Theorizing the Qurʾanic Miracle – By Bruce Fudge

Bruce Fudge on al-Khaṭṭābī, al-Rummānī, and ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, Three Treatises on the Iʿjāz of the Qurʾān

al-Khaṭṭābī, al-Rummānī, and ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, Three Treatises on the Iʿjāz of the Qurʾān, ed. Muhammad Khalaf Allah and Muhammad Zaghlul Sallam, translated by Issa J. Boullata, Garnet Publishing, 2015, 174pp., $34.95
al-Khaṭṭābī, al-Rummānī, and ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, Three Treatises on the Iʿjāz of the Qurʾān, ed. Muhammad Khalaf Allah and Muhammad Zaghlul Sallam, translated by Issa J. Boullata, Garnet Publishing, 2015, 174pp., $34.95
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The first time I attempted to read the Qurʾan in translation, many, many years ago, I found myself sympathetic to the oft-quoted words of Thomas Carlyle: “I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite … Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran.” I have long since come to appreciate the beauty, the mystery, and the enigmatic nature of the Qurʾan in Arabic, and I count it a fascinating masterpiece of literature and one of my favorite topics to teach. Nonetheless, I retain some sympathy for Carlyle’s opinion (though I would have put it differently). To the uninitiated, it does appear repetitive and frustratingly vague or obscure, not to mention bafflingly unorganized.

This is perhaps all the more surprising when one considers that for Muslims, the literary and aesthetic superiority of this text is a matter of dogma: it is unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Not only is it valued for the message and the wisdom it imparts, but its aural qualities are the object of particular reverence. Qurʾanic recitation is a widely praised and practiced art throughout the Islamic world. Early Islamic history tells of those enemies of the Prophet whose souls were tamed when they heard someone reciting part of the sacred text. There is even a small sub-genre of religious literature known as “Those killed by the Qurʾan,” that is, those who were so overwhelmed by the beauty and power of the recited Qurʾan that they expired on the spot. All this is a result of the Qurʾan’s miraculous nature, and the belief that it is “inimitable,” its literary qualities of divine origin. This doctrine is known as iʿjāz al-Qurʾān, and it is the subject of the three treatises, dating from the tenth and eleventh centuries, in the book under review, first published in Arabic in Cairo in 1956. This literary appreciation of the Islamic revelation leads to a curious confluence of the aesthetic and the theological, one I think without parallel in the biblical tradition. Can literary judgments validate theological claims, and vice-versa?

The doctrine of the Qurʾan’s literary and rhetorical superiority has roots in the text itself. As the tradition has it, the Prophet Muhammad faced a number of accusations from his early adversaries: he was but a poet, he was a soothsayer, he was possessed by jinn; his supposedly divine revelations were nonsensical fabrications. The revelation itself came to Muhammad’s defense, and one of the ways it did so was to challenge its hearers: Or do they say, ‘He has invented it?’ Nay, but they do not believe. Then let them bring a discourse like it, if they speak truly (Q 52:33-4) and Or do they say, ’Why, he has forged it’? Say: ’Then produce a sura like it, and call on whom you can, apart from God, if you speak truly’ (Q 10:38), among others. This became known as the qur’anic “challenge” (taḥaddī).

But despite the appreciation of the Qurʾan and its unique character, the doctrine of its inimitability took time to develop. It was apparently only in the ninth century (the third Islamic century) that it became unacceptable to criticize qur’anic style (and such criticism was of course a question of form, not content). Some authors did take up the “challenge” to create rival passages, and a number of lines that purport to be attempts to imitate the Qurʾan have been preserved. Needless to say, judgment on these snippets was harsh, although on should note that their authenticity is by no means certain.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

At this point appear the first efforts to explain the doctrine of the Qurʾan’s “inimitability,” its iʿjāz. This term literally means “incapacitation,” indicating that there is something that renders people incapable of successfully imitating the Qurʾan. Early efforts to theorize the doctrine of iʿjāz emphasized precisely this aspect, a kind of divine force-field that foiled any potentially threatening attempts to equal Qurʾanic eloquence. Others said that the miracle was in the scripture’s knowledge of future events (such as the military fortunes of Byzantium, in Q 30: 2-3, The Greeks have been vanquished in the nearer part of the land; and, after their vanquishing, they shall be the victors that proved its miraculous nature).

But subsequent generations felt that these explanations of the Qurʾan’s iʿjāz did not do justice to the text itself, and furthermore, posed theological difficulties. For example, if God “deflects” or “diverts” or otherwise thwarts potential imitations, would that not mean that it is within human capacities to rival the Qurʾan, thus diminishing the nature of the miracle? Certain circles felt a pressing need, possibly in response to Christian polemic, to confirm this miraculous nature, to make the Qurʾan the miracle that would serve as proof of Muhammad’s prophecy. By the tenth century C.E. one finds concerted effort to locate the Qurʾan’s “inimitability” in its miraculous eloquence. That is, the miracle consisted of aesthetic qualities, in that its style and eloquence surpassed all other texts.

