The Literary Magnificence of the Qur’an
Usually when one thinks of literature the medium of writing comes to mind. Many non Muslims are unaware that the Qur’an was not originally delivered to its first audience in the form of writing, but rather speech. There is a fundamental difference between written and oral communication. Certainly with live, unplanned oral discourse, you don’t have the benefit of the editorial process. Whereas when it comes to publishing written works, you do not release the first draft. The writing process generally involves proof reading, review, corrections and the removal of redundancy before any respectable author considers their work to be in a fit state for public consumption.
To reiterate, the entire Qur’an was first delivered to its audience, a mixture of believers and non believers, in the form of speech. We know from pre-Islamic history that the Arabs were keen on scrutinising each other’s poetic efforts. So Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had a tough audience. In addition the Qur’an often did not have the opportunity for an editorial process, as many verses were revealed on the spot as a response to questions and challenges that were brought forward to Prophet Muhammad from both believers and non believers. Moreover, although the Qur’an was revealed gradually over a period of 23 years, it did not go through multiple revisions as it was revealed. This is in contrast to the New Testament which has undergone numerous corrections as the manuscripts were passed from one scribe to another and they decided to correct each other’s mistakes. So had any mistakes or errors crept into the Qur’an, it would have been extremely difficult to correct or retract them given the rapid and mass spread of the Qur’an to multiple tribes and countries. Finally, Prophet Muhammad did not have a reputation for poetry. In fact there is evidence indicating that at a personal level he wasn’t a skilled poet.
In the face of all these obstacles, one would naturally expect the Qur’an to exhibit traits of incoherence, contradictions, redundancy, errors and other such issues. As we will see, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What we are going to take a look at are a few examples of what makes the Qur’an a literary masterpiece against all odds.
In the chapter of the Qur’an known as Maryam (Mary), there are sudden changes in the rhyming scheme (click on picture to enlarge):
Notice that the pattern for the verse endings are “-a” from the beginning of the chapter all the way up to and including the 33rd verse. The subject of these verses are the prophets with themes of monotheism. The 34th verse suddenly switches to an ending of “-oon”. This verse and the few that follow it divert the subject to the disbelievers. The 41st verse onwards bring the subject back to the prophets and monotheism, resuming the “-a” ending pattern up to the end of the chapter, the 98th verse. What is the purpose of breaking this pattern? This change in pattern represents the audio equivalent of a footnote in written literature. The Qur’an instilled the footnote in the Arabic listener via this change in rhyme scheme. You know that the original subject is continuing from where it left off by the return to the “-a” ending pattern. This was a device that had never been used before in Arabic poetry.
Allah has not made for a man two hearts in his interior. And He has not made your wives whom you declare unlawful your mothers. And he has not made your adopted sons your [true] sons. That is [merely] your saying by your mouths, but Allah says the truth, and He guides to the [right] way. [Qur’an, chapter 33, verse 4]
Allah stated that He has not placed two hearts into any man. This statement is therefore to the exclusion of women. This is in spite of the fact that women are spoken about in this very verse. Had Allah said that He has not placed two hearts inside of any human being, or any person, then women would have been included. But then there would be an issue if this verse were to be interpreted literally, as women can have two or more hearts inside them when they are pregnant and carrying a baby.
Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein many contradictions. [Qur’an, chapter 4, verse 82]
There are two methods of examining whether the Qur’an is what it claims to be, depending on how one chooses to interpret the above words.
The first involves reading the whole book, verifying that the information present in it contains no contradictions and then passing a verdict. This is the clear and apparent meaning of the verse.
The second method is much simpler. If one wanted to be devilish then they would not to look to the apparent meanings of the words, but rather to treat them as abstract logical terms. With this in mind they would interpret the verse as follows:
Do they not consider the Qur’an (with care)? Had it been from other than Allah, they would surely have found therein many [occurrences of the word] contradictions. [Qur’an, chapter 4, verse 82]
In other words, if the word ‘contradictions’ (in original Arabic the grammatical accusative form “ikhtilafan”) occurs more than once in the Qur’an, then the Qur’an is from other than Allah. What we find is that the other forms of the word in Arabic occur in many places throughout the Qur’an. But the form ‘contradictions’ occurs only once in total – the very verse that we are analysing.
