In this last section, we discuss two literary devices that may be interpreted as extended metaphors: allegory and parable. They are often confused with each other, hence we must be clear of the difference between them.
Of Allegories and Parables…
Kulikovsky (1997)↓1 cites authentic sources in defining parables. The descriptions also clarify each of their relationship to metaphor:
Parables are short stories that are told in order to get a point across… The word “parable” (Gk. parabole) was generally used in reference to any short narrative that had symbolic meaning (Louw & Nida 1989, p. 391)… A true parable … may be regarded as an extended simile (Blomberg 1990, p. 32). It is a story that resembles real-life natural situations and does not contain any mythical or supernatural elements (Kuske 1995, p. 97)… C. H. Dodd (1961, p.16) defines a parable as: “a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”
Allegory, as will be clear, is essentially an extended metaphor.
According to grammar.com:
The rhetorical strategy of extending a metaphor through an entire narrative so that objects, persons, and actions in the text are equated with meanings that lie outside the text.
Allegory is a device in which characters or events in a literary, visual, or musical art form represent or symbolize ideas and concepts.
The representation of abstract ideas or principles by characters, figures, or events in narrative, dramatic, or pictorial form.
Examples of Allegory and Parable from the Qur’an
Consider the following two ayahs:
وَإِذْ قَالَ إِبْرَاهِيمُ رَبِّ أَرِنِي كَيْفَ تُحْيِي الْمَوْتَىٰ ۖ
قَالَ أَوَلَمْ تُؤْمِن ۖ قَالَ بَلَىٰ وَلَـٰكِن لِّيَطْمَئِنَّ قَلْبِي ۖ
قَالَ فَخُذْ أَرْبَعَةً مِّنَ الطَّيْرِ فَصُرْهُنَّ إِلَيْكَ ثُمَّ اجْعَلْ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ جَبَلٍ مِّنْهُنَّ جُزْءًا
ثُمَّ ادْعُهُنَّ يَأْتِينَكَ سَعْيًا ۚ وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ اللَّـهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
AND when Abraham said, “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.” Allah said, “Have you not believed?” He said, “Yes, but [I ask] only that my heart may be satisfied.” Allah said, “Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then [after slaughtering them] put on each hill a portion of them; then call them – they will come [flying] to you in haste. And know that Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.” [Al-Baqara 260]
مَثَلُهُمْ كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي اسْتَوْقَدَ نَارًا فَلَمَّا أَضَاءَتْ مَا حَوْلَهُ ذَهَبَ اللَّـهُ بِنُورِهِمْ وَتَرَكَهُمْ فِي ظُلُمَاتٍ لَّا يُبْصِرُونَ
Their example is that of one who kindled a fire, but when it illuminated what was around him, Allah took away their light and left them in darkness [so] they could not see. [Al-Baqara 17]
According to the definitions, the first example is a parable as it recounts an incident involving Hazrat Ibrahim (alaihi-salaam) to moralize about the prowess of Allah in creation. According to the ayah, Prophet Ibrahim requested Allah ta’ala to illustrate re-creation (or life after death) to him. Allah ta’ala instructed him to tame a bird and then to kill and place its different parts on foud different locations. Then, upon injuction from God, when the prophet called the bird’s name it came flying back to him, alive and whole.
This is a parable since it recounts an actual incidence, based on its similarity to the target problem in question: resurrection. The metaphoricity of the parable thus lies in the semblance of the story-events to the subject matter intended to be illustrated by it.
The second ayah is an allegory since a) it does not recount an actual incidence, b) each specific detail of the story can be mapped on to a concept/item of the specific subject that it illustrates. This ayah occurs in the very beginning of Surah Baqarah when after describing the Faithful people, God proceeds to describe the Hypocrites through several allegories. Above is the first of those. Below, the sturctural map is presented:
Ayah (allegory) : Tafseer (target/meaning)
The man who kindled fire : Prophet Mohummad (salla-Allahu-alaihi-wasallam)
Fire : God’s guidance in the form of Qur’anic verses
Illuminating the surroundings : Throwing light on the ignorant lifestyles OR lightening up the straight lifestyle
God snatching away their light : God interrupted their ability to perceive the message as it is
Their being left in darkness : Their inability to accept Islam
This is the common exegesis of the ayah then, embodied in this English translation of Tafhim-ul-Qur’an:
This means that two opposite effects emerged when a true servant of God radiated the light which made it possible to distinguish true from false and right from wrong, and made the straight way distinct from the ways of error. To those endowed with true perception, all truths became evident. But those who were almost blinded by the worship of their animal desires perceived nothing.
The expression, ‘Allah took away the light of their perception’ should not create the impression that these people were not responsible for their stumbling into darkness. Only those who do not seek the Truth, who prefer error to guidance and who are adamantly disinclined to pursue the Truth despite its luminosity, are deprived, by God, of the light of their perception. God simply enables such people to do what they wish.
Typically, allegories are the most vivid, beautiful, visual and literary of the Qur’anic metaphors, hence many more will be presented in a future section. Parables with prominent metaphorical content might also be discussed in various sections.
In the next post, we move onto another typology of Qur’anic metaphors, InshaAllah.
1. Kulikovsky, A. S. (1997). The interpretation of parables, allegories and types. Accessed online at: