IN THE QUR’ÂN
Joseph Kenny and Michel Cuypers
I: THE PSALMS AS BACKGROUND —Joseph Kenny
Rhetorical structure is one feature of the Qur’ân which does not figure in the lengthy discussion of i`jâz al-qur’ân by classical authors. For instance, Abû-Bakr al-Bâqilânî explains that the i`jâz of the Qur’ân consists of foretelling future events, telling of unknown past events and in its literary style. His description of its style is limited to its unique character differing somewhat from poetry, saj` (rhymed prose) etc. He entitles one : فصل البديع من الكلام, in which he points out examples of the originality or beautiful phrases in the Qur’ân. Similarly, Jalâladdîn as-Suyûtî, in his التقان في علوم القرآن, devotes a chapter to the originality of the Qur’ân (في بدائع القرآن), in which he discusses similar turns of phrases and rhetorical devices, “numbering near 100 types”. But none of these have to do with the structure of passages.
Traditional micro-analysis of Hebrew poetry
For a long time Biblical scholars have used the pattern of parallelism in Hebrew poetry as an indispensable guide for understanding the text and for interpreting obscure words. As put by Callan and McHugh, this consists of “one line set over against another, the second line either repeating, or reversing, or expanding the thought of the preceding line... There are three principal kinds of Hebrew parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.” These patterns can be illustrated in Psalm 6 (my translation based on Michel Dahood’s reading of the Hebrew). Verse 1 has two repetitive lines:
Yahweh, do not in your anger rebuke me,
Nor in your annoyance punish me.
Verse 2 has two repetitive lines which contrast with verse 1:
Have pity on me, Yahweh, for I am spent.
Heal me, Yahweh, for my bones are racked.
Verse 3 has two lines which are complementary to each other:
My spirit is greatly racked,
but you, Yahweh –how long?
Traditional macro-analysis of Hebrew poetry
Such analysis is on a rather simple level. Yet there is an old tradition of analysing the structure of longer passages. Saints Jerome and Augustine, in their commentaries on the Psalms, do not divide the Psalter or individual Psalms into sections or logical divisions. But Cassiodorus (d. 570) does, dividing the whole Psalter into 12 parts, and each Psalm, as he comments on it, into its logical parts.
Thomas Aquinas goes much further, dividing the Psalter first into three sections of 50 Psalms each, according to their stress on penance, justice, and eternal glory. He further subdivides each of these groups and, when he comes to individual Psalms, divides them according to their logical parts. For instance, the first three verses of Psalm 6, given above, with verse 4, are a request for forgiveness; verses 6 and 7 describe the penitent’s weeping; verses 8 to 10 describe God’s answer to the prayer. All modern commentaries likewise analyse the Psalms according to movement of thought or logic. The various editions, however, do not venture to introduce subtitles into the Psalms, since that would chop up their flow, especially when used as prayer.
Traditional Qur’ânic analysis
Classical and modern Qur’ân interpreters have not analyzed Qur’ânic passages according to parallelism, contrast and complementarity, although these feature clearly exist in the Qur’ân.
As for macro-analysis, the whole Qur’ân is divided into sixty أحزاب, with each حزب divided into quarters. These divisions are purely quantitative, patterned after similar Masoretic divisions of the Hebrew Bible, and have no relation to the natural divisions of the volume. Arabic editions have kept the tradition of printing each individual sûra as a single paragraph; a page layout distinguishing sections would greatly enhance legibility.
Most commentators, both classical and modern, do not introduce the sûras with any division of their parts, but merely point out points of transition from one topic to another when they come to them in the text. Only Yusuf Ali introduces subtitles which are unexplained numbered “sections”.
One problem about any search for order or progression of thought in a Biblical or a Qur’ânic text is that some Biblical books or Qur’ânic sûras seem to follow an obvious plan which is easy to outline, while others, such as Paul’s letter to the Romans or Sûrat-al-Baqara, appear to be a patchwork of thoughts written at different sittings and stitched together without regard to any overall plan. Any commentator’s attempt to outline such documents appears more like reading meaning into the text (eisagesis) rather than reading meaning from the text (exegesis).
This is similar to Thomas Aquinas’ outline of the whole Psalter, where each Psalm falls into place according to one grand design, whereas the editor of the Psalter may never have had such a fine sense of logic when he assembled the Psalms.
New trends in macro-analysis
After a phase of rationalism in Biblical interpretation, emphasizing dissection and minute analysis of texts and words, there is now a tendency to recognize the broader, synthetic intentions of the author, and to see some logical process in the whole, even though this may sometimes have loose transition points.
