Verbal Idioms in the Qur’an
From a literary perspective, the term “verbal idioms” and its importance in Quranic rhetoric is explained. Idiomatic expressions such as “coolness of the eyes,” “lowering your wings of humility,” and untie the knot” are presented and explained
As a literary device, verbal idioms are used to strike comparisons. The permanence of the Mushrikeen’s rejection of Islam is likened to a building foundation. This “tying of the rope,” is the final deal breaker signifying a point of no return.
Language is dynamic – sometimes it is impossible to do word-by-word translation of certain phrases without losing their actual meaning. This is particularly true for figures of speech. Someone who asks me, “What’s up?” isn’t asking me in a literally sense – the person is asking how I am, not what’s up there over your head? Similarly, Ancient Arabic has figures of speech and the Qur’an uses them too. So in order for us to understand the actual meaning of the Ayat, we have to know how these idioms were used in ancient times.
- Tears of immense joy – There are 2 expressions in the Arab idioms: The eyes becoming cool, and the eyes becoming warm. “May Allah warm his eyes” is actually a curse which means may that person suffer so much sadness the he shed tears out of sorrow. Whereas “Cooling the eyes” is the opposite, to mean shedding tears out of happiness and joy.
- Finding refuge & relief – The Arabs when travelling in the desert would wrap their face as a protection from sandstorms. But they couldn’t afford to cover their eyes without losing their vision, so they would say “My eyes are becoming warm.” And when they finally found a cave, they would say “My eyes are becoming cool.”
- The word also means when something stays in one place. قرار
We find this figure of speech several times in the Qur’an:
1. [Surah Al-Furqan 25:74] “Our Lord! Bestow on us from our spouses and our offspring the coolness of the eyes…”
What this du’a means is that we ask from Allah for our spouses and children to be the coolness of our eyes from the outside storm. The outside world is full of stress, problems and difficulties, and our refuge and relief from that storm is our home. But sadly, how opposite is the state of our homes today? The storm isn’t happening outside of our homes, rather it’s happening inside. This du’a teaches us to ask from Allah for peace, tranquility and not just a happy home, but a home that makes us so happy that it makes us cry. What a beautiful du’a.
2. [Surah Ta-ha 20:40] “…So We restored you to your mother, that she might cool her eyes and she should not grieve…”
When Fir’aun’s soldiers were approaching, the mother of Musa a.s. put her baby (i.e. Musa) in the river to save him. She saw her baby floating away from her, and her heart became so deeply distraught and distressed, not knowing what would happen to him. So when she was finally reunited with her baby, by the will of Allah, she began to cry… And that cry was not a cry of sadness, it was out of immense happiness. This reunion between a mother and child is captured beautifully by this phrase in the Qur’an.
3. [Surah Al-Qasas 28:9] “And the wife of Fir’aun said: “A comfort [coolness] of the eye for me and for you. Kill him not, perhaps he may be of benefit to us, or we may adopt him as a son…”
Fir’aun’s wife didn’t have any place to turn to, except Allah s.w.t., because the police, government – in general everyone – was owned by Fir’aun. When she discovered Musa a.s. in the river, she picked him up, brought him to Fir’aun and said [paraphrasing]: “When I look at the baby, my eyes stay on him.” She couldn’t take her eyes away from Musa a.s.; she found her relief. Even Fir’aun, the same tyrant who ordered for a military campaign to kill thousands of babies, experienced the same and they ended up adopting Musa a.s.
4. This figure of speech is also found in hadith. Remember when Musa a.s. spoke directly to Allah s.w.t.? There can never, ever be anyone else more important and more beloved than our Rabb. So we know for sure that this is a memory that Musa a.s. will never, ever forget! But what did Allah s.w.t. command? Allah s.w.t. said to Musa a.s.:
Verily! I am Allah! None has the right to be worshipped but I, so worship Me, and perform As-Salat for My Remembrance.” [Surah Ta-ha 20:14]
The REAL way to remember Allah s.w.t. is through prayer. And our beloved Rasulallah s.a.w. said “The coolness of my eyes is in Salah.” Sunan an-Nasa’i | http://sunnah.com/nasai/36/2
Those who have a clean heart are more sensitive than others; it really hurts when someone speaks to them in a foul language. Our beloved Rasulallah s.a.w., the best of mankind, heard foul language, curses, allegations, being mocked at, being made fun of by the Quraish Every-Single-Day. But he s.a.w. never stopped, he still made da’wah to the same people continuously, and their hatred and aggressiveness only got worse each day. He s.a.w. was in this storm all the time, but when he enters Salah… that is when he found his relief. The coolness of his s.a.w. eyes is placed in the Salah. It completely changes our perspective what Salah should really mean to us.
When someone says that a person is “raising his wings” or “lowering his wings”, an imagery of a bird comes to mind. When a bird raises its wings, it means it’s about to fly off. And when it lowers its wings, then it’s about to come down and land. Obviously when the bird has wings, it has the ability to raise them anytime it wants. Yet this bird still chooses to lower them at times.
