By Khan Adnani
The Qur’an’s literary form is inimitable and miraculous compared to all other forms of Arabic speech – as testified to and affirmed by numerous Orientalist and Western scholars of Arabic literature, the subjective experience of the Qur’an by Muhammad’s contemporaries and Muslim communities over the centuries, and the unanimous scholarly opinion of Muslim theologians, philosophers, and grammarians.
By the terms – miracle/miraculous or inimitability/inimitable (i‘jaz) – we do not mean a “break in the laws of nature” or a “divine intervention” in the ordinary course of events. As already explained, God creates and sustains all existence at every moment – so divine “interventions” are wholly unnecessary: the laws of nature are never broken because they are the manifestation of God’s continuous creation and guidance in the Universe.When we say that a certain production is “inimitable” or “miraculous”, we mean that such a production transcends the capacities of a certain class or species and is beyond the productive capabilities of that species. Thus, a production is only inimitable or miraculous in relation to some standard or capacity. For example, human rational discourse and its various products like science, poetry, art, abstract thought, etc. are certainly “inimitable” and “miraculous” with respect to the animal species. In the same way, when we say that the Qur’an is inimitable and miraculous with respect to human beings, this means that the literary form (nazm) of the Qur’an together with its meaning is a speech or discourse that transcends the productive capacity of human beings who are not divinely-inspired prophets. The fact that the Qur’an is inimitable constitutes the greatest proof that Prophet Muhammad was the Possessor of Divine Guidance in his lifetime and a divinely-inspired Prophet.
Just as the movements of a human being come to be the inimitable miracles for an animal, namely the human being’s movements pertaining to thought, speech and action, likewise the movements of the Prophets come to be the inimitable miracles for the human being, namely their movements pertaining to the innate predisposition, to revelation and character – for they are those whom God graciously favours with heavenly, holy guidance and their path is the path of God, their religion is the faith of God, and their law is the law of God, so whoever follows them is guided to the straight path.
‘Abd al-Karim al-Shahrastani, (Keys to the Arcana, tr. Mayer, 179-180)
The objective basis for claiming that the Qur’an is miraculous and inimitable (mu‘jiz), i.e. that it is beyond the productive capacity of ordinary human beings, lies within the objective literary standards, forms, and structures of the Arabic language. “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” (Sir Hamilton Gibb). Only experts in Arabic language and literature can truly determine and judge the quality of an Arabic literary production by objective standards. Therefore, we have compiled a series of testimonies from three groups of experts:
1) Non-Muslim modern European scholars of the Arabic language and literature;
2) Modern Arab scholars of Arabic literature;
3) Classical Muslim scholars of Arabic language and literature.
Each testimonial individually and all of them collectively show the broad consensus among modern and pre-modern scholars, both non-Muslim and Muslim, that:
1) The Qur’an’s literary form (nazm) is inimitable because it transcends and falls outside the scope, qualities, and definition of all Arabic poetry and prose through history
2) The early reception of the Qur’an shows that its original listeners – among Muhammad’s followers and his fiercest opponents – perceived the Qur’an as miraculous and inimitable: several experts of the Arab language in Muhammad’s lifetime attested to the superiority of the Qur’an over all Arab speech including: al-Walid b. al-Mughira, al-Tufayl b. ‘Amr al-Dawsi, Hassan b. Thabid, Labid b. Rabi‘a, Ka‘b b. Malik, Suwayd b. al-Samit. No person in Muhammad’s lifetime successfully produced a literary production that was equal to the Qur’an.
3) There has been no successful attempt in the history of Arabic language and literature to imitate the literary form of the Qur’an. All the experts in Arabic literature, poetry, and grammar from Islamic civilization testify to the Qur’an’s inimitability: al-Jahiz (d. 868), al-Nazzam (d. c. 840), Hisham al-Fuwati (d. 833), Abu Muslim al-Isfahani (d. 934), Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 934), al-Rummani (d. 994), al-Baqillani (d. 1013), al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044), Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1032), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Abu Ishaq Isfara’ini (d. 1027), al-Ash‘ari (d. 935), al-Juwayni (d. 1085), ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025), ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jurjani (d. 1078), al-Shahrastani (d. 1153).
4) In every Qur’an verse, the selection, combination, and arrangements of words, grammatical constructs, and rhetorical devices are “finely-tuned” with the expressed meaning, such that no formal alternation is possible without severely compromising the aesthetic form or the expressed meaning of that verse (three sample verses are examined).