A new factor in this analysis of whole documents is rhetorical structure. This is not the same as outlining the progression of thought, as classical Christian commentators have so ably done, but includes in addition attention to the arrangement of words, phrases and larger units according to long-recognized patterns of Hebrew poetry as well as newly highlighted patterns. Thus in Biblical studies, A. Vanhoye has shown how the entire Letter to the Hebrews is constructed in a chiastic pattern. And R. Meynet has extended this method to apply throughout the Bible.
The three types of parallelism, synonymy, antithesis, and synthesis, Meynet examines at many different levels, starting from simple terms (or words), then members, then segments (roughly = verses, of two or three members), then pieces (or strophes, of two or three segments), then parts, passages, sequences, sections, until the level of the whole text.
Michel Cuypers has tried to apply this method or rhetorical analysis to the Qur’ân. In the first of several articles in the Dominican publication, Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain du Caire, he applied it to several short sûras and, notably, to the whole of Sûrat Yûsuf (12).
This method amounts to an extension of the traditional analysis of parallelism, antithesis and complementarity in Hebrew poetry, along with the well known feature of chiasm (inclusion or concentrism), so frequently observed by Michel Dahood. It is an extension from its traditional application to single verses or short strophes to longer passages or entire books of the Bible or sûras of the Qur’ân.
Psalm 141 as an example
Before applying this method to the Qur’ân, let us see how it works with Psalm 141. I use my own translation based on Michel Dahood’s reading of the Hebrew text:
This Psalm consists of three strophes. The first and the last, each of 6 lines, are basically prayers never to take part in the “assembly of the wicked” (Psalm 1). The central strophe is the Psalmist's oath calling on God to punish him should he ever do so.
In the first strophe the last two lines are complementary to the first two, specifying the object of the prayer, namely, to keep away from evil in thought, word and deed. In contrast to this evil, the focal two lines in the centre ask God to manifest the Psalmist’s innocence by accepting his prayer offering.
The central strophe consists of two lines, with the curse in the central line doing “double duty” in response to both the first and the third lines. The curse also serves to affirm loyalty to Yahweh
The last strophe is mathematically of the same format as the first, and has a similar structure of meaning. The situation is one of reprisals threatened by the wicked. The first and last two lines are prayers against these, with the first and last line requesting punishment of the wicked, and the second and fourth requesting protection of the Psalmist. In the central two lines he asks God to receive his prayer, mirroring the central two lines of the first strophe. We can summarize the Psalm thus:
A1 Hear my prayer.
Am Accept my prayer (proving that I am innocent).
A2 Preserve me from sin.
M1 If I join their feasts,
Mm –may God punish me–
M2 if I let them anoint my head.
A’1 Let them be punished, since they have laid me low.
A’m Accept my prayer and preserve me.
A’2 Preserve me from their traps; let them be trapped, while I escape.
We can observe that, besides the chiastic logic outlined thus far, there is also a linear logic, with an initial petition developed first to renounce sin, secondly to declare loyalty to Yahweh, thirdly to ward off reprisals from the wicked, until the conclusion in the last line: May God punish them and let me escape.
In the concurrent two types of logic, the last line is the most important for the linear logic and contains the conclusion of the Psalm. But in chiastic logic the centre of the Psalm and of each of its sections contains focal “punch lines”.
II: THE QUR’ÂN —Michel Cuypers
Anyone who reads the Qur’ân cannot fail to notice how different is its style from that of the Bible, apart from some passages of the Prophets or Psalms. The Qur’ân can appear to be a jumble of disconnected ideas, many of them enigmatic or half-explained, that were thrown together without logical order.
A closer look, however, reveals a logic that is foreign to modern literature and to the standards set by ancient Greek and Roman treatises on rhetoric, but belongs to the Semitic world which is home also to the Bible. The style of symetrical phrases that underlies Hebrew poetry can be seen also in the Qur’ân. Once the rhetorical structure of a sûra is analysed, its components no longer seem scattered, but fit into a tightly woven logical pattern.
To illustrate this, let us begin with Sûra 101, identified from its style and content as belonging to the first period of Muhammad’s preaching. It is a dramatic prophet announcement of the last Judgement.
Apart from verses 1, 10 and 11, the verses line up in parallel pairs. The first two are synomymous, the third is antithetic.
On a higher level, the whole sûra has a chiastic pattern:
- The two extremes (A & A’) are apocalyptic words of terror: “the crash”, “a fire blazing”.
