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Grammatical Shift for Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifāt and Related Features in the Qur'ān


In a study which has been described as pioneering, Neue Beiträge zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft, Theodor Nöldeke ‘discussed in detail the “Stylistische und syntaktische Eigentümlichkeiten der Sprache des Korans” (pp. 5–23) thereby collecting together everything that had occurred to him in this respect during his protracted and intensive study of the Holy Book of the Muslims.’ Among the examples Nöldeke discusses (pp. 13–14) are Q. 7 (not 77 which is clearly a misprint in his text): 55, 27:61; 35:27, 6:99, 20:55, 10:23, etc. where there is a sudden shift in the pronoun of the speaker or the person spoken about, known as iltifāt in balāgha (Arabic rhetoric), though Nöldeke does not refer to the term here. Introducing his discussion of this feature, Nöldeke remarks that ‘the grammatical persons change from time to time in the Qur'ān in an unusual and not beautiful way (nicht schöner Weise)’ (p. 13). This is a personal value judgement. Arab writers, in contrast see the matter differently. Ibn al-Athīr, for instance, after studying this stylistic feature, as we shall see below, classed it among the ‘remarkable things and exquisite subtleties we have found in the Glorious Qur'ān.’ It will be seen that the examples Nöldeke cites immediately following the statement quoted above do not occur haphazardly in the Qur'ān but follow a pattern. Examination of where exactly the shift occurs and why, will show how effective the technique is in these examples and why Muslim literary critics and exegetes greatly admire iltifāt and its related features. Nöldeke further remarks (p. 14) that in a few places the second and third person plural are exchanged abruptly: 30:38, 49:7, 10:23. Here again it will be seen that the changes are made according to an effective pattern and that the frequency of occurrences of this type is much greater than is indicated by Nöldeke.

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Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies
  • ISSN: 0041-977X
  • EISSN: 1474-0699
  • URL: /core/journals/bulletin-of-the-school-of-oriental-and-african-studies
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