By Hamza Tzortzis
"Neither as Christians or Jews, nor simply as intellectually responsible
individuals, have members of Western Civilisation been sensitively educated or
even accurately informed about Islam… even some persons of goodwill who
have gained acquaintance with Islam continue to interpret the reverence for the
prophet Muhammad and the global acceptance of his message as an inexplicable
survival of the zeal of an ancient desert tribe. This view ignores fourteen
centuries of Islamic civilisation, burgeoning with artists, scholars, statesmen,
philanthropists, scientists, chivalrous warriors, philosophers… as well as
countless men and women of devotion and wisdom from almost every nation of
the planet. The coherent world civilisation called Islam, founded in the vision of
the Qur'an, cannot be regarded as the product of individual and national
ambition, supported by historical accident."
The book 'The Heart of the Qur'an' by Lex Hixon, from where this excerpt is
taken, intended to stimulate the western reader to return to the Qur'an, the book
of the Muslims, with openness and new inspiration. The Qur'an has undoubtedly
had an immense impact on global politics as well as the lives of billions of
individuals; for a book, its impact has arguably been unparalleled. Its contents
range from addressing questions of individual spirituality to articulating intricate
systems to govern society. Significantly, the Qur'an presents what can only be
described as a unique paradigm of social and political thought that was
previously unknown. Margoliouth explains the impact of the Qur'an,
"The Koran [sic] admittedly occupies an important position among the great
religious books of the world. Though the youngest of the epoch-making works
belonging to this class of literature, it yields to hardly any in the wonderful effect
which it has produced on large masses of men. It has created an all but new
phase of human thought and a fresh type of character. It first transformed a
number of heterogeneous desert tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a nation of
heroes, and then proceeded to create the vast politico-religious organizations of
the Muhammadan world which are one of the great forces with which Europe
and the East have to reckon today."
Linguistically the word 'Qur'an' means 'reading' and came to be referred to as 'the
text which is read'. The Qur'an also calls itself 'kitab', which lexically refers to a
written book. Thus the significance of writing, reading and reflecting upon the
Qur'an has been emphasised from the very beginning of Islam. The Qur'anic
material is divided into 'surahs' or 'chapters'. According to Phillip Hitti, the
collected written text of the Qur'an was the first book in the Arabic language. It
is the supreme authority in Islam being a fundamental and essential source of
the Islamic creed, ethics, laws, and guidance. For Muslims, the Qur'an is of
divine origin; not the word of the Prophet Muhammed but the speech of the
Creator revealed to him in word and meaning.
"Read in the Name of your Lord". These were the first few words of the Qur'an
revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over 1400 years ago. Mohammed, who was
known to have been in retreat and meditation in a cave outside Mecca, had
received the first few words of a book that would have a tremendous impact on
the world we live in today. Not being known to have composed any piece of
poetry and not having any special rhetorical gifts, Mohammed had just received
the beginning of a book that would deal with matters of belief, legislation,
international law, politics, ritual, spirituality, and economics in an 'entirely new
literary form'. Armstrong states,
"It is as though Muhammad had created an entirely new literary form that some
people were not ready for but which thrilled others. Without this experience of
the Koran, it is extremely unlikely that Islam would have taken root."
