Chapter X

The Unity of Each Surah

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We have highlighted the richness of meaning in the Qur’anic style, despite its unparalleled word economy. But we have to add to that another aspect which gives its wealth of meaning its best adornment, bringing out its beauty in full splendour.

This aspect is the perfect coherence of all its constituent elements and the firm bonding of all its parts which make of it a single unit that cannot be split up.

We all know that when a single subject is treated in poor style, its unity of meaning is loosened. Thus, it becomes disjointed and lacking in coherence, just like an image reflected in a mirror becomes broken when the mirror has an uneven surface. After all, words form a mirror reflecting the meaning they convey.

Hence, bringing out the natural unity of meaning requires proper literary and artistic coherence. This is achieved through matching the elements used in literary expression so that they can be consolidated into a complete whole.

This is by no means easy, as may be imagined by those who are unaware of what literary refinement means. In fact, it is a hard task requiring skill and dexterity, as well as a fine sense that enables a writer to determine the best position for each part: which should be a main theme and which is to be treated as complementary; which should be placed at the beginning, which forms the conclusion and which occupies the centre position.

The writer is also required to choose the best methods to put these parts together, and when to use gradual progression, straight conjunction, or other methods of joining. But all this comes after the parts themselves have been carefully selected, making sure that each one of them is closely related to the overall meaning and free of alien or unnecessary aspects.

He should also make sure that both ends and the middle of each part are of equal relevance to the overall purpose of the writer’s piece of work, and that the theme being treated is equally relevant to all these parts. It is a case similar to a circle where every point is of equal distance from the centre.

All this applies to a single theme with a natural link between all its constituent parts. How is it, then, when the discussion tackles several themes that vary in essence and substance and have naturally unrelated parts?

How much skill and talent, or indeed what magical touches, are required to bring about a measure of coherence between their diverse natures and separate courses, so that when they are brought together in discussion they do not appear to be like an assortment that puts together a pen, a pair of shoes, a saw and a bucket of water? What sort of talent will bring them together in one line of discussion, enabling their smaller details to unite in an all-embracing and closely-knit whole?

The difficulty of this goal has practically placed it beyond the reach of the best literary talents. Great literary figures may attain different degrees of excellence when they take up one issue at a time. But when they seek to tackle different themes in the same piece of work, they fall into error and betray inadequacy.

When poets attempt different themes in the same poem, they often treat these separately or at random. It is rarely the case that they manage to achieve an easy, flowing switch from one theme to another, such as moving from love poetry to praise, both of which were standard themes of Arabic poetry.

They often use tools designed to alert the listener to the change of theme, or they talk in the first person. Hence, we often encounter alerting words, such as, ‘however, moreover, besides, but, etc.’ or phrases like, ‘be that as it may…; having said that…; let us now discuss…; we now move to…, etc.’.

This is the case when different themes are tackled in the same discourse on the same occasion. What sort of treatment would we have, should they be treated on different occasions, separated by lengthy time intervals? It is only to be expected that the links would be very difficult to put in place and the gaps all the more apparent.

If we admire the literary excellence of the Qur’an in a short passage, with a single theme that is naturally coherent, let us now consider the Qur’anic style over a whole surah, which includes different topics and themes, with different passages being revealed on different occasions and in varying circumstances. Here, we will find the consistency of style and the unity of subject matter at their most wonderful.

The importance the Qur’anic style attaches to brevity and concise expression, always avoiding lengthy discourse, as far as that is feasible while maintaining a superbly fine style, has made it the most innovative discourse we will ever come across.

By innovative we mean that it employs a wide variety of styles and moves from one to the other at a speed unrivalled by any other discourse. Thus, it employs description, narration, legislative text, argument and many other forms. Indeed, it goes further than that so as to use the same style in a variety of ways, making it a group of styles.

What is even more remarkable is that despite being the most varied discourse in its themes and subjects, the Qur’an is also most innovative in style when discussing a single subject.

It neither retains the same mode for long, nor does it continue to address the same theme for any unnecessary length. Indeed, as it changes themes within the same surah, it employs different modes, such as implicit or explicit statements, narrative, nominal or verbal sentences, past, present or future tenses, first, second or third person, etc.

The speed of switch from one mode to the other is such that it is totally unknown in any other style. Such rapid and frequent switching normally leads to confusion or error both in treating a subject and in moving from one subject to the other. But at no time do we ever detect such confusion or error in the Qur’an.

Indeed, it maintains a superb standard of powerful, flawless style throughout, utilising all these modes in painting a magnificent scene in which nothing is felt to be out of place.

What person, having a good command of Arabic, makes a thorough study of the Qur’anic style without finding in its construction an aspect of the Qur’anic challenge?

Some newcomers to the study of the beauty of the Qur’anic style and its powerful construction may wonder about the psychological ease experienced by both the reciter of the Qur’an and its listener. It gives them both new freshness and renewed interest at every stage, so as never to be bored no matter how long they continue with their reading or listening. This peculiar phenomenon has different sources in the Qur’an.

We referred to some of these when we discussed the unique sound characteristics of the Qur’an in Chapter VIII. But this psychological ease has an even deeper and more profound source, which is best appreciated by one who has studied fine speech thoroughly, distinguishing the finer qualities of literary works and how resourceful authors make use of their talents to produce their fine pieces.

As such a person compares their styles with the Qur’an, he realises that even the finest of talented poets and writers remain at the lowest step of a long ladder while the Qur’an attains the zenith. Indeed, when the Qur’an moves from one stage to another, it gives in the new stage several new aspects of the theme it discusses and the style it employs. With such a continuous process of renewal, how can any reader or listener be bored?

We can always try for ourselves, when we stand for a long while contemplating the same beautiful scene: does that give us the same sensation and admiration as a series of beautiful scenes, portraying different aspects of fine arrangement and splendid scenery? Certainly not! The same applies to the Qur’anic style, which is so varied and continuously changing.

It is well known that, for the most part, the process of revelation of the Qur’an is not one that brings different themes all at the same time. On the contrary, these themes were revealed individually, on numerous occasions, as required by events and needs.

These differences of time and occasion would have, by necessity, meant that the themes discussed should have resulted in a sort of separate and independent treatment on each occasion, leaving no room for linkages and cohesion.

These two reasons, the rapid and continuous change of style and mode of expression on the one hand and the tackling of different themes on separate occasions on the other, should have worked together in creating inconsistency and disjointedness when the separate revelations were joined together in the same surah.

Take, if you will, the text of a number of statements by the Prophet, or by any person of great literary talent, tackling different themes and which are known to have been made on different occasions.

Then try to read them together, one after the other, in the same way as you read a single speech, without adding or omitting anything of them.

We do not need too long to realise that neither their meanings nor their texts would be consistent with one another. On the contrary, they would clearly betray a degree of discrepancy and patching up that is hardly ever noticed in a single speech, of similar or greater length.

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Final Arrangement Made Far in Advance

Another reason which should have made a surah appear particularly disjointed is the way in which the Qur’an joins different parts together in order to establish...

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