Of critical importance to the Islamic model of revelation is the fact that Muhammad (saw) was unschooled (ummi). The content of the Qur’an is wholly divine and its Arabic speech descended on this one chosen individual, Muhammad (saw) Al-Amin. The Prophet (saw) had no role to play in the production of the Qur’an and passively received the sacred text and repeated it verbatim to his amanuensis for recording. The Qur’an, then, is not in any way co-authored. An illiterate individual cannot be anything more than a mouthpiece, albeit a sentient and intelligent one, in the Islamic model of revelation.
Whenever Muhammad (saw) was asked for a miracle, he would refer to the composition of the Qur’an.
Areas of the Qur’an deemed inimitable vary according to different Muslim scholars and commentators, although all include the inimitability of its rhetoric. Additional areas of inimitability beyond its linguistic majesty covered the mysteries of the unseen, for example. This extension of the i’jaz, however, presents a problem. Mysteries of the unseen (ghuyub) would be rejected as outside of the domain of i’jaz since the challenge was to produce even a single verse, and not every verse contains such ghuyub. Different objections apply to other areas deemed inimitable. As the final message, proof of the Qur’an’s authenticity has to convince not just the first community to whom it was revealed but to all the communities in subsequent history. The Qur’an’s linguistic inimitability is the sole area which remains timeless in this regard and it will be the focus of this answer. The consensus of the community declared the duration of this miracle to be perennial, holding until the Day of Resurrection.
It is important to understand the context in which the Qur’an entered the natural order. In the history of the prophets, what magic was to Moses and what medical skill was to Jesus, eloquence was to Muhammad (saw): it was the skill of the age, the skill at its highest peak of development at the time of the appearance of each, which thus functioned as the subject matter for the authenticating miracle. If Moses confounded the sorcerers, Jesus the doctors and Muhammad (saw) the poets and masaqi (eloquent men) of their respective communities, there was no better proof that they had some divine backing in doing so.
When Walid ibn al-Mughira - God’s curse be upon him! – chief of Quraysh and a man known for his eloquence heard the Qur’an , he was struck into silence, his heart turned numb, his eloquence forsook him, his argument collapsed, his case was devastated, his impotence clearly appeared and his wits were befuddled
; and he said:
“… By God, there is a certain sweetness to his words, a certain grace…” (Zarkashi, al-Burhan fi ulum al-Qur'an)
The above quote encapsulates the response at the first appearance of the Qur’an amongst the Qurayshi Arabs. It exemplifies the reluctant and perplexed appreciation of the Qur’an even from the Prophet’s (saw) antagonists who cast doubt on his prophethood.
“And it was not possible for this Qur’an to be produced by other than Allah, but it is a confirmation of what was before it and a detailed explanation of the former Scripture, about which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds.” (Qur’an 10:37)
“Say: ‘If all mankind and the djinn would come together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even though they exerted all and their strength in aiding one another.” (Qur’an 17:88)
“Or do they say that he has invented it? Say (to them), ‘Bring ten invented chapters like it, and call (for help) on whomever you can besides Allah, if you are truthful.” (Qur’an 11:13)
“And if you are in doubt about what I have revealed to My servant, bring a single chapter like it, and call your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful.” (Qur’an 2:23)
Al-Shahrastani (d. AH 548) in al-Milal wa’l-nihal stated that al-Ash’ari (AH 260-324) upheld a stylistic i’jaz.
Al-Suyuti (849-911 AH) explored thirty-five distinctive features of the inimitability of the Qur’an, all of which are related to its literary supremacy alone.
Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025 CE) insisted on the unmatchable quality of the Qur’an’s extraordinary eloquence and unique stylistic perfection. In his work al-Mughni, he argued that eloquence (fasaha) resulted from the excellence of both meaning and wording.
Al-Baqillani (d. 1013 CE) stated that the miracle of the Qur’an was the creation of a new, unidentifiable and inimitable genre of expression.
Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani (d. 1078 CE) in his Dala’il al-I’jaz locates the essence of the inimitability of the Qur’an in nazm, the pivot of literary quality, which is defined as 'attaching words to each other and making some (words) causes for others' according to the principles of grammar and syntax.
