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Sūrat Maryam (Part 11)
FINAL part of observations on the structure, cohesion, and organization of Sūrat Maryam
Milestone: This is my 200th post!1
Themes and Motifs
To conclude our study of Sūrat Maryam, we will take a brief look at how the contents of this sūrah contribute to delivering a coherent message despite the seemingly numerous topics addressed. In particular, we will explore the motifs that have been running throughout the text and how they give further meaning to this already rich sūrah.
Family - The sūrah presents a comprehensive view of family. There are narratives about childless parents, miraculous births, righteous children, disbelieving parents, upright brothers and prophetic dynasties. Another interesting point is brought up by Layla Alhassen who comments in her paper analyzing the first half of Sūrat Maryam that, “the sura begins with the themes of God and family, but the theme of family becomes less prominent and the theme of God and faith eventually replaces it. God, the narrator, who is initially central to the sura’s depiction of family, eventually replaces the family completely.”2
Seclusion - Related to the motif of family is the theme of seclusion that we see repeated in many of the stories. Additionally, retreating into isolation typically resulted in being gifted or aided with family. Zakariyyā prayed in private and was gifted Yaḥyā. Maryam put up a veil between herself and others for worship and was gifted ʿĪsā. Ibrāhīm left his father and community to be on his own and was gifted Isḥāq and Yaʿqūb. Mūsā met with Allah ﷻ for a one-on-one conversation and was aided with his brother, Hārūn. There are also other instances embedded in the back stories of the other prophets mentioned, but those are not as explicit as the aforementioned examples.
Love and Mercy (Raḥmah) - Sūrat Maryam may be argued to be catered to a Christian audience with the frequent mention of Abrahamic prophets, and Maryam and ʿĪsā in particular. Christianity is also the religion most associated with preaching “love and mercy,” so it is appropriate that Allah ﷻ would mention His name, the Most Merciful (ar-Raḥmān), or an Arabic derivative of “mercy (raḥmah)” 16 times here. The mention of “the Most Merciful (ar-Raḥmān)” occurs sparingly in the beginning of the sūrah and crescendos towards the concluding passages where the name recurs in almost every āyah.
From a linguistic viewpoint, the usage of “mercy (raḥmah)” is doubly appropriate as it relates to family as well. The Arabic root letters for raḥmah are the same root letters in the word for “womb (raḥm)” which relates back to the other motifs mentioned above.
Christ is Not Divine - Relating to all the aforementioned motifs, the argument for why ʿĪsā is not divine is made subtly at first, but by the end of the sūrah we have some of the most explicit statements mentioned in the Quran against any and all associations with Allah ﷻ.
It also seems as though most of the prophets mentioned in this sūrah have some link to a divine intervention in their youth. Yaḥyā was born to old and barren parents. ʿĪsā was born to a virgin mother. Elsewhere in the Quran, Ibrāhīm was saved from a burning fire.3 Ismāʿīl was saved from thirst and starvation in the Meccan desert.4 Mūsā was supposed to be killed as a baby, but miraculously survived by being floated down a river.5 These all contribute to the argument that, despite ʿĪsā having a miraculous intervention in his life, he does not ascend to the level of “God”, similar to the other messengers and prophets who were given divine assistance.
Another subtle argument is the continued usage of “prophet (nabiyy)” that is used in almost every section of this sūrah. By linking all other prophets to being a “nabiyy,” the listener should take note that ʿĪsā himself says, “No doubt, I am a servant of Allah. He gave me the Scripture and made me a prophet (nabiyyā).”
Speech versus Silence6 - One of the more subtle motifs has to do with the relationship between speech and silence. The sūrah begins, “The mentioning (dhikru) of the mercy of your Lord to His servant, Zakariyyā,”. The Arabic root for dhikr, dha-ka-ra, has a relation of sound with the name Zakariyyā, whose name has the root letters za-ka-ra. Immediately after this seemingly play on words, the sūrah states that his supplication was “silent (khafiyyā).” Next it is mentioned that the name Yaḥyā is so unique that no has had this name before, implying something which was never heard of. This is closely followed by a sign to Zakariyyā of three days of silence.
