Inimitability of the Qur'an is the belief that no human speech can match the Qur'an in its content and form. According to this doctrine the Qur'an is a miracle and therefore it is the proof granted to Muhammad in authentication of his prophetic status. It serves the dual purpose of proving the divine source of the Muslim book and the genuineness of Muhammad's prophethood to whom it was revealed. The doctrine of miraculousness of the Qur'an waited for two centuries until the middle of the 9th century that it became inappropriate to find fault with the Qur'anic style and in the late 10th century the first works on the doctrine were composed. The Arabic term used to describe the inimitability of the Qur'an is "I'jaz" (اعجاز).
The concept of inimitability originates in the Qur'an. In five different verses, opponents are challenged to produce something like the Qur'an. The suggestion is that those who doubt the divine authorship of the Qur'an should try to disprove it by demonstrating that a human being could have created it:
- "if men and sprites banded together to produce the like of this Qur'an they would never produce its like not though they backed one another"(17:88)
- "Say, Bring you then ten chapters like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than God, if you speak the truth!"(11:13)
- "Or do they say he has fabricated it? Say bring then a chapter like unto it, and call upon whom you can besides God, if you speak truly!"(10:38)
- "Or do they say he has fabricated it? Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recital like unto it if they speak the truth"(52:34)
- "And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down to our servant, then produce a chapter of the like" (2:23)
In the verses cited, Muhammad's opponents are invited to try to produce a text like the Qur'an, or even ten chapters, or even a single chapter. It is understood among Muslims that that challenge has not been met.
The literary quality of the Qur'an has been acknowledged by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars and intellectuals. and there is evidence that Muslims accepted Islam on the basis of evaluating the Qur'an as a text that surpasses all human production. This literary quality of the Qur'an is considered the decisive factor for the spread and development of Islam in the 7th century. A thriving poetic tradition existed at the time of Muhammad, however, according to Afnan Fatani, a contemporary scholar of Islamic studies, Muhammad had brought, in spite of being illiterate, something that was superior to anything that the poets and orators had ever written or heard. They did not question this, what they rejected was Qur'an's ideas, especially monotheism and resurrection. Numerous scholars devoted time to finding out why the Qur'an was inimitable. The majority of opinions was around eloquence of the Qur'an both in wording and meaning. Thus it is understood that the inimitability of the Qur'an resides in the manner in which words have been arranged accompanied with flawless meaning.
Nonliguistic approaches focus on the inner meanings of the Qur'an. Oliver Leaman favoring a nonlinguistic approach, criticizes the links between aesthetic judgment and faith and argues that it is possible to be impressed by something and yet at the same time not think that it came about in a supernatural way and vice versa it is possible to believe in the divine origin of Qur'an and do not agree to an aesthetic supremacy of the text. He thinks that it is the combination of language, ideas, and hidden meanings of the Qur'an that makes it an immediately convincing product.
There are numerous classical works of literary criticism which have studied the Qur'an and examined its style:
The most famous works on the doctrine of inimitability are two medieval books by the grammarian Al Jurjani (d. 1078CE), Dala’il al-i'jaz ('the Arguments of Inimitability') and Asraral-balagha ('the Secrets of Eloquence'). Al Jurjani argued that the inimitability of the Qur'an is a linguistic phenomenon and proposed that the Qur'an has a degree of excellence unachievable by human beings. Al Jurjani believed that Qur'an's eloquence must be a certain special quality in the manner of its stylistic arrangement and composition or a certain special way of joining words. He studied the Qur'an with literary proofs and examined the various literary features and how they were utilized. He rejected the idea that the words (alfaz) and meaning (ma'ani) of a literary work can be separated. In his view the meaning was what determined the quality of the style and that it would be absurd to attribute qualities of eloquence to a text only by observing its words. He explains that eloquence does not reside in the correct application of grammar as these are only necessary not sufficient conditions for the quality of a text. The originality of Al Jurjani is that he linked his view on meaning as the determining factor in the quality of a text by considering it not in isolation but as it is realized within a text. He wished to impress his audience with the need to study not only theology but also grammatical details and literary theory in order to improve their understanding of the inimitability of the Qur'an. For Al Jurjani the dichotomy much elaborated by earlier critics between 'word' and 'meaning' was a false one. He suggested considering not merely the meaning but 'the meaning of the meaning'. He defined two types of meaning one that resorts to the 'intellect' the other to the 'imagination'.
