What Is The Challenge Of The Qur'an
With Respect To Arabic Prose & Poetry?M S M Saifullah,cAbd ar-Rahmân Robert Squires & Muhammad Ghoniem
This article is devoted to deal with one aspect of the Qur'anic
challenge of produce a surah like it. What is meant by surah like it
with respect to the Arabic prose and poetry?
The verses of the Qur'an dealing with the challenge are given below (Hilâlî and Muhsin Khan's Translation):
Say: "If the mankind and the jinns were together to produce the like of
this Qur'an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they
helped one another." [Qur'an 17:88]
And if you (Arab pagans, Jews,
and Christians) are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down
(i.e. the Qur'an) to Our slave (Muhammad Peace be upon him), then
produce a surah (chapter) of the like thereof and call your witnesses
(supporters and helpers) besides Allah, if you are truthful. [Qur'an
And this Qur'an is not such as could ever be produced by other
than Allah (Lord of the heavens and the earth), but it is a
confirmation of (the revelation) which was before it [i.e. the Taurat
(Torah), and the Injeel (Gospel), etc.], and a full explanation of the
Book (i.e. laws and orders, etc, decreed for mankind) - wherein there is
no doubt from the Lord of the 'Alamin (mankind, jinns and all that
Or do they say: "He (Muhammad (P)) has forged it?" Say:
"Bring then a surah (chapter) like unto it, and call upon whomsoever you
can, besides Allah, if you are truthful!" [Qur'an 10:37-38]
say, "He (Prophet Muhammad (P)) forged it (the Qur'an)." Say: "Bring
you then ten forged surah (chapters) like unto it, and call whomsoever
you can, other than Allah (to your help), if you speak the truth!"
Or do they say: "He (Muhammad (P)) has forged it
(this Qur'an)?" Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recital
like unto it (the Qur'an) if they are truthful. [Qur'an 52:33-34]
cAbdur Rahîm Green mentions that:
These are the sixteen al-Bihâr (literally "The Seas", so called because
of the way the poem moves, according to its rhythmic patterns):
at-Tawîl, al-Bassit, al-Wâfir, al-Kamîl, ar-Rajs, al-Khafîf, al-Hazaj,
al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madîd,
al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria'. So the challenge is to
produce in Arabic, three lines that do not fall into one of these
sixteen Bihâr, that does not rhyme prose, nor like the speech of
soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a
comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook.
with; the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two
branches. One of them is rhymed poetry. It is a speech with metre and
rhyme, which means every line of it ends upon a definite letter, which
is called the 'rhyme'. This rhymed poetry is again divided into metres
or what is called as al-Bihâr, literally meaning 'The Seas'. This is so
called because of the way the poetry moves according to the rhythmic
patterns. There are sixteen al-Bihâr viz; at-Tawîl, al-Bassit, al-Wâfir,
al-Kamîl, ar-Rajs, al-Khafîf, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih,
al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madîd, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab
and as-Saria'. Each one rhymes differently. For metres of Arabic poetry
please see please see Lyall's book Translations Of Ancient Arabian
Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic. He discusses al-Kamîl, al-Wafir,
al-Hajaz, at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Khafîf and al-Madîd briefly.
The other branch of Arabic speech is prose that is non-metrical speech.
The prose may be a rhymed prose. Rhymed prose consists of cola ending on
the same rhyme throughout, or of sentences rhymed in pairs. This is
called "rhymed prose" or sajc. Prose may also be straight prose
(mursal). In straight prose, the speech goes on and is not divided in
cola, but is continued straight through without any divisions, either of
rhyme or of anything else. Prose is employed in sermons and prayers and
in speeches intended to encourage or frighten the masses. One of the
most famous speeches involving sajc is that of Hajjâj bin Yûsuf in his
first deputation in Iraq in post-Islamic andQuss bin Sa'idah in pre-Islamic times.
So, the challenge, ascAbdur Rahîm Green mentions, is to produce in
Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen
al-Bihâr, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers,
and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible
meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook. Indeed, The Qur'an is not
verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resembles 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. 
