Matchless Prose?

1. Introduction

Muslims claim that the text of the Quran is of such a quality that no human can match it, and that this property provides proof that the author was the Biblical God (see e.g. [1]). This essay reviews this claim and the evidence cited to support it. If it cannot be supported, then Islam is founded on nothing more than the assumption that the voices and visions experienced by Muhammad were not the products of his imagination. It is a flimsy basis for such a demanding system of belief.

The Quran is referred to by committed Muslims as ‘glorious’, ‘sublime’, ‘perfect’, possessing ‘superb clarity’ and ‘perfect order’. Indeed, when one reads Islamic descriptions of the Quran, one gets the impression that there is no complimentary claim which would ever be considered an exaggeration. Muhammad al-Nafzawi, in his erotic work ‘The Perfumed Garden’ even suggests the use of the Quran as an aphrodisiac ([2], Chapter 7).

In contrast, the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was less enthusiastic, considering the Quran to have been: “…written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was“ [3]. My own views on the Quran are closer to those of Carlyle than to those of al-Nafzawi, whose recommendations have proved disappointingly unfounded.

What is going on here? How can a book which is ‘perfect’ with ‘superb clarity’ simultaneously be as bad as Carlyle describes? Does the relentless torrent of superlatives from Muslim commentators imply that this is a truly unique written work, if only we had the knowledge of Arabic to appreciate it, or are these commentators simply behaving like the courtiers in the story ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’: sycophants locked into an ever-rising spiral of denial and flattery? These are the questions that we shall try to answer in this article.

2. Characteristics of the Quran

If you were to begin reading a book which you understood to be composed by an all-knowing, all-powerful deity and to be intended for all mankind for all time, you would not be surprised if you discovered that it displayed an awareness of all the earth, of all its peoples, of their past and of their future development. You would also not be surprised if the book showed exceptional clarity of expression and was well-organised, succinct, precise, complete and consistent in its approach.

You might then be surprised to discover that the Quran possesses none of these qualities. Its scope, outside the many references to Biblical tales, is limited to events contemporary with its origin and to the peoples, flora and fauna of the Arabian peninsula. It has no clear structure and its style and tone change markedly between the early and later Suras – obvious even in English versions. It is long and repetitive, yet incomplete. Passages can be vague to the point of incomprehensibility. Despite claims to the contrary, all the verifiable information it contains was readily available at the time.

It is necessary to provide examples of the above, in order to forestall any accusations that these are just cursory insults. The limitations of scope, lack of structure, and change of style are evident even to the casual reader. Repetition may be readily seen by (for example) searching for such words as ‘chastisement’ or ‘unbeliever’ in the text. Incomprehensibility and incompleteness are less obvious. However, there should be no dispute regarding the former, since (Q3:7) (i.e. Quran, Sura 3, Verse 7) acknowledges it, though describing it, in the Arberry translation at least [4], as ‘ambiguity’:

It is He who sent down upon you the Book, wherein are verses clear that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous….

The remainder of the verse, which suggests that those who point out the ambiguities are just troublemakers:

… As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring dissension, and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God

may appear to the non-Muslim reader as a fairly transparent attempt by Muhammad to exploit his followers’ credulity.

The problem of incomprehensibility in the Quranic laws of inheritance was discussed in [5]. Further examples are as follows. Twenty nine of the Suras begin with groups of Arabic letters: Sura 2, for example, begins “Elif, Lam, Mim” (i.e. A.L.M.). No one knows what these mean, but they are recited reverentially as an integral part of the Sura they introduce. The verse (Q77:30) clearly presents a considerable challenge for the translator. Arberry expresses it as:

Depart to a triple-massing shadow

whereas Shakir [6] tries

Walk on to the covering having three branches

and, as summarised in [7], other translators have made a variety of guesses, all equally baffling. As a final example here, Bell [8] states “Sura 89 begins with four clauses so cryptic as to be unintelligible”. Other examples of words and passages which are not understood, as well as examples of many other peculiarities, are given in [9].

Muhammad, in (Q3:7) above, had already suggested that the incomprehensible verses had deeper meanings. Muslim scholars continued to build on the idea. According to [10]:

Zamakhshari and Fakhr al-Din Razi [two respected 12th century Muslim scholars] do not consider the existence of the allegorical verses as a defect but as a mark of aesthetic excellence and as being conducive to the development of culture and science.

Rather than the ‘ambiguous’ or ‘allegorical’ verses being interpreted as evidence that the Quran has a human author, they are treated instead as something virtuous. The concept that incomprehensibility = profundity was therefore in existence for nearly a millennium before it was rediscovered in the 20th century by the French.

