How do I appreciate the miracle of the Qur’ān if I don’t speak Arabic?
Most of what we know is based on the say so of others. This holds true for facts that we would never deny. For many of us these truths include the existence of Amazonian Indian tribes, photosynthesis, ultraviolet radiation, and bacteria. Let me elaborate further by using your mother as an example. How would you prove to me – a perfect stranger – that your mother did in fact give birth to you? As bizarre as this question sounds, it will help clarify a very important yet underrated source of knowledge. Some might say “my mother told me so”, “I have a birth certificate”, “my father told me, he was there”, or “I have checked my mother’s hospital records”. These responses are not unfounded, however they are based on the statements of other people. Sceptical minds may not be satisfied. They may try and salvage an empirical basis for their conviction by using the ‘DNA card’ or by referring to video footage. The conviction that your mother is who she says she is, isn’t based on a DNA home test kit. The reality is that most of us have not taken a DNA test. It is also not based on video footage as you still have to rely on the say so of others to claim that the baby is actually you. So how and why are we so sure? This, admittedly quirky example, brings to light an important source of knowledge, testimony.
Many of our beliefs are based on a form of reasoning which begins with a collection of data, facts or assertions, and then seeks the best explanation for them. Let’s welcome your mother back briefly again. She is heavily pregnant with you inside her womb and the due date was last week. Suddenly, her waters break and she starts having contractions so your father and the relevant medical staff safely assume that she’s started labour. Another example, some years on, your mother notices an open packet of biscuits and crumbs around your mouth and on your clothes. She infers that it was you who opened the packet and helped yourself to some biscuits. In both examples, the conclusions are not necessarily true or indisputable, but they are the best explanations considering all of the facts available. This thinking process is known as inference to the best explanation.
So why have I introduced the above scenarios? Because using the concepts and principles from these examples, this essay will put forward the case that the Qur’an is an inimitable expression of the Arabic language, and that its inimitability is best explained by God. What is meant by inimitability is that no one has been able to produce or emulate the Quran’s linguistic and literary features. This can include- but is not limited to- its unique literary form and genre, in the context of sustained eloquence. Though this assertion seems quite disconnected to what I have elaborated on so far, consider the following outline:
The Qur’an was revealed in Arabia to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ in the 7th century. This period was known as an era of literary and linguistic perfection. The 7th century Arabs were socialised into being a people who were the best at expressing themselves in their native tongue. They would celebrate when a poet rose amongst them and all they knew was poetry. They would start with poetry and end in poetry. The cultivation of poetic skills and linguistic mastery was everything for them. It was their oxygen and life blood; they could not live or function without the perfection of their linguistic abilities. However, when the Qur’an was recited to them they lost their breath, they were dumbfounded, incapacitated, and stunned by the silence of their greatest experts. They could not produce anything like the Qur’anic discourse. It got worse. The Qur’an challenged these linguists par excellence to imitate its unique literary and linguistic features. They failed. So they resorted to boycott, war, murder, torture and a campaign of misinformation. In fact, throughout the centuries there have been experts who have acquired the tools to challenge the Qur’an and they too have testified that the Qur’an is inimitable, and appreciate why the best linguists have failed.
How can a Non-Arab or non-expert of the Arabic language appreciate the inimitability of the Qur’an? Enter now the role of testimony. The above assertions are based on an established written and oral testimonial transmission of knowledge from past and present scholars of the Arabic language. If this is true, and the best people placed to challenge the Qur’an failed to imitate the Divine discourse, then who was the author? This is where testimony stops, and where the use of inference begins. In order to understand the inference to the best explanation, the possible rationalisations of the Qur’an’s inimitable nature must be analysed. These include that it was authored by an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God. Considering all of the facts that will be discussed in this essay, it is implausible that the Qur’an’s inimitability can be explained by attributing it to an Arab, a Non-Arab or Muhammad ﷺ . For that reason, God is the inference to the best explanation.
The main assumptions in the above introduction is that testimony is a valid source of knowledge and inference is a suitable and rational method of thinking to form conclusions about reality. This essay will introduce the epistemology of testimony, and elaborate on the use of testimonial transmission in a way that is rational. It will highlight the effective use of inferring to the best explanation, and apply both concepts to the Qur’an’s inimitability. This essay will conclude that God is the best explanation for the fact that no one has been able to imitate the Divine book. This will be achieved without the reader requiring any knowledge or expertise of the Arabic language.
To postulate God as the best explanation for the inimitability of the Qur’an may assume His existence. This may be the case, however, it is not the scope of this essay to attempt to prove The Divine. There is a wide range of literature available that has already provided good reasons for His existence. Nevertheless, the point can be made that a previous conviction in God is not necessary, this will be discussed at the end of this essay.
The Epistemology of Testimony
What is testimony?
Epistemology comes from the Greek words ἐπιστήμη (epistimi) which means knowledge and understanding, and λόγος (logos) meaning ‘the study of’. Epistemology therefore refers to the study of knowledge and belief. Its concerns are focused on answering the following questions: what are the conditions of knowledge? What are the sources of knowledge? How is knowledge justified? What makes a proposition or set of beliefs true?
Testimony is a branch of epistemology “concerned with how we acquire knowledge and justified belief from the say-so of other people”. Therefore, one of the key questions it tries to answer is how do we gain “knowledge on the basis of what other people tell us.”? Assistant Professor Benjamin McMyler provides a summary of testimonial knowledge,
“Here are a few things that I know. I know that the copperhead is the most common venomous snake in the greater Houston area. I know that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo. I know that, as I write, the average price for gasoline in the U.S is $4.10 per gallon…All of these things I know on the basis of what epistemologists call testimony, on the basis of being told of them by another person or group of persons.”
McMyler’s summary seems quite intuitive and highlights why we claim knowledge solely based on testimonial transmission. The world being a sphere is a striking example. The belief that the world is a sphere is – for most of us – not based on mathematics or science. It is purely centred on testimony. Your initial reactions may entail the following statements “I have seen pictures”, “I have read it in science books”, “All my teachers told me”, “I can go on the highest mountain peak and observe the curvature of the Earth”, and so on. However, upon intellectual scrutiny, all of our answers fall under testimonial knowledge. Seeing pictures or images is testimonial because you have to accept the say so of the authority or person who said it is an image of the world. Reading and learning this fact from science textbooks is also due to testimonial transmission, as you have to accept what the authors say as true. This also applies when referring to your teachers. Attempting to empirically justify your current conviction by standing on the highest peak, is still based on testimony. Many of us have never done such a thing, and therefore assuming that it will provide us evidence for the roundness of the Earth is based ultimately on the say so of others. Even if you have, it does not in any way prove the roundness of the Earth. Standing on a peak will only indicate that the Earth has some form of curvature – and not a complete sphere. In summary, for the majority of us, the fact that the world is round is not based on anything else apart from testimony.
So far the discussion about testimony undeniably brings to light its indispensable nature. Knowledge is impossible without it. Professor of Epistemology C. A. J. Coady summarises the points made so far, and lists some of the things that are solely accepted on the basis of testimonial transmission, “…many of us have never seen a baby born, nor have most of us examined the circulation of the blood nor the actual geography of the world nor any fair sample of the laws of the land, nor have we made the observations that lie behind our knowledge that the lights in the sky are heavenly bodies immensely distant…”
The significance of testimonial knowledge needs no further discussion. However, there are some very important questions epistemologists are trying to answer in this field. These include, “When and how does testimony yield evidence?”, “Is testimonial knowledge based on other sources of knowledge?” Or “Is testimony fundamental?” Although it is not the scope of this essay to solve or elaborate on all the issues in this area of epistemology, it will summarise some of the discussions to further substantiate the fact that testimony is a valid source of knowledge.