It is interesting to know that all the pre-Islam and post-Islamic
poetry collected by Louis Cheikho falls in the above sixteen metres or
al-Bihar. Indeed the pagans of Mecca repeated accuse Prophet
Muhammad(P) for being a forger, a soothsayer etc. The Arabs who were at
the pinnacle of their poetry and prose during the time of revelation of
the Qur'an could not even produce the smallest surah of its like. The
Qur'an's form did not fit into any of the above mentioned categories. It
was this that made the Qur'an inimitable, and left the pagan Arabs at a
loss as to how they might combat it asAlqama bincAbd al-Manaf confirmed when he addressed their leaders, the Quraysh:
Oh Quraish, a new calamity has befallen you. Mohammed was a young man
the most liked among you, most truthful in speech, and most trustworthy,
until, when you saw gray hairs on his temple, and he brought you his
message, you said that he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we seen
such people and their spitting and their knots; you said, a diviner, but
we have seen such people and their behavior, and we have heard their
rhymes; you said a soothsayer, but he is not a soothsayer, for we have
heard their rhymes; and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we
have heard all kinds of poetry; you said he was possessed, but he is not
for we have seen the possessed, and he shows no signs of their gasping
and whispering and delirium. Oh men of Quraish, look to your affairs,
for by Allah a serious thing has befallen you.
It is a well known
fact that the Qur'an was revealed in seven ahruf (or seven forms) to
facilitate greater understanding of it among the Arabs who had different
dialects. This was also to challenge them on their own grounds to
produce a surah like that of the Qur'an. The challenge became more
obvious when none of the seven major tribes could imitate it even in
their own dialects as no one could claim that it was difficult to
imitate due to it not being in their own dialect. 
What Do The Orientalists Say About The Inimitability Of The Qur'an?
H Palmer, as early as 1880, recognized the unique style of the Qur'an.
But he seems to have been wavering between two thoughts. He writes in
the Introduction to his translation of the Qur'an:
That the best of
Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to
the Qur'an itself is not surprising. In the first place, they have
agreed before-hand that it is napproachable, and they have adopted its
style as the perfect standard; any deviation from it therefore must of
necessity be a defect. Again, with them this style is not spontaneous as
with Muhammad and his contemporaries, but is as artificial as though
Englishmen should still continue to follow Chaucer as their model, in
spite of the changes which their language has undergone. With the
Prophet, the style was natural, and the words were those in every-day
ordinary life, while with the later Arabic authors the style is
imitative and the ancient words are introduced as a literary
embellishment. The natural consequence is that their attempts look
labored and unreal by the side of his impromptu and forcible eloquence.
The famous Arabist from University of Oxford, Hamilton Gibb was
open upon about the style of the Qur'an. In his words:...the Meccans
still demanded of him a miracle, and with remarkable boldness and self
confidence Mohammad appealed as a supreme confirmation of his mission to
the Koran itself. Like all Arabs they were the connoisseurs of language
and rhetoric. Well, then if the Koran were his own composition other
men could rival it. Let them produce ten verses like it. If they could
not (and it is obvious that they could not), then let them accept the
Koran as an outstanding evident miracle. 
And in some other place, talking about the Prophet (P) and the Qur'an, he states:
Though, to be sure, the question of the literary merit is one not to be
judged ona priori grounds but in relation to the genius of 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 Mohammad did.
As a literary monument the Koran
thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature,
having neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of
all ages are united in proclaiming the inimitability not only of its
contents but also of its style..... and in forcing the High Arabic idiom
into the expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold
and strikingly effective rhetorical prose in which all the resources of
syntactical modulation are exploited with great freedom and
On the influence of the Qur'an on Arabic literature Gibb says:
The influence of the Koran on the development of Arabic Literature has
been incalculable, and exerted in many directions. Its ideas, its
language, its rhymes pervade all subsequent literary works in greater or
lesser measure. Its specific linguistic features were not emulated,
either in the chancery prose of the next century or in the later prose
writings, but it was at least partly due to the flexibility imparted by
the Koran to the High Arabic idiom that the former could be so rapidly
developed and adjusted to the new needs of the imperial government and
an expanding society. 