But wait, we can take it a step further. Note the order of the following statements as we find them within the verse:
… Had it been from other than Allah → they would surely have found therein many contradictions.
Had it been written the other way around as follows:
… If you find therein many contradictions → then it is from other than Allah.
Then this would not be logically robust, as this very verse contains a mention of “many contradictions” and therefore we conclude that it is from other than Allah! So to summarise, the verse itself is logically robust from every conceivable interpretation.
One might think that this is an isolated case, yet here is another verse which exhibits similar properties:
Leave Me and him whom I created alone (wahidan) [Qur’an, chapter 74, verse 11]
The word ‘wahidan’ means “alone”. How many times is the word “alone” in the Qur’an? The answer is once, in this verse, so it is literally alone.
Thus We have appointed you (Muslims) a middle (wasatan) nation, that ye may be witnesses against mankind, and that the messenger may be a witness against you… [Qur’an, chapter 2, verse 143]
The second chapter of the Qur’an, known as al-Baqarah, consists of a total of 286 verses. The verse quoted above is the 143rd verse within the chapter. One of the meanings of the word ‘wasatan’ is “middle”. So this statement about the Muslims being a “middle” nation occurs exactly in the middle of the chapter.
“(O Muslims) Your (real) friends are Allah, His Messenger [Muhammad], and the (Fellowship Of) Believers, those who establish regular prayers and regular charity, and they bow down humbly (in worship). [Qur’an, chapter 5, verse 55]
Hypocrites, those who professed Islam publicly but inwardly were disbelievers, were living amongst the ranks of the true Muslim believers at the time this verse was revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It was very difficult to distinguish the hypocrites from the true believers based on outward appearance and actions, as they prayed and performed other acts of worship publicly just like the true believers.
Note the order of the following statements as we find them within the verse:
… the (Fellowship Of) Believers → those who establish regular prayers and regular charity
Had it been written the other way around as follows:
… Those who establish regular prayers and regular charity → (are) the (Fellowship Of) Believers
Then the implication would be that the all disbelieving hypocrites are true believers, because they prayed and gave charity! But Allah chose the perfect order for the words within the verse, the true believers are those that pray and give charity.
Verily, the likeness of Jesus before Allah is the likeness of Adam. He created him from dust, then He said to him: “Be!” – and he was. [Qur’an, chapter 3, verse 59]
Notice that God Almighty tells us that Jesus Christ, like Adam, was created without a father. This is the Islamic argument; that Jesus cannot be regarded as divine simply because he had no father, because if that holds true, then Adam must also be considered divine as he had neither a father nor a mother.
What is interesting is that this connection between Jesus and Adam is not merely confined to the meaning of the verse as explained above. This connection even exists with regards to the various mentions of both Jesus and Adam in the Qur’an.
To explain further, if we look for the word ‘Jesus’ in the Qur’an, we find that it is mentioned 25 times in total. Similarly, if we look at the mention of ‘Adam’ in the Qur’an, we find, again, that it is mentioned exactly 25 times.
Perhaps just a coincidence? We can take this analysis a step further. The above verse (“Verily, the likeness of Jesus before Allah is the likeness of Adam…”) is the only verse in the Qur’an where both Jesus and Adam were mentioned together. In no other verse do the two names meet; this gives the verse a pivotal importance in our discussion. The number of times the word ‘Adam’ is mentioned from the beginning of the Qur’an up to this pivot verse is 6 times, just like the word ‘Jesus’ which is also mentioned 6 times!
