Form, Language and Style
DIVISIONS OF THE TEXT
Aya and Sura
Aya (pl. ayat) actually means 'sign'. In technical language it
is the shortest division of the Qur'anic text, i.e. a phrase or
sentence. The revelation is guidance from God to mankind
and it is therefore not at all surprising to find that its smallest
divisions are called (guiding) 'signs'. The term 'verse' is not
appropriate since the Qur'an is not poetry.
Sura (pl. Suwar) means literally 'row' or 'fence'. In technical
language, it is the passage-wise division of the Qur'anic text,
i.e. a chapter or part, set apart from the preceding and follow-
The Qur'an has 114 suras of unequal length, the shortest
consisting of four and the longest of 286 ayat.
All suras (with the exception of Sura 9) begin with the
words bismillahir rahmanir rahim. This is not a later addition
to the text, but was already used, even before Muhammad's
call to prophethood. ' (1)
All 114 suras in the Qur'an have names, which serve as a
sort of heading. The names are often derived from an impor-
tant or distinguishing word in the text itself, such as e.g. al-
anfal (8) or al-baqara (2). In other cases it is one of the first
few words with which the sSra begins e.g. ta-ha (20) or
1. See Sura 27: 30.
Order and Arrangement
Both the order of the ayat within each sura and the arrange-
ment of the suras were finally determined by the Prophet
under guidance from the Angel Gabriel in the year of his
death, when Gabriel twice came to revise the text with him. (2)
Scholars have also grouped the suras into four kinds:
1. al-tiwal (long ones): 2-10.
2. al-mi'un: suras with approximately 100 ayat: 10-35.
3. al-mathani: suras with less than 100 ayat: 36-49.
4. al-mufassal: the last section of the Qur'an beginning with
Sura qaf: 50-114.
Other Divisions of the Text
Juz' (pl. ajza') literally means part, portion. The Qur'an is
divided into 30 portions of approximately equal length for
easy recitation during the thirty nights of a month, especially
of the month of Ramadan. Usually they are indicated by the
word and the number of it given alongside, (e.g. juz'
30 beginning with Sura 78).
Some copies of the Qur'an have the suras divided into
paragraphs called ruku'. They are indicated by the symbol
and the explanation of the Arabic numerals written
with each is as follows, e.g. 2:20:
- The top figure (2) indicates that this is the second com-
pleted ruku ' in the respective sura (here Sura al-baqara) .
- The middle figure (13) indicates that this completed
ruku' contains 13 ayat.
- The lower figure (2) indicates that this is the second ruku'
in the respective juz' (here first juz').
Copies of the Qur'an printed in the Middle East in particular
have each juz' subdivided into four hizb indicated by the sign
e.g. 2:74 is the beginning of the second hizb of the
2. See above. transmission of the Qur'anic revelation, p. 31.
Qur'an, indicated by the figure 2:
Each hizb is again subdivided into quarters, indicated as
- First quarter of the hizb: XXX
- Half of the hizb: XXX
- Third quarter of the hizb: XXX
The Qur'anic text is also divided into seven parts of
approximately equal length, called manzil, for recitation over
seven days, indicated in some copies by the word manzil
and the respective number in the margin. The following table
shows the division of the text into juz' and manzil: (3)
Manzil Juz Sura
1 1 1: 1
4 3:92 or 93
2 6 5: 1
11 9:93 or 94
3 11 10:1
3. Hamidullah, Muhammad: Le Saint Coran. Traduction integraleetnores.
Club Francais du Livre, n.d., p.XLI.
14 15: 1 or 2
4 15 17:1
17 21: 1
5 19 27:1
20 27:56 or 60
21 29: 45 or 46
6 22 35: 1
23 36:22 or 28
23 38: 24 or 25
26 46: 1
7 26 50: 1
28 58: 1
29 67: 1
The ends of the various manzil according to Qatada are
4:76, 8:36, 15:49, 23:118, 34:54, 49:18 and 114:6 (4)
4. Ibn Abi Dawud, p. 118.
LANGUAGE AND VOCABULARY
The language of the Qur'an - as is we11 known- is Arabic.
