بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم
Notes on the work ‘Matchless Eloquence: Al-Kawthar’, available at this link.
This is a commentary on the article “Matchless Eloquence: Al-Kawthar” which is written by the convert to Islam Hamza Andreas Tzortzis. Many people point to Sura Al-Kawthar, since it is the smallest Chapter of the Qur’an yet it retains the inimitability so crucial to the Qur’anic challenge. Even I had briefly made some comments about this Sura and how it compared to the failed attempt by Musyalima the liar in a previous article, but here brother Tzortis is studying Sura Al-Kawthar from a variety of deeper angles.
o The article starts by presenting the transliteration of the Sura, along with its translation. This is good in my view, because the reader unfamiliar with the Qur’an has to see that it is indeed a small Chapter that can be written on only one line, but yet it contains the features that will be discussed below.
o As we know, there is the challenge to produce a Chapter like the Qur’an if the disbelievers are truthful in their claims [as we see that the final challenge was the one in Ayah 2:23].
o Note that there are finite set of linguistic ‘tools’ at the disposal of the non-Muslim trying to imitate the Qur’an. There were also a finite number of ‘tools’ in Arabic linguistics at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an, and their intertwining on different levels is what gave the Qur’an its miraculous nature.
o There have been those who have tried to meet the challenge of the Qur’an from among the non-Muslims. This includes people such as Ibn ar-Rawandi, Bassar bin Burd, the ‘True Furqan’ missionaries, and some others.
o What such people have failed to do is to match the Qur’an in the following areas: (1) Literary form (2) Linguistic genre (3) Selection and arrangement of words (4) Selection and arrangement of particles (5) Phonetic superiority (6) Frequency of rhetorical devices (7) Level of informativity (8) Conciseness and flexibility.
o The example is given of Musaylima’s attempt in his so-called “Chapter” of the elephant, where he said: “The elephant. What is the elephant? And who shall tell you what the elephant is? He has a ropy tail and a long trunk. This is a [mere] trifle of our Lord’s creations.”
o If we see the Arabic we can appreciate the problems in the composition [His so-called “Sura” was this: الفيل ما الفيل , وما أدراك مالفيل , له دنب وبيل وخرطوم طويل, وإن ذلك من خلق ربنا لقليل]
o The style is in the rhymed prose of the kaahin (the soothsayer), so the challenge fails right then and there. It lacks informativity (we know that elephants have longs trunks and ropy tails, so it is not adding anything new to our repertoire). The presently used words can be substituted with words that will give more eloquence and greater meaning to this so-called “Sura”.
o Perhaps it was meant to be an imitation of Sura Al-Qaari’a. But note that the subject matter of al-Qaaria is of enormous importance (the Day of Judgment). The Verses 4-11 do not rhyme with the first 3, so it cannot be said that it is in the form of straightforward rhymed prose. So from different angles we see that this attempt is not up to the mark.
o So now the question becomes, what qualities makes Surah al-Kawthar inimitable?
o What we have is in fact unmatched selection in words (all parts of intelligible speech), order, and meaning. These combine to give Surah al-Kawthar the following features: (a) Emphasis (b) Multiple Meaning (c) Iltifaat – Grammatical Shift (d) Word order and arrangement (e) Ellipsis [omission of word/s that are superfluous] (f) Conceptual Relatedness (Intertextuality) [the relationship between a text and other texts – taken as basic for the redaction or interpretation of the text] (g) Intensification (h) Choice of words & Particles (i) Phonetics (j) Semantically oriented repetition [i.e. repetition related to meaning] (k) Intimacy (l) Exaggeration (m) Rebuke and Contempt (n) Conciseness (o) Flexibility (p) Prophesy/Factual [i.e. whether the prophesized event came to pass].
Emphasis & Choice of Pronoun
o The first issue is with Emphasis and Choice of Pronoun: This is about the word “إنَّا” (Inna). This word is used for emphasis, and this particular structure (of the Shaddah for the ‘Nun’) is distinct to these types of words which are used for emphasis. It is also in the plural, which in this case indicates the greatness and power of the One who is bestowing such a favor on the Prophet ﷺ.