To better illustrate this, each of the 25 verses mentioning Jesus and Adam are listed below in their order of appearance in the Qur’an (click on picture to enlarge):
And [mention, O Muhammad], when Moses said to his people, “O my people, why do you harm me while you certainly know that I am the messenger of Allah to you?” And when they deviated, Allah caused their hearts to deviate. And Allah does not guide the defiantly disobedient people. And [mention] when Jesus, the son of Mary, said, “O children of Israel, indeed I am the messenger of Allah to you confirming what came before me of the Torah and bringing good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.” But when he came to them with clear evidences, they said, “This is obvious magic.” [Qur’an, chapter 61, verses 5-6]
Prophet Moses was sent to the Israelites, as was Prophet Jesus. Even though there was a long span of time between the two prophets, they are addressing the same people, the Israelites.
Notice that when Moses addresses the Israelites, he says “My Nation”. Whereas Jesus says “Sons of Israel”. In Semitic tradition, identity is given by the father. The nation itself is named after the father. According to Biblical tradition Israel is another name for Prophet Jacob. In the same way that we are referred to as Children of Adam, not Eve. This is natural in most societies as the surname is acquired from the father. To be from a nation your father should also be from that nation.
So when Moses says, “My Nation”, he’s actually saying that my father is from among you. But never in the Qur’an do we find Jesus saying “My Nation”, every time he addresses the Israelites he says “Sons of Israel”. This is because he does’t have a father, his birth was miraculous through the virgin Mary. Amazingly this kind of precision is present throughout the Qur’an.
Two very similar verses appear in the 6th and 17th chapters of the Qur’an:
“and do not kill your children because of poverty, We provide for you and them” [Qur’an, chapter 6, verse 151]
“and do not kill your children due to fear of poverty, We provide for them and for you” [Qur’an, chapter 17, verse 31]
At first glance it may appear that there is duplication and therefore redundant information. It turns out that there is a subtle difference in the wording due to the different contexts of the two verses:
– In the first verse, Allah refers to a reason that already exists in the present, poverty.
– In the second verse, Allah mentions fear, which is something that might happen in the future but doesn’t exist yet.
So, there are different contexts, two types of parents mentioned in these verses:
– Those who are already poor in the present.
– Those who fear poverty after children in the future.
When Allah speaks to the first group of parents, who are already worried about themselves, He promises that they will be taken care of.
When He addresses the second group, those whose fear is associated with having children, Allah mentions that He will take care of the children, and He will take care of you (the parents).
In literature, aesthetics and structure are often at odds. For example one might write a poem that sounds pleasing to the ears but has a lot of repetition, so its aesthetics far outweigh its structure. It’s difficult to tailor your literature around one without compromising the other. What is remarkable is that whenever Allah employs these rhetorical devices and linguistic nuances it does not degrade the Qur’an’s poetic beauty. Amazingly the Qur’an never compromises on either.
“Say: ‘If all mankind and the jinn would come together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce its like even though they exerted all and their strength in aiding one another.’” [Qur’an, chapter 17, verse 88]
There were numerous literary experts in Arabia at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an who devoted their entire lives to their craft. They were unable to bring anything like the Qur’an. Some of them did not even attempt it, because as soon as they heard the Qur’an it was an uncontested defeat.
What the reader must appreciate is that the examples given above are just a few. Every page of the Qur’an is literally filled with such rhetorical devices and literary nuances. So it is reasonable to conclude they are present by design rather than coincidence. Some sceptics of Islam argue against Muhammad’s Prophethood by stating that he invented the Qur’an himself and claimed it was divine in origin in order to gain power and influence in Arabia. For the sake of argument, were a human being able to craft a literary work of the magnitude of the Qur’an, then surely they would mention examples like those discussed above. In a land filled with poets, where poetry was highly valued, a conman would surely use these examples as they would have been the perfect claim to fame. The refutation is that Prophet Muhammad never mentioned these literary examples in his own lifetime! He did not say: ‘look this verse, it contains so and so, become Muslim!’ This was discovered by the scholars of Qur’anic exegesis centuries later.
Source: Many Prophets, One Message – The Literary Magnificence of the Qur’an.