Al-Baqillani (d. 1013CE) wrote a book named I'jaz al-Qur'an ('inimitability of the Qur'an') and emphasized that the style of the Qur'an cannot be classified, and eloquence sustains throughout the Qur'an in spite of dealing with various themes. Al Baqillani's point was not that the Qur'an broke the custom by extraordinary degree of eloquence but that it broke the custom of the existing literary forms by creating a new genre of expression. According to Sophia Vasalou a contemporary scholar in theology, the reports about the Arabs bewildered reception of the Qur'an is crucial in the argument. "The arabs, upon hearing it , were lost for words in trying to classify it:'is it poetry?' 'is it magic?' 'Is it soothsaying?' they could not find a literary form to which the Qur'an corresponded" Vasalou adds.
Ibrahim al-Nazzam of Basra (d. 846CE) was among the first to study the doctrine. According to Al Nazzam, Qur'ans inimitability is due to the information in its content which as divine revelation contains divine knowledge. Thus, Qur'an's supremacy lies in its content rather than its style. A- Murtaza (d. 1044) had similar views, turning to divine intervention as the only viable explanation as to why the challenge was not met.
Al-Qadi Abd Al-Jabbar (d. 1025CE) in his book Al-Mughni ("the sufficient book") insists on the hidden meanings of the Qur'an alongside with its eloquence and provides some counter-arguments against the criticism leveled at Muhammad and the Qur'an. Al Jabbar studies the doctrine in parts 15 and 16 of his book series. According to Al Jabbr, Arabs chose not to compete with Muhammad in the literary field but on the battlefield and this was the another reason that they recognized the superiority of the Qur'an. Al Jabbar rejected the doctrine of sarfah (the prohibition from production) because according to him sarfah makes a miracle of something other than the Qur'an and not the Qur'an itself. The doctrine of sarfah means that people can produce a rival to the Qur'an but due to some supernatural or divine cause decide against doing so. Therefore, according to Al Jabbar the correct interpretation of sarfah is that the motives to rival the Qur'an disappears because of the recognition of the impossibility of doing so.
Yahya ibn Ziyad al-Farra (d. 822CE), Abu Ubaydah (d. 824CE), Ibn Qutaybah (d. 889CE), Rummani (d. 994CE), Khattabi (d. 998CE), and Zarkashi (d. 1392CE) are also among notable scholars in this subject. Ibn Qutaybah considered 'brevity' which he defined as "jam' al-kathir mi ma'anih fi l-qalil min lafzih" (collection of many ideas in a few words) as one aspect of Qur'anic miraculousness. Zarkashi in his book Al-Burhan stated that miraculousness of the Qur'an can be perceived but not described.
Scientific I'jaz Literature
Proponents of scientific approach hold that some verses of the Qur'an contain scientific theories that have been discovered only in modern times confirming Qur'an's miraculousness. The literature which emerged is called I'jaz Literature. Ijaz literature was initially propagated by work of Keith Leon Moore and Maurice Bucaille. These scientists have been criticized by the scientific fraternity for their work.
Maurice Bucaille in his writings provides some interpretations of verses that he claimed to be in agreement with modern science and that had not been known in the past. Bucaille states that he has examined the degree of compatibility between the Qur'an and modern scientific data and that this study has led him to the conclusion that the Qur'an did not contain statements that contradicted modern science. He then argues that it is inconceivable that the scientific statements of the Qur'an could have been the work of man.
Some examples of these verses include 41:11, 23:12-14, 51:47, 78:7, and 21:30 referring to the gaseous state of the material that composed the early stage of the universe, the development of fetus in womb, expansion of the universe, geological concept of mountains serving as stabilizers of the earth's crust, and the aquatic origin of life respectively.
