ESTEʿĀRA (< Ar. estaʿāra, to borrow), the general term for metaphor. Rhetorical manuals customarily define esteʿāra as “borrowing” a word, expression or concept to apply it in other than its literal (ḥaqīqī) sense.

In Arabic esteʿāra was discussed extensively by writers on rhetoric and poetics, literary criticism, exegesis, and logic. In the course of these discussions the term underwent considerable development; it was, moreover, employed in different senses by different disciplines. This has led to some terminological confusion with regard to usage, which can by no means be regarded as standardized; nor are the distinctions between esteʿāra and other related terms such as majāz (figurative expression), badīʿ (rhetorical ornament), tašbīh (simile), or tamṯīl (exemplification) treated uniformly, but vary from writer to writer and in different periods. W. Heinrichs (1977, 1984) has proposed that Arabic writers at first viewed esteʿāra as based on “imaginary ascription” (e.g., Abū Ḏoʾayb’s “claws of death”), whereas later writers such as Abū Bakr Sakkākī and other scholastic rhetoricians considered comparison, in the broad sense, as its underlying mechanism. In both cases, however, esteʿāre was based not on simile but on analogy.

The Persian rhetorical manuals are generally based on Arabic sources and tend towards uniformity and lack of analysis. The earliest extant treatise, Rādūyānī’s Tarjomān al-balāḡa (ca. 1100), is modeled on Marḡīnānī’s earlier Arabic al-Maḥāsen fī’l-naẓm wa’l-naṯr and quotes Marḡīnānī’s definition almost verbatim: esteʿāra (subsumed under balāḡa “eloquence”) is the “borrowing” of a name (nām) or word (lafẓ) for use in a non-literal sense. Rādūyānī substitutes Persian verses for Marḡīnānī’s Arabic examples (which are mainly in prose); but unlike Marḡīnānī he refrains from analysis of these examples.

Rašīd-al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ wrote his Ḥadāʾeq al-seḥr fī daqāʾeq al-šeʿr (q.v.) as a moʿāraża (opposition) of the Tarjomān al-balāḡa (at that time attributed to the poet Farroḵī Sīstānī, q.v.), as he found Rādūyānī’s work unsatisfactory and its examples (šawāhed) not to his liking. His definition of esteʿāra is, however, almost identical with Rādūyānī’s, except that he introduces the notion of transfer (naql): a word is “transferred” from its literal meaning and applied in a different context. Vaṭvāṭ includes both prose examples (taken from Marḡīnānī) and verses in Arabic and Persian; the examples are of essentially the same type as Rādūyānī’s.

Šams-e Qays Rāzī’s discussion of esteʿāra in his al-Moʿjam (ca. 1258) is somewhat more extensive. He classes esteʿāra among the types of majāz, defined as the use of a word for other than its literal meaning, and provides examples contrasting literal with figurative usage: e.g., “hand,” which means literally a part of the body, is used figuratively for “power” or “favor” — an example derived from ʿAbd-al-Qāher Jorjānī’s Asrār al-balāḡa, possibly by way of Faḵr-al-Dīn Rāzī’s Nehāyat al-ījāz. (Šams-e Qays employs Rāzī’s terms ʿalāqa, the “relationship” which connects the two terms of a metaphor, and qarīna, the restrictive context which distinguishes a metaphorical usage from a false claim.) Esteʿāra denotes the application of a word (esm) to something which shares an attribute with that word: a brave man is called a lion because of the shared attribute of courage. He also mentions “the speech of unspeaking objects and beasts” (i.e., personification) as another type of majāz, and treats tamṯīl as a type of esteʿāre which operates indirectly through example (pp. 336-40).

Later writers add little to their predecessors, and continue to cite the same examples, most of which derive from Marḡīnānī and Vaṭvāṭ. Because of their tendency towards concision, their lack of analysis, and their repetition of šawāhed, they provide little explicit information on the nature or function of metaphor in poetic practice. More illuminating discussions of comparison in general are to be found in the writings of the esotericists. For example, the Ismaʿili Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow elevates poetry over prose because of its ability to express the invisible and intelligible by means of the visible and sensible (pp. 260-61), and the poet applies this principle in his own poetry. The mystical poet Jalāl-al-Dīn Moḥammad Rūmī distinguishes between comparison (meṯāl) and likeness (meṯl) on the basis that the former does not rely on any formal resemblance (az rūy-e ṣūrat), and observes that comparison is the basis for his own discourse (pp. 57, 203-5).

Modern studies of metaphor have dealt chiefly with its use by specific poets. H. Ritter’s analysis of imagery in the poetry of Neẓāmī Ganjavī noted the use of concrete descriptions to convey subjective or spiritual meanings, and commented on the poet’s “mythical feeling for nature” (p. 52). In his study of Ḵāqānī, B. Reinert demonstrated (1972), among other things, the connection of metaphor with rhetorical figures and the use of “elliptical personification”; elsewhere he attempted a classification of types of metaphor based on structure (1973, pp. 90-97). More broadly, J.-C. Bürgel has discussed the “poetic syllogism” as a basis for metaphor in the poetry of Ḥāfeẓ. All have stressed the importance of analogy as the underlying basis of esteʿāra. There remains, however, a serious need for a comprehensive study that would trace developments in poetic practice through the comparison of different poets and of usage in different periods.

