The Qur’an pursues the following goals: To teach humanity about the unity of God, resurrection and life after death, the messengers, worship, and justice. It does not treat these goals in a linear fashion, starting and finishing one, and then continuing with the next. Instead it interweaves them throughout the pages and sections; there are a myriad of connections and indicators. It uses various literary and psychological methods to effectively convey its messages and to educate the hearts and minds of its listeners. One of these methods is the use of parables.
Indeed, We have offered in this Qur’an every evidence and lesson by way of parables and examples for people so that they may think and take heed (Zumar 39:27)
So God propounds parables for human beings, that they may reflect on them and infer the necessary lessons. (Ibrahim 14:25)
Parables are short stories that may or may not represent an actual event that are designed to convey a truth or a moral lesson (Flexner 92). If we accept this definition of what a parable is then there are approximately 40 parables in the Qur’an. Some scholars define parables to include other narratives, such as stories of past prophets and their people, and thus find more parables in the Qur’an.
Parables help people understand abstract concepts by alluding to shared experiences and by allowing the readers to emphasize with participants or to feel as if they are direct observers in these experiences. By using carefully selected or crafted parables, remote and abstract truths can be made nearer and more comprehensible. Topics with a variety of sub-topics can be organized into a harmonious unity (Risale-i Nur).
Human beings are visual creatures. About 80% of the input to our brain comes through our eyes. Hence, important parts of the brain are dedicated to the processing, storage, and recall of visual information. Parables help activate our imagination, the eye of the mind, and enable us to comprehend a general truth or principle in a particular circumstance (Ozsoy). Parables help the power of imagination and inner senses to assist the mind/intellect in comprehending or internalizing the message. The parables of the Qur’an are another way in which the Qur’an uses human language to explain things that are beyond human capacity; this has been recognized even by non-Muslim experts, such as one of translators of the Qur’an, N. J. Dawood, who calls the Qur’an a “literary masterpiece.”
The most important message of the Qur’an is the unity of God. As God is one and has no partners, there can be no partners associated with Him nor can any worship, including prayers, be directed toward others to seek help and protection. The very first chapter of the Qur’an emphasizes this fact in the form of a prayer; believers are instructed to say: You alone do We worship and from You alone do we seek help (Fatiha 1:5). In many verses, God challenges those who worship other objects or beings to bring proof that these are worthy of worship, and asks what those objects have produced that can be understood as a sign of their status. The following parable is an example:
O humanity! A parable is set forth, so pay heed. Those whom, apart from God, you call upon as gods will never be able to create even a fly, even if all of them were come together to do that. And if a fly snatches away anything from them, they cannot recover it from the fly. Powerless indeed is the seeker, and (powerless) the sought! They have no true judgment of God as His being God requires. God is certainly All-Strong, All-Glorious with irresistible might. (22:73-24)
Another example emphasizes the same message:
To Him alone is made the call to truth and the true prayer. Those (powers and persons) to whom they pray and call others, apart from Him, cannot answer them in any way-meaning nothing more than the action of he who stretches out his open hands in dire need toward the water so that it may reach his mouth; yet the water never reaches him. The prayer of the unbelievers is destined to go to waste. (13:14)1
In the Qur’an the reason why humanity was created is to worship God. According to this teaching, humans have been created to recognize their Lord, to strive to learn His attributes, to learn what code of conduct is pleasing to Him and to worship him in the way He desires. An important aspect of this worship is thanksgiving. Various verses of the Qur’an emphasize the importance of recognizing God’s bounties and being thankful for them. In particular, the chapter Al-Rahman (The All-Merciful) the following verse is repeated numerous times: Then, (O humankind and jinn,) which of the favors of your Lord will you deny? (Rahman 55:13) In the following parable, the Qur’an illustrates the events that happen to two people, one of whom is a grateful believer, and the other who abstains from recognizing the Giver of all bounties:
