The Qur’an’s Universal Metaphor – OpEd


Religious Islamophobes always find something wrong with the Qur’an. If the Qur’an states something that is similar to the Bible; they say Prophet Muhammad heard it from a Christian or a Jew: so Prophet Muhammad is not a real prophet.

For example, The Qur’an (7:40) says: “Indeed, those who deny Our verses and are arrogant toward them – the gates of Heaven will not be opened for them, nor will they enter Paradise until a camel enters into the eye of a needle.” Since ‘until a camel enters into the eye of a needle’ is a metaphor that appears three times in the new Testament (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:24 and Luke 18:25) even non-missionary academics say Prophet Muhammad heard this phrase from a Christian monk; and not from the angel Gabriel.

If the Qur’an states something about an event in Jewish history that differs from the Hebrew Bible, the religious Islamophobes, especially the Evangelical Protestant missionaries among them, refuse to say that the Qur’an adds a new insight to the insight of the Biblical text. Instead they claim the Qur’an is factually wrong: and therefore the Qur’an cannot be the revealed word of the One God.

However, there are two verses in the Qur’an that refute this Islamophobic way of thinking. The Qur’an states: “If all the trees on earth were pens and the Ocean (ink), with seven Oceans behind it to add to its (supply), the Words of Allah would not be exhausted; for Allah is Exalted in power, Full of Wisdom.” (31:27) and “Were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely fail before the words of my Lord fail” (18:109)

The above verses clearly mean that if all the seas were ink, the ink would run out before all the words of Allah could be written, and that even sevenfold more seas would not be enough to write down the words of Allah. God’s praise can never run out. There are not enough numbers. words and worlds to express the variety and amount of the beings God has created.

In addition, the metaphor image of seas of ink and forests of pens used in the Arabic Islamic text of the Qur’an; can also be found in Hebrew Jewish texts, in Greek Christian texts, and even in Sanskrit Hindu texts. And this ‘Universal Metaphor’ is evidence for the Qur’an’s teaching that the One God sends multitudes of prophets, speaking their own language, to every people though-out the world: “We have sent NO Messenger save with the tongue of his own people, that he might make everything clear to them… (Qur’an 14:4)

This rhetorically complex Universal Metaphor “sea of ink writing”, is found in a classical Sanskrit Hindu text; The Ten Avatars (Malabar version), concerning Vishnu in his eighth avatar appearing as Kishna,: “If the whole sea were filled with ink, and the earth made of paper, and all the inhabitants of the terrestrial globe were only employed in writing, that would not suffice to give an exact account of all the miracles Krishha has performed.”

And in the Greek Gospel of John one finds: “But there are also many other things Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

It is also used by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai (30 CE- 90 CE), when he was asked about his relationship with his teachers. Rabbi ben Zakkai responded: “If all the heavens were parchments, and all the trees quills, and all the seas were ink, it would still be impossible to write down even a part of what I learned from my teachers.” (Talmud Sofrim 16:8).

And two generations later Rabbi Eliezer also said the same thing about what he had learned from his teachers. (Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 27a) Most amazing in my eyes is that one of these two verses from the Qur’an become part of an Orthodox Jewish Prayerbook.

Rabbi Meir bar Yitzchak Nehorai of Orléans, France, who led a synagogue in Worms, Germany, (died c.1095) wrote a 90 verse Aramaic poem called Akdamut Milin for the Jewish holiday Shavuot. The liturgical poem celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments and states: “God’s eternal glory could not be described even if the heavens were parchment, and the forests quills; if all the seas were ink, as well as every lake; even if all the earth’s inhabitants were scribes.”

Now the reference in Akdamut Milin to all the seas being ink and all the reeds pens is paralleled but not identical to, two verses in the Quran: “Were the sea ink for the words of my Lord, the sea would surely fail before the words of my Lord fail” (18:109), and “Were the trees that are in the earth pens, were the sea ink with seven more seas to swell its tide, the words of God would not be spent” (31:27).

The rhetorically complex “sea of ink” writing metaphor is slightly different in each of the four different language texts. But any open minded person can acknowledge that each different verbal image expresses the same ‘Universal Metaphor’ religious feelings of overwhelming awe and gratitude, even though they are written in four different languages, for use in four different religious texts.

As the Qur’an states about the importance of different languages: “And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth; and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge. (30:22) Thus, knowing the ‘Universal Metaphor’ sign, enables all believers to perceive the feelings of reverence and trust that underlies all religious pluralism.

And “Say, “O disbelievers, I do not worship what you worship, nor are you worshippers of what I worship. Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship. Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship. For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” (109:1-6)

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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