The methodology of scientific I'jaz has not gained full approval by Islamic scholars and is the subject of ongoing debate. According to Ziauddin Sardar, the Qur'an does not contain may verses that point towards nature, however, it constantly asks its readers to reflect on the wonders of the cosmos. He refers to verse 29:20 which says "Travel throughout the earth and see how He brings life into being" and 31:190 which says "In the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of night and day there are indeed signs for men of understanding" and concludes that these verses do not have any specific scientific content, rather they encourage believers to observe natural phenomena and reflect on the complexity of the universe. According to Nidhal Guessoum some works on miracles in Qur'an follow a set pattern and they generally begin with a verse from the Qur'an, for example, the verse "So verily I swear by the stars that run and hide . . ." (81:15-16) and quickly declare that it refers to black holes, or take the verse "I swear by the Moon in her fullness, that ye shall journey on from stage to stage" (84:18-19) and decide it refers to space travel, and so on. "What is meant to be allegorical and poetic is transformed into products of science".
In Islamic theology, Muhammad's illiteracy is a way of emphasizing that he was a transparent medium for divine revelation and a sign of the genuineness of his prophethood since the illiterate prophet could not have composed the eloquent prose and poetry of the Qur'an. According to Tabatabaei (d. 1981), a Muslim scholar, the force of this challenge becomes clear when we realize that it is issued for someone whose life should resemble that of Muhammad namely the life of an orphan, uneducated in any formal sense, not being able to read or write and grew up in the unenlightened age of the jahiliyah period (the age of ignorance) before Islam.
The references to illiteracy are found in verses 7:158, 29:48, and 62:2. The verse 25:5 also implies that Muhammad was unable to read and write. The Arabic term "ummi" in 7:158 and 62:2 is translated to 'illiterate' and 'unlettered'. The medieval exegete Al Tabari (d. 923CE) maintained that the term induced two meanings: firstly, the inability to read or write in general and secondly, the inexperience or ignorance of the previous books or scriptures.
The early sources on the history of Islam provide that Muhammad especially in Medina used scribes to correspond with the tribes. Likewise, though infrequently rather than constantly, he had scribes write down, on separate pages not yet in one single book, parts of the Qur'an. Collections of prophetic tradition occasionally mention Muhammad having basic knowledge of reading and writing, while others deny it. For example in the book Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of early sayings, it is mentioned that when Muhammad and the Meccans agreed to conclude a peace treaty, Muhammad made a minor change to his signature or in one occasion he asked for a paper to write a statement.
- ...Most arabs were not able to read or write and the prophet was one of them. The prophet recited a perfect book to them again and again without editing or changing the words, in contrast when arab orators prepared their speech they added or deleted large or small parts of their speech before delivering it. But the Prophet did not write down the revelation and recited the book of God without addition, deletion, or revision...If he had mastered writing and reading, people would have suspected that he had studied previous books but he brought this noble Qur'an without learning and education...the Prophet had not learned from a teacher, he had not studied any book, and did not attend any classroom of a scholar because Mecca was not a place of scholars. And he was not absent from Mecca for a long period of time which would make it possible to claim that he learned during that absence.
Towards the end of Muhammad's life and after his death several men and a woman appeared in various parts of Arabia and claimed to be prophets. Musaylimah, a contemporary of Muhammad, claimed that he received revelations, some of his revelations is recorded. Ibn al-Muqaffa' was a critic of the Qur'an and reportedly made attempts to imitate it. Bashar ibn Burd (d.784), Abul Atahiya (d.828), Al-Mutanabbi (d.965), and Al-Maʿarri (d.1058) claimed that their writings surpassed Qur'an in eloquence.
Theodor Nöldeke criticized the Qur'anic text as careless and imperfect. He questioned the Qur'an's divine origin by critically searching for linguistic defects. Schwally (1919) and Wansbrough had similar opinions. Some writers have questioned Muhammad's illiteracy. Ruthven states that "The fact of Muhammad's illiteracy would in no way constitute proof of the Qur'an miraculous origin as the great pre-Islamic poets were illiterate." Peters writes: "We do not know where this minor merchant of Mecca learned to make poetry...most oral poets and certainly the best have been illiterate." Others believe that Muhammad hired poets or that the Qur'an was translated into Arabic from another language.