Next, incompleteness: as mentioned in [11], some Islamic laws do not appear in the Quran and derive instead from the Hadiths, a collection of anecdotes about the things Muhammad did and said. Since Muslims do not consider that he made up this information himself, he must have had communications from God which did not make it into the Quran. Furthermore, some of the Hadiths; the Hadith Qudsi or Sacred Hadiths [1] are considered to contain God’s words; words which again were not incorporated into the Quran. The Quran cannot therefore be complete, if necessary divine pronouncements occur outside of it.

2.1. So, why the superlatives?

The above features of the Quran seem to be imperfections; what other interpretation can there be? So why is the Quran described by Muslims in a manner which implies that it is flawless? The answer lies in the Islamic view of the nature of the Quran. Muhammad’s fellow Meccans, who doubted his claims [11], challenged him to perform a miracle. His response was that the Quran itself was the miracle that they sought. The Bukhari Hadith (B6:61:504) reports [6]

The Prophet said, ‘Every Prophet was given miracles because of which people believed, but what I have been given is Divine Inspiration which Allah has revealed to me.’

As a consequence, Muslims regard the Quran as a miracle. It should therefore be recognised that, when Muslims describe the Quran, the purpose is not to present an accurate description of what is seen in the text, but to bestow a degree of acclaim commensurate with the exalted status of the book and its alleged author. However, there is more to it. Muslims also describe the Quran in glowing terms because that is how the Quran describes itself. An example: the Quran is described as ‘clear’: easy to understand. This is not because the Quran actually is easy to understand, but because the Quran repeatedly says so, in (Q11:1), (Q36:69), (Q15:1), (Q54:17) and (Q28:1) with other compliments to itself arising in (Q6:115), (Q15:87), (Q36:2), (Q50:1), (Q56:77), (Q72:1) and (Q85:21).

To expand upon this for a moment: Muslims are normally on safe ground within Islam when adopting and expressing opinions which correspond closely to passages in the Quran. However, non-Muslims sometimes make the mistake of assuming that such opinions are based on empirical evidence; in fact, the opinion and the available evidence may markedly conflict. The description of the Quran as ‘clear’ is but one example. Another is the description of Islam itself as a ‘perfect’ religion. This is a view which has its basis in (Q5:3) “Today I have perfected your religion for you”, not in any assessment of Islam against a set of criteria. Perhaps the most misleading is the claim, based on (Q2:256): “There is no compulsion in religion” (alternatively translated as the rather different “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (Yusufali [6])), which holds that Islam does not coerce anyone into conversion, and never has. Not only is this demonstrably untrue, and on a vast scale (e.g. [12], [21]), it is actually inconsistent with Islamic law on jihad ([13], Section o9.8), the payment by non-Muslims of the jizya tax ([13], Section o9.8) and the punishment of those who renounce Islam ([13], Section o8.1), all of which contain substantial and explicit elements of coercion.

Returning to the main subject: yet another disincentive to critical assessment of the Quran is the implied contempt for those who waver, as expressed in (Q3:7):

It is He who sent down upon thee the Book….and those firmly rooted in knowledge say, ‘We believe in it; all is from our Lord’; yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds.

For those who have begun to feel that the analogy with ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is perhaps an apt one, please compare the above verse with the claim, made by the swindlers in that famous story, that “this material has the amazing property that it is invisible to anyone who is incompetent or stupid”.

3. The Muslim claim of proof

Perhaps the main factor underlying Muslims’ certainty in their religion is the perception that there exists proof of the divine origin of the Quran. If the proof is believed to exist, then all appearance of imperfection can be dismissed without further consideration. Based on the work of the Muslim theologian Abu Abdullah al-Qurtubi (?-1273), the claim of proof lies in the following assertions (as condensed slightly from [1]):

1. The Quran’s use of the Arabic language is superior to all other works in Arabic
2. Its comprehensiveness cannot be matched
3. Its legislation cannot be surpassed
4. Its statements about the natural world can only have been produced by divine revelation
5. Its prophecies have all been fulfilled
6. Its effect on the hearts of men fulfils human needs

It is clear that 2 and 3 are simply wishful thinking. The Quran is not complete even within its own terms, as discussed above. Its legislation can be seen to contain simple errors [5], inexplicable rules (why can’t Muslims eat pork?) and to lead to examples of obvious injustice [14]. Claims 4 and 5 will be discussed, and shown to be groundless, in a later article. Islam does not fulfil human needs, since most of the world’s population evidently gets on perfectly well (to be honest: much better) without it and it shares an ‘effect on the hearts of men’ with a whole host of other religions, all of which it maintains are false.

