This article was written to examine the language of the Qur’an and the circumstances surrounding it, in reference to its supernatural eloquence. We will also at the same time scrutinize a posting by a Christian apologist, Pete Nash — or otherwise known as Kip Rider, which attacks the eloquence claim of the Qur’an and see whether it stands up to the examination.
The Miraculous Eloquence of The Qur’an
Mr. Pete Nash alias Kip Rider expounds his claims as follows:
- Unlike the Bible, which is full of miracles that many different witnesses saw over a period of thousands of years, the Qur’an is not such a book. Muhammad claimed that the Qur’an itself, was a miracle. Most Muslims believe that it was the only miracle that Muhammad offered as proof of his claims to be a prophet. There are several reasons given by Muslims as to why they consider the Qur’an to be a miracle. One of the main reasons is the Qur’an’s “unique literary style”. We are told that the Qur’an has an eloquence about it that no other book even approaches. It’s beauty is unsurpassed say the Muslim apologists. It is that aspect of the Quran that I want to briefly address. Is it the work of art that the Muslims claim? Is it linguistically superior to all other books? Also, is eloquence a valid test to prove the divine inspiration of a book?
He then tries to answer his last question by saying:
- If the Qur’an is eloquent (and I’m not saying that it is), it would only prove that Muhammad was a gifted person. It would not prove that the Qur’an originated from God. If eloquence were a valid test for divine inspiration, then one could make the case that Mozart’s symphonies were divinely inspired. Or how about Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”. Or Shakespeare’s works, such as “Romeo and Juliet”. No one would claim that these works, as eloquent as they are, were divinely inspired. The people that wrote them were just very talented. So, eloquence is a poor indicator of divine inspiration.
We would not address the claims of “one thousand and one” miracles of the Bible, since this is not the issue of this article and irrelevant, and therefore we will go straight to the gist of the matter, i.e. the supernatural eloquence of the Qur’an. To argue that eloquence is not the proof of divine inspiration, i.e. that is, there are other works of so-called “equal” eloquence such as Homer and Shakesphere, reflects a deep ignorance of the Arabic and the subject matter by the writer. We should keep in mind that during pre-Islamic Arabia, the Arabs were well-known for their supremacy in language. So proud and haughty were the Arabs of their language that they refer to other races as عُجْم (ajam), or dumb. As Philip K. Hitti observes:
No people in the world, perhaps, manifest such enthusiastic admiration for literary expression and are so moved by the word, spoken or written, as the Arabs. Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistible influence as Arabic.1
Huston Smith comments, in reference to the above observation made by Philip K. Hitti, that:
It is not difficult to surmise why this is so. Nomads are prohibited by their transient way of life from developing visual art. Their architecture is restricted to flapping tents, their crafts to the few pots and fabrics they can carry with them. With life one long process of packing and unpacking, one is not likely to accumulate a museum. Blocked on the visual side by the need to keep gear light, the nomad’s art took a verbal turn. “Wisdom,” says a famous adage, “has alightened on three things: the brain of the Franks, the hands of the Chinese, and the tongue of the Arabs.”2
When the Qur’an was first recited, the Quraysh immediately recognized it to be of great speech and eloquence, but were trying to make excuses to hide the fact. Ibn Ishaq recounts the incident of their consultation with al-Walid b. al-Mughira in his book Sirat Rasul Allah as follows:
A number of the Quraysh came to al-Walid b. al-Mughira, who was a man of some standing and he addressed them in these words: ‘The time of the fair has come round again and representatives of the Arabs will come to you and they will have heard about this fellow of yours, so agre upon one opinion without dispute so that none will give the lie to the other’. They replied, ‘You give us your opinion about him.’ He said, ‘No, you speak and I will listen.’ They said, ‘He is a kahin.’ He said, ‘By God, he is not that, for he has not the unintelligent murmuring and rhymed speech of the kahin.’ ‘Then he is possessed,’ they said. ‘No, he is not that,’ he said, ‘we have seen possessed ones and here is no choking, spasmodic movements and whispering.’ ‘Then he is a poet,’ they said. ‘No, he is not a poet, for we know poetry in all its forms and metres.’ ‘Then he is a sorcerer.’ ‘No, we have seen sorcerors and their sorcery, and here is no spitting and no knots.’3
So what is the miracle of the Qur’an, exactly? As recognised by the Arabs quoted above, Abdur Raheem Green mentions that:
These are the sixteen al-Bihar (literally “The Seas”, so called because of the way the poem moves, according to its rhythmic patterns): at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafaf, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madad, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria’. So the challenge is to produce in Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen Bihar, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook.