A Note on Eyewitness Testimony
The discussion so far refers to the testimonial transmission of knowledge, and not the recollection of what was witnessed during an event or a crime. The existing material concerning eyewitness testimony is vast, and this essay does not intend to discuss the conclusions and implications of such studies and research. However, given that there is an academic concern over eyewitness testimony with regards to its reliability, it should not be conflated with the testimonial transmission of knowledge. These are distinct and separate areas. Eyewitness testimony may suffer due to our imperfect short-term memories and the psychological influences and constraints on recalling the sequence of a particular event. The testimony of knowledge, ideas or concepts, does not suffer from such issues because the acquisition of knowledge is usually as a result of repetition, a relatively longer duration, internalisation and study.
This point leads to a slight but useful diversion; David Hume’s treatise on miracles. Hume argued that the only evidence we have for miracles is eyewitness testimony. He concluded that we should only believe in miracles if the probability of the eyewitnesses to be mistaken, is greater than the probability of the miracle to occur.
Notwithstanding the concerns over single eyewitness reports, eyewitness testimony can be taken seriously in the context of multiple witnessing (which is related to the concept of mutawatir in Islamic studies). If there exists a large (or large enough) number of independent witnesses, who transmitted the testimony via varying chains of transmission, and many of these witnesses never met each other, then to reject that report would be bordering the absurd. Even Hume himself recognized the power of this type of eye witness report,
“I beg the limitations here made may be remarked, when I say, that a miracle can never be proved, so as to be the foundation of a system of religion. For I own, that otherwise, there may possibly be miracles, or violations of the usual course of nature, of such a kind as to admit of proof from human testimony; though, perhaps, it will be impossible to find any such in all the records of history. Thus, suppose, all authors, in all languages, agree, that, from the first of January 1600, there was a total darkness over the whole earth for eight days: suppose that the tradition of this extraordinary event is still strong and lively among the people: that all travellers, who return from foreign countries, bring us accounts of the same tradition, without the least variation or contradiction: it is evident, that our present philosophers, instead of doubting the fact, ought to receive it as certain…”
On a final note, Hume’s argument against miracles has been dealt with quite extensively by the Professor of History and Philosophy of Science John Earman. Professor Earman’s book Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles dismantles Hume’s scepticism. The following passage from Earman’s work is hoped to encourage reading on the topic,
“In “Of Miracles,” Hume pretends to stand on philosophical high ground, hurling down thunderbolts against miracle stories. The thunderbolts are supposed to issue from general principles about inductive inference and the credibility of eyewitness testimony. But when these principles are made explicit and examined under the lens of Bayesianism, they are found to be either vapid, specious, or at variance with actual scientific practice.”
The focus of this essay is on the testimonial transmission of knowledge and not events or eyewitness reports – the conceptual distinctions between the two are obvious. However, it has been mentioned here to remind the reader that there is a distinction between the two types of testimony.
Is Testimony Fundamental?
The previous examples on testimonial transmission expose our epistemic dependence on the say so of others. This reminds me of a public discussion I had with the outspoken atheist, Professor Lawrence Krauss. I highlighted the fact that observations were not the only source of knowledge and therefore wanted to expose his empirical presupposition. I raised the issue of testimony and asked him if he believed in evolution. He replied that he did, and so I asked him if he had done all the experiments himself. He obviously replied in the negative. This uncovered a serious issue in his – and by extension, many of our – assumptions about why we believe in what we believe. Most of our beliefs are based on the say so of others and it does not make it empirical just because it is couched in scientific language.
Until relatively recently, testimony was neglected as an area of in-depth study. This academic silence came to an end with various studies and publications, most notable was Professor Coady’sTestimony: A Philosophical Discussion. Coady argues for the validity and significance of testimony, and attacks David Hume’s reductionist account of testimonial transmission. The reductionist thesis asserts that testimony is justified via other sources of knowledge such as perception, memory and induction. In other words, testimony on its own has no warrant and must be justified a posteriori, meaning knowledge based on experience. Coady’s account for testimony is fundamental; he asserts that testimonial knowledge is justified without appealing to other sources of knowledge like observation. This account of testimony is known as the anti-reductionist thesis. Coady contends the reductionist thesis by attacking Hume’s approach. Hume is seen as the main proponent of the reductionist thesis due to his essay On Miracles which is the tenth chapter of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Hume’s reductionist approach does not entail that he denies testimonial knowledge, he actually highlights its importance: “We may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men…” Hume argues that our trust in testimony is based on a conformity between testimonial knowledge and experience. This is where Coady seeks to dismantle the basis of Hume’s approach. His criticism is not limited to the following argument, but elaborating on it here demonstrates the strength of his overall contentions.
Coady argues that Hume’s appeal to collective observation exposes a vicious circle. Hume claims that testimony can only be justified if the knowledge that someone is testifying to, is in agreement with observed facts. However, what Hume implies by observed facts is not personal observation but rather collective experience, and Coady argues that we cannot always rely on personal observed generalisations. This is where the vicious circle is exposed; we can only know what others have observed based upon their say so, in other words, their testimony. Relying on one’s own direct observations would not suffice, as that knowledge would be limited and unqualified to justify anything – or at least very little. Therefore, the reductionist thesis is flawed. Its claim that testimony must be justified via other sources of knowledge, such as observation, actually assumes that which it tries to deny; the fundamental nature of testimony. The key reason that affirms this point, is that in order to know what our collective observations are, you must rely on other people’s testimony as we have not observed them ourselves.
Relying on Experts
The modern scientific progress we all are proud of, could never have happened without trusting an authority’s claim to experimental data. Take Evolution as an example. If Richard Dawkins’s belief in Evolution required that he must perform all of the experiments himself, and to personally observe all of the empirical data, he could never be so bold in claiming its truth. Even if he could repeat some of the observations and experiments himself, he would still have to rely on the say so of other scientists. This area of study is so vast that to verify everything ourselves would be impossible, and to maintain such a claim would make scientific progress unattainable.
The previous example raises an important question, “What if the testimonial transmission of knowledge is based on the say so of an expert of which you had no previous knowledge?” The fact is that we are not all experts and thus must, at times, accept the testimony of others. University lecturer in philosophy Dr. Elizabeth Fricker, elaborates,
“But that there are some occasions on which it is rational deferentially to accept another’s testimony, and irrational to refuse to do so, is entailed by her background knowledge of her own cognitive and physical nature and limitations, together with her appreciation of how other people are both like and in other respects unlike herself, hence on some occasions better epistemically placed regarding some matter than she is herself. I may rationally regret that I cannot fly, or go for a week without sleep without any loss of performance, or find out for myself everything which I would like to know. But given my cognitive and physical limitations as parametric, there is no room for rational regret about my extended but canny trust in the word of others, and enormous epistemic and consequent other riches to be gained from it.”
This is where the concept of trust enters into the discussion on testimonial transmission. To accept the word of others based on their authority on a particular subject requires us to not only trust them, but to be trustworthy in our assessments of their trustworthiness.