How, then, do we investigate Claim 1? I know no Arabic and, being an engineer, possess primitive abilities in the field of literature. Yet, it is necessary to attempt to assess the claim, since it lies at the heart of the Muslim belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong. The basis of Claim 1 is that:

(a) the literary qualities of the Quran self-evidently exceed those achievable by humans, and
(b) doubters have been challenged to write something equal to the Quran and have failed.

We shall now try to examine both parts of the claim.

3.1. Literary excellence?

Part (a) represents an argument so ill-defined that it is difficult to know where to begin the task of assessing it, as it places the judgement of its validity firmly in the realm of the subjective and, because of the need for the assessor to be at least fluent in Arabic, beyond the reach of most of the Earth’s population. Fortunately, a claimed proof of the miraculous nature of the Quran based on (a) above, written by the 9th century Muslim scholar al-Baquillani, has been translated in part by the Islamic scholar G.E. von Grunebaum [15]. Al-Baquillani tries to show that the Quran is superior to two of the then most famous classical Arabic poems by means of a line-by-line critique of the latter. His views on both celebrated works are lengthy and unflattering, but the following give a flavour of his opinions. The first poem possesses “…diction which at one time splits a rock and at another time melts away, changes colour like a chameleon, varies like passions, whose grammatical construction teems with confusion”. A selected aspect of the second “…comes closer to incompetence than to eloquence and closer to barbarism than to excellence”.

Unfortunately, in [15], the Quran is subject to no such scrutiny, its supposed superiority merely being asserted by means of the familiar gush of superlatives coupled, in this case, with complete gibberish. The Quran “ uniformly pure, splendid and brilliant. Its heterogeneity is homogeneous, its homogeneity is oneness, what seems remote in it is near, its original elements are familiar”. The style is also “…uniform, despite its variety” and the composition is “ ..beyond human imagination and thought”. Other parts of al-Baquillani’s work are quoted, and his main arguments summarised, by Aleem [18]. While there is no doubt that the man had a way with words, his arguments (at least, as represented in [18]) are little more than florid but vacuous assertions of the superiority of the Quran over everything else, in all possible ways. His claim that even the words of the Quran, when transplanted to other compositions, ‘shine like jewels’ might strike the uncommitted reader as ludicrous.

The review of the poems in [15] is hostile; that of the Quran, servile. This ‘proof’ of the superiority of the Quran is therefore seen, on closer inspection, to be a sham. It must reluctantly be accepted that the Islamic world is an unsuitable place to search for critical assessments of the Quran. Instead, we must call upon the writings of Western Islamic scholars.

The first opinion cited is that of Richard Bell (1876-1952). He explains [8] how the Quran is written in a form which is subdivided into verses which end with either rhymes or assonances which are largely produced by the use of the same grammatical forms or terminations, and observes that

The structure of the Arabic language, in which words fall into definite types of forms, was favourable to the production of such assonances.

Ref. [6] supplies a transliteration of the Quran, by which the reader may obtain a feel for the type of rhyming or assonance used. Bell describes how the content of the verses is sometimes manipulated in a rather pragmatic way:

…so that we get phrases like ‘one of the witnesses’ instead of simply ‘a witness’ because the former gives the rhyming plural-ending, while the latter does not.

Occasionally, a phrase is added at the end of a verse that is really otiose as regards sense but supplies the assonance, as in (Q12:10, 21:68, 79, 104). Sometimes the sense is strained in order to produce the rhyme, such as in (Sura) 4, where statements regarding Allah are inappropriately thrown into the past….the accusative ending on which the rhyme depends being thereby obtained.

Bell also observed the presence of excessive repetition in Sura 55, noting that the phrase “O which of your Lord’s bounties will you and you deny?“ occurs eventually “in practically each alternate verse, whose sense they frequently interrupt.

Another early reviewer was Theodor Noldeke, who writes [16]:

The Muslims themselves have observed that the tyranny of the rhyme often makes itself apparent in derangement of the order of words and in the choice of verbal forms which would not otherwise have been employed, e.g., an imperfect instead of a perfect. In one place, to save the rhyme, he calls Mount Sinai Sinin (Q95:2) instead of Sina (Q23:20); in another Elijah is called Ilyasin (Q37:130) instead of Ilyas (Q6:85, Q37:123). The substance even is modified to suit the exigencies of rhyme. Thus the Prophet would scarcely have fixed on the usual number of “eight” angels round the throne of God (Q69:17) if the word thamaniyah, “eight” had not happened to fall in so well with the rhyme.

