Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 2): Verse 5.

By Sharif Randhawa

Chiastic Structures in Sūrat al-Kahf (Part 2): Verse 5

Let us look at the next āya, in translation: “They have no knowledge of it, neither their forefathers.  Dreadful is the word that comes out of their mouths.  They speak nothing but a lie.”  In translation, this might seem unnecessarily repetitious.  In the Arabic however, this āya has a very effective flow, sound, and rhetorical power.  Yet, this is even further underscored when one discerns how this āya is structured:

A.  مَّا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْم وَلَا لِآبَائِهِمٍْ

   B.  كَبُرَتْ كَلِمَةً

   B’. تَخْرُجُ مِنْ أَفْوَاهِهِمْ

A’. إِن يَقُولُون إِلَّا كَذِبًا

A.  They do not have any knowledge of it, neither their forefathers.

   B.  Dreadful is the saying

   B’. That comes out of their mouths.

A’.  They say nothing but a lie.

When A and A’ are read in relation to one other, they convey the point that asserting something without any basis in knowledge (A) is equivalent to lying (A’).  A similar lesson is found in a Prophetic ḥadīth, “It is enough of a lie that a man narrates everything he hears.”[1]  The issue of asserting things without knowledge, especially about God, is another common theme that runs throughout the sūra.

In B, the “saying” (كَلِمَةً) that “God has taken a son” is deemed “dreadful” (كَبُرَتْ).  In B’, its loathsome nature is fleshed out in intentionally graphic-sounding language: “that comes out their mouths” (تَخْرُجُ مِنْ أَفْوَاهِهِمْ).  This is more apparent in the Arabic.

The phonetics of this āya are also remarkable.  The consonant sounds (bā’, tā’,  khā’, qāf, kāf, lām, mīm) are exceedingly well coordinated in a way that produces tangible effects on the listener.  In “They do not have any knowledge of it, nor their forefathers” (مَّا لَهُم بِهِ مِنْ عِلْم وَلَا لِآبَائِهِمٍْ), the sounds bā’, lām, and mīm repeat and alternate in an impressive fashion.  In “Dreadful is the saying that comes out of their mouths,” the use of velar sounds (khā’ and kāf), tā’, jīm, and hamza produces a rough and graphic sound that reflects the condemnatory nature of the speech and evokes a subconscious sense of disgust in the recitor or listener.  Moreover, taken with the end of the preceding verse—“and to warn those who say ‘God has taken a son’” (وَيُنذِرَ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا اتَّخَذَ اللَّهُ وَلَدًا)—the passage exhibits phonetic consonance, with the repetition of the sounds tā’, khā’, dhāl, and qāf throughout.

The combination of structure, semantic coherence, and phonetic consonance makes this brief passage an incredible composition.  Rather than being repetitious, the different terms in the āyah add depth to each other, provide different variations on the same theme, and are rhetorically powerful.

[1] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, “Introduction,” #6, 8, 10.

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