The Qur'an itself gives some indication about its language:
'We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an in order that
ye may learn wisdom' (12: 2).
In another place the language of the Qur'an is called 'pure
Arabic' ('arabiyyun mubin):
'This (tongue) is Arabic, pure and clear' (16: 103).
The question that arises is: Why was the Qur'an revealed in
Arabic, and not in any other language? The first and perhaps
the most obvious reason is already referred to in the Qur'an,
namely that because the messenger who was to announce this
message was an Arab, it is only natural that the message
should be announced in his language:
'Had We sent this as a Qur'an (in a language) other than
Arabic they could have said: Why are not its verses
explained in detail? What! (a book) not in Arabic and (a
messenger) an Arab? Say: It is a guide and a healing to
those who believe ...' (41: 44).
Another important reason concerns the audience which
was to receive the message. The message had to be in a
language understood by the audience to whom it was first
addressed, i.e. the inhabitants of Makka and the surrounding
'Thus We have sent by inspiration to thee an Arabic
Qur'an: that thou mayest warn the mother of the cities
and all around her- and warn (them) of the day of
assembly of which there is no doubt (when) some will be
in the garden and some in the blazing fire' (42: 7).
The Qur'an Needed to be Understood
The Qur'an contains revelation from Allah and the true
nature of revelation is to guide mankind from darkness to
'A book which we have revealed unto thee in order that
thou mightest lead mankind out of the depths of darkness
into light- by the leave of thy Lord- to the way of (Him)
the exalted in power, worthy of all praise' (14: 1).
The revelation came in the language of the messenger and
his people in order that it might be understood:
'We have made it a Qur'an in Arabic that ye may be able
to understand (and learn wisdom)' (43: 3).
In the nrocess of understanding a message two steps are
- To receive the message correctly and completely, in this
case to receive its words correctly and completely.
- To 'decode' it, to grasp the meanings of the message
Only the combination of the two elements, i.e. reception
and decoding, lead to proper understanding of the message.
To Understand the Qur'an
It is not correct to assume that understanding the Qur'an in
order to take guidance from it depends upon direct knowledge
of the Arabic language, since there are numerous Arabic-
speaking people who do not understand the message of the
Qur'an. Rather the Qur'an tells us that right guidance comes
only from Allah:
'This is the guidance of God: He giveth that guidance to
whom He pleaseth of His worshippers ...' (6: 88).
However, to understand the language of the Qur'an is a
prerequisite to fully grasp its meanings. Hence many Muslims
have learned this language. Others, who have not done so,
make use of translations, which for them is an indirect means
of knowing the language, as in the translations the meanings
of the Qur'an have been rendered into their mother tongues
so that they may familiarise themselves with the message from
This message can be understood by all human beings who
are willing to listen, for the Qur'an is not difficult but easy:
'We have indeed made the Qur'an easy to remember:
but is there any that remembers it?' (54: 17).
Non-Arabic Words in the Qur'an
There is some difference of opinion among scholars whether
the language of the Qur'an includes expressions which are not
Arabic. Some (among them Tabari and Baqillani) hold that all
in the Qur'an is Arabic and that words of non-Arabic origin
found in the Qur'an were nevertheless part of Arabic speech.
Although these words were of non-Arab origin the Arabs
used and observed them and they became genuinely integrated
in the Arabic language.
However, it is conceded that there are non-Arabic proper
names in the Qur'an, such as Isra'il, Imran, Nuh., etc.
Others have said that the Qur'an does contain words not
used in the Arabic language, such as e.g.:
- al-Qistas (17:35), derived from the Greek language.
- al-Sijjil (15: 74), derived from the Persian language.
- al-Ghassaq (78: 25), derived from the Turkish language.
- al-Tur (2:63), derived from the Syriac language.
- al-Kifl (57: 28), derived from the Abyssinian language.