The paragraph continues with another comment on Sura 55:

And when (Q55). speaks of ‘two’ heavenly gardens, each with ‘two’ fountains and ‘two’ kinds of fruit, and again of ‘two’ similar gardens, all this is simply because the dual termination (-an) corresponds to the syllable that controls the rhyme in that whole sura.

and he continues:

In the later pieces, Muhammad often inserts edifying remarks, entirely out of keeping with the context, merely to complete his rhyme. In Arabic it is such an easy thing to accumulate masses of words with the same termination, that the gross negligence of the rhyme in the Qur’an is doubly remarkable.

Julius Wellhausen [17] points out another oddity with the ‘two gardens’ passages in Sura 55: there are two examples of the two gardens: seemingly a simple case of two alternative versions of the same text, placed next to one another by a post-Muhammad copy editor. The first version starts at Verse 46 and the second, at Verse 62. The reader is invited to verify Wellhausen’s observation using any available Quran.

Sura 55 therefore comes in for criticism for content which has been manipulated in order to fit the rhyme, for excessive repetition and for the sequential occurrence of what seem to be two alternative versions of the same thing; the last two features being as obvious in English as they must be in Arabic. Again, we ask: by what possible argument could one claim that these are not flaws? Part (a) of the above claim is therefore seen to be without foundation. Part (b) is discussed below.

3.2. Imitators of the Quran

In addition to the books written in support of the claim of inimitability such as that by al-Baquillani, there are accounts of attempts by Arab poets to equal or surpass the Quran, particularly in the second century after the death of Muhammad. According to Aleem [18]:

It is a most remarkable phenomenon in Arabic literary history that many of the best prose writers and also some poets of the early times are accused of trying at one time or another to rival the Quran. But the stories always end on the same note, namely, that they were obliged to abandon the attempt finding it beyond their power.

However, Aleem seems unenthusiastic about the truth of these stories, commenting “The stories sound very circumstantial….” and he follows this comment with the perceptive observation that “…the passage of time turns vague rumour into established history”. These words were published in 1933; one cannot help wondering if Aleem (a Muslim, presumably) would feel comfortable displaying such objectivity today.

Another review of supposed imitators is presented in the Islamic Awareness website [19]. However, on closer inspection, these claims are not so convincing. Indeed, most seem either to represent attempted parodies, to be merely in the style of the Quran, or not to be attempts at bettering the Quran at all. As with other ‘proofs’ such as that of al-Baquillani, the supposed evidence simply evaporates upon close inspection.

Nevertheless, there is a more objective version of the claim of inimitability consisting, first, of a challenge, made in the Quran itself, to produce even one Sura equal to those in the Quran and, second, the assertion that the challenge has never been successfully met.

3.3. The ‘Sura Like It’ Challenge:

There are four verses in the Quran which present a challenge to unbelievers. They are:

Produce an alternative Quran:

(Q52:33-34) “Or do they say, ‘He has invented it?’ Nay, but they do not believe. Then let them bring a discourse like it, if they speak truly.”

No? Then produce ten Suras:

(Q11:13-14) “Or do they say, ‘He has forged it’? Say: ‘Then bring you ten suras the like of it, forged; and call upon whom you are able, apart from God, if you speak truly.’ “

No? Then produce just one sura:

(Q2:23) “And if you are in doubt concerning that We have sent down on Our servant, then bring a sura like it, and call your witnesses, apart from God, if you are truthful.”

with a similar challenge in (Q10:38).

The challenge seems to provide an unusually objective means for deciding a religious dispute, though the Quran gives no indication that anyone responded to the challenge during Muhammad’s lifetime. Nevertheless, the challenge is still open! As an encouragement, it is worth noting that some of the early Suras (near the back of the Quran) are less than 5 lines long. Sura 108 (in the English version) contains just 23 words. It seems implausible to claim that to write a Sura like 108 is impossible, so what is the catch?

The first catch is that, since the Quran is in Arabic, the challenge must be met in Arabic also. Even on the most generous estimate, the number of Arabic-speaking non-Muslims amounts to less than 0.5% of the world’s population, leaving the vast majority of potential challengers unable to participate. Then, for the aspiring participants, the requirement that the imitation verse should be ‘like’ the real one is a Catch-22. The Quran and the Hadiths give no clue as to the criteria, leaving the decision entirely to whoever judges the challenge. If the verses are too alike, then copying can be claimed. If they differ to a degree such that this accusation cannot be made, then the imitation can be rejected on the grounds that the resemblance is insufficient.

Who would judge an imitation Sura? Muslims would be unlikely to accept non-Muslims as judges. If qualified (i.e. devout, scholarly) Muslims could be persuaded to judge the challenge, the comparison could not be done ‘blind’, since anyone judging the contest would know that ‘God’ wrote Sura A and an unbeliever wrote Sura B. Even if the judge was, despite himself, impressed with a contribution, he would almost certainly consider it blasphemous to compare it favourably it with God’s work. A fair contest could never take place, and never has.