This unique style was the cause of the dramatic intellectual revival of desert
Arabs, and after thirteen years of the first revelation, it became the only
reference for a new state in Medina. This new genre of speech, the Qur'an,
became the sole source of the new civilisation's political, philosophical, and
spiritual outlook. Steingass states,
"Here, therefore, its merits as a literary production should perhaps not be
measured by some preconceived maxims of subjective and aesthetic taste, but by
the effects which it produced in Muhammad's contemporaries and fellow
countrymen. If it spoke so powerfully and convincingly to the hearts of his
hearers as to weld hitherto centrifugal and antagonistic elements into one
compact and well-organised body, animated by ideas far beyond those which
had until now ruled the Arabian mind, then its eloquence was perfect, simply
because it created a civilized nation out of savage tribes…"
Many historians, scholars, and writers do not contend that the Qur'an has had a
huge impact on history - just as it does in global politics today, being an
authority for billions of Muslims - and so the reason for this timeless influence
should be understood. It is the purpose of this article to show how the Qur'an
can be described as a new genre of speech and a literary masterpiece. Rational
arguments that substantiate this and the Qur'an's inimitability are presented by
Muslims to argue the conclusiveness of their beliefs to a world in constant need
This article intends to contribute to the growing interest in the Qur'an's message
as well as its literary power and will highlight the Qur'an's ability to convey key
concepts and messages in the most profound way, a way that is described by the
most experienced Arabic litterateurs as inimitable and unmatched throughout
history. The famous Arabist H. Gibb comments:
"Though, to be sure, the question of the literary merit is one not to be judged on
a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of Arabic language; and no man in
fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep toned instrument with such
power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect as Mohammad did."
Qur'an and Literature
"In making the present attempt to improve on the performance of predecessors,
and to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly
the sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Koran, I have been at pain to study the
intricate and richly varied rhythms which - apart from the message itself -
constitutes the Koran's undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary
masterpieces of mankind."
Coming from a prominent Orientalist and litterateur deeply conversant with
Arabic, this excerpt from A.J. Arberry's translation of the Qur'an highlights its
literary excellence. However it should be noted that the literary merit, which is
ascribed to the Qur'an here, is based on its 'sublime rhetoric' and its 'richly varied
rhythms'. With regard to the Quran's rhetoric, there are volumes of work from
classical as well as contemporary literary scholars on the subject. Concerning the
Quran's rhythm, its impact has been noted by litterateurs throughout history,
many times being described as beautiful and unique. This reference to the
Qur'an is just a small part of its literary power, which cannot be ignored.
However, literary structures are not limited to the two elements that Arberry
Many Orientalists and linguists highlight how the Qur'anic discourse is a unique
and sensitive genre that exemplifies the peak of literary beauty. The linguistic
environment of the Qur'an is such that a change in the word order will lead to a
change in its communicative effect and the meaning it intends to portray. This
can also disfigure the Qur'anic stylistic effect and can disturb the harmony of
semantic cohesion throughout the book. Schact describes the nature of the
"The Koran was also a linguistic document of incomparable importance. It was
viewed as a source of grammatical and lexicographical information. Its stylistic
inimitability not-withstanding, it even came to be treated as a standard for
theories of literary criticism."
Rhythm and sound is also a major contributing factor to the Qur'an's style and
beauty. The Qur'an not only places words to produce the desired communicative
result, but it also does this to set up rhythms and sounds in order to heighten
the impact and enhance the psychological effect. Arberry states,
"Briefly, the rhetoric and rhythm of the Arabic of the Koran are so characteristic,
so powerful, so highly emotive, that any version whatsoever is bound in the
nature of things to be but a poor copy of the glittering splendour of the original."
Furthermore, the Qur'anic use of rhetoric and eloquence is arguably unparalleled
in the Arabic language. The language of the Qur'an is precise and accurate in
both meaning and expression; each letter and word has its place while the
language is free from fault. Stubbe explains:
"The truth is I do not find any understanding author who controverts the
elegance of Al Qur'an, it being generally esteemed as the standard of the Arabic
language and eloquence."
Another feature of the Qur'an, which is responsible for its dynamic style, is its
sudden change of person and number. This feature, also known as a
grammatical shift, plays a rhetorical role as the sudden changes are perfectly
logical and are used to enhance expression. Robinson states,
"Sudden pronomial shifts are characteristic of the Qur’anic discourse....they are a
very effective rhetorical device."
