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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.”


THE QURAN CYCLE: Imitation or Cooperation?

In Islam, psychology, Quran, Uncategorized on October 2, 2009 at 5:45 am

وَتَعاوَنوا عَلَى البِرِّ وَالتَّقوىٰ ۖ وَلا تَعاوَنوا عَلَى الإِثمِ وَالعُدوٰن

Translation: And cooperate in righteousness and piety, and do not cooperate in sinfulness and transgression

06 Shawwal, 1430:

Ramadaan ends. Qur’an – its recitation, its wisdom, and the learning from it – continues. I had begun the “Quran in Ramadaan”  series with the ambitious intent of sharing my inspirations from my reading of the Qur’an on a daily note basis. My high-flying dreams soon crashed back flat on earth what with the realities of PC problems, connection failures, and the intensely on-edge schedule of Ramadaan. Ultimately, I was able to manage barely 5 posts instead of my orignally imagined 29!

However, with the grace of God, the sane idea has entered my head that Qur’an is not really meant to be restricted to Ramadaan; nor is Ramadaan really meant as a once-in-a-year occasion for serious thinking and behaving. Our salat, our strivings, our zikhr, our practices of sunna, our recitation of the Qur’an everything continues beyond Ramadaan so why not this practice of sharing observations inspired by the Book.

I sincerely pray that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala guides me well and helps me increase my own understandings and insights foremost through this exercise. I also depend on my readers’ feedback. I intend it as a cooperative learning venture.

Today’s Ayah

Today’s ayah is a segment from ayah no. 2 of Sura Al-Maida. It is in the context of warning Madina’s Muslims against unfair dealings with Mecca’s polytheists (mushrikeen) after the latter had stopped these Muslims from performing the Hajj of Ka’aba.

Our Creator lays down an overarching rule of cooperation, not just with non-Muslims; the rule is general and can be applied to any case of group interaction. The translation for bir is righteousness and is applicable to any form of good deeds. The word taqwa is a multi-faceted word and in different translations and tafaseer it is elaborated as “God-consciousness”, “protecting oneself from doing wrong” or “fear of incurring God’s wrath or punishment” The word “icm” refers to all forms of wrong and immoral acts and the word “udwaan” implies criminal violation of the rights of another individual, group or institution.

Very simply, our Creator here asks us to cooperate in good things, and not in bad things.  

Co-operating with the non-believers

This is one of the verses that clarifies the nature of permissible relations with the non-believers. There is a common myth that has been wrongfully popularized in the name of Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims alike that Islam encourages hatred, prejudice and violence towards non-believers. But that is not true as evidenced by this, and indeed, many other verses in the Qur’an.

Qur’an clearly distinguishes those non-believers who have actually transgressed against the believers, who plot and conspire against them and act out their conspiracies, in particular those who are directly responsible for wrongful group actions taken against muslims (re: a’immat-al-kufr, the archetypes of faithlessness, Sura Tauba 12) with those peaceful ones who are simply leading their lives according to their belief systems. These distinctions have been most plainly clarified in Sura Al-Mumtahina 8 & 9:

As for such [of the unbelievers] as do not fight against you on account of [your] faith, and neither drive you forth from your homelands, God does not forbid you to show them kindness and to behave towards them with full equity: for verily, God loves those who act equitably. (8). God only forbids you to turn in friendship towards such as fight against you because of [your] faith, and drive you forth from your homelands, or aid [others] in driving you forth: and as for those [from among you] who turn towards them in friendship, it is they, they who are truly wrongdoers! (9).

Forms of Cooperation

When it comes to actual cooperation, Qur’an only distinguishes in terms of the areas of cooperation. For here, we clearly see that this injunction is in direct reference to those Mushrikeen (polytheists) who fall on the criteria of antagonism laid out in the verse referenced above. They drove Muslims out of their homes, they had a history of plotting war and breaking pacts with Muslims, and they had stopped Muslims from performing an act of worship which was annualy performed by millions of pilgrims from all over Arabia.

So even with these enemy-minded people, Qur’an distinguishes and permits cooperation where it leads to the general good of mankind.

Cooperation with non-Muslims indeed exists at many levels in today’s world. But an obvious question enters our mind, that is: is the kind of cooperating taking place really the Qur’anic kind? More often than not, sadly, the answer is not. We do not just cooperate in the really goodly things. We cooperate primarily in wasteful, and mostly sinful activities in the name of culture. We cooperate in mass capitalism that makes it more and more difficult for the ordinary citizen to eke out an honest living. We cooperate through political alliances (and dalliances!) that ultimately serve against our own brethren. And, speaking of lifestyles, values, attitudes, and aims of life, we actually do not cooperate. We IMITATE. Let us differentiate between cooperation and imitation.