Persian poetry shows a preference for esteʿārāt of the two-word, substantive type and the related verb metaphor, used primarily to express abstractions in concrete terms. For example, ʿEmādī’s line, “Bā ḥamla-ye bāz-e haybat-e ū/Šāhīn-e qażā kabūtar āmaḏ” (At the attack of the eagle of his magnificence, the falcon of fate became a pigeon; al-Moʿjam, p. 337) combines two-word abstract/concrete metaphors (“eagle of m agnificence,” “falcon of fate”) with imaginary ascription (of attacking to magnificence) to produce an imaginary result (falcon becomes pigeon, i.e., victim), the whole based on the underlying analogy of falconry. “Elliptical personification” (Reinert’s term) occurs with great frequency, seen already in Rūdakī’s “spring song” nasīb (Reinert, 1973, pp. 74, 96), as does extended metaphor based on personification (e.g., Rūdakī’s “mādar-e mey” qaṣīda; Dīvān, Tehran, 1343 Š./1964, pp. 27-30). Extended metaphor is often used allegorically, as in Sanāʾī’s gazal on the “sea of love:”


ʿEšq daryā-ye moḥīṭ o āb-e daryā ātaš ast

Mawjhā āyad ka gūʾī kūhhā-ye ẓolmat ast.

Kaštī-aš az andohān o langar-aš az ṣāberī

Bādbān-aš rū nehāda sū-ye bād-e āfat ast.”


(Love is the encircling sea; its water is of fire; waves appear which seem to be mountains of darkness. . ..Its ship is sorrows, its anchor patience; its sail is set to the wind of calamity;” Dīvān, Tehran, 1341 Š./1962, p. 806), in which the terms of comparison are derived from the analogue and are related by harmony rather than by any formal resemblance. This type of usage also characterizes much literary prose, in particular that of mystical writers such as Shaikh Rūzbehān Baqlī; it is also typical of ornate rhymed prose (sajʿ) used for a variety of purposes.

Metaphors are customarily found in conjunction with a variety of rhetorical figures, in particular ṭebāq (antithesis), ḥosn-e taʿlīl (fantastic etiology), morāʿāt al-naẓīr (congruence), and so on (Reinert, 1972). Metaphors often take on multiple meanings; thus for example “stringing pearls” may be employed in different contexts for composing poetry, weeping, or sexual intercourse, or may refer at once to all of these fields. Long passages, sometimes whole poems, may employ metaphors derived from an initial analogy; such is the case with Ḵāqānī’s so-called “Christian” qaṣīda which begins, “Falak kažrowtar ast az ḵaṭṭ-e tarsā/Marā dārad mosalsal rāhebāsā” (More crooked than the course of the Christian script is the course of Heaven/which holds me like a monk laden with chains; Minorsky, p. 137), and in which the Christian context determines the metaphors throughout.



ʿAbd-al-Qāher Jorjānī, Asrār al-balāḡa, Istanbul, 1954.

S. A. Bonebakker, “Istiʿāra,” in EI2 IV, pp. 248-52.

J.-C. Bürgel, “Remarques sur une relation entre la logique aristotélienne et la poésie arabo-persane” in Actes du Ve Congrès International d’arabisants et d’islamisants (Brussels, 1970), Brussels, n.d., pp. 131-43.

ʿAlī b. Moḥammad Tāj Ḥalāwī, Daqāʿeq al-šeʿr, Tehran, 1341 Š./1962.

W. Heinrichs, The Hand of the Northwind, Wiesbaden, 1977.

Idem, “Istiʿāra and Badīʿ and Their Terminological Relationship in Early Arabic Literary Criticism,” ZGAW 1, 1984, pp. 180-211.

J. Homāʾī, Maʿānī wa bayān, Tehran, 1370 Š./1991.

Naṣr b. Ḥasan Marḡīnānī, al-Maḥāsen fi’l-naẓm wa’l-naṯr, in G. J. van Gelder, ed., Two Arabic Treatises on Stylistics, Istanbul, 1987.

V. Minorsky, “Khāqānī and Andronicus Comnenus,” BSO(A)S 11, 1945, pp. 550-78; repr. in Iranica: Twenty Articles, Tehran, 1964, pp. 120-50; tr ʿA.-Ḥ. Zarrīnkūb with commentary, FIZ 1/2, 1332 Š./1953, pp. 111-88.

S. M. Našāṭ, Zīb-e soḵan yā ʿelm-e badīʿ-e pārsī I, Tehran, 1342 Š./1963.

Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow Qobādīānī, Ḵᵛān al-eḵwān, Tehran, 1338 Š./1959.

Moḥammed b. ʿOmar Rādūyānī, Tarjomān al-balāḡa, ed. A. Ateş, Istanbul, 1949.

Rašīd al-Dīn Vaṭvāṭ, Ḥadāʾeq al-seḥr fī daqāʾeq al-šeʿr, ed. ʿA. Eqbāl, Tehran, 1308 Š./1929.

Faḵr-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. ʿOmar Rāzī, Nehāyat al-ījāz fī derāyat al- eʿjāz, Cairo, 1317/1899.

Šams-al-Dīn Moḥammad b. Qays Rāzī, al-Moʿjam fī maʿāyīr ašʿār al-ʿAjam, ed. E. G. Browne, comm. by M. Qazvīnī, Leiden and London, 1909.

B. Reinert, Xāqānī als Dichter, Berlin, 1972.

Idem, “Probleme der vormongolischen arabisch-persischen Poesiegemeinschaft und ihr Reflex in der Poetik” in G. E. von Grunebaum, ed., Arabic Poetry: Theory and Development, Wiesbaden, 1973, pp. 71-105.

H. Ritter, Über die bildersprache Niẓāmīs, Berlin, 1927.

Jalāl-al-Dīn Moḥammad Rūmī, Fīhi mā fīh, Tehran, n.d.

M.-R. Šafīʿī Kadkanī, Sowar-e ḵayāl dar šeʿr-e fārsī, Tehran, 1349 Š./1971.

(Julie S. Meisami)

Originally Published: December 15, 1998

Last Updated: January 19, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 6, pp. 649-651