Responses to Islamic Awareness

What Is The Challenge Of The Qur'an With Respect To Arabic Prose & Poetry?


In this article, the "Islamic Awareness" team attempts to defend the Qurānic challenge - that none can produce "a sūrah like it". The article begins with an informative discussion of Arabic poetry, and then tells us:

So, the challenge, as cAbdur Rahîm Green mentions, is to produce in Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen al-Bihār, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers [Emphasis is ours], and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook. Indeed

The Qur'ân is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of sajc, and both are rhymed, while some verses have a similarity to Rajaz in its vigour and rapidity. But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category.[4]

Quotes provided by the "Islamic Awareness" team must also be placed in the context in which they were written. In this case, Beeston, Johnstone, Serjeant and Smith were quoting Mubarak's Nathr. The authors agree that the Qur'an is in a literary category of its own. However, on pages 196-197, they tell us:

The Qur'an is written throughout in rhyming prose (saj'), and appears therefore, to a greater or lesser extent, artistically constructed and strongly rhetorical in comparison with ordinary prose. The individual parts of a sentence, the sentence or combination of sentences which end with a rhyme and are called verses (ayah, plural ayat) follow the rhyme scheme a-a, b-b, c-c. The same rhyme is repeated not only once but as often as the author pleases, e.g. a-a-a, b-b, c-c-c-c (surah ci). Short surahs sometimes have only one rhyme. Ideally, as in the earliest surahs, the rhymes follow in rapid succession at fairly equal intervals; this also seems to have been the case with the rhymes of the ancient Arabic soothsayers. (Presumably the Prophet in fact adopted the alternation of short rhyme sequences from the practice of these soothsayers ...). In the surahs from the latter years of Muhammad's career the verses lengthen increasingly, and the rhymes no longer have the effect of rhetorically enlivening elements, but sound monotonous and often forced, as though they have been added later.

On page 198, we are told:

A large number of early pronouncements in the Qur'an are introduced by strange oaths, or rather asseverations, a stylistic device which Muhammad in all probability copied from the old Arabic soothsayers.

What Do The Orientalists Say About The Inimitability Of The Qur'ān?

The "Islamic Awareness" team provides us with several quotes from H.A.R. Gibb which cast a favorable light on the style of the Qur'an. They establish his credibility by stating:

The famous Arabist from University of Oxford, Hamilton Gibb was open upon about the style of the Qur'ān.

H.A.R. Gibb indeed admired the literary merits of the Qur'an :

Though to be sure, the question of literary merit is one not to be judged on a priori grounds but in relation to the genius of the Arabic language; and no man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep-toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect as Mohammed did. (Mohammedanism; an historical survey, London, New York, Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 37)

However, Gibb was indeed "open" about the style when he said, on the previous page (36) :

In the earliest period of his preaching Mohammed's utterances were delivered in a sinewy oracular style cast into short rhymed phrases, often obscure and sometimes preceded by one or more formal oaths. This style is admittedly that of the ancient kahins or Arabian oracle-mongers, and it is not surprising that Mohammed's opponents should have charged him with being just another such kahin. For this and other reasons his style gradually loosened out into a simpler but still rhetorical prose; and as social denunciations and eschatological visions passed into historical narrative, and that in turn at Medina into legislation and topical addresses, little was left of its original stylistic features but a loose rhyme or assonance marking the end of each verse, now anything from ten to sixty words long.

Is The Bible Inimitable?

The "Islamic Awareness" team correctly points out that the Bible does not claim "stylistic perfection", (but conclude by attacking the Bible for, what they see, as a lack of "stylistic perfection"!) and make their standard attacks against the Bible, especially the issue of text variants - which is discussed here.

The "Islamic Awareness" argument suffers from the logical fallacy of style over substance. God spoke through His Prophets, and the Bible records God's relationship with His creation. Unlike Muhammad, God's Prophets showed us signs in the form of miracles and prophecies to authenticate their Prophetic credentials. Muhammad performed no miracles (according to the Qur'an) and was notorious for his false prophecies. Also, God's Prophets did not go into trances and convulsions when God gave them revelation. This behavior was common among shamans, and among some modern-day false prophets of the "New Age" Movement.

Muhammad was no Prophet, but he did understand the power of words. Those who want to use aspects of eloquence as criteria for determining the spiritual validity and value of a text, should ponder these words of Muhammad:

Narrated Abdullah bin Umar:

Two men came from the East and addressed the people who wondered at their eloquent speeches On that Allah's Apostle said. "Some eloquent speech is as effective as magic." Bukhari Volume 7, Book 71, Number 662

Muhammad was a product of his environment, which was largely Pagan. This heritage is visible in his "revelations" and the way in which he "received" them.

Andrew Vargo

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