Quranic Reflection No 676. Āyat 19:4 – Powerful Figures of Speech: The Allegory and Metaphor 


As mentioned in an earlier reflection about similes in the Noble Quran, figures of speech are usages of a word or a phrase that intentionally deviate from the original usage to produce a rhetorical effect. In Arabic, figures of speech such as simile, allegory and metonymy are studied in the discipline known as ‘ilm al-bayān. This discipline, along with two others known as ‘ilm al-ma’ānī and ‘ilm al-badī’ make up the study of Arabic rhetoric. Although Arabic rhetoric existed prior to Islam, practically seen for example in the eloquent poetry of the days of ignorance (jāhilīyyah), it was further developed and codified by Muslims centuries after the demise of the Noble Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him and his family). A key impetus for the Muslims to study Arabic rhetoric was theological; Muslims wanted to prove the miraculous eloquence of the Quran. Two of the most important scholars who worked in the field of Arabic rhetoric are Jurjānī who laid down many of the theoretical foundations and Zamakhsharī who put these theories into practice in his exegesis of the Quran named al-Kashshāf. These two scholars lived respectively in the fifth and sixth centuries Hijra.

One of these figures of speech that appears in the Quran is known as ‘majāz’ in Arabic. Majāz is when a word is not used in its normal literal meaning, but rather a metaphorical or an allegorical meaning is intended. The link between the literal and allegorical meaning can be different possible reasons. For example, in the sentence “the President moved his embassy from one city to another” it is not really the president that did the moving. Rather he issued a decree and then a team of workers moved the embassy. This is an example of a majāz usage since the denotative term mentioned (the president) is the cause of the intended meaning (the workers who were commanded by him). Similarly, in verse 12:36 of the Qur’an the winemaker who is jailed with Prophet Yūsuf (a) says:  إِنِّي أَرَانِي أَعْصِرُ خَمْرًا –Verily I saw myself pressing wine.

Wine is not pressed, rather it is grapes that are pressed! But because the grapes will eventually become wine there is a causal relationship between the two words that allows for this majāz usage. Or consider the verse 26:84 wherein Prophet Ibrāhīm (a) prays: وَاجْعَل لِّي لِسَانَ صِدْقٍ فِي الْآخِرِينَ – And confer on me a tongue of truthfulness among the posterity. Here, Prophet Ibrāhīm is praying that he be remembered fondly in the future, but the term “a tongue of truthfulness” is used to symbolize such a remembrance. Again, this link between the two concepts allows for the majāz usage. 

Using majāz also allows the speaker to make a point succinctly, rather than using the original meaning and then having to describe it further. Or it can be used to intentionally skip some details, like in the example, “The person’s stupidity was the end of him.” Yet another purpose that an allegory fulfills is to add an aesthetic and stylistic touch to the words. Perhaps the above two verses that mention “pressing wine” or “a tongue of truthfulness” are examples of this third goal.

The Arabic concept of majāz is like the English allegory. An allegory also has a literal apparent meaning that differs from the intended meaning. But while an allegory is often used for an entire story, like George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” that represents Soviet society, the discussion on majāz pertains to an individual word. When the link that allows for a majāz usage is the similarity between the literal and intended meaning, this is known in Arabic as ‘isti’ārah’, which equates to a metaphor in English. In the verse quoted at the onset of this writeup Prophet Zakarīyyā is using a metaphor of fire to indicate how white hair has quickly spread across his head.

 The figures of speech used in the Quran are symbolic of the eloquence of the language of the Quran. That is part of its miraculous nature. We pray to Allah to increase our understanding and love of the Noble Quran. We ask Him for the opportunity to learn the Arabic language in our life so that we can first-hand benefit from the miraculous beauty of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Ahl al-Bayt.

Sources: Hussein Abdul-Raof, Arabic Rhetoric; Shaykh Mu’īn Daqīq, Durūs fī al-Balāghah.