"The Koran constantly stresses the need for intelligence in deciphering the ‘signs’ or ‘messages’ of God. Muslims are not to abdicate their reason but to look at the world attentively and with curiosity… But the greatest sign of all was the Koran itself: indeed, its individual verses are called ayat. Western people find the Koran a difficult book and this is largely a problem of translation. Arabic is particularly difficult to translate: even ordinary literature and the mundane utterances of politicians frequently sound stilted and alien when translated into English, for example, and this is doubly true of the Koran, which is written in dense and highly allusive, elliptical speech. The early suras in particular give the impression of human language crushed and splinted under the divine impact…" (Karen Armstrong. A History of God, 1993)
The following assumptions form the foundation for i’jaz ul Qur’an.
The Linguistic Construction of the Qur’an is the Miracle
One can hardly find a work on the topic of i’jaz that does not pose the same question: ‘What does the miracle of the Qur’an subsist in?’ The miracle rests on the Qur’an’s literary inimitability.
The Challenge of the Qur’an
The Qur’an itself asserts the doctrine of i’jaz in the form of a series of challenges (al-tahaddi fi al-Qur'an) which in six different loci invites Muhammad’s (saw) antagonists, those who deny his prophethood and declare the Qur’an a 'fabrication’, to produce something of its like. It is important to note that this challenge was addressed not to the believers but to the unbelievers. The challenge was also not simply a denunciation of the unbelievers, but constituted an invitation to them to carefully examine the Qur’an and see if it could have been, as they claimed it was, the product of the mind of a man possessed. The underlying assumption of this challenge was that the merit and beauty of the Qur’an could be appreciated even by those outside the fold of the faith.
Allah’s challenge to imitate the Qur’an (mu’arada) implies effort and exertion. Failed attempts at imitating the Qur’an are a reflection of the divine hand behind its construction. The miracle, in other words, is located in the Qur’an itself. The miracle is not located outside of the Qur’an by virtue of Allah’s deterrence (man’) frustrating attempts at imitation since this would have rendered the deterrence miraculous and not the Qur’an.
An understanding of the definition of miracles is required before examining details of the linguistic aspect of the miracle. Baqillani’s al-Farq bayna’l -mu’jizat wa’l karamat discusses the definition of a miracle as an act that ‘breaks the custom’ (kharq al-ada) – i.e. the natural order of things. Some scholars believed that i’jaz can be perceived but not described. The correct understanding is that the miracle can be both perceived and described. Describing the miracle of i’jaz requires search and inquiry (a miracle by istidlal). Custom (ada, but also sunna), in the Ash’arite usage of the word, is the usual manner in which Allah acts, without though being bound by this custom; thus when Allah wishes to draw attention to something – such as the prophetic status of a person – the regular order will be broken as a sign. And as Baqillani shows, the concept of a custom is built on knowledge, specifically ‘inductive’ or ‘empirical’ knowledge, which, though usually classed with necessary knowledge, can have many tiers of specialisation – such as the specialised inductive knowledge of literature which is essential for recognising when the literary custom has been broken and a miracle has taken place. Indeed all miracles involve istidlal in one way or another – for the majority, its historical occurrence must be proved, the examined proof being the transmitted reports; in the case of the Qur’anic miracle, it is its miraculous nature that needs proof (whereas its occurrence is known by darura, through multiple transmissions of the text).
As far as the Muslim community is concerned, the Qur’anic i’jaz can take its place among the articles of faith to be accepted – for the majority of people – through the subjective impact of the Qur’an with intuition arbitrating in the experience. Umar (RA) is an example of those who were converted on the spot after simply listening to the eloquent persuasiveness of the Qur’an. This perception of the miracle, or the intuitive approach, needs to be separated from the means by which classifying i’jaz as a miracle is derived by proof (istidlal). The latter notion implies that the Qur’an is not a miracle that speaks for itself. Indeed, Baqillani speaks of ‘coming to the aid’ of the i’jaz in this context.
