Amthāl al-Qur’ān – Investigating the Illustration of the Unseen


The amthāl of the Qur’ān are, without controversy, recognised as one of the major linguistic forms by which its message is conveyed and are explicitly mentioned as such by the scripture itself. Nonetheless, the very breadth of the semantic field covered by the singular term mathal in Arabic, which includes the meanings of proverb, parable, fable and similitude among others, makes the amthāl far from straightforward to categorise and to explain in terms of their function. This dissertation will seek to provide an original contribution to this subject by analysing how the amthāl primarily act as linguistic phenomena that fulfil a specific purpose within the Qur’ānic revelation – illustrating aspects of the ‘Unseen’ (al-ghaib) that cannot otherwise be adequately rendered into language. The analysis will take into consideration the linguistic root of mathal, as well as the function of allegory within scripture, in order to define the usage of the term within the Qur’ān and construct a typology of the amthāl that are to be found therein. Detailed examination of the language, style and contextual composition of two examples will then be made on this basis, as well as an assessment of the relationship between amthāl and the Qur’ān’s characteristic self-referentiality.



In many ways, it can be said that the language of all scriptures is a language of parables.’[1]

So begins a lucid and informative entry by A. H. Fatani in The Qur’ān: An Encyclopedia, on the subject of the Qur’ānic amthāl (parables[2]). If this is indeed the case, then it is surprising that there has not, at least in English, been more sustained scholarly focus on this language as it applies to the scripture of Islām. While useful summaries can be found in the various reference works, such as that quoted above, there certainly seems to be a dearth of more in-depth, indeed philosophical, studies to illuminate for us the meaning of ‘amthāl’ within the Qur’ān; the different categories and the linguistic form in which they are found; the manner in which they achieve their effects; and their function within its message and discourse as a whole. Generally speaking, classical and modern works in Arabic have engaged with these issues – which are at the heart of this dissertation – to a greater extent, and for this reason they will be utilised, where appropriate, to enrich its structure and analysis.

The overall approach taken in this study has been specifically developed in order to gain insight into the subject of amthāl al-Qur’ān as a scriptural device within the context of revelation and so deserves to be set out clearly at the outset. The argument that will thread through each chapter is that, despite the polysemous nature of the word mathal, its distinctive function within the Qur’ān is not just that of providing clarity to abstract ideas, or rhetorical exhortation, present though these aspects may be. Rather, it is that of profoundly illustrating unseen metaphysical realities, that otherwise would remain incomprehensible. With this in mind, Chapter 1 will investigate the pre-Islamic Arabic connotations of mathal, as well as its cognate in the Hebrew Tanach, before exploring some of the philosophical and theological approaches that have been taken in regard to such allegories. Thereafter, it will be appropriate in Chapter 2 to focus on defining the specifically Qur’ānic manifestation of this concept and building a typology in order to categorise the different amthāl and understand more rigorously the manner in which they function. The culmination of this study will be in Chapter 3, where the methods developed will be applied in detail to two specific examples from the Qur’ān, focusing closely on their language, style and place within the scripture’s composition. Finally, we shall discuss how the amthāl are conceived within the self-referential address of the Qur’ān, arguing that this is characteristic of a larger meta-narrative, one in which God comments on humanity in relation to its faith or lack therein.


Chapter 1 – The Meaning of Amthāl: Linguistic Aspects and Scriptural Function

Although our study is concerned with the meaning and function of the amthāl which are contained within the Qur’ān, it is an obvious fact that mathal and other words formed from the tri-literal root m-th-l preceeded the historical revelatory event in their use within the language of the Arabs. That this is the case in no way detracts from the possibility that the word mathal, and even more so the concept that it denotes, underwent a semantic shift in its specific Qur’ānic instantiation. As Toshihiko Izutsu demonstrates, the position of a word within the total structure of meaning of a discourse, its ‘relational’ meaning, can have as great an influence on its signification as its original etymon.[3] Bearing this in mind, the logical way for us to undertake our analysis is to first look at the historical evidence in regard to the meaning of the root m-th-l in pre-Islamic Arabic sources, as well as its cognates in the related Semitic language of Hebrew, as found in the scripture of the Tanach, before moving on to narrow down the meaning of amthāl as a distinctively Qur’ānic concept.

Pre-Islamic Arabic and Hebrew Use of Mathal and the Semantic Root m-th-l (m-sh-l)

Pre-Islamic Arabic had a number of different registers, including poetry (shiʿr), oratory (khaṭabah), rhyming prose (saj) and storytelling (qaṣaṣ), as Alan Jones points out. [4] However, the dynamics of early Islamic intellectual culture led to the substantial preservation of only the first and most prestigious of these types, the so-called ‘diwān of the Arabs’, largely because of its perceived benefit for understanding the language of the Qur’ānic text. ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, a classical authority in Arabic linguistics, named a section of his book Dalā’il al-IʿjāzThe Statement Pertaining to the One who Refrains from the Narration and Memorisation of Poetry and Insults the Occupation with its Knowledge and Attachment to it.’ Therein, he argues vigorously that despite there being indecent elements to pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, it remains a vital source for scholars, who ‘have used it for proof in regard to the unusual expressions of the Qur’ān and its grammatical inflection.’[5] This highlights the fact that a starting point for obtaining knowledge of what the earliest Arab listeners to the Qur’ān would have understood by the word amthāl is to be found in its use within this corpus of poetry.[6] Bashāmah ibn Ḥazn, a poet of the Jāhilī era, uses ‘amthal’in a couplet as follows:

Truly I stood up for Khindif [7] and for the might of it,

When it weakened in regard to its [own] aid, deserting it.

I was entrusted with the defence of our honour so I defended it,

And before me in its likeness was the like of it [fī amthālihā amthāluhā].’[8]  

In this example, the word amthāl is employed in the sense of mithl, which is arguably its most basic and original signification and definitely precedes the verb ma-tha-la (he stood erect; he castrated [bihi] it)[9] in importance, if not also in provenance. Evidence for this is supplied in the article m-th-l in al-Qamūs al-Muḥīṭ, which begins with mithl and its derivations before moving on to maththala bihi and the other verbal forms.[10] This is, however, far from stating that the pre-Islamic Arabs did not also use amthāl in the sense of a parable or allegory. Dr Muḥammad Tawfīq Abū ʿAlī rather comments in this regard that they ‘devoted their attention to the amthāl with a concern having few parallels, involving them in almost every sphere of their activity, so there was, for each specimen of the species of their lives, a mathal attached to it.[11] However, as we shall see, the dominant Qur’ānic usage of amthāl not only expresses the idea of an abstract teaching through the form of a parable or similitude, but goes beyond this to represent unseen metaphysical realities in a linguistic and conceptual clothing by which an indication of their true nature can be apprehended. This phenomenon, which can be identified as necessarily belonging to prophetic, or at least ‘mantic’[12] speech, was therefore generally inaccessible to the Arabian poets, who despite laying claim to inspiration by jinn,[13] were rather famed for portraying the worldly themes of desert life, tribal honour and sexual prowess.[14]

In order to get a broad appreciation of the range of possible meanings given to the word mathal, it is necessary to reference the dictionaries of the Arabic language, which represent the efforts of generations of scholars to distill the essential signification of words from the primary sources at their disposal, mainly the Qur’ān itself, the poetic corpus and the language of the Arabian Bedouin.[15] Dr Tawfīq Abū ʿAlī remarks that the best presentation of these meanings takes two routes: the abridgement of what is to be found in the majority of dictionaries; and the specific text of Lisān al-ʿArab which he asserts is a firm proof in regard to the reality of the matter.[16] In presenting the first of these, he draws up a fairly extensive list of synonyms to one or another meaning of mathal, the most relevant being as follows: ‘taswīyah, mumāthalah, shibh, naẓīr, ḥadīth, ṣifah, khabar, ḥadhw, ḥujjah, nidd, ʿibrah, āyah, miqdār, qālab/qālib.[17] While this can act as a general orientation to the semantic range of the word, the discourse quoted from Lisān al-ʿArab is of far more benefit for our present study, as it distinguishes more clearly between four uses of the word with reference to Qur’ānic examples. Thus it is argued that the mathal of something can be taken to refer to its characteristic properties (ṣifah), for instance in the verse which begins: ‘The characteristics (mathal) of the garden which is promised to the pious…’[18], this is taken to be the description of the garden that follows, or of its characteristics. Secondly, it can mean ‘similitude or parable’ (mithāl): ‘O People! A parable (mathal) is struck so hearken to listen to it…[19] Thirdly, it can take the meaning of ‘lesson’ (ʿibrah): ‘So we made them forerunners and a lesson (mathal) to those who came later.[20] Finally, it can mean ‘sign’ (āyah): ‘We made him a sign (mathal) for Banī Isrā’īl.[21] [22]