Dawood, an Iraqi Jewish Scholar in his translation of the Qur'an comments on
the sum effect of these and numerous other literary qualities of the Quran,
describes it as a 'literary masterpiece':
"The Koran is the earliest and by far the finest work of Classical Arabic prose... It
is acknowledged that the Koran is not only one of the most influential books of
prophetic literature but also a literary masterpiece in its own right... translations
have, in my opinion, practically failed to convey both the meaning and the
rhetorical grandeur of the original."
Literary structures are composed of many elements that are too numerous to be
discussed in detail in this article. They include diction, phonology, rhetoric,
consonance, composition, morphology, syntax, architecture, rhythm, and style,
in addition to matters related to tone, voice, orality, imagery, symbolism,
allegory, genre, point of view, intertextuality, intratextual resonance, and other
literary aspects - all of which are set within a historical, cultural, intellectual, and
psychological context. These elements combine with each other in the Qur'an in
myriad ways that produce the Qur'an's unique character. Zammit comments on
"Notwithstanding the literary excellence of some of the long pre-Islamic poems,
or qasaid, the Qur'an is definitely on a level of its own as the most eminent
written manifestation of the Arabic language."
Such assessments form the backdrop to the doctrine of Ijaz al-Quran - the
inimitability of the Qur'an - that lies at the heart of the Qur'an's claim to being of
divine origin. The Qur'an states,
"If you are in doubt of what We have revealed to Our messenger, then produce
one chapter like it. Call upon all your helpers, besides Allah, if you are truthful"
"Or do they say he fabricated the message? Nay, they have no faith. Let them
produce a recital like it, if they speak the truth."
In these verses, the Qur'an issues a challenge to produce a chapter that
resembles its literary power and excellence. It is to demonstrate that its claim to
divine authorship can be debased by producing what amounts to three lines of
Arabic (its shortest chapter) that are grammatically correct, unique in style and
employ various literary structures to its high standard. The tools needed meet
this challenge are the finite grammatical rules and the twenty eight letters that
make-up the Arabic language; these are independent and objective measures
available to all. The fact that it has not been matched since it emerged to this day
does not surprise most scholars familiar with the language Arabic and that of the
Qur'an, as Palmer explains:
"That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal
in merit to the Qur'an itself is not surprising"
Due to the depth and scope of literary devices in the Qur'an this article will
introduce selected literary structures that have been summarised above; sound,
unique genre, dynamic style and its aesthetic elements. These features have been
appropriately described by Hirschfield,
"The Qur'an is unapproachable as regards convincing power eloquence and even
The Qur'an enhances its expression by the use of sounds. It employs various
phonetic features that have an aesthetic and communicative effect. These
features include the lengthening and modification of sounds so that words and
letters become similar to an adjacent or nearby sound, and nasalization. This
unique feature can be found throughout the whole of the Qur'anic discourse. The
Qur'an is abundant with these phonetic devices which construct an emotive and
powerful image. This is done by the selection of the most apt word to portray
the intended meaning while producing semantically orientated sounds. The way
the Qur'an uses the words make it a harmonious tune as Sells states,
"…there is a quality to the sound of the Qur'an which anyone familiar with it in
Arabic can recognize. Qur'anic commentators have discussed the power and
beauty of this sound… is one of the key aspects of the science of analysing ijaz al-
Qur'an (the inimitability of the Qur'an)."
The Qur'anic choice of words coupled with the power of sound, conveys
meanings in a unique way. This feature of the Qur'an produces images and
describes events as though they were happening in front of the reader. Johns
"It is the language itself which constitutes the iconic tradition. Not a single word
can be taken or heard in isolation. All represent nuclei of meaning that are
cumulative and cohere, serving as triggers to activate the profoundest depths of
The use of delicate sounds in the following example, exhibits the Qur'an's ability
to express meaning via the sound of its text:
"And by the Night when it is still."
