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Structural Cohesion In The Quran: Heavenly Order


The Quran

This is a continuation of a series on the structure and organization of the Quran (though this piece should have been released first, but many factors did not allow for it. I am sorry). The goal is to help the reader appreciate the amazing coherence of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) word and dismantle the myth of the “random” and “unorganized” Quran.

In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Very Merciful.

All thanks and praise are due to Allah ﷻ,1After the name Allah, you may see the following symbol: ﷻ. Written out it reads, “جَلَّ جَلَالُهُ (jalla jalāluhu)” which roughly translates to, “Exalted is His majesty.” the Master of all creation, and may His blessings be upon His last and final messenger, Muḥammad ﷺ,2After the name of the Prophet Muḥammad, you may see the following symbol: ﷺ. Written out it reads, “صَلَّ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ (ṣalla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam)” which roughly translates to, “May Allah bless, praise and protect him”. his family, his companions, and those who follow them until the end of times.

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A cursory glance at tafsīr (exegesis) works is enough to appreciate the rich meaning embedded in every letter of the Quran. The insights about life, faith, and guidance are endless, and the application of those wisdoms is a lifelong journey. But a sometimes-overlooked aspect of the Quran is its organization. How do the āyāt3 I will be using the words āyah and its plural, āyāt, very often. These terms are usually translated as “verse,” but that definition leaves a lot of the meaning out. More accurately, an āyah is a sign that points you in the direction of something. In the context of the Quran, every āyah is a miraculous sign pointing back to Allah ﷻ. For this reason, I’ll keep using the word āyah instead of translating it as “verse”. come together to form a coherent whole whose placement of āyāt contributes to a well-organized and methodological message and sūrah?4 Sūrah (and its plural, suwar) is sometimes translated as “chapter”, but this is not a satisfying translation. Allah ﷻ says in the Quran that He did not just reveal āyāt, rather, He says He revealed suwar too. For example, Sūrat an-Nūr (Light) calls itself a sūrah (24:1): سُورَةٌ أَنزَلْنَاهَا وَفَرَضْنَاهَا وَأَنزَلْنَا فِيهَا آيَاتٍ بَيِّنَاتٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ A sūrah; We sent it down and made it obligatory and we revealed clear āyāt in it so that you may remember. Coming from the same root letters, you get the following words which help us understand its deeper meaning: سَوْرَ (sawra) – When one consumes a wine or liquor that is extremely strong, to the extent that one gets intoxicated just by a few sips. This word describes the intensity that reaches and affects the head. سَارَ يَسُورُ (sāra yasūru) – To climb up to a very high place. This word was used to describe the tall walls that were insurmountable and would protect a city. تَسَوَّرَ (tasawwara) – To scale. سَوْرَة (sawrah) – A high status; a level of a building; borders of something. In the Quran, a sūrah can remind you of another sūrah or of another piece of a sūrah. “Sūrah” is used to describe something that rises from the bottom to the top. Like the drink that intoxicates you from the bottom to the top, the wall that’s insurmountable, etc. Interestingly, the Quran uses the word sūrah as something that’s dropped down, instead of something being raised from the bottom to the top. That implies that it is impossible to surmount because one cannot see the top; it is endless. And if one cannot see the top then it is not prone to attack. Taking all of the above into account, defining “sūrah” as a “chapter” is far from its proper definition. For this reason, I will stick to calling it a sūrah throughout our studies. And how might that structuring lend itself to uncovering deeper meanings not as apparent on an initial read-through? God willing, we will explore the ancient literary tools used to structure language and discover ways that the Quran may utilize those tools to give further meaning and significance to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) words. 

Context plays a pivotal role in properly understanding any given āyah in the Quran, and that has been well-documented in tafsīr. Here, however, we will observe how the overall sūrah is composed. Just as one can take a book and understand its full outline – typically linear with Chapter 1 leading to Chapter 2, Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, etc. – surely the Quran has its own outline that we can observe and understand. 

However, before one answers the aforementioned questions, it is important to ask why studying naẓm5 Khan and Randhawa succinctly summarize the meaning of naẓm in their book, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature, as “’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.” (composition) is meaningful in the first place. Why should one study how Allah ﷻ organized the placement of His āyāt? There are five reasons worth discussing:

1) Allah ﷻ is the Best of Speakers and His Speech is the Best of All Speech – Allah ﷻ says in the beginning of Sūrat6 Sūrat, with a “t,” is the same word as sūrah, but the “t” is there for how it is pronounced in flow with another word following it.  al-Raḥmān (The Most Merciful), “The Most Merciful, He taught the Quran, created man, [and] taught him al-bayān.”7 55:1-4 – الرَّحْمَـٰنُ * عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ * خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ * عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ Bayān involves both expressing oneself and understanding what has been expressed by others. It can be defined as eloquence, clear speech, explaining, the ability to express oneself, or elucidating.8Badawi, Elsaid and Muhammed Abdel Haleem (2008). Bayān. Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage. (1st ed., p. 125). Brill.