Discussions about the nature and validity of testimony have moved on from the reductionist and anti-reductionist paradigms. Professor of Philosophy Keith Lehrer argues that the justification for testimony is neither of the two approaches. Lehrer’s argument rests on trust. He argues that testimony leads to the acquisition of knowledge under “some circumstances but not all circumstances.” He maintains that testimony is in “itself a source of evidence when the informant is trustworthy in the testimony. The testimony in itself does not constitute evidence otherwise.”The person who testifies does not need to be “infallible to be trustworthy” but “the person testifying to the truth of what she says must be trustworthy in what she accepts and what she conveys.” Lehrer admits that trustworthiness is not sufficient for the conversion of the say so of others into knowledge, and that the person’s trustworthiness must be successfully truth-connected and that we must be trustworthy and reliable in our assessment. The truth-connectedness of a testimonial transmission can include background information on a topic, the testimonies of others on a particular field of knowledge, including personal and collective experiences.
He claims that in order for us to be trustworthy about the way we evaluate and assess the trustworthiness of others, we need to refer to previous experiences in our assessments and whether we were accurate or mistaken. However, when we learn that the testimony of a person is not trustworthy, it is usually due to relying on the testimony of others about that person. This may expose a vicious circle, because to assess the testimony of others, other testimonies are relied upon. Lehrer asserts this is more of a “virtuous loop”. How is this the case? The Professor provides two answers,
“First, any complete theory of justification or trustworthiness will have to explain why we are justified or trustworthy in accepting the theory itself. So the theory must apply to itself to explain why we are justified or trustworthy in accepting it. Secondly, and equally important, our trustworthiness at any given time must result from what we have accepted in the past, including what we have accepted from the testimony of others. The result is that there is a kind of mutual support between the particular things we have accepted and our general trustworthiness in what we accept, including, of course, the particular things we have accepted. It is the mutual support among the things that we accept that results in the trustworthiness of what we accept.”
The Right of Deferral
Lehrer’s discussion on trustworthiness raises the question of how we can establish trust to rely on the authority or the say so of others. Assistant Professor Benjamin McMyler develops an interesting argument that aids in answering this question. McMyler argues that the epistemological problem of testimony can be “recast as a problem of explaining the epistemic right of deferral.” McMyler argues that if an audience is entitled to defer challenges back to the speaker, it provides a new way in framing the problem of testimony. This requires that both parties acknowledge a responsibility,
“If a speaker does not genuinely assume partial responsibility for an audience’s testimonial belief by making her assertion an instance of testimony, then the audience cannot acquire properly testimonial knowledge. Equally, however, if the audience does not properly accept the speaker’s assumption of responsibility of being disposed to defer relevant challenges to the content of her testimonial belief back to the testimonial speaker, then the audience cannot acquire genuine testimonial knowledge.”
Trustworthiness can be built by exercising this right to defer challenges back to the speaker (or writer). If coherent answers to these challenges are given, this can potentially increase trust. The following example explains this point. A professor of linguistics claims that the Qur’an is inimitable, and elaborates on its eloquence, unique literary form and genre. The audience takes responsibility and challenges the professor. The challenge is in the form of questions, these include, “Can you gives us more examples from the Qur’an?”, “What have other authorities said about the Qur’an’s genre?”, “How can you explain the views of academics who disagree with you?”, and “Given the historical background information on the Qur’an, in what way does it support your assertion?” The professor provides coherent answers to the questions, and gradually builds trust.
To conclude this section, testimony is a necessary source of knowledge. Without testimonial transmission we could not have had the scientific progress characteristic of our era, many of our established claims to knowledge would be reduced to a sceptic’s musings, and we would not be justified in easily dismissing the flat-earther’s false assertions. For testimony to turn into knowledge we must be trustworthy in our assessments of the trustworthiness of others and take responsibility in deferring challenges back to the one testifying. We must also ensure that there is some truth connected to their claims, which can include other testimonies or background information.
Inference to the Best Explanation
Inference to the best explanation is a common and invaluable way of thinking. It involves trying to coherently and adequately explain a particular set of data and/or background knowledge that we hold. For example, when we are asked by our doctor on how we are feeling, we present her with the following symptoms; nasal stuffiness or drainage, sore or itchy throat, sneezing, hoarseness, coughing, watery eyes, fever, headache, body aches, and fatigue. Based on this information the doctor attempts to best explain why we are unwell. Coupled with her background knowledge accumulated via her medical education, she concludes that the above symptoms are best explained by the common cold. Professor of History and Philosophy Peter Lipton similarly explains the practical and indispensable role of inference,
“The doctor infers that his patient has measles, since this is the best explanation of the evidence before him. The astronomer infers the existence of motion of Neptune, since that is the best explanation of the observed perturbations of Uranus…According to the Inference to the Best Explanation, our inferential practices are governed by explanatory considerations. Given our data and our background beliefs, we infer what would, if true, provide the best of the competing explanations we can generate of those data…”
Like with most things, we can have competing explanations for the data we have at our disposal. What filters these explanations is not only their plausibility, but the availability of other pieces of data that could help us discriminate between them. Lipton explains,
“We begin by considering plausible candidate explanations, and then try to find data that discriminate between them…An inference may be defeated when someone suggests a better alternative explanation, even though the evidence does not change.”
The accessibility to additional data is not the only differentiator to assess which of the competing explanations is the most cogent. The best explanation is one that is the simplest. Simplicity however, is just the beginning, as there must be a careful balance between simplicity and comprehensiveness. Comprehensiveness entails that an explanation must have explanatory power and scope. This involves that the explanation accounts for all of the data, including disparate or unique observations. Another criterion to assess the comprehensiveness of an explanation includes, explaining data or observations that were previously unknown, unexpected or inexplicable. An important principle in assessing the best explanation is that it is most likely to be true, compared to competing explanations, given our background knowledge. The academic philosopher at Princeton University, Gilbert H. Harman asserts that when alternative explanations exist one “must be able to reject all such alternative hypotheses before one is warranted in making the inference. Thus one infers, from the premise that a given hypothesis would provide a “better” explanation for the evidence than would any other hypothesis, to the conclusion that the given hypothesis is true.”
Inference to the best explanation supports non-negotiable axioms or self-evident truths that form the basis of realism. In other words, the belief that our world is real. Therefore, denying the value inference to the best explanation could undermine the basis of science, which assumes that our world is real and “not just a dream or that we are not just brains in vats”. This support for realism explains the power of inference to the best explanation, as the majority of us who believe the world is real “may argue that we are entitled to believe in the external world since hypotheses that presuppose it, provide the best explanation of our experiences.” Hence, to deny this thinking process could make the most basic and necessary assumptions about the real world redundant, or at least open to excessive, unnecessary and impractical questioning.
Formulating an Argument
The discussion thus far has brought to light the essential nature of testimonial transmission and the use of inference to the best explanation. In order to articulate a coherent argument for the Qur’an’s Divine authorship, the testimonial transmission concerning its inimitability must be established with the necessary background information. Since there are competing testimonies concerning the Qur’an’s inimitability, the background information must be presented to rationally justify the testimony in favour of the Qur’an’s uniqueness. This information includes the fact that the Qur’an presents a linguistic and literary challenge, that the 7th century Arabs achieved mastery at expressing themselves in the Arabic language, and their failure to imitate the Qur’an. Once this is established, adopting the testimony in favour of the inimitability of the Qur’an would be the rational choice, as it provides the basis to accept them. The testimonies that disagree with the Qur’an’s uniqueness are reduced to absurdity, as they deny that which has been established (to be explained later). Once the testimonial transmission is adopted, the competing explanations for the Qur’an’s inimitability must be assessed in order to make an inference to the best explanation; the Qur’an was produced either by an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God. A summary of the argument is as follows:
1. The Qur’an presents a literary and linguistic challenge to humanity.
2. The 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Qur’an.
3. The 7th century Arabs failed.
4. Scholars have testified to the Qur’an’s inimitability.
5. Counter scholarly testimonies are not plausible as they have to reject the established background information.
6. The possible explanations for the Qur’an’s inimitability are an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God.
