There are many aspects of the Mighty Book of Allah which cannot be imitated. In order to deal with them properly, they have been put into four categories.
This section deals with the first of these which is the excellence of its composition, the cohesion of its word-structure and the purity of its Arabic. This is part of its inimitability because the eloquence of its language is far beyond the norm of the Arabs.
The Arabs were the masters of linguistic expression, having been given eloquence and aphorisms not given to any other nation. They were given a sharpness of tongue not possessed by other peoples and an incisiveness of speech penetrating right to the heart of the meaning. Allah gave them that as part of their nature and character. It is natural to them and comes easily. They use it spontaneously to evoke amazement and it enables them to deal with any situation, speaking extemporaneously. They compose rajaz poems using powerful language between thrust and riposte, in praise and defamation, when making requests and entreaties, to raise up and bring low. By use of language they work permissible magic, and are able to string together adjectives more beautiful than a string of pearls. With it they can deceive the intelligent, make what is difficult easy, heal ancient feuds, bring ancient ruins to life, make cowards brave, open up clenched hands, make the imperfect perfect and reduce the highborn to obscurity.
Among the Arabs the bedouin is renowned for lucid expression, decisive words, superbly clear speech, a pure nature and a strong manner. The city man has skilful eloquence, clear expression, comprehensive words, an easy nature and the ability to put much splendour of manner into few and courteous words. They both have an eloquence containing effective arguments and a driving force which wins the day and opens the way. They do not doubt that words obey their will and that eloquence is the property of their leadership. They possess the arts of language and have discovered its springs. They have entered through all its doors and built palaces with it. They have spoken on all subjects, both the weighty and the insignificant. They were the masters of both sparing and substantial argumentation. They can converse with concision and prolixity. They contend in prose and poetry.
No one but a noble Messenger could have amazed them with a book which is “Falsehood cannot reach it from before it or behind it – a revelation from One who is All-Wise, Praiseworthy.” (41:42) Its ayats are exact and its words distinguished. Its eloquence dazzles the intellect. Its pure Arabic overcomes every other speech. Its terseness and inimitability conquer all. The real and metaphorical in it are clearly articulated. Its verses and divisions vie in beauty. Its concise passages and brilliant new expressions make all clear. Its excellent composition is balanced by its concision. The expressions chosen convey a multitude of meanings.
The Arabs are the people with the greatest capacity in this field and had the most illustrious orators, the most contests in rhymed prose and poetry, the greatest usage of rare words and expressions in their everyday language and the most unique way of arguing with each other.
These are the people whom the Prophet was challenging and rebuking for more than twenty years:
“Do they say, ‘He has fabricated it’? Say: ‘Then produce a sura like it and call on anyone you can besides Allah if you speak the truth.’” (10:38)
“If you have doubts about what We have sent down to Our slave, produce another sura the same as it, and call your witnesses, besides Allah, if you speak the truth. If you do not do that – and you will not do it…” (2:23-24)
“Say: ‘If both men and jinn banded together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could never produce anything like it, even if they backed each other up’” (17:88) and “Say: ‘Then produce ten invented suras like it.’” (11:13)
It is easier to plagiarize than to originate. Writing something false and fabricated is far easier. The phrase which is striving after a sound meaning is more difficult to compose. That is why it is said, “So-and-so writes as he is told and so-and-so writes as he wants.” The first is better than the second, and there is a vast chasm between them.
The Prophet continued to rebuke them with the harshest rebukes and reprimand them in the strongest possible terms. He called their dreams foolish and abased their nobles. Their social structures were shattered. He censured their gods and their own selves as well. Their houses and property were taken as booty. Despite all of this, they shrank from confronting his challenge and proved themselves unable to produce anything like it. They deceived themselves by making trouble through rejection, self-delusion, and forgery.
They said, “This is nothing but magic from the past. This is nothing but the words of a human being.,” (74:24-25) or a “continuing forgery.” (54:24) It is “a lie which he forged,” (25:4) and ‘the myths of the ancients.’ (25:5) They lied and were satisfied with baseness.
As Allah says, it is as if they said, “Our hearts are uncircumcised.” (2:88) “Our hearts are covered up against what you call us to and there is a heaviness in our ears. There is a screen between us and you.” (41:5) “Do not listen to this Qur’an. Drown it out so that perhaps you may gain the upper hand.” (41:26)
Their presumption of capacity is illustrated by their saying, “If we had liked, we would have said the like of it.” (8:31) Allah says to them, “You will not do it.” (2:24) And surely enough, they did not do it and were powerless to. Any foolish person, such as Musaylima, who tried to do it had his faults exposed to everyone and was stripped by Allah of the fine words he had written. If that had not been the case, the people of intelligence among them would not have realised that the Qur’an was something more than their own form of pure speech or eloquence. When such people heard the Qur’an they came away submitting to it, either guided or at least enraptured.
