Preliminary Notes on the article ‘The Quran’s Challenge: a Literary and Linguistic Miracle’

بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيم

Notes from the article ‘The Quran’s Challenge: a Literary and Linguistic Miracle’ written by Hamza Andreas Tzortis (available here)[1]

o    The article starts by pointing out the beginning Verses of the first revelation (Sura al-‘Alaq). The fact that the Prophet was illiterate is contrasted with the huge revolution brought about by the Qur’an, which combined a new literary genre with a comprehensive and concise basis for Islamic theology, law and spirituality.

o    We have to remember that the desert Arabs and the Arabs in general did not have much intellectual “production” at the time when the Qur’an was revealed. Even though their eloquence was of a high caliber, they had not systematized their language formally, in the sense of putting all the rules of grammar and morphology in writing.

Arabic literary forms

o    To begin to understand why this situation came to be, we have to examine the literary nature of the Qur’an, and appreciate how it differs from Arabic poetry and prose, by studying the formal differences we find between them.

o    The remark is made that many scholars consider that the Qur’an has its own unique literary form, separate from what was known to the Arabs at the time of revelation. Specific mention is made of Ali ibn ‘Isa ar-Rumaani and Abi Bakr al-Baaqilani. This view is also echoed by a number of orientalists, such as A.J. Arberry, Bruce Lawrence and D.J. Stewart.

o    Generally, we would say that any speech in the Arabic language falls either into prose or poetry. Even the ‘kahin’ speech is a subset of rhymed prose. What the Muslim (and even non-Muslim scholars) say is that the Qur’an does not fall in either of these two categories.

o    Based on this knowledge, we have to understand the importance of knowing Arabic in order to appreciate the Qur’an’s miracle; for otherwise one will get the message through a good translation, but there is no way that the linguistic miracle itself will be conveyed to the reader.

o    Some may ask that there are non-Muslim Arabs, and they are not at all moved by the Qur’an. This may be mostly because they have not achieved the level of eloquence in the Arabic language in order to be able to appreciate this miracle. We know that in the mind of many a miracle is supposed to be something which blows the mind of everyone away at the “moment of impact”. But this is normally the reserve of visual miracles, like raising the dead, making food multiply, and so forth. We do have to mention that there were people who heard the Qur’an the first time and were blown away, whether they became Muslim or not, but the Qur’an is a subtle miracle, which in fact has many more layers that the “normal visual” miracles, but which requires sober study and evaluation in order for it to be uncovered by most people- even Arabs. If the non-Muslim Arab does not wish to embark upon this sober evaluation, then this is a deficiency from his part, not on the part of the Qur’an.

1. What is Arabic poetry?

o    So the question next becomes: What is Arabic poetry? Before that even, we should have a good idea of ‘What is poetry?’ in general.

o    Poetry is a literary form of art in which the apparent meaning of the text is also accompanied with aesthetic effects. Poetry uses certain conventions in order to evoke certain responses. We have examples such as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), alliteration (repetition of consonants), and onomatopoeia (a word suggesting the source of the sound it describes). Other techniques also exist, such as metaphor, simile, and metonymy [substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for the thing meant, such as saying “suit” in place of “business executive”]. Generally, poetry is open to multiple interpretations due to its use of ambiguity, symbolism, and irony.

o    Arabic poetry follows a strict rhythmical pattern. The Qafiya [rhyme] of Arabic poetry is due to every line of the poem ending upon a specific letter. In this regard, there are patterns in Arabic poetry; sixteen of these exist, which are called ‘al-Bihaar’ [lit. “The Seas”]. This term (al-bihar) has been used in order to describe the way a poem moves according to the rhythm, just like the waves move along the sea.

o    The list of such rhythmical patterns is: الطويل \ المديد \ البسيط \ الوافر \ الكامل \ الهزج \ الرجز \ الرمل \ السريع \ المنسرح \ الخفيف \ المضارع \ المقتضب \ المجتث \ المتقارب \ المتدارك

o    In transliteration, they are ‘At-Taweel’, ‘Al-Madeed’, ‘Al-Baseet’, ‘Al-Waafir’, ‘Al-Kaamil’, ‘Al-Hazj’, ‘Al-Rajz’, ‘Al-Raml’, ‘As-Sari’’, ‘Al-Munsarih’, ‘Al-Khafeef’, ‘Al-Mudhari’’, ‘Al-Muqtadhab’, ‘Al-Mujtath’, ‘Al-Mutaqaarib’, ‘Al-Mutadaarik’.

