Quranic symbolism | Quran | Poetry

Symbolic Imagery

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Sections Symbolic imagery of paradise and hellfire Symbolic pairs that distinguish belief from unbelief Imagery of the last day

The use of allusion and figurative language to produce vivid descriptions and complex levels of meaning. The symbolic imagery in the Qur’ān arises out of the symbolic imagery of previous revelations as well as out of the poetic conventions of pre-Islamic Arabia (see scripture and the qur’ān; poetry and poets; pre-islamic arabia and the qur’ān). While a key verse in the Qur’ān ( q 3:7) has sometimes been read to suggest that Muslims should not attempt to interpret its more ambiguous (q.v.) or symbolic passages, most Muslim exegetes (see exegesis of the qur’ān: classical and medieval) have not shied away from examining the symbolic imagery that radiates from virtually every chapter of the sacred text. Since the Qur’ān is first and foremost an oral text (see orality; orality and writing in arabia; recitation of the qur’ān), studies of symbolic imagery should not be limited to its visual dimension but should also take into account its aural dimension. At this stage in qur’ānic studies, however, much more attention has been paid to the Qur’ān's visual symbolism and the discussion that follows will focus upon examples of this visual dimension of qur’ānic imagery with particular emphasis on its use of paired symbolic concepts (see pairs and pairing). Symbolic imagery of paradise and hellfire ^ Back to top

Passages throughout the Qur’ān use rich figurative language, often employing symbols that refer to desert life (see bedouin; arabs) or to poetic conventions that would have been familiar to those who first heard the revelations in seventh century Arabia. For example, Angelika Neuwirth has shown how the Qur’ān combines oath statements (see oaths) with symbolic allusions to tribal raids in order to construct meaning through what she calls a “matrix of images” or Bildmatrix (see Neuwirth, Images; see also rhetoric and the qur’ān; form and structure of the qur’ān). The qur’ānīc use of desert imagery takes place on a more mundane level as well, for instance in its juxtaposition of the heat of the open desert with the cool of the oasis (see hot and cold), a contrast that would have been immediately comprehensible to anyone living in such an environment. Understanding this latter type of symbolic imagery helps one to understand the juxtaposition between the tortures of the fire (q.v.) of hell (see hell and hellfire) and the pleasures of the garden (q.v.) of paradise (q.v.). In addition, the cool oasis evokes the trope of the fertile garden and the remembrance of the lost beloved that typically opens the early Arabian odes. The example of the garden thus illustrates how pre-existing associations serve as a vast repository of symbols that the Qur’ān draws upon in order to produce meaning in a new Islamic context. The Qur’ān uses some of its most frequent symbolic imagery to refer to the two abodes of the next life, paradise and hellfire. Although different passages sometimes expand upon distinct aspects of paradise, this realm is almost invariably depicted as a garden of cool,

also the fire image in the famous “Light Verse” of q 24:35). see also anatomy and ears) to sight and blindness (see vision and blindness. 115-20. Qoranic symbolism.luxurious abundance through which rivers flow (see water of paradise. Coran. from the distinction between the straight path and wandering lost (see astray. Hellfire. This equation . see Toelle. see verses) offers an image of God as light and of God's light as of an oil lamp in a niche. evoked through Arabic terms such as jahannam. and parables (see parable). however. idolatry or evil (see good and evil). Lings. 70:15-18) and in another as a metonym for idolatry ( q 40:41-42.) and hellfire in some fashion. The Qur’ān refers to fire in a personified form in a couple of cases ( q 21:40. Symbolic pairs that distinguish belief from unbelief ^ Back to top As with hellfire and paradise.) expresses multiple values. that the Qur’ān does not always use fire as synonymous with hellfire. Just as fire is a multivalent symbol in the Qur’ān. “the fire. For instance. error) to the ubiquitous imagery of light and darkness (q.). becomes associated with a number of more complex depictions and allusions. God strikes parables for people. metaphors (see metaphor). It is important to recognize. the treacherous seas and the destructive capacities of rain (see weather. The juxtaposition between the believers and their adversaries (see enemies) in the Qur’ān provides the basis for some of the most expressive of its similes (q. despite its frequent association with paradise. references to the rivers of paradise are ubiquitous and the sending down of rain is often connected symbolically to God's sending down of revelations ( q 30:49.v. The complex use of water symbolism also appears in pre-Islamic poetry and evokes the worldview of the desert environment in which the Qur’ān was first revealed. to collapse them into one collective term “hell” is to do violence to the subtleties of the qur’ānic symbolic discourse (Sells.v. 42:28. the Qur’ān contains a number of other paired concepts whose symbolic meanings transcend their simple juxtaposition. These images form complex symbols that have generated multiple and diverse interpretations by Muslim exegetes. grace). and in all things God is most knowing” (see freedom and predestination. punishment stories).” Although these varied terms are connected to the idea of judgment (q. 31:34. Métaphore.). seeing and hearing. For instance. eyes). see Sabbagh. al-nār.) of a campfire a person builds to the light of guidance that God is able to take away ( q 2:17. As discussed above. springs and fountains ).v. Approaching. from fertile and withered crops (see agriculture and vegetation ) to the split between humans and animals (see animal life). jaḥīm. cf. This binary relationship forms the basis for a whole series of symbolic binaries in the Qur’ān: from hearing and deafness (q. 90. and the most basic.v. so water (q. 24-6). ḥuṭama. see idolatry and idolaters). cf.v.. despite its frequent association with hellfire. hāwiya.). One of the most important of these paired concepts is the distinction between belief and unbelief (q. knowledge and learning). Water also appears in the Qur’ān with reference to the flood. the aforementioned Light Verse ( q 24:35.v. a verse compares the light (q. The images are followed by the idea of light as a symbol of God's guidance: “God guides to his light whom he wills. on the other hand. see revelation and inspiration) or blessings (see blessing.v.

