The Presence of Metaphors in the Qur’an: Observations on the Linguistic Theory of Ruh al-Ma’ani

Written for the module: Sources of Islamic Knowledge, taken at The Islamic College for a MA in Islamic Studies with professor Amina Inloes. Originally submitted on 12th February, 2018.

Qur’ānic hermeneutics have been a challenging area of study amongst scholars of Islam in modern times. With numerous linguistic theories and philosophies springing about, the Qur’ānic text has naturally been at the centre of investigation for many. Whether its language is symbolic or actual, allegorical or literal, and other similar discussions have all been significant areas of debate. This paper investigates an opinion regarding the process of word assignment known as “single origin” (al-aṣl al-wāḥid) or “spirit of the meaning” (rūḥ al-ma’ānī), a view held by a number of Shī’ī scholars who use it as a premise to deny the presence of significant – or any – number of metaphors in the Qur’ān. It will expound on what exactly these figures meant when they claimed the words used in the Qur’ān are literal, as well as the evidence for their claims. Subsequently, their arguments will be scrutinized, weakened, and critiqued in order to show that their evidence is not sufficient to make such a universal claim with respect to the way in which words are coined, neither with respect to the absence of metaphors in the Qur’ān.

Overview of Discussion

One of the major discussions within Qur’ānic hermeneutics concerns the nature of its language. Various opinions on this subject have been expressed over the centuries by Muslim scholars themselves, each opinion bringing with it its own baggage and implications. While some have read and interpreted the Qur’ān in a scientific-positivistic light (Baljon, 1949, p.48), others claim it to have simply been the words of Muḥammad, who spoke in the ‘language of his time’ (Soroush, 2007) with all his human limitations. Such views have generally been considered unorthodox, and at times even outright heretical by the mainstream body of Muslims.

One of the discussions that has occupied the minds of Muslim scholars of the Qur’ān with respects to its language, is regarding literal and metaphorical word usage in the Qur’ānic verses. Works of exegesis, legal theory, and grammar will often expound on the precise difference between what constitutes a literal meaning and what differentiates it from a metaphor, and methods are discussed on how to differentiate one from the other. Quite often, some group of interpreters will accuse other groups of being literalists and detrimental to the core message of Islam, while others may be labelled as esoteric and heretical, simply on the basis of the views they hold on this important premise.

The standard definition given by grammarians of the Arabic language for the literal and metaphorical usage of a word is as follows: a literal meaning is when a word is used for a meaning it was originally coined for, whereas a metaphor is when a word is used in a meaning other than what it was originally assigned for (Ibn Jinnī, 2002, v.2, p.208). This definition focuses on the notion of usage, rather than coinage, because it is through the usage of a word upon a thing other than what it was originally assigned for that it is considered a metaphor. Given this straightforward definition, it would behove one to accept that both usages are present in the Qur’ān, particularly when words generally used for material entities by humans are used to describe immaterial realities. Thus, we find works by scholars dedicated to the task of explaining the various metaphors used in the Qur’ān, the classical work Talkhīṣ al-Bayān fī Majāzāt al-Qur’ān by Sayyid al-Raḍī (d. 1015) being one of them.

Despite this, many earlier literalist factions amongst Muslims prescribed to the view that the words of the Qur’ān should only be understood in their prima-facie meaning, without resorting to any justifications or interpreting them to refer to immaterial realities. This view was stretched to such an extent that some ended up subscribing to the belief in an anthropomorphic God (Armstrong, 1999, p.87-88). Coincidently, another later group of scholars maintained that the Qur’ān only contains words used in their literal meanings, but provided a much different explanation of what they meant by literal usage. Furthermore, with their explanation, they did not fall into the trap of understanding and interpreting words referring to immaterial realities physically. It is this second category of scholars that will be investigated so that we can determine whether their claims are sufficient to deny the presence of metaphors in the Qur’ān or not.