o    Each one of these ‘Bihaar’ has a unique pattern, particularly with respect to its syllable. As an example, the الطويل form is as follows:

o    S L L | S L L | S L L | S L L |

o    S L L | S L L | S L L | S L L |

This is normally written in Arabic in the following format

o    فَعُوْلُنْ مَفَاْعِيْلُنْ فَعُوْلُنْ مَفَاْعِيْلُنْ ** فَعُوْلُنْ مَفَاْعِيْلُنْ فَعُوْلُنْ مَفَاْعِيْلُنْ

o    We need to mention that the rules for a poem to count as one of the Bihaar are quite strict, because it has to follow this pattern, and adding/removing either a consonant or a vowel may change it from one Bihaar to the other, and it may potentially denigrate the poem as a whole.

o    The reader should keep in mind that “bad poetry” was not a simple matter at that time, since the reputation of the person and his tribe would be in jeopardy of being ridiculed if the product he brought forth was not of a good quality. This is what makes the challenge of the Qur’an even more amazing, since if it had been (hypothetically) met or not taken as amazing, Muhammad would be at a huge risk, since he would have denigrated his entire clan by his actions and would have brought shame to them.

o    For the people to have some vague idea about what this entails, imagine that a scientific team announces a huge discovery or breakthrough, but then it turns out that all this was a hoax. Obviously, it is not only the scientists involved who will suffer, but the institution they are working for, and even the national science program may be disgraced by their actions, and it would take many years for them to recover from this humiliation. So the readers should consider the matter from this angle of humiliation and disgrace – in a war-prone society, by the way- not just that a person would compose something and if he was proved to be hoax nothing would happen to him.

2. What is Arabic prose?

o    We said this (comparatively very little) concerning Arabic poetry. We also have prose, which is basically the ordinary form of written language and speech. In Arabic, there is a distinction between Mursal (which is true straightforward and normal speech), and Saj’, which is “rhymed prose”.

Saj’

o    So we can discuss something about Saj’. It has some emphasis on rhythm and rhyme, but it is not as regular as poetry in this respect.

o    The pattern on the Saj’ is based more on accents and stresses than on syllables. Additionally, it has a concentrated usage of rhetorical features. Examples of these features include sound, rhythm, ellipsis (omission of word/words that are superfluous or that are understood from contextual clues), and grammatical shift (i.e. a shift or an inversion of the normal grammatical patterns in order to produce a certain effect on the listener/reader).

Mursal

o    Next, Mursal is a literary form that resembles everyday speech, in that it has no rhyme or rhythmical pattern.

What is a miracle?

o    Now, we have to consider what a “miracle” is. An important thing in here is that generally a “miracle” is defined as a violation of natural law. But in Islam, we say that such a definition is incorrect, because a “natural law” is only an inductive generalization of the behavior of phenomena. And this type of generalization, while useful for many purposes, cannot serve the same purposes as a “law” or “theorem” of mathematics or logic.

o    Another problem which arises is that if we take a miracle as a “violation of natural law” or the “common pattern”, there is always the possibility that such a “miracle” was actually part of the “common pattern” all along – this would open the door for atheism, since “laws” seem to give absolutely independent authority to the Universe and its constituent parts, and holding such a view is nothing other than atheism.

o    Brother Tzortis says that W.L. Craig defines miracles in a more coherent fashion, in that they are “events which lie outside the productive capacity of nature”. Tzortis says this means that miracles are acts of “impossibilities according concerning causal or logical connections”.

o    I am actually not sure that “logical connections” is an appropriate term to use. This is because someone may think that we, as Muslims, are referring to violations of the “intrinsic impossibilities” (such as Allah residing in the bodies of humans), and this gives rise (in the minds of the simple folk who do not consider the rational sciences deeply) to the possibility that religions based upon such intrinsic impossibilities may be true and valid. But of course, what we mean is only the contingent impossibilities, which all are all the happenings within the world or the Universe at large. So we must keep this distinction in mind so that we are not confused.

o    With respect to causality and “causal connection”, we do in fact say that such connections do not exist in reality, but this is a matter for other works.

Why is the Qur’an a Miracle?

o    Now, the biggest question is posed: “Why is the Qur’an a miracle?” We need to go back to the definition above, where a miracle is said to be “an event lying outside the productive capacity of nature”.

o    You see, as far as the Qur’an is concerned, it lies outside the productive capacity of the nature of the Arabic language.

o    We need to understand that the productive nature of the Arabic language is that any sound expression (that is, anything which conveys a useful meaning following the rules of grammar) falls within the well-known Arabic literary forms of poetry and prose, which have been presented above.

o    But in the case of the Qur’an, all combinations of words, letters, and the rules between them have been exhausted, but its literary form has still not been matched.

