Michel Cuypers and Abdur-Rahman Abou Almajd discuss The Composition of the Qur'an.
We have a fresh opportunity to reflect about The Composition of the Qur'an
At this point Professor Michel Cuypers is going to talk about his views of the Composition of the Qur'an.
He has lived dozen years in Iran where he obtained a PhD in Persian literature at the University of Tehran and worked at the University Press of Iran. He was one of the co-founders of Luqmân, a journal of iranology, then he left Iran in 1986 and, after studying Arabic, he became a researcher for the IDEO, in Cairo where he works on the rhetoric analysis of the Qur’an.
You can find here his bibliography, an example of rhetoric analysis applied to the Fatiha, as well as surat al-Mâ’ida. His bibliography is also available.
In 2007, he published Le Festin. Une lecture de la sourate al-Mâ’ida, Collection «Rhétorique Sémitique» n°3, Paris, Lethielleux, 2007, 453 pp. Read more (in French)... In 2009, this book was granted the "World Prize for the Book of the Year", awarded by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance of the Republic of Iran as "one of the best new works in the field of Islamic studies".
In March 2012, he published La Composition du Coran. Nazm al-Qur’ân, Rhétorique sémitique, ed. Gabalda, Paris (200 pp.), a theoretical book in which he explains the application of Semitic rhetoric to the Qur’an.
Q: First of all I wonder what made you focus on the Qur’an?
MC: Living in Egypt, a Muslim country, I wanted to know the Qur’an better in order to understand the people with whom I live, their religion and the Sacred Book which is the basis of all their religious culture. And since I had previously studied Persian literature, and had done a thesis using modern methods of structural analysis, I thought about studying the Qur’an from the perspective of its structure. Many think this is a book that lacks structure and consistency. I wanted to see if using modern methods of literary analysis could prove the contrary.
Q: You apply recent methods of rhetorical textual studies to the analysis of the Qur'an, Could you elaborate on the Question of the coherence of the Qur'anic Text?
MC: My first application of modern structural analysis (I think especially of the theories of Roland Barth, Tzvetan Todorov and Gérard Genette) did not give me satisfactory results. It was then that I came upon the work of Roland Meynet, a Jesuit professor of biblical exegesis at the Gregorian University in Rome, who has theorized a method of analysis of the Biblical texts, primarily based on a set of symmetries : parallelism (AB / A'B '), mirror composition (AB / B'A'), and concentric compositions (AB / X / B'A '). I applied his method in all its complexity to the Qur’anic text, and I quickly found it possible to show that the suras that seemed fragmented are actually cleverly constructed. Despite appearances, there is no inconsistency in the Qur’an, but a real coherence. With R. Meynet, we gave the system the name of "Semitic rhetoric" since it applied equally to the Hebrew texts of the Bible and the Arabic texts of the Qur’an. That made it possible to distinguish this rhetoric from the very different Greek rhetoric. Instead of making connections between symmetrical literary units, Greek rhetoric texts are composed in a more linear manner, as a progression from an introduction, going through a continuous logical development to a conclusion. This method of composition, inherited from the Greeks, is so familiar for us that it has become difficult to us to enter into the logic of Semitic texts. That's why they seem inconsistent, when they are really not.
Q: No doubt you have achieved a systematic and organized reading of the Qur'an text that is in absolute accordance with the Islamic faith, a task that has never before been accomplished. I wonder how you see two Characteristics of Qur'anic Rhetoric through Binarity and Parataxis.
MC: I borrowed this expression from R. Meynet, who forged it for Biblical rhetoric, but it works just as well for the Qur’an and other ancient Semitic texts. Binarity refers first to all forms of symmetry, as described above, but it also refers to a taste for dual use and for repetitions in pairs (eg Sura 55, al-Raḥmān) or as an expression of a reality by couples (eg the divine names and attributes). Parataxis is mostly a grammatical fact: the sentences are juxtaposed without conjunction, or simply by the conjunction "and" (wa, fa), with no logical explanation (cause or consequence, eg.). But it also concerns the iltifāt, well-known in Qur'anic exegesis: the jump from one grammatical person to another for a same referent. We can extend it to the jump from one literary unit to another without transition, so characteristic of Qur'anic style.