Some scholars have written books on the topic of 'foreign
vocabulary in the Qur'an', e.g. Suyuti, who compiled a
small book with a list of 118 expressions in different
5. The Mutawakkili of Al-Suyuti7, trans. by William Y. Bell, Yale
Dissertations, 1924; see also Itqan.
LITERARY FORMS AND STYLE
The Qur'an is the revelation from Allah for the guidance of
mankind and not poetry or literature. Nevertheless it is ex-
pressed verbally and in written form, and hence its literary
forms and style may be considered here briefly.
Broadly speaking there are two main literary forms:
By prose is meant a way of expression close to the everyday
spoken language, and distinct from poetry insofar as it lacks
any conspicuous artifice of rhythm and rhyme.
The Qur'an is not Poetry
Not only European orientalists have described some
passages of the Qur'an as more 'poetic' than others: the
opponents of Mu4ammad had already used this argument,
accusing him of being a poet or a soothsayer. This is refuted by
the Qur'an itself:
'It is not the word of a poet; little it is ye believe! Nor is it
the word of a soothsayer: little admonition it is ye receive.
(This is) a message sent down from the Lord of the
worlds' (69: 40-3).
The accusations against Muhammad refuted in the above
passage are based on the usage of a particular style, employed
in the Qur'an, which is said to be like saj' or close to it.
The word saj' is usually translated as 'rhymed prose', i.e. a
literary form with some emphasis on rhythm and rhyme, but
distinct from poetry. Saj' is not really as sophisticated as
poetry, but has been employed by Arab poets, and is the best
known of the pre-Islamic Arab prosodies. It is distinct from
poetry in its lack of metre, i.e. it has no consistent rhythmic
pattern, and it shares with poetry the element of rhyme,6
though in many cases somewhat irregularly employed.
6. Called fasila ( pl. fawasil) when used for the Qur'an
The Difference between Literature and the Qur'an
Ibn Khaldun (d. 809H/1406), the well-known author of the
muqaddima pointed out in a passage on the literature of the
Arabs the difference between literature and the Qur'an in
general and between saj' and the Qur'an in particular:
'It should be known that the Arabic language and Arab
speech are divided into two branches. One of them is
rhymed poetry ... The other branch is prose, that is,
non-metrical speech ... The Qur'an is in prose. However,
it does not belong in either of the two categories. It can
neither be called straight prose nor rhymed prose. It is
divided into verses. One reaches breaks where taste tells
one that the speech stops. It is then resumed and
"repeated" in the next verse. (Rhyme) letters, which
would make that (type of speech) rhymed prose are not
obligatory, nor do rhymes (as used in poetry) occur. This
situation is what is meant by the verse of the Qur'an:
'God revealed the best story, a book harmoniously
arranged with repeated verses ...' (39: 23). (7)
A good example for a saj'-like passage in the Qur'an would
be Sura al-ikhlas (112: 14). It is somewhat irregular in its
rhythm, and it has a rhyme ending with the syllable ad:
Qul huwa llahu ahad Say: He is God the One and Only
Alahus samad God the Eternal, Absolute
Lam yalid wa lam He begetteth not nor is He
wa lam yakun lahu And there is none
kufuwan ahad like unto Him.
Of the many passages more like plain prose, although not
quite identical to it, as the kind of end-rhyme indicates, the
following may serve as an example:
7. Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddima, Princeton, 1967, Vol. 3, p.368; Ibn Khaldun:
Muqaddima, Cairo, n.d., p.424.
'Inna auhaina ilaika kama We have sent thee inspiration
auhaina ila nuhin wa nabiyina as We sent it to Noah and the
min ba'dihi wa auhaina ila messengers after him: We sent
ibrahima wa isma'ila wa inspiration to Abraham,
ishaqa wa ya'quba Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the
wa-l-asbati wa 'isa wa ayyuba tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah,
wa yunusa wa haruna wa Aaron, and Solomon, and to
sulaimana wa ataina dawuda David we gave the Psalms. Of
zabura. Wa rusulan qad some apostles We have already
qasasnahum 'alaika min told thee the story, of others
qablu wa rusulan lam We have not. And to Moses
naqsushum 'alaika wa God direct spoke. APostles
kallama llahu musa taklima. who gave good news as well as
Rusulan mubashshirina wa warning that mankind after
mundhirina li'alla yakuna (the coming) of the apostles
li-nnasi 'ala llahi hujjatun should have no plea against
ba'dar rusuli wa kana llahu God; for God is exalted in
'azizan hakima (4: 163-5). power, wise.