I'jaz in Islam
The consensus reached by many Muslims through the ages has been that the Qur'an is a miracle and proof of the truth of Muhammad's prophethood. People of Muhammad's time challenged him to produce similar wonders like those of previous prophets, to which the Qur'an replies, "Is it not sufficient that we have revealed to you the book that is recited to them? In that there is a mercy and reminder for a people who believe". From this and similar declarations Muslim theologians developed the doctrine of the Qur'an's miraculous nature, or inimitability (I'jaz Al-Qur'an). They said it was miraculous because its language and style could not be replicated in ordinary human speech, its chapters and verses were uniquely arranged, it spoke of past and future events of which Muhammad had no knowledge, it revealed God's names and attributes, its laws and commandments were universal in application, and, unlike other holy books, it has remained unaltered since it was revealed to Muhammad. From the ninth century onwards, the theme of I'jaz Al-Qur'an or the inimitability of the Qur'an has been extensively discussed by Muslim theologians who believe that Muhammad had not performed any miracle except one.
Thus, Islamic theologians emphasized that Muhammad was but a man and that his only miracle was the Qur'an. The accounts of the Prophet's other miracles have little support in actual Qur'anic material. For example, the description of the famous night Journey could not be drawn from the actual words in chapter 17 and the story of the Prophet splitting the moon, in spite of having strong support in the hadith, is not necessarily the meaning of verse 54:1, which says 'The Hour has come near, and the moon has split'. Likewise, the narratives about the opening of the child Muhammad's chest by two angels has no textual basis in the Qur'an. This is supported when the fallibility of the Prophet is suggested by some Qur'anic verses, for instance when he turned away from a blind man and in other instances.
- Leaman, Oliver (2008). The Qur'an : an encyclopedia (Reprinted. ed.). Routledge. ISBN 9780415326391.
- Vasalou, Sophia (2002). "The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur'an: General Trajectories and Individual Approaches". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 4 (2): 23–53.
- Leaman, Oliver (ed.) (2006). The Qur'an: an encyclopedia. London: Routledge. p. 295. ISBN 9780415326391. See also Hans Wehr, 4th edition, p. 692.
- "Qur'an verse 17:88".
- "Qur'an verse 11:33".
- "Qur'an verse 10:38".
- "Qur'an verse 52:34".
- "Qur'an verse 2:23".
- Kermani, Naved (2006). The Blackwell companion to the Qur'an. Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-1752-4.
- For example see comments by Arthur John Arberry: "to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the arabic Koran, I have been at pains to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which constitute the Koran's undeniable claim to rank amongs the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind Arberry, A.J (1955). The Koran: Interpreted. New York: Macmillan. pp. x; Karen Armstrong : "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." Armstrong, K (1994). A History of God.p.78; Oliver Leaman: "the verses of the Qur'an represent its uniqueness and beauty not to mention its novelty and originality. That is why it has succeeded in convincing so many people of its truth. it imitates nothing and no one nor can it be imitated. Its style does not pall even after long periods of study and the text does not lose its freshness over time" Leaman, Oliver (2006). The Qur'an: an Encyclopedia.p.404 and similar views by Joseph Schacht (1974) The legacy of Islam, Henry Stubbe An account of the Rise and Progress of Mohammadanism (1911), Martin Zammit A Comparative Lexical Study of Qur'anic Arabic (2002), and Alfred Guillaume Islam (1990)
- Nasr, Abu-Zayd (2003). "The Dilemma of the Literary Approach to the Qur'an". Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 23: 8–47.
- Taji-Farouki, Suha (2004). Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur'an. Oxford university press and The Institute of Ismaili Studies. p. 281. ISBN 9780197200032.
- Leaman, Oliver (2004). Islamic aesthetics : an introduction. University of Notre Dame Press. pp. 141–164. ISBN 978-0268033699.
- Larkin, Margaret (1988). "The Inimitability of the Qur'an: Two Perspectives". Religion & Literature 20 (1): 31–47.
- Versteegh, Kees (1997). Landmarks in linguistic thought III : the arabic linguistic tradition: chapter 8 (1. publ. ed.). Routledge. ISBN 0415157579.
- Allen, Roger (2000). An introduction to Arabic literature (1. publ. ed.). Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 225–226. ISBN 0521776570.
- Zadeh, Travis (2008). "'Fire cannot harm it', Mediation, Temptation and the charismatic power of the Qur'an". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 10 (2).
- Rahman, Yusuf (1996). "The miraculous nature of muslim scripture: A study of Abd Al-Jabbr's "I'jaz Al-Qur'an"". Islamic Studies 35 (4): 409–424.
- Boullata, Issa J. (2007). Literary structures of religious meaning in the Qur'an. Routledge. p. 279. ISBN 0700712569.