Absence of Metaphors in the Qur’ān

In a response to a question posed to him by Mullā Isma’īl Bojnūrdī regarding the Qur’ānic verse dealing with Prophet Ezra, the famous Ṣadrian philosopher of the 19th century Ḥakīm Sabzwārī (d. 1873) explains his view on the nature of words. He writes:

Words are coined for general meanings, and for that which is preserved in all its specific instances, and is like a soul manifesting in different forms. For example: The word pen (al-qalam) is assigned for anything that is used for engraving – whether it is material or not. A material pen can therefore be made of reed or gold, or anything else. An immaterial pen on the other hand can be the power to conceptualize, or common sense, or imagination, or intellectus in actu, or the active intellect, or the first-intellect which is the greatest of pens.

And the words to engrave (al-naqsh) and image (al-ṣūrah) are inclusive of the sensible, imaginal, and intelligible. As for the tablet (al-lawḥ) it has been coined for that on which an engraving is done, whether it is a paper, or a stone, or a piece of wood, or gold, or anything else (1388 AH, p.448).

Here Sabzwārī alludes to a view regarding words which would necessitate that in many cases words we presume to have been used metaphorically when used for immaterial realities, are not actually metaphors. In fact, from the very beginning, the meanings of these words were coined for something very general, such that the apparent difference we see in its usage is merely a difference in a particular instance that the general meaning is being instantiated on. In the context Sabzwārī is writing in, at the very least he is making this claim for the words used in the Qur’ān. The word pen can be instantiated non-figuratively on a physical pen in this world, as well as an immaterial entity in some other realm as long as they both possess that same general meaning it was originally coined for.

Another scholar who defends this view in slightly different words is ‘Allāmah Ṭabaṭabāī (d. 1981), in his seminal exegetical work al-Mizān. When explaining why the Qur’ān is misunderstood by people not due to its ambiguity, but rather due to the differences of opinion concerning what instances a meaning of a word is inclusive of, he says that the first instance our minds go towards are material. He then makes his point as follows:

But we should not forget that the material things are constantly changing and developing with the development of expertise. Man gave the name, lamp, to a certain receptacle in which he put a wick and a little fat that fed the lighted wick which illuminated the place in darkness. That apparatus kept changing until now it has become the electric bulb of various types; and except the name “lamp” not a single component of the original lamp can be found in it (n.d, p.30).

What Ṭabaṭabāī essentially claims is that once a word has been coined for a certain entity, that entity’s physical reality may continue to change over the span of time, yet humans continue to associate that initial word and meaning to it. This is not done metaphorically, rather it is considered a literal meaning. Another example he gives besides a lamp is that of a scale. The entity on which the word scale would be instantiated in the past essentially holds no physical resemblance today with many modern scales. Yet, we see that when we instantiate this word on a modern electric scale, we do not deem it a metaphor. The consequence of this is that a word was assigned not for the physical entity, but rather for an immaterial abstracted concept which can then be instantiated on various physical and even immaterial things, as long as that general meaning holds true for them.

This argument of Ṭabaṭabāī resembles the evidence used by some Muslim philosophers to prove the existence of a soul (rūḥ). The argument here is essentially the same; whereas our physical bodies continue to change, yet there is a referent “I” or “Me” that we continue to point towards. This referent has to be towards something immaterial, since that is the only unaltered reality (Ma’rifat, 2011, v.1, p.76). Likewise, with the case of words, though material entities continue to change, their usage remains one and the same, thus words are a referent to the rūḥ al-ma’ānī.

This view becomes a lot clearer when we study the magnum opus of ‘Allāmah Ḥasan Al-Muṣtafawī (d. 2005), wherein he does not reject the use of metaphors in the Arabic language completely, but opines that at the very least there are no metaphors used in the Qur’ān. To better understand his claim, one must consider how he believes words are coined by humans, and then his argument for establishing the absence of metaphors in the Qur’ān.