And lower unto them the wing of submission and humility through mercy [rahmah], and say: “My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.” [Surah Al-Israa’17:24]
This Ayah is about our relationship with our parents – that we should lower our wing of humility out of love and mercy towards them. What does this actually mean?
1. The bird can fly, but it chooses to stay down
As time goes by, as we get older, our parents get older too. But they don’t just get weaker, they sometimes become more sensitive and emotional. Perhaps some parents become more difficult to speak with; they become angrier or easily agitated. By now, we would have our own job, money, and family. We have a pair of strong wings which we can raise anytime we want.
But the lesson from this Ayah is this: Even though you have powerful wings, you need to learn to lower them when it comes to your parents. To act like the wings don’t exist. To refrain from saying hurtful things like, “You know dad, I’m a grown up now. I know more than you” We have to be humble with our parents. Remember: The bird can fly, but it CHOOSES to stay down.
2. Lowering the wing out of rahmah (love and mercy)
The word “rahmah” in this Ayah has 3 implications:
- When the bird was young, its parents would gather food and bring it to the chicks because they couldn’t survive on their own. Similarly, we were completely dependent on our parents too. They showed us love and care, they did everything for us. Now is the time we do the same for them. When we were little, WE made them weary didn’t we? They put up with us. Why can’t be do the same to them?
- Secondly, we ourselves should genuinely have love and care for our parents. A sign of humbleness in a person is in the way how he treats his parents.
- Thirdly, and the most powerful of them all is: If we want Allah’s Rahmah, we should show rahmah to our parents!
Do you see how birds would lower their wings over their nest to defend it from being attacked by predators? Their wings will be attacked, but the chicks are protected. Thus, this phrase also refers to the sacrifice of a parent for the children. But this Ayah is about the children sacrificing THEMSELVES for their parents. Our parents protected us – it’s time for us to protect them.
As we grow older, Allah s.w.t. reverses our roles and we find this reversal in the du’a in the last part of the Ayah:
“My Lord! Bestow on them Your Mercy as they did bring me up when I was young.” [Surah Al-Israa’17:24]
Ya Allah, show our parents love and care like how they showed us love and care when we were small.
Musa a.s. made the following du’a before he confronted Fir’aun:
“O my Lord! Open for me my chest (grant me self-confidence, contentment, and boldness). And ease my task for me. And loose [untie] the knot from my tongue. That they understand my speech.” [Surah Ta-Ha 20:25-28]
Imagine a string that is all jumbled up; we don’t know where it begins or where it ends. There might even be more than one string that got mixed-up together so they become confusing. The only way to make things clear is by untangling them. So “untie the knot from my tongue” in this Ayah mean:
1. To ask for clarity in speech
When we speak, sometimes we get our words mixed up. This is especially true when it comes to public speaking. We get really nervous, trip all over our words, and as a result our audience gets confused. So this du’a teaches us to ask from Allah s.w.t. for clarity in speech, one that has a clear beginning, middle and end like a clear straight line, just like how a string would look like when it’s not tangled. Furthermore, Musa a.s. had a stutter. When someone with a stutter gets nervous or angry, the stutter gets worse. So this beautiful du’a covers clarity both figuratively and literally.
2. To stay on focus
We see numerous times how smart politicians or TV hosts throw their opponents off in debates. Their opponent would be bombarded with questions after questions and attacked from all angles just so that he is thrown off and look bad in front all of the audience. Similarly, Fir’aun was a politician and Musa a.s. was commanded to speak to such a tyrant. If we read surah Ash-Shu’ara, we’ll learn that Fir’aun tried to do the same but he was defeated in his own court in front of his generals whereas Musa a.s. remain undeterred and stayed focus on his mission, as a result of this du’a.
A building is held up by its beams or pillars. Back in old times, the beams were held together by a really strong rope, where one beam would be literally tied to the other. The people would use a strong rope, then double it and twist it many times so that the bond becomes super strong.
In comparison to shoelaces which are only temporary knots, the tied-up ropes in construction must not come undone under any circumstances.
They are permanent and the word “Abrama” (أبرم) in the Arabic language literally means to tie something with a knot permanently. We find this word in the following Ayah:
Is it that they have firmly resolved (أَبْرَمُوا) to do something? Then, We have firmly resolved (مُبۡرِمُونَ). [Surah Az-Zukhruf 43:79]
1. Firm & final decision
Allah s.w.t. asked a rhetorical question to the Quraish who did shirk:
أَمْأَبْرَمُواأَمْرًاHave they tied the knot / made their final decision / completely set with regard to their decision that they will not accept Islam?
The Ayah is not talking about tying knots in a construction, but it’s about tying knots in their decision. Allah s.w.t. asked if they’ve made up their mind. If they’ve tied up their rope then…
Then We (Allah s.w.t.) have tied the rope too.
The Mushrikin have tied their knot because they refused to accept the Oneness of Allah and His Messenger s.a.w. Because of their refusal, He s.w.t. made them permanent that way. In other words, Allah s.w.t. will never seal anybody’s heart until they have completely made up their mind on their decision to reject the truth, and who knows better the inner depths of our hearts than Allah s.w.t.
