The Quran - Poetry and rhyme

December 2020

The orthodox Muslim regards the Quran as the supreme proof of its own inspiration by reason of its unapproachable style. Allah’s prophet frequently insists on the fact that the heavenly oracles have been sent down in plain Arabic which all his hearers could understand and he challenges the poets and soothsayers who opposed him to produce the like. Many scholars hold that the eloquence of the Old Testament books of Isaiah, Deuteronomy and many of the Psalms, when read in the original Hebrew, far exceed the eloquence of the Quran. A Muslim of course would deny this but probably no Muslim who knew both Arabic and Hebrew well would be able to deny it. Eloquence, style, elegance and poetry do not prove divine inspiration, they are merely modes of presentation, rather we need to examine content, doctrine and teaching in order to judge correctly.

The literature of the Arabs

The literature of the Arabs is either pre-Islamic or post-Islamic. The former has as its chief classics the Mu’allaqat, the latter finds its centre and apex as well as its origin and inspiration in the Quran. The seven poems of ancient Arabia are called the Mu’allaqat or ‘suspended’ because they were suspended on the walls of the Ka’aba. They are also known as Muzahhbat or ‘golden’ because they were written in gold on Egyptian silk and are generally admitted to be reflective of the golden age of Arabic literature. They are predominantly lyrical, expressing the poet’s personal feelings and aspirations, his experience of love and nature, relationships between friend and foe, his own tribe and outsiders in both peace and war. These poems furnished the model for later writers for they are said to exhibit a high degree of linguistic culture.

In the eyes of the Arabs the Quran has eclipsed all that went before. It is viewed as a paragon of literary perfection as well as of moral beauty. To criticise its diction is to be guilty of blasphemy and to compare it with other literature is to commit sacrilege. From a literary standpoint the chief charm of the Quran is its musical jingle and cadence. English translations cannot reproduce this and in consequence the book appears insipid, colourless, monotonous, wearisome and uninteresting. When the Quran is recited in sonorous long-drawn tones by a practiced reader whose whole being is thrown into the effort of reproducing the words of Allah, it is undoubtedly impressive even to outsiders, and on the faithful the effect can be electrifying. It is not to be expected that the excellencies and miraculous qualities of the Quran claimed by the Muslim commentators should unveil themselves to the cold unsympathising western gaze but the book does have a certain literary beauty as confirmed by all who have read it in the original.

The influence of the Arabic language on other tongues has been great, ever since the rise of Islam. The Persian language adopted the Arabic alphabet along with a large number of Arabic words and phrases. Three-quarters of the vocabulary of Hindustani (principally Hindi and Urdu) consists of Arabic words derived through Persian. The Turkish language also is indebted for many words taken from Arabic and uses the Arabic alphabet. Following the Muslim conquest, the Malay language was also influenced by Arabic and in Africa too, its influence was even more strongly felt.

Features of the Quranic style


There is no attempt in the Quran to produce the strict rhyme of poetry. The early Quranic suras have a distinct rhythmical cadence. Towards the middle period and in the Medina Surahs repetition and long drawn out wordy verses increase until finally the discourse becomes undiluted prose; though even to the last not without occasional loftier passages. In an Arabic poem each verse had to end in the same consonant or consonants surrounded by the same vowels, only in very exceptional cases is it possible to find this type of rhyme in the Quran. What one finds is assonance (the resemblance of sound between syllables in nearby words, arising from the rhyming of stressed vowels). The structure of the Arabic language, in which words fall into definite types or forms, was favourable to the production of such assonance’s.

Strophes (a group of lines forming a section of a lyric poem). We expect some regularity in the length and arrangement of the strophes as in the Old Testament but in the Quran suras fall into short sections or paragraphs with the longest such pieces found in some of the later suras. Their length does not seem to be determined by any consideration of form but by the subject or incident; this creates the disjointed style of the Quran.

An example of a fairly lengthy piece relating to a single occasion can be seen with the address after the Day of the Trench and the overthrow of the clan of the Quragza (33:9-27) or the assurances given to the disappointed Muslims after the truce of al-Hudaibiya (48:18-29). The accounts of Abraham and Moses also run to considerable length but they tend to fall into separate incidents instead of being recounted straightforwardly This is particularly true of the long story of Joseph in sura 12.