The team at Islamic Awareness brilliantly explains the Arabic language and the Arab speech, as follows:
To begin with, the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. One of them is rhymed poetry. It is a speech with metre and rhyme, which means every line of it ends upon a definite letter, which is called the ‘rhyme’. This rhymed poetry is again divided into metres or what is called as al-Bihar, literally meaning ‘The Seas’. This is so called because of the way the poetry moves according to the rhythmic patterns. There are sixteen al-Bihar viz; at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafaf, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madad, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria’. Each one rhymes differently. For metres of Arabic poetry please see please see Lyall’s book Translations Of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic. He discusses al-Kamil, al-Wafir, al-Hajaz, at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Khafaf and al-Madad briefly. The other branch of Arabic speech is prose, that is non-metrical speech. The prose may be a rhymed prose. Rhymed prose consists of cola ending on the same rhyme throughout, or of sentences rhymed in pairs. This is called “rhymed prose” or saj. Prose may also be straight prose (mursal). In straight prose, the speech goes on and is not divided in cola, but is continued straight through without any divisions, either of rhyme or of anything else. Prose is employed in sermons and prayers and in speeches intended to encourage or frighten the masses. One of the most famous speeches involving saj is that of Hajjaj bin Yusuf in his first deputation in Iraq in post-Islamic and Quss bin Sa’idah in pre-Islamic times.
Indeed, it is clear that:
The Qur’an is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of saj, and both are rhymed, while some verses have a similarity to Rajaz in its vigour and rapidity. But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category.4
The Orientalists’ View Of The Qur’an: What Do They Really Say?
Next, we read that the poster has claimed that:
- Is the Qur’an even an eloquent book to begin with? Not everyone thinks so. In fact, most people of the Western world agree with Carlyle who said this of the Qur’an: “It is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook, a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite. Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.” I am in complete agreement with Carlyle in this regard. It is only with extreme effort that I can work my way through the Qur’an. It is a poorly written, confused, and completely boring book.
We would argue that the above quote as cited from Carlyle is not only deceptive, but taken out of its original context. Carlyle indeed said the above, but it was not meant to be a criticism on the literary style of the Arabic Qur’an. On the contrary, Carlyle was stating his opinion about the English translation of the Qur’anic text, specifically by George Sale. We reproduce the whole context of the quote cited by the poster, which is as follows:
We also can read the Koran; our Translation of it, by Sale, is known to be a very fair one. I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite;–insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran. We read in it, as we might in the State-Paper Office, unreadable masses of lumber, that perhaps we may get some glimpses of a remarkable man. It is true we have it under disadvantages: the Arabs see more method in it than we. Mahomet’s followers found the Koran lying all in fractions, as it had been written down at first promulgation; much of it, they say, on shoulder-blades of mutton, flung pell-mell into a chest: and they published it, without any discoverable order as to time or otherwise;–merely trying, as would seem, and this not very strictly, to put the longest chapters first. The real beginning of it, in that way, lies almost at the end: for the earliest portions were the shortest. Read in its historical sequence it perhaps would not be so bad. Much of it, too, they say, is rhythmic; a kind of wild chanting song, in the original. This may be a great point; much perhaps has been lost in the Translation here. Yet with every allowance, one feels it difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven, too good for the Earth; as a well-written book, or indeed as a book at all; and not a bewildered rhapsody; written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was! So much for national discrepancies, and the standard of taste.
