed.  (Al-i-Imran, 7)    


This wisdom is again pre-endowed; the same inner wisdom that begins to loose its voice pressured by the outward-imposed ‘lessons’. Attempts to scientifically analyze and study this wisdom will again fail; one cannot expect the ‘subject’ to turn back on itself and to study itself ‘objectively’. This wisdom is our side of the reality: our window of the world, whether blurred termporarily by the conditions of worth; or, open and receptive and accepting of all the mysticalities of the world, humbly accepting its own and the world’s true nature for what it is.  

This wise consciousness could well be the primary fact of life; that elusive insightfulness that imbues with belief on and certain and intimate knowledge of the only Source deservant of that belief. Interestingly, I stumbled upon but last night on an online ‘course on the consciousness‘ by a Professor Emeritus in physics, in the University of Virginia, Stanley Sobottka. It resonates nearly perfectly with the above conclusion:

Because most scientists of all types are mentally wedded to a belief in an external reality, they are unable to see an alternative picture. In particular, they are unable to see that Consciousness, rather than external reality, is the fundamental Reality. Thus, they persist in attempting (and in failing) to create an objective theory of Consciousness. When the contents of Awareness try to objectify Awareness, it is like a puppet trying to “puppetize” the puppet master, a picture on a movie screen trying to “pictureize” the actors, a shadow striving to “shadowize” the object that is casting it, or humans trying to “humanize” God.

The problem of trying to create an objective theory of subjective experience has been labeled the “hard problem” of consciousness by David Chalmers… In fact, there is no hard problem for those who are aware they are aware.↓7  



1. D. E. Harding was a mystical writer on the nature of self and reality.

2. The commenting editors have not articulated this angle. To read the chapter along with the commentary, click this link.

3. Read “the problem of substance” on the pertinent wikipedia page. I mentioned a relevant example formerly in Prophetic revelation and subjectivity.

4. A view called as philosophical realism.

5. The issue is examplified by this famous question that if there is no one in the jungle to hear a sound produced, can we say that the sound was really there? Yes is the answer given by subjective idealists who say, in essence, that the mind makes the world (or the subject makes the object).

6. This idea, of course, is not part of Rogers theory but links this psychological discourse with the more philosophical one we began with.

7. For flow reading I have removed internal hyperlinks in the quote pointing to sections in the course which have already elaborated in various points in here. I have also removed the cross-reference to David Chalmers. To see the original go to the section of the course here: http://faculty.virginia.edu/consciousness/new_page_13.htm#9.6


Related posts from this blog:

On scientific speculativeness vs certainty of Divine knowledge: Assumptions vs Certainty (Synopsis)

Note that all the related links noted down in the above-linked post page are relevant to this discussion as well.

Also, more on mysteries of consciousness ordinarily hidden from our perception: Outrageous Sensations: What can we learn from LSD?


RUMI REVELATIONS: True knowledge, and actual ignorance

In excerpts and quotes, God, literature, philosophy, poetry, Quran, Rumi Revelations, sources of knowledge, The Method on September 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm

The insights revealed by literature are sometimes more powerful and incisive than the best of sciences…

I have found many extracts from Rumi’s spiritual outpourings that expand and illuminate on the current topic of this blog.

My interspersed commentary is an attempt to both link the extracts and make them more accessible to readers. Note that any underlining in the excerpted poetry is mine.


Rumi on the true versus the weak sources of real knowledge↓:


Ignorent men  are the soul’s enemy

Shatter the jar of smug words

Cling for life to those who know

Prop a mirror in water, it rusts


We are coming straight from a discussion with the upshot that how science, despite all the progress it has incurred, must still fall short on revealing the true nature of this world and the truest guidelines for human living. It’s the divine which makes up for this lack in our lives, not the human. The wordy lectures and papers of the self-claimed ‘learned’ men while ‘informative’, actually tell us nothing about what we really need to know.



