Originally posted on Alukah.net
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation. At this point Professor Raymond Farrin is going to speak about his views on A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in the Qur’an.
Professor Raymond Farrin.
Raymond Farrin is an associate professor of Arabic at the American University of Kuwait. He studied Arabic in Cairo and received a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. He is author of “Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse UP, 2011)”.
Q: First of all what made you take up Qur’anic studies?
RF: I took up Qur’anic studies by way of Arabic literature. In graduate school at UC Berkeley, I focused on classical Arabic literature. My primary emphasis was classical Arabic poetry. However, anyone who studies classical Arabic literature must give attention to the fundamental text in Arabic. And the more I read the Qur’an, the more amazed I was at its language and meanings. Gradually, the Qur’an became my main focus of study.
Q: I wonder what made you focus on Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation?
RF: I came to focus on Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, once more, by way of Arabic literature. My first book, Abundance from the Desert (translated into Arabic as Tharwa min al-badiya, Dar al-Farabi), challenges the notion held by many Orientalists that classical Arabic poems lack structure. The book shows that, on the contrary, many noteworthy poems possess coherence in the form of ring structure. (Classical audiences were evidently aware of concentric structure, but it has only recently been appreciated in early poetry by literary scholars.) The book furthermore shows that this structure serves as a guide to meaning, with the key message or image occurring in the center.
Later, I was surprised to find that many Orientalists also criticize the Qur’an for a supposed lack of structure. Following the work of researchers such as Michel Cuypers and Mustansir Mir, who have discovered symmetrical patterns in parts of the Qur’an, I proceeded to look for a similar structural logic in the Qur’an as a whole.
Q: Robert Alter and Frank Kermode, editors of The Literary Guide To The Bible, would you like your work to be The Literary Guide To The Qur’ān, Could you elaborate on the Symmetry and Coherence in the Qur’ānic language?
And can you give us some examples of your interesting findings in the Qur’an?
RF: The thesis of my book is that the whole Qur’an is arranged according to symmetry. Symmetry occurs in the Qur’an in the form of parallelism, e.g. A B A’ B’; chiasm, e.g. A B B’ A’; and concentrism, e.g. A B C B’ A’; the last form being the most common. These kinds of symmetry can be found on the level of the verse, on the level of the sura, and in the Qur’an as a whole.
For example, the Throne Verse (2:255) has a concentric structure that emphasizes God’s knowledge in the center. Here is a summary of its form:
|a There is no god but God, the Living, the Eternal
b Slumber never overtakes Him
c All things in the heavens and on earth belong to Him
d Who may intercede except by His permission?
e He knows what lies before His creatures and what lies behind them
d’ His creatures grasp nothing of His knowledge except by His permission
c’ His Throne extends over the heavens and the earth
b’ Supporting the heavens and the earth does not fatigue Him
a’ He is the Exalted, the Great
Likewise, the Qur’an as a whole has a concentric form, emphasizing Judgment Day and the Hereafter in the center:
|1 Prayer of praise and supplication
2-49 Longer suras
50-56 Medium-length suras dealing with Judgment Day and the Hereafter
57-112 Shorter suras
113-114 Prayers of Refuge
And in the very center of the Qur’an (Suras 54 – 55), we find emphasis on God’s two fundamental attributes, awesomeness and mercy. The first of these two suras stresses God’s majesty, while the latter stresses His mercy:
Q: As for the Qur’an, viewing it as a piece of literature is a modern method of inquiry that demands a nontheological approach and demands further research. It is said that you “Raymond Farrin” have already uncovered the central meaning of one of the Qur’an’s longest suras, could you elaborate on that?
RF: Yes, Surat al-Baqara is also arranged according to a concentric pattern, as may be summarized in this way:
|A (1-39) Believers vs. disbelievers; Prophet challenges disbelievers to produce a sura; God gives life and resurrects
B (40-112) Moses delivers law to Children of Israel; Children of Israel reluctant to sacrifice cow
C (113-141) Abraham was tested; Ka‘ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; prayer that descendants submit to God
D (142-152) Ka‘ba is the new prayer direction; this is a test of faith; compete in doing good deeds
C’ (153-177) Muslims will be tested; instructions about pilgrimage to Mecca; warning not to worship ancestors’ multiple gods
B’ (178-242) Prophet delivers law to Muslims; Muslims exhorted to enter Islam wholeheartedly
A’ (243-286) Believers encouraged in struggle vs. disbelievers; Abraham challenges king to affect rising of sun; God gives life and resurrects
As we can see, in the center of al-Baqara the new qibla is identified as Mecca, this being a test of faith. (We recall that Jews in Medina prayed north in the direction of Jerusalem, and Christians prayed east toward the rising sun; according to the test, the Muslims in Medina, who formerly prayed northward toward Jerusalem, must turn southward with the Prophet toward Mecca.) Meanwhile, all religious communities are called, regardless of their spiritual orientation, to compete in doing good works.
We also see that in the exact center of al-Baqara (v. 143) the Muslims are identified as a new median community (wa-ka-dhalika ja‘alnakum ummatan wasatan). They are to be an example to other communities in doing good deeds and eschewing evil.