Allah ﷻ taught humans how to speak and part of communicating effectively is having organized speech. If all coherent speech is clearly organized, what can be said of the speech of the teacher of all speech? Part of the agreed-upon definition of the Quran is that it is the inimitable speech of Allah ﷻ. Nothing can, or will, ever come close to His words in all praiseworthy manners. Allah ﷻ Himself calls the Quran “bayān,” so one should take note of how He organized His perfect words.9 It is important to note that modern notions of ring structures and the like (discussed below) are not what make the Quran inimitable. However, they may contribute to the argument of what makes the Quran’s language so eloquent and rhetorically elevated.

Additionally, in Sūrat al-Kahf (The Cave) Allah ﷻ says, “Say, ‘If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement.’“1018:109 – قُل لَّوْ كَانَ الْبَحْرُ مِدَادًا لِّكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّي لَنَفِدَ الْبَحْرُ قَبْلَ أَن تَنفَدَ كَلِمَاتُ رَبِّي وَلَوْ جِئْنَا بِمِثْلِهِ مَدَدً And He ﷻ also says in Sūrat Luqmān (Luqmān the Wise), “And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [was ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.”1131:27 – وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِن بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّـهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ These āyāt point to Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) power to articulate meanings with many layers of understanding. The more one delves into His āyāt, the more one may derive benefits and find further guidance in His words. How He structured His words may be another layer on top of the already innumerable methods of accessing Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) message.

2) All of Creation is Organized12 This point is argued in more detail by Shaykh Hamīduddīn Farāhī in his book, Dalāil an-Niẓām – Humans are encouraged by Allah ﷻ in a number of āyāt to contemplate the harmony of His creation. In Sūrat al-Wāqi’ah (The Inevitable) Allah ﷻ says, “I swear by the positions of the stars–A mighty oath, if you only knew–that this is truly a noble Quran.”1356:75 – فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ * وَإِنَّهُ لَقَسَمٌ لَّوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عَظِيمٌ * إِنَّهُ لَقُرْآنٌ كَرِيمٌ Allah ﷻ tied the precision of the stars’ positions to the Quran. If the heavens, the earth, the cells in our bodies, and even the atoms forming those objects are organized, then how can the speech of Allah ﷻ not be?

Science and mathematics are essentially the study of how Allah ﷻ organized His creation. If not for the regular patterns one witnesses in the world, documenting observations into comprehensible textbooks and research papers would be near-impossible. Just as creation has a structure one can follow, one may presume that the structure of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) speech is also observable.

3) Baseless Claims That the Quran is Unorganized – There are many documented cases of non-Muslims critiquing the Quran for what they perceive to be a lack of cohesion.14See comments made by Voltaire and Thomas Carlyle, for example. The orientalist, Angelika Neuwirth, has written extensively on the organization of the Quran and has contributed to the field in her own right. On the structure of the shorter Makkan suwar, she agrees that, “they appear to follow particular rules of composition.”15 Neuwirth, Angelica, Structural, Linguistic and Literary Features, in Cambridge companion to the Quran, ed. Jane Dammen MacAuliffe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 98 However, she seems to only extend this evaluation to the question of the organization of short suwar. On the longer suwar, she comments, “Only some of the long sūras appear to be haphazard compilations of isolated text passages, their shape due to the redaction process itself.”16Ibid.

On the sequencing of the suwar within the Quran she comments, “The compositional sequence of the qurānic sūras does not follow any logical, let alone theological, guideline and betrays both a conservative and a theologically disinterested attitude on the part of the redactors. It suggests that the redaction was carried out without extensive planning, perhaps in a hurry, at a stage of development prior to the emergence of the elaborate conceptions of prophetology that underlie the sīra, the biography of the Prophet that was fixed about a century and a half after his death.”17Ibid.

And then there are others still, though Muslim and sincere in their questioning, who are confused about how Allah ﷻ organized His speech. What many fail to realize is that the Quran has its own standard of structure, one which is better than anything on offer from Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) creation. Despite the lofty standards, Allah ﷻ tells us in the beginning of Sūrat Yūsuf (Joseph), “No doubt We sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you all may understand [it].”1812:2 – إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ The coherence of the Quran is accessible, and this book will demonstrate, at a surface level, how well-structured a sūrah can be.

4) The Chronological Arrangement of the Quran was Changed – While there are differences of opinion on who ultimately decided on the current order of the suwar in the Quran we have today,19As I will argue in this book, I believe the current order to be divinely inspired by Allah ﷻ, as has been the majority opinion throughout Islamic history. there is no doubt that the suwar are not in the chronological order that they were revealed in. If we acknowledge Allah ﷻ to be the organizer of the Quran, then this points to there being a wisdom in their current order that would have been lost had the original chronology been preserved. In other words, Allah ﷻ intended for the Quran to be rearranged and compiled into its current order for us to study and benefit from.

