CHAPTER viii / Concise but fully expressive

Concise but fully expressive

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These are two widely different aims. Whoever tries to combine both of them together finds himself like one caught between two women:

He cannot maintain justice between them, without finding himself constantly leaning towards one or the other.

When he tries to economise with words, using only what is adequate, he must inevitably lose part of the meaning.

He may try to express his meaning in general terms.

If he is making an argument, he may say, “Believe this, or do not believe that.”

In description, he would confine himself to saying, “This is beautiful, and that is ugly.”

If he is making a report, he would say, “This has taken place, and that did not.”

When he makes a request, he says, “Do this, and do not do that.”

Alternatively, he may add some details, but will continue to be very cautious of saying more than he needs.

Thus, he leaves out whatever he can, dispensing with preliminaries and omitting those tools which raise expectation, adding emphasis, generating interest and similarly essential elements of fine speech.

Thus, what he comes up with is akin to a garment that is too short or too tight, or like a skeleton that has not been fleshed up.

Sometimes the omission of a particle will considerably reduce the beauty of a sentence, leaving it too dry or too dull. It is often the case that an attempt to shorten a piece of writing will leave it too vague to understand.

On the other hand, a person who tries to express his meaning fully, doing justice to its finer details, as far as he understands or feels it, must allow himself sufficient space.

He will not find economy of words serving his purpose. He feels the need to explain his thoughts fully.

When he tries this, he will inevitably use an expansive style. He may take his time before he arrives at the conclusion he wants to make. You may begin to lose interest before you complete reading.

Most men and women of letters, of old and modern times, often err on the side of saying more than they need in order to express their meaning.

They rarely choose to be too concise. Indeed, most of them find it tempting to display their literary ability. Some resort to using unfamiliar words and constructions, forcing the reader to read a sentence more than once in order to gather its meaning.

Thus, the extra words or expressions used make the meaning less clear. Others use too many words, thus making their style verbose, longwinded or effusive.

Or they make their reader stumble in his attempt to grasp the meaning because they use too many synonyms or analogous words.

They think that by so doing, they make their meaning succinct, while in fact they make it too thin. Perhaps the best among these is one whose writings could be reduced by half without losing anything of what he wishes to express.

Hard as they try, people of fine literary talent rarely, if ever, achieve their target. The maximum they can achieve is a relative perfection,

‘in as much as they can fathom or reflect a moment of inspiration.’

To express a certain idea fully and perfectly, without falling short in one or more aspects of it, or adding something that does not really belong to it, allowing no room for suggesting anything new, is something no one who has attempted fine literary expression will ever claim for himself, let alone for others.

If he were to review what he has written, time after time, he would inevitably find something to modify, or an omission to be redressed, or some thought to be brought forward or taken backward, in order to make it flow better.

If he were to review it 70 times, as the pre-Islamic Arab poet, Zuhayr ibn Abi Sulma, used to review his poems which he called, ‘the annuals’, he would have something to change every time.

The more refined he is, the less satisfied with his product he will be. He will always feel that he is short of the ideal to which he aspires.

He is like the one described in a Qur’anic analogy, ‘stretching out his hand to the water in the hope that it will reach his mouth, but it will never reach it.’ (13: 24.)

This is what he may feel about his own product. But what will his critics and competitors say?

We should remember here that in all this he is striving to achieve one aim. What will be the result if he tries to achieve the other end at the same time, putting his wealth of meaning in the most concise of forms?

How can he achieve both ends when he is a prisoner of his human nature that cannot get nearer to one end of the road unless it goes further away from the other?

If we find that someone has managed to achieve both ends in one or two sentences, we need to consider carefully what he says thereafter.

For it is inevitable that he will soon tire himself out.

His powerful style will give way, and his bright style will soon lose its shine.

He will achieve that great height only occasionally, just like we find a piece of precious metal in a great heap of rock. When you consider what such a writer has written you will say to different parts of it, “This is good; and this is superior; but that is the finest piece.”

Let us ask any literary critic of recognised high standing:

“Have you ever come across a poem or a piece of literary prose with clear meaning, concise expression and fine construction throughout?”

We will find them all unanimous that even the finest of poets achieve real excellence in only a few lines within a few poems.

Beyond that, they may have what is average, run of the mill or even of lower standard.

They would say the same about orators and writers. Indeed, such shortcomings are clearer in their case.

If you wish to see how these two qualities of precision and concise construction, go hand in hand in perfect measure, throughout a piece of work, you only need to look anywhere you wish in the Qur’an.

You are bound to find literary expression that fits the purpose perfectly, without leaning towards expansion or inadequacy.

Every idea and every point is given in a clear and full picture. It is clear in the sense that it has no trace of anything alien to it. It is also full, omitting nothing of its essential elements or complementary requisites.

Yet at the same time, it is expressed in the finest and most concise style. Every word, particle or letter has a purpose to serve.

The place of every word in every sentence, and the position of every sentence in a verse are carefully selected so as to produce the finest meaning, flowing from one idea to the next.

Put your hand over any page of the Qur’an you choose, and count the number of words you have covered.

Then select an equal number of the most expressive words in human speech other than those in the Qur’an and compare the meaning in both cases.

[Although the Prophet’s own style is the most concise and eloquent human speech, it is far less concise and rich in meaning than the Qur’an.]

Consider then how many words you may delete or replace in this second passage without loss of meaning, and consider if you can do the same with the Qur’an.

The fact is, as stated by Ibn ᶜAṭiyyah,

a famous Arab literary critic, that if we were to screen the whole Arabic language in search of a word to replace one word of the Qur’an expressing the meaning equally, let alone more fully, we will find none.

It is aptly described by God Himself:

“This is a Scripture with verses which have been set out with perfection and then expounded in detail, bestowed on you by Him who is Wise, AllAware.”

(11: 1.)

Let us now examine this verse very carefully.

The whole idea we have discussed is combined here in two phrases, each expressed in a single Arabic word in the original text:

“set out with perfection” “and “expounded”.

This is a most apt description of the Qur’anic style. It is perfected by the One who is ‘Wise’ and who leaves no defect in what He produces.

It is also expounded by the same One who is ‘All-Aware’, and who knows every detail of every living thing.

page ii

Addressing the general public or select groups

These are two widely differing aims. If you were to speak to highly intelligent people in a simple style, explaining every little and simple detail...

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