o    So we have to consider the amazing and wonderful thing in here: Since others cannot match the style of the Qur’an, it would seem that there is no link between the Qur’an and the Arabic language [since an expression in the Arabic language is basically defined as anything that falls within such-and-such rules and formats mentioned above]. However, how can this be, when the Qur’an makes perfect sense and yet does not follow these rules? This leaves only one explanation: That the Qur’an comes from a “Divine Source”.

o    To give an example that people can understand, consider the example of ‘Isa (AS) and his bringing dead people back to life. Here, the miracle would indicate or imply that life can come back to a person in this world after they have died. But this implication of the miracle goes against what is commonly known about dead people. This is where the “Divine Source” of the miracle comes into the picture. The same can be extended to explain the other miracles given to these and to other Prophets.

o    There is one thing that certain people may bring up, which is that perhaps all the forms of Arabic had not yet been exhausted, and that Muhammad cleverly put together what he knew of pre-Islamic poetry and made up the Qur’an. But this allegation is false for various reasons:

o    As we mentioned above, the challenge of the Qur’an is an enormous thing. If Muhammad was comparing and updating the available poetic forms, he would have been scared that perhaps someone may surpass or at least equal him in this endeavor, and this would have put his life and enormous risk [we can, for this hypothetical exercise, discard what would have happened to his followers, since they would have rushed back to their original tribes].

o    Note that bringing forth something wonderful is one thing, but challenging everyone by saying that no one will be able to surpass it adds a whole new dimension to the matter. In today’s world such a thing obviously does not exist: No one sees even the greatest physicist saying that such-and-such equation I have come up with is the final answer to all the issues in our field, and that I challenge anyone to come up with a more comprehensive equation of to find something wrong in what I have derived.

o    The reader can imagine that the ego of the rest of the physicists would take over [we cannot say that ego is not an issue, since everyone would think that an inflated ego was what led to the original challenge of the physicist] and they would do their best day and night in order to find some mistake or loophole in what has been brought forth by the physicist posing the challenge. This is the analogy that people have to keep in mind when considering the miracle of the Qur’an: That the challenge was first posed to those who were the best in this field, and thereafter to everyone who came after this initial generation. But if no one is able to match the challenge, then we know that it is indeed something wondrous and truly worthy of being followed.

o    Someone may say that we are making a mistake in saying that a scientist would come and say that he “challenges” other experts in his field to prove him wrong, and that this is totally against the very spirit of science. We answer that this is exactly why the challenge and the inability of people to match this challenge are part of what makes a “Mu’jiza” so special (note that “Mu’jiza” in Arabic carries the connotation of being incapacitated due to an amazing thing, and is a more in-depth concept than merely saying it is a wondrous thing). This is because generally no one would come to openly challenge experts in a field to prove him wrong – if he did it would normally be taken as a laughing matter. But if it is seen that the challenge is no laughing matter, then the seriousness of what is being proposed has to be seriously considered.

o    Also, remember that Muhammad grew up amongst his people in a very open environment, where everyone knew the details of his life. They knew that he did not engage in poetry competitions, and that he had no interest in such endeavors, whether before or after his Prophethood. Why, some may ask? Because in many cases, the poetry was talking about trivial and/or vulgar and vile matters, and those who wish to keep their minds clean would not involve themselves in such things.

o    This also shows that the poetry was composed in order for people to show off their ability to bring words and phrases together, even though the subject matter itself was lowly.

o    Also, one more thing is there, that even after the revelation began and throughout the length of the revelation of the Qur’an, the Prophet was never inadvertently caught by anyone reciting poetry or “something like the Qur’an”. In fact, during his entire life, it was known that the Prophet did not know the rules of poetry at all, and had no interest in finding out what they were. In fact, in one occasion, the Prophet uttered something that would have been Saj’, but for the swapping of two words. When one of the Companions mentioned that the correct Saj’ would have been without the swapping, the Prophet said: “They are all the same”. This shows there was no interest at all in the composition of such types of high prose and poetry from the side of the Prophet, intensifying the extent of the miracle of the Qur’an.    

o    If someone says that perhaps other people taught the Prophet the Qur’an and that he merely was the “acceptable face” for this person or group of people, this is a very difficult thing to maintain due to the following reasons:

o    A. If someone is gaining knowledge from third-parties while trying to hide the fact that this knowledge is from the aforementioned third-parties, this is very difficult in an environment where people find out the intimate details of others quite easily. Note that the life of Muhammad is documented to a great deal of specificity, unlike say, the life of Buddha, where even his date of birth is approximate – with a tolerance level of several hundred years.

