Interlinguistic pun in the Qur’an

I came across something very interesting recently. In Surah Baqarah 2:93:

And [recall] when We took your covenant and raised over you the mount, [saying], “Take what We have given you with determination and listen.” They said [instead], “We hear and disobey.” And their hearts absorbed [the worship of] the calf because of their disbelief. Say, “How wretched is that which your faith enjoins upon you, if you should be believers.”

In Deuteronomy 5:27, the same incident is recorded, although the Israelites say, “we hear and we obey”, that is w’šāma‘nū w‘āśînū in Hebrew. The Qur’an, however, uses a very similar sounding verb to turn this very phrase on its head: Here, the jews say “samiʿnā  wa ʿaṣaynā.”, or “we hear and we disobey”.

Ofcourse, commentators note that the Qur’an implies that this was not actually vocalized by the Jews, since the mount did not fall on them and the Jews were not wiped out, but rather that their proceeding actions reflected this very attitude of “hearing and disobeying”, hence the following statement “And their hearts absorbed [the worship of] the calf because of their disbelief.” In other words, according to the Qur’an, the Jews with Moses might as well have stated that had heard and they disobeyed because of their worship of the calf. 

This brilliant play on words requires a knowledge of Hebrew on behalf of the author of the Qur’an, and is simply one example of the masterful rhetoric that the Qur’an is capable of.

Thanks to my friend Sharif Randhawa for pointing this out!


Critique of Kevin van Bladel’s “THE ALEXANDER LEGEND IN THE QUR’AN 18:83–102”

A very good article on Dhul Qarnayn and the alleged Syriac source of the story in the Qur’an.

 بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

by Abdullah al-Finlandi


While I have already written regarding Dhu al-Qarnayn and the Alexander Romances and the proposed influence of the Syriac Legend Concerning Alexander on Quran, I recently came across a moderate-size article by one Kevin van Bladel in a journal called “The Quran in its historical context” (2008) called “THE ALEXANDER LEGEND IN THE QUR’AN (sic) 18:83–102″  [1]. After reading the article and not finding any Muslim or orientalist critique available I decided to offer a short critique of my own as the thesis overlooks some very important points.

The journal as a whole seems to have the agenda of proving natural origins for the Quran and its text. Nearly all of the articles inside it concentrate on the Quran either borrowing from existing sources and even a thesis that argues that the Quran was a work of multiple individuals. This is upsetting…

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Book review: Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation

This is an interesting albeit short book by Raymond Farrin exploring the structure of the Qur’anic text. Farrin prefaces the text by saying that the Qur’an is unfortunately not well appreciated by much of the English audience, as both its dynamic style and a structure that does not follow modern styles of composition seems alien to the modern audience.

His wish is to show that the Qur’an is in fact ruled by structural coherence- although not in a linear pattern, but rather a symmetric structure that follows either a ring or some concentric format.

His first chapter explores some very interesting links between the beginnings and the ends of the Qur’an: he also convincingly argues that Surah al-Fatihah is 6 verses long, ie. excluding the bismillah. I will summarize the links given by Farrin here. The first three verses of both the first and the last Surahs mention 3 names of God in the first three verses: Surah al-Fatihah has God, Lord and Master, while Surah al-Nas has Lord, King and God (interestingly, there is a reading where “Master” is replaced with “King” in Surah al-Fatihah). Both are supplications, and it is appropriate to say that it is therefore likely that Surah al-Fatihah is indeed 6 verses rather than 7 in order to complement these structural and thematic links between the first and last Surahs of the Qur’an.

Farrin then dedicates some chapters to exploring the unity of individual Surahs within themselves, showing intricate ring patterns. His exploration of Surah al-Baqarah was particularly interesting: this Surah exhibits ring composition where each of its member passages (a collection of Ayahs) are also rings within themselves. At the very centre lies core ideas that demarcate the Muslim community as unique and a “middle nation” between the Christians and Jews, while at the same time preaching ideas of peace and tolerance. This structure, in my opinion, is incredibly intricate and only serves to prove the ingenuity and the capability of the author of the Qur’an.

What is more interesting to me is his exploration coherence in the standard order of the Surahs of the Qur’an. Farrin builds upon Muslim exegetes Farahi and Islahi’s ideas of Surah groups, arguing that the Qur’an can be categorized into groups containing consecutive Surahs that have strong thematic links.

This is more speculative, but it seems that the Qur’an itself forms a grand “ring” structure with Surahs 54 and 55 being the central units. The corollary of this organized structure found in the Qur’an as a whole, not just within Surahs, is that it gives support to the position that the Prophet himself (under the guidance of God) organized the Surahs, rather than it being borne of Uthman’s recension.

Not only does Farrin try to find organization in the Qur’an but also explores exactly why the Qur’an is structured that way: one benefit of the ring structure is that central ideas are found in the middle.

Nearly half the book is the appendix, where the author gives a run down of the connections between each Surah group. This will no doubt be a useful reference for further study of Surah groups and pairs.

Overall, this is a good book. One problem I have with the Surah pairing and grouping is that I am not sure whether it is the result of forcing links between consecutive Surahs which is only possible because the Qur’an is repetitive in its themes. Perhaps the links found between the Surahs in each group proposed by Farrin can also be found in Surahs outside said group, thus meaning this grouping scheme is somewhat artificial. I would like to explore this idea further.

I want the Study Qur’an

I don’t understand what the whole fuss is about. Imagine this: 2000 pages worth of Qur’an and its exegesis that looks at interpretations of not only the orthodox Sunni exegetes but also of all other sects, including the Khawarij and the Mu’tazila. That in itself makes accessible discourse that was previously unreachable to all but specialists.

There is a review of this book here, which seems to highlight both the strengths and the problems with the commentary:

It seems to me that other than at two key points, the commentary is both faithful to tradition and far more thorough than anything else that’s been released so far. Reading a book doesn’t mean believing and accepting everything inside it.

Humor in the Qur’an

An interesting study by Mustansir Mir. Accessible here:

Sometimes, the comical caricatures that the Qur’an paints of its opponents is evident, one cannot bring themselves to laugh because of the serious nature of the surrounding discussion.

Although this description of one of the opponents of the Prophet is clearly satire – the image of the man being described is that of an exaggerated and confused cartoon character, the following verses after this make the discussion rather more serious.

In some cases the humour is not intended to satirize and mock (which I find to be a very powerful rhetorical technique), but to highlight God’s more indulgent nature, and the cheek of some of the Prophets. In these cases the comical note can be enjoyed and appreciated. My favourite incident is when Moses is asked to describe his staff by God, and Abraham’s engagement with his people’s idols. Read this paper!