CHAPTER vii / The Inimitability of the Qur’anic Style

The Inimitability of the Qur’anic Style

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In fact these two aspects form the outer surface of the beauty of the Qur’an, but this covering is similar to a beautiful shell hiding a superb and precious pearl.

It is part of the laws God Almighty has set for this world that He would cover great secrets with a screen that reflects beauty and brings enjoyment. This helps to preserve them and heighten competition to learn and treasure them.

Consider how He made the desire for food and the bond of love a means to ensure the survival of the individual and the human community.

Similarly, as He has willed to protect the treasured wealth of knowledge He has included in the Qur’an, He, in His wisdom, has determined to give it a superb framework which endears it to people and enhances their eagerness to grasp it.

It serves as a motive which urges them to work for it and makes their effort easier to exert. He has undoubtedly selected a superb pattern of the Arabic language.

This ensures that the voice of the Qur’an will continue to be heard by people as long as they have tongues to articulate it and ears to listen to it, even though most of them continue to fall short of appreciating its inner meaning and are unable to recognise its message.

“It is We Ourselves who have bestowed this reminder from on high, and it is We who shall truly preserve it.”

(15: 9.)

Are you now fully aware that the construction of the Qur’an combines with its beauty an element of power and peculiarity?

And do you know that this beauty of the Qur’an has served as additional strength, which God has granted, to protect the Qur’an and preserve it intact?

In fact, this peculiarity has served as an element adding more power to the argument of the Qur’an as it challenged people to produce something similar to it. It has given the Qur’an protection against those who would imitate it or alter its arrangement.

Its beauty would not have been sufficient, on its own, to deter them. In fact, it would have tempted them to do just that.

The point is that when people admire something, they try to imitate it and compete in following its pattern.

We have seen how literary figures follow one another in their fine styles. A man of letters living in a later age may achieve the same or a higher standard than an earlier figure he admires.

This is the case among writers and public speakers. Indeed, all styles in prose and poetry follow trodden paths.

These they learn, and in imitating them they train, just as one would do in any trade or skill.

What, then, has stopped people from attacking the Qur’an with their tongues and pens, when they have always admired its style, especially when so many of them would have loved to meet its challenge and refute its argument?

The reason is that the Qur’an has a natural immunity which restrains all people from imitating it.

The first element in this immunity is that which we have already described of its unique arrangement of sounds, and its remarkable construction starting with letters and words and extending to phrases, sentences and verses.

These are arranged in a particular thread, giving the Qur’an its unique character that is unlike any style people have ever used or are likely to use.

Hence, they have not found a pattern to follow in order to imitate the Qur’an. Essentially, it is impossible to follow its pattern. Proof of this rests in the fact that if anyone tries to introduce into it anything that people have composed, in times gone by, or now or in the future, be it the work of men of letters, earlier prophets or anyone whomsoever, its mode will be distorted to all readers.

Its rhythm will jar in every ear. The phrases so introduced will stand out as alien to it. The Qur’an will not assimilate any of it.

“It is a sublime, Divine book. No falsehood can ever attain to it, neither openly nor in a stealthy manner. It is bestowed from on high by One who is truly wise, ever to be praised.”

(41: 41-42.)

If you are not distracted by the outer beauty and the fine coverings, and you continue to pursue the secret inside, trying to open the shell in order to find the treasured pearl, you have to move from the vocal pattern to the order of meanings.

There you will find what is vastly superior and far more appealing. We will not talk here about what the Qur’an includes of scientific fact that remains beyond the attainment of ordinary mortals

This is a subject which we will tackle when we speak about the scientific challenge of the Qur’an.

For now we are concentrating on the linguistic challenge, and here we are only concerned with words and sentences.

Words are sometimes considered from the point of view of their being an utterance composed of sound clusters indicating vowels and consonants, without looking at their meaning.

We have already discussed this aspect. Alternatively, words are considered from the point of view of their meanings which the speaker wants to convey to those whom he addresses.

This is the aspect we will be tackling presently. This is undoubtedly the aspect that reflects far more clearly the linguistic challenge that we are considering.

Language is all about the expression of meaning, and it is in this respect that styles are evaluated, rather than in their rhythm and music.

As for the meaning of the Qur’an from the point of view of the wealth of scientific knowledge it includes, this is a different area altogether. It goes beyond any linguistic study. Literary excellence relies on the accuracy of the images portrayed and the fine expressions conveying the intended meaning.

It is immaterial in this respect whether the meaning concerns the nature of human thoughts or something that goes beyond this, a practical fact or an allegory, a true fact or a falsehood.

In fact, the Qur’anic expression of what the non-believers said is as superb in style as the rest of the Qur’an, because it describes their thoughts most perfectly.

Scientific excellence, on the other hand, relies on the meaning itself, regardless of the way it is expressed

It is true that linguistic styles may differ in expressing the meaning fully, which means that an excellent expression of a scientific idea may add to its value, but then we are speaking about the mode of expression, not the subject to be expressed.

Let us, then, leave this scientific point for now in order to concentrate on the linguistic one. We will begin now to describe some aspects of the Qur’anic method of expression, tackling these in four different categories:

  • a passage;
  • a surah;
  • a group of surahs;
  • and the Qur’an as a whole.

Perhaps we should explain here that when we speak of a passage we are talking about a portion that conveys a complete meaning like what is conveyed in several verses or a long verse.

This is the minimum the challenge thrown down in the Qur’an for imitation requires.

It asks the doubters to produce ‘a single surah like it’, not a long or a medium length surah. This general statement includes the short surahs, most of which were revealed in Makkah, including the shortest ones.

Some people have suggested that the challenge does not refer to any surah, but to one ‘in which the quality of literary style is clearly seen.’ This suggests that such quality does not appear fully in three verses or so.

This does not detract from the superiority of the Qur’an. Yet whoever said this has based it on his own thought to which he has no proof

He simply excluded the short surahs from being miraculous in nature. He has seen no peculiarity in their style, and as such could not see how the challenge applies to them as well.

But this is evidence of his own inability.

Such a person should have reflected on the fact that the Arabs at the time of the Prophet could not produce anything like the short or long surahs of the Qur’an. In their view, all were infinitely superior to their own talents.

This is sufficient evidence if he wishes, but he could also try to assimilate the meaning of a short surah and express this meaning in words of his own choosing.

He will inevitably find that he has only two alternatives:

either he will not be able to express its meaning in a similarly effective style and appropriate arrangement, or he will have to use exactly the same words as the Qur’an has used, and in the same order.

This exercise will show him that the secret of the superior excellence of the Qur’an is apparent in its longer surahs as in the shorter ones.

It is just like the secret of creation being evident in an ant as it is evident in an elephant. Ibn ᶜAṭiyyah says:

“We appreciate the excellence in most of the Qur’an, but we are unaware of it in some places, because our linguistic taste falls short of that of the Arabs at the time. The argument has been proven for all mankind when the Arabs of the time demonstrated their inability to produce anything like the Qur’an. They were the most eloquent of all people.”

Chapter VIII

Surpassing Excellence in Every Passage

It is very difficult to try to describe the style of the Qur’an which defies imitation.

GO TO Chapter VIII