Evidence #1: The Qur’an is inimitable because its literary form (nazm) is inimitable and surpasses all literary genres and forms of Arabic poetry and prose.
The Qur’an is the greatest book and the most powerful literary work in the Arabic language, for it has made that language immortal and preserved its essence, and the Quran has become immortal with it; the Quran is the pride of the Arabic language and the jewel of its tradition, and the Arabs know this quality of the Quran, though they may differ in their faith or in their inclinations – they feel that it is the essence of what distinguishes Arabic.
Dr. Amin al-Khuli (Egyptian Scholar of Arabic Literature and the Qur’an, d. 1966),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 84-85)
I do, however, believe that Muhammad, like the earlier prophets, had genuine religious experiences. I believe that he really did receive something directly from God. As such, I believe that the Qur’an came from God, that it is Divinely inspired. Muhammad could not have caused the great upsurge in religion that he did without God’s blessing. The diagnosis of the Meccan situation by the Qur’an is that the troubles of the time were primarily religious, despite their economic, social and moral undercurrents, and as such capable of being remedied only by means that are primarily religious. In view of Muhammad’s effectiveness in addressing this, he would be a bold man who would question the wisdom of the Qur’an.”
W. Montgomery Watt (Christian Clergyman, Scholar of the Qur’an, Islamic History and Theology, d. 2006),
(Interview with the Coracle, 2000, Read Here)
In spite of all we know of Muhammad’s independence from his models, we must admit that the way in which he inwardly assimilated and refined the foreign words and ideas, the personal pathos with which he was able to claim all this as his own, is the true miracle of his prophethood. We understand it differently, but in a sense we must agree with Qadi Abu Bakr that the doctrine of i‘jaz(inimitability/miraculousness) of the Quran is based in reality.
Tor Andrae (Christian scholar of religion & Lutheran bishop of Linköping, d. 1947),
(Die Person Muhammeds in Lehre und Glauben seiner Gemeinde, 1918, 94)
And it would be preposterous to deny that this text, which came down over twenty years in periodically interrupted and unordered fragments, and was collected twenty years later, could [not] have gained the acceptance it has if it did not possess its, let us say, truly unique qualities.
Jacques Berque (Christian scholar of Arabic literature and Islam, d. 1995),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 9)
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.
Karen Armstrong (British scholar of religions), (A History of God, 1994, 78)
But you know that the Qur’an is not prose and that it is not verse either. It is rather Qur’an, and it cannot be called by any other name but this. It is not verse, and that is clear; for it does not bind itself to the bonds of verse. And it is not prose, for it is bound by bonds peculiar to itself, not found elsewhere; some of the binds are related to the endings of its verses and some to that musical sound which is all its own. It is therefore neither verse nor prose, but it is “a Book whose verses have been perfected the expounded, from One Who is Wise, All-Aware.” We cannot therefore say its prose, and its text itself is not verse. It has been one of a kind, and nothing like it has ever preceded or followed it.”
Dr. Taha Husayn (Foremost Scholar and Literary Critic of Arabic “The Dean of Arabic Literature”), (“Prose in the second and third centuries after the Hijra,” The Geographical Society, Cairo 1930: Dar al Ma‘arif)
All Arabic poetry has meter. The “meter” refers to the pattern of short and long syllables in a line of poetry. Historically, all Arabic poetry – before Muhammad and after Muhammad – contains one of sixteen possible meters: 1) al-tawil, 2) al-bassit, 3) al-wafir, 4. al-kamil, 5. al-rajas, 6. al-khafif, 7. al-hazaj, 8. al-muttakarib, 9. al-munsarih, 10. al-muktatatb, 11. al-muktadarak, 12. al-madid, 13. al-mujtath, 14. al-ramil, 15. al-khabab, 16. al-saria’. It is an objective historical fact that the Qur’an does not conform to any one of the sixteen Arabic metrical forms.
A person had to study for years, sometimes even for decades under a master poetic before laying claim to the title of poet. Muhammad grew up in a world which almost religiously revered poetic expression. He had not studied the difficult craft of poetry, when he started reciting verses publicly. Muhammad’s recitations differed from poetry and from the rhyming prose of the soothsayers, the other conventional form of inspired, metrical speech. The norms of old Arabic poetry were strangely transformed, the subjects developed differently, and the meter was abandoned. While poetry was, in political terms, generally conservative, reinforcing the moral and social order of the day, the whole impetus of the early Qur’an, its topics, metaphors and ideological thrust, was towards revolutionary change. All this was new to Muhammad’s contemporaries.
