Objection: ‘The inability of someone to bring up something like the Qur’an is not proof that it is actually inimitable’

Someone may say that the inability of someone to bring up something like the Qur’an is not proof that it is actually inimitable, only that it has not yet been done. According to such people, from a scientific viewpoint of potential falsifiability, the inimitability of the Qur’an can never be proven, since the possibility of its being imitated always remains open. They further say that if the main premise of Islam is unproven and unprovable (due to the above-mentioned potential falsifiability, differences as to what constitutes eloquence, and other issues), how can any Muslim expect others to convert to Islam. How do we respond to this claim?

Answered by Sharif Randhawa (Researcher at Bayyinah Institute, owner of Qur’anic Musings blog), with slight modifications

First of all, it is a fallacy to claim that in order for something to warrant belief, it must be scientifically testable or falsifiable.  (This is the fallacy of positivism or scientism.)  Anyone who has studied basic epistemology knows that this is only one way something can be known.  Fields like history, archaeology, literary criticism, ethics, metaphysics, logic, epistemology, and aesthetics could not exist if that were the case, and there would be no way of acquiring knowledge about these areas.

Appreciation and criticism of classical Arabic literature, including the Qur’an, is not purely subjective but is not purely scientific either—it includes aspects of both.  For example, there were well-known conventions of Arabic literature and rhetoric that can be studied academically.  This is a well-established field that involves the study of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and assonance, lexical choice, syntax, and various kinds of literary devices.  Moreover, I see no reason why it is not theoretically possible to document examples of linguistic phenomena in the Qur’an that exceed human capacity— though in my opinion more work has to be done on this topic.  At the same time, a full appreciation of the Qur’an’s rhetorical power requires many years of study of classical Arabic to the point that one acquires a taste of what is considered beautiful and ingenious in the world of classical Arabic.  In its milieu, the Qur’anic recitation was not something whose rhetorical power was studied, but experienced.  That experience is what produced in people, including the greatest litterateurs and literary critics, the conviction that this work was not a product of human invention—much less that of an unlettered person like Muhammad ﷺ—nor the “supernatural” yet ecstatic utterings of soothsayer-poets, but a different class of literature altogether.

To give an analogy, no one with any credible knowledge of literature would claim that Dr. Seuss is equal to or superior to Shakespeare in literary merit.  The falsity of this claim would be obvious even to an average literate person who was to read parts of both, even if he does not know anything of the methods of literary criticism.  Yet the falsity of this claim could also be demonstrated beyond doubt and with little effort by using the methods of literary analysis derived by scholars.  Therefore, the literary superiority of Shakespeare is something that is primarily meant to be directly experienced rather than tested, but it is something that can be easily tested in many cases as well.  I use this rough example primarily to show why literary comparisons are theoretical possible, not how they are to be made with the Qur’an in particular.

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4 thoughts on “Objection: ‘The inability of someone to bring up something like the Qur’an is not proof that it is actually inimitable’

  1. But what exactly does it mean that the Prophet was “unlettered”? Although the styles of the Quran and hadith are worlds apart, it is conspicuous from the hadith how well versed in the Arabic language and how eloquent he was (which is ironically one of the things we take pride in as believers in him as a prophet). And the Arabs were mostly illiterate (i.e. unable to read and write) at the time, anyway, weren’t they? When Gabriel told him “iqra’,” which in the context of the Quran should mean “recite” rather than “read something written,” he replied that he was not one to do so. So what does this all mean and how is it relevant to the Prophet’s inability to rustle up the Quran?

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  2. Good question! I haven’t explored this question of the Prophet’s (ﷺ) illiteracy in any depth and admit there is some controversy surrounding it. The Qur’anic evidence does not seem totally unambiguous either, given the debate surrounding the term ummi—which, again, I have not looked into yet. The claim that the Prophet was illiterate does not imply that he was ignorant or lacked wisdom, sagacity, or eloquence, and we should be careful not to exaggerate his unlearnedness or portray him as completely ignorant in his society. That is clearly not the case, since he had the skills of a merchant, an arbiter, a diplomat, and a military leader. It certainly does preclude that he was, whatever the extent of his illiteracy, capable of producing something of the level of design required by the Qur’an.

    Putting the question of the Prophet’s ability to read or write aside, the least can be said though is that he did not have any formal education or background in poetry, literature, or certainly scripture, as the Qur’an says, “and you did not recite before it from any scripture” (29:48). (If the Prophet had been known to have an education in scripture, the Qur’an would not have been able to make that argument.) As Raymond Farrin, a scholar of Classical Arabic literature, says at the end of his book Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation, “we are presented with the case of someone who, through forty years of life, had shown no special inclination to literature (he was a merchant). Suddenly he began coming forth, in the context of an extraordinarily rich literary tradition, with what has always been regarded as completely beyond compare, inimitable. So much can be said positively” (p. 74). The level of literary sophistication the Qur’an shows in terms of its structure, style, word choice, and many other aspects of rhetoric, as well as the immense familiarity it shows with Jewish and Christian traditions (including the Pentateuch, the Prophetic writings, the Historical Books, the Writings, the Pseudepigrapha, the Canonical Gospels, Apocryphal Gospels, the Talmud, the Midrashim, the Syriac Christian writers, etc.) certainly precludes the idea that it was produced by someone lacking a thorough formal education in these fields. Beyond all this, the claim for the Qur’an is that even the most literate and eloquent of people could produce something of the nature of its suras, from a literary perspective.

    On the question of literacy in the Hijaz, the Qur’an, 2:282, indicates that scribes were generally used when there was a need to record a transaction. This indicates that there was a fair degree of literacy present, though writing usually occurred through the medium of a scribe. Poets also utilized written notes in their performances, and historical sources make reference to other written documents. Nonetheless, both reading and writing were of course skills that had to be acquired through training, which was not available for everyone.

    The tradition about the first revelation is usually understood to mean that the Prophet thought the command iqra’ meant “read,” as in from a written text, while Gabriel’s actual intent was “recite.”

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  3. That’s very insightful. Thank you very much.

    “Beyond all this, the claim for the Qur’an is that even the most literate and eloquent of people could produce something of the nature of its suras, from a literary perspective.”

    You mean “could not produce,” right?

    So, as for the first revelation, does that mean that God intentionally used that double entendre so as to make the Prophet directly tell us that he was illiterate?

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  4. “You mean “could not produce,” right?”

    Yes.

    “So, as for the first revelation, does that mean that God intentionally used that double entendre so as to make the Prophet directly tell us that he was illiterate?”

    Maybe. Allahu a`lam.

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