On Metaphor

In the Arabic language, the study of rhetoric, ʻilm al-balāgha, is fascinating.

photo-1444703686981-a3abbc4d4fe3

There are verses in the Qur’an that take metaphor, language and philosophy and lyrically blend them all together in one, startling space.

There is a beautiful type of extended metaphor in the Qur’an, and this particular verse (below) I like to think about when it comes to the death of a loved one, and the guilt over our part in their death:

 

إِنَّمَا مَثَلُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا كَمَاء أَنزَلْنَاهُ مِنَ السَّمَاء فَاخْتَلَطَ بِهِ نَبَاتُ الأَرْضِ مِمَّا يَأْكُلُ النَّاسُ وَالأَنْعَامُ حَتَّىَ إِذَا أَخَذَتِ الأَرْضُ زُخْرُفَهَا وَازَّيَّنَتْ وَظَنَّ أَهْلُهَا أَنَّهُمْ قَادِرُونَ عَلَيْهَآ أَتَاهَا أَمْرُنَا لَيْلاً أَوْ نَهَارًا فَجَعَلْنَاهَا حَصِيدًا كَأَن لَّمْ تَغْنَ بِالأَمْسِ كَذَلِكَ نُفَصِّلُ الآيَاتِ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ (10:24)  f

 

  • The parable of the life of this world is but that of rain which We send down from the sky, and which is absorbed by the plants of the earth [37]whereof men and animals draw nourishment, until – when the earth has assumed its artful adornment and has been embellished, and they who dwell on it believe that they have gained mastery over it[38] – there comes down upon it Our judgment, by night or by day, and We cause it to become [like] a field mown down, as if there had been no yesterday. [39] Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think – 10:24 (Asad)

 

I went to a baby’s funeral yesterday, and I thought hard about this metaphor. As human beings, we accomplish incredible things, death-defying acts, we are capable of breathtaking architecture, and tremendous charity, but when a baby dies, when we lose a member of our human family, we are utterly helpless. We are reminded that, though we may believe we have ‘mastery’ over everything, we do not create life, nor do have any hope in demanding our own immortality.

Every farmer who prays for sunny days during hay making understands this helplessness, as do the doctors who must tell another young patient that they have stage 4 cancer. Every mother who loses her child feels her insignificance, just as the poet who has knowledge of Arabic feels upon reading the Qur’an, even one like Labid whose poem was written by scribes in gold ink.

When Umar (ra) asked Labid, the famous pre-Islamic poet who had embraced Islam, to recite for him some of his poetry, Labid began to recite the Qur’an. “This is not what I asked you,” Umar remonstrated. Labid replied: “Well, I have given up composing poetry after Allah gave me al-Baqarah and aal-Imraan.” (Narrated from Qurtubi)

Advertisements