Navid Kermani, (“Poetry and Language”, in Rippin, The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’an, 108-109)
Likewise, the Qur’an does not conform to the definition and structures of Arabic prose. There are two kinds of Arabic prose – rhyming speech called saj‘ and ordinary speech. The Qur’an contains some rhyming but it falls outside the scope of both rhyming prose and non-rhyming speech.
Thus, as regards its external features, the style of the Koran is modelled upon saj’, or rhymed prose…but with such freedom that it may fairly be described as original.
R. A. Nicholson (Professor of Arabic, University of Cambridge),
(Literary History of the Arabs, 159)
Those passages from the Qur’an that approach saj’ still elude all procrustean efforts to reduce them to an alternative form of saj‘(rhyming speech).
Bruce Lawrence (Professor of Religions, Duke University),
(Journal of Qur’anic Studies, Vol VII, Issue I 2005. “Approximating Saj’ in English Renditions of the Qur’an: A Close Reading of Suran 93 (al-Duha) and the basmala”, 64)
The Qur’an is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of saj’…But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category.
A.F.L. Beeston, T.M. Johnstone, R.B. Serjeant and G.R. Smith (Orientialist Scholars of Arabic Literature), (Arabic Literature To The End Of The Umayyad Period, 1983, 34)
For the Koran is neither prose nor poetry, but a unique fusion of both.
Dr. Arthur J. Arberry (Professor of Arabic, Cambridge University),
(The Koran. Oxford University Press, x)
The ‘break with the familiar’ is grounded in the fact that the known forms of oratory up to then were shi‘r (poetry), saj‘ (rhyming prose), khaṭab, rasa’il and spoken prose, and the Qur’an came with a unique literary idiom that was different from everything familiar and at the same time attained a degree of beauty with which it exceeded all other forms, and even the art of verse, which is the most beautiful speech of all.
Abu’l-Hasan al-Rummani (Renowned Grammarian of Baghdad, d. 994),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 81)
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 pale even after long periods of study and the text does not lose its freshness over time.
Oliver Leaman (Professor of Philosophy, University of Kentucky),
(The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, 2006, 404)
Over the last three decades, I have managed to read the whole Qur’an well over fifty times; my reading has shifted recently to reading the Qur’an for linguistic and rhetorical analysis…I have finally reached an independent conclusion based on translation theory and linguistic analysis that the Qur’anic discourse is inimitable and cannot be reproduced into a target language.
Dr. Hussein Abdul-Raof (Professor of Islamic Studies, University of Leeds),
(Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Text, and Analysis, 3)
Evidence #2: The Qur’an’s aesthetic beauty profoundly affected and transformed Muhammad’s contemporaries: many individuals accepted Muhammad’s prophethood and divine inspiration by merely hearing him recite the Qur’an:
Beauty, in most canons, has this divine quality. It is a manifestation of the Infinite on a finite plane and so introduces something of the Absolute into the world of relativities. Its sacred character “confers on perishable things a texture of eternity…Beauty is distinct but not separate from Truth and virtue.” As Aquinas affirmed, beauty relates to the cognitive faculty and is thus concerned with wisdom.
Harry Oldmeado, (Frithjof Schuon and the Perennial Philosophy, 157-158)
What ultimately led in the ninth century to the formulation of the dogma of the inimitability and uniqueness of the Quran is a central experience of inner life and inner radiance, a very real experience of metaphysical beauty of the revealed scripture – not mere theological speculation or scholarly sophistry. The doctrine was the rationalization of a fundamental experience of the whole religious community – even if this experience was limited in its horizon and its rationalization did not take sufficient notice, or sufficiently serious notice, of the experience of other groups.
Dr. Angelika Neuwirth (German Scholar of Qur’anic Studies),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 195)
We can infer from the Quran that the Prophet regularly visited the Kaba in the early years of his vocation to recite the revealed verses. The first few believers, who threw themselves on the ground or wept during his recitation, gathered around him, along with increasing numbers of curious listeners. Muhammad’s opponents were often present as well…Up to this point, the account of Muhammad’s preaching given by the later tradition matches the recitation scenario that we can infer from the Qur’an itself, which has some actual historical value.
Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 11)
The greatest of Arabia’s poets of Labid ibn Rabi‘a. His poems hung on the doors of the Kaaba as a sign of his triumph. None of his fellow poets dared to challenge him by hanging their verses beside Labid’s. But, one day, some followers of Muhammad approached. Muhammad was decried by the heathen Arabs of that time as an obscure magician and a deranged poet. His followers hung an excerpt from the second surah of the Quran on the door and challenged Labid to read it aloud. The king of poets laughed at their presumption. Out of idleness, or perhaps in mockery, he condescended to recite the verses. Overwhelmed by their beauty, he professed islam on the spot.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 1)
Besides poets, another group of people who were particularly receptive to the beauty of the Quran, if we believe the traditions, were Muhammad’s particularly aggressive enemies: Meccans such as Unays and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, who at first fiercely opposed the Prophet but then spontaneously joined him when they heard his recitation. ‘Let us just consider the effect that hearing the verses had on the opponents, Mahmud Ramiyar comments. ‘In this regard alone, we know the names and full biographies of dozens of people who went to the Messenger of God to dispute with him, disagree with him and protest against him, and they no sooner sat down with him, heard his preaching and God’s verses, than they became muslims.’
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 19)
But the initial amazement that the Quran produced among the Arabs was of a verbal nature. They were beguiled by its language, by its linguistic beauty and art. That language was the key that opened the door through which they could enter the world of the Quran and accepted Islam as a religion. Hence it is impossible to draw a dividing line at any level between Islam and language. One may even say that the early Muslims who formed the first hard core of the Islamic mission believed in the Quran primarily as a text whose linguistic expression had taken possession of them: they believed in it not because it revealed to them the secrets of being or of human existence, or brought a new order to their lives, but because they saw in it a scripture that was like nothing they had known before. Through language their nature was changed from within, and it was language that changed their lives.
Ali Ahmed Said Esber (“Adonis”, prominent Syrian Arab Poet, b. 1930),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 36)
We say that the qualitative surplus (mazaya) appeared to them [Muhammad’s contemporaries] in the nazm of the Quran, that the qualities they found in the combination of linguistic expressions (alfaz) were what made them incapable of any response, any resistance. We say that the figures of words and meanings (bada’i) in the individual parts of the verses were what filled them with awe, and that every expression was in its place and in harmony with the others, as was the use of every idiom and the position of every predicate and the form of every threat, admonition, information, reminder, encouragement and warning; and that everything had a reason and a proof, an attribute and an explanation. All that confused and fascinated them. They examined surah by surah, section by section and verse by verse, and they found no word that was not in its proper place, no expression that would have been better placed elsewhere or could have been replaced by a different, similar or better one, one that would have been more appropriate or suitable. They found a well-structuredness that overwhelmed their minds by its magnificence, and all people were petrified by its linguistic order and harmony, but its inner perfection and the consistency of its composition. No orator felt the ambition to contend against it; no matter how they racked their brains, they had no ideas; no tongue was able to say anything or to make a demand, and even the greatest among the opponents had to admit defeat and abstain from rebuttal.
‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jurjani (Persian scholar of Arabic, literary theorist, grammarian, d. 1078), (“Arguments on the Miraculous Inimitability of the Qur’an,” in Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 204)
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-organized 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, and shot a fresh woof into the old warp of history.
Dr. Francis. J. Steingass (British Linguist and Professor of Languages, d. 1993),
(Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 528)
I do, however, believe that Muhammad, like the earlier prophets, had genuine religious experiences. I believe that he really did receive something directly from God. As such, I believe that the Qur’an came from God, that it is Divinely inspired. Muhammad could not have caused the great upsurge in religion that he did without God’s blessing. The diagnosis of the Meccan situation by the Qur’an is that the troubles of the time were primarily religious, despite their economic, social and moral undercurrents, and as such capable of being remedied only by means that are primarily religious. In view of Muhammad’s effectiveness in addressing this, he would be a bold man who would question the wisdom of the Qur’an.
William Montgomery Watt (Christian Clergyman and Professor of Islam, d. 2006),
(Interview with the Coracle, 2000, Read Here)
Evidence #3: No one – including Muhammad’s own contemporaries and enemies and all those who lived after him – has been able to match or imitate or rival the Qur’an’s literary form and content.