- On the next level (B & B’) are questions in the same format. The phrase “What can you compare with” (literally, “What makes you know”) is a common Qur’ânic means of calling attention to the deeper meaning of certain obscure words.
- On the central level, each section (C & C`) has two parallel statements on the Day of Judgment, the first (C) on the cosmic level, and the second (C’) on the moral level.
The rhetorical structure set out above brings out the logic of the Sûra which, in the first section (ABC), describes the shake-up on the last day (“crash – moths scattered – wool blown”), while the second (C’B’A’) describes the judgment following the universal cataclysm (“life of bliss, abyss, fire blazing”).
In Arabic, the symetry of the Sûra is more evident, with a play on words and sounds that cannot be conveyed in translation.
In later sûras the Qur’ân has longer verses with a more flowing style, but the principle of symetrical structure is retained. In Sûra 5 (“The Table”), which is one of the latest, we can point to verses 9-10, which resemble the format of Sûra 101, but present a more developed message:
The Christian Our Father corresponds to the Islamic Fâti, the “opening” or first sûra of the Qur’ân, constantly used in Muslim ªalât. The sûra has a polished rhetorical structure, and, like the Our Father, has a concentric format:
The first part (verses 1-4), which has no verb, is composed of two parallel doublets, whose first and second lines match (1 with 3, 2 with 4).
Symetrical with these are the two parallel doublets of the third part (6-7a and 7b-7c), in this case introduced by a verb (“guide us”). Apart from the contrast between these two doublets, the four lines make a chiasm, with “straight” of line 1 contrasting with “astray” of line 4, and “favoured” of line 2 contrasting with “angry” of line 3.
In the centre (verse 5) are two parallel lines, each introduced by a solemn “You” and followed by a verb expressing one of the two basic attitudes of prayer: adoration and petition. As is normal for centrepieces, these two verses play a pivotal role. The first verb (“we worship”) refers to all the preceding verses, while the second (“we ask your help”) introduces the petition of the following verses. These verses also state the theme of the sûra, since the Fâtiha is essentially a prayer of adoration and petition of the believer (“we”) to God (“You”).
The whole sûra is framed in the antithesis between “God” and “those who have gone astray”. Compare with “your name” and “the Evil one” in the Our Father. Only in the Fâtiha it is not Satan, the Evil one, who is the antithesis of God, but the unbeliever, who has wandered far from the straight way of Islamic faith. The only real danger for the believer is to allow himself to follow those who have gone astray. The Fâtiha has greater resemblance to Psalm 1, which ends with almost the same words: “But Yahweh shall safekeep the assembly of the just, while the assembly of the wicked shall perish.
When the Qur’ân echoes Biblical stories (such as of Noah, Moses, Jesus), these stories are usually abbreviated and sometimes reduced to a simple reference (to Job, for example). The only exception is the story of Joseph (son of Jacob). Although shorter than the Biblical story, it is continuous and complete, taking up an entire sûra of 111 verses. As the Qur’ân itself states, “it is the most beautiful story” (12:3). This relatively long text is wonderfully constructed, but in its least details and in its totality. Its overall structure is that of a huge chiasm, as can be seen in the following table:
Whenever the Qur’ân takes up Biblical stories it gives them a very different meaning, casting them in an Islamic theological mould. The story of Joseph, the closest of any to a Biblical story, is no exception. The principal difference comes at the central point of the story and before the successive concluding episodes. There we find the insertion of an episode which is not in the Bible. While Joseph is in prison, two other prisoners ask him to interpret their dreams. In the Bible, he simply gives them his interpretation, they are freed, and the prophesy is vindicated (Gen 39:20- 40:23). In the Qur’ân, however, before giving his interpretation, Joseph gives his prison mates a little sermon on monotheism, inviting them to turn from idols and embrace the true faith in one God (37b-40). The plan of this sermon will give an idea of the rhetorical art with which the whole sûra is constructed:
[My companions in prison:]
يَا صَاحِبَيِ السِّجْنِ
The structure of this sermon is also concentric. In the first part, Joseph tells of his own conversion to the one God. Then, after the capital question, emphasised by its central position, he exhorts his companions to do the same. The whole speech is framed by the antithesis between “the community of a people which does not believe in God” (37b) and “religion, the correct one” (40f). Each of the two symetrical parts ends with the same “that”, followed by a statement regretting that “most of mankind” is “not thankful” (38d) or “does not know” (40g).