Reason, leave now! You’ll not find wisdom here!

Were you thin as a hair, there’d still be no room.

The Sun is risen! In its vast dazzle

Every lamp is drowned.




Water, stories, the body,

all the things we do, are mediums

that hide and show what’s hidden.

Study them,

and enjoy this being washed

with a secret we sometimes know

and then not.


4. From


Ascend from materiality into the world of spirits, hearken to the loud voice of the universe;

Then thou wilt know that God is glorified by all inanimate things: the doubts raised by false interpreters will not beguile thee.


5. From


Come, recognize that your sensation and imagination and understanding are like the reed-cane on which children ride.

The spiritual man’s knowledge bears him aloft; the sensual man’s knowledge is a burden.

God hath said, Like an ass laden with books: heavy is the knowledge that is not inspired by Him;

But if you carry it for no selfish ends, the load will be lifted and you will feel delight.


God with His Brilliance and Actuality certainly pales any other source of enlightenment and illumination possible. Not only that, Our Creator’s mysterious workings and intricate powers seem to have enmeshed themselves with the fabric of the ‘apparent’ world created for our temporary existence. Such that the closest possible examination of any corner or pattern on the tapestry of this world either blinds us (given the Dazzle of the Source of things). Burdened by the contradictory and mutative conclusions from our observations and the enigma of explaining what we can see and can’t see in the terms of our limited understanding, we remain ignorant and indifferent to the Light. Or, we experience a touch of the dazzle ourselves in form of awe, wonderment, a sense of being in the presence of the Sacred, and a sweet and submissive urge to bow down our heads before this Source.



Body of earth, don’t talk of earth

Tell the story of pure mirrors

The Creator has given you this splendour —

Why talk of anything else?




you’ve carved a wooden horse

riding and calling it real

fooling yourself in life

though only a wooden horse

ride it again my friend

and gallop to the next post

you’ve never really listened

to what God has always

tried to tell you


In the physical world, every level of existence (such as the cultural, the individual, the biological, the chemical, and the subatomical) requires it’s own set of explanatory processes and phenomena. How can we claim to deduce understandings of how this world was created by restricting ourselves to the level of this earth? This will never be possible, unless we stop taking the things of this earth as the end of the road, as the literal reality itself. We must take them instead as signs, pointers or mirrors to the deeper nature of things at a level far far beyond the earthly. Instead of restricting ourselves to the details of this earth, we should move ahead to what this detail signifies: the magnificence, the splendour, the sublimity of how it all came to be.



I have lived on the lip

of insanity, wanting to know reasons,

knocking on a door. It opens.

I’ve been knocking from the inside!


And so external observations are not the end of the road for the one earnest seeker of the Truth. After you’ve completed your observations, then, like Ibrahim, you must close the door of externality and turn on the fountain of contemplation from within.




‘Twas a fair orchard, full of trees and fruit

And vines and greenery. A Sufi there

Sat with eyes closed, his head upon his knee,

Sunk deep in meditation mystical.

‘Why,’ asked another, ‘dost thou not behold

These Signs of God the Merciful displayed

Around thee, which He bids us contemplate?’

‘The signs,’ he answered, I behold within;

Without is naught but symbols of the Signs.’


God has already planted the germs for recognizing the truth within us. When we trun inwards, rather than remaining blinded by the tangled mechanisms of the outer world, we come to access and reinstill these germs.




That which is real is nearer than the neck-artery, and you have shot the arrow of thought far afield.

The philosopher kills himself with thinking. Let him run on: his back is turned to the treasure.

Most of those destined for Paradise are simpletons, so that they escape from the mischief of philosophy.

While the clever ones are pleased with the device, the simple ones rest, like babes, in the bosom of the Deviser.


The huge enterprise of science is not even needed to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Those who know the art of looking within (rather than remaining stuck on the without) for answers, even if they lack the material sophistication of the externalists, have more easily acquired that personal and intimate connection with our God that we either are magnetically attracted to or crazily run away from.