After that comes the mention of Maryam when she swore to be silent in front of her people, and suddenly the baby, whom nobody expected to speak, began giving a sermon. Later in the sūrah we are told that the inhabitants of Paradise will not hear “vain speech.” There are more examples, but it appears that this motif develops progressively through the sūrah, reaching its culmination in the last āyah.
In the final passage, Allah ﷻ says, “Indeed, We have made this [Quran] easy on your tongue to give good news to the God-conscious,” and then the sūrah ends with, “Do you perceive a single one of [the disbelievers] now, or hear as much as a whisper (rikzā)?” The word rikzā comes from the Arabic root, ra-ka-za, which are the same root letters Zakariyyā’s name is derived from, but in reverse order. So, the sūrah began contrasting speech and silence and ended contrasting speech and silence.
This motif would been particularly powerful to the nascent Muslim community since this was revealed at a time when they were first beginning to preach openly about the religion. This very subtle theme may have acted as encouragement to preach the message publicly and confidently.
Secrets7 - Allah ﷻ being the One who knows all and who reveals what He wills is made very clear in this sūrah through the many examples and narratives relayed throughout. Thus far, the opening āyah of the sūrah has not been mentioned, but now we can appreciate a rhetorical benefit of it. Allah ﷻ begins, “Kāf, Hā, Yā, ʿAyn, Ṣād.” As scholars have explained, Allah ﷻ alone knows the meanings of these letters. In other words, it is a sign signifying a secret of Allah ﷻ that is maintained. Also of note, this is the only āyah in the Sūrah that does not have the same rhyme ending as the other āyāt. It sticks out phonetically as well as in meaning from the rest of the content.
Then, unlike the secret of Allah ﷻ which is never unveiled, Zakariyyā’s intimate prayer is recorded in detail for all to hear. In contrast to this revealed secret, we move to a mystery that remains a mystery when an unnamed speaker communicates with Zakariyyā. We are not told the speaker’s identity, a narrative strategy which again serves to highlight Allah’s omniscience and our contrasting human lack of knowledge.8 There are countless other examples in this sūrah which all serve to highlight the stark contrast between Allah’s infinite knowledge and our limited knowledge. Allah ﷻ reveals what He wants, when He wants, no matter how hidden or privileged the information may seem.
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Summary of All Structures
Here is a summarized graphic demonstrating the multiple layers of structuring uncovered in the study of this sūrah:
And Allah ﷻ knows best.
If you enjoyed/appreciated/cared for/felt an emotion during this exhaustive study of Sūrat Maryam consider subscribing to support more research like this :)
Or, buy the English tafsīr (explanation) of this sūrah written by my teacher, Shaykh Furhan Zubairi: In the Company of the Quran - An Explanation of Surah Maryam. The entire structural analysis written across these 11 posts is actually an appendix to his book.
Not that anyone cares!
Alhassen, Leyla Ozgur, A Structural Analysis of Sūrat Maryam, Verses 1-58
21:68-69 - قَالُوا حَرِّقُوهُ وَانصُرُوا آلِهَتَكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ فَاعِلِينَ * قُلْنَا يَا نَارُ كُونِي بَرْدًا وَسَلَامًا عَلَىٰ إِبْرَاهِيمَ
14:37 - رَّبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِن ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِندَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِّنَ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُم مِّنَ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ
28:7 - وَأَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ أُمِّ مُوسَىٰ أَنْ أَرْضِعِيهِ ۖ فَإِذَا خِفْتِ عَلَيْهِ فَأَلْقِيهِ فِي الْيَمِّ وَلَا تَخَافِي وَلَا تَحْزَنِي ۖ إِنَّا رَادُّوهُ إِلَيْكِ وَجَاعِلُوهُ مِنَ الْمُرْسَلِينَ
Thank you, Ammar Ljevaković, for these incredible reflections
The following is based on the work of Leyla Ozgur Alhassen in A Structural Analysis of Sūrat Maryam, Verses 1-58
Ibid. The identity of this speaker is revealed in Sūrat Āl ʿImrān, but the fact Allah ﷻ chose not to reveal that here may contribute to the message that is meant to be delivered in this sūrah as opposed to another one.