Literary Aspects of the Qur’an: From Tafsir to Tajwid

You are the Essence of the Essence, the intoxication of Love. I long to sing your praises but stand mute with the agony of wishing in my heart. (al-Rumi)


The Qur’an, that ‘inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy’, invigorated the barren hearts of camel shepherds and transformed them in to guiding stars for humanity. That eternal and unimpeachable writ, which laid the foundation of a civilization that carried the knowledge of late antiquity in its bosoms and brought Europe out of its darkest hours. It had occupied the minds of philosophers, theologians, jurists and politicians of yesteryears. It had informed poetry, grammar, arts, aesthetics and belles-lettres. Al-Rumi’s ghazals, Al-Razi’s logic, Al-Ghazali’s ethics and Ibn Al-Arabi’s metaphysics all find their origins in this heavenly mandate. It had inspired the sufi’s chanting of the soul, the music of the dervish’s reed, the literalism of the salafi and the speculation of the rationalist. And yet its ultimate reality lies with Allah ‘blessed be He in Whose hands is Dominion; and He over all things hath Power.’

Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a literary miracle. An entire genre called ‘ijaz al-Qur’an was developed to understand this miraculous aspect of the Qur’an. The Qur’an uses eloquent Arabic language of the highest standard as well as a plethora of literary devices, the hallmark of any magnum opus. At times it employs short and fast paced verses resembling the beatings of the heart, whilst other times slow, meticulous and clear instructive verses are used to lay down points of law. Clear, unambiguous words, similes, alliterations, onomatopoeias, hyperboles, rhetorical questions, imageries, allegories, metaphors, aphorisms, euphemisms and ironies are its common features.

Whilst some verses of the Qur’an are clear in their meanings, others are somewhat ambiguous and veiled. Allah in His infinite wisdom had decided to keep some of the knowledge of His words concealed from public consumption, and only those who have been touched by divine aurora have been made privy to some of its mysteries. Some of these unclear verses constitute a set of cryptic letters found in the beginning of some chapters of the Qur’an, the meaning of which only Allah knows. These are known as al-huruf al-muqatta’at the disjointed letters, or al-huruf al-fawatih the opening letters such as Alif Lam MimYa SinTa SinKaf Ha Ya ‘Ayn Sad.

In their zeal for understanding Allah’s intention behind His Words, many scholars did not stop exercising their God-given intellect in trying to decipher these letters. For example where the majority of the scholars remained reticent to interpret the three letters Alif Lam Mim found in the opening section of surat al-Baqara,the second chapter of the Qur’an, other scholars ventured to understand them. Some have interpreted them to mean Allah, Jibril and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), others opined that the Arabs were already familiar with these types of letters in their poetry, hence they were not a cause of confusion and contention for the immediate Arab audience of the Qur’an. A third group of scholars maintained that by employing simple letters of the Arabic alphabet, the contrast was being made between the literary works of the Arabs and the divine writ. That these were the very same letters employed to write both sets of writings, but how different are the outputs when the one is authored by the transcendent God and the other by mortal beings.

One scholar who attempted to appropriate some meaning to these letters was Qadi Abdullah b. Umar al-Shirazi al-Baydawi (d. 684/1286) a seventh/thirteenth century Shafi’e exegete of the Qur’an. Al-Baydawi’s interpretation is interesting as he makes an attempt to understand them using the rules of Arabic elocution (tajwid). Al-Baydawi points out that the alif (in this instance a hamza) is a glottal letter (al-harf al-halqi) that emanates from the lowest point of the larynx closest to the lungs (aqsa al-halq). The letter lam is an alveolar letter (al-harf al-dhalqiyya) which articulates when the tip of the tongue makes contact with the roots of the upper incisors and the letter mim is an endo-labial letter (al-harf al-shafatayn) where the sound is forced through the lips by closing and opening of the inner lips.

Qadi al-Baydawi says that the vocal apparatus and the places of articulation (makharij al-huruf) are the same organs used by the respiratory system. The letters of alif lam mim cover the entire gamut of the respiratory system from the lower trachea to the outer lips. Since they constitute the words of Allah, for al-Baydawi the moral of the story here is that each and every breath that we take and every word that we utter should be in accordance with Allah’s will and pleasure.

These are human attempts to understand that which transcends our feeble minds, as absolute truth only remains with The Absolute Truth (al-Haqq). After exercising one’s intellectual faculty, one is required to humble one’s knowledge in front of the Omniscient and all Muslims are required to concede in humility the emphatic statement Wallahu A’lam, and Allah knows best.


By Maulana Dr M Mansur Ali


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