o Some people may argue that this ‘We’ indicates ‘plurality’. But let me tell you that this phenomenon of referring to one’s on self in the second or third person is common in certain languages even today. If you hear some of the Eastern people (specifically Farsi speakers), when they have a somewhat formal relationship with those they are speaking to, they may use phrases such as ‘We were unpleasantly surprised when this incident occurred in our office’, but it is clear that the ‘We’ is used to denote that relative to their position, such an unpleasant surprise should not have happened (for example, his employee should not have made a certain error). Or if a person has not seen another after a long time, he may say that ‘We are happy to see you’, to show that he considers the other person worthy of a plural [that is, that the other person is not just a simple ‘you’ of respect, but is more than that]. There are many other examples, but this can open a window into what is happening when a plural such as ‘We’ is used in the Qur’an.
o Next the matter is about ‘word choice’. We may wonder why wasn’t the word ‘Aataaina’ used, but rather ‘A’Tayn’. The difference is a conceptual one, since the Qur’anic wording indicates to ‘give something to someone with one’s own hand’, while the non-Qur’anic word does not carry this connotation. This is used in order to strengthen the surety of giving from Allah, and the ownership of the Prophet ﷺ. This is also further emphasized with the past tense of the word, meaning that it is something that has already taken place – rather than something that will take place in the future. [Here we also see how the single Arabic word is conveying multiple meanings, and that the change in only one vowel would alter the meaning, potentially affecting the eloquence of the Chapter. Note that the Prophet ﷺ did not have a formal schooling in all these areas of Arabic grammar and morphology…in fact, these sciences came up as formal disciplines as direct result of the spread of Islam into different areas of the world, which means that the catalyst for the formalization of classical Arabic was the revelation and recitation of the Qur’an].
o Staying with the topic of word choice, the next word is ‘Kawthar’. Its root letters are ‘ك ث ر’ which denote plenitude, multitude, overflowing, etc. It is written that the Arabs used ‘Kawthar’ to denote anything which was great in quantity or value; from this angle it cannot be replaced with any other word in Arabic while retaining the same general meaning.
o The word ‘Kawthar’ also has relevance when it comes to the arrangement of the words in the Qur’an. This is so because ‘Kawthar’ is an attribute, and it has been placed at the end of the Verse without any other qualifier delimiting its meaning. What this indicates is that the Prophet ﷺ has been given an abundance of everything, or an abundance of many things. Had Allah the Exalted given the Prophet ﷺ only one type of blessing to the exclusion of others, then this would have been mentioned in the Chapter, but such was not the case. Also, it was not appropriate to mention many things one after the other in this Chapter (in the sense of listing the specific blessings one after the other), since this would have turned out to be improper use of rhetoric and lack of conciseness in the text.
o The next issue is about multiple meanings. As we mentioned, the use of ‘Kawthar’ without any other qualifier denotes abundance of goodness. In explaining this meaning, the scholars have said that ‘Kawthar’ encompasses the following blessings: (a) The river in Paradise from which all other rivers flow (b) the fountain from which the Prophet ﷺ will quench the thirst of the believers (c) His prophethood (d) The Qur’an, as no other book is as comprehensive as the Qur’an (e) The deen of Islam (f) The multitude of Companions who followed him (g) His elevated status, so that no one is more praised and mentioned than he is (h) Multitude of goodness [the original simple meaning].
o There are those who say that such multiplicity is actually a wishful thinking from our side, and that when carefully considered we only find contradictions in the multiple possibilities. We say there is no such contradiction, since none of the possibilities mentioned above are mutually exclusive from any other possibility, but they are rather complementary.
Grammatical Shift: Iltifaat
o Next is the Iltifaat (grammatical shift) seen in this Chapter. In the first Verse we see ‘إنَّا’, (Verily We) which is a first person plural. In the second Verse, it shifts to the second person ‘رَبِّكَ’ (your Lord). The change is calculated to show the intimate relationship between the Prophet and Allah the Exalted. Whereas the first Verse highlights power and majesty, the second Verse highlights intimacy and love: that Allah loves you o Muhammad ﷺ, so pray to your Lord and sacrifice to Him in order to show thanks to your Lord. Also, since the Chapter was sent to console the Prophet ﷺ, it is appropriate to use words that indicate intimacy and closeness.
o Another shift that is not mentioned in Tzortis’ article is the one that takes place between the second Ayah and the third Ayah (إنَّ شانِئَكَ هُوَ الأَبْتَر) [translated as ‘Indeed, your enemy is the one cut-off]. In the third Ayah, we have the intensive (إنَّ) but without the first person. Why… because Allah is not giving the Prophet’s ﷺ enemies anything, but rather forsaking them. (One thing that is mentioned in Tzortis’ article is that the intensive serves as a strong confirmation that this is the true situation of the enemies of the Prophet ﷺ). Yes, Allah will give them the punishment in the Hereafter, but in the context of mentioning what He has given the Prophet ﷺ, it would be rhetorically naïve to mention giving again, even if it is the giving of punishment – rather forsaking is highlighted.
o Also, we see in this case that the pronouns refer to the Prophet ﷺ and his enemies, but there is no pronoun (either hidden or explicit) which refers to Allah – this serves to highlight the cutting off. There is also an explicit pronoun to refer to the enemy, again to verify that indeed he has been deprived of goodness.