The central part (39a –preceded by Joseph’s address to his prison mates, which is not part of this rhetorical unit) is a question, as is often the case in concentric structures. It also expresses the theme or central point of the sermon.
It is surprising that Qur’ânic commentaries, from the classical age until today, take no cognisance of the rhetorical structure we have described. It may be that the rapid absorption of Greek culture into the Islamic world wiped out sensitivity to this ancient way of speaking and writing. The classical commentaries follow an atomistic method, analysing verse by verse or word by word. Sometimes there is comment on the general meaning of a passage or a whole sûra, and even on the connection between one sûra and the one following it. But much of that is intuition or guesswork. It must be pointed out, however, that the way each sûra is printed as a single continuous paragraph does not help to bring out the patterns we have pointed out.
Today many Muslims are dissatisfied with the limits of traditional commentaries, and would like to introduce new rational and critical approaches. Others are afraid of that, because they see it as disrespectful towards a revealed book. The same problem faced Christains over a hundred years ago with regard to Biblical criticism. Some of it was excessive and later discredited, but the use of new critical methods in the end produced much benefit. The method of rhetorical analysis set out in this article may be more acceptable to Muslims, since its only aim is to bring out the inner logic of the Qur’ân. It does so not on the basis of subjective intuitions, but on the basis of the elements of expression found in the Qur’ân itself.
III: THE QUESTION OF I`JÂZ —Joseph Kenny
Rhetorical analysis certainly reveals much more balâgha, or literary style, in the Qur’ân than was up to now realized. Nevertheless, as Cuypers points out, the patterns that we have described are not unique to the Qur’ân, but found also in the Bible and other ancient Semitic literature. There they are stylistic features, contributing to the beauty of the text and helping memorization, but are not considered an instance of i`jâz.
I`jâz refers to the inimitability that the Qur’ân claims for itself. The Qur’ân challenges its opponents: “If men and jinn conspired to produce a Qur’ân like this one they could not, even if they put all their forces together” (17:88). “Tell them, ‘Bring a divine scripture with better guidance than this one and I will follow it’“ (28:49). “If they say he invented it, tell them, ‘Invent ten sûras like it.. if you are right’“ (11:13). This challenge was later simplified: “Bring one sûra like it.. if you are right” (2:23).
Precisely what aspect of the Qur’ân is supposed to be inimitable? Muslim authors give several answers. We have seen above the opinion of al-Bâqillânî. The 15th century theologian Muhammad ibn-Yûsuf as-Sanûsî lists nine different opinions and then opts for the opinion of Imâm-al-Haramayn and al-Bâqillânî that the combination of eloquence with the word-pattern is the miraculous aspect of the Qur’ân, since the masters of eloquence could imitate either one separately. Al-Bâqillânî added that telling absent events of the past and future is also a miraculous aspect of the Qur’ân.
By nazm, “word-pattern”, is meant the arrangement of words (ترتيب الكلمات), or, according to `Abdalqâhir, the grammatical structuring of words to serve the purposes of speech. As-Sanûsî elsewhere restricts the meaning of بلاغة, “eloquence” to excellence of speech (كلام), or meaning, and of the speaker (متكلم), whereas فصاحة, also “eloquence”, is a wider term including also excellence in words (كلمات) or word-pattern. The highest degree of balâgha is miraculosity (إعجاز), which is determined by taste (والحكم في الذوق), and the lowest degree is that which distinguishes speech from animal sounds.
What emerges from these authors’ discussion of i`jâz is that it is difficult to give a precise objective definition of what it consists of. The factor of “taste” seems to be all important; thus the Qur’ân itself argues for its divine origin on the basis of the impact it has on its hearers: “When those who previously were given knowledge heard it recited to them, they fell on their faces in worship, saying: ‘Our Lord be praised! The promise of our Lord is accomplished.’ And they fell on their faces crying with increased reverence” (Qur’ân 17:109). Elsewhere we hear: “When they hear what was brought down to the Messenger you see their eyes shedding tears because of the truth that they recognize, as they declare: ‘Our Lord, we believe; inscribe us among the witnesses” (5:83).
Christian discussion of i`jâz with regard to the Bible
Nietsche, a non-Christian philosopher and philologist, is said to have remarked that the Holy Spirit wrote very bad Greek in the New Testament. In contrast to this approach, the tone of any Christian discussion of Biblical eloquence is set by the statement of Paul: “When I came you, brothers, I did not come with any brilliance of oratory or wise argument to announce to you the mystery of God” (1 Corinthians 2:1).