Yet I should say, it was not unintelligible how the Arabs might so love it. When once you get this confused coil of a Koran fairly off your hands, and have it behind you at a distance, the essential type of it begins to disclose itself; and in this there is a merit quite other than the literary one. If a book come from the heart, it will contrive to reach other hearts; all art and author-craft are of small amount to that. One would say the primary character of the Koran is this of its genuineness, of its being a bona-fide book. Prideaux, I know, and others have represented it as a mere bundle of juggleries; chapter after chapter got up to excuse and varnish the author’s successive sins, forward his ambitions and quackeries: but really it is time to dismiss all that. I do not assert Mahomet’s continual sincerity: who is continually sincere? But I confess I can make nothing of the critic, in these times, who would accuse him of deceit pretense; of conscious deceit generally, or perhaps at all;–still more, of living in a mere element of conscious deceit, and writing this Koran as a forger and juggler would have done! Every candid eye, I think, will read the Koran far otherwise than so. It is the confused ferment of a great rude human soul; rude, untutored, that cannot even read; but fervent, earnest, struggling vehemently to utter itself in words. With a kind of breathless intensity he strives to utter himself; the thoughts crowd on him pell-mell: for very multitude of things to say, he can get nothing said. The meaning that is in him shapes itself into no form of composition, is stated in no sequence, method, or coherence;–they are not shaped at all, these thoughts of his; flung out unshaped, as they struggle and tumble there, in their chaotic inarticulate state. We said “stupid:” yet natural stupidity is by no means the character of Mahomet’s Book; it is natural uncultivation rather. The man has not studied speaking; in the haste and pressure of continual fighting, has not time to mature himself into fit speech. The panting breathless haste and vehemence of a man struggling in the thick of battle for life and salvation; this is the mood he is in! A headlong haste; for very magnitude of meaning, he cannot get himself articulated into words. The successive utterances of a soul in that mood, colored by the various vicissitudes of three-and-twenty years; now well uttered, now worse: this is the Koran.5
Carlyle admitted that his observations were limited by the English translation, and is not and indictment of the Arabic Qur’an. Since no Muslim would claim that the translations of the Qur’an is the Qur’an itself and certainly has no bearing on the literary eloquence of the text, we accuse the poster of deliberately misquoting Carlyle’s statement and, by taking it out of its original context, tries to apply it to the Arabic instead.
In truth, Carlyle did have an admiration of the Qur’an, despite his complaining about the “confusion” of its translation.
E. H. Palmer, as early as 1880, recognized the unique style of the Qur’an. He writes in the Introduction to his translation of the Qur’an, that:
…the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur’an itself is not surprising. In the first place, they have agreed before-hand that it is unapproachable, and they have adopted its style as the perfect standard; any deviation from it therefore must of necessity be a defect. Again, with them this style is not spontaneous as with Muhammad and his contemporaries, but is as artificial as though Englishmen should still continue to follow Chaucer as their model, in spite of the changes which their language has undergone. With the Prophet, the style was natural, and the words were those in every-day ordinary life, while with the later Arabic authors the style is imitative and the ancient words are introduced as a literary embellishment. The natural consequence is that their attempts look laboured and unreal by the side of his impromptu and forcible eloquence.6
The famous Arabist from University of Oxford, H.A.R. Gibb was open upon about the style of the Qur’an. In his words:
…the Meccans still demanded of him a miracle, and with remarkable boldness and self confidence Mohammad appealed as a supreme confirmation of his mission to the Koran itself. Like all Arabs they were the 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 evident miracle.7
And in some other place, talking about the Prophet(P) and the Qur’an, he states that:
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.8
As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature, having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its contents but also of its style….. and in forcing the High Arabic idiom into the expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold and strikingly effective rhetorical prose in which all the resources of syntactical modulation are exploited with great freedom and originality.9
On the influence of the Qur’an on Arabic literature, Gibb says that:
The influence of the Koran on the development of Arabic Literature has been incalculable, and exerted in many directions. Its ideas, its language, its rhymes pervade all subsequent literary works in greater or lesser measure. Its specific linguistic features were not emulated, either in the chancery prose of the next century or in the later prose writings, but it was at least partly due to the flexibility imparted by the Koran to the High Arabic idiom that the former could be so rapidly developed and adjusted to the new needs of the imperial government and an expanding society.10
As the Qur’an itself says:
“And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.”11
The above quotes cited easily speak for themselves. Thus, within the Arabic literature — either poetry or prose — there is nothing comparable to the Qur’an. Muslims throughout the centuries are unanimous upon its eloquence and inimitability.
“Subjective Judgement” And The Bible
Our poster also claims that:
- To use common American language, it is just a very “bad read”. If Muslim apologists want to prove the divine inspiration of the Qur’an, they would be wise to stay away from the “eloquence” test. The Qur’an fails that test miserably. Now, some may argue that the eloquence of the Qur’an is purely a subjective judgement. That’s a valid point.
