Are the similitudes in the Quran incidents that took place?

Details of the Question

- Are the similitudes incidents that took place? Or, are they examples?
- ​There are stories and similitudes in the Quran. It is certain that the stories are incidents that took place.
- Are similitudes like that too? Or, are they given as examples?
- How are similitudes given in the Quran?
- What is the purpose of the similitudes?

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Since all of the incidents that took place and that will take place are in the endless knowledge of Allah Almighty, He will definitely mention those incidents by referring to them when He says “like…” or “the similitude of….”. Otherwise, they would be imaginary things; Alllah Almighty is free from it.

“The similitude of those who were charged with the (obligations of the) Mosaic Law, but who subsequently failed in those (obligations), is that of a donkey which carries huge tomes (but understands them not). Evil is the similitude of people who falsify the Signs of Allah: and Allah guides not people who do wrong.” (al-Jumua, 62/5) For instance, donkeys carrying books mentioned in the verse above is an incident that is repeated thousands of times. 

“Or (another similitude) is that of a rain-laden cloud from the sky: In it are zones of darkness, and thunder and lightning: They press their fingers in their ears to keep out the stunning thunder-clap, the while they are in terror of death. But Allah is ever round the rejecters of Faith.” (al-Baqara, 2/19) Similarly, the people caught in the rain mentioned in the verse above is an incident that is experienced thousands of times.

The phrase “amthal al-Quran (similitudes of the Quran)” is used in the methodology of tafsir and Quranic sciences for the similitudes in the Quran and the science dealing with them.

Amthal al-Quran is explained as follows:  “the meaning and the purposes of the verses being expressed in an impressive and formidable way and concisely.” (Manna‘ al-Qattan, p. 283)

Similitudes are present in all languages and cultures; it is seen that they are frequently used in the heavenly books before the Quran. It can be said that the wise statements of Hz. Luqman are among the oldest similitudes that are known. Similitudes were widespread among Arabs in the Era of Jahiliyya; they have an important place in the Arab language and literature. When the Arabs, who were advanced in rhetoric and oratory, were addressed by the Quran, the method of giving examples and similitude was used. As a matter of fact, the Prophet (pbuh) said that the Quran was sent down on seven aspects and that one of them was similitudes from which lessons need to be taken. (Abu Shama al-Maqdisi, p. 107) He himself also used similitudes in his talks.

Although there are some similarities between the similitudes in the Quran and the ones in the Arab literature and the hadiths in terms of words and meaning, the similitudes in the Quran have qualities that are peculiar to the Quran. The stories in the Quran are also like similitudes.   

In similitude, one thing is resembled to something else in one or more aspects in essence; this quality is clearly seen in the similitudes in the Quran.

- Unbelievers are likened to the deaf, dumb and blind because they do not believe in oneness despite so many evidences (for instance, see al-Baqara, 2/171; al-A‘raf, 7/64).
- Their deeds are likened to the ashes the wind blows furiously on a tempestuous day (Ibrahim, 14/18).
- Their deeds are likened to a mirage in sandy deserts and the depths of darkness in a vast deep ocean. (an-Nur, 24/39-40)

The worldly life is likened to the plants that become green after the rain and embellish the earth and then are scattered by the wind (Yunus, 10/24; al-Kahf, 18/45-46; al-Hadid, 57/20); the truth is resembled to the light and the water coming from the sky; the falsehood is likened to the darkness and the foam on the water (ar-Ra‘d, 13/16-17)

The similitudes in the Quran started to attract the attention of the scholars and literary people beginning from the first centuries of Islam, becoming a topic of a science called “amthal al-Qur’an” in the course of time. (Taşköprizade, II, 539-540; Kashfuz-Zunun, I, 168; II, 1086)

Imam Shafii regards it among the sciences that mujtahids have to know; Mawardi states in the introduction of his book called Amthal al-Quran that this science is one of the most important sciences of the Quran. (Suyuti, IV, 38; Keskin, p. 8)

In the Quran, mathal (similitude) is used in the following senses in general: 

1. Example, similarity. This is the most common meaning of mathal; it is explained that various similitudes are included in some verses. (For instance, see ar-ar-Ra’d, 13/17; Ibrahim, 14/24-26; ar-Rum, 30/58; az-Zumar, 39/27)