Cooperative Learning

[cross-reference here]

Cooperation refers to making a joint effort to accomplish common goals beneficial to oneself and to all parties concerned. In contrast with imitation learning, any cooperative learning effort involves a positive-minded interdependence, face-to-face promotive interaction, individual and group accountability, use of interpersonal and group skills, and group processing such as monitoring one’s own progress towards the goals, and maintaining effective working relationships.

Both experimental and correlational research on use of cooperative learning strategies (as reviewed by Johnson & Johnson, 1989) has shown that, in contrast to traditionally competitive and individualistic learning or work efforts, cooperative learning leads to i) higher achievement and greater productivity, ii) care, support and commitment in relationships, iii) and greater levels of psychological health, social competence, and self-esteem.

These effects can, of course, only be achieved if the true spirit of cooperative learning has been applied: equal effort by all parties involved, and the sole regard of communal benefit.

Imitation Learning

Imitation learning is a form of observational learning whereby an individual observes and retaisn the behavior of a model, and is motivated enough to reproduce it in one’s own life.

This concept was originally researched by Albert Bandura. His work reveals three principles involved in imitation learning (click here for cross-reference of the following):

1. The highest level of observational learning is achieved by first organizing and rehearsing the modeled behavior symbolically and then enacting it overtly. Coding modeled behavior into words, labels or images results in better retention than simply observing.

2. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if it results in outcomes they value.

3. Individuals are more likely to adopt a modeled behavior if the model is similar to the observer and has admired status and the behavior has functional value.

Bandura also  identified three basic models of observational learning (cross-reference of the following):

  1. A live model, which involves an actual individual demonstrating or acting out a behavior.
  2. A verbal instructional model, which involves descriptions and explanations of a behavior.
  3. A symbolic model, which involves real or fictional characters displaying behaviors in books, films, television programs, or online media.

The prevalent Muslim trend

An analysis of these points reveals what has happenned in Muslim nations which has ended in the mass cultural invasion that now continues. The majority of the blame lies on our own shoulders. Had we maintained or promoted the highly functional Muslim guidelines for societies in our respective families, neighborhoods and governments, we could have been adequate role models for our subsequent generations.

Through categorical, incomplete, and distorted application of Islamic guidelines, over the years a number of Muslim societies associated negative outcomes (torture, undue restrictions, superstitiousness, and impracticality) with otherwise universal and highly constructive principles. “Valued outcomes” seem to come more often from Western cultures in form of intellectual stimulation, skill development, technological advancement and comfortable lifestyles. On the other hand, history has witnessed these same outcomes as the hallmark of Muslim, rather than non-Muslim, societies.

Two things have further reinforced Western role-modelling in our generations’ conscious and subconscious mind:  Our education system and entertainment channells. The structure of the education system prevalent all over the globe is now Western. But that is not the main issue. The main issue is that we are mostly teaching Western content at all levels. This does not apply only to Cambridge or Oxford exam systems in our countries. All university level teaching relies on textbooks from the Western worlds. The same is now happenning in many of the private schools of Pakistan (Of relevance here is the infamous matter of Dawood public school in my city, Karachi).

The primary reason, of course, is the lack of genuine research and quality textbook writing on OUR part. However, even while teaching, it is possible to tailor concepts and research findings in the context of our values which teacher typically do not do. More criminal: few educationists (teachers and mangers) actually encourage the kind of sincere, purposeful, and truly scientific effort-making needed to replace the easy models with more indegenous ones. That is why our generations do not seem to adopt the more functional values apparent in Western societies; rather, in the name of progressiveness, we readily focus and copy only the very material, short-sighted and mostly sinful styles and values.

These effects are multiplied many times by the entertainment industry. Being open-minded is being equated with physicality in illegitimate relationships and blind acceptance of everything offered in the name of science and technology. Being achieving is equated with self-centered individualism that cuts the flow of positive human sentiment in society leading to more and more alienation, selfishness, disregard of others’ right and benefit, dishonesty and lack of quality in one’s own duties, and single-minded pursuit of concrete comforts stripped of the glow of interpersonal satisfaction.

It is clear that we cannot derive the intended benefits of cooperative learning unless the demands of this form of learning are fulfilled.