This symbol implies that there are many ways to travel off the straight road. the latter of whom are described in a pair of expressive similes: And [as for] those who disbelieve. some above others. another qur’ānic symbol associated with this idea is that of the straight road or path (al-ṣirāṭ al-mustaqīm. Sūrat al-Fātiḥa (see fātiḥa) mentions this trope in its verse. covered by wave upon wave. where one who has gone astray and is dying of thirst believes his deeds are bringing him to water. In a few eschatological passages. as mentioned previously. In other passages. The “opening” chapter of the Qur’ān. evil deeds. When one puts out one's hand.g. The second simile that follows the famous Light Verse is sometimes known as the Darkness Verse ( q 24:40) and it enriches the image of the light of God's guidance with a description of the darkness surrounding the unbe-liever. while they are actually bringing him to nothing (cf. He for whom God does not make a light. q 5:15. a destination that this wayward traveler mistakenly believes is ahead of him. the water imagery derives from the idea of paradise as a garden in which rivers flow. 4:174. q 13:14). air and wind ) or to empty noises and gestures ( q 8:35). all of which will lead one to wander astray. remembrance. The first of these similes makes use once again of the imagery of the desert. In the above passage. 46). In addition to the “parables” (amthāl) mentioned in the Light Verse.v. “Guide us on the straight road” ( q 1:6). While images of light and darkness are frequently associated with the idea of guidance or lack thereof.) blown about ( q 14:18. the symbol of the road or path appears in a related but somewhat broader symbolic context. one almost cannot see it. gratitude and ingratitude). this concept of a straight path takes concrete form in the image of the narrow bridge that spans the chasm between this world and the next (see eschatology). the layers of dark clouds above. see path or way). In other passages. resulting in darkness so complete that sight is practically impossible. comparing their deeds to ashes (q. but it also evokes the vision/blindness binary as a trope for the distinction between belief and unbelief. and this same straight road appears in at least thirty other qur’ānic passages. Not only is such a person without a light but surging and billowing darkness encompasses him or her on all sides: the deep and dark waters below. the layers of wave upon wave all around. The symbolism of this Darkness Verse not only refers back to the Light Verse that precedes it and the idea of guidance. the Qur’ān employs different similes to suggest the futility of the deeds of those who deny the qur’ānic message. 44. for example when the Qur’ān describes righteous behavior as . over which are dark clouds. q 2:257.between light and guidance is developed in a number of other passages (e. he does not have a light ( q 24:39-40). their works are like a mirage in a level plain that the thirsty one considers water until he comes to it and finds nothing… Or like darkness in a fathomless sea. see good deeds. 14:5) and is sometimes explicitly associated with God's revelations of the scriptures (e.g. the verses that immediately follow it contrast the believers who remember God with the disbelievers who presumably do not (see memory.

The passage above. q 99). 90-4. Yet other passages depict the blessed receiving their book of deeds in their right hands on the last day (see heavenly book. a kinsman orphan (q. last judgment). The distinction between the “people of the right” (aṣḥāb al-yamīn/al-maymana) and the “people of the left” (aṣḥāb al-mashʿama/al-shamāl) in q 90 above is elucidated at greater length in q 56. see reward and punishment).climbing the steep uphill pass (al-ʿaqaba.). Such examples illustrate the symbolic weight that the Qur’ān invests in the concepts of right and left. the juxtaposition between left and right as morally-charged concepts.g.) away. associating the former with evil and the latter with good (see ethics and the qur’ān).). while the latter face punishment in a scorching hellfire ( q 56:8-9. They are of the right (see left hand and right hand). over them a vault of fire” ( q 90:12-20). as opposed to those unfortunate enough to be given their books in another fashion. The text explains the symbol in the following fashion: “What can tell you of the steep pass? To free a slave (see slaves and slavery ) To feed the destitute on a day of hunger (see famine). 27-38. The Calamity (Sūrat al-Qāriʿa). While this juxtaposition is obviously an ancient one. who counsel to compassion. however. those things thought to be stable are ripped apart. Be of those who keep the faith (q. who counsel one another to patience (see trust and patience ). especially when it comes to eschatological judgment. signaled by the use of the phrase “what can tell you of” (mā adrāka mā) which typically introduces terms that require further elaboration. the Qur’ān presents graphic descriptions of what the world will be like on the last day (see apocalypse). 24-5.g. 33-6. q 4:3. or a poor man in need (see poverty and the poor). q 90:11). shows how other verses in the Qur’ān invest the categories of left and right with moral signification. In addition. the Qur’ān refers to people “whom your right hand possesses” in reference to those people under one's control. 24:33. In these passages.) or slaves (e.v. they are of the left. the qur’ānic discourse was revealed in the context of an Arabian culture in which the left hand was considered unclean and the right was used for swearing oaths (see contracts and alliances).v. This passage begins with a mysterious symbolic reference. One particularly striking apocalyptic passage is found in q 101. The allusion to the “steep pass” (ʿaqaba) here is followed by an explanation of the term as a spiritual metaphor. Here the former are said to rest contentedly in a garden paradise. Imagery of the last day ^ Back to top Beyond the eschatological references discussed above. 30:28).v. 41-56. the graves are opened and the earth yields up its secrets as if a mother giving birth (e. The description of the “steep pass” above illustrates another category of binary symbols found in the Qur’ān. in which the . As for those who cast our signs (q. 58. such as war captives (q.v.