It is very interesting that if we are to widen our field of study to include the Jewish Tanach, we again find what can be called a scriptural, or prophetic, meaning given to the word māshāl which is the exact Hebrew cognate of mathal.[23] In Hosea 12:11, for instance, ‘I spoke with the prophets and provided numerous visions, and through the prophets I conveyed allegories.’[24]This verse shares the Qur’ānic characteristic of being a self-referential address from God to his creation and highlights different methods of divine communication including the use of allegorical expression. Another example, Ezekiel 21:5, examines the prophetic use of parables from the perspective of the difficulties faced by the messengers transmitting them to humanity at large: ‘I then said, “Ah, Lord Hashem/Elohim! They say about me, ‘Behold, he invents parables!’”[25]

In Chapter 3, we shall return to the issue of self-referentiality in regard to the amthāl passages of the Qur’an and relate it to the meta-narrative in which the Divine comments on the acceptance or rejection of faith by humanity. For now, it is sufficient to notice the intriguing parallels that exist with the earlier Hebrew scripture and to try to look to the reason for this commonality, which seems to be rooted in the role that language plays as the nexus between the finite and the infinite. More specifically, we can observe that the experience of revelation itself, as recorded in the Qur’ānic account of prophetic history, is intimately tied in with the idea of a linguistic phenomenon, the transmission of words, or ‘a word’. Hence, in the account of primordial human existence, Adam is taught ‘all the names’[26] and after the fall to Earth and his repentance, receives ‘words from his Lord’.[27] Likewise, the Prophet Ibrāhīm is described as having being tried by his Lord’s commandments (kalimāt, lit. ‘words’)[28] and is attributed scrolls or parchment (ṣuhuf), along with Mūsā.[29] In fact, more significant in this regard, is Mūsā’s appellation of kalīm Allah and his return from his sojourn with his Lord on Mount Sinai with tablets (alwāḥ) upon which the taurah was transcribed.[30] In the case of ʿĪsā, when his birth is announced, he is himself referred to as ‘a word’ from God.[31] Finally, it is difficult to overestimate the significance of the linguistic dimension to the Qur’ānic revelation given to the Prophet Muḥammad, which not only has a unique dual existence in oral and written form, but is held to have begun with the word ‘iqraʿ’ (read/recite) which was followed after only a few verses by ‘The One who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know.[32]

Izutsu underscores the significance of this common theme which is found traced throughout the Qur’ānic prophetic narratives:

Revelation means in Islam that God ‘spoke’, that He revealed Himself through language, and not in some mysterious non-human language but in a clear, humanly understandable language. This is the initial and most decisive fact. Without this act on the part of God, there would have been no true religion on earth according to the Islamic understanding of the word religion.[33]

It should be noted that acknowledging this linguistic nature of revelation is firmly in the   mainstream of the Islamic theological tradition, although there has been a great emphasis on understanding the process in such a way as to neither lower the status of the Qur’ān nor to compromise the unity of God. Thus, from the sunnī perspective, the Qur’ān as the Speech of God, is considered His attribute, uncreated and eternal, neither Him nor other than Him. In order for the Qur’ān, which by its nature is of the infinite, to be received within the limited creation, it is therefore usually understood that the angel Jibrīl was made to hear it by means of created sounds and letters which he then transmitted to the Prophet.[34] Here, however, it is possible to bring out something incredibly significant in the existence of the parable form as a characteristic device of revealed scripture. According to developed Ashʿarī theology, whilst the spirit and meaning (rūḥ wa maʿnā) of the Qur’ān are of this eternal, uncreated nature, the language and utterance (lughah wa nuṭq) are not[35], hence the verse: ‘We have bestowed it from on high as a discourse in the Arabic tongue, so that you might encompass it with your reason.[36] Thus, it is necessary for there to be embedded within the revelation itself allegorical statements, the amthāl, so as to allude to those aspects of its meaning which cannot be otherwise conveyed within the limited range available to human language and cognition. Martin Lings writes:

A Revelation also – together with the sacramental symbols with which it operates – being in this world, though not ‘of it’, is bound to take on a finite form. It is none the less a ‘stranger’ herebelow, for the whole point of its earthly existence is that it should amount to an other-wordly intrusion, that it should be a real presence of the Infinite in the finite’.[37] The following section will expand upon this idea of the role that scriptural allegory plays in allowing, to a degree, disclosure of the unseen realm.

Scriptural Allegory and the Unseen     

One of the most famous and profound philosophical uses of allegory is that which is usually referred to as Plato’s Cave in The Republic. Though Plato’s rational speculation does not entirely coincide with Islamic theology, his allegorical narrative which describes the difficulties in transition experienced by the soul as it travels from this worldly life to that of a higher realm and then back again, has a direct bearing on the issue of to what extent the true nature of certain metaphysical realities can be portrayed linguistically. To a certain extent, therefore, it is an allegory about the nature and limits of allegory. In abridgment, Plato’s scenario is as follows: some men who have been trapped in an underground cave since childhood are accustomed to only seeing the shadows of passing people and objects projected onto a wall, such that they believe that by naming these apparitions they are describing reality as it is and thus  ‘such men would hold that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of artificial things.’[38]

Plato goes on to describe one such person being taken from the cave and going up to the outside world. After being initially dazzled by the brightness of the light, he is able to adjust such that he comes to see things as they really are. Socrates, Plato’s character in the dialogue, goes on to ask in reference to this man reflecting upon his previous home: ‘And if in that time there were among them any honors, praises, and prizes for the man who is sharpest at making out the things that go by, and most remembers which of them are accustomed to pass before, which after, and which at the same time as others, and who is thereby most able to divine what is going to come, in your opinion would he be desirous of them and envy those who are honored and hold power among these men?[39] After the obvious answer that he would have no desire to return to his previous situation, Plato continues the narrative and describes a situation that could occur were the man to return, suddenly plunged back into darkness: ‘And if he once more had to compete with those perpetual prisoners in forming judgments about those shadows while his vision was still dim, before his eyes had recovered, and if the time needed for getting accustomed were not at all short, wouldn’t he be the source of laughter, and wouldn’t it be said of him that he went up and came back with his eyes corrupted, and that it’s not even worth trying to go up?[40]

Although Plato’s use of this striking story is connected to the wider arguments that he makes in The Republic, it gives, for the purposes of the present study, an excellent illustration of the necessity of the mathal in revelatory scripture. If we consider prophets as akin to the individual who emerges from witnessing the dark shadows of objects to seeing them as they really are, then we can understand the difficulty of expressing these higher realities to the general populance who are mired in the lower realm. The mathal’s most valuable purpose is that it provides a way of conveying something hidden through the medium of what is already known. Muḥammad Asad has very succintly dealt with this issue as follows:

How can we be expected to grasp ideas which have no counterpart, not even a fractional one, in any of the apperceptions which we have arrived at empirically?