On that note, it is possible that Western scholars’ frustration with the existing arrangement of suwar is what spurred their attempts to reconstruct the chronological order of the Quran.20Mir, Mustansir. “Coherence in the Quran,” 1986. 

5) It is a Potential Tool for Interpreting the Quran – Tafsīr of the Quran with the Quran is one of the main sources for unlocking the Quran’s meanings. Imām as-Suyūṭī summarized this methodology saying, “The scholars have said: Whoever wishes to interpret the Quran, he should first turn to the Quran itself. This is because what has been narrated briefly in one place might be explained in detail in another place, and what is summarized in one place might be explained in another.”21as-Suyūṭī, Al-Itqān fī ‘ulūm al-Qurān In simpler terms, using the surrounding context can help to elucidate the meaning of Allah’s subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) words. By understanding how Allah ﷻ organized the āyāt, qualified scholars may be able to uncover an additional layer of context by which to interpret a sūrah.

Part of understanding the Quran is in asking questions, thus observing how and why Allah ﷻ organized His Word opens the doors to new questions and potentially new insights. So, while it may not be a direct source of tafsīr, the structure may act as a supportive tool to the already existing methods of interpreting the Quran. 


As has been explained by scholars for centuries, every āyah of every sūrah contains rich meanings that one can learn from and potentially apply to their life. Another aspect of the suwar that is not as well-known is how each sūrah is organized on a wholistic scale, or how the suwar of the Quran are organized in their current compiled order. The study of the Quran’s naẓm is an old field of Quranic research, but very little has been written about the symmetrical literary organization of suwar on a macro-level; how a sūrah (or suwar) is organized at a bird’s-eye-view. This begs the question of why there is scarce recorded about this particular study in classical tafsīr works.

As has been noted by Mustansir Mir,22 The following analysis is highly adapted from Mustansir Mir’s paper, Coherence in the Qur’ān, where he outlines a brief history of the study of “naẓm,” as well as details the evolution of the field. naẓm is a term that has held different meanings as its study developed over time. He says, “The authors whose views have reached us may be divided into two broad categories: those who interpret Qurānic naẓm to mean some kind of a relationship between words and meanings, and those who understand by it a linear connection existing between the Quranic verses, sūrahs, or verses and sūrahs both.”23 Ibid.

Most famous from this first group is Abū Sulaymān Ḥamd ibn Muḥammad al-Khaṭṭābī (died 998 CE), author of “Kitāb Bayān Iʿjāz al-Qur’ān (Clarifying the Miracle of the Quran).” He understood naẓm to be an important key to the Quran’s iʿjāz (inimitability), but his definition of naẓm differs from how modern scholars would utilize it. “The Quran is inimitable,” he writes, “in that it employs the most eloquent words in ideal forms of composition (aḥsan nuẓūm at-ta’līf), embodying the truest meanings.”24 Ibid. In other words, Khaṭṭābī uses the word “naẓm” to describe the Quran’s eloquence and beauty (balāghah). Each word in a given āyah is the best word that could have been used, and it was placed in the āyah in the appropriate place to convey the best and clearest meaning one could give. 

From the latter group – those who understood naẓm to be a linear connection between the āyāt and suwar – Fakhr ad-Dīn Abū ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿUmar ar-Rāzī (died 1210 CE) is probably the most well-known and one of the first writers to apply the idea of naẓm to the whole of the Quran.25 Ibid. His tafsīr, Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb (The Keys to the Unseen), frequently establishes naẓm by demonstrating how āyah 1 of a sūrah leads to āyah 2, how āyah 2 is related to āyah 3, and so on until he has connected the entire sūrah, from beginning to end, in one unbroken chain. He has also done this in establishing the connection between adjacent suwar.26 Ibid. For example, Rāzī observed27Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb, ar-Rāzī, Sūrat al-Kawthar, that in Sūrat al-Māʿūn (Small Kindnesses), four qualities are listed as “the one who denies the Recompense”:

  1. He is exceedingly miserly: “That is the one who pushes away the orphan and does not urge the feeding of the poor.”
  2. He prays inattentively: “So woe to those who pray and are heedless in their prayer.”
  3. He only prays to show off: “Those who are all show.”
  4. He is unwilling to give even the smallest amount from his wealth or food: “And refuse small kindnesses.”

Sūrat Al-Kawthar (The Abundance), the next sūrah in the Quran’s compiled order, mentions four exact opposite qualities in the same order:

  1. Allah ﷻ is extremely giving: “Truly We have given you the Abundance.”
  2. The Messenger ﷺ is commanded to pray: “So pray”
  3. He ﷺ is commanded to do it sincerely: “to your Master,” which can also be translated as “for your Master.”
  4. He ﷺ is commanded to sacrifice an animal, which involves expending money and giving out the meat of the animal to others: “and sacrifice.”