The “valid point” can easily be disproved by asking the question: if the language of the Qur’an was purely a subjective point, why were the pagan Arabs willing to accuse the Prophet(P) of being possessed, or making magic or of being a soothsayer, instead? Anyone who reads the arguments of the pagan Arabs against the Prophet(P) could easily see that they had to resort to ad hominem, argument against the man. They were clearly unable to explain the language of the Qur’an according to the rhymed speeches they were familiar with. And these were the same people who labelled other non-Arabs as “ajam”, as had been stated earlier. The argument for the miracle of the eloquence of the Qur’an is certainly not “subjective”, and neither do the pagan Arabs think so. Had it been an “utterly subjective criterion” as insinuated, they would have used the charge against the Qur’an already, and that would have been the end of the matter.
Now we move on to the next topic: what about the Bible? How is its language compared to the Qur’an? Comparing the stylistic perfection of the Qur’an versus stylistic imperfection of the Bible, von Grunebaum states that
In contrast to the stylistic perfection of the Kur’an with the stylistic imperfections of the older Scriptures the Muslim theologian found himself unknowingly and on purely postulative grounds in agreement with long line of Christian thinkers whose outlook on the Biblical text is best summed up in Nietzsche’s brash dictum that the Holy Ghost wrote bad Greek.12
Futher, he elaborates the position of Western theologians on the canonization process and composition of the Bible, as follows:
The knowledge of the Western theologian that the Biblical books were redacted by different writers and that they were, in many cases, accessible to him only in (inspired) translation facilitated admission of formal imperfections in Scripture and there with lessened the compulsive insistence on its stylistic authority. Christian teaching, leaving the inspired writer, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, free in matters of style, has provided no motivation to seek an exact correlation between the revealed text on the one hand and grammar and rhetoric on the other. It thereby relieved the theologian and the critic from searching for a harmony between two stylistic worlds, which at best would yield an ahistoric concept of literary perfection and at worst would prevent anything resembling textual and substantive criticism of Revelation…. In Christianity, besides, the apology for the “low” style of the Bible is merely a part of educational problem – what to do with secular erudition within Christianity; whereas in Islam, the central position of the Kur’an, as the focal point and justification of grammatical and literary studies, was theoretically at least, never contested within the believing community.13
That pretty much sums up the Bible, its stylistic perfection (or the lack of it!) and the position of Western theologians.
It is clear that far from being an “utterly subjective criterion”, the language of the Qur’an surpasses any known Arabic poetry in regards to its eloquence. And this is even testified to by the Orientalists cited above. If anyone were to argue against the evidence by simply making excuses or dismissing it as a “subjective” criterion, it will be obvious that the accuser, in the light of the evidences presented above, would only reflect their “opinion” of not only deep ignorance regarding the subject matter, but also prejudice. As the poster who made the allegations aptly says:
- My opinion of the Qur’an, is after all, only my opinion.
which, we may add, does not count for much. And that sums up the matter quite well!
- Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, 10th edition (Macmillan Press, 1970), p. 90. Partially cited by Huston Smith, The Religions Of Man (Harper & Row, 1958), p. 204 [⤺]
- Huston Smith, ibid., p. 204 [⤺]
- A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, 1978, Oxford University Press, p. 121 [⤺]
- A F L Beeston, T M Johnstone, R B Serjeant and G R Smith (Editors), Arabic Literature To The End Of The Ummayad Period, (Cambridge University Press: 1983) pp. 34. [⤺]
- Thomas Carlyle, Heroes and Hero Worship, Project Gutenberg‘s E-Text [⤺]
- E. H. Palmer (Tr.), The Qur’an, 1900, Part I, Oxford at Clarendon Press, pp. lv. [⤺]
- H. A. R. Gibb, Islam: A Historical Survey, 1980, Oxford University Press, pp. 28. [⤺]
- ibid., pp. 25..
- H A R Gibb, Arabic Literature: An Introduction, 1963, Oxford at Clarendon Press, pp. 36.
- ibid., pp. 37 [⤺]
- Qur’an, 2:23-24 [⤺]
- B Lewis, V L Menage, Ch. Pellat & J Schacht (Editors), Encyclopedia Of Islam (New Edition), 1971, Volume III, E J Brill (Leiden) & Luzac & Co. (London), pp. 1020 (Under I’djaz) [⤺]
- ibid. [⤺]