To first or only know what Surah and Ayah really mean, please read the subject matter under the 1st and 4th subtitles, that is: Meaning of Surah as the Qur’anic Structural Term as well as Meaning of Ayah as the Qur’anic Structural Term.
Meaning of Surah as the Qur’anic Structural Term
The word Suratun (suːrətʊn) is the feminine of Surun (suːrʊn) which means the wall of a city or town. Since the wall used to be the part of a city for which Arabic word Madinatun (mʌdiːnʌtʊn) is a feminine noun, the feminine counterpart Suratun (suːrətʊn) has been used mostly — only in verse 11:13, masculine word Suwar (suːvər) has been used. Another point: while ending the speech or making a pause, the ending “ʊn” sound is dropped; and the ة (ta) before it changes to “ə” sound. Thus Suratun (suːrətʊn) is pronounced Surah (suːrəə = suːrɑː).
While traveling in the former times, when a person would see the surrounding wall of a city, he or she came to know that there was a walled city. The Qur’an has used the term Surah in this meaning of a walled city or town — drawing a parallel that when open-minded people look at these Surahs during their life-journey, they would recognize that these are the preserved places of divine teachings.
As the Qur’an says that these Surahs were sent down to Muhammad (PBUH), it clearly indicates that these walled cities are not physical but metaphoric.
As a metaphor, if a place has a striking presence of something, it may be called a town or city of that thing, such as: a town of spices, a city of sports, etc. Similarly, it is right to give the figurative title “a city of knowledge“ to a written work or a speech that has a good amount of valuable knowledge. By the same token, God has called each of his guidance-speeches “a city of information and guidance“. As the Qur’an is the Book of God (claimed at least), it contextually means “a city of divine information and guidance“.
Again, God has called it a walled city or town. When people erected a wall around a city, they set the limits of the city, and intended to protect it from plunderers and other unwanted intruders. However, the surrounding wall inherently made the city distinct as well as indicated to the passing travelers that there was a city inside it. Therefore, a walled city gives the connotations that a divine address is distinct, easily recognizable, and secure — no one can corrupt it. In brief, a Surah is a preserved city of divine teachings.
Throughout history, people faced insurmountable problems in safeguarding the Word of God for long. Consequently, when God sent down His last book (guidance to ALL humanity), He used His omnipotence to protect it forever so that no human being could say on the Day of Judgment that His book was lost or got corrupted before him/her, and then no prophet came to recover or correct it. The former books were for limited time and for a limited population, and also, the prophets were coming then. As a result, they did not warrant such protection of God.
The Qur’an comprises divine guidance-speeches to humanity. Each of these full addresses has been metaphorically called a Surah, a walled city of divine teachings — that is, a distinct, recognizable, and protected divine address to human beings.
Qur’an’s addresses as “walled cities of divine teachings“ also make the connotation that other than these, there is no place to find divine guidance exclusively. Other places may contain some information but mixed with misinformation.
Qur’anic Discourses Conform to Surah-Structure
Specially many non-Muslims complain that there are in-coordinated speeches in the Qur’an. This is because they have in mind that they are going through a chapter where the subject does not change, or, they are reading an essay or article where a discourse progresses steadily, and subjects do not change abruptly. They do not realize that they are going through the transcripts of divine addresses to human masses, or metaphorically: visiting the cities of divine information and guidance.
In an address to a human mass, a bunch of issues can be touched on. And what the sequence would be and how long a certain topic would be in focus rests on the speaker. Therefore, in a public address, switching topics is not in-coordinated but fitting in the context.
If a Surah is metaphorically considered to be a town of information, various information outlets or booths may be sitting in a town side by side giving various kinds of information. These various pieces of information cannot be called in-coordinated. Also, these pieces of information may be of various sizes.
In brief, when Surahs are considered either as divine addresses or metaphorically as the towns of divine information, the vast difference in their sizes, their strange titles, their dealing with a mix of subjects, their quickly shifting topics, all appear to be fitting. More explanation is as under:
(i) Regarding Widely Varying Sizes:
As a town may be very small or large or very large, so is a Surah. There are Surahs of three or four small sentences only. On the other hand, Surahs after the opening one in the Qur’an are so long that they defy the definition of a chapter. A chapter is a small division under a limited title. Literally, chapter means little head or capitulum, diminutive of caput. This capitulum has evolved to chapter.
In terms of divine addresses, an address may be very short, long, or very long.
(ii) As to the Strange Titles:
Names are given for identity. When a city is of knowledge (not a physical one), an allusion to some striking or interesting piece of information contained in it is the most suitable item for its name — just like a physical city may be titled after an iconic, interesting, or striking item or aspect of it.