I finish with an ayah and a quatrain…

إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّـهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ 

OF ALL His servants, only such as are endowed with [innate] knowledge stand [truly] in awe of God. (in Sura Fatir, 28)



I know nothing any more, except

That knowing you, I know the source

Of Knowing ; this fire-spring you pull me in

Sometimes, where ‘you’ and ‘I’ burn.



All translations have been taken from the Rumi edition of the Everyman’s Library of Pocket Poets. In order of appearance of quoted poems, here are the translaters with page number references.

  1. Andrew Harvey, p. 60
  2. Andrew Harvey, p. 62
  3. Coleman Barks, p. 86
  4. Nicholson, p. 128
  5. Nicholson, p.130
  6. same as 2
  7. Nader Khalili, pp. 76-7
  8. Coleman Barks, p.84
  9. Nicholson, p. 93
  10. Nicholson, p. 96-7
  11. Andrew Harvey, p. 163



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 II

In Science|Religion, The Method on August 27, 2011 at 2:59 pm

Continued from Part I



In the previous part of this post, we have seen how God carefully distinguishes between ‘certain’ knowledge derived directly from divine sources and ‘human predictions’ speculated from skills and knowledge made available to humans in a general way. It is clear that claims, results, and theories derived from human sources can not be raised to the status of ‘certain knowledge’, they must retain a seed of doubt at their core.

This part of the post attempts to present the basis for the seeds of doubt (the hows and whys) present in essentially every field of human knowledge no matter how scientific or unscientific it is assumed to be. Before focusing on example fields themselves, below is a brief and accessible description of the issue of doubt in scientific research (which is the vehicle for deriving knowledge in any respectable field).


Doubt vs certainty in scientific research

Actually, the issue of doubt vs certainty in scientific research is closely tied to the issue of a study’s claim to be aunthentically scientific. That is, if a research study cannot provide substantiable details of the level of doubt/certainty in its results, it is rejected outrightly as being inauthentic. A study which does provide the requisite details but it shows lack of care and vigor in the study’s procedures towards ensuring a high level of certainty of results, is criticized as being substandard. Why is this issue at the very heart of progress in research? Let’s see.

The logic of a scientific experiment:

To prove that one thing (a) effects or causes another thing (b) essentially means proving that no other (c) factor was also affecting the same thing (b) at the same time. If a person claims to be worsened by a doctor’s prescription, it’s only just to expect to be proven that there was no other cause (other than the prescription) working at the same time that may have lead to the worsening. The doctor should be held responsible, if only his prescription was the relevant ‘worsening’ factor and no other factors were found. Or, the extent of harm from the prescription should be ascertained, with doctor eligible to pay for losses only in proportion to the harm caused, compared with other harming factors.

The same logic holds in scientific studies. Let us suppose a pharmaceutical company gives a new heart disease medicine to 100 patients, and continues a 100 other patients on a pre-existing treatment. After 6 months, it finds average improvement in the heart condition for the new medicine group, while the old medicine group shows no change in average. The question is: were there factors other than the new medicine that could have lead to the change? Were the 100 of one group similar to the 100 of the other group in the intensity of their disease, ages, genders, previous treatments, other health conditions, diet and lifestyle care, psychological stress and social support, financial security etc, etc ___ all factors that affect heart disease?

If the selection of patients was not done carefully, then there might well be pre-existing differences in the group also contributing to the different levels of disease condition after six months. For example, if the new medicine group were younger on average than the old medicine group, or if they were financially better off than the other group, or their previous histories of treatment and response to heart disease were superior…, any of these factors could have been the only factor leading to observed improvement (or it could have contributed to the improvement in addition to the new medicine).

