On Qurʾānic and Biblical Rings

Introduction

When I first began writing this post, my original intention was to present and evaluate some proposed ring structures in sūra Yūsuf as a part of my series on this sūra. However, when doing some preliminary reading on the topic— mainly on objective criteria about what makes a ring, I realized that the concept is often applied quite loosely. This post is going to be focusing on some of my early (and very brief) impressions of what rings are, and examples of what they are not.

So what are ring structures? These textual structures are an organizing principle where the first half of a text matches the second half in reverse order. This matching is usually on the grounds of style, literary features, content or themes and so on. The result of this principle is that the text ends up looking a lot like concentric rings (hence the name). A small example from the “Verse of the Throne” (ayat al-Kursī— Qurʾān 2:255) is shown below:

A. Allah— there is no God but Him, He is the Living, the Sustaining.
B. Neither tiredness nor sleep overtakes him.
C. He owns what is in the heavens and the earth.
D. Who could possibly intercede with Him except by His permission?
E. He knows what is before them and what is after them.
D’. And they do not encompass anything from His knowledge except what He wills.
C’. His throne encompasses the heavens and the earth.
B’. Their preservation does not exhaust him.
A’. He is the Hearing, the Knowing.

All elements in the first half of this ring have a close match in the second half. Sometimes the matching is on the basis of repetitions of phrase— for example, unit C ends with “the heavens and the earth” (al-samawāt wa-al-ardh), and unit C’ ends with the same formula. Other units of this ring match with their counterparts on a content or thematic basis— A and A’ match each other because they both contain two names of God. B and B’ match each other because they speak about God’s unending tirelessness, and so on. The ring has a central element that does not have any clear counterpart in any of the other units.

I chose this example because I don’t think anyone would deny that it exhibits a ring structure. Unfortunately, many proposed examples of ring structures are rarely this clear, and are often downright unconvincing. There is a tendency in scholarship on ring structures to simply exaggerate correspondence and try to read symmetry into the text when it is not there. In this next section I’m going to have a very brief look at some less convincing examples from both Qurʾānic and biblical scholarship.

A Not-So-Convincing Qurʾānic Ring

Over the past decade or two, ring structures in the Qurʾan have started gaining some attention from various scholarly circles. Some scholars (Michel Cuypers, Raymond Farrin, and others) have suggested that entire sūras follow this organisational principle, even finding evidence for consecutive smaller rings within one, larger ring represented by the sura as a whole. From my overview of these arguments, the quality of the proposed evidence for each case is quite disparate. Some analyses were quite clear and convincing to me, while others seemed quite forced. The main problem with the weaker arguments for ring structures was that there was simply a lack of any objective or obvious markers that should tie one unit with another. Scholars wanting to see a ring structure simply remedied this by stressing similarities between proposed units that were too vague or generic to be convincing. Consequently, Nicolai Sinai writes that:

A reader who is not already invested in the validity of the ring-compositional approach will, upon suitably careful scrutiny, have reason to doubt many of the structural analyses put forward by both Cuypers and Farrin.”

Sinai, Nicolai. “Review Essay: ‘Going Round in Circles.’” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 19, no. 2 (2017): 106–22.

I would agree with Sinai that some of the analysis in both Cuyper’s and Farrin’s respective books are pretty fast and loose. A lot of the time the correspondence between two supposedly matching units in their presented rings are pretty generic. To give one example, take Cuyper’s analysis of Q5:2—


Source: Cuypers, Michel. The Composition of the Qur’an: Rhetorical Analysis. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015, 107.

I can’t really grasp most of the correspondences suggested above. What is the link between A(2a) and A’(2l, m)? Cuypers suggests:

At either end, the counterpart to the call to the believers (A) is the theological formula (A’), ‘fear God’ (l); ‘fear God’ … is almost an equivalent to ‘believe’.

Here he cites Izutsu’s Ethico-religious Concepts in the Qurʾān. Cuypers is actually referring to Izutsu’s observation that fear (or taqwā) of God is integral to being a believer. Although this may be true, Cuypers equivocating the two is a gross exaggeration. After all, there are many things that are integral to being a Qurʾānic believer— such as calling on God, following His commands, believing in the afterlife, doing good, et cetera. Whatever the case, this seems too generic a correspondence to justify putting “oh you who believe…” with “fear God!”. Similar can be said for his linking of the members C and C’— Why does 2e “seek favour from their Lord and satisfaction” go with 2g “And let [not] hatred of people…”? I reproduce Cuyper’s answer to this without comment, as I believe the reader can quickly see the forced nature of the analysis:

The favour of their Lord’, object of the desire of every pilgrim in C, is opposed by ‘the hatred [of the Muslims] for a people’, the object of the fear of this people in C’.

Cuypers, Michel. The Composition of the Qur’an: Rhetorical Analysis. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, An Imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2015, 106.