It can be argued that there are consistent lines of thought throughout certain suras but the distinctiveness of the separate pieces is more obvious than their unity. The longer suras being devoted largely to political and legal matters have a variety of subjects. While there are considerable blocks of legislation devoted to one subject, for example rules regarding divorce in Al-Baqarrah 2:228-232, it does not appear that any subject was dealt with systematically in a single sura or lengthy passage. On the contrary one mostly finds that one sura contains passages dealing with many subjects. The Quran itself tells us that it was delivered in separate pieces (Al-Kahf 17:106; Al-Furqan 25:32) but it does not tell us anything about the length of the pieces. The traditional accounts explaining the ‘occasions of revelation’ often refer to passages consisting of a verse or two and this favours the assumption that the pieces were short. In the Quran itself, not only do short pieces stand alone as separate suras but the longer suras contain short pieces which are complex in themselves, and could be removed without serious derangement of the context. Consider passages introduced by a formula of direct address “O you who believe!”(Al-Baqarrah 2:178/179). The subject is Al-Qisas (the law of equity) but though it comes amongst other passages also addressed to the believers and dealing with other subjects, it has no necessary connection with them. Again, Al-Maidah 5:11 is introduced by “O you who believe” and it stands by itself clearly enough. If only we knew the event to which it refers, but if it had been absent we should have never suspected that something had fallen out.

There may sometimes be a connection in subject and thought, and even where this is absent there may still be a connection in time. On the other hand, there may be no connection in thought between adjacent and bordering pieces, or the sura may have been built up of pieces of different dates that have been fitted into a sort of scheme.

The didactic form ‘Say’

Muhammad’s function as a prophet was to convey messages to his contemporaries and perhaps it is not the poetic or artistic form that holds the Quran together but various didactic forms. For example the short statement ‘Say’ is used almost like a slogan and is found scattered about the Quran about 250 times. Sometimes the term stands singly. Elsewhere, groups of them stand together; though distinct from each other for example Al-Anaam 6:56-66: Say: “I am forbidden to worship those others than Allah whom ye call upon.” Say: “I will not follow your wain desires: If I did, I would stray from the path, and be not of the company of those who receive guidance.” (v 56) “Say: “For me, I (work) on a clear sign from my Lord, but ye reject Him. What ye would see hastened, is not in my power. The command rests with none but Allah: He declares the truth, and He is the best of judges.” (v 57) Say: If what ye would see hastened were in my power, the matter would be settled at once between you and me. But Allah knoweth best those who do wrong.” (v 58)” ……… Say: “Who is it that delivereth you from the dark recesses of land and sea, when ye call upon Him in humility and silent terror: ‘If He only delivers us from these (dangers), (we vow) we shall truly show our gratitude’?” (v 63) Say “It is Allah that delivereth you from these and all (other) distresses: and yet ye worship false gods!” ( v 64) Say: “He hath power to send calamities on you, from above and below, or to cover you with confusion in party strife, giving you a taste of mutual vengeance – each from the other.” See how We explain the signs by various (symbols); that they may understand. (65) But thy people reject this, though it is the truth. Say: “Not mine is the responsibility for arranging your affairs” (v 66).

The ‘Say slogans’ are statements of various kinds; there are answers to questions, retorts to the arguments or jeers of his opponents, and clarification of Muhammad’s own position; there are one or two potential prayers e.g “Say: “O Allah! Lord of Power, Thou givest power to whom Thou pleasest, and Thou strippest off power from whom Thou pleasest: Thou enduest with honour whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleasest: In Thy hand is all good. Verily, over all things Thou hast power.” (Al-Imran 3:26). There are two credal statements for his followers to repeat where the word ‘say’ is in the plural: 1) Say ye: “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah (in Islam).” (Al-Baqarrah 2:136); 2) “but say, “We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).” (Al-Anqabut 29:45). In Surah Ikhlas ‘Say’ is in the singular “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only” (112:1). There are also a number of phrases which are suitable for repetition in various circumstances: Say: “The Guidance of Allah,that is the (only) Guidance.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:120) and “Say: “Sufficient is Allah for me! In Him trust those who put their trust.” (Az-Zumar 39:38).

It is evident that these were separate phrases and not originally part of a sura and only later found their way in suras. In the later suras a say formula is used to deal with matters of concern to Muhammad or Muslims e.g. concerning the New Moons: Say: They are but signs to mark fixed periods of time in (the affairs of) men, and for Pilgrimage.” (Al-Baqarrah 2:189); about what is lawful food: “Say: lawful unto you are (all) things good and pure” (Al-Maidah 5:4); or about spoils of war: “Say: “(such) spoils are at the disposal of Allah and the Messenger” (Al-Anfal 8:1).