Waallayli itha saja
The way the Qur'an uses the word 'when it is still' produces a tranquil tone and a
smooth sound. This indicates the peace, stillness and serenity that night time
provides. The Qur'an also uses sound to build intense images, for example,
"And the producers of sparks striking"
The word for sparks striking, 'qadhan', that is used here emits a sound that
develops the sense of this image, the proximity of the Arabic letters 'daal' and
the 'ha' is responsible for this sound. In another example,
"Stirring up thereby clouds of dust."
Faatharna bihi naqAAan
The use of the word 'atharna' in this verse, with its series of vowels emits a
sound of splattering and scattering, which expresses the image of the drama.
The utilisation of sounds in the Qur'an also play a rhetorical role. For example in
the verse below the Qur'an uses words that imitate the sound they denote. This
rhetorical device called onomatopoeia is widely used throughout the Qur'anic
"At length when there is a deafening noise"
Fa-itha jaati alssakhkhatu
The word for 'deafening noise', 'alssakhkhatu,' chosen here produces a sound
eluding to its meaning. The Arabic letters 'kha' and 'ta' emanate harsh sounds
which conform to the meaning of the text.
Sounds in the Qur'an are employed to increase the effect of its message. The
Arabic language has many words for a single meaning, but yet the Qur'an selects
and arranges the words to portray the intended meaning in addition to create
sounds to conform to the image, scene and message the book conveys. This is
not only done by selecting the right words but also arranging them in a specific
way to develop sounds and rhythms. Just by touching upon a few simple
examples it can be seen why Pickthall was lead to believe that the Qur'an had an
"inimitable symphony". Arberry on his personal experience with the rhythm of
"Whenever I hear the Quran chanted, it is as though I am listening to Music,
underneath the flowing melody there is sounding… insistent beat of a drum, it is
like the beating of my heart."
"As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to
the Arabic literature, having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom.
Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its
contents but also of its style… and in forcing the High Arabic idiom into the
expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold and strikingly
effective rhetorical prose in which all the resources of syntactical modulation are
exploited with great freedom and originality."
This statement coming from the famous Arab grammarian H. Gibb, is an apt
description of the Qur'anic style, but this genre is not simply a subjective
conclusion, it is a reality based upon the use of features that are abundant in all
languages. This may seem strange that the Qur'an has developed its own style
by using current literary elements. However, it should be noted that the Qur'anic
discourse uses these common elements of language in a way that has never been
used before. Penrice acknowledges the Qur'an's literary excellence:
"That a competent knowledge of the Koran is indispensable as an introduction to
the study of Arabic literature will be admitted by all who have advanced beyond
the rudiments of the language. From the purity of its style and elegance of its
diction it has come to be considered as the standard of Arabic…"
The Qur'an is an independent genre in its own right. Its unique style is realised
through two inseparable elements; rhetorical and cohesive elements. From a
linguistic point of view rhetoric can be defined as the use of language to please
or persuade. Cohesiveness is the feature that binds sentences to each other
grammatically and lexically. It also refers to how words are linked together into
sentences and how sentences are in turn linked together to form larger units in
These elements combine with each other in such a way that interlock and
become inseparable. This unique combination captivates the reader and achieves
an effective communicative goal. The rhetorical and cohesive components of the
Qur'anic text cannot be divorced from each other. If the Qur’anic text were
stripped of these elements, the remaining text would cease to be the Qur’an and
neither would it not sound like the Qur’an. Arbuthnot states:
"…the Koran is regarded as a specimen of the purest Arabic, written in half
poetry and half prose. It has been said that in some cases grammarians have
adopted their rules to agree with certain phrases and expressions used in it, and
that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as
far as elegant writing is concerned, none has as yet succeeded."
From a linguistic point of view the Qur'an employs various rhetorical features
such as the use of rhythm, figures of speech, similes, metaphors, and rhetorical
questions. Also, the use of irony and the repetition of words are a just a small
part of the Qur'an's repertoire of rhetorical devices. Its cohesiveness includes
various methods such as parallel structures, phrasal ties, substitution, reference
and lexical cohesion. These features provide the bedrock and hang together to
create the Qur'an's unique style.