The final āyah of Sūrat al-Kawthar, (“Truly your enemy is the one who is cut off”), which has no counterpart in al-Māʿūn, is a perfect transition to the next sūrah of the Quran, Sūrat al-Kāfirūn (The Disbelievers). Summarized the two suwar appear as so:28This is what we would label as a “parallel structure,” which we will explore in more detail below.

al-Māʿūn A – Have you seen the one who denies the Recompense? (1) That is the one who pushes away the orphan (2) And does not urge the feeding of the poor (3) 
    B – So, woe to those who pray – (4) Those who are heedless of their prayers, (5) 
        C – Those who are all show (6) 
            D – And refuse small kindnesses. (7)
al-Kawthar A’ – Truly We have given you the Abundance (1)
    B’ – So pray
        C’ – to your Master 
            D’ – and sacrifice (2)
Truly your enemy is the one who is cut off (3)

Later on, scholars such as Burhān ad-Dīn Ibrāhīm bin ʿUmar al-Baqā’ī (died 1476 CE) would write works like his “an-Naẓm ad-Durar fi tanāsub al-āyāt wa as-Suwar (The Arrangement of Pearls with Regards to the Connections of the Āyāt and Suwar)” analyzing the possible connections between every single āyah of the Quran. 

In the more recent past, two scholars who really pushed the understanding of naẓm research are Ḥamīd ad-Dīn ʿAbd al-Ḥamīd al-Farāhī (died 1930 CE) and his student Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī (died 1997 CE). Iṣlāḥī “holds that the Quran is endowed with a coherence that is not only remarkable in itself but is integral to the meaning and interpretation of the Quran.”29 Mir, Mustansir, “Coherence in the Quran,” 1986. They argued that every sūrah has a clear naẓm, which should be the basis by which the Quran is interpreted. According to them, every sūrah has a central theme around which the entire sūrah revolves.30 Ibid. Furthermore, they proposed the existence of sūrah groups. They observed that there is a logical link between all the suwar in their present arrangement and that the suwar could be further placed into groups. Each group therein constitutes another layer of context by which to interpret a given sūrah

All of the above developments, however, do not demonstrate the type of organization and structuring being presented through this book. It is not until relatively recently that we get a flourishing of research showcasing the macro-scale, symmetrical, literary structuring of the Quran. From the past, there were some scholars who looked at the connection between the end of one sūrah and the beginning of the next, which helps to showcase the logical progression of the suwar in their canonical order. Amongst these are Rūḥ al-Maʿānī (The Spirit of the Meaning) by Shihāb ad-Dīn al-Sayyid Maḥmūd al-Ālūsī (died 1854 CE) and al-Baḥr al-Muḥīṭ (The Encompassing Ocean) by Muḥammad ibn Yūsuf bin ‘Alī ibn Yūsuf ibn Hayyān (died 1344 CE). 

In more recent times, Dr. Fāḍil Ṣāliḥ as-Samirrā’ī has written a work entitled “at-Tanāsub bayn as-Suwar fi al-Muftataḥ wa al-Khawātīm (The Connection Between the Suwar in their Beginnings and Endings),” which looks at the suwar from two different perspectives. First, he analyzes the connections between the beginning and end of each sūrah,31His analysis stops at Sūrat al-Inshiqāq. He says the rest of the suwar cover single subjects, so their beginnings and endings match by default. showing how each sūrah ends on the same note it began on. Then, he builds on the works of al-Ālūsī and ibn Hayyān and demonstrates the connections between the end of one sūrah and the beginning of the sūrah adjacent to it. 

None of the above works, however, look at the organizational structure of the Quran in totality. They analyze parts of the suwar, but do not delve into the inner sequence of the suwar as we will explore below. Amongst the first to conduct such research is Michel Cuypers, who took rhetorical methods applied to Biblical Studies to examine suwar for symmetry, parallelism, and ring and mirror compositions.32See Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qurʾan (Miami,FL: Convivium, 2009); idem, The Composition of the Qurʾān: Rhetorical Analysis, trans. Jerry Ryan (London: Bloomsbury, 2015); and idem, “Structures rhétoriques dans le Coran: Une analyse structurelle de la sourate ‘Joseph’ et de quelques sourates brèves,” MIDEO 22 (1995): 107–195. Cuypers notes one interesting opinion as to why these structural studies have not been applied to the Quran until relatively recently. He says, “We understand now why the Quranic text seems often so disordered, at a simple reading: the ideas do not succeed one another in a progressive linear continuity, as we are used to in the logical and rhetorical tradition inherited from the Greeks, but they match at a distance, in a complicated set of symmetries. The apparent disorder is not the result of a lack of composition, but on the contrary the result of a very sophisticated composition, according to a rhetoric widespread in the antique world of the Middle East, but later forgotten, including by the Arabs, most probably under the influence of the Hellenistic culture.”33 Cuypers, Michel. Semetic Rhetoric as a Key to the Question of Naẓm of the Quranic Text. Journal of Quranic Studies.