Narrative in the Qur'an
The Qur'an contains many narratives (qisas, sg. qissa),
referred to in the Qur'an itself:
'We do relate unto thee the most beautiful of stories, in
that We reveal to thee this (portion of the) Qur'an ...'
These narratives, which illustrate and underline important
aspects of the Qur'anic message, fulfil their functions in a
variety of ways. The following are some of the more common
Explanation of the general message of Islam.
- General guidance and reminder.
- Strengthening the conviction of the Prophet and the
- Reminder of the earlier prophets and their struggle.
- Indication for the continuity and truth of Muh. ammad's
- Providing arguments against some opponents of Islam,
such as e.g. Jews and Christians.
As far as the contents of these narratives are concerned,
one may, broadly speaking, distinguish between the following
- Stories of the Prophets of Allah, their peoples, their
message, their call, their persecution, etc.; such as e g.
the narratives about Nuh (Sura 26), Musa (Sura 28), 'Isa
(Sura 19) and many others.
- Other Qur'anic narratives about past people or events,
such as the narratives about the Companions of the cave,
or about Dhu-l-qarnain (Sura 18).
- References to events that took place during the lifetime
of the Prophet Muhammad, such as the battle of Badr
(3: 13), the battle of Uhud (3: 121-8), the battle of Ah. zab
(33: 9-27), the israJ(17: 1), etc.
Similes in the Qur'an
The Qur'an also employs similes (amthal, sg. mathal) in
many places to explain certain truths or to drive home important
points of the message, by likening it to something well known
or describing it in a pictorial manner. (8)
'He sends down water from the skies and the channels
flow, each according to its measure; but the torrents bear
away the foam that mounts up to the surface. Even so,
from that (ore) which they heat in the fire to make
ornaments or utensils therewith there is scum likewise,
thus doth God (by parable) show forth the truth and
vanity, for thc scum disappears like froth cast out; while
that which is for the good of mankind remains on the
earth. Thus doth God set forth parables' (13: 17).
8. See, e.g. 16: 75-6.
Passages with Qul
More than 200 passages in the Qur'an open with the word
'Qul' (say:), which is an instruction to the Prophet Muhammad
to address the words following this introduction to his audience
in a particular situation, such as e.g. in reply to a question that
has been raised, or as an assertion of a matter of belief, or
announcement of a legal ruling, etc.
'Say: Nothing will happen to us except what God has
decreed for us: He is our Protector ...' (9: 51).
'Say: O people of the book. Do ye disapprove of us for
no other reason than that we believe in God, and the
revelation that has come to us and that which has come
before (us) and perhaps that most of you are rebellious
and disobedient?' (5: 62).
'They ask thee concerning (things taken as) spoils of war.
Say: (Such) spoils are at the disposal of God and the
apostle: for fear God and keep straight the relation
between yourselves: obey God and His apostle, if ye do
believe' (8: 1).
Oaths in the Qur*an
In a number of places the Qur'an employs oath-like
expressions (aqsdm, sg. qasam).9 Their function is to
strengthen and support an argument, and to disperse doubts
in the mind of the listener. In the Arabic text these passages
are often opened by the word 'wa' or the phrase 'la uqsimu'
(indeed I swear).
Sometimes an oath is taken by Allah himself:
'But no, by thy Lord, they can have no real faith until
they make thee judge in all disputes between them and
9. For a brief discussion see also Abdullah Yusuf Ali, op. cit., App. XIV,
find in their souls no resistance against thy decisions but
accept them with fullest conviction' (4: 65).
