Parallelism and Chiasmus in the Quran

The composition of texts in Classical Semitic languages, of which Classical Arabic is a member, exhibits certain patterns which are not commonly seen in modern English compositions. Two such patterns are parallelism and chiasmus.

Using either the prosaic or poetic rules of the English language to deconstruct Quranic verses can sometimes lead to a confused reading. In some cases, one could even misinterpret the verses. Therefore, in this article, I explain these patterns as they can aid in understanding the structure of the verses.

Parallelism

Parallelism occurs when two sets of literary elements are arranged such that the first element of the first set corresponds to the first element of the second set and similarly the second element of the first set corresponds to the second element of the second set.

A sentence such as, “Do not be a miser, nor a spendthrift lest you become blameworthy or destitute,” would be interpreted in English as if there are two actions that are being prohibited and two consequences that can result from failure to follow the actions. However, the sentence is constructed such that the first action (being a miser) yields the first consequence (of becoming blameworthy), and the second action (being a spendthrift) likewise results in the latter consequence (of becoming destitute). The sentence can be reformatted to emphasize this aspect:

And do not be amisernor aspendthrift
lest you becomeblameworthyordestitute

This arrangement would not be possible had the number of elements in one part of the sentence differed from the other. Parallelism is an essential ingredient for linguistic clarity of this sentence, without which the text loses its literary beauty.

Not only that, a lack of parallelism’s application could lead one to a slightly different interpretation, one in which the consequences do not have a one-to-one relationship with the actions. Thus, to demonstrate the intended meaning of the sentence, it may be rewritten in English as: “Do not be a miser lest you become blameworthy, and neither be a spendthrift lest you become destitute.”

The above example is an adaptation of verse 17:29 of the Quran,1The original verse had additional linguistic complexities and, therefore, I did not use it as an example. It reads: “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck, nor open it with a complete opening, lest you become blameworthy, destitute.” (Quran 17:29) which the famous theologian Al-Suyuṭī (d. 1505 CE) quoted as an example of parallelism.

Consider another example, the verse 28:73 of the Quran, in which a pronoun “it” (hu) is employed in a manner that exhibits an awkward construction at the first sight: “It is out of His mercy that He made night and day for you, so that you may rest in it, and so you may seek His bounty, and that you may be thankful.” Based on the word order, it could be argued that the pronoun “it” points to the noun “day” creating a problem for the reader. Specifically, the reading becomes similar to “He created the day for you so you may rest in it and seek His bounty.”

A reformatting of the verse exposes parallelism, which can be used to determine the noun to which “it” points:

“It is out of His mercy that

He madenightandday for you
so that you mayrest in it,and so you mayseek His bounty

and that you may be thankful.” (Quran 28:73)

The verse’s first phrase (“It is out of His mercy”) and the last phrase (“that you may be thankful”) also complement each other emphasizing that it is actually God’s mercy that necessitates the man’s gratitude. The creation of day and night is one of its manifestations during the man’s trial in this world because God “has ordained mercy upon Himself, He will surely gather you on the judgment day…” (The Quran 6:12)

Chiasmus

In a chiastic structure, two sets of literary elements are arranged in reverse such that the second element of the first set corresponds to the first element of the second set, and the first element of the first set corresponds to the second element of the second set.

Consider the following words attributed to Jesus: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast your pearls before the swine, lest haply they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” Similar to one of the examples before, in its current form, it implies that there are two commandments that are being prohibited, and two consequences that can result from failure to follow these commandments. Many commentators have recognized chiastic structure in this sentence,2Nils Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in the Form and Function of Chiastic Structures (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), 32. which becomes visible when it is re-arranged and explanatory nouns are added (in the brackets):

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs,
 neither cast your pearls before the swine,
 lest haply they (the swine) trample them under their feet,
and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces.”

Like parallelism, chiastic structures do not always impact the meaning. Sometimes, they determine how different parts of a verse compliment other parts. This can be seen in the following verse which has been formatted to reflect that the fruits are produced on earth; a phrase that complements the earlier statement that God appointed the earth a resting-place.

“Who appointed
 the earth a resting-place for you, and
  the sky a canopy;
  and sends down rain from the sky,
 thereby producing fruits as food for you.
So, do not set up rivals to God when you know (better).” (Quran 2:22)

Bibliographic Notes

Parallelism and chiasmus have been identified both by the Western as well as the medieval Muslim scholars. Within the Western scholarship, they are covered under the aegis of Semitic Rhetoric whereas in the field of ῾Ulūm al-Qur’ān, parallelism and chiasmus were named al-laff wa-l-nashr and al-laff wa-l-nashr ῾alá ῾aks tartībihi. See, for example, Jalāl al-Dīn Al-Suyūṭī, “al-naw῾ al-thāmin wa-al-khamsūn: fi badā’i῾ al-Qur’ān,” in Al-I’tqān fī ῾ulūm al-Qur’ān wa bi-’asfal al-ṣaḥā’if i῾jāz al-Qur’ān tā’līf li-al-qāḍī Abū Bakr al-Bāqilānī, 2 vols. (Bombay: Molvi Mohammed Bin Gulamrasul Surtis Sons, 1978), 2:120 for an example of this discussion in Muslim scholarship, and Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the fifth Sura of the Qur’an. Florida: Convivium Press, 2009, 1-48 for a summary of research in Semitic Rhetoric.

Notes   [ + ]

1. The original verse had additional linguistic complexities and, therefore, I did not use it as an example. It reads: “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck, nor open it with a complete opening, lest you become blameworthy, destitute.” (Quran 17:29
2. Nils Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament: A Study in the Form and Function of Chiastic Structures (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), 32.