Non-Qur'anic Arabic texts mostly employ cohesive elements but the Qur'an uses
both cohesive and rhetorical elements in every verse. The following is a good
example to highlight the uniqueness of the Qur'anic style:
"Men who remember Allah much and women who remember"
Al-dhalikirin Allaha kathiran wa'l-dhakirati
The Qur'anic verse above, in a different word order such as the verse below,
"Men who remember Allah much and Women who remember Allah much"
al-dhakirina Allaha kathiran wa'l-dhakirati Allaha kathiran
Would not deliver the same effect, as the word 'Allah' has become linguistically
redundant, in other words it has become needlessly wordy or repetitive in
expression. The original Qur'anic structure achieved its objective by separating
the two subjects in order to sandwich the word 'Allah' and using the 'wa' particle
as a linguistic bond. This Qur'anic verse has also a rhetorical element as the
word Allah is 'cuddled' and 'hugged' by the pious who remember Him a lot,
which is indicated by the arrangement of the words in this verse. Furthermore
the sounds produced by the Qur’anic word order achieve greater euphony than
any other arrangement. This example the Qur'an combines rhetorical and
cohesive elements to produce the intended meaning. Any change to the structure
of a Qur'anic verse simply changes its literary effect. The Qur’an also achieves a
unique literary form as it does not fit into any of the known styles such as
Poetry, Rhymed Prose and Prose; this argument will not be dealt here but will be
examined in the article “The Literary Form of the Qur’an”. Arbuthnot explains in
his book "The Construction of the Bible and the Koran" this effect of the Qur'anic
"It is confessedly the standard of the Arabic tongue... The style of the Koran is
generally beautiful and fluent... and in many places, especially where the majesty
and attributes of God are described, sublime and magnificent… He succeeded so
well, and so strangely captivated the minds of his audience, that several of his
opponents thought it the effect of witchcraft and enchantment." To end this
section, with the words of Professor Philip H. Hitti:
"The style of the Koran is Gods' style. It is different, incomparable and inimitable.
This is basically what constitutes the 'miraculous character' (ijaz) of the Koran. Of
all miracles, it is the greatest: if all men and jinn were to collaborate, they could
not produce its like. The Prophet was authorized to challenge his critics to
produce something comparable. The challenge was taken up by more than one
stylist in Arabic literature-with a predictable conclusion."
The dynamic style of the Qur'anic discourse occurs as a result of the use of
grammatical shifts. This is an accepted rhetorical practice that has been termed
the "Daring nature of Arabic". This rhetorical device is called 'iltifat, in English it
literally means 'turning' from one thing to another.
Orientalists in the past such as Noldeke stated that some of these changes in
person and number occur abruptly. This misconception has been shown to be a
superficial understanding of classical Arabic. The changes that are made in the
Qur'anic discourse are made according to an effective pattern. The Arab scholars
in the past, such as Suyuti, al-Zarkashi and al-Athir, unanimously agreed that
this use of Arabic was part of the science of rhetoric. Furthermore they stated
that rather than being a peculiarity of the Arabic language, it is an effective
The Qur'an is the only form of Arabic prose to have used this rhetorical device in
an extensive and complex manner. Haleem states:
"…it employs this feature far more extensively and in more variations than does
Arabic poetry. It is, therefore, natural to find…no one seems to quote references
in prose other than from the Qur'an"
One example of this complex rhetorical feature is in the following verse where it
changes to talking about God, in the third person, to God Himself speaking in
the first person plural of majesty:
"There is no good in most of their secret talk, only in commanding charity, or
good, or reconciliation between people. To anyone who does these things,
seeking to please God, We shall give a rich reward."
Instead of saying "He will give him…" God in this example speaks in the plural of
majesty to give His personal guarantee of reward for those who do the positive
actions mentioned in the above verse.