Conceptual Relatedness (intertextuality)
o The next word to be considered is ‘fa’, within the theme of intertextuality (that is, how do the words in this Verse intertwine with the totality of the message in the Qur’an). Thus, the second Verse says (So to your Lord pray and sacrifice). We want to concentrate on the ‘فَ’ in here. This is a causative particle, and it indicates the command from Allah for the Prophet ﷺ to worship His Lord and sacrifice for His sake. But there could also be a deeper meaning in here due to the use of the ‘fa’, which is that praying and sacrificing to Allah after receiving His bounties is natural and should be done as a matter of thanks and appreciation, since this is a much higher level of worship than merely trying to stay away from Hellfire or attain Paradise [the latter is done because one wishes to avoid unpleasant situations and gain favorable ones, but the former is done solely because one loves Allah and knows his inability to express thanks for the favors he has received from Allah. This is obviously a higher matter which includes many Islamic sciences, but we should remember that the Prophet ﷺ himself worshipped extensively, even though he had been granted abundance of blessings, and all his past and future sins had been forgiven].
o Anyway, it is clear that this ‘fa’ conceptually relates to ‘Tawhid’ or the oneness of Allah. And the inclusion of prayer plus sacrifice highlights the distinction between the Prophet ﷺ and the polytheists in general, since in their case they would pray and offer sacrifice to their idols.
o From the point of view of “thematic intertextuality” we see that Ayah 108:2 relates with other Verses of the Qur’an, such as: “Say: “Verily, my Salah, my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are for Allah, the Lord of all that exists. He has no partner. And of this I have been commanded, and I am the first of the Muslims.”” (Quran 6:162-163) and “And do not eat from what Allah’s Name has not been pronounced over, indeed that is Fisq (transgression).” (Quran 6:121).
o With respect to the word ‘Wanhar’, we see that it has meanings indicating sacrificing an animal by cutting its jugular vein, standing for prayer, and raisings one’s hands while reciting Takbir. Thus, all of these actions are the manifestations of the thanks that the Prophet ﷺ [and by extension, Muslims as a whole] is to give for having received the ‘Kawthar’ or plenitude referred to in the first Verse. Also, we see that this word (‘Wanhar’) is the most appropriate for this context, and cannot be replaced with any other.
Semantically Orientated Repetition & Rhythm
o Another topic is the semantically oriented repetition and rhythm achieved with the ‘كَ’, which is expressed three times in the Verse. This ‘you’, indicating the second person, in singling out the Prophet ﷺ as the target of the speaker. This establishes continuity in the Chapter and generates rhythm (i.e. the Chapter is about the true things that have happened and will happen to both the Prophet ﷺ and his enemies, but the enemies are referenced only in terms of how they related to the Prophet ﷺ, otherwise we do not care about them).
o We also see the juxtaposition between the grammatical shifts of the speaker (i.e. Allah) and the fixity of the second person (referring to the Prophet ﷺ). Even though it is not mentioned, we also see that Allah starts the Chapter by referring to Himself in the first person plural, and finishes it by referring to the enemy of the Prophet ﷺ with the third person singular – giving the extra emphasis that while Allah is the Owner of all Power and Majesty, the enemy is all alone and deprived of all goodness.
Rebuke and Contempt
o We also see rebuke and contempt directed at the enemies of the Prophet ﷺ by the use of the word (أبْتَر) ‘abtar’. First of all, this is appropriate since it was this very same word which was used by the enemies of the Prophet ﷺ to taunt him, but this Chapter shows that it was only his enemies who would be deprived of goodness. This is further emphasized by the preceding two Verses which are using intense and emphatic language in order to convey the goodness given to the Prophet ﷺ, while ‘Abtar’ in this context is the auditory equivalent of someone falling off of a cliff (i.e. the road has been cut off and there is nothing he can do to save himself).
o Another topic we see with respect to the word ‘Abtar’ is that it is placed at the end of the Chapter. Before we go into the significance of this, we have to note that the enemies of the Prophet ﷺ taunted him by saying that he had no male offspring, so he would have no descendants carrying his name and that no one would ever remember him. Given that this is the intended meaning of the word, we can see the significance of placing ‘Abtar’ at the end of the Chapter, since it is pointing to the fact that their being cut-off and deprived is the end of the issue, and there is no turning back from this state.