Foremost, he explains the process by which words signify meanings. He makes a theological presumption that there is order in all existing realms, and that words and their meanings also enjoy such order since being a creation makes them a part of the created realm (1386 AH, v.1, p.15). On the other hand, the assignment of a word to a meaning is either done through God’s Divine Will, where the presence of order is self-evident, or if it is done by human will, then on a vertical plane of existence this will is not independent of God’s Will. In other words, God is a direct cause of the continuity of a universal order between words and their meanings. Subsequently, a word can only be chosen for a meaning after a general meaning has been conceptualized by the coiner – who generally happens to be a human. This process is in line with God’s unity of actions, and the word chosen by the coiner is completely relevant with respect to its meaning.

What al-Muṣtafawī concludes from this is that there is a real affinitive relationship between the letters of any given word, the order in which those letters are put together, and the scale on which those letters are pronounced, with its signified meaning. Thus, every word has a single specific meaning – which he terms as al-aṣl al-wāḥid – that is preserved in all of its various derivations (1386 AH, v.1, p.13), and on all the instances, material or not, in which that specific meaning exists. Nevertheless, all of this does not dispel the notion of metaphors completely – which is the usage of any given word in a meaning other than what it was assigned for – even in the way al-Muṣtafawī describes the process. Therefore, what he argues for next is that the Qur’ān only makes use of words while taking the single origin into consideration and thus, all meanings in the Qur’ān are to be taken as real literal meanings.

He argues that, God being All-Wise and All-Knowing, is needless of having to ponder about which word to use over another to get a meaning across. Furthermore, if He intends to get a meaning across through a divinely revealed book, it behoves Him to use words that signify precisely what He intends. Otherwise, the text would lead to misguidance, confusion, and doubt (1386 AH, v.1, p.16-17). Therefore, ‘every word in the Qur’ān has been used in its actual meaning, and what is meant by that is its original signified meaning, and nothing else’ (1386 AH, v.1, p.17). Furthermore, God’s Wisdom necessitates that there be no metaphors, nor homonyms used in the Qur’ān, as such a thing would result in ignorance, misguidance, and the diminishing of any probative force for legislative rulings derived from the verses (1386 AH, v.1, p.18).

In summary, the aforementioned scholars maintain that words are coined for general abstract meanings, often times for a function or a benefit. The instantiation of said word is thus not restricted to a specific physical entity, rather its instantiation on any other entity which differs from it physically, albeit immaterial, will also be a real instance of the meaning as long as the original meaning it was coined for holds to be true. This line of argument does not negate the existence of metaphors completely from a language since it is still possible to use a word outside of what it was originally coined for as long as there is some other resemblance. As an example, the word ‘lion’ to refer to a courageous warrior in the statement ‘the lion entered the battlefield,’ could still be considered a metaphor by these scholars. Therefore, the existence of metaphors from the Qur’ān is nullified completely by al-Muṣṭafawī, and the other two to a great extent, particularly when it comes to reference to immaterial realities, citing the absurdity of God’s usage of words for entities that do not completely possess the original meaning they were coined for. Such usage – they claim – results in confusion, misguidance and defeats the very purpose of why the Qur’ān was revealed by God.


There are two major claims made by al-Muṣṭafawī in his work, that are also shared by the other scholars. The first is his view regarding al-aṣl al-wāḥid, and the second is his claim regarding the absence of metaphors in the Qur’ān. The view of al-aṣl al-wāḥid is similar to what Hādī Sabzwārī and Ṭabaṭabāī implicate in their words when they speak about words being coined for something general – what they refer to as the soul – and that this specific meaning exists in all instances where said word is used. Another popular term used to refer to this idea is rūḥ al-ma’ānī. Both views are interlinked because in order for them to justify and give an explanation for their second claim – i.e. the absence of metaphors from the Qur’ān – they have to resort to the first. However, there are several critiques that can be laid against both of these claims.