Q: I remember you mentioned that the Opening epitomizes the Qur’an, could you elaborate on that?
RF: Yes, al-Fatiha epitomizes the Qur’an thematically and structurally. Here is a translation of al-Fatiha:
|In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
1 Praise be to God, Lord of all peoples,
2 The Merciful, the Compassionate,
3 Master of the Day of Reckoning.
4 You alone we worship; you alone we ask for aid.
5 Guide us on the Straight Path,
6 The Path of those You favored, not of those who incurred wrath, nor those who went astray.
Thematically, al-Fatiha highlights the Qur’an’s main themes: monotheism (v. 4), guidance (vv. 5-6), and the Hereafter (vv. 1-3). Structurally, it has a three-part concentric form that corresponds to that of the interior of the Qur’an. Here we represent the interior of the Qur’an:
|2-49 Longer suras in ring form (centered on Suras 22-24)
50-56 Medium-length suras dealing with Judgment Day and the Hereafter
57-112 Shorter suras in ring form (centered on Suras 89-92)
And here is the structure of al-Fatiha:
|1-3 Worship in ring form (Majesty – Mercy – Majesty)
4 Worship and Supplication
5-6 Supplication in ring form (Guidance – Favor – Going Astray)
Furthermore, the first verse of the Qur’an refers to rabb al-‘alamin (the Lord of all rational beings), or the Lord of humankind and jinn. The last verse of the Qur’an refers to humans and jinn as well (min al-jinnati wa-al-nas). And the middle sura of the Qur’an, al-Rahman, is addressed to both humankind and jinn, asking them which of their Lord’s blessings they deny (fa-bi-ayyi ala’i rabbikuma tukadhdhiban). The beginning, middle, and end of the Qur’an are tied together, just as the beginning, middle, and end of al-Fatiha are tied together.
In sum, al-Fatiha is a perfectly apt introduction to the Qur’an.
Q: I wonder what you mean by ”mathani held as a technical term for chapters”
RF: “Mathani” in its basic sense means “repeated ones” or “repetitions” or “doubled ones.” I argue that the “seven mathani” in 15:87 refers not to seven verses, or al-Fatiha, as many believe, but to seven suras of double the length of other existing suras at a certain stage of revelation. Considering this matter from the context of the middle Meccan period, we find that Suras 50-56, or the seven central suras of the final Qur’an, average 64 verses, while the other suras revealed up till that time average 33 verses. I argue that the “seven mathani” refers to these seven suras of doubled length during the middle Meccan period.
Incidentally, even at this stage, we see the seven suras distinguished from the rest of the Qur’an (as in 15:87). Eventually, they would become the core of the finished Book.
Later, we find “mathani” used as a term to refer to those suras occurring after the “mi’un” (i.e., Suras 10-28, whose average is 104 verses) and before the “mufassalat” (i.e., Suras 57-112, whose average is 21 verses). These mathani, Suras 29-56, have an average length of 62 verses. Among the classical scholars who use mathani in this sense are al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1391) and al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505).
Q: The Qur’ān assures to be inimitable and challenges its opponents to produce a work like it, in the same time I wonder what you should expect to find in the Qur’ān by way of ‘literature’.
RF: We should expect to find in the Qur’an “literature” unmatched in its power and beauty. Indeed, the Qur’anic challenge to produce a comparable work, which occurs five times in the text (2:23, 10:38, 11:13, 17:88, 52:34) is specifically a literary challenge. This is a challenge that remains unmet.
In this connection, we might remember that many of the first hearers of the Qur’an were overwhelmed. ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, for instance, formerly an opponent of Islam, was reduced to tears and converted on the spot.
Q: Most Western people want to know what the Qur’an ‘says’ on particular issues. Assuming the Qur’ān has a consistent position, what is one of the best ways, in your opinion, that the Qur’ān’s position should be shown?
RF: In my opinion, the way to find out what the Qur’an says on a particular issue is to examine a sura in which the matter is treated. This should be done methodically.
First, we should recall the historical context in which the sura was revealed. Next, we should analyze the sura structurally, in order to determine the main points and its core message. Finally, we should apply the message to the present times.
We might take as example Sura 9, al-Tawba, which I am studying for a forthcoming article. This sura was revealed in a context of military threat from a Byzantine army to the north, plots to harm the Prophet at home in Arabia, and breaking of treaties by polytheists while the Muslim combatants were away. Looking at the structure, one finds the sura urging confrontation in this environment, but also emphasizing charity and holding out the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. Moreover, far from highlighting confrontation with non-Muslims as a lasting and definitive stance, as some commentators would have us believe, al-Tawba seems to bear, according to literary analysis of the whole Qur’an, a meaningful relationship to al-Ghafir.
Analyzing the sura from a literary perspective, therefore, and in terms of the whole Qur’an, we find repentance to be emphasized. I discuss these points further in the article.
Abdur-Rahman: Your ideas are so exciting that I don’t remember to say “thank you”, thank you very much, my brother Raymond!
Raymond Farrin: Thanks for your patience.