7. It could not have been produced by an Arab, a Non-Arab or Muhammad ﷺ .
8. Therefore, the best explanation is that it is from God.
The remaining part of this essay will elaborate on the premises above.
1. The Qur’an presents a literary and linguistic challenge to humanity
“Read in the name of your Lord”. These were the first words of the Qur’an revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ over 1400 years ago. Muhammad ﷺ , who was known to have been in retreat and meditation in a cave outside Mecca, had received revelation of a book that would have a tremendous impact on the world we live in today. Not being known to have composed any piece of poetry and not having any special rhetorical gifts, Muhammad ﷺ had just received the beginning of a book that would deal with matters of belief, legislation, international law, politics, ritual, spirituality, and economics in an entirely new genre and literary form.
The unique literary and linguistic features of the Qur’an have been used by Muslims to articulate a number of arguments to substantiate their belief that the book is from the Divine. The inability of anyone being able to imitate the Qur’an developed into the Muslim theological doctrine of the Qur’an’s inimitability or al-’ijaz al-Qur’an. The word ‘ijaz is a verbal noun that means “miraculous” and comes from the verb ‘ajaza which means to render incapable, or to make helpless. The linguistic meaning of the term brings to light the theological doctrine that the Arab linguistics par excellencewere rendered incapable of producing anything like it. Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti the 15th century, the prolific writer and scholar, summarises this doctrine,
“…when the Prophet brought [the challenge] to them, they were the most eloquent rhetoricians so he challenged them to produce the [entire] likes [of the Qur’an] and many years passed and they were unable to do so as Allah says, Let them then produce a recitation similar to it, if indeed they are truthful. Then, [the Prophet] challenged them to produce 10 chapters like it where Allah says, Say, bring then ten chapters like it and call upon whomever you can besides God, if you are truthful. Then, he challenged them to produce a single where Allah says, Or do they say he [i.e. the Prophet] has forged it? Say, bring a chapter like it and call upon whomever you can besides God, if you are truthful…When the [Arabs] were unable to produce a single chapter like [the Qur’an] despite there being the most eloquent rhetoricians amongst them, [the Prophet] openly announced the failure and inability [to meet the challenge] and declared the inimitability of the Qur’an. Then Allah said, Say, if all of humankind and the jinn gathered together to produce the like of the Qur’an, they could not produce it – even if they helped one another…”
According to classical exegetes, the various verses in the Qur’an that issue a challenge to produce a chapter like it, daringly call for the linguistic experts of any era to imitate the Qur’an’s linguistic and literary features. The tools needed to meet this challenge are the finite grammatical rules, literary and linguistic devices, and the twenty eight letters that make-up the Arabic language; these are independent and objective measures available to all. The fact that it has not been matched since it was first revealed does not surprise most scholars familiar with the Arabic language and that of the Qur’an.
2. The 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Qur’an
The Qur’an posed a challenge to the greatest Arabic linguists, the 7th Century Arab. The fact that these Arabs reached the peak of eloquence is affirmed by western and eastern scholarship. The scholar Taqi Usmani asserts that for the 7th century Arab “eloquence and rhetoric were their life blood.” According to the 9th century biographer of the poets, al-Jumahi “verse was to the Arabs the register of all they knew, and the utmost compass of their wisdom; with it they began their affairs, and with it they ended them.” The 14th century scholar Ibn Khaldun highlights the importance of poetry in Arab life, “It should be known that Arabs thought highly of poetry as a form of speech. Therefore, they made it the archives of their history, the evidence for what they considered right and wrong, and the principal basis of reference for most of their sciences and wisdom.”
There was a socialisation and a highly influential social environment concerning the use of language. The literary critic and historian Ibn Rashiq illustrates this, “Whenever a poet emerged in an Arab tribe, other tribes would come to congratulate, feasts would be prepared, the women would join together on lutes as they do at weddings, and old and young men would all rejoice at the good news. The Arabs used to congratulate each other only on the birth of a child and when a poet rose among them.” The 9th century scholar Ibn Qutayba defined poetry as the Arabs saw it, “the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their wisdom the truthful witness on the day of dispute, the final proof at the time of argument.”
Navid Kermani, a writer and expert in Islamic studies, explains the extent the Arabs had to study to master the Arabic language, which indicates that the 7th century Arab lived in a world that almost worshipped poetry, “Old Arabic poetry is a highly complex phenomenon. The vocabulary, grammatical idiosyncrasies and strict norms were passed down from generation to generation, and only the most gifted students fully mastered the language. A person had to study for years, sometimes even decades under a master poet before laying claim to the title of poet. Muhammad ﷺ grew up in a world which almost religiously revered poetic expression.”
The 7th century Arab lived in a socio-cultural environment that had all the right conditions to facilitate the unparalleled expertise in the expression of the Arabic language.
3. The 7th century Arabs failed
In light of the above, the 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Qur’an as they reached the peak of eloquence and the pinnacle of linguistic mastery. Notwithstanding their linguistic abilities they collectively failed to produce an Arabic text that matched the Qur’an’s linguistic and literary features. The linguistics expert Professor Hussein Abdul-Raof asserts, “The Arabs, at the time, had reached their linguistic peak in terms of linguistic competence and sciences, rhetoric, oratory, and poetry. No one, however, has ever been able to provide a single chapter similar to that of the Qur’an.” During an interview with Angelika Neuwrith, the distinguished Professor of Qur’anic studies, she argued that the Qur’an has never been successfully challenged by anyone, past or present,
“…no one has succeeded, this is right…I really think that the Qur’an has even brought Western researchers embarrassment, who weren’t able to clarify how suddenly in an environment where there were not any appreciable written text, appeared the Qur’an with its richness of ideas and its magnificent wordings.”
Labid Ibn Rabi’ah, one of the famous poets of the Seven Odes, embraced Islam due to the inimitability of the Qur’an. Once he embraced Islam he stopped composing poetry. People were surprised for “he was their most distinguished poet”. They asked him why he stopped composing poetry, he replied, “What! Even after the revelation of the Qur’an?” 
Professor of Arabic and that of the Qur’an, E.H. Palmer argues that the assertions made by academics like the one above should not surprise us. He writes, “That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Qur’an itself is not surprising.”
Scholar and Professor of Islamic Studies M. A. Draz, affirms how the 7th century experts were absorbed in the discourse that left them incapacitated, “In the golden age of Arab eloquence, when language reached the apogee of purity and force, and titles of honour were bestowed with solemnity on poets and orators in annual festivals, the Qur’anic word swept away all enthusiasm for poetry or prose, and caused the Seven Golden Poems hung over the doors of the Ka’ba to be taken down. All ears lent themselves to this marvel of Arabic expression.”