It has been suggested that the repetition of such ‘say’ slogans became a means of stabilising the attitudes and practices associated with Islam.

Muhammad not a soothsayer or a prophet

Muhammad repeatedly repudiated the idea of being a poet: “That this is verily the word of an honoured messenger; It is not the word of a poet: little it is ye believe! Nor is it the word of a soothsayer: little admonition it is ye receive. (This is) a message sent down from the Lord of the Worlds.” (Al-Haaqa 69:40-43); “We have not instructed the (Prophet) in poetry, nor is it meet for him” (Ya-Sin 36:69). Despite this, his pagan opponents considered him a poet in the line of his contemporaries: “And say: “What! shall we give up our gods for the sake of a poet possessed?” (As-Saffat 37:36) The view that the Quran is in a rhythm and in some places actual poetry has perplexed the commentators. Ar-Razi explains that in order to be a poet it is absolutely necessary that the poems should not be impromptu verses as in the Quran, but deliberately framed.

The suras of the early Meccan period exhibit the dark feelings and suspicions over Muhammad although the language is often very fine and the rhetorical cadence is full of poetic colour. The Meccans looked upon the doctrine of the resurrection of the body as pure imagination, and when revelations concerning it were announced, treated them as made up by Muhammad from information gathered from foreigners at Mecca. They spoke of them as ‘Tales of the Ancients,’ (Al-Muttaffifin 83:13) or as an effusion of a poetical imagination.

Certain poets, whose productions were cited at the great annual fair held at Okatz ridiculed and opposed Muhammad, so he discouraged poetry: “And the poets, It is those straying in evil, who follow them. Seest thou not that they wander distracted in every valley? And that they say what they practise not?” (Ash-Shuara 26:224-226) He also rebutted the charge of being a mere poet: “We have not instructed the (Prophet) in Poetry, nor is it meet for him: this is no less than a message and a Quran making things clear. ” Tradition relates through Ibn ‘Umar, that Muhammad said ‘Better a belly full of pus than a belly full of poetry.’

If he were a poet or composed poetry it might appear as if the Quran were his own composition and not the direct words of God. Apparently his opponents were not convinced and later in Mecca repeated the charge (Al-Furqan 15:5-6). His opponents must have looked upon him as a kahin or soothsayer for he denies such a suggestion At-Tur 52:29, Al-Haqqah 69:42. The very need for the disclaimer suggests that there were similarities, for amongst the Semitic people tradition linked such knowledge to the supernatural. In the early Arabic literature there was little difference between the soothsayer, the poet and the madman (Al-Tur 52:29). Some suggest that by AD 600 this concept of the poet had disappeared and to be described as majnun did not mean one was affected by the jinn but the modern meaning of ‘mad,’ However, the poet or sha’ir was etymologically the one who was aware ‘the knower’ who had insight into matters beyond the knowledge of ordinary men.

The utterances of the soothsayers which were rhythmic but not in a fixed metre were assonanced but not always exactly rhymed are said to be in saj, which is distinct from both poetry and prose. While the whole of the Quran is often said to be in saj because of the assonance’s at the end of the verses it is not universally the case throughout with considerable differences with the soothsayers.

Muhammad more accepting of poetry

Despite despising the poets in the early part of his mission they rose in his opinion after Labid and Hassan accepted Islam. They were approved along with other poets like Ka’ab b. Malik and ‘Abdullah b. Rawaha who then used their skills in the cause of Islam. It is related that Labid posted his poem ‘Know that everything is vanity but God’ in the Ka’aba but withdrew it and accepted Islam when he heard the first verses of Surah al-Baqqarah. Later, Muhammad according to Abu Huraya, complemented Labid however on his poetry saying: The truest word uttered by a poet is the word of Labid, ‘Is not everything, besides God, vain.’ It is further recorded in Bukhari that according to Ubayy b. Ka’b Muhammad said “There is wisdom in poetry.” Hassan son of Sabit was also a celebrated poet and when fighting the Banu Quraizah Muhammad exhorted Hassan by saying, “ O Hassan ibn Sabit, abuse the infidels in your verse, for verily Gabriel helps you!” (Mishkat, book 22, chapter 9 part 1).