- Pannell, Maurice Bucaille ; translated from the French by Alastair D.; author, the (1980). The Bible, the Qur'an, and science : the Holy scriptures examined in the light of modern knowledge (3rd ed., rev. and expanded. ed.). Paris: Seghers. pp. Introduction. ISBN 2221012119.
- "Then turned He to the heaven when it was smoke, and said unto it and unto the earth: Come both of you, willingly or loth. They said: We come, obedient"(41:11)
- "Verily We created man from a product of wet earth, Then placed him as a drop (of seed) in a safe lodging, Then fashioned We the drop a clot, then fashioned We the clot a little lump, then fashioned We the little lump bones, then clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best of creators!"(23:12-14)
- "And heaven, We built it with might, and We extend it wide "(51:47)
- "Have We not made the earth as a cradle, and the mountains as pegs?"(78:6-7)
- "Have not the unbelievers then beheld that the heavens and the earth were a mass all sewn up, and then We unstitched them and of water fashioned every living thing? Will they not believe?"(21:30)
- Khir, Bustami Mohamed (2000). "The Qur'an and Science: The Debate on the Validity of Scientific Interpretations". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 2 (2): 19–35.
- Sardar, Ziauddin. "Weird science". Newstatesman. Retrieved Aug 2013.
- Weddle, David L. (2010). Miracles. ; Wonder and Meaning in World Religions. New York University Press. pp. 177–209. ISBN 978-0814794166.
- TabaTaba'i, Allamah Sayyid M. H. (1987). The Qur'an in Islam : its impact and influence on the life of muslims. Zahra Publ. p. 65. ISBN 0710302665.
- " Say, "O mankind, indeed I am the Messenger of God to you all, to whom belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth. There is no deity except Him, He gives life and causes death." So believe in God and His Messenger, the unlettered prophet, who believes in God and His words, and follow him that you may be guided."(7:158)
- "And you (Muhammad) were not a reader of any scripture before it, nor did you write it with your right hand, for then those who follow falsehood, might have doubted."(29:48)
- " It is He (God) who has sent among the unlettered a Messenger from themselves reciting to them His verses and purifying them and teaching them the Book and wisdom, although they were before in clear error."(62:2)
- "They say, 'Fairy-tales of the ancients that he has had written down, so that they are recited to him at the dawn and in the evening."(25:5)
- see for example translations by Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, and Daryabadi. It has also been translated to 'Gentile'. Arberry translates to 'the prophet of the common folk'.
- Günther, Sebastian (2002). "Muhammad, the Illiterate Prophet: An Islamic Creed in the Qur'an and Qur'anic Exegesis". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 4 (1): 1–26.
- Sahih Bukhari by Muhammad Al Bukhari (d.870CE), narrations number 2699 http://sunnah.com/bukhari/53/9 and 114 http://sunnah.com/bukhari/3/56
- Tafsir Al Razi by Fakhr Al Din Al Razi, volume 15 pages 23 and 29, translated in Günther, Sebastian (2002). "Muhammad, the Illiterate Prophet: An Islamic Creed in the Qur'an and Qur'anic Exegesis". Journal of Qur'anic Studies 4 (1): 1–26.
- Ruthven, Malise (2006). Islam in the world (3rd ed. ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 32. ISBN 0195305035.
- Peters, F. E. (2010). Jesus and Muhammad : parallel tracks, parallel lives. Oxford University Press. p. 82. ISBN 0199747466.
- Gabriel, Richard A. (2007). Muhammad: Islam's First Great General. University of Oklahoma Press. pp. xxvi. ISBN 0806138602.
- Qur'an verse: 29:50-51
- Campo, Juan Eduardo (2009). Encyclopedia of Islam. Facts On File. p. 572. ISBN 9780816054541.
- "Exalted is He who carried His worshiper (Prophet Muhammad) to travel in the night from the Sacred Mosque to the Furthest Mosque which We have blessed around it so that We might show him some of Our signs. He is the Hearer, the Seer."(17:1)
- Qur'an verse:54:1
- Qur'an verse:80:1-10 when Muhammad is indifferent to a blind man who interrupts him or in the Qur'anic verses:47:19 and 40:55, Muhammad is required to ask forgiveness from God.
- Martin, Richard C. (2004). Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim world. Mcmillan. ISBN 0028656032.