The answer is self-evident: By means of loan-images derived from our actual – physical or mental – experiences: or, as Zamakhsharī phrases it in his commentary on 13:35, “through a parabolic illustration, by means of something which we know from our experience, of something that is beyond the reach of our perception.”’[41]

For Asad, this is the essence of that portion of Qur’ānic verses that by virtue of Q3:7 are termed mutashābihāt. He argues that their ambiguity is made necessary by the inherent limitations of the human faculty of conceptualisation, let alone language, in trying to deal with those things beyond the veil.[42]

Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī, in his writings, has gone further than merely asserting a general relationship between the so-called lower and higher worlds, but has mapped the terrain in detail through describing the correspondence between the phenomenal mulk and invisible malakūt. He states that the mulk, the ever-changing totality of what is discovered through our sense-perception, mirrors the everlasting and changeless malakūt, so that any thing or happening of this world is a symbol (mithāl) of a thing in the other world.[43] To illustrate this point al-Ghazālī takes the example of certain angels in the malakūt and states that, due to the diverse levels of luminosity in these spiritual beings, their similitude in the mulk is of the sun, moon and stars.[44]

A Qur’ānic example that buttresses al-Ghazālī’s analysis is to be found in Q2:25, in which it is said regarding the people of the Hereafter:

Whenever they are given sustenance from the fruits of these Gardens, they will say, ‘We have been given this before’, because they were provided with something like it (utū bihi mutashābihan).’

The phrasing of this sentence clearly indicates that while there is similarity in the foods, they are by no means identical. Thus, the paradisal fruit is obviously meant to be the perfect, archetypal version, merely simulated within the fruit to be found in the worldly life, which acts as its mithāl.

With such a deep understanding in place, it is perhaps unsurprising that al-Ghazālī is able to give a nuanced account of the use of amthāl in prophetic and therefore revelatory discourse:

We mean by metaphor or analogue (mathal) to render a meaning (maʿna) into the external form (ṣūrah). So if one sees its inner meaning, he finds it true. But if he sees only its external form, he finds it deceiving… The prophets can talk to the people only by means of the metaphors (amthāl), since it is necessary to talk to the people in accordance with their intellect. Their intellect is on the sleeper’s level. So it is necessary to make use of metaphors to explain to the sleeper…[45]      

Chapter 2 – Conceptualising the Qur’ānic Amthāl: Towards a Typology

Having looked in depth at the general linguistic meaning and allegorical scriptural purpose of amthāl in the last chapter, we will now endeavour to more precisely define their Qur’ānic scope as a distinct concept. It is well known within the traditional Islamic sciences and modern academic studies alike, that the best definitions are expansive in terms of specifying what is to be included within them, yet restrictive through clarifying what is to be excluded from them (jāmiʿ wa māniʿ). This chapter will do just that for the concept of Amthāl al-Qur’ān that emerges from the scripture itself, in order to construct a typology that will pave the way for detailed and structured analysis of representative Qur’ānic examples.

Narrowing Down the Qur’ānic Concept of Amthāl

With the potential application of the word amthāl so vast, as we have already seen, it is vital whilst preceding with this study that we narrow down our definition in regard to the Qur’ānic text. Dr Tawfīq Abū ʿAlī has very usefully classified Arabic amthāl according to three different properties:

  1. Time Period.
  2. Provenance.
  3. Manner of Presentation (or Type).[46]

For the purposes at hand, it is not fruitful to spend time on the first two of these, as notwithstanding a minority opinion of modern academia,[47] the time period of the Qur’ān is well known and in any case is to be classified as ancient (qadīm) usage of the language, while provenance here merely refers to whether the mathāl in question has been derived from one of the following: an occurrence; a popular story; a piece of wisdom; poetry; or the Qur’ān and ḥadīth literature.[48] The third category deserves closer scrutiny, however, as it cuts to the heart of the task of clarifying our definition of amthāl. It is split into three sub-categories:

(a)   General Mathal – This includes any statement that can be characterised by concision of speech and generic applicability such that it can be termed a proverb.[49] This, in fact, comes close to al-Fārābī’s definition: ‘the mathal is that in which the common people and intellectual elite come together in utterance and meaning until they make it trite through common usage, pronouncing it in happiness and sadness…’[50] In other words, this category refers to any statement that has ‘become proverbial’.

(b)  Analogical Mathal – This is called al-tamthīl al-murakkab (constructed similitude) by the experts of rhetoric (bālighūn)[51] and has been described by al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī as follows: ‘the mathal expresses a statement about a thing that resembles a statement about something else. Between the two is a similarity so that one can explain the other and illustrate it’[52] This then is basically equivalent to the English term allegory, or in its more developed form, parable: ‘[a] story used to teach some truth or moral lesson, allegory…from Greek parabolḗ a placing side by side, comparison, analogy, parable’.[53] An even more apt definition of parable for our purposes is that it is an allegory that ‘is very short and simple and narrates or describes a familiar occurrence in nature or life that by analogy conveys a spiritual truth.’[54]Al-Rāzī goes further in emphasising the rhetorical dimension of the amthāl in the Qur’ān. He comments that their objective is the tashbīh of the hidden with the manifest, which brings the senses in agreement with the intellect, leading to the utmost of clarity. Furthermore, according to al-Rāzī, the arguments of the Qur’ān are enhanced and made more eloquent (ablagh) by its amthāl.[55]

(c)   Legendary Mathal – This is explained to be a legendary or fictional story possessing a moral, often told by animals[56] and thus corresponds to the English term fable. In Arabic literature the pre-eminent example of this genre is Kalīlah and Dimnah by Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ.

The Qur’ān, which has been noted as possessing an inherent ‘quotability’ in its phrasal structures[57] and is widely memorised and referenced within Islamic society, in one sense meets the criteria for (a) in a great number of its verses, yet it is self-evident that this is not what is meant by Amthāl al-Qur’ān, as mentioned by scholars and even finding expression in the following ḥadīth:

‘Truly the Qur’ān was revealed with five aspects: permissable (ḥalāl), prohibited (ḥarām), definite (muḥkam), ambiguous (mutashābih) and parables (amthāl). So act upon the permissable, avoid the prohibited, follow the definite, believe in the ambiguous and take a lesson from the parables.’[58]

Some scholars, including al-Suyūṭī, while not going as far as to assert that every verse of the Qur’ān is a mathal, have affirmed the existence of the mathal kāmin (hidden proverb).[59] This is defined as when a verse of the Qur’ān is found that matches the teaching of a well-known proverb, even if very obliquely. An example is ‘The snake only gives birth to a snake’, the  meaning of which is held to be present in Q71:27: ‘They will not give birth except to transgressing disbelievers.’[60] Without disputing that such parallels can be found, it seems that despite the endorsement of such a figure as al-Suyūṭī, there is a conceptual confusion in this approach. The word mathal may indeed mean proverb in some contexts, however it would seem more appropriate to call those Qur’ānic statements that correspond to popular proverbs  hikam (statements of wisdom), rather than amthāl kāminah. This is because they are of a different nature from the amthāl that are distinguished by having an illustrative form and they do not necessarily make use of simile (tashbīh). Given the scope of this study, this type will not, therefore, be included in the following typology, although a place could be found for it in a broader based approach.                