The number of testimonial transmissions from the 7th century, that affirm the Arabs inability to produce anything like the Qur’an, excludes any doubt in this context. It would be unreasonable to dismiss the fact that the Arabs were incapacitated. Similar to what was mentioned in the section on eyewitness testimony, the narratives that conclude the Arab’s failure to imitate the Qur’an has reach the status of mutawatir. There exists a large number of experts who have transmitted this knowledge via varying chains of transmission, and many of them never met each other.
4. Scholars have testified to the Qur’an’s inimitability
There have been a multitude of scholars from western, eastern, religious and non-religious backgrounds who have testified to the Qur’an’s inimitability. Below is a non-exhaustive list of the scholarship that forms the testimony that the Qur’an cannot be emulated,
~ Professor of Oriental Studies, Martin Zammit: “Notwithstanding the literary excellence of some of the long pre-Islamic poems…the Qur’an is definitely on a level of its own as the most eminent written manifestation of the Arabic language.” ~ The scholar Shah Waliyyullah: “Its highest degree of eloquence, which is beyond the capacity of a human being. However, since we come after the first Arabs we are unable to reach its essence. But the measure which we know is that the employment of lucid words and sweet constructions gracefully and without affectation that we find in the Tremendous Qur’an is to be found nowhere else in any of the poetry of the earlier or later peoples.” ~ Orientalist and litterateur A.J. Arberry: “In making the present attempt to improve on the performance of predecessors, and to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Koran, I have been at pain to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which – apart from the message itself – constitutes the Koran’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind.”
~ Scholar Taqi Usmani: “None of them was able to compose even a few sentences to match the Qurānic verses. Just think that they were a people who according to ‘Allāmah Jurjāni, could never resist ridiculing the idea in their poetry if they heard that there was someone at the other end of the globe who prided himself on his eloquence and rhetorical speech. It is unthinkable that they could keep quiet even after such repeated challenges and dare not come forward…They had left no stone unturned for persecuting the Prophet ﷺ. They tortured him, called him insane, sorcerer, poet and sooth-sayer, but failed utterly in composing even a few sentences like the Qurānic verses.” ~ Al-Isfahani: “Know that the inimitability of the Qur’an… is concerned either with its eloquence, its rhetorical devices, or its sense.” ~ Imam Fakhr al-Din: “It is inimitable because of its eloquence, its unique style, and because it is free of error.” ~ al-Zamlakani: “Its word structures for instance, are in perfect harmony with their corresponding scales, and the meaning of its phraseology is unsurpassed, such that every linguistic category is unsurpassed in the case of every single word and phrase.” Professor Bruce Lawrence: “As tangible signs, Qur’anic verse are expressive of an inexhaustible truth, they signify meaning layered with meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.” ~ The highly acclaimed Professor and Arabist Hamilton Gibb: “Like all Arabs they were 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 evidential miracle.”
The above confirmations of the inimitability of the Qur’an are a small sample from the innumerable testimonies available to us.
Testifying to the Qur’an’s inimitability does not imply accepting its Divinity
A valid contention concerning academic testimonies on the Qur’an’s inimitability, is the fact that if these scholars agree that the Qur’an cannot be imitated, then why have they not concluded it is a Divine text? The problem with this contention is that it conflates testifying to the Qur’an’s inimitability with inference to the best explanation. The argument I am presenting in this essay does not conclude the Divinity of the Qur’an from the statements of scholars. Rather, it is the best explanation to elucidate the inimitability of the Qur’an came from God. Whether these scholars accept the inference, or the Divinity of the Qur’an, is irrelevant. The statements of the scholars are used as evidence for the Qur’an’s inimitability and not that it is best explained by God. The argument infers from the text’s inimitability, and not from conclusions the scholars may have drawn from the fact that it cannot be imitated. It must be pointed out that these scholars may have not been presented with an argument that presents an inference to the best explanation, or, they have not reflected on the philosophical implications of the Qur’an’s inimitability. These academics may even hold non-negotiable naturalistic presuppositions that deters them from concluding anything metaphysical or outside of the physical world.
5. Counter scholarly testimonies are not plausible as they have to reject the established background information
In light of the above, the testimonial transmission concerning the inimitability of the Qur’an would be the most rational to adopt. This does not mean there is a complete consensus on the issue, or that all scholarship asserts that the Qur’an is unchallenged. There are some, although in the minority, scholarly opinions that contend with the Qur’an’s inimitability. If valid testimony doesn’t require a unanimity, why would someone accept one testimonial transmission over another?
The testimony concerning the Qur’an’s inimitability is more reasonable, due to the fact that it rests on strong background knowledge. This background knowledge is what has been discussed in premises 1, 2 and 3. These premises highlight the fact that the Qur’an presents a literary and linguistic challenge to humanity. The 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Qur’an, yet these linguistic masters failed to meet this challenge.
Adopting the counter testimonies commits the fallacy of reductio ad absurdum. The reason that these testimonies lead to absurdity, is because an explanation is required to answer why those who were best placed to challenge the Qur’an failed to do so. Possible explanations would include rejecting the validity of this established history, or claiming a greater understanding and appreciation of classical Arabic than the 7th century linguist masters. These explanations render the counter testimonies without a rational basis. Rejecting the established history would require a remaking of the history of Arabic literature. Assuming superior linguistic abilities than the 7th century specialists is debased by the fact that these experts had a relatively homogenous linguistic environment. These environments are areas where the purity of the language is maintained, and there is a limited amount of linguistic borrowing and degeneration. Contemporary Arab linguistic environments suffer from excessive linguistic borrowing and degeneration. Therefore, to claim superiority over a people coming from a culture that had the fertile ground for linguistic perfection, is untenable.
Notwithstanding the weakness of these contentions, when an analysis of the work of the scholars who testify against the Qur’an’s inimitability is performed, the results conclude the linguistic meagreness of this type of scholarship. An example of its inadequacy can be found in the work of the highly acclaimed German orientalist and scholar Thedor Nӧldeke. Nӧldeke was an academic critic of the linguistic and literary features of the Qur’an, and therefore obviously rejected the doctrine of the Qur’an’s inimitability. However, his criticism actually brings to light the unsubstantiated nature of such claims. For instance, Nӧldeke remarks that, “the grammatical persons change from time to time in the Qur’an in an unusual and not beautiful way (nicht schoner Weise).”
The Qur’anic linguistic feature that Nӧldeke refers to is actually the effective rhetorical device known as iltifāt or grammatical shifts. This literary device enhances the texts literary expression and it is an accepted, well researched part of Arabic rhetoric. One can find references in the books of Arabic rhetoric by al-Athir, Suyuti and Zarkashi.
These grammatical shifts include: changes in person, change in number, change in addressee, change in tense, change in case marker, using a noun in place of a pronoun and many other changes. The main functions of these shifts include the changing of emphasis, to alert the reader to a particular matter, and to enhance the style of the text. Its effects include creating variation and difference in a text, to generate rhythm and flow, and to maintain the listener’s attention in a dramatic way.
Chapter al-Kawthar provides another good example of the use of grammatical shifts,
“Verily, We have granted you The Abundance. Therefore turn in prayer to your Lord and sacrifice. For he who hates you, he will be cut off.”
In this chapter, there is a change from the first person plural “We” to the second person “…your Lord”. This change is not an abrupt shift; it is calculated and highlights the intimate relationship between God and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. The use of “We” is used to emphasize the Majesty, Power and Ability of God. This choice of personal pronoun calls attention to, and stresses the fact, that God has the Power and Ability to grant Muhammad ﷺ “…The Abundance”. Whereas “Your Lord” has been used to indicate and emphasise intimacy, closeness and love. The word “Your Lord” has a range of meanings that imply master, provider, and the One that cares. This is an apt use of language, as the surrounding concepts are about prayer, sacrifice and worship; “Therefore turn inprayer to your Lord and sacrifice“. Furthermore, the purpose of this chapter is also to console Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, as using such intimate language enhances the psycholinguistic effect.