There are two avenues of the proof for the i’jaz. One is the way of ‘circumstantial’ evidence as espoused by the Ash’arite Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 1233). This was highly popular among the mutakallimun and figured prominently in the special works on i’jaz as well, being the least specialised of the proofs and involving an accessible kind of rational argument more than knowledge. It can be summed up as follows: a) the contemporaries of Muhammad (saw), notwithstanding their being ‘the most eloquent people on the face of the earth’, as is often said, and being notoriously vain about their poetic skills, and despite their ample motives for taking up the challenge, such as Muhammad’s (saw) vilification of their gods and his (saw) declaring their lives and property forfeit, did not do so and instead embarked on a series of wars, thus, breaking the ‘custom’ of normal behaviour; b) evidently, the Qur’an has not been successfully imitated.
This argument was best tailored for the needs of those who were not versed in either literature or, even more fundamentally, the Arabic language, and could only be convinced by this type of ‘indirect’ evidence. The ‘direct’ way of proving i’jaz was to be espoused by those scholars who aimed at unveiling the miraculous nature of the Qur’an from a literary standpoint, and more specifically with the boundaries of nazm as the essence of the miracle.
The linguistic miracle of the Qur’an revolves around the trinity of semantics: words (lafz), meanings (ma’na) and their structure/construction (nazm). It is on nazm that a claim of a stylistic i’jaz was finally claimed by the majority of scholars and commentators. The relationship between the words in the Qur’an is in synergy with the intended meaning. Thus, the Qur’an’s resplendent eloquence resides in the manner in which words have been perfectly joined to each other, rendering meaning with such flawless accuracy that no word could be conceivably exchanged for another without destroying the seamless verbal fabric. Assigning i’jaz to meanings alone was rejected on the count that they are not of man’s making – as meanings, they would represent the Eternal Speech of Allah (kalam qadim), for that would not be a ‘valid’ challenge.
The seat of the Qur’an’s custom-breaking eloquence is the idea of nazm. According to Baqillani, the custom is broken through the Qur’an’s style which defies classification and the unfluctuating peak of eloquence it sustains throughout, despite the plethora of themes it deals with. The main point here however is not that the Qur’an broke the custom by an extraordinary degree of eloquence, but that it broke the custom of the existing literary forms. That is, its miracle was the creation of a new, unidentifiable and inimitable genre of expression. Of cardinal importance to this explanation are the reports about the Arabs’ bewildered reception of the Divine message. The Arabs, upon hearing it, were lost for words in trying to classify it: ‘Is it poetry?’ ‘Is it magic?’ ‘Is it soothsaying?’ ‘It is only the stories of the ancients!’ The Arabs could not find a literary form to which the Qur’an corresponded.
The Qur’an can be disqualified from all existing categories of composition. Linguists and rhetoricians have produced tables of all known literary forms, such as various types of poetic prosody, words in meter but not in rhyme, words in rhymed prose, words in which meaning rather than literary beauty is the objective, and so on – and the Qur’an falls into none of these.The Qur’an possesses an otherness which is a yardstick for the exploration and definition of this very otherness; its divine origin rules out all human measures and literary paradigms. Baqillani does not accept a hierarchical explanation for i’jaz – i.e. the miracle consisting in a level of excellence; the Qur’an’s eloquence is sui generis, totally outside both human forms (let alone levels within forms) of literature. To be sure, it may include familiar elements, but only to assimilate them in this unclassifiable otherness. For if the Qur’an ‘did not fall outside the styles they speak in, and it fell within them, no miracle would occur.’ The eloquence of the Qur’an cannot be explained by mere skill (hidhq) and superior ability (taqaddum). The only explanation is one of divine origin.
The Qur’an challenges the unbelievers to produce just a single verse of its like. The challenge serves to invite the unbelievers to carefully examine its inimitability and thus ponder over its origin. The Qur’an’s inimitability rests on its linguistic supremacy. The unique eloquence of the Qur’an is not simply a degree of excellence which is of the highest type but it is a wholly different genre of expression which defies classification. It cannot be compared to any other literary form and resides beyond it, breaking the normative literary custom to enter the realm of the miraculous. The challenge has never been met and suffices as proof that the Qur’an is nothing less than the revelation of the Lord of the Worlds.
Abdul Aleem, I’jaz-Ul-Qur'an
Mustansir Mir, The Qur’an as Literature
M. Rahmatullah Kairanvi, Izhar-Ul-Haq
T. Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period
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