Differences may also exist in the researchers’ handling of the study procedures. Were same doctors seeing both the patients? If the doctor knew which patient was receiving which medication, may be something in their attitude (for instance extra optimism when handling new medicine patients) could have also affected results. Or, the old medicine group may have found out about another group receiving newer and presumably advanced medication (hearsay works everywhere) and might feel discriminated. This will certainly affect their mental and behavioral attitudes towards their regimen affecting disease condition six months later.

A measure of doubt:

Let us suppose the two groups were more or less equal (all 200 being different, unique individuals, they can never be exactly equal). Let us also suppose that at the end of six months a 5% difference in the average level of their heart disease condition had been found. The question is, is this difference big enough to be attributed to new/old medicine factor, since other vital differences could not be ruled out 100%? If I claim ‘yes, this difference is big enough to come from the new/old medicine factor’, how certain should I be in my claim OR how much doubt should I acknowledge in my claim?

Scientists rely on statistics and probability theory to calculate levels of certainty vs doubt in their claims___subject matters beyond the scope of the general reader. The levels are reported in the form of ‘percentages’. For example a 95% confidence interval means that their is a 95% chance (vs. a 5% doubt) that the observed result is strong enough to be attributed to the factor-in-question.

The above scenario is one example of how the issue of doubt concerns itself in scientific research. In my survey of sciences below, other angles may be highlighted as I have already clarified the most common scenario of doubt. However-which way, it will be clear that the germ of doubt cannot be ruled out completely from the sciences. One may say, that this is well applicable to fields involving humans as ultimate subjects, but what about fields such as physics dealing totally in lifeless objects? Well, the nature of doubt in those fields may be different, but that it certaintly exists will be obvious in a short while.  


A survey of example fields, in ascending order of scientific authenticity of research:



Dream interpretation, astrology, hand-reading, psychic practices, and alternative medicine are all parasciences. This is because the knowledge or skills claimed by their practitioners do not pass the test of scientific scrutiny. Practitioners of such fields either do not conduct scientific research at all; their ‘knowledge’ and ‘art’ is based purely on theory, arbitrary observations of individual cases, and history of practice. If they do, their procedures of research are not clearly arranged to rule out unnecessary doubt as much as possible. Or, they do not take the care to report procedures clearly enough to be examined by other scientists. Also, when truely scientific studies are conducted to examine their predictions, results are often against rather than in favor.

Social sciences

Social sciences such as economics, sociology, and anthropology often concern with factors of such large scale that the scale of doubt is proportionally large as well. That is so because they are commonly concerned with effects of factors on society / population at large, rather than on individuals. For instance, economists may study how recruiting policy effects turnover of employees in a certain class of organizations. Or they may attempt to study the fluctuations in stock exchange rates in a certain market. Anthropologists concern themselves with the human culture at large. They may investigate effects on urban survival, human mobility patterns, or domestication of landscapes. Sociologists, may examine effects of instituitional fundings on inequality in educational opportunities. Or they may see how leadership styles affect gender discrimination in organizations.


Studying something ‘big’:

Such ‘macro’-level factors (‘variables’ in research terms’) are difficult to control in a research. For instance, how would you attempt to equalize the characteristics of organizations that affect gender discrimination in addition to the variable-in-question. Many times the context of study is so large, only a single case is included in the study, for instance a study of urban survival in Tokyo. In such cases, effect of, say, inflation, may be observed on survival in the city over time. Let us suppose that inflation in the city makes survival difficult in the city over 8 months. The question is, how can one control other factors also affecting survival in a real population of a city, to rule out the doubt that they may not have affected survival, other than inflation? It is true that experts have attempted to design studies to weed out some of the problems, but each design is riddled with it’s own set of doubt-casting factors.

Due to this impossibility of exerting too much control of procedures, their academics and professionals in these fields accept a 10% level of uncertainty in their scientific claims. This only refers to studies performed in a ‘scientific’ way; studies in which conclusions are based merely on an analysis of descriptive observations, interviews, or case studies are rejected by critics as not being truly authentic.