In the time of the Quran, the Arabs had achieved a degree of eloquence that they had never known in their prior history. In every previous era, the language had developed continuously, undergoing improvement and refinement, and had begun to shape the social customs…The kingdom of language had become established among them, but it had had no king until the Quran came to them.
Sadiq al-Rafi‘i (Syrian-Egyptian Poet and Litterateur, d. 1937),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 5)
That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur’an itself is not surprising.
Dr. Edward Henry Palmer (Professor of Arabic, Cambridge University, d. 1882), (The Qur’an, 1990, 15)
The Arabs, at the time, had reached their linguistic peak in terms of linguistic competence and sciences, rhetoric, oratory, and poetry. No one, however, has ever been able to provide a single chapter similar to that of the Qur’an.
Dr. Hussein Abdul-Raof (Professor of Islamic Studies, Leeds University)
(Exploring the Qur’an, 2003, 64)
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…the Meccans still demanded of him a miracle, and with remarkable boldness and self confidence Muhammad appealed as a supreme confirmation of his mission to the Koran itself. Like all Arabs they were connoisseurs of language and rhetoric. Well, then if the Koran 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 Koran as an outstanding evidential miracle.
Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb (Professor of Arabic, Harvard University, d. 1971),
(Islam: A Historical Survey, Oxford University Press, 25-28)
The Qur’an challenged the status of poetry in the society not only by its ideological orientation but also with regard to questions of stylistic quality…In several conversion narratives, too, the protagonists compare the Quran with the works of poets, then acclaim the uniqueness of the Quranic language. According to Muhammad Abu Zahra’s interpretation, which is in keeping with theological tradition, most poets would have recognized the impossibility of challenging God in a battle of poets, setting their own verses against the Quran, or at least would have quickly retreated from such an undertaking, as did the twelve poets who had gone to Mecca with their hero Unays expressly to put the Prophet in his literary place. Anyone who was foolish enough to try it ‘was humiliated, reaped only scorn and derision, while the Quran gained further renown.’
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 28)
Several experts of the Arab language in Muhammad’s time attested to the superiority of the Qur’an over all Arab speech: al-Walid b. al-Mughira, al-Tufayl b. ‘Amr al-Dawsi, Hassan b. Thabid, Labid b. Rabi‘a, Ka‘b b. Malik, Suwayd b. al-Samit. For example, al-Walid b. al-Mughira was a poet of the Quraysh and they requested him to challenge Muhammad to a context. After Walid heard Muhammad reciting the Qur’an, Walid b. al-Mughira himself said (as reported in multiple sources including Ibn Hasham, al-Bayhaqi, various tafsir):
What shall I say? There is no one among you who knows more about poetry than I. I know all kinds of qasidas and the rajaz, and I am familiar even with the poems of the jinn. But, by God, his recitation is like none of them. By God, there is a sweetness and a grace in it; its branches are heavy with fruit, and much water springs from its ground. It surpasses everything, and nothing surpasses it; it crushes what is beneath it…You know that I fear no one and cannot be bribed. You know that I am a good judge of eloquence. But the oratory that I heard from Muhammad cannot be compared with any other speech. It is both captivating and deeply moving. It cannot be called poetry, nor prose. It is deep and full of substance.
As it turns out, al-Walid was asked to say something negative against Muhammad’s revelations – so he said that “Muhammad’s speech is witchcraft and sorcery and beguiles the people.” Even this choice of propaganda by Muhammad’s opponents testifies to the Qur’an’s overwhelming effect upon its original listeners.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 34-35)
Were it not for this divine power [in the words of the Qur’an], the Qur’an would have gone the way of other so-called revelations, such as those of Musaylimah, Talhah, al-Aswad al-‘Ansi, and other false prophets. It would have disappeared from the world along with the speech and vestiges of others. It was because of that spiritual power that people called the Qur’an magic. Muhammad would recite it to people. It would fall upon their ears and thence be transmitted to their hearts. That spiritual and divine power hidden within it would attract the hearts to obedience. It was for this reason that Quraysh and the Arabs called it sorcery and called Muhammad a sorcerer.