Critique of First Claim

The first claim presumes that a person encounters an entity, generally physical, and then coins a term for it while taking into consideration a very general concept that is abstracted from that entity. In other words, a word is coined not for the physical entity itself, but rather for something immaterial and abstract. Subsequently, a person then begins using this word in reference to different entities that share the same general meaning, whether the entity is immaterial or material. Such usage is not deemed metaphorical, rather literal.

This universal claim would be true if we could validate that a person indeed coined a word for a specific abstract concept, and not the physical entity witnessed by them. In other words, their claim only considers one possibility, and that is a person assigning a word for an abstracted concept after witnessing a physical entity. For example, after going through a very specific physical experience, one may abstract a certain concept and decide to call it ‘freedom’, subsequently making its usage on different human experiences literal usages of the term.

However, this ignores two other, completely rational possibilities. One is the possibility that a word could have been assigned for an abstract meaning, but with the condition of it being predicated literally only on physical entities, and metaphorically on immaterial entities. For example, it is completely in the realm of possibility that the word ‘hand’ was assigned to a body part due to the concept of power and strength abstracted from it, but a person assigning this word to this general concept intended to restrict its literal usage to just a physical hand. In other words, the word hand could have been coined for the general meaning of power and strength it is instantiated on a physical hand. To presume that at the time of assigning a word, after witnessing a physical entity, a person also took into consideration all possible immaterial entities is a claim not empirically established and on the contrary it is philosophically possible for one to have taken into consideration a general meaning while restricting it to a material entity.

Of course, a second possibility is that the word ‘hand’ was assigned strictly for the body part without taking into consideration any general concepts at all. If the intent was to assign a word for an entity not based on its function, then there is no reason to presume that a person must have assigned a word while keeping in mind a general abstract meaning, such as power and strength. Additionally, it is also possible for a word to be initially coined for a physical entity, and that it was initially used metaphorically on other entities, but over time with an increase in usage on other entities, it turned into a literal meaning for them as well (Ḥobbollah, 2016).

In other words, even if the process described by al-Muṣṭafawī is true in many cases, this premise ignores the fact that it is hardly possible to derive a universal principle claiming humans coin all words for meanings that are inclusive of both physical and non-physical entities. Imām Rūḥullah Khomeini (d. 1989), agrees with the general notion of rūh al-ma’ānī, but admits, however, that “abstract meanings and the absolute facts have not been considered” by most common people, and that they are the ones who are generally assigning words (2014, p.365). To expect such a rigorous task universally from common people is far-fetched and ignores the complexities of language. The coinage and usage of words, and subsequent development of language is not something that necessarily happens within strictly defined parameters, especially given its conventional nature, such that we can determine the intention of people to be universally common. On the contrary, the process of assigning words, and language itself, is ever-changing and this process results in various different ways by which words are coined and subsequently used (Slunecko & Hengl, 2007, p.42). This makes it almost impossible for us to determine the complete depth of how the earliest humans came to assign words for different entities, and the mere rational possibility of different scenarios is enough to weaken the aforementioned scholars’ universal claim.

Additionally, through our own immediate experiences and based on the limited historical records we do possess, we may even be able to argue that humans do not always assign words for general concepts, but rather for specific entities. As an example, many new words coined ex nihilo are based on sounds that emanate from objects (Algeo, 1993, p.4) and have no general concepts or functions taken into consideration. Words that are specifically coined for physical entities such as ‘body’, ‘substance’ or ‘atoms’ are also not addressed by this view since there is no immaterial concept or function being taken into consideration when assigning these words (Hobbollah, 2016). The Arabic language was no exception to these instances and with its lengthy history, there is essentially no way to conduct a thorough-enough induction on the usage of words to claim that all words were coined for a very general abstract meaning (Sayḥī, 2014, p.300) and not for the actual physical entity a person or group of people first witnessed.

