Stylistic forms in the Quran (balagha)
- The use of oaths
- The expressions: think, see how, etc.
- Intensive forms of adjectives
- Emphasis by إِنَّ and the energetic Nun
- Special type of speech: Affective vs. predicative sentences
- Iltifaat (اِلتفات)
Many beautiful stylistic forms that are used in the Quran are not common anymore. This is one of the reasons why people sometimes find it hard to read the Holy Book – despite the vocabulary.
But if you know the main finesses the Quran uses, it suddenly becomes pretty easy and more enjoyable – because you start to feel the beauty of the language of the Qur’an.
In this article, I will show six of the most important styles and linguistic tricks the Quran uses.
The use of oaths
Many Suras of the Meccan period are written in the form of oaths (قَسَم). We don’t talk like that in English anymore, but in ancient times, this was a very effective way of talking. Allah swears as to the validity of the statements and the truth of the message.
How can Allah Himself take an oath?
Allah swears by natural phenomena like the night or the day. The sun and the moon. They are signs of Allah’s power. Only Allah can keep them in the correct order – otherwise, the world would turn into chaos or all life will die.
وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا – 91:1
By the sun in its morning brightness!
وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا اتَّسَقَ – 84:18
By the full moon (!), …
The expressions: think, see how, etc.
The expression think occurs in the Quran over 60 times. The same is true for have you seen..?, see how… and have they not considered…? – such types of expressions keep the reader and listener alert and connected.
أَفَرَأَيْتَ إِن مَّتَّعْنَاهُمْ سِنِينَ – 26:205
Think, if we let them enjoy this life for some years.
أَتُتْرَكُونَ فِي مَا هَاهُنَا آمِنِينَ – 26:146
[Do you think] you will be left secure for ever in what you have here.
Intensive forms of adjectives
One typical style of the Quran is the use of powerful adjectives. Arabic offers the intensive form of adjectives, a form of exaggeration – so called sigha(t) al-Mubalagha (صِيغة الْمُبالغة).
We usually find these form when the Quran talks about Allah, about His power, His glory, His grace. For example:
تَنزِيلَ الْعَزِيزِ الرَّحِيمِ – 36:5
[This is] a revelation of the Exalted in Might, the Merciful,
We mainly deal with the following patterns:
فَعِيل and فَعُول
وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ حَلِيمٌ – 2:225
Allah is most forgiving and forbearing.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ شَكُورٌ – 42:23
Allah is most forgiving and most appreciative.
وَأَرْسَلْنَا السَّمَاءَ عَلَيْهِم مِّدْرَارًا – 6:6
…sent down abundant rain on them from the sky
إِنَّ رَبَّكَ فَعَّالٌ لِّمَا يُرِيدُ – 11:107
Your Lord carries out whatever He wills.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُحِبُّ الْفَرِحِينَ – 28:76
Indeed, Allah does not like the exultant.
Emphasis by إِنَّ and the energetic Nun
Emphasis is a special feature of Arabic. The Quran uses various types of emphasis.
The reason for this is actually pretty trivial: The Quran was addressing unbelievers of different (pagan) religions and ideologies. They denied or doubted the message of Allah, so Allah needs an amplifier to make His statement and position clear.
This is done by various tools of the Arabic language.
Nowadays, it sounds a bit old-fashioned to translate such sentences with verily or indeed – however, I usually stick to that because I am afraid of changing the intended meaning.
The famous Quran scholar Abdul Haleem has written about the use of emphasis in the Quran in various essays and books:
The more doubt addressees show, the more emphasis the Quran employs in answering them.Abdul Haleem – Understanding The Qur’an (2011)
Since the Quran uses oaths a lot, it also uses the energetic Nun or Nun of emphasis (نُونُ التَّوْكِيدِ).
وَتَاللَّهِ لَأَكِيدَنَّ أَصْنَامَكُم بَعْدَ أَن تُوَلُّوا مُدْبِرِينَ – 21:57
And [I swear] by Allah, I will surely plan against your idols after you have turned and gone away.
لَتَرْكَبُنَّ طَبَقًا عَن طَبَقٍ – 84:19
You will progress from stage to stage.