Other oaths are taken by Allah's creation:
'By the sun and his (glorious) splendour, by the moon as
she follows him, by the day as it shows up (the sun's)
glory, by the night as it conceals it; by the firmament and
its (wonderful) structure, by the earth and its (wide)
expanse, by the soul and the proportion and order given
to it ...' (91: 1-7).
'I do call to witness this city ...' (90: 1).
Man should only take an oath bv Allah the creator. but not
by anything created.
MUHKAMAT AND MUTASHABIHAT
The word muhkamat - (sg. muhkama) is derived from the
root uhkima which means to decide between two things. It is
a verbal noun in the plural, meaning judgements, decisions
and in technical language refers to all clearly decided verses
of the Qur'an, mostly those concerning legal rulings, but also
to other clear definitions such as between truth and falsehood
etc. This is what is meant by 'general muhkamat'.
Mutashabihat (sg. mutashabiha) is derived from the root
'ishtabaha' meaning 'to be doubtful'. It is a verbal noun in the
plural, meaning the uncertain or doubtful things. In technical
language it refers to those verses of the Qur'an the meanings
of which are not clear or not completely agreed upon, but
open to two or more interpretations.
Example of muhkamat:
'O you who believe! When ye deal with each other, in
transactions involving future obligations, in a fixed
period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write
down faithfully as between the parties ...' (2: 282).
Example of mutashabihat:
'(God) Most Gracious is firmly established on the throne
(of authority)' (20: 5).
Note that the words in brackets have been added by the
translator in an attempt to interpret this aya.
The Qur'an on Muhkamat and Mutashabihat
The Qur'an says of itself that it contains two kinds of ayat,
both of which are fundamental components of the book, and
both of which must be accepted:
'He it is who has sent down to thee the Book: in it are
verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning);
they are the foundation of the book: others are allegori-
cal, that is those in whose hearts is perversity follow the
part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord and
searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its
hidden meanings except God and those who are firmly
grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in the book;
the whole of it is from our Lord;" and none will grasp the
message except men of understanding' (3: 7).
Here muhkamat and mutashabihat are described as follows:
- Something of which knowledge was desired.
- Something with only one dimension.
- Something sufflcient in meaning, requiring no further
- Something known to Allah only.
- Something with more than one dimension.
- Something requiring further explanation.
Hence in the Qur'an those ayat dealing with halal and
haram, punishments, inheritance, promise and threat, etc.
belong to the mu,hkamat, while those concerning the attri-
butes of Allah, the true nature of the resurrection, judgement
and life after death etc. belong to the mutashabEhdt.
General and Specific
Some verses of the Qur'an are of a very wide, general
application (al-'am), e.g. including all human beings, or all
Muslims etc. Other ayat are restricted in their application to
certain special circumstances only (al-khas).
'Every soul shall have a taste of death' (3: 185)
'Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness nor wrangling
in the Hajj' (2:187).
'God (thus) directs you as regards your children (inherit-
ance)' (4: 11).
Furthermore one also distinguishes between 'general verses'
which remain general, and others which intend a specific
'Pilgrimage thereto is a duty man owes to God- those
who can afford the journey' (3: 97).
Of the 'special meanings' there are several varieties. Usually
some kind of condition or limitation is specified.
'Your step-daughters under your guardianship, born of
your wives to whom you have gone in' (4: 23).
'It is prescribed when death approaches any one of you,
if you leave any goods that he make a bequest to parents
and next of kin' (2: 180).
'So keep away from the women in their courses, and do
not approach them until they are clean' (2: 222).
'Free' and 'Bound' Verses
Some of the ahkam verses are valid, 'free' (mutlaq) from
any conditions or circumstances, while others are 'bound'
(muqayyad) to special conditions or situations, and apply only
'If it is beyond your means, fast for three days, that is
expiation for the wrath ye have sworn' (5: 92).
It is free, i.e. left to one's discretion whether to fast three
days consecutively or with interruptions.