On the other hand, Allah states that He does not disdain to use the similitude of a mosquito or a weaker being in order to express the truth. (al-Baqara, 2/26)

2. State. The states of the previous nations, their denying attitudes and the misfortunes that hit them because of that are mentioned as similitudes. (al-Baqara, 2/214; al-A‘raf, 7/176; az-Zukhruf, 43/8)

3. Exemplary lesson. In the verses in which the stories and ends of some previous nations are narrated, similitude is used in that sense. (for instance, see az-Zukhruf 43/56, 59)

4. Quality, characteristic. Similitude shows the qualities of something in many verses. When the similitude of Paradise, which is promised to pious people, is narrated, it is stated that rivers flow in it and that its fruits and shade is perpetual. (ar-Ra’d 13/35; see also Muhammad 47/15)

“To those who believe not in the Hereafter, applies the similitude of evil: to Allah applies the highest similitude.” (an-Nahl, 16/60) The similitudes mentioned in the verse above are in the sense of “qualities” (see also al-An‘am, 6/122; ar-Rum, 30/27; al-Fath, 48/29)

It is possible to qualify the similitudes in the Quran in various ways.

1. Those in the form of simple or combined similitudes.

In simple similitude, only one aspect of the similitude is in question. The examples of simple similitude are as follows: likening the blind to the ignorant, darkness to aberration, light to guidance. (ar-Ra’d, 13/16; Fatir, 35/19)

In combined similitude, more than one aspect of the similitude is in question. For instance, a grain of corn is said to grow seven ears, and each ear grows 100 ears, reaching a total of 700 ears (al-Baqara, 2/261); a deed of charity done sincerely is rewarded many times by Allah.

2. Those perceived by sense organs or mind.

Likening Hz. Adam’s being created from soil to Hz. Isa’s being created without a father (Aal-i Imran, 3/59), fear of Allah to fearing a person (an-Nisa, 4/77), the state of the spider to the state of those who take protectors other than Allah (al-Ankabut, 29/41), the joy of the farmers due to rain and plants becoming green and then their withering, growing yellow, becoming dry and crumbling away to the life of this world, which is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying, (in rivalry), riches and children (al-Hadid, 57/20) are that kind of similitudes.

3. Those based on the incidents in the world or the invisible realms.

A person who does charity to show off is likened to a farmer who sows seeds on a hard, barren rock, on which there is a little soil and whose seeds are driven away by heavy rain and who gives up hope (al-Baqara, 2/264); this state which is seen in nature from time to time is used as a similitude to describe the state of a person who does charity to show off and who cannot get any thawabs. (al-Baqara, 2/265)

On the other hand likening the oleander tree, which is the food of the people of Hell, and its bitter and stinking fruits to the heads of devils (as-Saaffat, 37/62-68; ad-Dukhan, 44/43-46; al-Waqia, 56/51-56) is a similitude that can be perceived only through imagination.

4. Those that are clear and hidden

In the first type, it is clearly stated what resembles what. There are a lot of similitudes like that in the Quran. (For instance, see al-Baqara, 2/17-20, 261; ar-Ra’d, 13/17; al-Ankabut, 29/41; al-Hujurat, 49/12)

Hidden, symbolic and implicative similitudes are similitudes in terms of their meanings, not words. However, it is not stated they are similitudes for what. Those similitudes can be perceived by the people with strong mental powers and scientific sagacity. “From the land that is clean and good, by the will of its Cherisher, springs up produce, (rich) after its kind: but from the land that is bad, springs up nothing but that which is niggardly: thus do we explain the signs by various (symbols) to those who are grateful.”(al-A‘raf, 7/58) The similitude in the verse above is an example of hidden similitude.

