Introduction to the Organization of the Quran

Introduction to symmetry in ancient literature

Before we send out Friday’s first official “Heavenly Order Newsletter”, we thought it was important to learn some background on how literature was organized in the past so we can properly understand the proposed structuring of the Quran.

The following is an excerpt from Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature by Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa with slight formatting modifications:

Aspects of the Composition of the Suwar

Medieval and modern scholars writing in Arabic have used the word naẓm to describe the arrangement of a surah, as well as the order of the suwar of the Quran. The primary meaning of naẓm is “arrangement,” “order",” or “organization.” It signifies the arrangement of individual parts into a coherent whole. For example, this word is used for stringing beads or pearls together to produce a beautiful necklace, or the arrangement of a set of wells into a uniform layout. It is also used to refer to the “contiguity” of a series of items, or how a group of items “stick” or “cohere” together [1].

The word naẓm also signifies the “composition” of a verse, poem or musical piece [2]. When speaking of literature, “composition” is perhaps the English term that most closely corresponds to the Arabic term naẓm. To say that a piece of writing lacks composition, or has poor composition, is to say that it lacks an orderly presentation of ideas. Similarly, when scholars argue that the suwar of the Quran, or the Quran as a whole, are characterized by naẓm, they mean that they are arranged in a coherent or logical fashion. To explain naẓm another way, we could say that it includes the notions of coherence and structure - coherence referring to how ideas are logically related and ordered, forming a unified whole, and structure referring to the overall form or pattern of their arrangement. From here onwards, we will use the terms “composition” or “coherence and structure” as English substitutes for the Arabic term naẓm.

Linear Coherence

The study of the composition of a surah involves several aspects. We will call the first aspect linear coherence, which concerns the linear flow, continuity or sequential arrangement of the Quran. In what way is one ayah, topic, section, or even entire surah connected to the next one, if at all?


There are two main types of symmetrical patterns. The first we will explore is called Parallelism. This is when parts of a composition are ordered on the pattern of ABC / A’B’C’. This was the main organizing principle of Hebrew poetry, such as Psalms, and in fact continues to be a ubiquitous feature of poetry to this day. For example, take the following line of the Book of Isaiah:

He shall judge between the nations A B /

And shall arbitrate for many peoples (Isa. 2:4) A’ B’

In this example, typical of Hebrew poetry, the relationships between A (“shall judge”) and A’ (“shall arbitrate”) and between B (“the nations”) and B’ (“many peoples”) is that of synonym, similarity, or close association. However, the relationship between the parallel terms does not have to be one of similarity. They could also be direct opposites, as in the following quote from Malcolm X:

A man who stands for nothing A B /

will fall for anything A’ B’

Here “stands for nothing” and “will fall for anything” stand in a parallel relationship, but in this case the parallel terms - A (“stands”) and A’ (“will fall”), B (“nothing”) and B’ (“anything”) - are opposites. The point is that the parallel terms must have some conspicuous relationship, whether it is a relationship of similarity or something else.

The Quran also contains many examples of parallelism. A simple example is 28:73:

In this case, “night” (A) is associated with “rest” (A’), and “day” (B) with “pursuing from His bounty” (B’). A more complex example occurs in the opening of Surah 91, The Sun (ash-Shams). It is a divine oath consisting of a series of parallelisms:

Parallelism is an extremely common device in poetics and rhetoric, because it is simple, intuitive, aesthetically appealing, and poetically moving.

Ring Structure

The second type of symmetrical form may be called inverted parallelism: it is where the terms or ideas are presented in one order but then repeated in the reverse order. This follows the pattern AB/B’A’, such as in Jesus’s saying, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (Matt. 19:30), or in the Quran, “He brings out the living from the dead and brings out the dead from the living” (6:95). 

This type of pattern is also known as chiasmus (pronounced kai-az-muhs), chiastic structure, or mirror composition. The term ring composition is used to describe such a structure when it contains a discrete center. It could either have a stand-alone centerpiece that connects the two halves (as in ABCB’A’) or simply be a mirror composition on a large or complex scale, such as ABC/C’B’A’, in which C/C’ might be considered the center. 

This type of structure is very prominent in the Quran. A brief example in the Quran is the beginning of Surah 18, The Cave (al-Kahf):

Each segment, in some way, corresponds to and complements the segment directly opposite it. The center, in this case, underscores faith and the performance of good deeds.

Several features are significant about ring composition. First, it may occur on a very large scale, even that of a whole book. Literary scholars of the Bible have found that various Biblical books are composed as ring structures. In some cases, a large-scale ring composition consists, in turn, of smaller rings. 