Q: Well, you quickly found it possible to show that the suras that seemed fragmented are actually cleverly constructed. Despite appearances, there is no inconsistency in the Qur’an, but a real coherence, Could you elaborate on that, please?
MC: Let us taken the example of Sura 85, The Constellations. Proponents of historical criticism such as Régis Blachère, see a composite text, made of fragments from different times, simply juxtaposed without apparent logical relations. But according to rhetorical analysis, the sura has eight textual units arranged in concentric or ring composition, as follows:
A 1 By the sky holding constellations ! 2 By the promised day! 3 By the witness and what is witnessed!
B 4 Slain the fellow of al-Ukhdûd, 5 of the fire fed with fuel, 6 when they sit by it, 7 of what they did with the believers, witnessed.
C 8 Their only grievance against them was their faith in God, the Mighty, the Praiseworthy, 9a to whom are the heavens and the earth. b And God is over all things witness.
D 10a Verily, those who draw into temptation the believers, men and women, b and do not repent, c for them will be the penalty of Hell d and for them will be the penalty of burning.
D’ 11a Verily, those who believe b and do righteous deeds, c for them will be the Gardens d beneath which rivers flow: e that is the great success.
C’ 12 Verily, the onset of your Lord is violent. 13 Verily, it is He who originates and restores. 14 And it is He the Forgiving, the Loving, 15 Lord of the throne, the Glorious, 16 the Doer of what He wants.
B’ 17 Has there come to you the story of the hosts, 18 of Pharaoh and Thamūd ?
A’ 19 Nay, those who disbelieve in denial, 20 God is surrounding from behind them. 21 Nay, this is a glorious Qur’ān, 22 on a Tablet preserved.
If someone has the impression of dislocation in this sura, it is because he reads it linearly. Reading it in this way, one does not understand the succession of the ideas. They actually do not follow a linear progressive sequence ABCDEFGH, but an order ABCD / D’C'B'A'. Not only do the ideas seem to follow in disorder, but even seem to jump suddenly from one idea to another, without transition (by parataxis or iltifāt). Only through a careful study of the text can one find the textual clues that reveal a sharp circular structure of binary matches.
The central DD’ pieces preclude the fate of the persecutors of believers for Gehenna (10), and of the believers for the Paradise (11).
Correspondences in pieces CC' (8-9 , 12-16 ) are: divine titles cited in pairs, “the Mighty, Worthy of praise” ( 8) / “the Forgiving , the Loving” ( 14); synonymous “to whom are...” , al- Ladhī la- hu (9a) / “Master (possessor) of...”, Dhū (15 ), followed each time by a royal prerogative “Kingship”( 9a) / “the Throne”( 15); the last members (9b and 16 ) mention the absolute activity of the divine Judge, in the order of knowledge (9b) and of power (16): God is “a witness of all things” (9b) / “executor of what He wills” (16).
The correspondence of pieces BB' (4-7 and 17-18) are: both have the rhyme -ūd. “People of al- Ukhdūd” (4-5) matches “armies of Pharaoh and Thamūd "(17-18). Pharaoh (= Egypt) and Thamūd are types of rebel cities, punished by God, often cited as such in the Qur'an. By symmetry, the “fellow of al-Ukhdūd” also represents a rebellious population punished by God.
Correspondences in the outer pieces AA' (1-3 and 19-22) are: begun in "heaven" with its constellations (1), the sura ends in heaven with the celestial archetypes of the Qur'an and the Tablet (21-22). (See M. Cuypers, Une Apocalypse coranique, pp. 101-103).
The interpretation of the text will follow the matches between the text units indicated by these textual clues. Thus rhetorical analysis provides a contextual interpretation of verses, from the structure of the text.