These large scale studies have another problem. To what extent, conclusions based on a city in Japan hold true for a city in a different part of the world, even in the same country? A huge probability exists that any two given cities are different enough (especially when they belong to different cultures, climates, and ideologies) that things operate differently in them even when the same variables are involved.

Behavioral sciences

Sciences such as psychology and management are more concerned with individuals’ behaviors. At this level, at least control of conditions is better; still as in the example in the last post, control cannot be too good. That is why, academics of such fields have settled on allowing a 5% level of uncertainty of results. Doubt cannot be ruled out but it can be lessenned; other rooms of doubt may still remain.

The people in the study:

One major issue is of ‘sampling’: whom did you include in your study? Just like the example of Tokyo, the question remains whether findings based on a small group of people can be applied to the larger population from which the ‘sample’ was selected. Ideally, a large number of people should be selected and should cover all the various segments of the whole population. For instance, there should be enough composition of genders, social status, and ages etc to reflect the overall composition of the population at large. However, due to difficulties of funding, and time and effort, researchers typically select people from a convenient location such as a university, shopping mall, organization, or airport lounge. As such, you essentially end up making claims based on actual observation of a small number of people of only a certain type of people who may be very different on the whole from the overall population. Some critics have even said that people who agree to participate in such research may be fundametnally different from people who do not volunteer or who refuse to participate. In that case, we will never find out the ‘true’ effect of ‘a’ on ‘b’ as our sample will always be of a certain type, never including anyone from the other type.

Is it the same as real life?


Another major issue is that, from the point of view of the participating person, the situation of research activity is often significantly different from the same activity performed in daily life. People hold myriad of opinions, but do they reflect them ‘as it is’ in a survey? Just so, we perform certain tasks in real life, but when we do so at a special place (in a psychology lab), or at a special time (on the request of the manager-researcher) when we also know that we are being observed, is it really the same? Many times such mental variables are studied that the tasks created to investigate them have no connection with real life. In real life, our problem solving skills are tested in real life challenges, risks, troubles, and dilemmas. In research, we are presented case-like or riddle/puzzle-like situations and are supposed to answer to related questions. Again, is it the same? Do conjectures derived from observations so artificially removed from the real, thriving, kaleidoscopic, and very ‘personallly’ experienced life outside a lab or office can really help us in that life?

Biological sciences

I am going to deliberately ignore fields such as zoology, botany, and microbiology at this level. The ultimate purpose of science is to advance the human kind; all sciences are a way towards this end (just as God proclaims that the whole world has been created to serve humans ↓1). Hence I consider only the fields more directly in connection with us: medicine, pharmacology, neuroscience; and I consider them as a single overall ‘human organism’ science.

When such sciences study internal body processes (such as how a certain chemical interacts with the human blood) in an experimental way, the level of doubt is much reduced and the accepted cut-off is 99% confidence level. In general, we see that the more we move towards ‘inanimate’ subjects (blood by itself is inanimate), the less doubt is allowed for scientific authenticity since a superior degree of control of procedures is naturally possible. However, since the ultimate goal in all sciences is to apply their technology on living breathing humans, some of the same problems already mentioned arise. And there are more.

Is the ‘effect’ as large as life? 

We should keep in mind that the only truly scientifically authentic method of research: the controlled experiment. I have already share a typical example of it above, in the first section of this post. Confidence in the findings of any such study is enhanced as long as the two groups in the study are identical to each other in all respects other than the factor-in-question (the new drug in that example), as long as the procedures of the study simulate how things happen in the real world, and as long as the people selected to study are similar to the much larger group of people to whome the findings will be applied. Despite all this care, a common problem remains in many experiments and that is of ‘effect size’.