o    But in the case of Muhammad , we even know the rules of going to the toilet and how to clean one’s self in the toilet from what he taught us. There were those who would serve the Prophet even in these situations, shielding him, providing him with water, etc. It is very difficult to imagine that if every detail of his life was being watched over by his followers and companions, they would have missed the alleged meeting Muhammad had with this so-called “teachers”.

o    B. Even if we were to hypothetically accept this fabulous theory of “teachers”, it would seem incredulous that such teachers would not have sought fame and respect for themselves and their tribes. For example, imagining that there were teachers from a given tribe [different than the Banu Hashim], it would have been suicidal from their part to take potential glory and fame away from their own filial relations and passed it to another tribe [in this case, the Banu Hashim].

o    And also, imagining that Muhammad was the one who had made up the Qur’an himself, the pull to ascribe it to himself would have been enormous, since again, the huge loss to his material standards which was the result of calling unto Allah and no accepting “trades” in this regard would have been immediately turned to fame for his tribe and good material resources had it been presented as a normal literary redaction.

o    Besides, this is exactly what the challenge of the Qur’an says: It says what can be paraphrased as: Fine, if you think that Muhammad made up the Qur’an himself or with the help of ‘teachers’ or any from among the creation, then all of you are humans just like him and his alleged teachers; so you come up with something similar to the Qur’an and prove him wrong.

o    This is a very obvious matter, that if something is brought which is within the capabilities of the creation, then some others from among the creation should be able to bring something that matches it; otherwise, the original source of that first “something” has to be reconsidered by all who are addressed through this “something”, since in such a case the proof has been set on them and they are responsible for rejecting it.

o    Another aspect is that those who were around the Messenger when he received revelation could feel a physical heaviness on them. Of course, this is confirmed by the Qur’anic Ayah (the translation of which is): “We will reveal to you a heavy Qawl [lit. saying]”. This was sensually experienced, as when the camel the Prophet was riding on stopped and kneeled because revelation was descending to the Prophet .

o    We also have the incident when Zayd bin Thabit (RAA) had his thigh under the thing of the Prophet as he was writing the revelation. When a small passage of the revelation came, Zayd (RAA) said it felt as if his own thigh was about to break due to the physical heaviness of the revelation. So in both cases, one must carefully consider this fact, since it would have been impossible for these sensual feeling to be felt by others around the Prophet if it was something that he was staging or making up by himself.

o    Another matter to consider is: Whether one says that the Qur’an was made up by Muhammad or from a group of other people who were teaching him, the fact remains that human writings ebb and flow due to the cumulative expertise of the writer(s), his (or their) mood swings, etc.

o    However in the case of the Qur’an, such swings are absent, because the one from whom it originated is not affected by the loss of loved ones or friends, which would be the case with human writers. We see that even during the period of great persecution, the Qur’an’s style remained as high as it always was. And it is very difficult to physically imagine that Muhammad would slip out of Shib Abi Talib where he was confined, and get tutoring on how to come up with the newest passages of the Qur’an. In such a situation of near starvation, people are simply not in a position to think about how to write flowery prose or poetry. Even if they do write something, it would be about the huge troubles they are facing and their internal emotions in that case. But the Qur’an itself does not talk about the suffering of the Muslims in a manner concomitant to someone who is going through unbearable economic and humanitarian troubles.

The challenge in the Qur’an       

o     So the challenge, according to many commentators of the Qur’an, is to imitate the unique literary form of the Qur’an. Note that it is not simply to come up with a new literary form, since it is possible for someone to make up a new literary form in the Arabic language, yet (for example), it may be very difficult to decipher [either due to its academic dryness or to its excessive – poetry-like – fluidity and ambiguity]. Or its wording may be catered to an elite [like for example, the way scientific journals are catered to professional scientists], so it leaves out a huge chunk of humanity. So it is basically impossible within the capabilities of human beings and any other creatures to bring everything together in a new literary style.

o    What those who have tried to challenge the Qur’an have failed to do is to come up with something which: (a) Replicates the Qur’an’s literary form (b) Match the unique linguistic nature of the Qur’an (c) Select and arrange words like the Qur’an (d) Arrange the grammatical particles in a similar way (e) Match the Qur’an superior sound and eloquence (f) Equal the frequency of rhetorical devices (g) Match the level of content and informativeness (h) Match the Qur’an’s flexibility and conciseness. [I know that some of these points seem to be redundant, and that they could perhaps be merged into four or five points, but I am listing them as they appear in the original article by brother Tzortis].

o    From what can be gathered of the above, it is a combination of all these factors which grant miraculous supremacy to the Qur’an. For example, one may conceivably give a lot of information in a dissertation concerning a theological subject, but it will not be in a concise manner, because the tendency in dissertations in towards redundancy and verbosity. One can see that generally, when one tries to increase one of the qualities above, then some of the other ones will be adversely affected, since this is the way speech and writing normally arise.