It is certain that we can NEVER obtain (neither deserve) the fruits of our Creator’s wisdom unless we are prepared and ready to study and incorporate our rich Islamic heritage and to transfer it to our developing generation.

May Allah guide us. Ameen

THE METHOD: Pirsig, Scientific Relativism, and Rational Knowledge

In science, Uncategorized on May 8, 2009 at 5:36 pm

Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance






Robert Pirsig in his world famous classic Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance shares the experience of his disillusionment with science when he was an undergraduate university student.

Pirsig’s Law

Pirsig noted a curious fact about doing research in his biochemistry lab. He found that the easiest part of experimentation is the thinking up of plausible hypotheses that may explain the phenomenon in question. Moreover, as he attempted to take up these hypotheses one by one and test them, their number did not decrease. Rather, it kept increasing!

Initially, Pirsig took a humorous view of the situation and even stated a law to express it:

The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite.” (p. 139)

While this law is certainly not rigorously defended, the main point is that at any given point of time more hypotheses can be generated to explain a given phenomenon than can be tested. But if all hypotheses cannot be tested (because their number keeps increasing as experimentation continues) than the result of any single experiment at a given point of time is actually inconclusive: Which is to say that all scientific truth is relative, a function of time.

The nature of scientific method

When we closely inspect the nature of scientific method, it is easy to see why any scientific truth must be relative. Scientific method rests on a form of reasoning called as the hypothetico-deductive model. The model entails the following steps in any scientific inquiry:

1. You look at a problem (an unexplainable phenomenon) and first look for any previous explanations.

2. If no previous explanation is available, you construct and state an explanation yourself (the theory).

3. Next, you derive one or more very specific consequence(s)  (the hypotheses) that follows from the explanation in the step #2.

4. Finally, you test the hypothesis by collecting data and seeing whether they fit the opposite of the hypothesis in question.

This last point may well be unclear to those not familiar with scientific research, so here I go again:

The hypothesis from step 3 is called as the research hypothesis (also termed as the alternative hypothesis), the one that the experimenter is really interested in. For every research hypothesis, its corresponding opposite, the null hypothesis, is actually what is tested.

For example if the research hypothesis is “Tomato plants exhibit a higher rate of growth when planted in compost rather than in soil” then the null hypothesis would be “tomato plants do not exhibit a higher rate of growth when planted in compost rather than in soil”.

The experimenter really tests this null hypothesis. If the data do not fit the null hypothesis, it is rejected and the alternative hypothesis is then accepted.

No absolute proof for the research hypothesis

It is clear from the above explication that the scientific method can never really prove any given consequence (step #3) drawn from a given explanation (step #2). All it can do is to prove that the literal opposite of the research hypothesis does not conform to the observed variation in data.

This is what Christiaan Huygens meant when he said: “I believe that we do not know anything for certain, but everything probably.” Albert Einstein expressed the same idea more precisely: “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” [Source for both quotes is the wikipedia page on the Scientific Method.]

Since the evidence is really not in favor of any single explanation, a multitude of explanations can be surmised. It will be a matter of time before the currently favored explanation for any given phenomenon is ultimately disproven, with another alternative hypothesis taking its place.

Scientific truth as a function of time

This leads us directly to scientific relativism. Throughout the history of science, new and changing explanations have emerged for old facts. Explanations remained “true” for a certain period of time and were finally replaced by a newer truth. As Pirsig observes: Some scientific truths seemed to last for centuries, others for less than a year.

Authors, J. A. Fodor and Z. W. Pylyshyn made a similar observation with reference to a theory of perception: “Even in the respectable sciences, empirical knowledge is forever going reformulation, and any generation’s pet theories are likely to look naive when viewed from the perspective of thirty or forty years on.”

Pirsig additionally observes: “the scientific truths of the twentieth century seem to have a much shorter life-span than those of the last century because scientific activity is now much greater”. Thus the greater the number of hypotheses, the greater the amount of activity to test them, with ever increasing stimulation of more and more hypotheses. Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude.

Is the Explainer of Chaos it’s Producer?

The ultimate conclusions Pirsig reaches about science are rather interesting, definitely harsh and, in my personal opinion, certainly true.

Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones. The major producer of the social chaos, the indeterminacy of thoughts and values that rational knowledge is supposed to eliminate, is none other than science itself.

Pirsig’s final verdict on rationality:

It begins to be seen for what it really is–emotionally hollow, esthetically meaningless, and spiritually empty.