In our main example, a 5% difference was found in the heart level condition of the two groups after six months. The question is, even if this difference truly resulted from the new drug, is it a big enough difference for practical reasons? Many a times, good control and large sample sizes lead to statistical significance (i.e. the difference is deemed big enough to leave only the accepted level of doubt in attributing it to the key variable). But is that difference really meaningful in the real world? For example, here, is this difference enough to increase the comfort and living of the people taking the medicine, is it worth the cost of the new medicine, worth risking the side effects of this medicine? What does it mean for the future of the patient? Will it lead to better prognosis in the long run, prevent fatalities from the disease or increase life span? What if the new drug leads to complications that build up over a span of years or even a decade? Speculations upon speculations…

 Are all studies truly experimental?

Over the course of my general readings through the years, I was surprised to find out that, just like social and behavioral sciences, medical sciences too rely on non-experimental research. The most common type of non-experimental research both prevalent and widely accepted in the academic fields is ‘correlational research’. In such research rather than attempting to demonstrate the effect of ‘a’ on ‘b’, the two factors are merely observed to be occuring together in some pattern. For instance, instead of actually controlling a sample’s diet in an experimental way, researchers merely guage the type and amount of diet nutrients actually being taken by the sample. They also measure, say, the weight or body mass of their sample and see if the two variables (nutrients and body mass) are associated: That is, do cases with high amoutns of fat-promoting nutrients in their diet intake also exhibit a higher weight (and vice versa)?

All that such research establishes is that two factors are ‘seen’ to be going along together. Where one is at an increased level, the other is also increased (or it could be, where one is increased, the other is decreased; this is also a pattern of correlation). Such research cannot explain why these factors are seen as varying together. That is, you can never claim: the nutrient type is responsible for or causes the weight levels in the people. The reason is obvious, so many other influencing factors out there were not controlled. Even the key variable in question (nutrients, here) was not controlled by the researcher. The subjects in the sample did not all take the same food in the same fashion at the same place; merely their life reports were taken. How can we even assume in that case that nutrients are causing the body mass variation observed across the sample?

It’s like, if you notice that during the months of May and June, rubber in household products melt easily and our skin frequently develops rashes, should you conclude that particles from the melting rubber are leading to the rashes? NO! There are so many other possibilities: Each of these two things could have their own separate causes, they are just occuring together for some reason. Or, both of these could be the ‘effects’ of a third cause; which is obviously in this case the high heat of these months.  (Althouth, results of such research are also reported in terms of confidence vs uncertainty, but that only amounts to: “is the degree of association between the two a real correlation or merely a coincidence?’)

Now it turns out that some of the famous ‘facts’ of our life-time such as ‘cholesterol is linked to heart disease’ and ‘use of sun screen reduces risk of skin cancer’ are merely ‘correlational’ rather than ‘causal’ facts↓2. I will take up here in detail two cases which interest me. 

Cholesterol–the innocent culprit?

Cholesterol is always observed at the site of damaged veins in heart disease, nobody has ever (and could never) induced people into high cholesterol vs low cholesterol levels and, after controlling all other related factors, established for sure that the high cholesterol group developed the problems associated with heart disease (angina, aneurysms, and heart attacks). It’s a combination of scientific diffidence, media sensationalism, and pharmacological marketing which has firmly grounded the mere ‘association’ as a ‘fact-beyond-doubt’ in both the practitioners’ and the public’s minds.


In fact, all kinds of myriad and mutually contradictory evidences exist about cholesterol. There are many academic sources for the topic↓3 but, as an example the following paragraph from a research project↓4 designed to demystify the cholesterol myth should be sufficient (I have converted the paragraph in numbered items for clearer presentation:

There are also many situations and scenarios that cannot be explained by the cholesterol-theory.

