The Poetry of the Qur’an

Calligraphic rendering of two quranic pages by Ibn al-Bawwab (died ca. 1022)

I suppose that reading the Qur’an can be approached from three different angles: a theological one, a historical one and an aesthetic one. The first, and the primary for most of its readers since they are muslim, aims at religious truth; the second, mainly suited to the historian, seeks what it can tell us about sixth and seventh century Arabia; the third is an appreciation of its artistic quality. It is purely in this last realm that I am writing this post and so anything that I state that might be contrary to the consensi of either religious or historical scholarship on any issue is probably just going to be a result of this fact.

I understand that reading the Qur’an as a poem does not do it justice. Large portions are just not poetically interesting and the Qur’an itself makes it clear that reading it as poetry would be a rather serious mistake, an offense even, for it namely expresses quite a negative attitude towards poetry and poets in general:

And the poets — the perverse follow them;
hast thou not seen how they wander in every valley
and how they say that which they do not?

(Ash-Shu’ara, verses 224-226)

This is further supported by the fact that the Qur’an relates how Muhammad’s own enemies deride him for being no more than a poet whose supposed “revelations” are nothing other than the ramblings of demonic passion:

Nay, but they say: “A hotchpotch of nightmares!
Nay, he has forged it; nay, he is a poet!
Now therefore let him bring us a sign,
even as the ancient ones were sent as Messengers.

(Al-Anbiya’, verse 5)

Nonetheless, one really cannot ignore how poetic the Qur’an is and its eloquence is something that Arabic speaking muslims will often talk about. Even the Qur’an itself is aware of its eloquent beauty and claims that this is evidence of its divine origin:

Or do they say, “He has forged it “? Say:
“Then bring you ten suras the like of it, forged;
and call upon whom you are able,

apart from God, if you speak truly.

Then, if they do not answer you, know that it
has been sent down with God ‘s knowledge,
and that there is no god but He.
So have you surrendered?

(Hud, verses 13-14)

And so I think that approaching the Qur’an as a work of art can in some sense be justified, though certainly not if one’s goal is to comprehensively capture its contents. There are at least two good reasons that I can think of for this. Firstly, it would help liberate the reader (particularly the unbelieving one like myself) from prejudices that they otherwise could attach to the religion of Islam. Secondly, I think it would in some cases make the Qur’an easier on the whole to grasp. The Qur’an is often described as a difficult read and this perhaps in part arises from people expecting it to conform to some features of an already familiar genre. Perhaps they expect a clear narrative similar to the stories of the Bible or a thematically structured treatise where the first part, for example, defines God’s nature, the second how society ought to be ruled, the third what the afterlife is like, and so forth.

The Qur’an is none of that. The chapters, or “surahs” that make up the book, are presented as separate instances of divine revelation and can, in the space of a handful of verses, move from subjects as diverse as God’s absolute sovereignty to descriptions of the afterlife; from stories about Old Testament prophets to guidelines on how long a mother ought to wait before weaning her child. The genre of this non-linear, often very vividly descriptive flux of text where ideas, insights and certain fixed phrases appear and recede and then later reappear again (the Qur’an, like poetry, is very repetitive) and which in the Arabic original at least is heavily rhymed and highly melodious, is comparatively perhaps most closely similar to a vast book of poems unified by a coherent style and theme.

And yet, as an unbeliever with no understanding of Arabic whatsoever, I am aware that reading the Qur’an in translation does not, in the end, do even the poetic effect of the original any proper justice. I must admit that I am rather skeptical towards translations of poetry in general and think that unless one reads a work in the poet’s original idiom, one really hasn’t read his or her work at all, and so I confess that in one way I can hardly even say to have read the Qur’an–but rather somebody’s retelling of it. This idea is also held by the very same quranic translator that I will be citing here, A.J. Arberry, in his aptly titled Interpretation of the Koran. It is a translation which, as its title suggests, is aware of its shortcomings in reproducing the source but which nonetheless has aimed to present a balance between content and aesthetic effect. Since I don’t read Arabic I will not be able to determine whether or not Arberry is successful in this, but rather trust that he has done a sufficiently good job in casting light on at least some of the quality of the original.

The Sovereignty of God

If there is one main theme that runs through the Qur’an I would say it is that of God’s sovereignty and the incomparable, absolute power of his being. The insistence on this probably stems from the context in which this book was first written (or “revealed”–take it as you will), for it appeared in a society that was mainly polytheistic, whose gods and goddesses were anthropomorphic and therefore kept as idols. The Qur’an firmly rejects any comparison between God and the characteristics of other beings (supernatural or human) and so the language used to describe his uniqueness is often very original, very poetic in its own right:

What, are you stronger in constitution
or the heaven He built?

He lifted up its vault, and levelled it,
and darkened its night, and brought forth its forenoon;
and the earth–after that He spread it out,
therefrom brought forth its waters and its pastures,
and the mountains He set firm,
an enjoyment for you and your flocks.

(An- Nazi’at, verses 27-33)

Note the clever recurrence of verbs that communicate the physical nature of his creation: he “builds”, “lifts up” “levels”, “brings forth”, “spreads out”, and “sets”.

This overarching theme is so dominant that many of the other smaller ones just seem to issue from it. “Islam”, as is commonly known, translates as “submission”, and so the only relationship that man can have in the face of the greatness of such a being as God is one of total surrender of one’s self. In this relationship man must also unbare his pettiness:

The likeness of those who disbelieve in their Lord:
their works are as ashes,
whereon the wind blows strong
upon a tempestuous day;

they have no power over that they have earned–
that is the far error!
Hast thou not seen that God created
the heavens and the earth in truth?
If He will, He can put you away
and bring a new creation;
that is surely no great matter for God.