Another challenge this premise ignores is that the number of borrowed terms in the Arabic language from other Semitic and non-Semitic languages, or the evidence that shows changes in meaning once a word entered Arabic, demonstrates that many Arabic words were loanwords, not even coined by the Arabs. This makes it even more difficult to claim that every word in the Arabic language was coined for a single general concept, because even if a loanword was coined for something general, its usage in the Arabic language could have been understood to be restricted to a physical entity without ever knowing what that initial general concept was. As an example, the word ibrīq being a loanword from the Persian ābrīz, was literally used for a water jug (Jeffery, 1938, p.46) and subsequently transferred over into the Arabic language while being specifically used for a water jug. Now it is possible that the Persians may have coined this term to define a function of ‘a thing one pours water from’, being commonly used for a water jug. Though, the fact that this word was not originally coined in the Arabic language and was borrowed from Persian, leaves us with no solution as to whether the Arabs knew it was a word coined for a function and not for the physical entity itself.

Critique of Second Claim

Another claim that all the scholars discussed earlier make, and to which al-Muṣṭafawī dedicates a sub-heading to, is that there are no metaphors – or significantly few metaphors – used in the Qur’ān, the latter position maintained by Ṭabaṭabāī and al-Sabzwārī. In other words, there are no words used to refer to things figuratively because such usage would defeat the purpose of the message of the Qur’ān and it would diminish its value as a clear source of guidance.

The very basis of this claim is that metaphors are in some way or form a source of misguidance and are not able to convey the intended meaning of a speaker or author to its respective audience. It is imperative to know that words and language are essentially the most basic tool by which we convey our intentions to our audience. It is a social entity, and a social communication technology by which we communicate our thoughts to others (Dor, 2015, p.2-3). Thus, how we decide to use this tool to get our intents across is completely subject to societal and individual conventions. This presumption that metaphors lead to misguidance is a mere claim and no evidence for it is established by any of the scholars. Rather its invalidity is almost self-evident after witnessing our daily usage of metaphors and considering the important role metaphors play in ensuring the correct meaning is being conveyed.

In many cases, metaphors are not only better to use over literal words, but rather their usage is necessary for an individual to get their intent across (Sayḥī, 2014, p.304). Furthermore, the argument that God could not have used metaphors in the Qur’ān since it would have resulted in misguidance, could equally be made for the opposite scenario as well. Given the affinity humans have with metaphors, and the fact that most humans, including majority of the Arab grammarians, have not ascribed or even understood the view of al-aṣl al-wāḥid or rūh al-ma’ānī, it would have made complete sense for God to have used these words in a way commonly used and understood by humans.

The cases that the Shī’ī scholars deem misguidance are apparent amongst certain schools of thought who took many words in the Qur’ān that discuss God in their physical literal sense and became proponents of anthropomorphism. The common – and valid – response given to them is that these words are to be understood figuratively, on the presumption that the presence of metaphors in human language is ubiquitous and there appears no reason for God not to have used them in conveying His message and intent.

Evidently, if the claim for the absence of metaphors in the Qur’ān is based on the presumption of it resulting in misguidance, then there is an equally strong – if not stronger – argument for the presence of metaphors as it is a linguistic syntax humans are familiar and would therefore not lead to misguidance.


Al-Muṣṭafawī’s opinion that there are no metaphors in the Qur’ān at all, or al-Sabzwārī’s and Ṭabaṭabāī’s who maintain that words in the Qur’ān that humans generally believe to be used literally for physical entities and metaphorically for immaterial, are not actually metaphors, are both opinions that cannot be proven to be universally true. Practically speaking, the view that there are no metaphors in the Qur’ān in the way that these scholars have explained it, can be reconciled on many occasions – though definitely not all – with the view of those who claim there are metaphors in the Qur’ān. If both sides agree upon the same external instance a word is referring to, whether they decide to call this reference process literal or metaphorical, they will be referring to the same existent, in which case the discussion turns into nothing more than that of semantics.


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