This is why when al-Walid b. al-Mughira heard the Prophet say, “Allah commands justice and acting in the best way,” (16:90) he said, “By Allah, it has sweetness and it has grace. The least of it is abundant and the highest of it is fruitful. No mortal could have said this.”
Abu ‘Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Salam mentioned that a Bedouin heard a man recite, “Shout what you are commanded.” (15:94) He prostrated and said, “I have prostrated because of its fine Arabic.” Another Bedouin heard a man recite, “When they despaired of moving him, they conferred privately apart.” (12:80) He said, “I testify that no creature is capable of these words.”
It is related that one day ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab was sleeping in the mosque when someone suddenly stood at his head testifying to the truth. He asked him who he was and the man told him that he was one of the Byzantine generals who knew Arabic and other languages well. He had heard a Muslim captive reciting the Book. He said, “I reflected on it and it contained the same as Allah sent down on ‘Isa ibn Maryam regarding the states of this world and the Next.” What he had heard recited were Allah’s words: “All who obey Allah and His Messenger and have awe of Allah and show fear of Him, it is they who are the victorious.” (24:52)
Al-Asma‘i related that he heard a slavegirl say something and said to her, “Confound it! What has made you so eloquent?” She said, “Is this to be considered eloquence after the words of Allah, ‘We revealed to the mother of Musa: Suckle him…’? (28:7) In a single ayat two commands, two prohibitions, two pieces of information and two pieces of good news are joined together.”
This type of inimitability we are citing is unique and bears no relationship to anything else. It is sound on two counts. The Qur’an came through the Prophet and he brought it – this is definitely known. It is also known that the Prophet made it a challenge and the Arabs were unable to respond to it. It is known without doubt by those who know eloquence and the techniques of rhetoric that its eloquence is a miracle. The way that someone who is not one of the people of this art knows that it is a miracle is by the incapacity of the skilled people of that art to respond to its challenge and the fact that they have confirmed the inimitability of its eloquence.
All you need do is reflect on the words of Allah, “There is life for you in retaliation,” (2:179) and, “If you could see when they are terrified and there is no escape, and they are seized from a near place,” (34:51) and His saying, “Respond with that which is better and if there is enmity between you and him, he will be as if he were a warm friend,” (41:34) and, “It was said: Earth, swallow your waters and heaven, stop,” (11:44) and His words, “Each We seized for his wrong action. Against some of them We sent pebbles.” (29:40) There are many other ayats such as these – indeed much of the Qur’an.
You have seen what we have clarified concerning the concision of its phrases, the abundance of its meanings, its finely woven expressions, the excellent formation of its letters and the harmony of its words. Each phrase contains many degrees of meaning and overflowing oceans of knowledge. Volumes could be filled with just some of its benefits, and numerous treatises have been written about what has been discovered in it. There is discussion about how the long stories and histories of the previous generations flow into one another, which would normally be considered weak and lacking in clarity by the people of eloquence. In fact it is a sign for the one who reflects on it with regard to the cohesion of its words and presentation, and how all the different facets are put in balance – like the story of Yusuf in its entirety. When these stories are repeated in different places of the Qur’an, the expressions used in them vary so much that it is as if each instance where the story occurs is totally unique in the way it is elucidated. This aspect of counterpoise is part of its beauty. The self never feels averse to repeating these stories nor is it hostile to hearing them again and again.
The inimitability of the Qur’an’s composition and style
The second aspect of its inimitability lies in the form of its marvellous composition and rare style which is so different from the style of the Arabs and their methods of composition and prose writing. The divisions of its ayats stop and finish while the words continue through. This sort of thing did not exist before or after it. No one was able to do anything like it. Peoples’ intellects became bewildered by it and their intelligence abandoned them. They were not guided to the composition of any language like it whether in prose, verse, rhymed prose, rajaz or poetry.
When al-Walid ibn al-Mughira heard the ordinary speech of the Prophet and then the Qur’an was recited to him, he softened and Abu Jahl went to him to rebuke him. He said, “By Allah, there is none of you who knows poetry better than I, and by Allah, his ordinary speech does not resemble this (Qur’an) in any way.”