“…Tell them as an example the story of two men: for one of them We made two vineyards and surrounded both with date-palms, and placed a field of grain in-between. Both of the vineyards (including the date-palms and grain) yielded its produce, without failing in the least therein. We had also caused a stream to gush forth in their midst. So both of the vineyards including the date-palms and grain) yielded its produce, without failing in the least therein. We had also caused a stream to gush forth in their midst. The man had fruit in abundance, and one day he said to his friend, bandying words with him: “I am more than you in wealth, and more esteemed and stronger in respect of men.” He went into his vineyard in self-wronging (puffed up by worldly successes which had led him to conceit and unbelief). He said: “I deem not that all this will ever perish. Nor do I deem that the Last Hour will ever come. Even if (it should come, and) I am brought back to my Lord, I shall surely find (there by virtue of my own abilities and as my deserts) something even better than this as a resort.” His friend said to him, in the course of the argument with him: “Do you blaspheme (in such ingratitude as this) against He Who has created you out of dust, then out of a sperm-drop, then fashioned you into a complete man? But I believe for my part that He is God, my Lord, and none can I associate with my Lord as partner (in His Lordship-His bringing up, providing, sustaining and protecting). Alas, if you had but said, on entering your vineyard, “Whatever God wills will surely come to pass. How perfectly He creates and how mercifully He provides! There is no strength save with God.” Though you see me as less than you in wealth and children, (this is no problem at all, for it is God Who does what He will, and He is All-Compassionate toward His servants). Yet it may well be that my Lord will give me something better than your vineyard, just as He may send a calamity upon your vineyard from Heaven, so that it becomes a barren waste. Or its water sinks deep into the ground, so that you will never be able search for and find it again.” So eventually all his produce was encompassed by ruin, and there he was, wringing his hands with grief over all that he had spent on it, when now it was all ruined on its trellises, and he could but say, “Oh, would that I had never associated anyone with my Lord as partner (in His Lordship).” And he had, apart from God, none, no troop of men to help him, nor could he be of any help to himself. For thus it is: all protective power and authority essentially belongs to God alone, the True One. He is the best to reward, and the best to determine the end of things. (Kahf 18:32-44)
The Qur’an presents three views of this world: (1) As a place to plant good deeds as seeds that will blossom in the Hereafter, (2) as a wonderful display of God’s names, and (3) as a place of enjoyment. While the world carries enormous significance with respect to the first two aspects, with the third it carries little weight in God’s sight. This is illustrated by the following parable:
The present, worldly life (which you pursue) is like this: We send down water from (the direction of) the sky, and with it the plants of the Earth grow rich and dense, mingling so that human beings and animals can eat of them, until, when the Earth has taken on her ornaments and has been embellished, and its inhabitants believe that they can do with it whatever they want, Our command comes upon it by night or day unexpectedly, and We cause it to become like a field mown down, as if it had not flourished the previous day. Thus We display in detail the signposts of Our way and the relevant Revelations (included in the Qur’an) for a people who will reflect (on them and draw the necessary lesson). (Yunus 10:24)2
The Qur'an encourages spending in the way of God to help the poor and the needy without embarrassing or insulting recipients. Any feeling or display of pride in giving nullifies its meaning. These are made clear in the following parables: The example of those who spend their wealth in God"s way is like that of a grain that sprouts seven ears; in every ear there are a hundred grains. Thus God multiplies for whomever He wills. God is One Who embraces all (with His mercy), All-Knowing. (Baqara 2:261) O you who believe! Render not in vain your almsgiving by placing under obligation and taunting like he who spends his wealth to show off to people and to be praised by them, he who does not believe in God or the Last Day. The example of his spending is that of a rock on which there is soil; a heavy rain falls upon it, and leaves it barren. They derive no gain (pertaining to the Hereafter) from their almsgiving, nor do they succeed in preserving it if they can derive any. God guides not such people of the unbelievers (to attain their goals). (Baqara 2:264) The example of those who spend their wealth in pursuit of where God"s good pleasure lies and who strive to make belief firmly established in their hearts is that of a garden on a hilltop; a heavy rain falls upon it, and it yields its produce twofold; even if no heavy rain falls upon it, a light shower suffices. Whatever you do, God sees it well. (Baqara 2:265)