Theodor Nӧldeke’s criticism of the Qur’an was not only a personal value judgement, but exposed his crude understanding of the classical Arabic language. It also confirmed his inability to reach the level of expertise that was attained by 7th century Arabs. These grammatical shifts contribute to the dynamic style of the Qur’an and are obvious stylistic features and an accepted rhetorical practice. The Qur’an uses this feature in such a way that conforms to the theme of the text while enhancing the impact of the message it conveys. It is not surprising that Professor Neal Robinson in his bookDiscovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text concludes that the grammatical shifts used in the Qur’an, “…are a very effective rhetorical device.”
To conclude, counter testimonies testifying against the Qur’an’s inimitability do not hold water due to the need to explain why the best placed Arabs failed to challenge the Qur’an. Rejecting established historical narratives and assuming a superior appreciation of the classical Arabic language, renders the counter testimonials as indefensible.
6. The possible explanations for the Qur’an’s inimitability are an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God
To articulate the Divine origins of the Qur’an without referring to specifics about the Arabic language, the use of testimony and inference are required. What has been discussed so far is that there is a valid testimonial transmission that the Qur’an is inimitable, and that the possible explanation for its inimitability can be explained by attributing its authorship to an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God. However, it can be argued that there are other possible competing explanations, but we do not know what they are. This assertion commits a type of fallacy that some have called “the fallacy of the phantom option”. If there are genuine competing explanations then they must be presented on the intellectual table for discussion. Otherwise, this kind of reasoning is no different to claiming that the leaves do not fall from trees because of gravity, but due to another explanation that we do not know about.
7. It could not have been produced by an Arab, a Non-Arab or Muhammad ﷺ
There are a few key reasons why the Qur’an could not have come from an Arab. Firstly, they achieved unparalleled linguistic and literary mastery yet they failed to challenge the Qur’an and the leading experts of the time testified to the inimitable features of the Qur’an. One of the best linguist of the time, Walid Ibn al-Mughira, exclaimed,
“And what can I say? For I swear by Allah, there is none amongst you who knows poetry as well as I do, nor can any compete with me in composition or rhetoric – not even in the poetry of jinns! And yet, I swear by Allah, Muhammad’s speech [meaning the Qur’an] does not bear any similarity to anything I know, and I swear by Allah, the speech that he says is very sweet, and is adorned with beauty and charm.”
Secondly, the Arab polytheists in the 7th century initially accused the Prophet ﷺ of being a poet. However, none of the poets came out to expose Muhammad ﷺ as being one of his teachers. This was an easier thing to do than going to war and fighting the Muslims. The very fact that Muhammad ﷺ was successful in his message shows that he succeeded in showing the poets and linguists of the time that the Qur’an is indeed a supernatural genre. If the Qur’an was not inimitable, any poet or linguist could have come out and produced something better or similar to the Qur’anic discourse. The expert in Islamic studies Navid Kermani makes this point clear, “Obviously, the prophet succeeded in this conflict with the poets, otherwise Islam would not have spread like wildfire.”
What about today’s Arab? To assert that a contemporary Arabic speaking person can emulate the Qur’an is unfounded. A few reasons substantiate this point. Firstly, the Arabs in the 7th century were better placed to challenge the Qur’an, and since they failed to do so, it would be unreasonable to assert that a linguistic impoverished modern Arab surpass the abilities of their predecessors. Secondly, modern Arabic has suffered from greater linguistic borrowing and degeneration than the classical Arabic tradition. So how can an Arab who is a product of a linguistically degenerated culture be on par with an Arab who was immersed in an environment of relative linguistic purity? Thirdly, even if a contemporary Arab learns classical Arabic, his linguistic abilities could not match someone who was immersed in a culture that mastered the language.
The Qur’an could not have come from a Non-Arab as the language in the Qur’an is Arabic, and the knowledge of the Arabic language is a pre-requisite to successfully challenge the Qur’an. This has been addressed in the Qur’an itself,
“And indeed We know that they (polytheists and pagans) say: ‘It is only a human being who teaches him (Muhammad).’ The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this is a speech Arabeeyun mubeen.”
The classical exegete Ibn Kathir explains this verse to mean, “how could it be that this Qur’an with its eloquent style and perfect meanings, which is more perfect than any Book revealed to any previously sent Prophet, have been learnt from a foreigner who hardly speaks the language? No one with the slightest amount of common sense would say such a thing.”
What if a Non-Arab learns the language? This would make that person an Arabic speaker and I would refer to the first possible explanation above. However, there are differences between native and non-native speakers of languages as various academic studies in applied linguistics and similar fields have concluded. For instance, in the English the language, there are differences between native and non-native speakers in reliably discriminating between literal and idiomatic speech. Differences exist between English speakers with one non-native parent and those with native parents. The speakers with one non-native parent would exhibit worse linguistic performance on certain tasks then those with native parents. Even in cases of non-native speakers having indistinguishable linguistic competence with native speakers, there are still subtle linguistic differences. Research conducted by Kenneth Hyltenstam and Niclas Abrahamsson Who can become native-like in a second language? All, some, or none? concluded that competent non-native speakers exhibit features that are unperceivable except under detailed and systematic linguistic analysis. Therefore, to conclude that the Qur’an, with its inimitable features and it being a linguistic masterpiece, is a product of a Non-Arab, or non-native speakers, is untenable.
Prophet Muhammad ﷺ ?
The Qur’an could not have been produced by the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ as he was an Arab, and all the Arabs failed to challenge the Qur’an. Also, it is pertinent to note that the Arab linguists at the time of revelation stopped accusing the Prophet ﷺ of being the author of the Qur’an, after their initial false assertion that he became a poet. Professor Mohar Ali writes, “It must be pointed out that the Qur’an is not considered a book of poetry by any knowledgeable person. Nor did the Prophet ever indulge in versifying. It was indeed an allegation of the unbelieving Quraysh as the initial stage of their opposition to the revelation that [ﷺ] had turned a poet; but soon enough they found their allegation beside the mark and changed their lines of criticism in view of the undeniable fact of the Prophet’s being unlettered and completely unaccustomed to the art of poetry-making, saying that he had been tutored by others, that he had got the “old-worst stories” written for him by others and read out to him in the morning and evening.”
Significantly, the Prophet ﷺ was not considered a master of the language and did not engage in the craft of poetry or rhymed prose. Therefore, to claim that he somehow managed to conjure up a literary and linguistic masterpiece is beyond the pale of rational thought. Kermani writes, “He had not studied the difficult craft of poetry, when he started reciting verses publicly…Yet Muhammad’s recitations differed from poetry and from the rhyming prose of the soothsayers, the other conventional form of inspired, metrical speech at the time.”
The scholar Taqi Usmani similarly argues, “Such a proclamation was no ordinary thing. It came from a person who had never learned anything from the renowned poets and scholars of the time, had never recited even a single piece of poetry in their poetic congregations, had never attended the company of soothsayers. And far from composing any poetry himself, he did not even remember the verses of other poets.”