When a Surah is viewed as a divine address, some story or statement of public interest is most appropriate for its title to help recognize it easily and widely. Recall the State of the Union Address of President Bush after 9/11. He used some striking lines in there, such as: axis of evil, or, you are either with us or against us. So from an audience point of view, people can remember this address as the “axis of evil speech” or “you are either with us or against us speech”. Similarly, Reverend Martin Luther King’s most famous speech has been entitled “I have a dream.” In similar ways, the titles of Surahs have been created based on the most striking line or thing mentioned in them from peoples’ standpoint. However, these titles have been contracted to a word or two.
One must not think that God named Surahs as afterthoughts (i.e. after observing how people regarded a certain Surah as to its identifying name). Rather, God is All-Knowing; He knew what in a certain address of His would be of interest to general mass. So He put the title of the Surah based on the same so that people can easily remember and refer to that divine address. These titles were conveyed to Muhammad (PBUH).
(iii) Multiple Subjects & Shifting Topics:
As various things of living are available in a town, guidance on various issues of life are in a Surah.
From another angle: when a governmental head visits a place, he may give directives on better housing, security, education, health care, transportation, public order, sanitation, and the like. So in his talk, there may be multiple shifting topics.
More on this subject has already been mentioned at the start of this section, as well as more is below.
(iv) Shifting Addressees:
In the above example, when the visiting head gives directives on health care, he would mainly address people associated with health care. And when he is giving directives on housing, he would address the personnel connected with the housing work. Similarly, in an address to a mass, various folks are sitting in front of the speaker. And the speaker addresses one folk at one point, then turns to another folk, then turns to still another folk. So the addressees and topics may change quickly in a guidance speech.
As to the likeness to a city, your tour-guide may talk to a person or group of visitors at one moment, and then turn to another person or group of people in the next moment.
(v) Regarding Repetitions:
If you go to various towns to shop, you will find many things common or similar. By the same token, one finds guidance on some subjects of life in multiple Surahs.
From another angle, Surahs are not academic lectures but divine talks made at His visits. Recall the given example earlier. That is, when a governmental head visits a place, he may give directives on better housing, security, education, health care, transportation, public order, sanitation, and the like. However, it does not mean that in his next visit to the same or some other place, he will touch none of these subjects.
When you guide your children (about life and how to behave), you go back and forth in guiding them. Practical guidance does not always move steadily forward, but at many points it returns to the formerly talked subjects.
(vi) Added or Further Detailing:
If you visit a city where there are many things to know about and/or to shop from, your tour-guide tells you about one thing, then about another thing, then about still another thing, and so on and so forth. And in this process, if he comes to a thing that he told you about earlier, he may tell you more about it. In a comparable way, one may find in a Surah: some new subjects, some repetitions, some former subjects with further detailing.
From the above discussion, it is obvious:
(a) The characters of Surahs in the Qur’an
are very different from those of chapters.
(b) The characters of a Surah render it likeness
to a city of information and guidance.
(c) Alternatively, the characters of a Surah
reflect that it is a divine address to humanity.
However, as to the divisions of the Qur’an, why God labeled them Surahs (preserved cities of religious information) and not divine addresses will be commented on at the end of this article.
Ayah is Not Equivalent of Verse
(a) The Qur’an calls its smaller speech-units Ayahs, not verses. It is not understandable that ALL-KNOWING God did not know the term that had been familiar to humans, so He COINED a new one. Arabs were doing poetry, so they were well familiar with verses.
It is also not understandable that WISE God invented the term Ayah just for fun, without any necessity.
(b) The Arabs were doing oration and poetry. But they were not using the term Ayah for a sentence, stanza, or paragraph.
(c) Muhammad (PBUH) dictated to his scribes to put a SIGN at the end of each Ayah, while no specific sign is put to mark the end of a verse or paragraph in Arabic or otherwise.
(d) An Ayah may contain only one word, a couple of words of an incomplete sentence, complete sentence(s) plus a part of the next sentence. None of these structures forms a paragraph.
(e) A paragraph is a unit of discourse that describes a particular point fully. To the contrary, an Ayah may not describe a point fully, or may describe many points in it.
(f) Ayah is a division related with a specific punctuation mark; this mark is also called Ayah (a sign). Whereas, verse is neither a punctuation mark nor related with any specific sign of punctuation.
(g) It is very difficult to memorize word for word the first five passages (for example) of an essay, but remembering the first five Ayats of any Surah is a piece of cake.
Meaning of Ayah as the Qur’anic Structural Term
The word ayatun (ɑːyʌtʊn) literally means a sign. Since the Qur’an is a Word of God, it contextually means “a sign indicative of God‘“. In addition, since this sign comes after very widely varying lengths of speech — not found in human speaking or writing — it overall means “a sign hinting to God’s speech“.
This word Ayah refers to two things:
(1) It refers to a special punctuation mark placed in
the transcript of the Qur’an, indicating a stop. In
oral tradition, it is a long break during recitation.
(2) As these characters in writing or stop-features in oral
tradition come after widely varying lengths of speech,
this length of speech is also called an Ayah — hinting
that this speech is of God.
