The Qur’an expresses concepts with a beauty and passion that can be fully appreciated only when we try to replace one word with any alternative word and miserably fail in the attempt. Each word is aptly and perfectly used with a skill which cannot be anything but Divine. This applies to each and every word of the Qur’an and the words of foreign origin lend much to this unique technique.
Use of symbols in the Qur'an
In literature symbol is something that stands for or represents something else not by exact resemblance, but by vague suggestion. It is characterized not by its uniformity but by its versatility. Unlike similes, metaphors and symbols are the tools whereby expression is made more effective, in a symbol there is no question of comparison. The words themselves explain the subject and the literal meaning is liberated from its trammels. The functions of simile, metaphor and metonymy are also performed by the symbol. In a symbol, the same word is expanded in meaning so much so that its implication becomes symbolic for some aspects of life. The use of symbols in literature is called 'symbolism'. A basic problem of symbolism is the proper selection of symbols. In the selection of symbols, it has to be borne in mind that there should be resemblance and relationship in characteristics. Symbols themselves have no meaning. It is the writer who assigns meanings to the symbols and his method of approach determines the meaning of the symbols.
In most of the religious books symbols are used. The Qur'an had to convey its universal message keeping in view eternal realities, wisdom and mental background and the limitations of the addressees. The Qur'an introduced new ideas and new concepts, and for their expression it provided new terms and continuously used metaphors. Similarly the Qur'an also introduced the usage of symbols. In the Qur'an metaphors assumed the status of symbols on account of their frequency of usage. It is one of the miracles of the Qur'an that we are transported to such a spiritual and transcendental state where we feel that we are face to face with the situation in our after life during our lifetime only through the means of symbols. (A very useful book in this regard has been authored by Syed Qutb Shaheed, Al-Tasweer al Fanni fil Quran, the picturesque portrayal of life-here after in the light of the Quran.) .
Symbols have always a possibility of alteration or deviation in their meaning. The Qur'an being an eternal message the symbols in it are not subject to revision. The meanings assigned to a symbol must last forever. It is one of the miracles of the Qur'an that it has successfully expressed feelings which cannot be expressed in normal words. The Quran’s figurative style creates an atmosphere in which concepts and meanings appear in the form of symbols. For example, the Qur'an has used subh (morning) as symbol for the 'appointed time of chastisement':
"...... Verily, their appointed time is the morning (and) is not the morning nigh?” (Qur’an 11:81)
"When our decree issued, We saved Shu`aib and those who believed with him, by Mercy from Us, But the (mighty) Blast did seize the wrongdoers, and they lay prostrate in their homes by the morning." (11:94). “My sustainer and your sustainer that I seek refuge against your stoning (tarjumun).” (Qur’an 44: 18 20). The expression tarjumun in the verse (ayaat) has a symbolic meaning indicating the entire attitude of Firaun and his people. According to Abdullah Yusuf Ali “Stoning may be here symbolical of any injury or vilification".
Prophet Moses (AS) was facing rejection, ridicule, condemnation, vilification, denunciation etc. all at one time which cannot be represented by any other word except stoning? Salat has also been used as a symbol in the Qur'an. When Prophet Shu`aib (AS) conveyed the message to the people of Madyan, they said: "Oh Shu`aib, does your salat command you that we give up all that our forefathers were wont to worship or that we refrain from doing whatever we please with our possession. "(Qur’an 11:87)
In the above verse (ayah) the word salat is used as a symbol for din. In Surah 111, 'Abu Lahab' is used as a symbol for those who oppose the 'Divine Message'. In the Qur'an 'the wind' is used as a symbol for intellectual progress and hope. There is a close comparison between 'the winds' and the verses (ayaat) of the Qur'an. Just as winds may either bring clouds and rain as a hope for the crops, or bring disaster, the verses (ayaat) of Allah also bring hope to the believers and warning to the unbelievers. It is therefore, apt that the Qur'an has used wind and rain as symbols of intellectual progress. Says the Qur'an: "And it is He who sends the winds as a glad tiding of His coming grace so that, when they have brought heavy clouds, We may drive them towards dead land and cause thereby water to descend, and by this means do We cause all manner of fruit to come forth: (and this) you ought to keep in mind, thus shall We raise up the dead," (Qur’an 7:57). "As for the good land, its vegetation comes forth (in abundance) by its Sustainer's leave, whereas from bad it comes forth but poorly. Thus do We give many facets to Our messages for (the benefit of) people who are grateful." (Qur’an 7:58).
The revolution which Islam brought about has led to the introduction of new significance in old words. Here the exercise of seeking different interpretations of the Qur'anic terms is futile as the Qur'an itself provides the correct interpretations of its respective terms. It never tires of playing upon the terms by repetition, expansion, variation or clarification. The fact that the Qur'an deliberately explains its terms by their frequent uses is very obvious. The terms "Taqwa" and the derivatives for example, have been used in the Qur'an not less than 258 times.
It is absolutely necessary to identify 'terms' and to differentiate them from words. It may be improper and at time dangerous to treat ordinary words of the Qur'an as 'terms' and vice versa. Imam for example is used in the Qur'an as a word. By treating it as a term immeasurable confusion has been created. Similarly if the Qur'anic terms, Salât, kufr etc., are treated as words the entire purpose of the message will be defeated. Izutsu says in this regard:-“The terms which appear in the Qur’an were very much prevalent before Islam in one or the other form. Islam adopted these terms, but changed their essence to the extent of altogether different connotations. These words themselves were in current use in seventh century, if not within the narrow confines of the mercantile society of Mecca, at least in some religious circle or other in Arabia, only they belonged in different conceptual systems Islam brought them together, combined them all into an entirely new, hitherto unknown conceptual net work.” This transposition of concepts, and the fundamental displacement and rearrangement of moral religious values which ensued from it, that so radically revolutionized the Arab conception of the world and human existence. The same fact has been highlighted by yet an Islamic scholar as: From the view-point of a semantist who is interested in the history of ideas, it is this and no other thing that gave the Qur’anic vision of the universe so markedly characteristic a colouring.
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(The Author is Director International Center for Spiritual Studies, Islamic University of Science and Technology Awantipora Pulwama. Former Director, Shah-i-Hamadan Institute of Islamic Studies, University of Kashmir Srinagar. He can be reached on email@example.com)