2. Temporary (Verb) VS Permanent (Noun)
This Ayah is beautiful because this figure of speech shows the comparison between the Mushrikin’s decision and Allah’s decision. If we refuse to accept the truth, then Allah will let us stay that way.
When the Mushrikin tied their rope, the word أَبْرَمُوا is used. This is actually a verb.
But when Allah s.w.t. tied His rope, the word مُبْرِمُون is used. This is a noun.
Verbs are temporary by nature as they are associated with time, whereas nouns are PERMANENT and timeless.
What does this mean?
Sometimes when we make a decision, we’re not quite sure on what we have decided, so we go back and change it. Then there are times when we think we’ve really made up our mind, that there is no way that we would ever change it. The Mushrikin said that they have completely made up their mind, but rhetorically Allah s.w.t. shows that their decision was still something temporary. When Judgment Day comes and they finally see the reality of what they were denying… Do you think they would want to go back on their decision?
It may be that those who disbelieve wish ardently that they were Muslims. [Surah Al-Hijr 15:2]
Oh how they would wish that they could untie their rope! But when Allah s.w.t. has made up His decision, it is permanent. Allah’s rope is PERMANENT and there will be no return for them.
Did you not see that they wander [yaheemun] in every valley? [Surah Ash-Shu’araa’ 26:225]
This is actually an expression in the Qur’an describing poets and it is extremely relevant to our time. Some points to bear in mind:
- The word (to wander) is used to describe a camel when it is lost looking for water, wandering aimlessly in any direction, from one valley into another.
- Hiyaam also refers to a kind of love that can be destructive e.g. leading to suicide/depression
- It also includes wandering while not knowing the kind of danger ahead.
- Also before one ventures into a valley, he is on the higher ground – which is associated with honor & dignity. Its opposite is going down into the valley, and being low is normally associated with humiliation.
What does this expression really mean then?
The Thought Process of Entertainers
Back in the old times, the Arabs entertained themselves by listening to poets. These poets had 2 roles: They were the entertainers (they performed story-telling and singing) and also the philosophers at that time.
Fast-forward to the present is the entertainment industry today. Now we have movies or songs that became extremely popular. As a result the artist received spotlights, won awards and got millions of downloads – but how long does the craze last? After some time of listening to the same thing repeatedly, people just got tired of it – they want something new.
So the artists had to work hard to come up with the next big hit. But when the sequel isn’t as popular as the first, people begin to lose interest in them. The problem is, the lives of these entertainers revolve around fame and recognition. They become desperate when people no longer pay attention to them. So we see how certain artists would re-invent themselves by making their songs more controversial and indecent. Some would even further lower their standards of decency for the sake of popularity – doesn’t matter to them as long as they get a little bit of the spotlight again. So they keep venturing into every, single, possible valley. That’s the correlation with this Ayah.
In the old times, the poets were also their philosophers. In our time, we have certain professors who try to instill one thing: That there is no such thing as absolute truth. They live in the world of What-If’s: What if there is no God? What if the Book has been tampered? What if all of these are just folktales? If someone tries to answer them, they would continue to ask the next What-If question – they keep wandering into every valley that has no end.
The Qur’an teaches us to live in the world of WHAT IS. Overwhelmingly in the Qur’an, Allah s.w.t. asks us to look WHAT IS around us, at ourselves, at the ruins of nations that were destroyed. We are supposed to have clarity of thoughts, we don’t venture into every valley. Instead, our job is to pull people out of them!
This expression is used in a couple of ayat in the Quran,
22:45 How many towns have We destroyed, which were given to wrong- doing? They tumbled down on their roofs. And how many wells are lying idle and neglected, and castles lofty and well-built?
Does it mean the towns were somehow flipped over? What does it actually mean?
Actually, Allah is describing something more elaborate.
In abandoned buildings, the first thing that starts to get damaged is the roof because it is the most exposed part. After a while, the roof wears out and falls into the building. The walls within are now more exposed to rain, insects and water etc. which begins to weaken them. Eventually, they become so weak that when a strong wind blows, the walls fall on the already collapsed roof.
Allah describes towns that have been destroyed such that no one inhabited it for a long time, then wear and tear sets in and leads to the collapse of the walls on the roof. Allah describes this entire process by simply telling us that ‘the town was turned on its roof’. This shows the EXTENT of the destruction and the SPAN of the destruction.
This expression is also used in surah Kahf in the story of the farmers, Allah describes the garden as falling of the trellises
And so it was: his fruit was completely destroyed, and there he was, wringing his hands over what he had invested in it, as it drooped on its trellises, and saying, ‘I wish I had not set up any partner to my Lord.’ (Surah 18:42)
The wealthy farmer had trellises on the ground with which he held the delicate plants. The farm was surrounded with date palm trees. These date palm trees provided protection for the more delicate plants from the impact of the winds, there were a security measure for the plants. Allah is describing a situation here where the date palm trees fell on the trellises and destroyed the farm. The garden was destroyed through its security system.