Likewise, although an argument could be made that some of the stories in the Qur’ān are of a seemingly legendary nature and that there are even speaking animals within the text (Sūrah al-Naml, Q27:18-24), considering these portions as ‘fables’ is problematic in regard to a text that itself argues so strongly against the charge of being ‘tales of the ancients’ (asāṭīr awwalīn). These amazing occurrences, such as the Prophet Sulaymān understanding the speech of the ants and hoopoe bird, or his interaction with a jinn later in the same passage (Q27:39), rather are explained by the scripture as prophetic or saintly miracles and although are clearly recounted with a teaching purpose, do not come under the category of amthāl as it is understood in this study. Instead they better fit into the category of qiṣṣah (pl. qiṣāṣ), or qaṣaṣ, which have been described as ‘not biographies, nor even histories of prophethood, but accounts of specific moments or events which are meant to give lessons.[61] This is succinctly stated in Q12:111: ‘laqad kāna fī qaṣaṣihim ʿibratun li’ūlī al-‘albāb…’ ﴾Certainly there is a lesson in their stories for those who understand.﴿

Even if this distinction is made, there is clearly the potential for overlap at the point where a narrative parable begins to blur into a qiṣṣah, particularly if the names are not given in the original Qur’ānic expression, but are provided by tafsīr. For instance, the story of a man passing by a village who is made to die for one hundred years and then revived when he questions how God can bring life to the dead (Q2:259), is a single verse parable. However, some commentators name him as ʿUzair and thus take this event to be part of his qiṣṣah.[62] As will be seen presently, scholars such as al-Zarkashī have included the category qiṣṣah within their explanation of the different modes by which a mathal can be represented, although not entirely satisfactorily.[63] The perspective taken in this study is that the narrative mathal usually can be distinguished from the qiṣṣah proper, by virtue of its description of general types rather than specific historical individuals. If they do come very close together in some cases then this is only to be expected when dealing with two stories that are both related for the purpose of teaching.[64]

Having argued for the exclusion of the types that have been named as the proverb (a), and the fable (c), from the definition of amthāl al-Qur’ān used herein, we are left with the allegory, or parable (b) – in the sense explained above – as the subject of our analysis. It is on this basis that a more detailed typological scheme shall be constructed to classify the actual usage of the mathal within the Qur’ānic text itself.

A Typology for the Qur’ānic Amthāl

In order to make our typology, we will categorise the function of the analogical mathal, or parable, in three distinct ways. Firstly, in terms of the nature of the thing that is illustrated; secondly, in terms of how it carries out this illustration; and finally, the Arabic linguistic structure which is used to convey the relationship between the two and which carries with it subtleties of meaning and emphasis.

  1. What is the nature of the thing illustrated by a mathal?

This is a vital question and must be investigated properly if a comprehensive understanding of the subject of the Qur’ānic amthāl is to be gained. Al-Māwardī is quoted as having stated that ‘the people are in heedlessness in regard to it [this knowledge] on account of their preoccupation with the parables [amthāl] and neglect of that which is illustrated [al-mumaththalāt], yet the parable without that which is illustrated is like the horse without a bridle, or the camel without a halter.’[65] In Chapter 1, we have shown at some length that the that the primary purpose of the Qur’ānic amthāl is the illustration of the unseen (al-ghaib) and in particular those aspects relating to the infinitude of the world of the Hereafter so that something of their nature can be gleaned by the worldy cognition, as well as the spiritual intuition. The early mystic, al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, in his book al-Amthāl min al-Kitāb wa al-Sunnah sheds light on this subtle matter as follows:

‘The amthāl are models of wisdom for what is hidden from the hearing and sight, their purpose is guiding the souls through that which they comprehend without doubt (ʿiyānan lit. as an eye-witness).’[66]

He clarifies his statement a little later by the following:

‘When amthāl are struck for it [the soul], that [hidden] matter becomes, by means of the mathal, as if it is witnessed, just like the one who looks in the mirror and sees his own face and someone standing behind him.’[67]

In the following analysis, a distinction will be made between two main forms of illustrated thing, or mumaththal: (a) A lesson or abstract teaching; (b) An unseen metaphysical reality.

(a)   A lesson or abstract teaching – This is hidden in the sense that, as a concept, it is not visible to the sight and, furthermore, is often unclear, or difficult to grasp without a mathal to explain it. An example of this is the verse: ‘Those who have been charged to obey the Torah, but do not do so, are like asses carrying books.[68] Here the parabolic illustration brings out the uselessness of such people even being in possession of their scripture – it does them no more good than a dumb beast. It does not go further, however, and indicate a corresponding unseen metaphysical reality. It is therefore, at least according to Asad, a ‘mere pictorial paraphrase’ rather than a true allegory which ‘is always meant to express in a figurative manner something which, because of its complexity, cannot be adequately expressed in direct terms or propositions and, because of this very complexity, can be grasped only intuitively, as a general mental image, and not as a series of detailed “statements”’.[69] Nevertheless, the rhetorical effectiveness of this device is considerable and the Qur’ān, as scripture, makes use of it extensively in order to carry out its exhortative function.

(b)  An unseen metaphysical reality – As has been dealt with at length in Chapter 1, the illustration of the nature of the unseen realm (al-ghaib) is one of the major reasons for the profusion of amthāl to be found  within the pages of the Qur’ān. If we are to examine them carefully in a general sense, we can make some further distinctions. There are many cases in which an illustration is drawn, for instance in description of aspects of the Hereafter, which whilst invariably used within the Qur’ānic composition for encouragement and warning (targhīb and tarhīb), is itself coined as a self-contained unit. An example of this is: ‘Here is a picture (mathal) of the Garden that those mindful of God have been promised: flowing streams and perpetual food and shade.[70] There is, however, another set of amthāl which although certainly representing unseen realities, are coined for the purpose of making specific arguments and to that extent belong also in the first category. For instance, ‘Bear in mind that the present life is just a game, a diversion, an attraction, a cause of boasting among you, of rivalry in wealth and children. It is like plants that spring up after the rain: their growth at first delights the sowers, but then you see them wither away, turn yellow, and become stubble. There is terrible punishment in the next life as well as forgiveness and approval from God; the life of this world is only an illusory pleasure.[71] Here, the ultimate nature of the worldly life is put into a parable form with the metaphor of the withering of plants used to bring out its transitory quality when contrasted with the enduring Hereafter. This is an interesting mathal because while it is the dunyā that, strictly speaking, is being represented, the manner in which this is done, reveals the reality of the akhirah. At the same time, we can also observe that the mathal is coined with the specific intent of teaching the futility of a life absorbed in worldly distractions.

  1. How does a mathal illustrate the unseen?

In a sense, the above observations have necessarily begun to answer this question, but it is important to give a methodologically coherent answer that fits within the framework of our approach so far. In the use of the following categories, we are indebted to the analysis of Badr al-Dīn al-Zarkashī in his al-Burhān fī ʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, although he in turn relies heavily on the statements of earlier scholars, in particular al-Zamaksharī. He mentions that generally in the mathal there is what he calls a ‘strangeness’ (gharābah) by which its wording can be figuratively applied to a thing’s state (ḥāl), description (ṣifah, waṣf), or story (qiṣṣah).[72] His examples, of which we will present a critical summary, make his conceptual approach more clear, but in essence it can be appreciated that by ‘strangeness’ he actually means the aptness of a word or expression for metaphorical usage, in terms for instance, of its richness in imagery and associations in meaning.

(a)   Ḥāl – This variety of mathal is used to illustrate its subject by a figurative analogy that can be drawn between both their states. For instance in the verse ‘Their likeness (mathal) is as the one who kindled a fire…’[73] the state of the hypocrites is likened to that of this person[74], or more correctly, to the people who should have been illuminated by his fire, but instead were left in utter darkness.[75]

(b)  Waṣf – This pertains to a mathal that is illustrated by reference to the description of something, for instance ‘…like the spider building a house.’[76] Other relevant examples that can be given, although using the kāf of tashbīh, rather than the word mathal, are verses describing the people of Paradise, such as ‘[The maidens will be] like rubies and brilliant pearls’[77] and ‘Devoted youths like hidden pearls wait on them[78] as well as the tortures of Hell, for instance ‘It [the smoke of Hell] shoots out sparks as large as tree-trunks (or palacesqaṣr).’[79]All of these kinds of descriptions would come under the rubric of mathal as sifah as quoted earlier from Lisān al-ʿArab, although as has been indicated, the essentially allegorical nature of these characteristics should be stressed.

Al-Zarkashī devotes a passage to dealing with the objection that there may be overlap between the description of a thing and of its state and argues that the criterion for distinguishing between the two is that the waṣf is known to be of the essence of something, whilst the ḥāl is a mere temporary state that is neither essential, nor necessary.[80] This is an important distinction, because it could be said that in the very example he gives, of the spider making its web, this is as much the creature’s state as its description. According to Al-Zarkashī’s logic, however, this activity can be seen as so fundamental to the life of a spider, that it is to be regarded as of its essence. Nonetheless, despite his explanation, he does not go into enough detail to precisely define the usage of the terms ḥāl and waṣf in this context and leaves open the question of whether or not ḥāl can only to be applied to human beings, as arguably the animal kingdom, let alone the inanimate world, always behaves according to its essential nature.