Q: I remember Raymond Farrin told me a week ago, that he was surprised to find that many Orientalists also criticize the Qur’an for a supposed lack of structure. Following the work of researchers such as Michel Cuypers and Mustansir Mir, who have discovered symmetrical patterns in parts of the Qur’an, I proceeded to look for a similar structural logic in the Qur’an as a whole, I wanted to know what you have discovered symmetrical patterns in parts of the Qur’an.
MC: After having gradually analyzed each of its parts, I came to the conclusion that Sura Al-Mā’ida was built up in two sections, each consisting of three sub- sections, arranged in a mirror composition. The outer sub-sections (A1-A2; B3) deal with entering the covenant: of the believers, who have entered (A1), of the Jews and Christians who refuse to enter (A2), and of the Christians who have entered or are invited to enter (B3). The median sub-sections (A3-A4; B2) have a law-giving nature. The sub-sections next to one another (A5 and B1) deal with the relationships between the People of the Book and Islam.
First sub-section: Entering the covenant
Sequence A1: The completion of the covenant in Islam 1-11
Sequence A2: The Jews and Christians refuse to enter the covenant 12-26
Second sub-section: On justice in the Muslim city
Sequence A3: Crimes and punishment 27-40
Sequence A4 : Muhammad, judge of Jews and Christians 41-50
Sequence A5: Status of Muslims and the People of the Book 51-71
Sequence B1: Call to Christians to convert 72-86
Sequence B2: A legislative code for the community of believers 87-108
Sequence B3: Jesus’ and the apostles’ profession of monotheistic faith 109-120
Elsewhere I have shown how the Sura Yūsuf is also built up in mirror composition. But unlike R. Farrin, I still do not see how the whole Qur’an is built. But there is good reason to think it has a symmetrical composition.
Q: Surly you read many books in Nazam Al Qur'an, I wonder which of them impressed you most. The Composition of the Qur'an provides a systematic presentation of the writing processes (or rhetoric) and argues that there is indeed a coherence to the Qur'anic text, Could you elaborate on the Levels of Composition?
MC: I was particularly interested in the book of al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 386/996), Bayan i‘jāz al-Qur'ān, some chapters of Zarkashī’s (d. 794 / 1391) Burhān fī ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān, reproduced in part by Suyūṭī (d. 911/1505). There are also some interesting notations in tafsīrs, including Rāzī (d. 606/1209) and Biqā‘ī (d. 885/1480). They show for example how the end of a sura is linked to the beginning of the next sura, or how the beginning and end of a surah match. But it is Sa‘īd Ḥawwā (d. 1989), who was the first among the exegetes of the Qur'an to show that the text of a sura can be cut into four textual levels, in descending order: the part (qism), the piece (maqṭa’), the paragraph (faqra) and the group (majmū‘a). His intuition is correct, but he did not elaborate his theory enough: in fact, in a long text, there may be more levels, as many as eleven. In Semitic rhetoric one can distinguish the following levels: the term (a word), the member (a phrase), the segment (including one to three members, never more), the piece (including one to three segments), the part (including one to three pieces), the passage (several parts), the sequence (several passages), the section (several sequences), and finally the book. Sometimes being added subparts and sub-sequences, which can make a total of eleven levels for long texts.
Q: Do you want to say that Muslim scientists al-Khaṭṭābī in his Bayan i‘jāz al-Qur'ān, and Zarkashī’s in his Burhān fī ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān which reproduced in part by Suyūṭī .and Rāzī (d. 606/1209) and Biqā‘ī in several centuries earlier, with the result that their ideas and writings influenced not only their own but other societies. Roland Meynet’s project in uncannily reflected ideas about modern structural analysis that al-Khaṭṭābī and Zarkashī had articulated in their works several centuries earlier?
