By Sharif Randhawa
Over the next several posts I want to talk about one of the subjects that has fascinated me the most recently, namely chiasmi and ring compositions in the Qur’an. But first, let me explain what those are.
In Biblical studies (particularly of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament), the focus of most scholars over the last two centuries has been on historical and textual criticism: the historical context of the books of the Hebrew Bible, the dates of their composition, their authorship, how the stories developed and how they correlate with archaeological discoveries. Those are all fascinating and important subjects, but in recent decades there has emerged a greater focus on the literary study of the Bible: its poetics, literary devices, literary composition, and its narrative qualities.
Scholars with a literary focus have discerned that various biblical authors employed considerations of symmetry as major principles of composition. (The use of these compositional techniques has since been discerned in ancient Greek, Persian, Indian, and Chinese writings as well, and even in medieval and modern writings and oral literature) There are three major types of symmetrical composition, though they contain many subtypes. Each of these types, as we will see, are also important for the study of the Qur’an.
A parallelism follows a simple pattern of A B A’ B’. This is central to Hebrew poetry, such as the Psalms, but is also common in literature and rhetoric in all languages.
An example would be the beginning of Isaiah 2:4:
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples
The structure is:
In this example, typical of Hebrew poetry, the relationships between A (“shall judge”) and A’ (“shall arbitrate”) and between B (“the nations”) and B’ (“many peoples”) is that of synonymity, similarity, or close association. However, the relationship between the parallel terms does not have to be one of similarity. They could also be direct opposites, as in the following quote from Malcolm X:
A man who stands for nothing will fall for anything.
Here A (“stands”) and A’ (“falls”), and B (“nothing”) and B’ (“anything”), are opposites. The point is that A and A’ have to have some clear relationship, as well as B and B’, C and C’, and so on.
A simple example of a parallelism in the Qur’an would be 28:73:
وَمِن رَّحْمَتِهِ جَعَلَ لَكُمُ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ لِتَسْكُنُوا فِيهِ وَلِتَبْتَغُوا مِن فَضْلِهِ
And from His mercy He made for you
A. the night
B. and the day
A’. so that you may rest in it
B.’ and pursue from His bounty.
Sūra 91 (“The Sun”) opens with a complex divine oath comprised of a series of parallelisms:
وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا
وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا
وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا
وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا
وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا
By the sun and its brightness
By the moon when it follows it,
By the day when it displays it,
By the night when it veils it,
By sky and the One who built it,
By the earth and the One who spread it…
The chiasmus (pronounced kai-az-muhs; plural ‘chiasmi’) is sometimes also referred to as a “reverse parallelism.” This time, the terms are presented and then repeated in the reverseorder – A B B A. For example, in Matthew 19:30 Jesus says:
But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The chiasmus can also be mapped out like this:
A. But many who are first
B. will be last,
B.’ and the last
A.’ will be first.
An example in the Qur’an would be 6:95:
يُخْرِجُ الْحَيَّ مِنَ الْمَيِّتِ وَمُخْرِجُ الْمَيِّتِ مِنَ الْحَيِّ
A. He brings out the living
B. from the dead
B’. and brings out the dead
A’. from the living.
3. Ring Composition
While these terms are not always used with precise consistency, the word “chiasmus” is often used on a small scale, such as the sentence clause-level. However a much larger piece of writing, even a whole narrative or an entire book, may also constitute a chiastic structure.
The most interesting kind of chiastic structure is a ring composition. A ring composition (or ring structure) is a chiastic structure in which “a center connects the opposite sides of an inverted parallelism,” to quote one scholar. It therefore has the structure ABCAB. (Another definition of a ring composition is simply any chiastic structure beyond the clause-scale, so under this definition it could also have the pattern of, e.g., ABCCBA.) The most important parts of a ring composition are the beginning and end, which frame the ring, and the center, which draws the successive rings to a central statement or idea. Ring composition can occur on the scale of a single passage or an entire book.
Recent Qur’anic scholarship in French and English has observed that entire sūras of the Qur’an are ring compositions. An example of this is Sūra Yūsuf (Joseph):
A. Joseph’s dream (vv. 4-6)
B. The brothers’ plot against Joseph (vv. 7-22)
C. Potiphar’s wife’s attempt to seduce Joseph (vv. 23-29)
D . A similar attempt by Egyptian ladies (vv. 30-34)
E. Joseph’s imprisonment (vv. 35-42)
F. The king’s dream (vv. 43-44)
F’. The king’s dream interpreted (vv. 45-49)
E’. Joseph’s release from prison (v. 50)
D’. Confession of the Egyptian ladies (v. 51a)
C’. Confession of Potiphar’s wife (vv. 51b-57)
B’. The brothers learn their lesson (vv. 58-99)
A’. Fulfillment of Joseph’s dream (vv. 100-101)
In the next several posts, I will provide further examples of chiastic structures in the Qur’an and explain why are important (in shā’a ‘llāh).