Choice of Particle: Confinement/Exclusivity
o We also see a significant issue in the choice of particles. The word in the Qur’an is ‘ألأَبْتَر’. This ‘al’ denotes confinement and exclusivity, by saying that it is only the enemies specifically who are cut off. Thus, the power of the (main) word (Abtar) is intensified accordingly.
Rhythm and Sound
o Another point we can observe is what we see between the endings of the last words within each Verse. We see that the words are ‘Kawthar’, ‘Anhar’ and ‘Abtar’. The end rhyme of the last two Verses resonate the sound of the word Kawthar (but note that there is not a “real rhyme” between the endings of the Verses, since that would require all the words to end in ‘thar’, and this is not occurring here. Thus, this Chapter is not of the ‘Saj’ type of prose).
o Coming back to the topic of ‘resonation’, it is as if the sound of the word ‘Kawthar’ is extended to support the theme that the Prophet ﷺ has been given abundant goodness; this is used in order to give persuasive power to the Chapter.
o The next topic is about prophecy and its factual relevance: After all, the words of a passage will not be of lasting value if they are not concomitant to the truth. As far as this Chapter in concerned, we see that at the time of the revelation of this Chapter, the Prophet ﷺ was at a very low point of his life, when the enemies of Islam seemed to have the most power, wealth, and prestige. However, within a few years, it was the Prophet ﷺ who became the undisputed leader of all of Arabia, and his enemies were the ones who lost power.
o However, we see that the word ‘al-abtar’ is also giving a specific prophecy. In order to understand why this is so, we see that there are two major opinions about who was the person taunting the Prophet ﷺ with their ugly language. The first is that it was Al-‘As bin Wa’il and the second that it was Abu Lahab. In the case of Al-‘As, his sons converted to Islam and became his enemies. They also did not inherit from him when he died, so he was cut off from any influence after his death. In the case of Abu Lahab, he died from a plague and his body rotted so badly that no one dared get close to it from the terrible stench. Finally, what remained of his body was pinned to a wall and stones were thrown on it. Abu Lahab had lost all influence and dignity. (This is what we know about what happened to them in this world. But as Allah says: “The Punishment of the Hereafter is Ashaqq (more difficult)”).
o So we see that even though the Sura is only 10 words long, yet it contains more than 15 literary and linguistic features. These are not mediocre attempts to please the listener, but are such that even if one word is changed or something is rearranged, the effect will be lost.
o Also, this Chapter is arranged with its own literary form and linguistic genre. Note that this is true of every Chapter of the Qur’an – none of the Chapters can be exactly identified with any of the modes of prose or poetry known to the Arabs at that time, which is the reason why the challenge of the Qur’an remains relevant even in our day.
o Of course, the whole point of this and similar articles is to stimulate the non-Muslim readers to seriously consider the issue of the authorship of the Qur’an. Of course, the only hypothetical possibilities are either another Arab, a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ himself, or Allah the Exalted. We do acknowledge that if someone does not believe in the Existence of God to begin with, then it will be difficult to move to the issue of the Qur’an.
o In fact, I personally feel that the two are inextricably united, since the person who discovers that only the Islamic concept of Divinity is correct cannot do anything other than accept Islam, even if he has not fully researched on the particular exalted features of the Qur’an. Also, the one who attributes the sublimity of the Qur’an to Allah the Exalted has no other logical option but to embrace Islam – here we are supposing that the non-Muslim transcends his original atheism without long-winded discussions, but this is obviously rarely the case, which is why Tzortis mentions the need to believe in Allah before engaging in a discussion about the Qur’an.
o As a final comment, it is again stressed that if the Prophet ﷺ had himself written the Qur’an, it would be difficult to explain how it was unmatched by those who knew the language better than anyone else, these being the Arabs of the Peninsula at the time of revelation. Of course, when we consider the elements of prophecy, evenness of styles during times of crisis and prosperity, and many other considerations, then we are left with no other logical answer rather than to declare that the Qur’an has come from Allah the Exalted.