(c)   Qiṣṣah – This is effectively defined as the illustration of the subject of the mathal by virtue of the figurative application of a story which is narrated about it.[81] Unfortunately Zarkashī’s example, Q13:35, the ‘mathal of the Garden that those mindful of God have been promised’, which we have already quoted in this study, seems ill-fitted to demonstrate anything distinctive about this category, in fact there seems to be no good reason why this should not be considered as waṣf.[82] A far better example in which a qiṣṣah (in the sense of narrative parable, rather than prophetic qaṣaṣ) is used in the Qur’ān, is the mathal of the two gardens which is presented in Sūrah al-Kahf, Q18:32-44. Here a narrative is used to make an allegorical illustration of the difference between a life of faith and thankfulness and one of disbelief and ingratitude. There are many other examples of such stories in the Qur’ān which are parables in the truest sense, although as has been mentioned, exegetes have often spent great effort into searching for the historical identity of their characters.

  1. What is the linguistic structure of the illustration?

The Qur’ān employs a rich variety of linguistic structures to convey the essential meaning of its amthāl. In one sense, the different syntactic possibilities can be considered as basically synonymous, yet each specific form has its own subtleties of rhythm and rhetorical force that are used within the Qur’ān in a context to achieve a particular effect. Here, we will summarise a list compiled by Dr. Tamām Ḥassān of seven different structures within which amthāl are placed (we have consistently translated mathal as ‘example’ here, as it is a simple neutral word which fits into the English equivalents of all of these phrasal patterns) :

(a)   Ḍaraba Allahu mathalan kadhā wa kadhā hal yastawiyān?

God coins an example of this and that, are the two equal?

(b)    Ḍaraba Allahu mathalan likadhā kadhā.

God coins an example for this…[which is] that.

(c)   Mathalu kadhā kamathali kadhā.

The example of this is like the example of that.

(d)  Mathalu kadhā kakadhā.

The example of this is like that.

(e)   Mathalu kadhā kakadhā. Amathalu kadhā kakadhā?

The example of this is like that. Is the example of [all] that like this [other thing]?

(f)   Kadhā kamathali kadhā.

This is like the example of that.

(g)   Mathalu kadhā = ṣifatu kadhā.

The example of this is the description of that.[83]

In the above list we have omitted Qur’ānic references for the sake of brevity, as they can be readily obtained from Dr. Tamām Ḥassān’s book Al-Bayān fī Rawāiʿ al-Qur’ān. Analysis of the specific qualities of these types will be saved for the relevant section of Chapter 3, where it will be among the aspects considered as part of a more in-depth study of selected amthāl. It should be noted that these seven structures, although covering the most common ways in which amthāl are expressed within the Qur’ān, are certainly not exhaustive, as the meaning of a mathal can be given without the use of any of the adāt al-tashbīh.[84]

Chapter 3 – Case Studies in Qur’ānic Amthāl and Self-Referentiality

It will be appreciated that according to the typological division made in Chapter 2, Qur’ānic amthāl can, in theory, be split into at least 42 (2x3x7) different formal types. Of course, these combinations are not necessarily all manifested within the scripture and in any case, it is not the intention, nor within the scope of this study to catalogue every single mathal in this manner. What does become apparent, however, is that the sheer scale of amthāl of different shades contained with the Qur’ān makes it of more benefit to undertake a detailed and considered analysis of selected representative examples, than to try to be in any sense comprehensive. The main aspects that will be broached in this regard will revolve around their meaning, language, style and compositional function. The objective here is not to make any sort of comparative analysis of the different scholarly interpretation of amthāl, but rather to stick closely to the Qur’ānic text itself, paying attention to the nuances of their expression. A final section will take this further in order to look at the self-referentiality of the Qur’ān’s address regarding its amthāl and how they form an important part of the scripture’s conception of itself and its message.

Close Analysis of Two Amthāl

The first mathal  that shall be examined in more detail is that found in Q2:261, which although in one sense fairly straightforward, reveals several intricacies of the Qur’ānic use of language and composition. The text is: ‘Mathalu alladhīna yunfiqūna amwālahum fī sabīli allāh kamathali habbatin anbatat sabʿa sanābila fī kulli sunbulatin mi’atu habbah, wa allāhu yuḍāʿifu liman yashā’, wa allāhu wāsiʿun ʿalīm’ (The example of those who spend their wealth in God’s cause is like a grain of corn that produces seven ears, each bearing a hundred grains. God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes: He is limitless and all knowing.)

Our analysis will naturally flow from situating this mathal within the typology that was constructed in Chapter 2. What is being illustrated here is mentioned explicitly as ‘those who spend their wealth in God’s cause’, although it is clear that what is referred to by this is the spiritual reward that is hidden behind the outward action. The means by which this is expressed is the description (waṣf) of the planted grain and its subsequent growth. The aptness of this statement comes from analogy between the large amount of corn that can come from just a single grain with the great rewards in the Hereafter that are promised for even relatively small deeds done with a sincere intention for God. In terms of linguistic structure, we can identify it as of the previously mentioned form (c) mathalu kadhā kamathali kadhā, which is commonly used in the Qur’ān, particularly when both the mathal and its object are explicitly described. It can be noted that the repetition of the word mathal along with the kāf of tashbīh all add emphasis to the statement and that this parable forms the first of three identically structured amthāl in Q2:261, 264 and 265 that are concerned with illustrating the state of people who choose or choose not to spend their wealth for the sake of God.

The precise language used in this mathal is incredibly pithy in expressing the intended meaning, which has been recognised as a characteristic feature of the Qur’ānic style.[85] So in this verse, though no word for ‘corn/wheat’ is used, its meaning is clearly given by combination of the word for ‘ear’ (sunbulah, pl. sanābil) with the number seven (an appropriate number for the maize plant). It is interesting also that the word sabīl used in the verse comes from the root s-b-l, which in one of its significations means ‘(of wheat) to put forth its ears’, while furthermore some philologists have attributed the unusual root s-n-b-l to be a derivation of this meaning.[86] In any case, the image that is brought to mind is a tall corn plant with seven sheaved cobs of corn filled with grain, a further detail being that the grains, like the spiritual rewards, are hidden from sight – only to be enjoyed later. It should be mentioned that the number seven, and seven hundred even more so, has in Arabic the associative meaning of an unspecified large number. Al-Ghazālī mentions this as follows, ‘It is often customary to mention a number not with the desire to confine, but rather to indicate multiplicity.’[87] This interpretation is strengthened by the immediately following statement ‘God gives multiple increase to whoever He wishes’ which by collocating the word yuḍāʿifu with yashā’, makes the potential multiplying of the reward unlimited. Furthermore, the final phrase of the verse ‘wa allāhu wāsiʿun ʿalīm’ emphasises the vast extent of God’s rewards, as well as His complete knowledge of the acts of human beings.

As has been alluded to, this mathal forms part of a larger passage of exhortation on the theme of spending in God’s cause. It can be situated as beginning the final major thematic segment of Sūrah al-Baqarah, which is concerned with righteousness in wealth and economic transactions and is comprised of three sub-themes. Firstly, the believers are encouraged to give in charity and are made aware through parable form, the difference between the sincere charitable person and the hypocrite who seeks only human praise for their philanthropy. Other aspects that are touched on in this section (between Q2:261 and Q2:274) include criticism of those who give to the poor, but then stress their own benevolence, as well as a disquisiton on the merits of giving in secret and giving to the needy who do not beg with importunity. The following sections are, in turn, the Qur’ān’s harshest condemnation of usury (Q2:275-81); and the legal and moral regulations for recording and dealing with a debt (Q2:282-84). Q285-86 acts rather as a final conclusion for Sūrah al-Baqarah as a whole and so has been left out of this discussion.[88] As these aspects of the wider compositional canvas on which individual amthāl are painted are considered, it is possible to better understand how they are used within the scripture. In this case, it is clear that the legal and detailed ethical rulings related to the theme are only introduced after the spiritual core of the lessons have already been given via the medium of parables. This is a poweful technique used within the Qur’ān to ready its audience’s hearts to receive and implement its message in their daily affairs.