As the Qur'an itself says:
And if ye
are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our
servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or
helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. But
if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel
is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith (Qur'an
Lastly, the beautiful style of the Qur'an is admired even by the Arab Christians:
The Qur'an is one of the world's classics which cannot be translated
without grave loss. It has a rhythm of peculiar beauty and a cadence
that charms the ear. Many Christian Arabs speak of its style with warm
admiration, and most Arabists acknowledge its excellence. When it is
read aloud or recited it has an almost hypnotic effect that makes the
listener indifferent to its sometimes strange syntax and it's sometimes,
to us, repellent content. It is this quality it possesses of silencing
criticism by the sweet music of its language that has given birth to the
dogma of its inimitability; indeed it may be affirmed that within the
literature of the Arabs, wide and fecund as it is both in poetry and in
elevated prose, there is nothing to compare with it. 
sentences speak of themselves. Summing up: Within the Arabic literature,
either poetry or prose, there is nothing comparable to the Qur'an.
Muslims throughout the centuries are united upon its inimitability.
There is also a talk by Christian missionaries that there are
grammatical 'errors' in the Qur'an. In retort, it can be mentioned that
the Arab contemporaries of Muhammad (P) were most erudite and proficient
in the idiosyncrasies of Arabic speech; and hence, if they had found
any grammatical 'errors' in the Qur'an, they would have revealed it when
Muhammad (P) challenged them with to do so. Therefore, since they did
not take up his challenge on this issue, we can be rest assured that no
such grammatical 'errors' exist in the Qur'an.
Indeed thegrammatical errors claimed by Christian missionaries have been alreadydiscussed and refuted
in a reputed journal. It turns out that lack of knowledge of
intricate constructions in classical Arabic by Christian missionaries
gave rise to so-called grammatical 'errors'.
I'jaz al-Qur'an (Or Inimitability of the Qur'an) & Its Exposition
I'jaz literally means "the rendering incapable, powerless". It is the
concept relating to the miraculous nature of the Qur'an. What
constitutes this miracle is a subject that has engaged Muslims scholars
for centuries. By the early part of the third century AH (ninth century
CE), the word i'jaz had come to mean that quality of the Qur'an rendered
people incapable of imitating the book or any part; in content and
form. By the latter part of that century, the word had become the
technical term, and the numerous definitions applied to it after the
tenth century have shown little divergence from the key concepts of the
inimitability of the Qur'an and the inability of human beings to match
it even challenged (tahiddi).
Thus, the Islamic doctrine of
i'jaz al-Qur'an consists in the belief that the Qur'an is a miracle
(mu'jizah) bestowed on Muhammad (P). Terms, i'jaz and mu'jizah come from
the same verbal root. While mu'jizah is the active principle of a'jaza,
i'jaz is its verbal noun. 
The early theological discussions on
i'jaz introduced the hypothesis of sarfah ("turning away") and argued
that the miracle consisted of God's turning the competent away from
taking up the challenge of imitating the Qur'ân. The implication of
sarfah is that the Qur'ân otherwise could be imitated. However,cAbd
al-Jabbâr (d. 1025 CE), the Mu'tazilite theologian rejected sarfah
because of its obvious weaknesses.
cAbd al-Jabbâr rejects the
doctrine ofsarfah for two main reasons. Firstly, because it contradicts
the verse of the Qur'an stating that neitherjinn nor human can rival the
Qur'an, and secondly because it makes a miracle of something other than
the Qur'an, i.e., thesarfah, the prohibition from production, and not
the Qur'an itself. In addition to this, according to 'Abd al-Jabbar, the
doctrine ofsarfah displays four major weaknesses:
It ignores the well-known fact that the Arabs of Muhammad's time had acknowledged the superior quality of speech of the Qur'an;
It is in direct conflict with the meaning of the verses of the Challenge;
It implies that the Qur'an is not a miracle; and
It asserts that the Arabs were out of their minds (khuruj 'an al-'aql).
