Qur’anic stylistics: A linguistic analysis

Qur’anic stylistics: A linguistic analysis. By Hussain Abdul-Raof. (Languages of the world 32.) Munich: LINCOM Europa, 2004. Pp. 251. ISBN 3895868175. $106.68.

Reviewed by †Alan S. Kaye, California State University, Fullerton

This volume is a detailed description of stylistic variation in the Qur’an. The author states that this phenomenon ‘is a prototypical feature of Qur’anic genre’ (236). To cite an example, let me mention tense (or, better, aspect) shifting (Arabic ʔiltifaat), illustrated by the following verse (Q25:10): tabaaraka llaðii ʔin šaaʔa jaʕala laka xayran min ðaalika . . . wa yajʕalu laka quuuran ‘Blessed is He, if he willed, could have made for you something better than that . . . and could make palaces for you’. Here it is important to note that the first verb jaʕala ‘made’ is in the perfect (author’s ‘past tense’), while the second yajʕalu ‘makes’ is in the imperfect (author’s ‘present tense’). While I agree with Abdul-Raof that ʔiltifaat is ‘frequently encountered’, I am reluctant to accept his analysis that it ‘is employed as a rhetorical means that aims to achieve psychological comfort for the reader’ (236). The reason for my skepticism is that the term ‘psychological comfort’ is vague, difficult to describe and explicate, and therefore unscientific.

The next example A-R discusses of the very same stylistic shift, however, is explained in more convincing terms (Q22:25): ?inna llaðiina kafaruu wa yuadduuna ʕan sabiili llaahi ‘Indeed, those who have disbelieved and avert people from the way of God’. As in the first example, the first verb is in the perfect, but through the use of the second, imperfect yuadduuna, ‘the componential feature of [+Continuity of Action] can be attributed to the subject’ (236). Here, English is capable of rendering this stylistic shift; however, there are numerous occasions where English does not translate the stylistic flavor of the original Arabic. This has been pointed out by A-R, who correctly asserts: ‘This is due to the fact that Arabic and English are linguistically and culturally incongruous languages’ (12), although this is not explained in detail here or elsewhere in the publication.

Let me take up a general conclusion, viz., that each and every instance of stylistic variation ‘occurs for a good reason and is context and co-text sensitive’ (8). In Q 16:70-83 ‘And God created you . . . and God has favoured some of you over others . . . and God has made for you from yourselves mates . . . and they worship besides God that which does not possess for them . . . God presents an example’ (15), we note that the first three sentences begin with Allaah ‘God’, the next three start with a verb, and the following three begin with a noun Allaah, and the tenth with a verb. I do not believe much can be made of this variation. Even A-R himself states that ‘stylistically, the Arabic sentence starts with either a verb or a noun’ (15).

The book abounds in typographical and other errors. Let me mention but a few instances: ‘semantically-oriented’ should not be hyphenated (8); ‘situaltionally-distinctive’ for ‘situationally distinctive’ (9); ‘pbonetic’ for ‘phonetic’ (10); ‘agiven’ for ‘a given’ (10); ‘stylsitic’ for ‘stylistic’ (11); ‘sigular’ for ‘singular’ (11); ‘reads’ should be ‘read’ in ‘In order to make the English sentence reads smoothly’ (11); and so on. As for the short bibliography (247–48), the transcriptional diacritics are left off, rendering the Arabic inaccurate.

Let me conclude with some stylistic remarks of my own. Many sentences in this tome detract from its overall usefulness and effectiveness and contribute to a wordiness, causing the reader to lose interest in the subject matter. Consider the opening and closing sentences of the work: ‘Language is a complex entity’ (9). Of course it is! And: ‘Variation in Arabic linguistic structures is an intriguing stylistic phenomenon that merits a linguistic analysis’ (246). A good editor would have clipped both of these statements as ‘stylistically infelicitous’.