MC: As I explained in the appendix of my book The Banquet (pp. 491-511), Meynet’s theory has its roots in a long line of biblical scholars that span three centuries, including major names Lowth (18th c.), Boys and Jebb (19th c.) , and Lund (20th c.). His research is totally independent of the ancient Muslim scholars. My own research has its origin in Meynet’s intuitions. But of course afterwards I wanted to see if there was any precedent of rhetorical analysis in the Islamic exegetical culture. I actually found some elements by these scholars that I mentioned. But there are others great scholars, including Bāqillānī, Jurjānī. However, I found only partial notations which do not form a system. Even Jurjānī has not exceeded the analysis of small structures, such as the phrase or verse. I have not found in his Dalā’il al-i‘jāz fī l-Qur’ān any analysis of discourse as such.
Q: Could you give us an example to prove the Center of Concentric Composition?
MC: The best example of a center, in a short text, is given by the Fātiḥa (transl. M. A. S. Abdel Haleem)
= 1 In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy
– 2 Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,
= 3 the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,
– 4 Master of the Day of Judgement.
* 5a It is You we worship;
* b it is You we ask for help.
+ 6 Guide us to the straight path:
+ 7a the path of those You have blessed,
– b those who incur no anger
– c and who have not gone astray
The sura is composed of three pieces: two pieces, each containing two segments of two members surround a central bimembre segment The center is often explanatory of the entire structure. It is also often a turning point. Here, the first member of the central segment refers to what is above it, which is all a prayer of adoration and the second member announces what follows it which is entirely a prayer request for help.
Q: What would you show in the Work of Analysis and Re-Writing?
MC: In the chapter on “The Work of Analysis and Rewriting”, I give a series of general principles for the work of analysis, such as working on the original language of the text, so on Arabic for the Qur'an, following the order of the text, being assured of a division of the text only when all levels have been investigated, starting the analysis by the lowest levels to rise gradually to the highest, etc. Rewriting shows concretely how to compose text tables at all levels, highlighting the significant connections that serve as indicators of composition. This system has been established by R. Meynet, and it is in the best interests of all those who want to work according to Semitic rhetoric in the Qur'an to follow the same processes. In this way the reader will not be lost in passing from one author to another; all will be using the same visual techniques.
In the example given above of the Fātiḥa, the central piece is clearly distinguished from the two outer pieces by a dotted line. In the outer pieces, bimembres segments are separated by a blank line. The words that are repeated (God , the Lord of Mercy , the Giver of Mercy , It is You, the path) , which are of similar meaning (Lord of the Worlds , Master of the Day of Judgement) , synonyms (both negations in 7b and c members) or complementary (we worship , we ask for help) are aligned, to the extent that this is possible, and underlined by identical characters (italic, bold). The numbers of members are preceded by a typographical sign for even greater emphasis on the relationship between the members. All these process help the reader to easily visualize the structure of the text, in all its details.
– c and who have not gone astray
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much, professor Cuypers.
Michel Cuypers: It’s a pleasure and an honor for me to give this interview for Alukah.
It seems the structural analysis of the kind shown here has not been able to resolve the old question that what is the status of Bismillah.The above analysis of shows Michel Cuypers found Bismillah(1 In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy) being integral part of sura Fātiḥa. Bismillah is shown as verse #1 of Fātiḥa.However professor Raymond Farrin [in page 3 his book: Structure and Qur'anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam's Holy Text (Islamic Encounter Series) Paperback – September 16, 2014] stated "we note the inconsistency of counting the invocation(Bismillah) as verse here when it is not counted as one elsewhere. Also, structurally it does not contribute to the chapter; the verse structure is complete without it. Here, then, is what may rightly be considered the first verse of the Qur'an: 1 Praise be to God, Lord of all people(الْحَمْدُ لِلَّـهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ)" It shows professor Raymond Farrin does not consider Bismillah a verse of the Qur'an yet he shows a structure on page 6. His structure is entirely different. He takes Alhamdolillah first verse of Fatiha. He shows how the first three verses constitute a small ring then the fouth verse إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ has two parts. The last two verse 5-6 then constitute a second ring.
Please write: COMMENT in this box to verify that you are human