Abu Hatim al-Razi (Ismaili Muslim philosopher and Arabic language expert, d. 934),
(Proofs of Prophecy, tr. Tarif Khalidi, 181)
The Arabic rhetoricians saw that it [the Quran] belonged to a class (jins) of oration that was different from theirs; that its composition incorporated the spirit of the language, and they had no alternative but to keep it away from the soul of each individual Arab, or to prevent it from entering into that soul. For it was the face of linguistic perfection which their souls recognized and which revealed itself to their hearts.
Sadiq al-Rafi‘i (Syrian-Egyptian Poet and Litterateur, d. 1937)
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 36)
Evidence #4: In every Qur’an verse, the selection, combination, and arrangements of words, grammatical constructs, and rhetorical devices are “finely-tuned” with the expressed meaning, such that no formal alternation is possible without severely compromising the aesthetic form or the expressed meaning of that verse.
“Give credit where credit is due: the Arabs have done for their language what no other people on earth can claim.” – Max T. Grunert (Orientalist Scholar of Arabic Literature)
Major Muslim scholars and experts in Arabic literature, poetry, and grammar testify to the Qur’an’s inimitability: al-Jahiz, al-Nazzam (d. c. 840), Hisham al-Fuwati (d. 833), Abu Muslim al-Isfahani (d. 934), Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 934), al-Rummani (. 994), al-Baqillani (d. 1013), al-Sharif al-Murtada (d. 1044), Shaykh al-Mufid (d. 1032), Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), Abu Ishaq Isfara’ini (d. 1027), al-Ash‘ari (d. 935), al-Juwayni (d. 1085), ‘Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025), ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jurjani (Persian scholar of Arabic, literary theorist, grammarian, d. 1078), al-Shahrastani (d. 1153). Below we will examine the fine-tuning of three sample verses according to the analysis of Persian scholar of Arabic and literary theorist, Abd al-Qadir al-Jurjani (d. 1078) as presented by Navid Kermani (German scholar of Islam):
Both in the Quran and in the verses of many poets, al-Jurjani demonstrates how the same word appears perfect in one place and unfitting in another…the composition of a discourse is like the weaving of a rug and the combination of its differently coloured threads… In this concept of nazm, it is not letters or words as mere sounds that are joined together in the speaker’s mind, but individual signifieds whose signifiers in combination produce a certain message. Any change in their structure, however inconspicuous, must yield a different meaning.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 205)
Example 1: Qur’an 11:44
The Qur’an 11:44 says:
wa-qīla yā arḍu bla‘ī mā’aki = And it was said: Earth, swallow your waters.
The words in this phrase can be re-arranged in Arabic to give the same meaning (semantic equivalent) as follows:
wa qīla ya ayyuha l-‘ard bla‘ī māa’ki = And it was said: Earth, swallow your waters.
However, the Qur’an verse and the re-arranged phrase are not equal in literary form (nazm). The Qur’an verse 11:44 is inimitable but the semantic equivalent, although conveying the same meaning, is not equal in literary form to the Qur’an verse:
The miracle lies only in the combination (irtibat) of the words, in the inimitable way in which the first joins with the second and the second with the third and the third with the fourth to from a perfect, immutable unit. The complex linguistic structure of the complete verse is the source of its irresistible excellence (fadila qahira) and evident quality (maziya zahira). There is nothing miraculous about any individual word in it, such as the particle yā, for example; we find ‘these properties that will you with awe of i‘jaz only in its combination with the word ard ‘earth’ (which al-Jurjani finds incomparably more brilliant and precise in the context of this verse than the apparently semantically identical ayyuha l-‘ard), and in the interconnection of all the words.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 205)
Example 2: Qur’an 6:100
The Qur’an 6:100 says
Wa-ja‘alū li-llāhi shurakā’a l-jinna = Yet they ascribe to God, as associates, the jinn.
One could rearrange the words and convey the same meaning by placing the word “associates” (shuraka) before “to God” (li-llahi):
Wa-ja‘alū shurakā’a li-llāhi al-jinna = Yet they ascribe to God, as associates, the jinn.