Several pious Muslim poets were employed by Muhammad to counter the satire of the unbelieving poets. Muhammad is reported as saying: ‘Ply them with satires, for they wound more deeply than arrows’ (Al-Beidawi). The poetical contests were subsequently suppressed by Muhammad, because they offered the opportunity for discussion which might prove unfavourable to his rising claims.

The Oaths

The oaths are part of the poetic scene. They often appear mysterious and so cryptic as to be unintelligible; presumably the meaning was understood by the original audience. We provide two examples are as follows: 1) “By the break of Day; By the Nights twice five; By the even and odd; And by the Night when it passeth away” (Al-Fajr 89:1-4). 2) This example seems to be clearer as it contrasts elements in nature (the sun and moon, day and night, heaven and earth) – this is then contrasted with the one who purifies his soul and the one who corrupts it : “By the Sun and his (glorious) splendour; By the Moon as she follows him; By the Day as it shows up (the Sun’s) glory; By the Night as it conceals it; By the Firmament and its (wonderful) structure; By the Earth and its (wide) expanse: By the soul, and the proportion and order given to it; And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; Truly he succeeds that purifies it, And he fails that corrupts it!” (Ash-Shams 91:1-10)

The commentators sought to explain these confusing oaths. In reference to At-Tin 95:1 “By the Fig and the Olive” the commentators Ibn ‘Abbas and Husain say that the fig and the olive stand for two hills near Mecca, Tina and Zita, famed for their trees or for the mosques of Mecca and Damascus. Baidawi and Zamakhshari say they stand for what is nourishing and wholesome. A more fanciful suggestion comes from Maulavi Muhammad ‘Ali who says the fig represents Judaism, now passed away for Christ said to the barren fig tree (Matthew 21:19) “Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward and forever.” The olive stands for Islam, for as the olive produces oil for light, so Islam is the light of the nations.

Quite why Allah had to swear by any other than himself in itself is mystifying apart from the thought that Muhammad wanted in the early stages of his career to make conciliatory gestures to the Meccans by pointing out their privileged status. Certainly, this oath style seems to be less frequent in later revelations. Passages occur where a single oath comes at the beginning of a surah but in the Medinan period oaths hardly appear at all. The familiarity of an oath can be seen in At-Tur 52:1-6 where Allah assures the Qurraish that punishment would descend and confirms it with an oath: “By the Mount; By a Decree inscribed In a Scroll unfolded; By the much-frequented Fane; By the Canopy Raised High; And by the Ocean filled with Swell” (At-Tur 52:1-6). Here the ‘the mountain’ could be a place loved and honoured by the Meccan Arabs and therefore appealed to, or it may refer to Mount Sinai; the ‘scroll unfolded’ is either the book where all men’s actions are recorded or the book of God’s decrees or the law of Moses which was declared at Sinai or even the Quran itself; the ‘frequent fane’ (the frequented house), is generally thought to be the Ka’aba (even while it had 360 idols in it).

The ‘pure Arabic’ of the Quran

The revelation is said to be in ‘a clear Arabic tongue’ ((16:103; 26:195). The assertion is made by later Muslim scholars that the language of the Quran was the purest variety of Arabic; such language is a theological dogma rather than a linguistic theory.

It is generally agreed that the pre-Islamic Arabic used to compose poetry was not a dialect of any tribe or tribes but a language understood by all tribes. Many Muslims assume that since Muhammad was of the Quarraish tribe they must have recited the Quran according to the dialect of the Quarraish thus assuming that this was the language of Arabic poetry. It is likely that the Quran was a Meccan variant of the literary language.

The dogma of a ‘pure language’ meant that many Muslims were unwilling to admit that any vocabulary of the Quran had been borrowed from other languages. However, As-Suyuti (d. 1505) and ‘Abd-ar-Rahman al-Tha’alibi (d.1468) held that as a result of the Arabs foreign contacts various non-Arabic words had been incorporated into Arabic but had been arabicised so it was still true that the Quran was in a clear Arabic tongue. The wider knowledge now possessed of the languages and dialects used in pre-Islamic times in the countries surrounding Arabia has made it possible to trace the provenance of most of these words with a degree of accuracy. Arthur Jeffery in his ‘The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran’ lists 275 words, other than proper names, which have been regarded as foreign. About three-quarters of these words have been shown to have been in use in Arabic before the time of Muhammad, and many had become regular Arabic words.