In the early sixth century, Cassiodorus discussed the question of Biblical eloquence in the introduction to his Commentary on the Psalms. He says that it consists in the truth of its author who speaks to the heart, judging everything with great truth and great firmness of conscience, as was said of Jesus’ preaching: “He taught them with authority, unlike their own scribes” (Matthew 7:29). This authority consists in the effective power to command the good and forbid the evil in the lives of the hearers, turning them from earthly things and drawing them to heavenly things. Thus Paul adds: “The kingdom of God consists not in spoken words but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20), and the Letter to the Hebrews states: “The word of God is something alive and active: it cuts more incisively than any two-edged sword: it can seek out the place where soul is divided from spirit, or joints from marrow; it can pass judgement on secret emotions and thoughts” (4:12). Thus Cassiodorus presents as a miracle the fact that this word has been accepted all over the world, in accordance with Psalm 19: “Through all the earth their call went forth, and their words to the edge of the world.”
Besides this primary aspect of eloquence, Cassiodorus maintains, in a agreement with Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Hilary, that all the methods and devices of human eloquence described in Greek treatises on the subject are contained in a superior way in the Bible, in addition to other features of eloquence unique to the Bible.
Both the Muslim and the Christian explanations we have seen of the eloquence of their respective Scriptures, focus less on the text itself than on its impact on its hearers. Nonetheless, when it comes to the objective characteristics of each Scripture, Muslims stress the verbal eloquence of the Qur’ân, while Christians emphasize the power of the message and consider the verbal expression secondary. Muslims also take the Qur’ân as both the supreme miracle demonstrating the truth of Islam and first authority in determining the content of Islamic faith. In this they resemble Protestant Christians who take the Bible as self-evidently inspired and as the supreme and only rule of faith.
Catholics, however, like Muslims, do not consider the text of the Bible as self-evidently inspired, and they point out that the Bible itself does not claim that it is the supreme and only rule of faith. Rather, the living preaching of the Church, believed and put into practice by its members, is the living witness to the truth and power of God and the primary miracle demonstrating the truth of Christianity. It is the Church, guided by the Spirit, that judges which books form part of the Bible and which do not.
Evidently, the living preaching of the Church must be in agreement with the Bible, but it goes beyond the bare text and addresses current issues of faith and morality with divine authority. Apostolic succession in the Catholic Church has some resemblance with the authority of the inspired imâm in Shî`ism, but there is a difference. Papal infallibility is restricted to official teaching on the faith, whereas the عصمة of a Shî`ite imâm is understood to be an immunity from all error, even in personal opinions, and immunity from all sin as well.
The question of i`jâz, whether of the Bible or the Qur’ân, is a secondary theme of this compound article, maybe even a digression. What I would like the discussion to focus on is the new method of rhetorical analysis which, as an incidental consequence, throws light on much beauty in the texts which was hitherto unobserved or not analysed.
 إعجاز القرآن (القاهرة: المحلبي، 1951)
 Pp. 101 ff.
 نوع 58, II, pp. 83 ff.
 Charles J. Callan & John A. McHugh, The Psalms explained (New York: Wagner, 1929), p. 17.
 The Psalms (Anchor Bible. Garden City: Doubleday. v. 1: 1965; v.2, 3rd ed.: 1974; v. 3: 1970).
 Expositio Psalmorum, CCSL, 97-99 (Turnholt: Brepols, 1958).
 La structure de l’Epitre aux Hébreux (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1963 & 1976).
 L’Analyse rhétorique, une nouvelle méthode pour comprendre la Bible (Paris: Cerf, 1989); Rhetorical analysis (a translation and revision of the French; Sheffield: Jost S., 1998).
 In “Structures rhétoriques dans le Coran,” Mélanges de l’Institut Dominicain du Caire, 22 (1995), 107-195; “Structures rhétoriques des Sourates 105 à 114,” Ibid., 23 (1997), 157-196; “Structures rhétoriques des sourates 99 à 104,” Annales Islamologiques, 33 (1999), 31-62.
 Psalms, Anchor Bible, 3 vols. (Garden City: Doubleday, I: 1965, II, 3rd ed. 1974; III, 1970); in this he was followed by R. Meynet, L. Pouzet, N. Farouki & A. Sinns, Rhétorique sémitique, textes de la Bible et de la Tradition musulmane (Paris: Cerf, 1998).
 العقيدة الكبرى (Cairo, 1936), p. 479.
 Op. cit., pp. 18 ff.