This is not to say that all of Cuyper’s analysis is wishy-washy, and I was actually convinced by several of his suggestions, as well as some other structures posited by other scholars— I have already provided one example in ayat al-Kursī. I think it’s important to have a set criteria in mind that can be followed so we can avoid positing really generic relationships like the above example in sūra al-Māʾida. Before I get to more examples of convincing Qurʾānic rings, I would like to go on a brief tangent on ring structure scholarship outside Qurʾānic studies, which I think suffers from much of the same problems Cuyper’s example has highlighted.

Not-so-convincing Biblical Rings

Just as with many other trends in western Qurʾānic scholarship, the practice of spotting and analyzing ring structures within texts takes its precedence from the field of biblical studies. A notable study in this category is Mary Douglas’ Thinking in Circles, a rather popular book on ring structures in the bible and ancient literature. This book often gets cited in the opening sections of much of Qurʾānic ring literature.

In this book, Douglas attempts to lay down some rules for what ring structures are (and aren’t), as well as providing some anthropological background to how they might have arisen and why they aren’t used any more. The meat of the book is some worked examples from ancient literature, most notably the bible.

I can’t find any critical reviews of Douglas, but what really struck me was how unconvincing most of her examples were (her flowery prose did not help in clarifying them either). I shall provide a few examples:

The “Tragedy of Adam”

Source: Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Terry Lecture Series (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 15.

This example actually seems convincing at first sight, until one notices that the structure ignores many of the intervening passages in Genesis 2-3. Murray (who Douglas is citing here) builds the ring by mapping the repetition of the word ādām (man / earth) and some other ‘key words’ in Genesis 2:3, which would mean that any passages not containing these words are ignored. This already dubious choice is invalidated when the above structure ignores some of the verses where these words do occur(!). For example, why ignore the occurrence of ādām in v. 2:16, 3:8, 12, 17 and many other intervening verses? I don’t understand the methodological basis of this analysis. Douglas, ironically, follows up with this comment:

It is a lesson to teach us to expect subtle sophistication and to realize how much we miss in the Bible when we try to read the apparently simple stories without knowing the sounds of the Hebrew words.

Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition, Terry Lecture Series (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p 15.

Let’s look at an example that fares a little better:

The Akedah Ring

Douglas goes on to provide another example— Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-18. I’m a little more convinced of her analysis here but I will say it is quite loose. Let me explain why.

Source: Douglas. Can you follow this one along?

This ring kind of works because Douglas focuses on repetitions of phrase to tie segments together. For example, sections v. 2 and v. 15-18 are tied together by God’s saying “your son, your only son” (ʾet-benkhā, ʾet-yekhīdkhā ʾasher); v. 7-8 are tied to v. 13 as they speak of burnt offering. There are also some thematic links between the segments: v. 3-6 and v. 14 ostensibly have something to do with the place they are going to. What is omitted from the figure above is the middle of the ring, v. 9-12, but a reading of this story would show it is a sort of ‘turning point’ for the whole episode— it is at this point God saves Isaac and everything turns out for the better. Such turning points often function as ring centres in narratives (such as in the Joseph story in the Qurʾān). Overall, the above structure does seem loosely chiastic.

However, Douglas’ analysis still suffers from the selectiveness that was so pervasive in the previous example of Adam’s fall. v. 17-18 don’t really seem to correlate with v.2 but are linked anyway, and the word ʿolāh (“burnt offering”) occurs six times in the passage but Douglas only notes them when they are relevant to her proposed ring (v. 7-8 / v. 13). If the burnt sacrifice is a plot device used throughout the story, then it’s likely that its occurrence in v. 7-8 and later on in the episode in v. 13 is simply coincidental. Singling out two specific instances of the word to conveniently tie together passages we want to lump together does not make for convincing analysis. I could poke some more holes here, but overall I’m willing to admit that the story could be a ring; just not a very ‘tight’ one like the Verse of the Throne and many other Qurʾānic rings.

More Convincing Qurʾānic Rings

All in all I’m not really impressed by most of Douglas’ book. The Akedah ring above was probably her most convincing biblical example. Things get very loose when she proposes that the entire book of Numbers exhibits a ring structure. If biblical rings are the standard, I think scholars have a much easier time finding rings within the Qurʾān than within the bible, assuming that Douglas’ book is representative of the literature on the topic (NB: If anyone has more convincing examples of biblical rings, please share them in the comments below).

To conclude this post, we’re look at some other examples of rings in the Qurʾān I find convincing. These examples come from Sharif Randhawa and Nouman Ali Khan’s Divine Speech. I really consider this book a cut above the rest, as the thematic links between ring sections generally aren’t forced, and are often supported by textual markers (phrase repetition for example).