This doctrine, in fact, implies that they could have produced a rival
to the Qur'an, but simply decided against doing so. It effectively calls
into question either their motives or their sanity. Therefore,
according tocAbd al-Jabbâr the correct interpretation ofsarfah is that
the motives to rival the Qur'an disappeared(insarafah) because of the
recognition of the impossibility of doing so. 
insisted on the unmatchable quality of the Qur'an's extra-ordinary
eloquence and unique stylist perfection. In his work al-Mughni (The
Sufficient Book), he argued that eloquence (fasâhah) resulted from the
excellence of both meaning and wording, and he explained that there were
degrees of excellence depending on the manner in which words were
chosen and arranged in any literary text, the Qur'an being the highest
al-Baqillanî (d. 1013 CE), in his systematic and
comprehensive study entitled I'jaz al-Qur'an upheld the rhetorically
unsurpassable style of the Qur'an, but he did not consider this to be a
necessary argument in the favour of the Qur'an's uniqueness and
emphasized instead the content of revelation.
The choice and
arrangement of words, referred to asnazm was the focus of discussion by
al-Jahîz, al-Sijistanî (d. 928 CE), al-Bakhî (d. 933 CE) and Ibn
al-Ikhshid (d. 937 CE). Al-Rummanî and his contemporary al-Khattabî (d.
998 CE) discussed the psychological effect of nazm of the Qur'an in
their al-Nukat fî I'jaz al-Qur'an and Bayan I'jaz al-Qur'an,
The author who best elaborated and systematized the
theory of nazm in his analysis of the i'jaz iscAbd al-Qahir al-Jurjanî
(d. 1078 CE) in his Dalâ'il al-I'jaz. His material was further organized
by Fakhr ad-Din al-Razî (d. 1209) in his Nihâyat al-I'jaz fî Dirâyat
al-I'jaz and put to practical purposes by al-Zamakhsharî (d. 1144 CE) in
his exegesis of the Qur'an entitled al-Kashasâf, rich in rhetorical
analysis of the Qur'anic style.
Hardly anything new has been added by later authors.
 C J Lyall, Translations Of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic, Williams & Norgate Ltd., London, 1930.
Ibid., pp. xlv-lii.
 Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, Franz Rosenthal (Translator), Volume III, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1958, p. 368.
 A F L Beeston, T M Johnstone, R B Serjeant and G R Smith (Editors),
Arabic Literature To The End Of The Ummayad Period, 1983, Cambridge
University Press, p. 34.
 Louis Cheikho, Shucara' 'al-Nasraniyah, 1890-1891, Beirut.
 Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, Tafseer Soorah al-Hujuraat, 1988, Tawheed Publications, Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), p. 28.
 E H Palmer (Tr.), The Qur'ân, 1900, Part I, Oxford at Clarendon Press, p. lv.
 H A R Gibb, Islam - A Historical Survey, 1980, Oxford University Press, p. 28.
Ibid., p. 25.
 H A R Gibb, Arabic Literature - An Introduction, 1963, Oxford at Clarendon Press, p. 36.
Ibid., p. 37.
 Alfred Guillaume, Islam, 1990 (Reprinted), Penguin Books, pp. 73-74.
 M AS Abdel Haleem, Grammatical Shift For The Rhetorical Purposes:
Iltifat & Related Features In The Qur'ân, Bulletin of School of
Oriental and African Studies, VolumeLV, Part 3, 1992.
Eliade (Editor in Chief), The Encyclopedia Of Religion, Volume 7,
Macmillam Publishing Company, New York, p. 87, Under I'jaz by Issa J
 Yûsuf Rahmân, The Miraculous Nature Of Muslim
Scripture: A Study Of 'Abd al-Jabbar's I'jaz al-Qur'ân, Islamic Studies,
Volume 35, Number 4, 1996, p. 409.
Ibid., pp. 415-416.
 The Encyclopedia Of Religion,Op.Cit, p. 88.