The second example of a Qur’ānic mathal we shall examine is that of the jabal (mountain) in Sūrah al-Ḥashr, (Q59:21). To quote the verse in full: ‘Lau anzalnā hādhā al-qur’āna ālā jabalin lara’aitahu khāshiʿan mutaṣaddiʿan min khashyati allah, wa tilka al-amthālu naḍribuhā lilnāsi laʿallahum yatafakkarūn.’ (If We had sent this Qurʾan down to a mountain, you [Prophet] would have seen it humbled and split apart in its awe of God: We offer people such illustrations so that they may reflect.)

It is obvious that what is being illustrated is the Qur’ānic revelation itself, which has, in its spirit and meaning, been conceived by the mainstream of Islamic theology as an uncreated attribute of God. Therefore, although there is a moral dimension to this mathal, its primary purpose is disclosure of the unseen. As for how it is illustrated, it would seem that the mountain, although essentially inanimate, has become personified in this verse, such that it exhibits humbleness (khushūʿ) and extreme awe, or fear (khashyah), so that this is actually a state (ḥāl), rather than a description (waṣf). Although the image of a mountain, which is proverbial for its great height and unmovability, quaking in fear and breaking to pieces is a powerful enough illustration of the Qur’ān’s gravity, it is to be recalled that the category of ḥāl usually implies the comparison between two states. Here the second one is absent, but can be inferred, particularly through the use of the second person singular in ‘lara’aitahu’ which refers to the actual recipient of the revelation, the Prophet Muḥammad. In other words, as well as explicitly emphasising the grandeur of the Qur’ān itself, this mathal implicitly honours the Prophet, as it was sent down to him and yet he remained intact. Another possibility is that this similitude likens the state of those who do not believe and submit to the Qur’ān as having hearts that are harder than rock.[89] As for the linguistic structure that this mathal employs, it does not fit within any of the seven types listed in Chapter 2, nor is the word amthāl mentioned until after it has been concluded. The critical phrasal indicator is the word ‘lau’, as it immediately places the scenario into a hypothetical, or illustrative example, while inviting comparison with the one to whom the Qur’ān has been revealed.

Furthermore, in considering the stylistic features of this mathal, the sequence ‘khāshiʿan mutaṣaddiʿan min khashyati allah’ when recited with tajwīd is remarkable in its rhythm and use of syllables. The repetition of the khā’ after the double sequence of ʿan blending via the nasal ghunnah into mīm gives an almost onomatopoeic impression of the humbled mountain crashing to the ground. Moving on to its contextual position in Ṣūrah al-Ḥashr, it is significant that it emphasises the proper respect that should be given to the Qur’ān as the message of God, as it follows the repeated command which preceded in verse 18 to ‘be mindful of God’. This is part of the sūrah’s wider theme, which is taken to be a contrast of the good qualities of the believers, both the Meccan emigrants and their Medinan brethren, with the treacherous behaviour of the Banu al-Nadir and the contingent of ‘hypocrites’ led by Ibn Ubayy.[90] The final statement made about the parables coined within the Qur’ān‘wa tilka al-amthālu…’ should be noted as significant, though it will not be analysed here, but dealt with alongside other such instances in the next section.

Amthāl and the Qur’ān’s Self-Referentiality

The concept of the Qur’ān as being an intensely self-referential scripture is something that has begun to gain significant traction in academic writing. Stefan Wild in the book Self-Referentiality in the Qur’ān even goes as far as to claim: ‘The discovery of the Qur’ān as a monument of self-reflexivity and self-reference is fairly recent[91] – although this statement must be in regard to the development of theoretical approaches by modern scholars as this is an obvious feature of the Qur’ānic style.[92] However, the objective of this section is not to examine such questions in general, but to analyse how the Qur’ān’s commentary on its own amthāl reveal a particular aspect of its self-referentiality. We shall start by quoting a number of instances in the Qur’ān in which there is a comment, or meta-statement, about God’s coining of parables usually following a mathal. While this is necessary to get a reasonable idea of this phenomenon for the purpose of analysis, there is simply not space to relate each of these instances to their context within the overall composition of their respective sūrahs and their arguments and themes. Even so, it will be possible to draw out some commonalities between these verses that will deepen our understanding of the place of the amthāl within the Qur’ānic worldview.

God does not shy from drawing comparisons even with something as small as a gnat, or larger: the believers know it is the truth from their Lord, but the disbelievers say, ‘What does God mean by such a comparison?’ Through it He makes many go astray and leads many to the right path. But it is only the rebels He makes go astray.[93]

God makes such comparisons for people so that they may reflect (yatadhakkarūn).’[94]

In this Qurʾan, We have set out all kinds of examples for people, yet most of them persist in disbelieving.’[95]

God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything.[96]

And for each of them [the prophets], We struck parables.’[97]

In this Qurʾan We have set every kind of illustration before people, yet if you [Prophet] brought them a miracle, the disbelievers would still say, ‘You [prophets] deal only in falsehood.’[98]   

We offer people such illustrations so that they may reflect (yatafakkarūn).[99]

First of all, it is appropriate to make some comments upon the language of this category of statements within the Qur’ān. The overwhelming expression that is used is that of ‘ḍaraba al-amthāl’ although it varies in tense, number and definition according to its specific context. The verb ḍaraba (lit. to strike) is so consistently used in this way within Qur’ānic diction because of its power as an Arabic idiom. Lane gives a number of explanations for the origin of this verbal expression which illuminate the range of its connotations:

According to some, it is taken from the phrase ‘ḍaraba al-dirham’ [q.v.]; because of the impression which a parable or the like makes upon the mind: according to some, from ‘ḍarīb’ signifying “a like”; because the first thing is made like the second: according to some, from ḍaraba al-ṭīna ʿalā al-jidār’ [q.v.]; because the mud applied as a plaster, conforms to the shape of the wall: and according to some, from ‘ḍaraba al-khātam’ [q.v.]; because of the correspondence between a parable or the like and the object to which it is applied, and the correspondence between the signet and its impression.[100] 

It is also certainly significant that in nearly every single instance quoted above, the amthāl are said to be provided for al-nās, which refers to the unrestricted generality of people. Thus, we can state that the amthāl are presented as being for humanity at large unlike particular sections of the Qur’ān that are directed primarily to ‘those who believe’ or ‘the people of the book’, although as is made clear, this does not mean that the response to them will be the same from all quarters.

If we turn from the linguistic form to the content of these statements, the common theme is that the scripture, with the authorial voice being self-identified as that of God, is commenting on its own use of the amthāl in order for people to reflect, or remember. That this is in terms of the fundamental dichotomy between faith and disbelief is also apparent from even a cursory examination of the examples above and their contextual placement within the Qur’ān. This is not to claim that every mathal revolves around the issue of faith, as has been stated, this device deals with illustrating a variety of unseen matters and teachings. However, when the Qur’ān itself comments on its use of amthāl, this pattern does seem to emerge. In seeking to explain this phenomenon, it is important to bear in mind that it has been argued that this ‘basic antithesis’ between faith (īmān) and disbelief (kufr) is the fundamental pivot around which the entire Qur’ānic ethical discourse turns.[101] In fact, the significance of this subject is underscored by its presence close to the opening of the Qur’ān (Q2:2-7).

It is proposed that alongside the spiritual narrative of human history which is given in the Qur’ān, an account which is based on a relationship of primordial covenant between God and humanity,[102] there is a meta-narrative which consists of a commentary upon this from the Divine. Q33:72 offers a very good example of this:

We offered the Trust to the heavens, the earth, and the mountains, yet they refused to undertake it and were afraid of it; mankind undertook it—they have always been inept and foolish.