Adam and the Angels

One of the more interesting chapters in Divine Speech puts forward the thesis that sūra al-Baqara (Chapter 2 of the Qurʾān) is composed of a large number of smaller, consecutive rings. In turn, these rings are also tied to each other such that the entire sūra exhibits a “rings within rings” structure. I haven’t yet evaluated whether this macro-structure holds up, but the individual consecutive rings themselves are mostly convincing (with exceptions of course). Here is one example from 2:30-34 (bracketed key words my own):

A. God announces to the angels that He will create a vicegerent (Adam) (30a).
B. The angels question; God responds, “I know (innī aʿlamu) what you do not know” (30b).
C. God teaches Adam all the names (al-asmāʾ); the angels are commanded to inform of them if they can (31).
D. The angels confess, “Exalted are you! We have no knowledge except what You taught us. Indeed it is You who are the Knowing, the Wise” (32).
C’. Adam informs the angels of the names (al-asmāʾ) (33a).
B’. God says to the angels, “Did I not tell you I know (innī aʿlamu) the unseen of the heavens and the earth? And I know (aʿlamu) what you manifest and what you have concealed” (33b).
A’. God commands the angels to prostrate to Adam (34a).
Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring Quran As Literature (Bayyinah, 2016), 189.

Most of the key correspondences here are pretty obvious— for example, B and B’ are tied together by the key theme of God’s knowledge, and God’s answer to the angels’ questioning in B is effectively repeated and reaffirmed in B’. C and C’ are obviously counterparts— God teaches Adam the names of things and challenges the angels to speak them in C; while in C’ God commands Adam to tell the angels their names. Element D is a fitting center of the ring given its powerful proclamation of God’s knowledge. A and A’ are less clearly linked. The correspondence between Adam being a ‘vicegerent’ (khalīfah) and the angels bowing to him isn’t immediately obvious, though I suppose a loose similarity on the basis of amplifying Adam’s greatness could be the common factor.

The only element that really sticks out to me here is the angels’ question to God in B (i.e. the middle part of verse 2:30) which does not have a clear correspondence in any of the later units. I suppose we can insist that the angels’ questioning can be subsumed into the theme of God knowing better, which is fine if we accept this ring is a little looser than what could be. Nonetheless, it’s still definitely a ring, and I would rate the strictness of the composition as somewhere between our ayat al-Kursī example and the biblical akedah ring. I used this example because I see it as a “typical” ring in sūra al-Baqara (which is practically built from such rings); it’s not an absolutely symmetric example but it’s chiastic enough to be recognizably a ring.

Light upon Light

Let us now turn to a more famous passage— the “Verse of Light” (Q24:35)— again from Divine Speech:

A. God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
B. The example of His light is like a niche in which there is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star.
C. [The lamp] is lit from a blessed olive tree
D. neither of the east
D’ nor of the west.
C.’ Its oil almost radiates even though a fire had not touched it.
B.’ Light upon light.
A.’ God guides to His light whomever He wills.
The ring structure of the Verse of Light— Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring Quran As Literature (Bayyinah, 2016), 174.

This example is highly symmetric, like the previous case of ayat al-Kursī. Each of the sections have an undeniable link to each other that they do not share with the other segments— our loosest correspondence, A and A’, are statements about God being and guiding to light, while all the other inner segments describe the light itself. B is a lengthy section on the layers of God’s light, aptly matching “light upon light” in B’. C and C’ describe the oil which the (metaphorical) lamp is lit from; and D and D’ perfectly mirror each other in almost every way. There’s not much more to this example— it’s a good example of a very tightly bound Qurʾānic ring.

Concluding Comments

In this post, we had a look at about ~6 proposed rings; two of these were biblical, and four were Qurʾanic. The biblical rings didn’t fare very well, as they either seemed non-existent or extremely loose. I didn’t choose these on purpose, so if anyone has any examples of tighter or more convincing rings of moderate length (i.e. a few verses) in the bible, please point me to them!

Of the four Qurʾānic rings, we saw two that were very obvious, one that was very likely to be a ring but somewhat loose, and one that was an example of not a ring. My takeaway is that Qurʾanic rings definitely do exist, but I think people should be careful before flaunting intricate Qurʾānic (or biblical) rings. It pays off to actually sit down and read the analysis yourself, rather than sharing around impressive looking tables and figures and claiming “intricacy!”.

In my next post, I shall return to my series on sūra Yūsuf, exploring the question of whether whole sūras exhibit a larger ring structure. This will be by far the biggest ring that we’ll look at, and it would be very interesting to see whether recent studies hold up.

2 thoughts on “On Qurʾānic and Biblical Rings

  1. As-salaam ‘alaykum,
    First, it’s always nice to read your posts. Been loving the last couple in particular.

    On this specific post, I wanted to ask if you’d seen my work over at heavenlyorder.substack.com? I’m trying to compile all research (much of it my own) on the structure and cohesion of the Quran. It’s not all ring structures tho. Some of it is parallel too.

    Reason I ask is because I’m actually looking for someone with a critical eye to review them. Would love for you to read some and let me know what you think.

    On Surah Yusuf in particular, I published my own research on it, in addition to what has been done by Jawad and NAK. Insha’Allah you’ve seen that and plan to discuss it.

    https://heavenlyorder.substack.com/p/surah-yusuf-new-research

    BarakAllah feek

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for informing me! I had heard of this but I didn’t know you were looking at sūra Yusuf. I was going to mostly assess Jawad’s paper but I’ll have a close look at your study too.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s