Another possible reason for the recent emergence of structural studies is the piecemeal nature of the Quran’s revelation. This method of revelation helps to emphasize that the Quran is first and foremost a book of guidance, not stories. Had the Quran been intended to primarily tell us stories, one would expect a linear organization to most, if not all, suwar.34Sūrat Yūsuf (Joseph) is distinct in the Quran because it employs such a linear story-telling method. It stands in contrast to most other stories in the Quran. On this note, most tafsīr aims to bring the reader to guidance, not structure, so it makes sense that the organization of an entire sūrah was either neglected, or known and unrecorded. Simply put, it was not the primary focus of classical tafsīr

Another dimension is found in considering how we, Western audiences, engage the Quran. Traditional scholars will always approach the Quran through the Arabic medium, whose elegance and rhythmic pacing coalesce the āyāt together, even if their subject matter may seem disparate. For Westerners, reading the Quran in translation makes the transitions much more jarring to one’s ears, and may have motivated some of the initial research into structure. 

Returning to the modern-day, Dr. Raymond Farrin has argued that pre-Islamic Arabic poetry employed symmetry and that such symmetry is evident in the Quran as well.35See Raymond Farrin, Structure and Quranic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2014). Farrin was once asked what caused him to focus on structure and Quranic interpretation. He responded, “I came to focus on Structure and Quranic Interpretation, once more, by way of Arabic literature. My first book, Abundance from the Desert (translated into Arabic as Tharwa min al-badiya, Dar al-Farabi), challenges the notion held by many Orientalists that classical Arabic poems lack structure. The book shows that, on the contrary, many noteworthy poems possess coherence in the form of ring structure. (Classical audiences were evidently aware of concentric structure, but it has only recently been appreciated in early poetry by literary scholars.) The book furthermore shows that this structure serves as a guide to meaning, with the key message or image occurring in the center.

“Later, I was surprised to find that many orientalists also criticize the Quran for a supposed lack of structure. Following the work of researchers such as Michel Cuypers and Mustansir Mir, who have discovered symmetrical patterns in parts of the Quran, I proceeded to look for a similar structural logic in the Quran as a whole.”36Firoz, Fahad Mohammed. “Structure in the Qur’an with Dr Raymond Farrin, interview by Abdur-Rahmān Abdul Majd.” Hayat-ul-Qulub, January 17th, 2017,

Dr. Farrin is maybe best known for bringing the concentric structure of Āyat al-Kursī (The Throne Verse) to light,37We will explore the significance of this literary structure below. which may serve as an example of the type of organization he claims classical Arabic poems contain. This is an example of a ring structure; a symmetrical pattern with a central point that all other sections revolve around. 

    A – There is no god, but Him, the Living, the Eternal
        B – Slumber and sleep never overtakes Him
            C – All thing in the heavens and on the earth belong to Him
                D – Who may intercede in His presence except with His permission?
                    E – He knows what lies before them and what lies behind them
                D’ – They grasp nothing of His knowledge except as He wills
            C’ – His throne extends over the heavens and the earth
        B’ – Supporting them does not fatigue Him
    A’ – And He is the Exalted, the Great


Before continuing, it is important to emphasize that the organizing structures mentioned above (and explored in more detail below) are not unique to the Quran. They have been used in other ancient texts across cultures. For example, ring composition was extremely widespread in the ancient world, and even up until modern times. As noted by Randhawa and Khan, “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, hymns 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 de geste, and medieval German Nibelungenlied; 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.”38Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.,39See also Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007), 4-12 and Raymond Farrin, Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), 2011, xvii.


To appreciate the breakdown of the structure of some of the suwar of the Quran, it is important to understand the different methods of organizing communication. The study of the composition of a sūrah involves several aspects. It has been observed that the Quran utilizes the following tools to varying degrees, with each providing a unique benefit.


The most familiar type of organization to Western audiences is called linear coherence, which concerns the linear flow, continuity or sequential arrangement of the Quran. In what way is one āyah or topic connected to the next? This is how any modern text (including this book) is written. Idea #1 leads to Idea #2, which leads to Idea #3, etc. Linear coherence has the most written about it with regards to the Quran, and as such, there will not be too much focus on this method during our studies.40The interested reader may read the aforementioned, “an-Naẓm ad-Durar fi tanāsub al-āyāt wa as-Suwar (The Arrangement of Pearls with Regards to the Connections of the Āyāt and Suwar)” by al-Baqā’ī or “Mafātīḥ al-Ghayb (The Keys to the Unseen)” by ar-Rāzī.


