Gabe Salmon: Contextual and Intertextual Meaning in Sura 55 (Al-Rahman)

The Qur’an represents itself as direct revelation, divine truth made tangible and textual to guide us as we explore our existence. We seek to coax meaning and direction from the text, to engage in exegesis (“drawing out” textual truth) but avoid eisegesis (“drawing in” or projecting our own ideas of truth onto the text). The text of the Qur’an speaks for itself; we need only unravel what it says.

There are two main ways that a text can elaborate on its messages: via shaping of detail for a given situation (the immediate context), or layering of connections to other parts of the text (inter-textual allusion). The Qur’an employs both strategies to furnish both highly specific models of conduct (based on context) and to generalize these models (via intertextuality) for concepts of divine order. Because its themes are so universal, Sura 55 (Al-Rahmān, “The All-Merciful”) is a particularly vivid illustration of the power of context and intertextuality to communicate theological ideas.

The internal context of Al-Rahmān clarifies the character of God’s mercy and expectations for conduct in mortal life. The sura begins by examining significant gifts of the material world, then challenges the listener to reflect on the majesty of these blessings, asking “So which of your Lord’s blessings will the two of you deny?” (ayat 13). This refrain occupies great importance in the sura, repeating 31 times out of the 78 total ayats in the sura. The verse both contributes and relies on context in the sura. First, the refrain’s emphasis on the dual audience of the sura—that “the two of you” are listening, jinn and human—extends the balanced and symmetrical context of existence. God brings together “two seas” and is master of “two Easts and two Wests”, “two great masses of creation” (ayats 17, 19, and 31, respectively). In the afterlife, there are
two Gardens” of paradise (one nearer to God than the other; both splendid) which await those who are judged virtuous. The constant refrain also makes clear the main expectation of God: that one appreciates (instead of denies) divine blessings. The sura’s internal context conveys specific details about how God implements mercy.

Intertextuality is also immensely important for the impact of Al-Rahmān. This sura is particularly appropriate as a case study of intertextuality, since it discusses the mercy of God, a concept which underlies the entirety of the Qur’an and the framework of Islam. It is unsurprising, then, that this sura has many intertextual connections and allusions to other Qur’anic ideas, because mercy is a theme which requires many contexts to illustrate. In particular, Nature’s obedience to God—depicted in this sura as a beautiful example of God’s mercy—is described in diverse circumstances in Suras 4, 6, 10, 16, 36, and 90, among others. In addition, the specific character of afterlife is described in part in Sura 55, but extended further in Sura 56. God’s mercy is vast, and therefore merits vast intertextual connections in the Qur’an.

That each verse of the Qur’an connects to other verses is a reflection of the divinely intricate structure of the text. No one isolated Qur’anic verse can have isolated authority on a given topic; each verse is indelibly connected to all other verses of the Qur’an. This holistic structure layers and connects different explorations of the same idea to approach divine precision.