o    The example of Musaylima and his own fabricated rendition of “Surah al-Feel” are briefly considered (we had in fact mentioned this in our note on ‘Matchless Eloquence: Al-Kawthar’). To recap, this so-called “Surah” fails the challenge since it is talking about trivial details of elephants, is in a “Kaahin” (soothsayer) style of speech, an the words used in this “Surah” can be replaced with better words and constructs.

o    After this, the important point is mentioned that each Chapter of the Qur’an is to be taken as having its own unique form and use of literary devices. Of course, this is something that the reader and listener of the Qur’an will quickly attest to, since there are differences in the styles of each one of the Chapters of the Qur’an, even while each individual Surah will retain its miraculous identity. This is one of the things that produced the shock in the Arabs who first heard the Qur’an, in that what was being said was basically: “You thought that you had uncovered and mastered all Arabic literary forms throughout the millennia, but here you have one new literary form, and here you have another, and another” and so forth with each new Chapter that was revealed. Of course, in many cases there was more than only one literary form in one Chapter, but here we are discussing the bare minimum level of inimitability.

o    Another list of characteristics describing the Qur’an’s inimitable eloquence is presented: (a) Use of language in order to please and persuade (b) Combination or words and expressions in the best possible verbal forms [it seems the “verbal forms” are those forms presented in higher-level lexicons. Thus, while the root letters making up the base word may have five, six, etc., “verbal forms”, choosing the correct one every time is not something that can be done haphazardly, and this is something that may not be obvious to the intermediate Arabic student, since for him the changes in meaning may be slight, while in fact they do change the efficacy of the product in different ways]. (c) Accuracy of meaning (d) Apt selection of pronouns and rhetorical devices (e) Interrelation between style, structure, and meaning.

The Qur’an is impossible to match linguistically

o    Again, mention is made that over the millennia, the speech and writings of the Arabs have always fallen within the known forms and expressions of the Arabic language. What some might say is that new literary forms in Arabic have indeed come up, so how can this fact be overlooked as we argue for the Qur’an?

o    We say that even the new literary genres that have come up from time to time suffer from the deficiencies inherent in human writing: For example, if they were poetry-based forms, then the meanings of such writings are very difficult to decipher due to the natural tendency of poetry to be flowery at the expense of clarity in the usage of words. And so on with other forms of Arabic literature that may be said to have been “invented”, even if one or the other aspect is ingenious, yet the comprehensive perfection in literature, wherein the pinnacle of each genre is selected while its negative qualities are weeded out, has not been reached. Rather, such “new forms” have largely stayed within the hierarchical substructure of the “old forms”.

o    Next is an excerpt from the famous Egyptian writer Taha Husayn, where he says that the Qur’an is not poetry, nor is it prose, but it is its own literary form, the “Qur’anic Literary Form”. It is important that Taha Husayn is specifically mentioned, since he was the one who published a work saying that the existence of “pre-Islamic poetry” was a latter-day fabrication. But we see that even if we were to accept such an obviously wrong hypothesis, Taha Husayn still maintained that the Qur’an’s style was unique and could not be matched by anything else in the world of Arabic literature.

Is the Qur’an poetry?

o    After this, the question becomes, is the Qur’an poetry, and if not, what are the reasons why we maintain that it is not poetry? The answer is that none of the Surahs, in their totality, conforms to any of the “Bihar”, that is, its syllabic rhythmical pattern [their Wazn, etc.] does not conform to any of these established patterns [which had been presented above – note that the definition of poetry is anything which falls into these sixteen Bihaar, since anything outside of that was termed of an inferior quality and was not to be honored with the term “poetry”]. The example of Surah al-Kawthar is provided, and we know from a comparison with the forms of poetry that it does not fall into any of these patterns.

o    So some people may say that alright then, this Surah should then be “Mursal” speech (that is, straightforward speech). But this is also wrong, since consider the (transliterated) text of the Chapter: [Inna a’tayna kal kawthar * Fasalli li rabbika wanhar * Inna shani-aka huwal abtar]. There is rhyme and rhythm, unlike straightforward speech… the rhyme is achieved through the use of “ar” at the end of each Verse, while the rhythm is achieved through the “ka” within each Verse. Of course, the use of (for example) the “ka” is not random, since it is also used in order to connect the three Verses to the person of the Prophet . Additionally, there are many other aspects of this Verse – such as its predictive details- that are to be considered, but here we are just discussing the rhythm and rhyme to show that it is not “Mursal” speech.

