Two words that should probably never go together: beautiful and grammar.
However, one of my courses this semester, called “The Language of the Quran,” aims at just that very thing, connecting the two. And today, at least in some small measure, it succeeded to awe, if not (quite yet) to make the music of the particular grammatical point ring in my mind. The Quran is known to be an evocative text, imbued with a magic in its tone and a particular depth of meaning that leads men to devote their lives to its study. Some small glimpse into the mechanisms behind that power is all I ask of this course, or of myself, with what Arabic I possess. To capture some idea, in English, of one example from among many covered already in two days of class, will be something of a challenge, but hopefully worthwhile, removing the taint of NQR from this link between beauty and grammar.
Today we were looking into metaphor, the various types of it. As we disected the following example, posted on the blackboard by Professor Hisham Mahmoud, the complexity and multivalent functioning of the metaphorical devices suddenly sprang into stark relief. I will outline them.
First, the verse itself:
Tranliterated into something vaguely pronouncable in English, this script may be rendered:
Waayatun lahumu allaylu naslakhuminhu alnnahara fa-itha hum muthlimoona
This may be translated, in its words but not in the depth of its meaning, as: “A sign for them is the Night. We skin from it the day and, behold, they are darkened.”
On the first functional level the type of metaphor exemplied by this Sura is one in which an unstated object receives a comparison. Here the unstated object is an animal’s body from which God peels back, or flays, the skin. This action is related back to the Night and the Day as a sign of the power of God. In itself, the metaphor presents a powerful, primordial image, the idea of Day being peeled back from the heavens (each and every day) so that Night shines through, showing man a substance more base and more fundamental than the veiling brightness of the sun, an image that evokes, for me, a particular gloaming beauty when the raw heavens transcend or reveal themselves lucidly through what, at first, seemed substantial (the sky) but suddenly and magically dissolved into insubstantiality.
This works, this image. It grabs me by the guts, just as if I am the one being flayed or as if I am sitting on a hill in childhood idyll watching the sunset, a Shel Silverstein moment. But the use of metaphor doesn’t stop at this single comparison. As the class looked at this example, we realized a second level of metaphor fills the verse, a very intentional deepening. Both the terms Day and Night are, themselves, metaphorical, a different type of metaphor, or an allusion, a type called kinaya in Arabic. Here, Day refers to the believing man’s understanding or grace or God’s mercy and compassion therein, His plan and His foreknowledge to bring man toward enlightenment. The Night represents the reverse, or the fundamental state of ignorance in which man begins and to which he returns if he should not accept the guidance of day, if he should not accept the revelation of his base substance via the hand at work, which is, in the Quran’s parlance, the Word of God.
Dismissing, not even yet thinking about the elements of poetry in the sound of the Arabic words themselves, assonance, consonance and the like, the allusion and the mutliplicity of metaphor here, in this one single example from among many, should convey some of the power (and some of the difficulty) inherent in reading and comprehending the Quran. To hear it chanted, or spoken, recited by an expert, the mind attuned to such sounds can slip away, letting the metaphor operate subliminally and the words flow.
Beauty + grammar = a deep operation on the psyche and the Id, a powerful insight into one among many ways in which the Quran serves as a self-sufficient example, or sign, of its own holiness.