But the secret of concise expression in the Qur’an is not limited to avoiding anything that is not essential to the meaning, or selecting the most expressive vocabulary which fits the purpose most clearly.
The Qur’an employs an even harder and far more admirable method of keeping its wording to the absolute minimum.
At times we find the Qur’an, having omitted unnecessary additions and words that are not essential to the meaning, also leaves out some of the essential words without which the meaning is not normally properly conveyed.
The deletion may affect many words and sentences that should either follow one another or come separately in the same passage.
It then invests the vocabulary that remains in conveying the whole meaning clearly, accurately and in fine style.
In fact, it appears that the wording makes such a full expression of the meaning that we may think that the wording is more than adequate for the meaning intended.
If you look for the secret in all this, you will find that it places the meaning of the deleted words and sentences in a word here and a particle there.
It then fashions its style with dexterity so as to make the outcome most fitting for the purpose. Furthermore, it brings out its finer elements in sharp relief so as to make the style most coherent and expressive.
It breathes life into it making it smooth, easy, bright and enlightening. As we read, we do not feel what deletions and omissions have taken place, nor do we appreciate how the meaning is adequately and fully expressed unless we examine it very carefully.
There is no doubt that the Arabs used to resort to some omission in their speech, considering it to be a literary virtue,
provided that there was sufficient indication pointing to what was deleted, even though it may have been essential to the sentence.
When an Arab is asked, ‘Where is your brother?’ he may say, ‘at home’.
And if he is asked, ‘Who is at home’, he would say, ‘My brother’. If he were to answer either question by saying, ‘My brother is at home’, his answer would be felt to be unnecessarily verbose.
In this aspect, like in all aspects of literary expression, the Qur’an attains a height too sublime for human talent, unattainable even in our wildest dreams.
Let us take this example:
“If God were to hasten for human beings the ill in the same manner as they would hasten the good, their end would indeed come forthwith! But We leave those who do not believe that they are destined to meet Us in their overweening arrogance, blindly stumbling to and fro.” (10: 11.)
[This rendering leaves out all that translators of the Qur’an add in parentheses to capture the meaning.]
This verse speaks of those who reject the concept of resurrection and whom the Prophet informed of his message telling them that he was a warner to them against an impending and painful suffering.
They ridiculed him and said: “God, if this is indeed the truth from You, then rain down upon us stones from the skies, or inflict [some other] grievous suffering on us.”(8: 32.)
God, however, has not done what they suggested, but instead has delayed their punishment to the time He has appointed.
They felt secure in the life of peace they were enjoying and forgot that time brings all sorts of misfortune. They overlooked the fact that God may inflict His punishment on them at any time.
Essentially, this led them to hasten such evil, just like people are eager to receive what is of benefit to them immediately.
They started to say: When will it be? What stops it from coming if it is true?
The Qur’an wants to reply to this by saying that if it was God’s law to respond to people when they hasten what is evil in the same way as He responds to them when they hasten good, He would have hastened it to them.
But it is His unchangeable law that He gives respite to the transgressors and defers reckoning their actions, good or bad, to the time He has appointed.
The law will operate in the case of those people so as to give them respite until their appointed time.
This is the nature of the reply as it may be expressed in human language. Now let us look at what happens to it when it is stated in the Qur’an.
- Taken in its ordinary form, the argument has three elements: two serve as introductory and the third as a conclusion. The Qur’an states the first and the third, while the second is left out. Thus, it is only implied.
- The first introduction in its idle state has four ingredients: God’s hastening good and evil, and people’s request for both to be hastened. But in the verse we see only one hastening from God and one demand for haste from people.
- The apparent contrast is in the similarity of one type of haste and another, or one type of request for haste and another.
The verse is phrased rather strangely so as to draw the similarity between one element from the first set [i.e. haste] and an element from the second set [i.e. hastening request]
But after all this deletion and modification do we find the text to be incomplete or twisted or not readily understood?
Or do we find the whole import of the verse to be clear to all and sundry, like a full moon on a clear night?
It is useful to dig into the secrets of fine style and ask how the meaning is so clear despite all this economy of expression?
In comment on all three points outlined above we say firstly that the verse has only deleted the implied introductory element after it has raised two banners on its two sides to indicate its presence and transmit it to us clearly.
To its right, it has placed the negative conditional, ‘if God were…’ ’ at the beginning of the first introduction.
This implies that God does not hasten such matters. To its left, it has placed the Arabic particle, ‘fa’, which is rendered in the translation as ‘but’.
This implies a detail indicating a normal state of affairs. The meaning implied here is that ‘it is His practice that He leaves people to carry on with what they choose for themselves.
Hence, He leaves the people to whom the verse refers until their appointed time arrives.’
But the Arabic particle, fa, on its own does not specifically denote what is intended, because it is frequently used as a conjunction.
Thus, a reader may read it as though it serves as a conjunction here before he realises that it is not so.
To avoid this, the Qur’an does not rely on this particle alone, but adds two supporting forces in the form of changing tense from past to present, and changing the referent from the third person to the first.