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’. Rāzī demonstrated this in his observations between Sūrat Māʿūn and Sūrat al-Kawthat above. By way of another example, Allah ﷻ says in Sūrat Qāf (Qāf) (transliteration provided where needed):41 Heavenly Order. “Sūrah Qāf (Part 2).” 2 Oct. 2020,

A – But they denied (kadhdhabū)
    Bthe truth (al-Ḥaqq) when it came to them, 
        C – so they are in a confused (marīj) condition. (5) 
            D – Have they not looked at the heaven above them – how We structured it and adorned it and [how] it has no rifts? (6) And the earth – We spread it out and cast therein firmly set mountains and made grow therein [something] of every beautiful kind, (7) Giving insight and a reminder for every servant who turns [to Allah]. (8) And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest (9) And lofty palm trees having fruit arranged in layers – (10) As provision for the servants, and We have given life thereby to a dead land. Thus is the resurrection. (11) 
A’ – The people of Noah denied (khadhdhabat) before them, and the companions of the well and Thamud (12) And ‘Aad and Pharaoh and the brothers of Lot (13) And the companions of the thicket and the people of Tubba’. All denied (khadhdhaba) the messengers, 
    B’ – so My threat was truly (ḥaqqa) fulfilled. (14) 
        C’ – Did We fail in the first creation? But they are in confusion (labsin)
            D’ – over a new creation (15)

Each item corresponds to its source in the list. The point is that the parallel terms must have some conspicuous relationship, whether it is a relationship of similarity, opposites, or something else. Parallelism is an extremely common device in poetics and rhetoric, because it is simple, intuitive, aesthetically appealing, and poetically moving.42Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016. In terms of the Quran, if one finds a parallel pattern, then Allah ﷻ could be drawing attention to an otherwise overlooked relationship between two items. Conversely, where all but one item corresponds in a parallel structure, it may be that Allah ﷻ is teaching us a lesson about the subtle differences.


The second type of symmetrical form may be called inverted parallelism, or mirror composition. This is where the terms or ideas are presented in one order but then repeated in the reverse order. This follows the pattern ABC/C’B’A’. In a similar vein, 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 ABCD/D’C’B’A’, in which D/D’ might be considered the center. This structure was mentioned for Āyat al-Kursī, above. As another example, the story of Mūsā (Moses) in Sūrat al-Qaṣaṣ (The Story) also appears to be structured in this manner:43Heavenly Order. “Sūrah Al-Qaṣaṣ (Part 1).” 6 Nov. 2020,

A – Prologue (1-6)
    B – Moses is thrown in the water and lives (7-8)
        C – The Pharaoh’s wife asks him for a favor (9)
            D – The sister of Moses is sent to Pharaoh and her speech is accepted (10-12)
                E – Moses is returned to his mother (13)
                    F – Moses unsuccessfully tries to help a man twice (14-22)
                    F’ – Moses successfully helps two women on the first try (23-24)
                E’ – Moses meets his father-in-law (25-28)
            D’ – Moses is sent to Pharaoh and his speech is rejected (29-37)
        C’ – Pharaoh asks Haman for a favor (38)
    B’ – Pharaoh and his army voluntarily enter the sea and are drowned (39-42)
A’ – Epilogue (43-52)

Several features are significant about ring composition. First, it may occur on different scales. It can be seen in sentences, passages, or even an entire book. In some cases, as is common in the Quran, a large-scale ring composition consists, in turn, of smaller rings. 

Dr. Farrin goes as far as to say that ring composition is “probably the major structural pattern … in classical Arabic poetry.”44Raymond Farrin, Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011. His finding is significant, since the Quran challenged the rhetoric of the Arabs living at the time of the Messenger ﷺ. If how they organized their poems was a major aspect of their works, then it makes sense that the Quran would surpass them in this as well. On this note, Shāh Walī Allāh Dihlawī (died 1762 CE) argues in his book, al-Fawz al-Kabīr (The Great Success), that a linear format would have been foreign to the original Arab audience. They did not have written works, and thus were not familiar with organizing literature in a linear fashion. This could be another reason for the Quran’s employed style.45For a fair and balanced critique of the works of Cuypers and Farrin, see “Going Round in Circles” by Nicolai Sinai.

Finally, understanding ring structure can be important for understanding the meaning of a composition. In a ring composition, usually “the meaning is located in the middle”;46See Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007) that is, the center 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.47Ibid.