Another example of this sudden change in person and number is exhibited in the
"He it is who makes you travel by land and sea; until when you are in the ships
and they sail on with them in a pleasant breeze, and they rejoice, a violent wind
overtakes them and the billows surge in on them from all sides, and they
become certain that they are encompassed about, they pray to Allah, being
sincere to Him in obedience: 'If Thou dost deliver us from this, we shall most
certainly be of the grateful ones.' But when He delivers them, lo! they are
unjustly rebellious in the earth. O humankind! your rebellion is against your own
souls - provision of this world's life - then to Us shall be your return, so We shall
inform you of what you did"
Neal Robinson in his book "Discovering the Qur'an: A Contemporary Approach
to a Veiled Text" explains this verse in context of its rhetoric:
"At first sight it may appear hopelessly garbled, but the three consecutive
pronominal shifts are all perfectly logical. The shift from the second person
plural to the third person plural objectifies the addressees and enables them to
see themselves as God sees them, and to recognize how ridiculous and
hypocritical their behaviour is. The shift back to the second person plural marks
God's turning to admonish them. Finally the speaker's shift from the third person
singular to the first person plural expresses His majesty and power, which is
appropriate in view of the allusion to the resurrection and judgment."
The dynamic style of the Qur'an is an obvious stylistic feature and an accepted
rhetorical practice. The Qur'an uses this feature in such a way that conforms to
the theme of the text while enhancing the impact of the message it conveys. The
complex manner in which the Qur'an uses this feature provides a dynamic
expressive text, which was unknown to Arabists in the past. It is not surprising
that Neal Robinson concluded that the grammatical shifts used in the Qur'an:
"…are a very effective rhetorical device."
The Egyptian Mustafa Sadiq al-Rafi'i states:
"Anyone who heard it had no option but to surrender to the Qur'an… every
single part of his mind was touched by the pure sound of the languages music,
and portion by portion, note by note, he embraced its harmony, the perfection of
its pattern, its formal completion. It was not much as if something was recited to
him by rather as if something had burned itself into him."
The aesthetic reception of the Qur'an is not a literary device as such, but it is a
manifestation of its literary beauty on the human psyche. This aesthetic element
may seem subjective but it highlights all the other objective literary structures
and places them in the context of life, experience and humanity; thus making the
Qur'an real. Goethe summaries the aesthetic elements of the Qur'anic discourses.
"However often we turn to it [the Qur'an]… it soon attracts, astounds, and in the
end enforces our reverence… Its style, in accordance with its contents and aim is
stern, grand, terrible-ever and anon truly sublime- Thus this book will go on
exercising through all ages a most potent influence."
Such reactions and experiences upon hearing the Qur'an have indeed been
witnessed throughout history, an early example of which is described by the
following episode taken from Kermani's article 'The Aesthetic Reception of the
Qur'an as reflected in Early Muslim History'.
"Abu Ubaid, a companion of the prophet mentions that a Bedouin listened to a
man reciting 'so shalt that thou art commanded'. After this he threw himself to
the ground worshipping and said, ‘I threw myself down for the eloquence of this
Montet in his translation of the Qur'an explains this unique Qur'anic feature,
"All those who are acquainted with the Qur'an in Arabic agree in praising the
beauty of this religious book; its grandeur of form is so sublime that no
translation into any European language can allow us to appreciate it.”
Another example of the aesthetic nature of the Qur'an is demonstrated by the
conversion of great companion of the Prophet Mohammed, Umar, as handed
down by the famous Islamic historians, Ibn Hisham and Ibn Kathir. On the very
day he had intended to kill the Prophet he had heard that his sister Fatima and
her husband had converted into the religion of Islam, infuriated he went to their
house. "What is this balderdash I have heard?" Umar screamed, "'You have not
heard anything." Fatima and her husband tried to calm him down. Umar,
however, already regretted his behaviour and asked to read the scriptures she
had tried to hide away. Umar started to read surah Taha and after only a few
verses he stopped and cried "How beautiful and noble is this speech!" Umar, the
second Caliph of Islam had converted to the religion of Muhammad.