This causes a verbal break between it and the preceding sentence. This break echoes a similar break in meaning, inviting a complete pause before it.
As for the second point we note that when the omission applied to two of the four ingredients, it is made to apply to both aspects, taking out one ingredient from each and leaving the other.
The parallel in this process indicates the presence of what has been deleted.
The third point identifies a fine aspect of the meaning indicating the reason for giving respite and why God does not hasten punishment.
The verse portrays this hastening as though the person requesting it is so keen to have what he requests to be hastened because it will satisfy a burning desire..
particularly if he is seeking what is certain to benefit him.
Thus, the verse implies that if God were to hasten what they are demanding, He would be in the same position as those precipitating matters, as He would be provoked into it. Far be it from God to be so.
Yet there are more artistic touches in the text of the verse.
One of these is that usually the particular conditional conjunction used here is peculiar to Arabic and should normally be followed by a verb in the past tense.
But the purpose here is not to negate a past occurrence. It is to explain that what the unbelievers hasten is contrary to the laws of nature God has set in operation in human life.
Such laws are valid for all time, without change. To put this meaning in normal style, longer language would have been needed, such as:
‘Had it been the normal law God has set for human life that He should hasten, etc.’.
But all this is summed up in one word through the use of the present tense, which implies repetition and continuity.
The conditional conjunction is used to indicate that what follows it refers to a past event. Thus, the time of the occurrence and its continuous nature are gently pushed to the fore.
The second touch is seen in the phraseology of the conditional sentence. Normally, the second part of a conditional should tie up with its first part. This would have meant that the sentence should be phrased like this:
“If God were to hasten for human beings the ill… He would have hastened it, etc.”
But this is discarded in preference for something far more telling and effective.
The verse explains that had God wanted to hasten an evil outcome to people, He would have hastened for that particular community a special type of hard suffering which would make their end occur forthwith.
Yet we see another touch in the way the verse is ended.
The logical conclusion of the verse should probably have been something like, ‘But We leave them’, or ‘But We leave these people’.
The verse, however, runs as follows:
“If God were to hasten for human beings the ill in the same manner as they would hasten the good, their end would indeed come forthwith! But We leave those who do not believe that they are destined to meet Us in their overweening arrogance, blindly stumbling to and fro.”
In this way, it accomplishes an important dual purpose.
First, it makes it clear that their hastening of evil is due to the fact that they do not believe in resurrection. It also shows that granting respite is the general rule which applies to them and others like them
The verse has other touches, but we will leave these for now.
We only say that we may find one type of these dextrous manipulations in the style of any literary figure, but what human being displays in his or her style all these aspects..
or a similar set in a passage of the same length, or even in one twice as long?
Let us take another example tackling the same thought:
“Say: Have you ever considered if His punishment were to befall you by night or by day? What could there be in such prospect that people lost in sin should wish to hasten? Is it, then, that you will believe in it [only] after it has come to pass? Is it now [you believe in it], after having called for its speedy advent?”(11: 50-51.)
If we were to paraphrase these two verses, we may say that what God is saying goes as follows:
“Tell me what will your situation be, should God’s punishment befall you all of a sudden, at night or during the day. What will you do then? You have one of two choices: either you persist with what you are doing now..
continuing to deny God’s message and hasten the result that may take place, or you accept the faith. Which of these would you choose? Will you still ask for the punishment to be hastened then as you hasten it now?
Certainly not, because you are sinners, and a sinner will never look forward to the punishment that is bound to overwhelm him once it is decided. Besides, what type of punishment are you trying to speed up?
You should know that it differs in type and severity. Or is it that you deny it today, then when it comes about in due course you will believe in it?
Let me tell you that such a belief will not be of any benefit to you, since you have delayed and procrastinated so long that the time for it has gone.
You will be reproached and told: is it now that you want to believe while you were always denying that punishment and challenging us to hasten it.”
This is the meaning conveyed in these two verses.
We only need to look at them carefully to see how many sentences have been left as implied at the beginning, middle and end.
But for everything that is deleted, the verses include a clue to point to it or a mark showing it.
In the first verse, we have two interrogative sentences indicating that a comprehensive question is made up of the two, asking:
What will you do, and which course will you follow? The interrogative about the type of punishment being hastened indicates an earlier and preliminary question about the very idea of hastening it.
The reference to those ‘lost in sin’ implies that it is impossible for what this part of the verse refers to, i.e. the hastening of punishment,
to take place, because they will be its recipients.
There are many other words or phrases deleted from the text, but clearly understood. This could only happen in the Qur’an with its unique style.
Indeed, no one has ever attempted to combine such brevity of style and word economy with such clarity of meaning without soon finding himself in deep water, unable to proceed after the first hurdle.
Indeed, to achieve such an aim requires far more effort than anyone could put in.
This should tell us much about the real challenge of the Qur’an.
The Unity of Each Surah
We have highlighted the richness of meaning in the Qur’anic style, despite its unparalleled word economy.GO TO Chapter X