Is the Qur’an rhymed prose (saj’)?

o    So then the question may shift as to whether the Qur’an is rhymed prose (Saj’). But the Qur’an has its own unique form, so it is also not of the same genre as the normal prose that may be found in other works of literature. There are in fact 3 opinions about how the Qur’an achieves its own unique literary form (brother Tzortzis calls it rhymed prose or Saj’, I will need to ask about this. I have myself read some things about this, but a definite comment cannot be given from my side at the present.)

o    First, is the fusing together of metrical and non-metrical speech, which is present in the entirety of the Qur’an, but absent in other Arabic texts. Second, the Qur’an transcends Saj’ even though it has certain features that are similar to Saj’. Specifically, these are as follows:

o    a) There is a greater tendency for mono-rhyme (i.e. its ‘rhyming scheme’ conforms to a few rhymes rather than a selection of many rhymes) b) But the Qur’an does not conform to a particular style, since the use of language in the Qur’an is driven by the meaning, in contrast to the work of poets, where the words and phrases are used for the purpose of sound and rhythm itself rather than the message. c) The Qur’an has a greater range of short and long saj’aat [i.e. divisions or single phrases of saj’]. d) The Qur’an exhibits a very high frequency of rhetorical features, in this respect surpassing any other Arabic-language text. The examples of this are as follows (type of feature, brief description, followed by the Verse number where this occurs):

o    i. Alliteration, which is the repeating of the same consonant sound with several words in close succession, as we see in Verse 33:71 (with the letters kum (كم)), and in Verse 77:20 (with the letter meem (م)).

o    ii. Analogy, a comparison between two words or phrases to highlight semantic similarity; this is seen between Verses 88:15 and 88:16, and Verses 93:9 and 93:10.

o    iii. Antiphrasis, a figure of speech used to mean the opposite of its literal meaning, often times to create a sense of irony, as in Verses 44:48-49.

o    iv. Antithesis, a counterproposition denoting a direct contrast to the original proposition, as in Verse 35:7.

o    v. Asyndeton, where conjunctions have been deliberately omitted from a series of clauses, and in some cases the subject matter changes within the same Verse without any linkage, as in Verse 13:2.

o    vi. Assonance, when vowel sounds are made to recur in order to give rise to internal rhyming within the Verses, as is seen in Verses 88:25-26.

o    vii. Cadence, which is the rhythmic rise or fall of the voice when the text is read aloud through the use of assonance and especially phonetic devices such as assimilation, nasalization, etc. As those who know Tajweed can attest, there are a large number of rules related to these phonetic devices, and in Arabic texts, it is only in the Qur’an that we have a science of Tajweed.

o    viii. Chiasmus, when two or more clauses are related through a reversal of structures in order to make a larger point, as in Verse 3:27.

o    ix. Epizenxis, which is the repetition of words in immediate succession in order to emphasize the intended point, as in Verses 94: 5-6.

o    x. Equivoque, where a term is used with a sense other than its normal one, such as when the mention of mountains is made in Verse 24:43 (these Verses are actually talking about clouds, hail, and rain, but the mountains are mentioned to call attention to the description of the clouds).

o    xi. Homonymy, where one word is repeated within the same Verse in order to highlight the different meanings it can possess within the context of that Verse; we see one example of this in Verse 3:54.

o    xii. Hyperbole, where the statements are deliberately exaggerated in order to make a point, as in Verses 7:40 and 33:10.

o    xiii. Isocolon, which is a feature where parallelism is reinforced, as seen in Verses 65:7-10.

o    xiv. Metaphor, where two things are compared, while they may not be placed side-by-side in normal circumstances; this is seen in a number of places in the Qur’an, such as Verses 25:23 and 17:23-24.

o    xv. Metonymy: The thing or concept is not called by its name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept, as in Verse 54:13.

o    xvi. Palindrome, which is a word or phrase that can be read both forwards and backwards, as in Verse 74:3.

o    xvii. Parenthesis, which is the insertion of an explanatory or qualifying word into a passage, while it does not necessarily have a grammatical connection with the rest of the passage, as in Verse 7:42.

o    xviii. Polyptoton, when words are derived from the same root and repeated, as we see in Verses 80:25-26 [from the roots ص ب ب and ش ق ق respectively].

o    xix. Rhetorical questions, which are questions posed not for the expectation of a reply, but rather posed for their persuasive effect. In such types of questions, the listener is invited to ponder concerning the obvious answer. We see this employed many times in the Qur’an, like in Verses 55:60, 37:91, and many others.

o    xx. Synecdoche: This is when a part of something is mentioned in order to refer to the whole thing. For example, in Verse 90:13, ‘raqaba’ (neck) refers to a slave, and the act of charitableness is likened to a steep path in the previous Verse (90:12). It is also interesting to consider that Verse 90:13 maintains its rhyme with Verse 12, while both apply this synecdoche device.