Guillaume suggests the reason for the Qur'an's aesthetic qualities,
"It has a rhythm of peculiar beauty and a cadence that charms the ear. Many
Christian Arabs speak of its style with warm admiration, and most Arabists
acknowledge its excellence. When it is read aloud or recited it has an almost
This effect of the Qur'an was changing the hearts and minds of many Arabs at
the time of revelation. Non-Muslim Arabs at that time had realized its power and
some had tried to lessen the effect by shouting, clapping, singing and loud
chatter while it was recited. Abu-Zahra comments on this reality,
"The greatest among Muhammad's enemies feared that the Qur'an would have a
strong effect on them, while they preferred lack of faith to faith and aberration to
right guidance. Thus, they agreed not to listen to this Qur'an. They knew that
everyone listening was moved by its solemn expressive force that exceeded
human strength. They saw that the people – even great personalities, the
notables and mighty - one after another believed it, that Islam grew stronger,
that the faithful became more numerous, polytheism became weaker, and their
supporters became less."
To truly appreciate the point, however, it is crucial to note the historical context
in which the Quran emerged. The Arabs at the time considered themselves - and
are still considered by historians and linguists to this day masters of the Arabic
language who took great pride in its mastery; tremendous social status was
granted to all those who did. In particular, formulating innovative and inspiring
poetry was a great pastime and a source of intense social rivalry. The following
quotation from Ibn Rashiq illustrates the importance attached to language at the
time. He writes,
"Whenever a poet emerged in an Arab tribe, other tribes would come to
congratulate, feasts would be prepared, the women would join together on lutes
as they do at weddings, and old and young men would all rejoice at the good
news. The Arabs used to congratulate each other only on the birth of a child and
when a poet rose among them." Ibn Khaldun, a notable scholar of the fourteenth
century, remarked on the importance of poetry in Arab life,
"It should be known that Arabs thought highly of poetry as a form of speech.
Therefore, they made it the archives of their history, the evidence for what they
considered right and wrong, and the principal basis of reference for most of their
sciences and wisdom."
An earlier scholar Ibn Faris elaborated on the same theme, but went further to
comment on the quality of the poetry that was composed during the pre-Islamic
"Poetry is the archive of the Arabs; in it their genealogies have been preserved; it
sheds light on the darkest and strangest things found in the Book of God and in
the tradition of God's apostle and that of his companions. Perhaps a poem may
be luckier than another and one poem sweeter and more elegant than another,
but none of the ancient poems lacks its degree of excellence."
The failure of those at the peak of their trade - mastery of the Arabic language -
to rival the Qur'an which challenged them should make one think. So too should
the differing reactions the Qur'an received from those best placed to challenge its
origin. Gibb states,
"Well then, if the Qur'an were his own composition other men could rival it. Let
them produce ten verses like it. If they could not (and it is obvious that they
could not) then let them accept the Qur'an as an outstanding evidential miracle."
By appreciating the aesthetic elements of the Qur'anic discourse it is expected
that the reader will investigate the Qur'an's innumerable devices used to express
its incontestable literary power as Paul Casanova states:
"Whenever Muhammad was asked a miracle, as a proof of the authenticity of his
mission, he quoted the composition of the Qur'an and its incomparable
excellence as proof of its divine origin. And, in fact, even for those who are non-
Muslims nothing is more marvellous than its language with such apprehensible
plenitude and a grasping sonority… The ampleness of its syllables with a
grandiose cadence and with a remarkable rhythm have been of much moment in
the conversion of the most hostile and the most sceptic.“
The literary devices employed in the Qur'an are not ornamental elements such
that they can be dispensed with, they are part and parcel of its meaning and
linguistic make up. Without them its meaning and literary excellence is lost. The
Quran, like all other great literary masterpieces, stands out because of its use of
language to convey meaning. However, the Qur'an has remained in a unique
position because of its particular use of literary devices. Irving explains:
"The Qur'an is a magnificent document... because of its matchlessness or
The Qur'an reaches, indeed defines, the peak of eloquence in the Arabic
language The Qur'an stakes its claim to divine origin on the matter of its
language, by issuing a challenge to rival even its shortest chapter. This has
rested at the core of many historical studies of the Qur'an, as many have
attempted to answer the central question of authorship.