Though, one might ask, “Why are there no records from antiquity which explain how to create or understand ring structures if they are so common?” Dr. George Archer gives a thorough explanation, saying, “…the absence of any traditional reference to ring structures, which seems particularly troublesome, is not. It is an anachronism upon an anachronism. It is no different than speaking about ‘pagans’ or ancient ‘culture,’ ‘religion,’ ‘art,’ or ‘science.’ Oral peoples have technique (technē, fann; “craft”), not technology (a logic or explanation of technē). Ring composition (or whatever else we may call it) is just a short-hand. It does not exist before the modern period. It is a nominalism based upon a tendency, not a school of thought or a rhetoric. There is no reason to suppose that someone who composed a ring composition in a primarily oral society could have explained why they were choosing this pattern over others. So much of our own terminology about language and its workings are specific to highly literate cultures. To a highly oral people, all constructions are only examples, even if they expose key themes. Orality-orientated people do not create grammars, rhetorics, or dictionaries. All texts exist only in performance, even if they can be repeated verbatim. All words are nonce words, even if they are used daily. Language exists only in the present. Meaning cannot be syphoned away from context and structure or refined into a clean concept or a pure thought. Again, to use the analogy to our own oral performances of popular music, the creation of the performance does not mean the musician understands the principles that guide it. Thus, the popular musician (read, oral bard) can alter or edit the pattern without breaking any rules; it just sounds or ‘works’ better one way rather than another. The sonnet or haiku writer, on the other hand, is constrained by rhetoric, cannot deviate, and knows exactly why. […]

“An oral compositional technique like ring structure would not need a formal rhetoric as the performance itself is the rhetoric. The argument against ring structure because of its absence in the historic record is cyclical and falls in upon itself. A culture without a strong sense of a written record would have no use for such an invention, as any ‘text’ that would present these methods would itself have to employ them. There are books about how to compose music and draw figures, but what would be the point of writing an opera on how to create operas, or drawing one’s own how-to-draw pictograms? We may offer scientific rejections or affirmations to a structural analyst’s arguments or findings — Why does a section break here and not there? Why does this intratextual relationship matter more than this other one? — but to condemn it as unscientific or unnatural is not a productive criticism.48 Archer, George. A Place Between Two Places: The Qur’ān’s Intermediate State and the Early History of the Barzakh. 2015. Georgetown University, PhD dissertation. Pg. 91, 93-94.


The fourth aspect of coherence to explore is called the integrative coherence of a sūrah. This is concerned with how different āyāt, passages, or sections within a sūrah, 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:

  • Integrating different parts of a section together
  • linking separate sections of a sūrah, thereby helping to unify it
  • linking āyāt or passages from separate suwar49Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.

For example, consider some of the linkages in Sūrat an-Nāziʿāt (Those who drag forth). On Judgment Day, all will remember what they “strived (saʿā)” for. Similarly, Pharaoh was said to have turned away from Moses and “strived (yasʿā) [to refute him].” And this is all connected to the “Hour (as-sāʿah)” that is coming. 

Or observe in the same sūrah how Allah ﷻ repeatedly speaks of fear and humility. Sight will be humbled (khāshiyʿah) on Judgment Day. Moses tried to guide Pharaoh so that he may fear (takhshā) his Master. The story of Moses is a lesson for whomever fears (yakhshā) [standing before Allah]. And finally, the Messenger ﷺ is only a warner for those who fears (yakhshā) [the Hour].50Heavenly Order. “Sūrat an-Nāziʿāt.” 16 Sept. 2022,


Finally, each of these approaches contributes to understanding the sūrah’s holistic coherence; how the sūrah is united into a consistent and distinct whole. In this regard, one might be interested in identifying a motif, an overarching idea that unites and explains all of the sūrah’s contents or components. In addition to seeing the unity of an individual sūrah and how each part of it fits into the scheme of the whole, one might also be interested in understanding the role of the sūrah in a broader sūrah pair or group, or in the Quran as a whole.51 Ibid.

The study of holistic coherence is a method of the reader inquiring, “Why is this āyah placed in this sūrah and not another one?” The immediate context creates a meaning that may be altered if the āyah were placed elsewhere in the Quran.


It is important to state that multiple organizational tools may be used to explore a single sūrah, and each tool may yield meanings different, but not contrary, to the others. As we will observe, the same passage may contain multiple structures layered on top of one another. It is my belief that every sūrah of the Quran contains some overarching structure, organization, or cohesion that can be explored and observed, though I admit that I may not be privy to the details for each and every sūrah (yet). My research is hitherto incomplete, so I hope to present only what I have been made aware of in my limited Quran studies.

How I split up the passages and āyāt may also seem strange at first, as not every structure is split perfectly at the end of an āyah.52This does not take into consideration the differences of opinion on the number of āyāt in the Quran. For the uninitiated, I am not saying that there is a difference of opinion on the content of the Quran. This is a note about where different scholars opined some āyāt ended and began, resulting in a different number (but not content) of āyāt in a sūrah. It is possible that one structure ends halfway through an āyah and another begins at the second half. It may also be the case that one section references a short phrase, while the corresponding section is an entire paragraph. These choices will all be justified below, but consider that Allah’s standards for organizing His words may not match with what we consider “normal” from our limited experiences. What is explained briefly in one part may be expounded in a linked set of āyāt elsewhere.

