A person’s doubt may be based on his recognition that there are others who possess exceptional literary merit. He may well think, ‘If I, personally, am not the right one to take up such a challenge, the task may be better addressed by one who is better in speech and finer in literary skills.
We advise such a person to ask those who are recognised as having the best literary talent in his age whether or not they are able to imitate the Quan and produce a literary piece of a similar standard. If they answer that it should not be too difficult for them, we will ask them to prove their claim. If, on the other hand, they admit their inability to do so, we say that such an admission is the best proof.
Let us then look back in history wondering if anyone was ever equal to the task. History will tell us that never did anyone stand up to the Qur’an in a competition of excellence. The few individuals who attempted anything of the sort were soon to end their attempts recognising their utter failure. None of them managed to achieve a position of even moderate fame.
Indeed, history records that the Arabs themselves failed to produce anything like the Qur’an even in the same period of its revelation, which is universally recognised as the time of their highest linguistic abilities and their finest literary achievements.
No language or literary academy anywhere in the world took as much care of its language as the Arabs did during that period of time. In fact, it was then that Arabic attained its most superb standards in vocabulary and stylistic refinements. They held special, regularly organised fairs for their best products, masterpieces made of nothing other than letters and words. Their merchandise nothing more than poems and speeches, which they exhibited, competing for honour and high position. Both men and women were amongst the competitors, those of the calibre of Ḥassān ibn Thābit and Al-Khansā’ who are well known to any student of Arabic literature.
[It should be remembered here that there is no contradiction between the Arabs being illiterate, in the sense that they had no formal education and could not, except for a few of their number, read and write, and the fact that many of them had natural literary gifts which enabled them to compose poetry of the highest standard.]
But when the Qur’an was revealed all such fairs came to an end, and literary gatherings were defunct. From now on, the Qur’an was the only work to command people’s attention. None of them could challenge or compete with it, or even suggest that a single word be changed, moved, added or omitted from the sentence where it occurs.
Yet the Qur’an did not close the door to competition. Indeed, it left it wide open, calling on them, individually and collectively, to take up its challenge and produce anything similar to it. It repeated the challenge in different forms, berating their inability to do so, and reducing the task for them time after time.
It required them first to come up with a similar book, then asked them to produce ten surahs like it, then one surah only, then it asked them to produce a surah comparable to it; i.e. a surah which resembled the Qur’an in one way or another, as if to say: ‘You are only asked to produce something that bears some similarities, vague as they may be, to the Qur’an.’ This is indeed the lowest level to which such a challenge can be reduced. Hence, chronologically, this was the last challenge to be made, as it occurs in Surah 2, which was revealed in Madinah. The previous challenges all occur in the Makkan revelations. This is a subtle, but important difference.
The challenge, however, goes further than this. Each time, they are expressly allowed to seek the help of anyone they care to call in for support.
It then tells them in the most emphatic way that they will still be totally incapable of meeting the challenge: “If all mankind, and all the jinn, would come together with a view to producing the like of this Qur’an, they would not produce its like even though they were to exert all their strength in aiding one another.”(17: 88.)
“If you are in doubt regarding what We have bestowed from on high upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah comparable to it, and call upon anyone other than God to bear witness for you, if what you say is true. And if you cannot do it - and most certainly you cannot do it - then be conscious of the Fire whose fuel is human beings and stones which awaits those who reject the truth.”(2: 23-24.)
Consider this challenge carefully and look at how provocatively it is expressed. It states a final verdict of total failure at all times: “And most certainly you cannot do it.” It then threatens them with the Fire and puts them in the same position as stones.
Had they had even the slightest chance of meeting the challenge, they would not have held back, considering that they were its avowed enemies who were known to be always ready to defend their honour. Here, the Qur’an hits out at their pride and honour.
But still they could not find even a way to compete with it. They simply found themselves at the bottom of a high mountain with absolutely no means of climbing it. When they realised their total inability to produce anything similar to the Qur’an, the only answer they had was to resort to arms instead of letters, and to risk their lives instead of their literary talents.
This is, indeed, the resort of anyone who has no argument to present, knowing that he stands on shallow ground, and that he cannot justify his position with pen and paper, or with speech and argument.
The revelation of the Qur’an was then completed, with the challenge still standing for anyone who wanted to try.
This period of time was followed by one when the edges of the Arabian desert were still inhabited by a people who maintained their purity of race and language. These enjoyed an intrinsic ability to appreciate fine style and literary expression.
Among them were people who would not have hesitated for a minute if they could undermine the very foundation of the religion of Islam. Had they been able, in any way, to improve upon their predecessors and produce anything that competed with the Qur’an for literary merit, they would not have had a moment’s hesitation.
Instead, they continued to hang down their heads in recognition of their utter failure. In fact, a barrier was set between them and what they desired, as was the case with their predecessors.
Generations followed generations, and the Arabic language passed on to new folk. However, the latter have been even more powerless to meet this lasting challenge.
They have recognised that they are no match for it. Their own admission is added to the testimony history gives of their predecessors.
The proof of their inability is two fold: a conscious realisation and a rational argument proving that no one can ever produce anything similar to the Qur’an. This will remain true to the end of time.
Anyone to Take up the Challenge?
Some people may acknowledge that no one has ever produced anything like the Qur’an, but that does not mean that such an objective lies beyond human ability.GO TO page iii