  1. Familial hypercholesterolemia (FH) is a genetic disease causing severely elevated LDL levels (in excess of 500 mg/dL). An FH patient would be expected to be critically at risk of heart disease, and yet there are many cases of entire families with FH never suffering a single heart attack.
  2. Other examples logically refuting the hypothesis include tribes of nomadic peoples in Africa whose diets consist principally of fresh red meat, high in cholesterol, who have no history of heart attacks whatsoever,
  3. and the recent Vytorin study, which showed that despite a particular cholesterol-reducing drug regiment, patients on the drug developed atherosclerosis at double the rate. (p. 5) 


Another area of biological research which is of considerable awe, wonder and amazement in the educated section of the masses is neuroscience: the one scientific field that attempts to cut across all the essential fields of knowledge and to decipher the riddles of how the mind, the body and the world relate to each other.

Areas of the brain and their functions–certainly?

Neuroscientists have progressed considerably in their knowledge of which psychological functions (such as mental activity, memories, emotions and social aptitude) are ‘performed’ by which brain areas. The typical methodology has been to engage subjects in tasks utilizing the function-of-interest and to simultaneously record brain activity patterns through one of prevalent brain-charting technologies of the time. They then try to correlate which brain areas were most active with the persons’ engagement in the tasks. Not only this approach is obviously correlational, the modern day’s ease of recording brain functioning given a multitude of technologies now available is making many scientists too relaxed in their approach to such research↓5.


What happens before stastically calculating the correlation is, that the scientists first look for those brain areas that are showing high activity during the task. They then correlate those same areas with the activity measure in the same subjects. The problem is that this kind of pre-selection can be highly misleading given the correlational nature of the research. That certain brain areas are seemingly active in that sample does not necessarily show a true relation: it could be an artefact of the observed subjects’ individualities (note that the sample sizes in such studies are usually very small, such as within thirties. It could be a ‘third cause’ scenario’; the engaging activity is leading to a process in the brain (not detected by the recording method in the study) which could in turn be associated with certain brain areas’ activity in a complicated fashion. Note that, a lot of brain areas are active during any task; scientists here select only the highest activity ones and then uNse only those to measure the correlation. Now it is quite possible that the high activity of those areas is not the underlying mechanism directly managing the person’s behavior. Instead, a complicated pattern of high-moderate-low activitis in a string of areas could be responsible __ one can’t say.

The Neuroskeptic blog sums up the problem better:

The essence of the main argument is quite simple: if you take a set of numbers, then pick out some of the highest ones, and then take the average of the numbers you picked, the average will tend to be high. This should be no surprise, because you specifically picked out the high numbers. However, if for some reason you forgot or overlooked the fact that you had picked out the high numbers, you might think that your high average was an interesting discovery.

Here are the comments of the critics (referenced in footnote 5) who orginally brought the problem to light:

any measures obtained from such [an] … analysis are biased and untrustworthy.



My survey is taking longer than expected. I must continue the rest in a Part III. I will InshaAllah finish the survey with physical sciences and mathematics; ending with a synopsis providing perspective on what we are learning from the survey.

Till then, fi amana-Allah. 



1. See Surah Ibrahim 32 & 33, Surah Luqman 20, and Surah Jathiya 13.

2. One of the best resources on this topic is a book by Robin Baker called Fragile Science: the reality behind the headlines, 2002, Pan Macmillan.

3. In addition to many literature reviews available fully or partially on the internet, any current textbook on health psychology should also suffice providing a multitude of cross references.

4. Letourneux, J., Ryder, M., Stone, C., and Waring, C. 2008. Mythbusters: Cholesterol. An interactive qualifying project submitted to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Found at http://www.wpi.edu/Pubs/E-project/Available/E-project-050508-202532/unrestricted/Mythbusters_Cholesterol_IQP.pdf

5. These linked two research articles investigate the issue: http://www.pashler.com/Articles/Vul_etal_2008inpress.pdf and http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n5/abs/nn.2303.html. For a relatively accessible but still technical account of the two, interested readers should go to these posts at the Neurocritic blog and the Neuroskeptic blog, respectively.



Related posts from this blog:

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific relativism, and rational knowledge

SCIENCE|RELIGION: Observations of a scientist upon science and reality