Ijaz and literary quality of the Qu’ran.

The Ijaz or inimitability of the Qur’an refers to both the form and the content of the text. The word Ijaz has the basic meaning of “making powerless”, “making it impossible”[1], but in terms of the Qur’an it specifically refers to its uniqueness and the impossibility of imitating it.

In considering the issue at hand, it is necessary to first define how the text can be viewed. For the purpose of this question, the Qur’an must be understood to be both scripture and literature. This does not lower the status of the text, as the word is used to refer to written material which is valued for its language and content.[2]However the Qur’an is not a literature like any other piece of literature, and should rather be considered to be in its own unique genre. The Qur’an itself states that it is not poetry:

We have not taught the Prophet Poetry, nor could he ever have been a poet.

وَمَا عَلَّمْنَاهُ الشِّعْرَ وَمَا يَنبَغِي لَهُ إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا ذِكْرٌ وَقُرْآنٌ مُّبِي

This is a revelation, an illuminating Qur’an to warn anyone who is truly alive, so that God’s verdict may be passed against the disbelievers.[3]

It is this difference between the Qur’an and poetry, or Saj’, which is most often commented upon. However Ibn Khaldun remarks that Qur’an is also different than normal prose writing:

“It should be known that the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. One of them is rhymed poetry … The other branch is prose, that is, non-metrical speech … The Qur’an is in prose. However, it does not belong in either of the two categories.”[4]

This view is one still shared into the twentieth century and by non Arabs as well. For example, Armstrong comments on the unique genre of the Quran:

“It is as though Muhammad had created an entirely new literary form…Without this
experience of the Koran, it is extremely unlikely that Islam would have taken root.”[5]

And Roger Allen says:

“The Qur’an was unique: it was neither prose nor poetry, but the revelation of God to His people.”[6]

The Qur’an can be described as intermingling between metric composition and non metrical composition, or prose. This is done in ‘such exquisite harmony that the shift from one style to another is barely perceptible’[7]

This literary quality of the Quran contributed to its effectiveness and its level of acceptance even amongst non Muslims. When the Quran was revealed, the polytheists of the Quraysh did not attempt to criticise the language of the Quran or the text of the Quran itself, but rather they had to resort to different allegations to try and discredit the message such as suggesting that Muhammad (pbuh) was a soothsayer, a poet or in contact with Jinn or spirits.[8] Today the Quran is widely regarded as being the highest example of the Arabic language and the ultimate level in Arabic literature.

Certain features of the Qur’anic text have been put forward as examples in displaying its inimitability. One of the most unusual of these is the ‘mysterious letters’ (al huroof al muqatta’a or fawaatih us suwar). These are the single letters or groups of letters which are found at the beginning of certain surahs, for example Surat al Baqara begins with “alif lam meem”. This was not a feature which had ever been seen previously in Arabic literature, nor is it known in the literature of any other culture. There have been some attempts by Western scholars, including Noldeke and later Hirschfield, to explain the meaning of these letters.[9] There have also been some rare attempts at decoding the letters by Muslims. For example the Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin Abdullah Ibn Abbas suggested that alif laam meem is an abbreviation for ana-llaahu-r raheem meaning “I am God, the most merciful.”[10] However the majority view of these letters is that they are “among those things whose knowledge Allah has kept only for Himself”[11] and they have also been widely recognised to be a part of the “Quran challenge.”(This will be covered later in the essay.)

Another unusual feature of the Qur’anic text is Grammatical Shift or iltifaat, the lexical meaning of which is “turning”[12] or “to turn /turn ones face to.”[13] Some non Arab scholars or historians of more modern times have tried to suggest that this feature is a defect of the text, but the classical Arab scholars of the past were in agreement that it is an effective rhetorical tool. For example, Ibn Athar classes it amongst the ‘remarkable things and exquisite subtleties we have found in the Glorious Qur’ān.‘[14] Some modern non Arab scholars have also appreciated this feature, for example Neal Robinson speaks positively of it in his book: Discovering the Qur’ān: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text.

