CHAPTER vi /New Material from Old Fabric

New Material from Old Fabric

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A person may say: I accept that people have not managed to come up with anything similar to the Qur’an because they are incapable of doing so. They may have found in the Qur’an something of a miraculous nature that puts it beyond their reach.

But I cannot understand that the linguistic aspect can be part of the secret in the Qur’anic miracle. When I read the Qur’an I find that it is not different from the language of the Arabs.

Its words are composed of their own sounds, letters and alphabet, and its verses and sentences use the same words they use, and, indeed, it follows their own modes of expression. The Qur’anic vocabulary has the same roots and methods of derivation as the Arabs use in their language. The construction of its sentences comes in patterns that have always been familiar to the Arabs. How can you say, then, that the Qur’an confronts them with something beyond the reach of their linguistic ability?

In reply we acknowledge that, in vocabulary and construction, the Qur’an follows the same pattern as the Arabic language has always used.

This is undoubtedly true. But it is this that makes its challenge clearer, leaving no room for excuses: “Had We willed to express this Qur’an in a non-Arabic tongue, they would surely have said, ‘Why is it that its verses have not been spelled out clearly? Why [a message in] a non-Arabic tongue, and [its bearer] an Arab?’”

(41: 44.)

But are we not ignoring here the basic similarity between literature and architecture? An architect does not come up with a building material that is not available on earth. Nor do architects steer away from the basic rules of their profession.

What they do is no more than raise walls, lay floors and ceilings, and put up doors, windows and gates. But the quality of their work varies a great deal, depending on the choice of the best and longer-lasting material, giving residents protection against extreme heat and cold.

They choose how deep to lay their foundations and how high to make their buildings, how to make the load lighter for the supporting parts, how to make the best use of the space provided in order to accommodate more facilities, how to arrange the interior so as to bring light and ventilation to all rooms and halls. Some of them may achieve all this, or most of it, while others may have one or more defects. Then they add decoration of wide-ranging variety according to taste and personal choice.

In the same way, people of the same language may express the same meaning in different ways with varying degrees of excellence and acceptability. Yet none of these goes beyond the vocabulary or the grammatical rules [i.e. the basic material] of their language. It is the talented choice of the material they use that elevates their speech to the extent that it attracts audiences and generates enchantment and admiration.

Conversely, vulgar choice may make it totally unattractive to the extent that it jars on people’s ears and causes them to turn away in disgust.

In its great variety of expression, a language uses different constructions and styles, such as the general and the peculiar, the restricted and the unrestricted, the concise and the detailed.

It spells out things, or it may point or refer to them in general terms or even implicitly. It uses reporting or statement forms, nominal or verbal sentences, negation and confirmation, fact and allegory, verbose and concise styles.

It may spell out certain things or delete them leaving only an implied reference to them, and it may give a sentence an abrupt start or may use a conjunction.

It uses nouns with definite or indefinite articles, and it uses inversion, putting words ahead of, or later than, their usual place. In their speech and writings people may use any combination of these forms and modes of expression to convey the meanings they have in mind. In none of these, however, do they go beyond the framework of the language. In fact, they take their own routes within its limits and they confine themselves within its boundaries.

Yet none of these various forms and modes befits every situation, and none is deemed unsuitable to all. Were that the case, the matter would be easy for everyone. Fine style would impart the same taste to all, sounding the same tune in all ears.

The same route may lead you to the place you are heading on one occasion, but may prove to be the wrong way on others.

A word may seem to be the missing jewel in a certain situation, while it has no particular significance in another. This means that the choice of style depends on the meaning a person wishes to convey and certainty that it is the best way to convey it accurately.

If you are involved in an argument, you want to choose a style that presents your case clearly, leaving no room for ambiguity. If you are presenting a description, you need a style that is more accurate in outlining details. In a friendly situation you choose what people find easy and gentle, while in a dispute you may need what is strong and uncompromising. In all situations, we look for what expresses our purpose more clearly and is likely to retain its appeal for a long time to come.

Such a choice is by no means easy, because the variety on offer is great indeed, using a wide range of colours and styles in vocabulary and construction.

People do not have the same ability to examine all these styles, let alone make an informed choice between them. One person may hit on something that eludes another, while each may remain unaware of the other’s choice. A form you miss here may be equal to two you use there, and vice versa.

All the elements that a person observes when he speaks combine to generate a special picture bringing together certain mental constituents. It is similar to the ‘mode’ in material constituents. This mode of speech is what we call style. It is in style that people differ in their speech and its degree of excellence and acceptability.