Certain amthāl are highlighted within this meta-narrative as being presented to humanity for them to reflect upon, so that they can remember the covenant alluded to in Q7:172 and return back to a state of faith. In fact, it is not just amthāl that fulfil this role. The whole concept of an āyah (sign), which – as was mentioned in Chapter 1 – can in some cases even be considered synonymous with mathal, has this same purpose, whether found within the Qur’ān, or out in the world. Gai Eaton writes:

The Qur’ān and the great phenomenon of nature are twin manifestations of the divine act of self-revelation. For Islam, the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the ‘signs’ of the Creator are woven.[103]

If this is the case, what is significant about the passages of self-referentiality concerning the amthāl, as opposed to those about the ayāt in general? It seems that the distinction is as follows: the ayāt, in the sense of the sun, moon or trees, as described within the Qur’ān, are elements of the visible world that point to the existence of their Creator in a fairly direct manner; the amthāl, on the other hand, are composed from aspects of the visible world, but act as direct illustrations of the unseen itself. They are, therefore, potentially even more potent in leading individuals towards faith and hence the manner of commentary that is made about them in the meta-narrative.


This study has sought to demonstrate that the scope and significance of the Qur’ān’s amthāl lies far beyond that of its stylistic qualities, but instead is at the core of the purpose of all revealed scripture – to disclose what otherwise remains hidden from perception. It is in this sense that the language of parables can most appropriately be spoken of as the ‘language of all scriptures’, as while they may unveil higher truths, these must be clothed in the conceptual and therefore ultimately linguistic forms that are available to humanity. Another level of expression, explained within the meta-discourse of the Qur’ān itself, is the striking of those parables which through the profundity of their embossed illustration, lead towards faith itself. It is not an accident that the verse often held to be the most beautiful within the entire Qur’ān is nothing else but such a mathal:

God is the Light of the heavens and earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east nor west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it— light upon light —God guides whoever He will to his Light; God draws such comparisons for people; God has full knowledge of everything.’[104]



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Al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb, 30th August 2009:

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Saeed, A., Interpreting the Qur’ān, (Routledge, 2006)

Scherman, N. (ed.), Tanach –The Stone Edition, (Mesorah Publications, 1996)

Al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqan fī ʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Mashhad al-Ḥusayni, 1967)

Al-Ṭā’ī, Abī Tammām Ḥabīb ibn Aws, Diwān al-Ḥimāsah, (Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyah, 1998)

Al-Takreety, A., Studies of Compaative Arabic Proverb, (Baghdad: Maʿhad al-Buḥūth wa al-Dirāsāt al-ʿArabiyah, 1984)

Van Noppen, J. P. (ed.), Metaphor and Religion, (Vrije Universiteit Brussel, 1983)

Al-Wahidī, Asbāb Nuzūl al-Qur’ān, (Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyah, 2004)

Wansbrough J., Quranic Studies, (Oxford University Press, 1977)

Wansbrough, J., The Sectarian Milieu: content and composition of Islamic salvation history, (Oxford University Press, 1978)

Wild, S. (e.d.), Self-Referentiality in the Qur’an, (Harrasowitz, 2006)

Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fī ʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, (Dār Iḥyā’ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah, 1957)

[1] Fatani, A., Parables in Leaman, O. (ed.), The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, (Routledge, 2006), p. 481.

[2] As indicated in the Abstract, the translation of this term admits a multiplicity of meanings, the contextual determination of which is one of the objectives of this study. For that reason, it will henceforth be usually kept in its Arabic form.

[3] Izutsu, T., Semantics and the Koran, in The Koran – Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004) v. 3,  p. 15-19. In fact, he adds that the ‘basic’ meaning which is likened to its conceptual kernel and to be found in each of its instantiations, is in reality a methodological construct not present in reality. Izutsu argues rather that ‘all words without exception are more or less markedly tinged with some special coloring coming from the peculiar structure of the cultural milieu in which they actually exist.’ (p. 20)

[4] Jones, A., The Qur’ān in the Light of Earlier Arabic Prose, in The Koran – Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, v. 3,  p. 305; Jones, A. (trans.), The Qur’ān, (Gibb Memorial Trust, 2007), p. 4-5, 16.

[5] Al-Jurjānī, Dalā’il al-iʿjāz, (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1995), p. 28.

[6] There is also a more sceptical view taken by modern researchers, which can be summed up in the following statement: ‘To rely on the poetic corpus as evidence for the linguistic situation prior to the codification of Arabic is therefore to rely on the work of early Muslim philologists.’ [Jenssen, Herbjørn. ” Arabic Language.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Brill, 2009. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 14 September 2009]

[7] Khindif is the name given to the wife of Ilyās ibn Muḍar a legendary ancestral figure of the Arabs. [Fayrūz Ābādī,  al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ, (Dār al-Maʿrifah, 2007), p. 398.] Thereafter, it was also used for a tribe descended from this individual, as is the case in the above verse. [Goldziher, I., Muslim Studies (AldineTransaction, 2006),  v.1 p. 58.]

[8] Al-Ṭā’ī, Abī Tammām Ḥabīb ibn Aws, Diwān al-imāsah, (Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyah, 1998), p. 74.

[9] Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, (Islamic Texts Society, 2003), v. 2 p. 3017.

[10] Fayrūz Ābādī,  al-Qāmūs al-Muḥīṭ, p. 1205.

[11] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, (Dār al-Nafā’is, 1988), p. 31.

[12] ‘Mantic’ is a term coined to describe ‘a speech form that speaker and listener recognise as emanating from a supernatural realm.’ [Wild, S., (e.d.), Self-Referentiality in the Qur’an, (Harrasowitz, 2006), p. 4.]

[13] Thus the saying of Mūsā ibn Jābir, ‘My jinn did not flee, nor was my tongue deprived of its sharp edge.’ [Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, v. 1 p. 403.]

[14] The most striking example of this is the content and pre-eminent position of the Muʿallaqah by Imru’ al-Qays. [See Jones, A., Early Arabic Poetry, (Ithaca Press, 1992), v.1, p. 52-3.]

[15] Jenssen, Herbjørn. ” Arabic Language.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 14 September 2009

[16] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, (Dār al-Nafā’is, 1988), p. 31-2.

[17] Ibid, p. 32.

[18] Sūrah Muammad, (Q47:15).

[19] Sūrah al-ajj, (Q22:73).

[20] Sūrah al-Zukhruf, (Q43:56).

[21] Sūrah al-Zukhruf, (Q43:59).

[22] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, p. 32-33.

[23] Jeffery, A., The Qur’an as Scripture, (Russell F. Moore Company, 1952), p. 44.

[24] Scherman, N. (ed.), Tanach –The Stone Edition, (Mesorah Publications, 1996), p. 1347.

[25] Ibid, p. 1253.

[26] Sūrah al-Baqarah¸ (Q2:31).

[27] Sūrah al-Baqarah¸ (Q2:37).

[28] Sūrah al-Baqarah¸ (Q2:124).

[29] Sūrah al-Aʿlā, (Q87:19).

[30] Sūrah al-Aʿraf, (Q7:144-5).

[31] Sūrah Āl ʿImrān, (Q3:45).

[32] Sūrah al-ʿAlaq, (Q96:4-5). [Muhammad Asad comments: ‘God’s “teaching” man signifies also the act of His revaling, through the prophets, spiritual truths and moral standards which cannot be unequivocally established through human experience and reasoning alone: and, thus, it circumscribes the phenomenon of divine revelation as such.’ Asad, M., The Message of the Qur’an, (Dar al-Andalus, 1984), p. 964, n. 3.]

[33] Izutsu, T., God and Man in the Koran, (Tokyo: Keio Institute of Cultural and Linguistic Studies, 1964), p. 152.