An example of this iltifaat in the text is in the third ayahof Surah Abasa. The first two ayahs are referring to the Prophet (pbuh) in 3rd person and the third turns to address him (pbuh) directly:

عَبَسَ وَتَوَلَّى

He frowned and turned away

أَن جَاءهُ الْأَعْمَى

When the blind man came to him –

وَمَا يُدْرِيكَ لَعَلَّهُ يَزَّكَّى

For all you know, he might have grown in spirit.[15]

[The boldness has been added to the words here for clarity of example and is not part of the original translation]

It has been said that the shift from talking about the Prophet (pbuh) to addressing him directly reinforces the reproach which is taking place.[16] Iltifaat is also used to change from talking about God in the third person, to God himself speaking in the first person. This is normally in the plural of majesty (we). An example is given below:[17]

لاَّ خَيْرَ فِي كَثِيرٍ مِّن نَّجْوَاهُمْ إِلاَّ مَنْ أَمَرَ بِصَدَقَةٍ أَوْ مَعْرُوفٍ أَوْ إِصْلاَحٍ بَيْنَ النَّاسِ وَمَن يَفْعَلْ ذَلِكَابْتَغَاء مَرْضَاتِ اللّهِ فَسَوْفَ نُؤْتِيهِ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا

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.[18]

[The boldness has been added to the words here for clarity of example and is not part of the original translation]

There are certain conditions in defining what iltifaat is. A major of these being that the pronoun before and after the turning should be referring to the same thing or person[19]. To take the first example of Surah Abasa, both the “him” and the “you” refer to the same person – the Prophet (pbuh), so this can be called iltifaat. However the sentence “You are my friend,” could not be considered as an example of iltifaat.

Other rhetorical devices used in the Quran include alliteration:

Alam nakhlukkum mim maa’im maheen[20

أَلَمْ نَخْلُقكُّم مِّن مَّاء مَّهِينٍ

Did we not make you from an underrated fluid?


بَلْ نَقْذِفُ بِالْحَقِّ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ فَيَدْمَغُهُ فَإِذَا هُوَ زَاهِقٌ وَلَكُمُ الْوَيْلُ مِمَّا تَصِفُونَ

No! We hurl the truth against falsehood, and truth obliterates it – see how falsehood vanishes away! Woe to you people for the way you describe God![21]

Rhetorical Questions:

هَلْ جَزَاء الْإِحْسَانِ إِلَّا الْإِحْسَانُ

Shall the reward of good be anything but good?[22]

This is in addition to analogy, cadence, stress and many others.[23] The concise nature of the Qur’an can also be regarded as a feature which marks its literary quality. It is said that the Qur’an ‘invests the minimum possible wording to generate the broadest possible meaning.’[24]

I will conclude the discussion on the literary and distinctive features of the Qur’an with the issue of the “Qur’an Challenge.” This is a challenge set by the Qur’an itself, telling those who doubt to produce something like it (the Qur’an), if they are able:

قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَى أَن يَأْتُواْ بِمِثْلِ هَـذَا الْقُرْآنِ لاَ يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا

Say, “Even if all mankind and jinn came together to produce something like this Qur’an, they could not produce anything like it, however much they helped each other.”[25]

فَلْيَأْتُوا بِحَدِيثٍ مِّثْلِهِ إِن كَانُوا صَادِقِينَ

Let them produce one like it, if what they say is true.[26]

أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ قُلْ فَأْتُواْ بِعَشْرِ سُوَرٍ مِّثْلِهِمُفْتَرَيَاتٍ وَادْعُواْ مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ إِنكُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

If they say “He has invented it himself,” say “then produce ten invented surahs like it, and call in whoever you can beside God if you are truthful.”[27]

أَمْ يَقُولُونَ افْتَرَاهُ قُلْ فَأْتُواْ بِسُورَةٍ مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُواْ مَنِ اسْتَطَعْتُم مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِي

Or do they say “He has devised it”? Say “then produce a surah like it, and call on anyone you can beside God if you are telling the truth.”[28]

وَإِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَى عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُواْ بِسُورَةٍ مِّن مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُواْ شُهَدَاءكُم مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ إِنْكُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ

فَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلُواْ وَلَن تَفْعَلُواْ فَاتَّقُواْ النَّارَ الَّتِي وَقُودُهَا النَّاسُ وَالْحِجَارَةُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِي

If you have doubts about the revelation we have sent down to Our servant, then produce a single surah like it – enlist whatever supporters you have other than God – if you truly [think you can.]

If you cannot do this – and you never will – then beware of the fire prepared for the disbelievers, whose fuel is men and stones.[29]

This challenge is sometimes seen to be the embodiment of Ijaz ul Quran, as the text itself is stating that it is not imitable. Throughout history, there have been some attempts to take on this challenge, the most famous of these maybe that of Musaylimah who was a contemporary of the Prophet (pbuh). He is said to have produced sayings mimicking the style of the earlier surahs, for example by beginning the sayings with oaths as is a feature many of the Makkan surahs. One of his supposed sayings showing a clear attempt at copying Qur’anic style is as follows:

“The elephant. What is the elephant? And who shall tell you what is the elephant? He
has a ropy tail and a long trunk. This is a [mere] trifle of our Lord’s creations.”