This is a unique Pause System in the Qur’an. A long pause comes after widely varying lengths of speech as follows:
– after just a regular or abbreviated word,
– after a couple of words but not a full sentence,
– after a full sentence,
– after varying the number of full sentences,
– after one or more sentences plus a segment of
the next sentence.
Though this break system works excellently in recitation as well as the Meccan disbelievers (many of them had expertise in Classical Arabic) never found fault with it, it is so unusual that humans do not and cannot speak with such breaks in their own speaking, nor can they write with such breaks. As a result, a believer is bound to depend on the revelation itself for these places to stop while reciting.
Even these stop-points cannot be spotted by humans. For example: if the Qur’an is translated word for word into English without showing these marks to stop, and then asked someone who has expertise in English essay- or speech-writing for putting these stop-signs, he would not be able to do it. And the same would be the case in Arabic or any other language. This Pause System or Qur’anic Punctuation is very UNIQUE, for which rules are NOT known to humans.
It is only God who can make speeches with such punctuation, and can deliver a full address with this Pause Mechanism. Take an example: in Ayah 2/282 this pause comes after about 18 sentences, whereas in Ayah 55/1 it has come just after one word.
The length of speech from the start of a talk to the first of such pauses, between two such pauses, or between such a pause and the end of a talk is also called an Ayah (ɑːyɑː), because it is a widely varying length of complete or incomplete speech, indicative of God’s speech — no human can make speeches in this manner.
The Strength of Ayahs
The easily and conspicuously notable strengths are as follows:
(1) This pause system renders the characteristic that makes this speech neither prose nor poetry; it is a unique speech as compared to all human speech-forms.
(2) This pause system along with the ending sounds, with or without rhymes, creates certain intermittent rhythms (symmetrical, harmonious, or not discordant). These breaks and rhythms activate an intangible mental mechanism with which a great many non-Arab teens memorize the whole Qur’an word for word without understanding a single sentence of it, whereas it is almost impossible to memorize all the sentences and paragraphs of a book, in the right sequence, and without understanding them.
(3) This pause system gives time to the listeners to ponder and mentally respond favorably or unfavorably all the way down the line. In other scriptures, a person keeps reciting without frequent long pauses, thereby they do not give the listeners the chance to think critically all along the line. Rather, they try to get their audience being carried away by their continuous interesting or emotional treatments.
(4) At many points one needs to bring fillers between Ayahs in order to make out the whole sense in accordance with the context. At many places, these fillers may change with new thoughts or changed circumstances. In this manner, the Ayah system guides humans in changing circumstances as well as the total meaning of the Qur’an is never exhausted.
(5) This pause system makes the recitation so elegant and respectable that no other speech does (provided the listener is not prejudiced).
In addition, this pause system contributes to the sweetness of the recitation that never goes away, even if a person (unprejudiced) listens to it repeatedly and does not understand it.
The Final Comment
The Qur’an is UNIQUE in its elements of speech.
Chapters and verses are in the Bible, the Geeta, and all other available scriptures. They are also in non-religious books. Therefore, chapters and verses do NOT carry divine signs in themselves. As a result, the adherents of each of these scriptures merely count on the author’s claim or their tradition that it is from God.
To the contrary: when someone says metaphorically that Mr. X is a lion, or Y is a city of lights, the acceptance of this character depends on your critical judgment to agree or disagree with. Similarly,
(i) when Quran’s author introduces metaphorically its main divisions as the preserved cities of divine teachings (i.e. Surahs), it is on you to look for the pertinent signs, and decide accordingly.
(ii) when Quran’s author describes metaphorically its smaller speech-pieces as signs indicative of God (i.e. Ayahs), it is on you to look at their characteristics and judge whether these signs are weighty, inconclusive, or fake.
Thus the author has put divine signs pervasively in the framework of this book, and then, left on humans to check and conclude. This is the fairest way of presenting a scripture. It does not limit the choice of depending on its author’s claim that it is from God, rather it provides signs throughout this book so as to infer whether or not they back this claim. This is why the author has labeled God’s addresses as Surahs, and God’s smaller speech-pieces as Ayahs. Otherwise, these statements, God’s addresses and God’s speech-pieces, would have been assertions, not signs. Additionally, these widely distributed signs give the yardstick how to recognize the right scripture.
This idea learned from the Qur’an that signs indicative of being from God should be throughout a scripture has a strong point:
If some parts of a scripture have divine signs but other parts do not, the latter cannot be excluded from having been corrupted.
Similarly, if the architecture of a scripture is similar to that of a humanly written book, there is no certainty that this is from God
As Muslim writers, speakers, and Qur’an translators have made Surah and Ayah very unfamiliar terms to English understanding non-Muslims, we are left with no choice but to continue referring to them as chapters and verses in our articles.
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