o    3. Qur’anic bound stylistic variations, and this can be seen from the following list (which is only a small view of the whole range in this topic): 1. Semantically driven assonance and rhyme. 2. Grammatical shifts (known as Iltifaat) 3. Interrelation between sound, structure, and meaning. 4. Choice of words 5. Unique linguistic genre 6. Word order.

o    Just to illustrate this, we can consider the difference in the endings of Surah al-Baqarah: 187 (‘These are the limits set by God, so do not approach them), and Surah al-Baqarah: 229 (‘These are the limits set by God, so do not transgress them’).

o    Both are stylistically the same, but in the first case ‘approach’ has been used, since the prohibition (having intimate relations during I’tikaaf inside the Masjid) is a huge sin, so the ‘approaches’ to this sin must be blocked. In the second example, it is in the context of divorce, which is a permitted action, so care should be taken with regards to transgressing the bounds. We also see that matters related to intimacy quickly escalate to more and more serious things very quickly due to the nature of sexual desires within man, while the matter of ‘divorce’ is seen as a very serious thing the world over, and decisions about ‘divorce’ are not made as lightly as decisions concerning sexual intercourse and its related matters, and this could also be a reason for ‘approaching’ to be mentioned ino ne Verse and ‘transgressing’ in another.

How are stylistic variations unique to the Qur’an?

o    These variations can be noticed from a number of examples, such as the following:

o    Example 1: Word order, sound, and meaning. From Verses 3:3-4, we see that the word ‘anzala’ has been repeated and the word ‘al-furqaana’ has been placed at the end. If someone were to rearrange it so that one ‘anzala’ is removed and instead the word ‘al-furqaana’ is placed in the middle of the construction, it would seem to convey the exact same meaning and effect at first glance.

o    But this second arrangement has an effect on the rhythm and a disturbance occurs in the meaning. This is because in the Qur’anic sentence, the repetition of the word ‘anzala’ and the placement of the word ‘al-furqaana’ are done so as to convey that the Criterion is indeed a Divine scripture, and that it is the last scripture to mankind – both of these would have been missing had the structure changed just a little (as was done above).

o    Example 2: Grammatical shift (iltifaat). There is an extensive usage of grammatical shifts in the Qur’an; these include changes in person, number, addressee, tense, case marker, etc. One example is seen in Verse 4:114, where the Verse changes from speaking about Allah in the third person to Allah Himself speaking in the first person.

o    Surah al-Kawthar in all of its three Verses provides another example of this theme. In here there is a shift from the first person ‘We’ to the second person ‘your Lord’ and finally to the third person singular ‘(he) is the one cut off’. The change is not haphazard, but when considering the shift seen from the first to the second Verse, we see this is for the purpose of consoling the Prophet by an indication of Allah’s love, closeness, and intimacy towards him .

o    One big thing we see from the use of these ‘shifts’, is that their use is quite extensive and complex in the Qur’an, and it uses Iltifaat much more than Arabic poetry. It is also quite amazing to note that most of the references in prose (letters or speeches) are from the Qur’an itself.

o    Example 3: Qur’anic precision. The example presented is that we see that normally in the Qur’an, the name of Allah al-Ghafoor (the Forgiving) will precede the name Ar-Raheem (the Merciful) whenever the two are mentioned one after the other.

o    However, in Verse 34:2 this sequence in inverted. If we were to read the Verse, we would discover that there is a sort of ‘parallelism’ being presented here, of the things that go into the Earth and those things that descend from the sky to the Earth on the one hand, and the things that come out from the Earth and the things that ascend to the sky from the Earth on the other. The first category is tied to Allah’s Mercy, and the second is tied to Allah’s Forgiveness. So in order to maintain the correct sequence and balance, Allah’s Mercy is mentioned first and then His Forgiveness.

o    Example 4: Maintenance of Rhythm. This can be seen in the consideration of the story of Musa and Haroon (AS) in Surah Taha (of course, this is just one of many examples). In all the other instances where these two Prophet (AS) are mentioned in the Qur’an, Musa’s name precedes Haroon’s (AS), but in Surah Taha, the sequence is inverted, in order to maintain rhythm – and this has to do with the linguistic proficiency inherent in the Qur’an, of being able to relate the same story in different ways and with the concomitant different rhymes and styles that are related to each different way. Note that it is not as some people falsely assume, that the Qur’an is unsure as to whether Musa or Haroon (AS) was the greater from among the Prophets, for the higher position is indubitably for Musa (AS).

