Literary Forms and Style

Literary Forms and Style


The Qur'an is the revelation from Allah for the guidance of mankind and not poetry or literature. Nevertheless it is expressed verbally and in written form, and hence its literary forms and style may be considered here briefly.

Broadly speaking there are two main literary forms:

By prose is meant a way of expression close to the everyday spoken language, and distinct from poetry insofar as it lacks any conspicuous artifice of rhythm and rhyme.

The Qur'an is not Poetry

Not only European orientalists have described some passages of the Qur'an as more 'poetic' than others: the opponents of Mu4ammad had already used this argument, accusing him of being a poet or a soothsayer. This is refuted by the Qur'an itself:

'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-Qur'an 69: 40-43).

The accusations against Muhammad refuted in the above passage are based on the usage of a particular style, employed in the Qur'an, which is said to be like saj' or close to it.

The word saj' is usually translated as 'rhymed prose', i.e. a literary form with some emphasis on rhythm and rhyme, but distinct from poetry. Saj' is not really as sophisticated as poetry, but has been employed by Arab poets, and is the best known of the pre-Islamic Arab prosodies. It is distinct from poetry in its lack of metre, i.e. it has no consistent rhythmic pattern, and it shares with poetry the element of rhyme, [Called fasila ( pl. fawasil) when used for the Qur'an] though in many cases somewhat irregularly employed.

The Difference between Literature and the Qur'an

Ibn Khaldun (d. 809H/1406), the well-known author of the muqaddima pointed out in a passage on the literature of the Arabs the difference between literature and the Qur'an in general and between saj' and the Qur'an in particular:

'It should be known that the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. One of them is rhymed poetry ... The other branch is prose, that is, non-metrical speech ... The Qur'an is in prose. However, it does not belong in either of the two categories. It can neither be called straight prose nor rhymed prose. It is divided into verses. One reaches breaks where taste tells one that the speech stops. It is then resumed and "repeated" in the next verse. (Rhyme) letters, which would make that (type of speech) rhymed prose are not obligatory, nor do rhymes (as used in poetry) occur. This situation is what is meant by the verse of the Qur'an:

'God revealed the best story, a book harmoniously arranged with repeated verses ...' (Al-Qur'an 39: 23). [Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddima, Princeton, 1967, Vol. 3, p.368; Ibn Khaldun: Muqaddima, Cairo, n.d., p.424.]


A good example for a saj'-like passage in the Qur'an would be Sura al-ikhlas (112: 14). It is somewhat irregular in its rhythm, and it has a rhyme ending with the syllable ad:

Qul huwa llahu ahad Say: He is God the One and Only
Alahus samad God the Eternal, Absolute
Lam yalid wa lam
He begetteth not nor is He
wa lam yakun lahu
kufuwan ahad
And there is none
like unto Him.


Of the many passages more like plain prose, although not quite identical to it, as the kind of end-rhyme indicates, the following may serve as an example:

'Inna auhaina ilaika kama
auhaina ila nuhin wa nabiyina
min ba'dihi wa auhaina ila
ibrahima wa isma'ila wa
ishaqa wa ya'quba
wa-l-asbati wa 'isa wa ayyuba
wa yunusa wa haruna wa
sulaimana wa ataina dawuda
zabura. Wa rusulan qad
qasasnahum 'alaika min
qablu wa rusulan lam
naqsushum 'alaika wa
kallama llahu musa taklima.
Rusulan mubashshirina wa
mundhirina li'alla yakuna
li-nnasi 'ala llahi hujjatun
ba'dar rusuli wa kana llahu
'azizan hakima (Al-Qur'an 4: 163-165).
We have sent thee inspiration
as We sent it to Noah and the
messengers after him: We sent
inspiration to Abraham,
Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the
tribes, to Jesus, Job, Jonah,
Aaron, and Solomon, and to
David we gave the Psalms. Of
some apostles We have already
told thee the story, of others
We have not. And to Moses
God direct spoke. APostles
who gave good news as well as
warning that mankind after
(the coming) of the apostles
should have no plea against
God; for God is exalted in
power, wise.