Quranic Reflection No 671. Āyat 14:18 – Figures of Speech: The Simile

Bismillāh. 8 March 2024/27 Sha‘bān 1445

Have you registered for ALI 678: Daily Ramadan Reminder? See details below.

أَعْمَالُهُمْ كَرَمَادٍ اشْتَدَّتْ بِهِ الرِّيحُ فِي يَوْمٍ عَاصِفٍ

Their deeds are like ashes over which the wind blows hard on a tempestuous day.

(Sūrat Ibrāhīm No. 14, Āyat 18)

Figures of speech are usages of a word or a phrase that intentionally deviate from the original usage to produce a rhetorical effect. They twist the meaning of the word, using it figuratively as opposed to its literal or denotative meaning. Three figures of speech that are extensively used in Arabic literature and in the Noble Qur’ān are those of simile, allegory, and metonymy.

A simile (loosely translated as tashbīh in Arabic) is when two things are directly compared and the similarity between them is highlighted using a word such as “like”, “as”, “so” or “than”. By comparing an entity to another in praise or criticism, in the process of beautifying or making to appear repugnant, an opinion or feeling is highlighted. For example, sweet speech could be compared to honey, a beautiful countenance to the moon, a generous individual to an ocean, and so on. At times such comparisons may be common and make sense within a certain culture while they seem strange outside of this culture.

Consider the above verse. The deeds of disbelievers are likened to ashes scattered in the wind on a tempestuous day. The powerful imagery leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the reader, instilling the importance of faith and its role in man benefitting from his actions.

In the above verse the particle ‘ka’ is the word employed to compare. At other times the Arabic word mathal meaning ‘like’ or ‘parable’ may be used. Hence, in Q 2:261 Allah presents a tashbīh to illustrate how wealth spent in His way is multiplied manyfold:

مَّثَلُ الَّذِينَ يُنفِقُونَ أَمْوَالَهُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ كَمَثَلِ حَبَّةٍ أَنبَتَتْ سَبْعَ سَنَابِلَ فِي كُلِّ سُنبُلَةٍ مِّائَةُ حَبَّةٍ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يُضَاعِفُ لِمَن يَشَاءُ ۗ وَاللَّهُ وَاسِعٌ عَلِيمٌ

The parable of those who spend their wealth in the way of Allah is that of a grain which grows seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains. Allah enhances severalfold whomever He wishes, and Allah is all-bounteous, all-knowing.

The reader of this verse is left to imagine how wheat grows, initially planted as a single small seed that then germinates. Eventually a plant shoot emerges from the earth, growing upwards and developing until seven different ears (that is the grain-bearing tips of the wheat plant) form. Each ear is packed full of one hundred grains, a number much more than what is normally seen in an ear of wheat! In the same way a single dollar spent in the way of Allah causes blessings for a believer that multiply and grow.

As opposed to the two examples above, at other times there may be no word used to compare, yet two things are still being likened to one another. Whereas in English this would now be referred to as a metaphor, in Arabic it would still be a type of tashbīh. In fact, the eloquence and emphasis in such a tashbīh is even higher. For example, in verse 2:187 a husband and wife are likened to clothing by simply saying:

هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُنَّ

They (women) are a garment for you (men), and you (men) are a garment for them (women).

Many meanings can be taken out of this verse: A spouse is an adornment for their partner. They are to cover the faults of one another. They have an intimate relationship with one another just as how clothes are intimate and closely touching one’s body.

We pray to Allah to increase our understanding and love of the Noble Qur’ān. We ask Him for the opportunity to recite and study the Holy Quran in the forthcoming month of Ramadan.

Sources: Hussein Abdul-Raof, Arabic Rhetoric; Sayyid Muhammad Mansūrī, Balāghat-e Karbordī.