(Ibrahim, verses 18-20)

The Beauty of the Natural World

The Qur’an is actually quite reasoning in its nature–it tends to want to lay forth evidence for the various claims that it makes. A very frequently cited proof of God’s power is the beauty of the natural world. One can’t help but delight in descriptions of landscapes such as this:

Hast thou not seen how that whatsoever is in the heavens
and in the earth extols God,
and the birds spreading their wings?
Each — He knows its prayer and its extolling; and God knows
the things they do.
To God belongs the Kingdom of the heavens and the earth,
and to Him is the homecoming.
hast thou not seen how God drives the clouds, then composes them,
then converts them into a mass,
then thou seest the rain issuing out of the midst of them?
And He sends down out of heaven mountains, wherein is hail,
so that He smites whom He will with it, and turns it aside
from whom He will;
wellnigh the gleam of His lightning snatches away the sight.

(An-Nur, verses 41-43)

God is majestic and therefore his creation shows majesty, but it is also a reflection of his goodness and his mercy because nature is there to serve, sustain and guide man:

It is God who splits the grain and the date- stone,
brings forth the living from the dead; He
brings forth the dead too from the living.
So that then is God; then how are you perverted?
He splits the sky into dawn,
and has made the night for a repose,
and the sun and moon for a reckoning.
That is the ordaining of the All- mighty, the All-knowing.
It is He who has appointed for you the stars, that
by them you might be guided in the

shadows of land and sea.
We have distinguished the signs for a people who know.

(Al-An’am, verses 95-97)

What an extraordinary image that first one is: of God splitting the grain and the date stone and then how the effect of this image is magnified by paralleling it with the grandeurs of creation in the succeeding verses. The force that nourishes human life through the miniscule sprout cleaving its seed is at the same time equated with the force that orchestrates all the wonders of creation–all the way up to turns of night and day, the cycle of seasons and the steadfastness of constellations in the night sky. It continues:

To God belongs the Unseen in the heavens
and in the earth.
And the matter of the Hour is as a twinkling of
the eye, or nearer.
Surely God is powerful over everything.

And it is God who brought you forth,
knowing nothing, from your mothers’ wombs,
and He appointed for you hearing,
and sight, and hearts,
that haply so you will be thankful.

Have they not regarded the birds, that are subjected
in the air of heaven?
Naught holds them but God;
surely in that are signs for a people who believe.

(The Bee, 77-79)

The Day of Judgment

Perhaps the most frequently recurring reminder in the surahs is that of the recompense that humankind will receive in the afterlife. While there are numerous references to the rewards of paradise, more frequently the reader is being threatened with the everlasting torment of hell for his unbelief and unrighteousness. The descriptions of these are horrific but actually do not make for such interesting poetry (it’s always as bad as you can imagine–lots of fire, boiling water, etc.) What is more interesting, poetically speaking, are rather the descriptions of the related day of judgment. It is similar to the traditional Christian concept–it first entails a bodily resurrection of the dead, a divine arraignment and finally a meting out of either eternal punishment or reward. The images contained in these passages can on the other hand be nightmarishly original:

Upon the day when heaven shall be as molten copper
and the mountains shall be as plucked wool-tufts,
no loyal friend shall question loyal friend, as
they are given sight of them. The sinner will wish that he
might ransom himself from the chastisement of that day even
by his sons, his companion wife, his brother, his kin who
sheltered him, and whosoever is in the earth, all together,
so that then it might deliver him.

(Al-Ma’arij, verses  8-14)

Or how about this:

Upon the day when heaven spins dizzily
and the mountains are in motion,
woe that day unto those that cry lies,
such as play at plunging,
the day when they shall be pitched into the fire of Gehenna:
This is the fire that you cried lies to!

(At-tur, verses 9-14)

The Poet of the Qur’an

There is a great divide between most muslim scholars and western historians on what we can know about the central historic figure behind the Qur’an, Muhammad. Islamic tradition maintains that there are very meticulous and reliable biographical details about him that have been handed down to us through the hadith, records of the sayings and actions of Muhammad composed centuries after his death. Western scholars, on the other hand, by and large reject their reliability and hold that there are very few things that we can certainly know about the man.

Knowing about the circumstances of Muhammad’s life can no doubt greatly clarify much of the Qur’an, but I think these details should mainly be of interest to the theologian or the historian. With this in mind, and having had the enjoyment of the reading the Qur’an purely as a work of literature, I am reminded of the mystery that enshrouds authors like Homer and Shakespeare and how unnecessary the knowledge of their lives is for appreciating an their work. The mystery behind the poet of the Qur’an however does not at all mean that there is no human spirit behind it. Particularly towards the end of the Qur’an, where the surahs become short in length and read very much like lyric poems, one really can feel all the human passions that have gone into them–charged nonetheless with what I actually believe was its author’s genuine encounter with the divine. I will close this text by quoting one such surah in its entirety. It is the penultimate one, called Al-Falaq or “Daybreak”, and is presented as a prayer of succour from the many manifestations of evil in the world:

Say: ?I take refuge with the Lord of the Daybreak
from the evil of what He has created,
from the evil of darkness when it gathers,
from the evil of the women who blow on knots,*
from the evil of an envier when he envies


*A reference to a pre-Islamic practice of putting a curse on someone.

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