Further to this, the established Prophetic traditions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (also known asahadith, plural; and hadith, singular) are in a distinct style to that of the Qur’an. Dr. Draz argues the difference between the Qur’anic style and the Prophet’s ﷺ,
“When we consider the Qur’ānic style we find it the same throughout, while the Prophet’s own style is totally different. It does not run alongside the Qur’ān except like high flying birds which cannot be reached by man but which may ‘run’ alongside him. When we look at human styles we find them all of a type that remains on the surface of the earth. Some of them crawl while others run fast. But when you compare the fastest running among them to the Qur’ān you feel that they are no more than moving cars compared to planets speeding through their orbits.”
The difference between styles may not have much rational force in light of poets and spoken word artists. Poets and spoken word artists maintain key stylistic differences between their normal speech and their work over a long period of time. Thus, to use this as an argument to disprove that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ authored the Qur’an is weak. Nevertheless, Draz’s conclusions are not entirely subjective. If we take his meaning for the world “style” to include use of vocabulary, word length and other features, then it can bring to light interesting academic research that affirms Draz’s conclusions. Research entitled Author discrimination between the Holy Quran and Prophet’s statements by Halim Sayoud, used a range of linguistic experiments to investigate differences between the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions found in Sahih al-Bukhari. Sayoud performed multiple studies known as global and segmental analyses, and concluded that, from a linguistic perspective, the two books he was analysing must have had different authors,
“Results of all experiments have led to two main conclusions:
(1) First, the two investigated books should have different authors;
(2) Second, all the segments that are extracted from a unique book appear to have a certain stylistic similarity.
Consequently, we can conclude, according to this investigation, that the Qur’an was not written by the Prophet Muhammad and that it belongs to a unique author too.”
Some of the results that forms the basis of this conclusion include,
~ Words composed of a single letter are much more frequently used in the Qur’an than in the hadithfound in Sahih Al-Bukhari.
~ The hadith found in Sahih al-Bukhari uses much shorter words than the Qur’an. The number of short words in the hadith is 62.31%, whereas, in the Qur’an, it is only 53.76%.
~ The number of long words in the Qur’an is 34.42%, whereas, in the hadith found in Sahih al-Bukhari, it is only 29.51%.
~ The Qur’an contains approximately a double number of words with nine and ten letters than thehadith. This fact shows that the Qur’an vocabulary contains more “very-long” words (very-long stands for more than eight letters) than the hadith.
~ Most importantly, 62% of the hadith words are untraceable in the Qur’an and 83% of the Qur’an words are untraceable in the hadith. This conclusion of differing vocabulary is also reinforced by the above mentioned results.
~ The above results are statistically valid.
The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ experienced many trials and tribulations during the course of his Prophetic mission. For example, his children died, his beloved wife Khadija passed away, he was boycotted, his close companions were tortured and killed, he was stoned by children for hours in Taif, he engaged in military campaigns, though the Qur’an’s literary nature remains that of the Divine voice and character. Nothing in the Qur’an expresses the turmoil and emotions of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It is almost a psychological and physiological impossibility to go through what the Prophet ﷺ went through, and yet none of the emotions are expressed in the literary character of the Qur’an.
Is the Qur’an the result of Muhammad’s ﷺ genius?
There have been some commentators and scholars who have claimed that the best explanation for the inimitability of the Qur’an is Muhammad’s ﷺ genius. Therefore, some argue that God is not the best explanation, when presented with this possibility. They maintain that Qur’an being the result of Muhammad’s ﷺ genius is a simpler and more probable explanation, than a supernatural being. Thus, according to the rules of inference, the conclusion the Qur’an was authored by Muhammad ﷺ is the best explanation.
This contention is groundless. From a literary perspective, the Qur’an is known as a work of unsurpassed excellence. However, its verses were at many times revealed for specific circumstances and events that occurred during the period of revelation. Each verse was revealed without revision or deletion, yet were compiled together to create a literary masterpiece. In this light, the explanation that the Qur’an is a result of the Muhammad’s ﷺ literary intelligence is obviously unfounded. All literary masterpieces written by geniuses have undergone revision and deletion to ensure literary perfection, yet the Qur’an was revealed instantaneously and remained unchanged. An example to highlight this point is the work of the highly exclaimed poet Abu at-Tayyib Ahmad ibn al-Husayn al-Mutanabbi al-Kindi. Al-Mutanabbi was considered as the greatest of all Arab poets and an unparalleled genius. Therefore, some have made the conclusion that since his work was unparalleled, and that he was a genius, it follows the Qur’an is from a genius because it is unparalleled too. This reasoning doesn’t logically follow because Al-Mutannabi would correct his work and produce various editions until he was satisfied with his poetry. This was obviously not the case with Muhammad ﷺ as he did not edit, amend, or change the Qur’an once it was revealed. This can only mean that the Qur’an was not a result of a genius, because literary genius require editions to their work.
A central argument that dismisses the assertion that the Qur’an was a consequence of the Prophet Muhammad’s ﷺ genius, concerns the existence of blueprints for human expressions, and the tools required to replicate them. All types of human expression – whether the result of a genius of not – can be imitated if the blueprint of that expression exists, given that the tools are available for us to use. This has been shown to be true for various human expressions, such as art, literature and even complex technology. For example, artwork can be imitated even though some art is thought to be extraordinary or amazingly unique. But in the case of the Qur’an we have its blueprint – the Qur’an itself – and the tools at our disposal – the finite words and grammatical rules of the classical Arabic language. Yet no one has been able to imitate its eloquence, unique literary form and genre. To elaborate on this further consider the general consensus that Shakespeare is a literary genius. The English playwright may have been a genius but his work is available as a blueprint for others to try and emulate. Shakespeare’s sonnets are written predominantly in a frequently used meter called the iambic pentameter, a rhyme scheme in which each sonnet line consists of ten syllables. The syllables are divided into five pairs called iambs or iambic feet. Since the blueprint of his work is available it is not surprising that the English Dramatist Christopher Marlowe has a similar style, and that Shakespeare has been compared to Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher and other playwrights of his time.
Referring back to Al-Mutannabi, some have argued that although other poets have used the same panegyric genre and poetic metre as the great poet, they have not been able to match his level of eloquence and stylistic variance. Therefore, they conclude that Al-Mutannabi is inimitable because we have the blueprint of his work and the linguistic tools at our disposal, but cannot emulate anything like his poetic expression. This is simply not true. There have been imitations of Al-Mutanabbi’s work by the Jewish poets Moses Ibn Ezra and Solomon ibn Gabriol. Interestingly, the Andalusian poet Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi was known as the Al-Mutanabbi of the West.
A significant point to raise is that medieval Arabic poetry did not create new literary genres. This was due to the fact that it depended on previous poetic work. The academic Denis E. McAuley writes that medieval poetry largely hinged “more on literary precedent than on direct experience.”
In classical Arabic poetry, it was not unusual for a poet to attempt to match a predecessor’s poem by writing a new one in the same poetic metre, rhyme, and theme. This was considered normal practice. It is not surprising that Professor of Religion Emil Homerin explored the literary expression of Ibn al-Farid, and described his work as “very original improvisations on al-Mutanabbi”.