Another tradition reports the Quraysh gathering together at the time of their annual fair and saying, “The delegations of the Arabs are coming, so let us agree on one opinion about him so that we will not contradict each other.” They said, “We say he is a soothsayer.” Al-Walid said, “By Allah, he is not a soothsayer. He does not mutter nor speak in rhymed prose.” They said, “He is mad, possessed by a jinn.” He said, “He is not mad nor jinn-possessed. There is no choking nor whispering.” They said, “We say he is a poet.” He said, “He is not a poet. We know poetry in all its forms and metres and he is not a poet.” They said, “We say he is a sorcerer.” He said, “He is not a sorcerer – there is no spitting and no knots.” They said, “Then what will we say?” He said, “You have not said anything about this matter which I do not recognise to be false. The closest you have come is the statement that he is a sorcerer, for magic is something that can come between a man and his son, a man and his brother, a man and his wife, and a man and his tribe.” Then they separated and sat down in the road to warn people. Allah revealed about al-Walid, “Leave him to Me whom I created alone.” (74:11)
When ‘Utba ibn Rabi‘a heard the Qur’an, he said, “O people! You know that I have not left anything without learning it, reading it and saying it. By Allah, I have heard a type of speech, and by Allah, I have never heard anything like it. It is not poetry and it is not spells nor soothsaying.” Al-Nadr ibn alHarith said something similar.
In the hadith of Abu Dharr becoming Muslim, he describes his brother Unays and says, “By Allah, I have not heard of anyone who knows more poetry than my brother Unays. He contested with twelve poets in the Jahiliyya and I was one of them.” This brother went to Makka and on his return told Abu Dharr about the Prophet. Abu Dharr asked, “What do people say?” He replied, “They say: he is a poet, a soothsayer and a sorcerer. I have heard the words of the soothsayers and this is not like their words. I compared him with the reciters of poetry and it was not like them. No one after me should err and say he was a poet. He is truthful and they are liars.”
The traditions about the inimitability of the Qur’an’s composition and style are sound and numerous. Its inimitability lies in both things – the concision and eloquence itself and its extraordinary style. Properly speaking, each of them constitute a different type of inimitability and the Arabs could not duplicate either of them since each was beyond their power. It was different in its pure Arabic and the words it used. More than one of the Imams has held this view.
One of their followers believed that the Qur’an’s inimitability consists merely in the sum of its eloquence and style put together and made a statement to that effect which both ears and hearts reject. The sound position is the one we have presented and knowledge of all these matters is definitive and clear. We have only stated what is well-known to the masters of the science of eloquence and the adab of this craft who are penetrating in thought and tongue.
The Imams of the people of the Sunna have disagreed about the way in which people were incapable of imitating it. Most of them have said that what is not within the capacity of a human being is the force of its lucidity and clear expressions, its beautiful composition, its terseness and its wonderful structure and style. These things are part of its miraculous nature which are beyond the power of created beings to imitate, in the same way that miracles such as bringing the dead to life, transforming the staff and the glorification of the pebbles are beyond them.
Shaykh Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, on the other hand, believed that its imitation is something which is within the capacity of human beings and that Allah could give them the power to achieve it, but this did not and will not happen. Allah has prevented them from achieving it and has made them incapable of doing so. A number of scholars hold this opinion and it is based on two arguments.
The first is the already established fact that the Arabs were incapable of it. It would not be valid to have held this against them if it had not been within the power of a human being to achieve it.
The second is the known fact that they were challenged to try and imitate it. This proves their impotence more effectively and makes them more worthy of rebuke. A justification could be found for their incapacity if they were being challenged to do something which was not within the capacity of a human being. This is an overwhelming proof and definitive argument.
In any case, the Arabs were not able to imitate the Qur’an but suffered instead many casualties and the evacuation of their city, Makka. They drank the cup of humility and abasement having been previously among the haughty and disdainful. They most certainly did not voluntarily choose to suffer this and were not pleased when they were forcibly compelled to do so. If it had been within their power it would have been far easier for them to have risen to the challenge which would have brought quick success, a definitive victory and would have finally silenced their adversary.
The Arabs were among those who had a great power of speech and were in fact exemplars of that science for all people. Each of them tried his best and summoned all his powers in the attempt to eclipse the Qur’an’s appearance and extinguish its light. They could not come up with any hidden depths nor produce a drop from the springs of the water of their being, despite the length of time they spent trying, their great number and the fact that they were aiding and abetting one another. On the contrary they remained speechless, unable to utter a single word. They were cut off and their way was blocked.
Source: Qadhi ‘Ayyadh’s al-Shifaa’ translated by Aisha Bewley.