Please keep in mind that the outlined observations below are just that; observations. I make no claims as to having presented the structure of a given āyah or section, let alone the entire sūrah. It is very possible that others will disagree with my proposed demarcations and that there are arguably better ways of splitting the suwar up. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of any sūrah’s structure.

I have also tried my best to avoid making conclusions about the text based on a presented structure. In other words, this is not meant to be a tafsīr of the Quran’s meanings. The hope is that qualified scholars take this work and use it appropriately.

With the above history and terminology understood, we may now begin the structural study of the Quran. I will be omitting most Arabic from the forthcoming analysis and providing transliterations only when needed to draw a connection. Consult the Arabic for the original wording of the Quran for any āyāt referenced below.

And Allah ﷻ knows best.

*If the study of the Quran’s structure interests you, please check out Heavenly Order for many more examples of the Quran’s amazing organization and coherence.



Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Fatihah –

Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Bayyinah –

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Munir Eltal has a BS in Biomedical Engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and an Arabic Certificate from Bayyinah Institute. He is currently a Project Manager for a medical device company in Southern California. He studies at Institute of Knowledge (IOK) in Diamond Bar, CA through their full-time seminary program. He also teaches Arabic at IOK for their part-time seminary program. He runs the weekly blog, Heavenly Order, where he researches the organization, structure, and cohesion of the ayahs and surahs of the Quran.



  1. Safiyya

    August 7, 2023 at 9:23 AM

    Enjoyed reading this and excited for the rest of the series insha Allah!

  2. Spirituality

    August 8, 2023 at 1:36 PM

    Jazak Allahu Khayran for this extensive introductory article that is well researched and comprehensive. It addressed some of the concerns I laid out in my comments of an earlier article (anyone interested can see my comments to the author’s first post on this topic in Muslim Matters, “Structural Cohesion In The Quran [A Series]: Surah Al Fatihah –– Structural Cohesion I”).

    That being said, I would like to reiterate that the Quran first and foremost claims it is a book of guidance. Therefore, perhaps the Quran’s underlying structure is foremost geared towards that goal – of guiding the souls of those who have taqwa.

    To unpack this idea further, imagine a travel guide, to say, Rome. The structure of such a book is very specifically designed; to aid and guide the traveler. An alien who had no idea of the differences between travel guides and novels may be confused and complain that it is poorly structured. He may expect a chronological history (starting with its founding in 753 BC and ending with Rome today).

    Yet, for the traveler, while Roman history is indeed of great interest, (he’s probably going to check out the Pantheon and Colosseum) placing things in chronological order is not the best way for him to decide where to go in Rome, what to see, where to eat, where to stay, what to bring with him, etc.

    Rather, he may like short history at the beginning. He may then expect suggested itineraries. Perhaps the guide would then describe places in Rome in some logical order. Following that maybe places to eat and stay, and so on.

    Similarly, I would expect that any search for structural order in the Quran should take its main purpose into account, ie, guidance of the soul towards success in this life and the hereafter. Looking for structure(s) in the Quran without keeping the Quran’s main purpose in mind may reveal some insights, but may just ultimately leave us confused.

    While I am not in anyway qualified to discern such a structure, its obvious that the Quran first sections are structured perfectly fit its goal of guidance.

    Sura Fatiha starts with Allah literally teaching us how to ask for guidance, what to ask for(guide us to the Straight Path), and pitfalls to avoid.

    Allah then answers our plea for guidance (which He taught us) in the early verses of Sura Baqarah: He’s is stating (paraphrased): [You asked for guidance?] Here it is! No doubt about it! But only for those who have taqwa/God consciousness…

    And Allah knows best!

  3. Munir

    August 10, 2023 at 1:49 AM

    Wa’alaykum As-Salaam,
    First, I would like to say that I read your comment on the previous post but waited to say anything until this piece was out as it had way more details and addressed many of your concerns.
    Second, your Rome analogy was sooooo good. Never thought of it that way, and I’ve been thinking of this subject for years!
    Third, I agree that no one should take this as their basis for faith. This is all a nice-to-know, not the thing you build your iman on.
    Finally, if you aren’t already, please check out my blog on this subject. I would love your feedback on posts there. I feel like you actually engage the content and are willing to give input to improve things. I would love to have a reader like you on the list!

    Barak Allah feek for your insightful and thoughtful comments.

  4. Abdulhai

    August 17, 2023 at 6:14 AM


    This is a captivating and illuminating post. Your elucidation of Quranic structural cohesion and its heavenly order resonates deeply. The Quran’s coherent message is indeed a testament to its divine origin. May Allah bless your efforts abundantly.

    A query arises: How can we practically integrate structural analysis into our daily lives? How do we unlock the Quranic wisdom within its structure, enhancing our understanding and appreciation? Eagerly awaiting your insights.


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