'And if ye find no water then take yourselves clean sand
or earth and rub therewith your faces and hands' (5: 6). (10)
'Literal' and 'Understood' Meanings
The meaning of certain ayat is derived from the literal
wording (mantdq) while that of others is derived from what is
understood (mafhum) by them:
Of the literal understanding there are several kinds. The
first concerns a clear text, i.e. a text clear and without ambig-
'But if he cannot afford it, he should fast three days
during the Hajj and seven days on his return, making ten
days in all' (2: 196).
In other cases the text may be somewhat ambiguous in its
expression but obvious as far as the meaning is concerned.
'And do not approach them until they are clean' (2: 222).
The Arabic word tatahharna may refer to the end of the
10. Some say this aya is 'bound', as the same aya mentioning wudu'
washing of the hands 'to the elbows'; others say it is 'free'.
woman's menstrual period, or the completion of the bath
after the period; the second being more obvious."
Still other verses imply a meaning through the context,
although the wording itself is not clear.
'And out of kindness reward to them the wing of humility'
This applies to parents, and not to all human beings in
general, as the context of this verse suggests.
The so-called 'abbreviated letters' are an important section
of the mutashabihat' (12) insofar as their meanings are not known.
The word is derived from the root 'qata'a' - to cut, and means
'what is cut', and also 'what is abbreviated'.
In technical language the word is used for certain letters
found at the beginning of several suras of the Qur'an, called
'the abbreviated letters'.
There are fourteen such letters occurring in various combi-
nations at the beginning of 29 suras. The following is a list of
their occurrence and distribution in the Qur'an:
Alif Lam Ra: 10, 11, 12, 14, 15.
Alif Lam Mim: 2, 3, 29, 30, 31, 32.
Alif Lam Mim Ra': 13.
Alif Lam Mim Sad: 7
11. Qattan, M.: mabahith It 'ulum al-qur'an, Riyadh. 1971.
12. Itqan, II, p.8f. A summary of the orientalists' efforts on this topic
is in Jeffery. Arthur: The Mystic Letters of the Quran, MW, 14 (1924),
pp. 247-60. Some of the orientalists suggested that the letters are
abbreviations of the names of the various Companions who used to write
the Qur'an for Muhammad. Still others say that the letters are simply
symbols employed to distinguish the Sura from others before the now
common names were introduced. Sura Ta Ha would be a case in point. This
is also based on some Muslim scholars' views (Itqan, 11, p.10). Watt,
the Edinburgh priest-orientalist, writes 'We end where we began; the
letters are mysterious, and have so far baMed interpretation' (Watt,
M.: Bell's Introduction to the Qur'an, Edinburgh, 1977, p.64).
Ha Mim: 40, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46.
Ta Sin: 27.
Ta Sin Mim: 26, 28.
Kaf Ha Ya 'Ain Sad: 19.
Ya Sin: 36.
Vanety of Explanations
The meaning and purpose of these letters is uncertain.
There have been a variety of explanations offered by Muslim
scholars throughout the ages. Among them are: (13)
- These letters might be abbreviations for certain sentences
and words, such as e.g. Alif Lam Mim meaning Ana llahu
A'lam; or Nun meaning Nur (light), etc.
- These letters are not abbreviations but symbols and
names of Allah, or something else. (14)
- These letters have some numerical significance, as the
semitic letters also have numerical value.
- These letters were used to attract the attention of the
Prophet (and later his audience) for the revelation to
There are also many other explanations which cannot be
referred to here. The 'abbreviated letters' are part of the
Qur'anic message, revealed to the Prophet Muh. ammad and
therefore included in the text of the Qur'an. They are to be
recited and read as part of the suras where they occur. They
are a good example for one kind of mutashabihdt which is
referred to in the Qur'an itself, (3: 7), the meaning of which is
known to Allah. The Qur'an says of them: '... these are the
symbols of the perspicuous book' (12: 1).
13 See itqan, 11, pp.9-11.
14 e .g. the letter nun standing for 'fish' . which occurs in every sura
that has nun as 'abbreviated letter' in front, or ta standing for
snake, as every sura with [a as abbreviated letterw in front contains
the story of Musa and the snake.