Special type of speech: Affective vs. predicative sentences
The Quran uses a very vital an lively language that thrills the reader. How does the Quran achieve that? The Quran oftentimes uses so-called affective sentences – al-jumla al-insha’iyya (الْجُمْلة الْإِنْشائِيّة). What is that?
In Arabic, we mainly have two types of sentences:
- The predicative sentence or al-Jumla al-Khabariyya (الْجُملة الْخَبَرِيّة). It is a nominal or verbal sentence which gives information and (usually) serves as the predicate. It can be false or true. For example: Education promotes nations (الْعِلمُ يُرَقّي الْأُمَمَ).
- The affective sentence or al-jumla al-insha’iyya (الْجُمْلة الْإِنْشائِيّة). It is a speech which conveys an order, an interdiction, an interrogation (question), a wish , or urging/persuading. It cannot be false or rue. For example: Don’t be evil! (لا تَعْمَلِ الشَّرَّ). Will you come with me? (هَلْ تُرافِقُنِي)
These two types of sentences are discussed in Arabic books on rhetoric, so called balagha (بَلاغة) – which is one of the most difficult and advanced topics in Arabic. The Quran uses affective sentences a lot!
In Sura 52 The Mount – al-Tour (الطور) – , in the verses between 30 and 43, every single sentence is a Jumla Insha’iyya. It is mostly a chain of questions which corners the unbelievers. Some examples:
أَمْ عِندَهُمُ الْغَيْبُ فَهُمْ يَكْتُبُونَ – 52:41
Or have they [knowledge of] the unseen, so they write [it] down?
أَمْ لَهُمْ إِلَٰهٌ غَيْرُ اللَّهِ ۚ سُبْحَانَ اللَّهِ عَمَّا يُشْرِكُونَ – 52:43
Or have they a deity other than Allah? Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him.
What does اِلتفات mean? It is a term in Balagha (بَلاغَة) which means rhetoric or eloquence.
The Arabic word is the masdar of the VIII-verb اِلْتَفَتَ which means to turn/turn one’s face to. Notice the root: ل-ف-ت
Iltifaat (iltifāt) denotes that there is a sudden switch during speech to address a person or something present or absent. It is a grammatical shift for rhetorical purposes.
Different applications and types of Iltifāt
- Change in person/change of the personal pronoun used in the sentence (between 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person). This is the most common application.
- Change in number: switch between singular, dual, and plural.
- Change in addressee.
- Change in the tense of the verb.
- Change in case marker.
- Using a noun replacing a pronoun.
Main conditions for applying Iltifaat
- The pronoun in the person/thing one turns to should refer to the same person/thing from which one turned.
- The transition should be between two independent sentences (but there are exceptions!)
Let’s check an example – Sura 108 Abundance – al-Kawthar (الْكَوْثَر).
إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَرَ – 108:1
We have truly given abundance to you [Prophet]––
فَصَلِّ لِرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ – 108:2
so pray to your Lord and make your sacrifice to Him alone––
Why is there Iltifat in the above verses?
The reference is to one and the same person, i.e., Allah. And we have two independent sentences.
As soon as we don’t refer to the same person, we cannot apply iltifat. Thus, theoretically, there cannot be iltifat in the sentence: you are my friend.
Examples of Iltifaat
Why does Iltifaat matter? Why does the Quran change the perspective and thus the pronouns?
In many verses of the Quran, Allah is involved in the speech. By adjusting important parts in a sentence, the Quran can emphasize certain things and give certain messages more power.
This is pretty logic if we look at the nature of the pronouns.
- The fist person (= I) is more powerful than the third person (= He) – simply because it brings Allah Himself to speak.
- Furthermore, the element of plurality (= We) expresses more power than the singular form.
In my opinion, understanding the dynamic ways of style in the Quran are crucial for the understanding of the Quran.
If you are not familiar with the basic principles of the language of the Quran, reading the Holy Book is pretty difficult and may lead to misunderstandings.
Other topics related to Islam and the Qur’an:
- الصَّلاةُ خَيْرٌ مِن الْنَّوْمِ: “Prayer is better than sleep” – Is it really “better”?
- How are family names constructed in Arabic?
- How do you convert a Gregorian year to Hijri?
- Allahu akbar! What does it mean?
- al-Rahman and al-Rahim – What is the difference?
Picture credit: Image by Fauzan My from Pixabay