One aspect Islamic belief that is misunderstood is the relationship between faith and deeds. In Islam, faith is the essential ingredient for success in this world and in the Hereafter. Deeds are important and have a symbiotic relationship with faith. Deeds both reflect and affect our faith. Through sincere worship we can connect with God in a way that would be impossible through intellect on its own. Conversely, a person who constantly behaves in opposition to their belief may risk losing their belief. As important as deeds are, they cannot qualify anybody for eternal success. In other words, nobody can “earn” Paradise through good deeds alone. In particular, those who do not believe in God or life in the Hereafter will receive the reward for whatever good they do in this world. The following parable illustrates these concepts very clearly: This is a parable to be set forth for those who disbelieve in their Lord: all their work is as ashes which the wind blows hard on a stormy day. They have no control of anything that they have earned (from which to benefit). That indeed is straying very far and extreme failure. (Ibrahim 14:18)3
The Qur'an gives examples of women who transcend their environment (both in good and bad ways) to choose a course of action. In the first example, the wives of Noah and Lot are shown as examples of people who, despite being in an environment of enlightenment, chose falsehood over the truth. The other examples illustrate two women who transcended the conditions of their environment to accept truth and live piously. While these examples are not exactly the same as the previous parables, nevertheless the iconization of the women as prototypes follow the same literary and educational style: God propounds the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot as an example for those who disbelieve. They were married to two of Our righteous servants, yet betrayed them (by rejecting the Messages they brought from God and collaborating with the unbelievers). But they (their husbands) availed them in nothing against God and it was said to them: “Enter the Fire with all those who enter it!” And God propounds the wife of the Pharaoh as an example for those who believe. She prayed: “My Lord! Build for me a home in Paradise in nearness to You, and keep me away and save me from the Pharaoh and his deeds and save me from the people of wrongdoing.” And also Mary, the daughter of "Imran, who guarded her chastity and so We breathed into him out of Our Spirit, who confirmed the words of her Lord (manifested as His Revelations—commandments, promises and warnings—to His Messengers), and His Books, and she was one of those who are devoutly obedient to God.” (Tahrim 66:10-12)
In the Qur'an some historical accounts and important lessons are repeated; there are a variety of purposes for why this is done. Since most people find it hard to frequently read the Qur'an in its entirety, the major messages are repeated throughout the Qur'an. Also, the fact that the Qur'an serves not only as a reminder, but as a book of prayer, a book of remembrance, and a book of invitation/prohibition (in addition to its other roles), the repetitions fulfill subtle functions. These repetitions are not verbatim in each case, but rather, depending on the context, they display a subtle variance that emphasizes a certain aspect of the message in addition to the others or reveal a meaning that might not be obvious in other contexts. The following parable for instance, responds, in part, to the pagan Arabs" attribution of the frequently repeated messages or historical accounts being caused by the scarcity of God"s knowledge. If all the trees on the Earth were pens, and all the sea were ink, with seven more seas yet added to it, the words of God (the acts of all His Names and Attributes manifested as His commandments, and the events and creatures He creates) would not be exhausted in the writing. (Luqman 31:27)
In addition to the examples given above, parables in the Qur'an discuss such topics that depict God as the light of the Heavens and the Earth (24:35), the persistence of the truth and the transience of the falsehood (31:17), the Messenger of God and his Companions (48:29), the abundance of good and scarcity of evil (14:24), the hypocrites (2:17, 59:15), the responsibility that comes with knowledge (62:5, 7:175), the peoples who have slandered their messengers (16:112), the weight of the message of the Qur'an (59:21), belief versus unbelief (6:122, 7:58, 11:24, 16:75, 28:61), the hardening of the hearts (2:74), the attitude of unbelievers against the message (2:171), the situation of those who have forgotten God and have refrained from spending in good causes (68:17-33), and the resurrection and life after death (2:259, 35:9).
The parables of the Qur'an exemplify the unique literary aspects of this miraculous book. The parables are there to help readers understand complex and abstract topics. They also facilitate the involvement of the human imagination and inner senses to internalize the messages within the stories. Such characteristics are among many that made those who opposed the Qur'an in the early days of Islam resort to violence; the Qur'an puts forward the challenge to the non-believers to produce something similar if they are intent on proving that the Qur'an was written by a human. They were unable to produce the like, so instead they used violence to try to suppress the Muslims at that time. If they had been successful, the Qur'an would have become irrelevant for society. The fact that they preferred opposition by sword to a verbal or written response illustrates the fact that they were unable to challenge the Qur'an on the grounds of language.