A believer who accepts the truth and benefits from it is likened to a country whose land is clean and good and an unbeliever is likened to barren land. (see also Ibrahim, 14/24-27; an-Nur, 24/35)

On the other hand, it is stated that there are hidden similitudes in the verses that are in compliance with some proverbs and idioms in terms of their meanings, though not words. For instance, it is stated that the verse “whoever works evil, will be requited accordingly” (an-Nisa, 4/123) is in compliance with the proverb “as you sow, so shall you reap” and that the verse “For, if Thou dost leave (any of) them, they will but mislead Thy devotees, and they will breed none but wicked ungrateful ones” (Nuh, 71/27) is in compliance with the proverb “A snake will give birth to a snake.” (Taşköprizade, II, 539-540)

Some similitudes in the Quran may have only one purpose while others may have more than one. The main ones are as follows:

1. To give information, to teach. The houris with big eyes in Paradise are likened to pearls (al-Waqia, 56/22-23), youths of perpetual freshness called “wildan” are likened to scattered pearls (al-Insan, 76/19); they are described like that to believers. Along with the purpose of teaching, the purpose of encouraging them is present here (see also al-A‘raf, 7/175-177; Hud, 11/24; ar-Ra’d, 13/17)

2. Persuasion. The similitudes that are given in order to make the addressee accept an idea or fact are sometimes like evidences; they sometimes enable the addressee to make a comparison and to reach a fact by thinking. The similitudes used in explaining the belief of oneness are like that in general.   

For instance, in an answer to those who deny that Allah can revive people after they die, it is mentioned as a similitude that both people and the earth and the sky were created by Allah for the first time. (an-Nahl, 16/73-76; al-Anbiya, 21/104; ar-Rum, 30/28; Yasin, 36/77-82; see also an-Nahl 16/71-72; az-Zumar, 39/29)

3. Encouraging or deterring. It is seen that some similitudes encourage people to do good and useful things while others deter people from doing bad and harmful things. For instance, a goodly word is likened to a goodly tree whose root is firmly fixed and whose branches reach the heavens and an evil word is likened to an evil tree that is torn up by the root from the surface of the earth and that has no stability. (Ibrahim, 14/24-26; see also an-Nahl, 16/91-92; al-Ankabut, 29/41-43)

4. Education. The education of man by taking into account his feelings like hope, desire, fear and anxiety and his maturation spiritually have an important place in similitudes; his desire to gain thawabs is encouraged and he is urged to do charity in the way of Allah. Something that a believer gives away in the way of Allah is like a grain of corn. Seven ears come out of it and each ear gives a hundred ears. Allah grants rewards and thawabs to His slaves He wishes like that. (al-Baqara, 2/261-266; see also an-Nahl, 16/112-113; al-Kahf, 18/32-44; Fatir, 35/19-22; Yasin, 36/13-30)

5. Praising or criticizing, honoring or despising. When the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh) are described, their similitudes in the Torah and Gospel are mentioned. (al-Fath, 48/29)

The state of the Sons of Israel who read the Torah but do not act accordingly is likened to a donkey that carries huge tomes. (al-Jumu‘a, 62/5)

The aim is honoring when a goodly word is likened to a goodly tree (Ibrahim 14/24-25), and the aim is despising in the similitudes about the temporariness of the worldly life. (Yunus, 10/24; al-Kahf, 18/45-46; al-Hadid, 57/20)

6. Meditation. In similitudes, the addressees are asked to meditate on the issue and to take the necessary lessons from the similitudes; this issue is mentioned clearly in many places where the aims of the similitudes are mentioned: 

“And such are the Parables We set forth for mankind, but only those understand them who have knowledge.” (al-Ankabut, 29/43).

“...Such are the similitudes which We propound to men, that they may reflect.” (al-Hashr, 59/21; see also az-Zumar, 39/27)

7. Giving examples. A similitude is sometimes mentioned as an example in the explanation of an issue or idea and it replaces the explanations to be made. When an unbeliever is described, a blind person is given as an example and what an unbeliever does is likened to a mirage. (an-Nur, 24/39-40)

8. Maintaining good manners and modesty. Instead of clear expressions, other words that can help understanding are used in the Quran in order to maintain modesty and similitudes are given. For instance, sexual intercourse is meant by the word “approaching” and it is stated that each spouse is a “garment” for each other. (al-Baqara, 2/187)

Most of the similitudes in the Quran are related to the issues of creed, especially oneness; there are also similitudes related to ethical issues. (see TDV İslam Ansiklopedisi, Mathal item)

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