What is new in the language of the Qur’an is that in every purpose the Qur’an tackles, it selects the best material and the closest to the meaning intended, bringing together all required shades that can readily be mixed together. It puts every little element in its most suitable and fitting place. Its meaning is reflected superbly in its words, as if the words return a mirror image depicting its complete and true picture. To a word, its meaning is its secure home where it is permanently settled. The home does not look for a different dweller, and the resident does not aspire for a better home. The Qur’anic style gives you this perfect example of literary excellence.

Proof of this is in abundance, but we will not look into such evidence now.

We will come to it later. We are only concentrating for the present on the point that not all Arabic speech is the same. Linguistic and literary excellence may sink to the point of total inadequacy or may rise to a most sublime standard defying all imitation.

If someone wishes to look for proof of the Qur’anic excellence in this respect, when he is not qualified to be a judge of literary styles, then he has to realise that only through a fine sense and a wealth of experience can judgement be fair. Hence, his only alternative is to accept the verdict of other people and to be content with the testimony of those who are qualified to so return one. Therefore, it is pertinent to give here one such testimony.

Al-Walīd ibn al-Mughīrah was one of the chiefs of the Quraysh tribe in Makkah. He came once to talk to the Prophet, but the Prophet read a passage of the Qur’an to him. It seems that al-Walīd softened his hostile attitude to the Prophet as a result.

When Abu Jahl, the most unyielding opponent of Islam among the Quraysh, heard of this, he went to al-Walīd and said: “Uncle, your people are collecting some money to give you, because you went to Muhammad seeking what he may have to give you.” Al-Walīd replied: “The Quraysh is aware that I am among the richest people here.” Abu Jahl suggested: “Then you have to say something about him which would indicate to your people that you are hostile to him.” Al-Walīd said: “What can I say? There is none among you who is a better judge of poetry, with all its forms and styles, including the poetry said by the jinn, than me. By God, what Muhammad says is nothing like any of that. What he says has its own sweetness and refinement. It is all light at the top, shining at the bottom. It is surpassing, overpowering. Nothing can stand up to it.” Abu Jahl insisted: “Your people will not be satisfied until you have said something against it.” Al-Walīd asked for time to think, and when he had finished his thinking he said: “This is sorcery that he has learnt from someone else.”

In response to this, the following verses were revealed to the Prophet: “Leave Me to deal with him whom I have created alone, and to whom I have granted vast resources, and children as [love’s] witnesses, and to whose life I gave so wide a scope; and yet, he greedily desires that I give yet more! No, indeed. It is against Our revelations that he knowingly, stubbornly sets himself.

So I shall constrain him to endure a painful uphill climb! Behold, [when Our revelations are conveyed to him,] he reflects and meditates - and thus he destroys himself, the way he meditates. Yes, indeed, he destroys himself, the way he meditates! Then he looks around [for new arguments], and then he frowns and glares, and in the end he turns his back and glories in his arrogance, and says, ‘All this is mere spellbinding eloquence handed down to him [from olden times]! This is nothing but the word of mortal human beings.”

(74: 11-25.)

Consider for a moment how the Qur’an describes how hard the man labours in order to reach his final verdict on the Qur’an: He reflects and meditates, looking around for argument, frowning and glaring, turning his back and behaving most arrogantly.

shows how he struggles with his own nature, trying to come up with a verdict that his own conscience is bound to disapprove of. This constrained him no end.

Yet finally, he had to succumb to his people’s desire and return a hostile verdict. Consider also the wide gulf between this arbitrary verdict and the one that comes naturally from the same person when he expresses his opinion freely: “It is surpassing, overpowering. Nothing can stand up to it”.

That is a final testimony for anyone who does not have the qualification to distinguish styles and judge literary expression. Sufficient to say that it is a testimony given by one who knows, a person from among the people whose native language was the language of the Qur’an. And yet he was as hostile to Islam as its hardest enemies.

On the other hand, if you are qualified to judge styles and distinguish literary excellence, then all you have to do is to read whatever you wish of speeches, poetry, epistles, proverbs, dialogues, fiction and non-fiction, from pre-Islamic days to the present. Then take any page of the Qur’an and consider what you find there.

You will find a remarkable style and a unique mode of expression. It is as if all other styles are very familiar, while among them it, the Qur’an, stands out in a unique position. You will not find anything similar to it in what earlier literary figures had composed. Nor did a latter day literary genius produce anything akin to it in any way.

If a verse of the Qur’an is given in the midst of a rich collection of what the most eloquent people have composed in speech or writing, it will stand out prominently. It will be readily distinguished, just like a fine tune will stand out among what may be described as ‘run of the mill’, or like a fresh ripening fruit among different types of food.

page V

Miraculous Even to the Message Preacher

Someone may say at this point that we have addressed one type of doubt but opened another.

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