The above observation makes the hypothesis advanced by those who see
Muhammad as the author of the Qur'an untenable. How could a man, from being
illiterate, become the most important author, in terms of literary merits, in the
whole of Arabic literature?
This article serves only as an introduction to the Qur'an's literacy excellence. It
intends to provoke further questions and sufficiently stimulate the reader to
research further, particularly the question of authorship. At the heart of that
question lies only a limited set of possible answers. The Qur'an can only have
come from an Arab, a non-Arab, the Prophet Muhammed - if you believe he had
a mastery of Arabic better than the Arabs of his time - or, as Muslims suggest,
the Creator, which only counts as a possible source if you believe in its existence
(that is of course a subject unto itself but an important pre-requisite).
From the above evidence the Quran is acknowledged to be written with the
utmost beauty and purity of Language. It is incontestably the standard of the
Arabic tongue, inimitable by any human pen, and because it still exists today,
therefore insisted on as a permanent miracle sufficient to convince the world of
its divine origin. If the Quran was written by Muhammad, why were not Arab
scholars and linguists able to rival the Quran?
There are however many other questions that relate back to the issue of
authorship. To illustrate a vital point; How was it possible for an illiterate man to
produce a unique style of the Arabic language and maintain that over a 23 year
period, such that it has been collected to form a book, divided into chapters
centred around major themes but yet related to events that happened
throughout that period and were specific to it? The following section taken from
Draz's book "An Eternal Challenge" probes this point further,
"When we consider carefully the timing of the revelation of the Qur'anic passages
and surahs and their arrangement, we are profoundly astonished. We almost
belie what we see and hear. We then begin to ask ourselves for an explanation of
this highly improbable phenomenon: is it not true that this new passage of
revelation has just been heard as new, addressing a particular event which is its
only concern? Yet it sounds as though it is neither new nor separate from the
rest. It seems as if it has been, along with the rest of the Qur'an, perfectly
impressed on this man's mind long before he has recited it to us. It has been
fully engraved on his heart before its composition in the words he recites. How
else can it unite so perfectly and harmoniously parts and pieces that do not
naturally come together?… Is it as result of an experiment that follows a
spontaneous thought? That could not be the case. When each part was put in its
position, the one who placed them never had a new thought or introduced any
modification or re-arrangement. How then could he have determined his plan?
And how could he have made his intention so clear in advance?... When we
consider such detailed instructions on the arrangement of passages and Surahs
we are bound to conclude that there is a complete and detailed plan assigning
the position of each passage before they are all revealed. Indeed the
arrangement is made before the reasons leading to the revelation of any passage
occur, and even before the start of the preliminary causes of such events… Such
are the plain facts about the arrangement of the Qur'an as it was revealed in
separate verses, passages and surahs over a period of 23 years. What does that
tell us about its source?"
After being introduced to the literary excellence of the Qur'anic discourse, it is
hoped that the reader will turn to the Qur'an in a new light, with a fresh
perspective and an open mind. It is only through frank and open dialogue that
the main authority of Islam, the Qur'an, will be understood and rational
arguments for its origin appreciated. To end, Rev. R Bosworth Smith concludes
that the Qur'an, in his book "Muhammad and Muhammadanism", is:
"…A miracle of purity of style, of wisdom and of truth. It is the one miracle
claimed by Muhammad, his standing miracle, and a miracle indeed it is."
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