To highlight further the fact that al-Mutanabbi can be emulated, he disclosed that he borrowed work from another poet, Abu Nuwas. Many medieval Arab literary critics such as Al-Sahib Ibn ‘Abbad and Abu Ali Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Hatimi wrote criticisms of Al-Mutanabbi. Ibn ‘Abbad wroteal-kashf ‘an masawi’ shi’r al-Mutanabbi and Al-Hatimi wrote a biographical account of his encounter with al-Mutanabbi in is al-Risala al-Mudiha fi dhikr sariqat Abi al-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi. The conclusions of these literary criticisms imply that although his work is the product of genius, they can be emulated. Al-Hatimi presents a stronger polemic against Al-Mutanabbi and argues the case that his poetry does not have a unique style, and contains errors. Professor Seeger A. Bonebakker who studied Al-Hatimi’s literary criticism of Al-Mutanabbi concludes the his “judgement is often well-founded and one almost ends up feeling that Mutanabbi was, after all, a mediocre poet who was not only lacking in originality, but also had insufficient competence in grammar, lexicography, and rhetoric, and sometimes gave evidence of incredibly bad taste.”
To conclude, attributing the authorship of the Qur’an to genius, specifically Muhammad’s ﷺ genius, is unfounded. A literary genius edits, amends and improves their work. This was not the case with the Qur’an. All human expressions can be imitated if we have the blueprint and the tools at our disposal. This has been shown for literary genius such as Shakespeare and Al-Mutanabbi. Therefore, if the Qur’an was a result of Muhammad’s ﷺ genius, the Qur’an should have been imitated.
8. Therefore, the best explanation is that it is from God
Since the Qur’an could not have been produced by an Arab, a Non-Arab and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, then it follows that the best explanation is that it came from God. God provides the best explanation for the Qur’an’s inimitability because the other explanations are untenable in light of the available knowledge. A possible disagreement with this conclusion is that God is assumed to exist in order for the above inference to work, therefore it begs the question concerning the existence of the Divine. Although it will make the argument easier to appreciate, it can work without any previous conviction in the existence of the Divine, but this argument is best articulated to fellow theists.
Conversely, the point can be made that a previous conviction in God’s existence is not necessary, and that the inimitability of the Qur’an is a signpost to the existence of the Divine. If a human being (an Arab, a Non-Arab and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ) could not have produced the Qur’an – and all possible explanations have been exhausted – then who else could be the author? It must be something that has greater linguistic capacity then any known text producer. The intuitive conclusion is that the concept that describes a being that has a greater linguistic capacity than any human is the concept of God. God is indeed greater. Therefore the inimitability of the Qur’an provides a rational basis for God’s existence, or at least a signpost to the transcendent.
Similar reasoning is adopted by scientists. Take the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson. The Higgs-Boson particle is the building block of the Higgs field. This field was switched on during the early universe to give particles mass. Before the discovery of this particle it was still accepted as the best explanation for the fact that during the early universe particles changed state, from having no mass to mass (with the exception of photons). So the Higgs-Boson particle was the best explanation for the available data even before it was empirically verified. Applying this reasoning back to the inimitability of the Qur’an, the fact that the book has unique literary and linguistic features is best explained by God. All other competing explanation fail, and God is the best explanation for the information and knowledge available to us.
Alternative inferences could include the fact that the inimitability of the Qur’an is best explained by a higher being or that that it could have come from the devil. These alternative inferences are unlikely hence they have not been incorporated into the central argument presented in this essay. Nevertheless, addressing them here will demonstrate why they have not been included in the main discussion.
Postulating the Qur’an is from a higher being seems to be a semantic replacement for God. What is meant by “a higher being”? Is not the best explanation of a higher being, God himself? If by “a higher being” implies a greater linguistic power, capacity and ability than a human, then who can best fit that criteria than God Himself? Claiming that the Qur’an is from a higher being but a lesser one than God, does not devalue that at least one of the best explanations is God. For the sake of intellectual pedantry, even if “a higher being” and “God” are both best explanations, it still follows that one of the best explanations is that the Qur’an is from the Divine. Nonetheless, I still maintain that God is a better explanation than a higher being because of other supporting intellectual arguments. These include positive arguments for God’s existence, the absurdity of attributing to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ the characteristics of a liar, other Qur’anic arguments for its Divine authorship, and the fact that the Qur’an claims it is from the Divine.
Theistic responses to this discussion usually entertain the possibility of the devil being the author of the Qur’an. This explanation is unsustainable. The Qur’an could not have come from the devil, or some type of spirit, because the basis of their existence is the Qur’an and revelation itself. Their existence is based upon revelation and not empirical evidence. Therefore if someone claims that the source of the Qur’an is the devil, they would have to prove his existence and ultimately having to prove revelation. In the case of using the Qur’an as the revelation to establish the devil’s existence then that would already establish it as a Divine text, because to believe in the devil’s existence would presuppose the Qur’an to be Divine, and therefore this contention is self-defeating. If however, the revelation that is referred to is the Bible, the Bible must be shown to be a valid basis to justify the belief in the devil. In light of contemporary studies into the textual integrity and historicity of the Bible this is unfeasible. Further to this, a content analysis of the Qur’an would strongly indicate that the book is not the teachings of the devil, as the Qur’an rebukes him and promotes morals and ethics not in line with an evil worldview.
This essay has presented an argument for the Divine nature of the Qur’anic discourse using testimony and inference to the best explanation. The crucial and fundamental role of testimony has been highlighted, and inference to the best explanation has been shown to be a rational and valid method of thinking to form conclusions about reality. The Qu’ran’s inimitability can be established using testimony. Arabic linguists and the literary experts confirm the inimitability of the Qur’an, and their testimonial knowledge on the topic is warranted based on established background knowledge. This knowledge includes the fact that the Qur’an poses an intellectual linguistic and literary challenge to the world, that the Arab’s in the 7th century were best placed to challenge the Qur’an, and the fact that they failed to produce or imitate something like the Qur’an’s unique genre and literary form. Given that it is reasonable to accept the testimony in favour of the Qur’an’s inimitability – based on established background information – inference is then used to best explain the book’s unique linguistic an literary features. The possible explanations include an Arab, a Non-Arab, Muhammad ﷺ or God. Since attributing this unique discourse to an Arab, a Non-Arab or Muhammad ﷺ is untenable in light of the information available to us, the best explanation is that it came from God.
To reject the conclusions made in this essay, I would argue is epistemically equivalent in rejecting the roundness of the Earth and the conclusions of qualified medical staff. The roundness of the Earth, for most of us, is ultimately based on testimonial transmission, and the conclusions of trained medical experts are based on inferences to the best explanation. A retort to this assertion may include the fact that trust in the roundness of the Earth and the medical diagnosis of experts is justified based on other knowledge we have acquired, and it does not lead to extraordinary claims such as postulating the supernatural. This contention is common. However, it presupposes a naturalistic ontology. This means that a hidden assumption behind such concerns is that all phenomena can be explained via natural and physical processes, and that the universe is a closed system. Nothing exists outside of the universe, and if something does, it does not interact with it in any way. Such daring and presumptuous worldview is unjustified and incoherent in light of modern studies on the philosophy of the mind, the development and acquisition of language, objective moral truths and cosmology.
To end, if someone with an open mind and heart, without the intellectual constraints of non-negotiable assumptions about the world, has access to the argument presented in this essay, the conclusion that the Qur’an is from the Divine would be a rational conclusion to make. Nevertheless, whatever is said or written about the Qur’an will always fall short in describing and exploring its words and their meanings,
“Say, ‘If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement.’”
This essay was originally published by iERA.
Notes: Benjamin McMyler. Testimony, Truth and Authority. Oxford University Press. 2011. p. 3.