Second, ring composition was extremely widespread in the ancient world, and even up until modern times. After its discovery in the Hebrew Bible, scholars in other fields of literature have uncovered ring composition in such diverse works as Homer’s Iliad in Greek; the Gathas, hyms attributed to the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the Avestan language; Classical Arabic poetry; Chinese literature; the medieval Persian Mathnawi of Rumi; medieval European epic poems such as the Old English Beowulf, the French epic poem chanson degeste, and medieval German Nibulungenlieder; modern English poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Ezra Pound’s Cantos; and various genres of oral recital in different parts of the world [3]. Ring composition was ubiquitous in written and oral compositions throughout the ancient world, and continues to enjoy prominence in some cultures even into modern times. The discovery of ring composition is extremely important because works (especially from the ancient world) that scholars once regarded as “disorderly,” “disjointed,” “fragmented,” “repetitive,” “chaotic,” “clumsy,” “rambling,” or “full of long digressions” have in fact turned out to be extremely coherent, structured and well-organized [4]. This is certainly the case with the Quran. 

Third, the ring form gives the composition potential to grow. For example, with appropriate additions, ABCB’A’ can be expanded to ABCDC’B’A’, or a linear composition can be made into a ring, such as ABCD becoming ABCDC’B’A’ [5]. This may be relevant in the case of longer suar in the Quran that exhibit ring composition, since at least some of them were revealed not all at once, but in piecemeal.

Finally, understanding ring composition is important for understanding the meaning of a composition. In a ring composition, usually “the meaning is located in the middle” [6]; that is, the center of the composition literally underscores the central idea. The two halves of the composition literally underscores the central idea. The two halves of the composition may be seen as elaborations of that theme, and the beginning and the ending segments (A and A’) introduce and conclude that theme. Moreover, the ring structure points to common themes that underlie the two corresponding terms or segments on the opposite sides of the structure. In essence the ring manifests the relationship between the parts and reveals the logic of the composition. It is important to add that the relationship between the two corresponding segments (e.g., B and B’) does not always have to be immediately obvious. The discovery of a ring structure forces the audience to contemplate and uncover the relationship between the corresponding parts [7].

The discovery and recent study of ring composition and other symmetrical patterns in the Quran owes especially to the work of Neal Robinson, Michel Cuypers, and Raymond Farrin [8].

Integrative Coherence

The fourth aspect of coherence we’ll explore is what we will call the integrative coherence of a surah. This is concerned with how different ayaat, passages, or sections within a surah, or even between separate suwar, are interconnected by key terms, verbal roots, images, parallel expressions, or even sound patterns that they share. To simplify, we will call these unifying items anchors.

Although this sort of study is already known more formally as intertextuality, we will use the term “integrative coherence” to emphasize the role of these anchors in:

  1. Integrating different parts of a section together

  2. linking separate sections of a surah, thereby helping to unify it

  3. linking ayaat or passages from separate suwar, such as suwar that form a pair or group

Holistic Coherence

Finally, each of these approaches contributes to understanding what we will call the surah’s holistic coherence; how the surah is united into a consistent and distinct whole. In this regard, one might be interested in identifying an overarching idea that unites and explains all of the surah’s contents or components. In addition to seeing the unity of an individual surah and how each part of it fits into the scheme of the whole, one might also be interested in understanding the role of the surah in a broader surah pair or group, or in the Quran as a whole.

Important Note From The Heavenly Order Team

Please keep in mind going forward that any observations are just that; observations. We make no claims as to having presented the structure of a given ayah or surah. You are free to disagree or critique our structuring in the comments section of any future post.

We will also try our best to avoid making conclusions about the text based on a presented structure. In other words, this is NOT a tafseer (explanation) of the Quran’s meanings. Our hope is that qualified scholars take our work and use it appropriately.

And if you know someone who might benefit from this series, please share it with them!


End Notes

[1] Ibn Maẓūr, 12:578-579; Mustansir Mir, “Continuity, Context, and Coherence in the Qur’ān: A Brief Review of the Idea of Naẓm in Tafsīr Literature,” Al-Bayan 11.2: 16.

[2] Ibn Maẓūr, 12:578. The Arabic word for composition is ta’līf.

[3]  See Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007), 4-12 and Raymon Farrin, Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), 2011, xvii.

[4]  Douglas, 9-11

[5]  Thus, a pre-existing work can be expanded by its author or by later editors to either form a ring structure or expand an already existing ring. This may be the case with the Penateuch or Torah (the first five books of the Bible), which some scholars have argued forms a ring composition, some adding the sixth Biblical book, the Book of Joshua, as well (see Douglas, xiii-xiv). This capacity for revision and addition was commonly utilized by live poets and folkloric reciters, who would recite a traditional story or poem but supply their own creative additions. In contrast to the Quranic memorizers and reciters, however, they were not concerned with word-for-word recall.

[6]  Douglas, x.

[7]  Douglas writes, “When the reader finds two pages set in parallel that seem quite disparate, the challenge is to ask what they may have in common, not to surmise that the editor got muddled” (p. 36), and “We expect matching sections to be related by analogy, but the parallel is not always obvious. The reader who is puzzled can take it as a challenge to reflect further and to consider the seemingly obscure similarities the editors had in mind when they strung what we first see as two apparently dissimilar beads on the same rope” (p. 56)

[8]  See Randhawa, “A Bibliography of the Coherence and Structure of the Qur’an’s Suras.”