[34] Al-Nasafī (d. 508/1114) quoted in Saeed, A., Interpreting the Qur’ān, (Routledge, 2006), p. 38.

[35] Saeed, A., Interpreting the Qur’ān, p. 31.

[36] Sūrah Yūsuf, (Q12:2).

[37] Lings, M., Symbol and Archetype, (Suhail Academy Lahore, 2000), p. 11.

[38]Bloom, A. (trans.), The Republic of Plato, (BasicBooks, 1968), p. 194.

[39] Ibid, p. 195.

[40] Ibid, p. 195-6.

[41] Asad, M., The Message of the Qur’an, p. 990.

[42] Ibid, p. 989-90.

[43] Al-Ghazālī, The Niche of Lights, (parallel English-Arabic text translated by David Buchman), (Brigham Young University Press, 1998), p. 26-7.

[44] Ibid, p. 27.

[45] Al-Ghazālī, IyāʿUlūm al-Dīn, (Cairo), v. 4, p. 23-4, quoted in Nakamura, K., Imām Ghazālī’s Cosmology Reconsidered with Special Reference to the Concept of “Jabarūt”, (Studia Islamica, n. 80, 1994), p. 34.

[46] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, p. 43.

[47] This ‘sceptical’ perspective is generally acknowledged as being quintessentially put forward by J. Wansbrough in his books Quranic Studies, (Oxford University Press, 1977) and The Sectarian Milieu: content and composition of Islamic salvation history, (Oxford University Press, 1978).

[48]Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, p. 44.

[49] Ibid, p. 46.

[50] Al-Fārābī, Dīwān al-Adab, (Cairo, 1947), v. 1, p. 74.

[51] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, p. 46.

[52] Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī, quoted in al-Maydānī, Majmaʿ al-Amthāl, (Cairo, 1955), v. 2, p. 68.

[53] Barnhart, R. K., (ed.), Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, (Chambers, 2004), p. 754.

[54] Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms, quoted in Gwynne, R., W., Logic, Rhetoric, and Legal Reasoning in the Qur’ān, (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), p. 117.

[56] Abū ʿAlī, M. T., Al-Amthāl al-ʿArabiyyah wa al-ʿAṣr al-Jāhiliyyah, p. 46.

[57] Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., Grammatical Shift for Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifāt and related features in the Qurʿān, in The Koran – Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies, v. 3, p. 185-6.

[58] Transmitted by al-Bayhaqī on the authority of Abū Hurayrah, quoted by al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, (Dār Iḥyā’ al-Kutub al-ʿArabiyyah, 1957), v. 1, p. 486.

[59] Al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqan fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Mashhad al-Ḥusayni, 1967), v. 4, p. 39.

[60] Ibid, p. 42.

[61] Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., The Qur’anic Employment of the Story of Noah, (Journal of Qur’anic Studies, vol. 8, no. 1, April 2006), p. 55.

[62] Ibn Kathīr, Qia al-anbiyā, (Dār al-Fayhā’, 2001), p. 504. Muhammad Asad, however, characteristically argues against the value of seeking to link this episode to historic narratives, which is the same approach he takes to the story of the People of the Trench in Sūrah al-Burūj. [Asad, M., The Message of the Qur’an, p. 58, n. 253; p. 942, n. 4.]

[63] Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, v. 1, p. 488.

[64] H. Abdul-Raof in his book Exploring the Qur’an, (al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, 2003), p. 203-33, makes a clear distinction between qaas and amthāl, which comes close to that used in this study. However, he translates these terms respectively as parables and similitudes, which in our view is not entirely accurate. While the word parable can be used for the qaa up to a point, as has been indicated, the presence of specific named historical individuals within the Qur’ānic prophetic accounts, makes it not altogether appropriate. In fact, in many cases this term is more deserving of being applied to the mathal, as can be seen also by the definition given earlier from Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms. In his analysis, Abdul-Raof correctly emphasises the moral exhortation to be found in both qaas and amthāl, however he does not sufficiently address the allegorical nature of the amthāl, which as we have argued, is a key aspect of their scriptural presence.

[65] Al-Māwardī, quoted in al-Suyūṭī, al-Itqan fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, (Cairo: Maktabat al-Mashhad al-Ḥusayni, 1967), v. 4, p. 38.

[66] Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī, al-Amthāl min al-Kitāb wa al-Sunnah, (Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyah, 2003), p. 5.

[67] Ibid, p. 7.

[68] Sūrah al-Jumuʿah, (Q62:5).

[69] Asad, M., The Message of the Qur’an, p. 67, n. 8.

[70] Sūrah al-Raʿd, (Q13:35).

[71] Sūrah al-Hadīd, (Q57:20).

[72] Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, v. 1, p. 488.

[73] Sūrah al-Baqarah, (Q2:17).

[74] Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, v. 1, p. 489.

[75] Fatani, A., Parables in Leaman, O. (ed.), The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, p. 485.

[76] Sūrah al-ʿAnkabūt, (Q29:41).

[77] Sūrah al-Rahmān, (Q55:58).

[78] Sūrah al-Ṭūr, (Q52:24).

[79] Sūrah al-Mursalat, (Q77:32).

[80] Al-Zarkashī, al-Burhān fīʿUlūm al-Qur’ān, v. 1, p. 489.

[81] Ibid, p. 489.

[82] Notably, Dr Tamām Ḥassān does indeed categorise it as a ifah. [Ḥassān, T., Al-Bayān fī Rawāiʿ al-Qur’ān, (ʿAlām al-Kutub, 1993), p. 460.]

[83] Ḥassān, T., Al-Bayān fī Rawāiʿ al-Qur’ān, p. 456-60.

[84] Abdul-Raof calls this type ‘covert similitudes’, which involve implicit allegory. [Abdul-Raof, H., Exploring the Qur’an , p. 230.] For an excellent example of this, see our analysis of the ‘mathal’ in Q59:21 to be found in the next chapter.

[85] Thus M. A. Draz writes ‘Endowed with an admirable economy of language, through which the smallest number of words are used to render the richest ideas, usually unexpressible without resorting to long, complicated sentences.’ [Draz, M. A., Introduction to the Qur’an, (I. B. Tauris, 2000), p. 90.]

[86] Badawi, E.; Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, (Brill, 2008), p. 419, 459.

[87]Al -Ghazālī, The Niche of Lights, (parallel English-Arabic text translated by David Buchman), p. 44.

[88] See Draz, M. A., The Qur’ān: An Eternal Challenge – al-Nabaʿ al-Aẓīm, (translated by Adil Salahi), (The Islamic Foundation, 2001), p. 177-8.

[89] Asad, M., The Message of the Qur’an, p. 854, n. 26. For another instance of a similar comparison cf. Q2:74.

[90] Abdel Haleem, M. A. S. (trans.), The Qur’an, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 365.

[91] Wild, S., (e.d.), Self-Referentiality in the Qur’an, p. 5.

[92] For instance we can consider Q4:82: ‘Will they not ponder the Qur’ān? Were it from someone other than God, they would have found in it much contradiction’, which is just one of a multiplicity of examples. Bearing these in mind, it would be difficult to fail to realise that one of the Qur’ān’s stylistic features, extremely distinctive in the case of a revealed scripture, is its consistent answering of objections that could be or were brought up against its own message. 

[93] Sūrah al-Baqarah, (Q2:26).

[94] Sūrah Ibrāhīm, (Q14:25).

[95] Sūrah al-Isrā, (Q17:89).

[96] Sūrah al-Nūr, (Q24:35).

[97] Sūrah al-Furqān, (Q25:39).

[98] Sūrah al-Rūm, (Q30:58).

[99] Sūrah al-Ḥashr, (Q59:21).

[100] Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, v. 1 p. 1779.

[101] Izutsu, T., Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’ān, (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2002), p. 187.

[102] See Q7:172 and Q2:38-9 for the description of decisive moments in this relationship.

[103] Eaton, G., Islam and the Destiny of Man, (The Islamic Texts Society/George Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 87.

[104] Sūrah al-Nūr, (Q24:35).


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