However, this second arrangement would completely lack the aesthetic power that the arrangement (nazm) of the Qur’an verse and even fail to convey the entire meaning as the actual verse:[The verse] would only superficially say the same thing if shuraka’(‘associates’) preceded li-llah(God’s): because shuraka’ follows li-llah, the statement has a totality and an aesthetic appeal, ‘its beauty and force’ (husn wa-raw‘a). If shuraka’ were prefixed (as in wa-ja‘alu l-jinna shuraka’a li-llahi, ‘Yet they made the jinn associates of God’), not only would the verse lose its elegance, but its meaning too would be different: one might then see the reprehensible nature of the act in the fact that the believers made the jinn and not someone else God’s associates. The emphasis is actually, as al-Jurjani shows in one and half pages of minute analysis, on reproach that the unbelievers gave God any associates, whether the jinn or any other beings. This is achieved by placing the word shuraka’ as the first object of the verb ja‘ala (‘made’), while allah is placed where the second object (al-jinn) would be expected. Because the second object is moved back, it takes on explanatory character; it not of the substance of the statement.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 209)
Example 3: Qur’an 54:12
The Qur’an 54:12 states:
Wa-fajjaranā l-arḍa ‘uyūnan = We made the earth burst forth in gushing springs.
The words in the verse could be re-arranged as follows and remain grammatically correct:
wa-fajjarnā ‘uyūna l-ard = ‘We made the springs of the earth gush forth.
wa-fajjarna l-‘uyun fi-l-‘ardi = We made the springs on earth gush forth.
However, the two re-arrangements actually fail to convey the total meaning and presentation of the Qur’an verse because they fail to disclose the semantic relation between the words for “to gush” and “springs.”
The verb fajjara, ‘let something burst forth,’ ‘let (something) gush’, is semantically related to ‘uyun(‘springs’) – it is the springs that gush and that burst forth out of the earth – but in lafz, in the ‘outward’ verbal expression, the verb is connected to ard (‘earth’). Again, it is this interlocking of the three words in a complex reciprocal relation that creates the totality, al-Jurjani says: we see how the water gushes out everywhere on earth as out of springs, as if all earth were one great spring, or as if God had made the earth burst with many springs (this is the reading chosen in the translation above). But if the verse had been wa-fajjarnā ‘uyūna l-ard, ‘We made the springs of the earth gush forth’, or wa-fajjarna l-‘uyun fi-l-‘ardi, ‘We made the springs on earth gush forth’, the listener would understand merely that water gushed forth out of the earth from springs in various places.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 210)
The essential criterion for the fasaha(eloquence) of a sentence, what makes it effective, beautiful and ultimately inimitable, is thus the relation between the intended ma‘naand the nazm realized in the alfaz. Language is perfected where the composition of individual linguistic expressions is appropriate to and most exactly expresses the intended idea.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 214)
As an outsider one may question the laws he postulates; one may even doubt whether the Quran really applies them perfectly in all details, as al-Jurjani says it does but to him, both the consistency of the standards he sets and their perfect conformance with the linguistic reality of the Quran are verified, objective scientific findings, proven by the text citations and corroborated by the text’s reception history and his own aesthetic experience. And if we put ourselves in his place for a moment, and grant the same validity he does to the correctness of his analysis, then the Quran must indeed be something quite astonishing, almost inexplicable – in a word, miraculous. For Muhammad, who…was not a poet and had not assimilated the fine points of rhetoric in long years of training, who did not know the secrets of syntax (nawh), diction (luga), tradition (riwaya) or metre (‘arud), who had no notion of rhetorical figures (badi‘), who did not even master writing (this was taken to be synonymous with a lack of literary training) – for such a literary layman to apply, spontaneously and without ever having shown any propensity to poetic expression, the entire system of poetic language, who no normal person could ever master in all its details; for this laymen, his soul inspired, to create out of the known material of words, figures of speech and rules of syntax and style something completely new, previously unknown and never even approach since, in such an inimitable, unprecedented and hence unlearnable way – this historic fact, verifiable and demonstrable and obvious to anyone, must appear miraculous.
Navid Kermani, (God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 218)
One of the most astounding things that we can see about the miraculous nature of the Quran and the perfection of it style is that we think its forms of expression (alfaz) fit its contents (ma‘ani). Then we study it more closely and delve into it, and in the end we think its contents fit its forms of expression. Then we think it is the other way around again. We study it further and with the greatest care, and in the end we are always led to the opposite opinion, and we are torn back and forth in the conflict between these two opinions until we finally refer back to God, who created the Arabs with a linguistic talent, only to produce something out of this language that surpasses that talent.
Sadiq al-Rafi‘i (Syrian-Egyptian Poet and Literateur, d. 1937),
(Navid Kermani, God is Beautiful: The Aesthetic Experience of the Qur’an, 121