4. Final remarks

Muslims maintain their belief in the miraculous inimitability of the Quran in the face of obvious and abundant evidence that the book is not the masterpiece that it is claimed to be. There is no way in which the text of the Quran can be considered to be flawless. Quite obvious imperfections exist in the style, in the content and in the layout of the Quran and to recognise them requires not a fluent knowledge of Arabic, but merely an open mind.

The idea that the Quran is miraculously inimitable was not developed by observation, but merely inferred from statements to that effect uttered by Muhammad, either as part of the Quran or in reference to it. Muhammad’s fellow Meccans, when in receipt of the early verses of the Quran, were unimpressed to such an extent that Muhammad achieved only around 100 converts in the first 13 years of his mission (see [11]). This suggests that any miraculous properties of the text were so inconspicuous as to be overlooked completely by its target audience. If, as Aleem states in [18], the Islamic doctrine of inimitability took more than a century to establish, this must surely be some kind of clue to its credibility.

The supposed divine strategy of providing inimitability (of all things!) as a ‘miracle’ contains an obvious flaw. Not only is the message of the Quran inaccessible to most of the Earth’s population because of the exclusive use of Arabic [11], the claimed proof of its authenticity is therefore inaccessible also. This implies that Muslims, mindful of their duty to spread Islam to all the corners of the Earth, are given absolutely nothing with which to persuade non Arabic-speaking peoples of the truth of their religion, which may explain their reluctant use of conquest, slaughter and plunder as alternative means to the same end ([20], [21]).

It is difficult to be impressed by the much vaunted Sura Like It challenge. Even if this had a history of objective criteria, unbiased judges and documented rulings (it has none of the above), Muslims should still keep a sense of proportion about the value of a contest in which at least 99.5% of those who may be motivated to compete are effectively barred due to an accident of birth. Moreover, one must ask why there are three successive challenges in the Quran when the last, alone, is sufficient? If the author was God, why should He, knowing that humans could not produce even a single Sura like the ones in the Quran, waste time with the earlier challenges to produce ten or more? At the very heart of the Muslim ‘proof’ of the divine origin of the Quran lies a subtle but unmistakeable clue to human authorship.

The evidence which has been reviewed is admitted to be incomplete. However, it is noteworthy that, in Muslim reviews of the subject ([18], [19]) where the evidence could and should have been presented, it is absent. It is therefore suggested here that the existence of proof of the inimitability of the Quran is merely an Islamic myth. If the supposed primary evidence for the truth of Islam is simply not presented to the non-Muslim world when the opportunity arises, the only possible conclusion is that it does not exist.

5. References

1. Ahmad von Denffer. Introduction to the Quran. Studies in Islam and the Middle East ePublishing Series.

2. Muhammad al-Nafzawi. The Perfumed Garden.

3. T. Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History.

4. Arthur Arberry (Translator). The Koran Interpreted. Touchstone Books. 1996.

5. Adrian Reddy. The Islamic Rules of Inheritance in the Quran.

6. USC-MSA Compendium of Muslim Texts. University of Southern California.

7. Versions of the Quran

8. R. Bell and W.M. Watt. Introduction to the Quran. Extracts published in [9], also available in book form or online at Introduction to the Quran.

9. Ibn Warraq (Editor/Translator). What the Koran really says. Prometheus Books. 2002.

10. The Tawil of the Quran Known Only to God?

11. Adrian Reddy. A plan? A man? The Quran.

12. Ibn Warraq. Why I am not a Muslim. Prometheus Books. 1995.

13. Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveller: A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, (rev. ed., trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Beltsville, Maryland: Amana, 1994)

14. Dan McDougall. Fareeda’s fate: rape, prison and 25 lashes. The Observer. 17 September 2006.

15. G.E. Von Grunebaum. A Tenth Century Document of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism. University of Chicago Press. 1950.

16. Theodor Nöldeke. The Quran. An Introduction.

17. J. Wellhausen. On the Koran. As published in [9].

18. A. Aleem. Ijazul-Quran. Islamic Culture. Jan 1933. Pages 64-82 and 215-233

19. M. S. M. Saifullah. Topics Relating To The Qur’an: I’jaz, Grammarians & Jews.

20. S. Majumdar. Jihad. The Islamic doctrine of permanent war. Voice of India. New Delhi.

21. S.R. Goel. Heroic Hindu Resistance to Muslim Invaders (636 AD to 1206 AD). Voice of India. New Delhi.

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