o    And this statement in here is also not in contradiction to what is mentioned in certain other parts of the Qur’an, that the magicians said they believed in the Lord of Musa and Haroon (AS) (that is, in this order). From among what is mentioned in the exegesis, we see that there were multiple magicians, and it is not established that literally all of them said only one phrase. Rather, some of them may have said the first saying and some of them may have uttered the second saying, and thus there is no contradiction. Or it could also simply be a case that one of these statements was mentioned in one instance during this gathering and the other statement was mentioned in a later instance, and again the contradiction does not remain.

o    Example 5: Singular and plural words. We see that in certain cases, the use of words in their plural or singular numbers give a subtle indication of the desired meaning. For example, in Surah 2:7, Allah mentioned the covering on the hearts and eyes of the disbelievers [and in here the plural form of the nouns are used], but (the noun) related to hearing is in the singular.

o    The reason for this is that the thing that is heard from the Messenger (SAW) (i.e. the revealed truth) is one, but the eyes may see different signs in the world pointing towards Allah, and likewise the hearts will interpret things differently from person to person (note that this is an explanation from another Tafseer of this Verse, not from brother Hamza’s work).

o    In any case, what is mentioned by the brother about this subtlety being lost in translation is totally correct, since if one were to translate this phrase precisely (so as to bring out this distinction between plural and singular), it would seem very awkward in English, while in Arabic all of this is packed within the words themselves and can be discerned by the ones who know Arabic well.

o    Another similar point is seen from Surah ash-Shu’araa (Chapter No. 26) where the people that the mentioned Messenger was sent to to were said to have denied the Messengers. In here the lesson is that denying one Messenger is like denying all of the Messengers, since all of them come from Allah with the same fundamental message.

o    Example 6: Qur’anic imagery and word choice. There are many instances where the Qur’an used one word instead of a synonym, and this word enhances the description in the text during recitation. This is what we see in Verse 22:31, where the violent imagery of how the disbelievers’ spiritual situation has become promotes the use of a word that is ‘heavy’ in its ending. We see then, that the word used in here is ‘Saheeq’ instead of ‘Ba’eed’ or some other word with the similar dictionary meaning of ‘remote’ or ‘far-off’ but with a different phonetic effect.

o    Or another example is from the ending of Surah Maryam (Verse 19:98) where the sounds of the letters (ه), (س), and (ز) (the ‘h’, ‘s’, and ‘z’ sounds) are incorporated into the meaning of silence on the part of those disbelieving nations that have been destroyed by Allah – this would seem to be related to onomatopoeia, but on a much more complex scale than what we see in many of the common examples.

o    Example 7: The challenge. In here, what is mentioned is a number of concentrated literary devices seen in Surah al-Kawthar, which include: a) Emphasis and choice of pronouns (why the first Verse starts with the plural first person). b) its choice of words (why a’tayn is used instead of aataaina’). c) The arrangement of words (why the word al-Kawthar is placed at the ending of a Verse), and d) Multiple meanings for the word al-Kawthar and how it relates to the message of the Chapter.

o    I do not want to get too deep into writing the full explanation given in here, since I have dealt with this matter on this page, and whoever wishes can refer to it.

o    I will just conclude these notes here by pointing out that the theologians and linguists have mentioned that the Qur’an does not contain ordinary saj’, but is unique to all types of saj’. As I had mentioned before, the use of language in the Qur’an, even while maintaining its rhythm, is semantically oriented, while in prose or poetry, the main objective is to conform to the intended style.

o    And we must remember that the topics of the Qur’an are indeed very numerous, and that no book has ever been produced by humans containing such concentrated linguistic beauty, rhythm, thematic coherence, theological and practical legal pronouncements.

o    Of course, the proper way to understand this miracle first hand (in a way that would truly appeal to the senses) is to endeavor to learn Arabic at an expert level, which is not easy, since it includes the knowledge of advanced Balaaghah, while many modern-day Arabs themselves have trouble even reading texts in classical Arabic, let alone writing in flowery classical Arabic. So the work for people like us who hope for advancement in this respect is ‘cut out for us’.

o    But, if we can reach at least a medium level of proficiency in Arabic, then we can consult the existing books in Arabic written by linguists and scholars that discuss these issues, and we may hopefully someday reach the level where we can identify the pearls of beauty within the Qur’an by ourselves (i.e. have independent proficiency in this regard). May Allah help us all in this endeavor, strengthen our hearts, and make us die in a state of Imaan.


[1] We know about some of the controversies that surround a number of brother Tzortzis’ writings in terms of its comparison with classical Islamic scholarship. Insha Allah we will comment upon this as a starting point, and if there is a requirement presented later from the ‘Ulamaa telling us that it is advisable to heavily edit or remove this work, then we will do so accordingly.

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