However it must be noted that there are some doubts as to the authenticity of his sayings, and some have suggested that they were composed later and attributed to Musaylimah.[30] Eitherway, nobody has ever been regarded to have passed the Quran challenge and every attempt has been regarded unanimously to have fallen way below the level of the Qur’an.

As mentioned earlier, the Qur’an challenge is particularly linked with the feature of the ‘mysterious letters’ as the Qur’an was revealed during a period when Arabic language proficiency was at its peak. At that time the Arabs were extremely proud of their language and their poetry. So with the letters of their alphabet, such as ya seen and ha meem, the Arabs were challenged to produce something at least similar to the beauty and eloquence of the Qur’an if they doubted its authenticity. A parallel has been drawn between this situation, whereby the Arabs understood and had access to the tools which were used to produce the Qur’an, namely the Arab letters, yet were unable to rise to the challenge, and between the situation of the human body. This is because although people understand the elements from which the body is composed, they are unable build a human if they were presented with these elements.[31]

It can therefore be seen that the doctrine of Ijaz is intrinsically linked to the language and the stylistic features of the Qur’an rather than with theological considerations. The message of the Qur’an itself was not unique, as Islam teaches that it was the same message which was sent to all of the previous Prophets and Messengers. Rather it is the style and quality of the text which the Qur’an itself challenges the reader to produce, although they will never be able and it is this style and quality which has been said to render the Qur’an inimitable and therefore embodies the doctrine of Ijaz

References :

[1] Sakhr Dictionary

[2] Chambers Dictionary

[3] The Quran – A New Translation by M.A.S Abdel Haleem. 36:69 (Surah Yaseen)

[4] Al Muqaddima by Ibn Khaldun

[5] A History of God: the 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by K. Armstrong

[6] The Qur’an: A Sacred Text and Cultural Yardstick by Roger Allen

[7] The Miracles of the Quran by Sheikh Mitwalli Al Sharawi [Intermingling of Metrical and Non Metrical Composition – theinimitablequran.com]

[8] These allegations are dealt with in the Quran, for example in surah al Haaqah, or surat at Tatweer.

[9] There has been a trend amongst modern and Western researchers to focus upon the story of the collection of the Qur’an and of Uthman’s gathering of a textus receptus, in their attempts to explain these letters. Noldeke put forward a theory that regarded the letters as abbreviations of the name of persons who had previously for their own use collected, memorised or written down certain surahs and from whom Zayd had obtained them[9]. Others viewed them as abbreviations of the names of the scribes involved in the collection of these particular surahs. Hirschfield later expanded on this theory.

[10] Why Were Historical Accounts Of The Collection Of The Qur’an Accentuated By Some Modern Researchers In Their Quest To Decipher The Significance Of The Mysterious Letters Of The Qur’an? (2nd Year Essay)

[11] Ibn Kathir

[12] Dynamic Style by Hamza Tzortis, the inimitablequran.com

[13] Iltifat: Grammatical Shift for Rhetorical Purposes and Other Related Features by M.A.S Abdel Haleem

[14] Ibid

[15] The Quran – A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. 80:1-3 (Surah Abasa)

[16] Ibid, from the footnotes of the text.

[17] Ibid, introduction.

[18] Ibid. 4:114 (Surat an Nisaa)

[19] Iltifat: Grammatical Shift for Rhetorical Purposes and Other Related Features by M.A.S Abdel Haleem

20 The Quran – A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem 77:20 [Surat al Mursalat]

[21] Ibid 21:18 [Surat al Anbiya]

[22] Ibid 55:60 [Surat ar Rahman]

[23] Full list of rhetorical features, and suggested examples from Rhetorical Features in the Quranic Discourse – theinimitablequran.com

[24] The Qur’an: an Eternal Challenge (al-Naba’ al-‘Azim) By M. Abdullah Draz

[25] The Quran – A New Translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem 17:88 [Surat al Isra]

[26] Ibid 52:34 [Surat at Tur]

[27] Ibid 11:13 [Surah Hood]

[28] Ibid 10:38 [Surah Yunus]

[29] Ibid 2:23-24 [Surat al Baqara]

[30] A Brief History of the Qur’anic Challenge by M S M Saifullah

[31] Why Were Historical Accounts Of The Collection Of The Qur’an Accentuated By Some Modern Researchers In Their Quest To Decipher The Significance Of The Mysterious Letters Of The Qur’an? (2nd Year Essay)

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