not only visual images but also aural images (“sound figures”) help to generate layers of meaning that deserve scholarly attention. offering a concrete visual image of deeds being literally weighed in the balance on the last day. al-Tafsīr al-bayānī lil-Qur’ān. see weights and measures ) His is a life that is pleasing (rāḍiya) Whoever's scales weigh light (khaffatun mawāzīnuhu) His mother is hāwiya (see pit) What can tell you what she is (wa-mā adrāka mā hiya) Raging fire (nārun ḥāmiyatun. Lohman. in Mitteilungen des Instituts für Orientforschung [Berlin] 12 (1966). The concept of scales of judgment appears graphically in this sūra. Approaching. This insight reminds us that when examining the symbolic imagery of the Qur’ān. Cairo M. Lings. 75-118. 178). The Qoranic symbolism of water. 3-36 . Die Gleichnisreden Muhammeds im Koran. Colby Bibliography Bint al-Shāṭiʾ (ʾ Ā ishaʾ Abdal-Ra ʾ 1962 ḥmān). in Studies in comparative religion 2 (1968). 153-60 T. 416-69 A. q 101:1-11). rapid movement and mortal frailty. The image of mountains becoming like “fluffs of wool” illustrates how a thing that many humans see as a symbol of solidity and permanence transforms on the last day into something that will be cut from its roots and pliable. The image of people becoming like “moths scattered” conjures up ideas of confused dispersion. Frederick S. Neuwirth.” and that the terms “are heavy” (thaqulat) and “are light” (khaffat) as used in the scale imagery “have onomatopoetic effects” (Sells. in Hawting and Shareef. This sūra offers a pair of similes to help describe the “calamity” (al-qāriʿa) through symbolic images. Approaches. Images and metaphors in the introductory sections of the Makkan sūras. Michael Sells has argued that the sound quality of the consonants that end the verses (see rhymed prose) help to extend the similes “into more elaborate metaphors.phrase “what can tell you” appears twice to introduce two presumably unfamiliar concepts: The qāriʿa What is the qāriʿa What can tell you of the qāriʿa A day humankind are like moths scattered (ka-l-farāsh al-mabthūth) And mountains are like fluffs of wool (ka-l-ʿihn al-manfūsh) Whoever's scales weigh heavy (thaqulat mawāzīnuhu.

Sells. La métaphore dans le Coran. in Arabica 40 (1993).. 2 Abt.T. OR 1999 id. Wardī. Saleh. Westasiatische Studien 34 (1931). 202-21 R. Stuttgart 1958. Paret. Ḥawla rumūz al-Qur’ān. Washington DC. O'Shaughnessey. Paul Nagy. Approaching the Qur’ān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe. Brill. Brill Online. Paris 1943 W. Formation of the classical tafsīr tradition. Georgetown University. The early revelations. 07 July 2006 <http://www. 119-24 M. Sabbagh. God's throne and the biblical symbolism of the Qurʾan. Ashland. Damascus 1999 B. Toelle. Sister. l'air et la terre. Stuttgart 1975 T. Casablanca 1983 Watt-Bell." Encyclopaedia of the Qur’ān. "Symbolic Imagery . Siddiqi.nl/subscriber/entry? entry=q3_COM-00198> . 403-30 M. Leiden 2004. Symbolik des Islam. Chr. Bürgel and Fr. Lahore 1994 M. J. 2006. Le Coran revisité. in Mitteilungen des Seminars für Orientalische sprachen zu Berlin. Who is who in the holy Qur’ān? Qur’ānic names and symbols. completed by J. Allemann. Le feu.brillonline. in Numen 20 (1973). Frederick S. Sound and meaning in Sūrat al-Qāriʿa. 103-54 H. Introduction Citation: Colby. Symbolik des Islam. Metaphern und Vergleiche im Koran. l'eau.

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