Most Muslims were content to accept the inimitability of the Qurʾan intuitively, as one appreciates a poem or other work of art, without necessarily being able to offer a precise definition or explanation. The difference between appreciation of the Qurʾan and, say, a poem is then a matter of degree and not kind. No doubt this was the case for the vast majority of the believers, but the iʿjāz theoreticians found this unsatisfactory. It seems likely, as Sophia Vasalou suggests, that the “exigencies of polemics” demanded something more than the “intuitive” argument; the nature of the qur’anic miracle had to be clearly spelled out.

The highly developed field of Islamic jurisprudence gives ample leeway for ambiguity and the contingencies of human behavior. Theology, dealing as it does with the divine, is much less forgiving. It requires definitive proofs and clearly argued propositions. But what sort of proofs can determine aesthetic claims?

The texts in the volume under review, especially the first two, attempt to prove that the Qurʾan is “more eloquent” than any poetry or conventional use of language. The second treatise is by al-Rummānī (d. 994), a Baghdad philologist known for his idiosyncratic blending of Greek logic and Arabic grammar. (A contemporary remarked, “If grammar is as al-Rummānī says, then we know nothing of it, and if grammar is as we say it is, then he knows nothing of it.”) Al-Rummānī lists various components of iʿjāz, such as the “turning away” of attempts to imitate, but he concentrates almost exclusively on rhetorical features such as concision, rhyme and assonance, simile, metaphor, and hyperbole, among others. (He has some innovative remarks about the nature of metaphor as well, but this will probably not be clear to the reader of the translation.)

The first treatise, that of al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 998) is less systematic but no less interesting for its extended explanations of why certain “errors” in the Qurʾan in fact contribute to its eloquence. He also includes the idea that would shape all future iʿjāz discourse: that eloquence consists of three elements: words, meanings, and the way those two are combined. The third component is what came to be called naẓm (“ordering, organization”) and which would henceforth be the central component of the Qurʾan’s eloquence. For al-Khaṭṭābī, it indicates the particular way in which words and meaning are put together. Later, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 1078), author of the third text and perhaps the most important Arabic literary critic, would develop this much further and refine the definition to something like “minding the meanings of syntactic relations.”

Taken together, these texts give a fascinating picture of the philological world of medieval Muslim scholars. It is a world composed of texts, those of the Qurʾan and the hadith, as well as poetry and poets, especially those of the pre- and early Islamic periods. These authors were writing several centuries later, yet that world seems to be a living reality for them, as timely and as relevant as ever. Further, there is also a sense in which philological standards are the main currency, as there is an attempt to examine and compare texts on the basis of their literary merits alone, to discuss scripture with the same terms and standards used to judge poetry, without recourse to any higher authority. This is a fascinating exercise.

The playing field, however, is obviously not quite as level as they pretend. Anyone can see that the match, as it were, is fixed, and that any conclusion that does not give the prize to the Qurʾan is unacceptable. It is fascinating to see qur’anic passages compared with conventional Arabic style or verses from the great poets, but it is quite another thing to pass from these aesthetic judgments of taste to theological proofs. The theologians-cum-literary critics seem to have recognized this, and thus do we read arguments that attempt to extract the debate from the purely literary and rhetorical, to make the proof rest on more than one passage being judged more eloquent (ablagh) than another. For example, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, in the third essay, argues that the Qur’an’s eloquence does not reside in matters of pure rhetoric, but in the creation of a literary category all its own, and the iʿjāz stems from the inability of humans to do the same. The challenge, he says here, is not to imitate the same ideas as the Qur’an in a naẓm resembling that of the Qur’an. The challenge is rather to express any idea at all in a naẓm as excellent (and as distinct) as that of the Qur’an. He admits the theoretical possibility that a poet might produce an idea or a trope that rivals the Qur’an in a particular category or poetic genre, but he would never be able to do so for all the different ideas and genres found in the scripture.

The late Maxime Rodinson, in his 1961 biography of Muhammad (dated in many respects but a nonetheless extraordinary work in being an atheist’s entirely unapologetic appreciation of the figure of the Prophet), mentions the attempts to produce “imitations” of the Qurʾan. One such imitator, informed that his verses lacked the captivating magic of the revelation, replied: “Have it read out in the mosques for centuries and then you will see!” Rodinson went on:

Here in fact is the heart of the matter. A text on which one has been brought up from infancy and heard recited with great fervour in the most solemn and moving circumstances, which one has studied word for word and so that it has become almost a part of oneself, sets up, after a time, a special kind of reaction. It becomes quite impossible to hear it with a fresh ear so as to see exactly how it would appear to us if the bare text, free of all associations, were to be put before us for the first time without warning. For Catholics, it is the same with certain scriptural passages and latin hymns used in the liturgy … It is not surprising that so many Muslims should be convinced of the inimitable perfection of the Koranic text and amazed and indignant that anyone could doubt it. Nor is it in any surprising that outsiders, presented for the first time with the texts in question, should often see in them nothing which appears to them to justify the admiration of those who were brought up on them.

While Rodinson is certainly correct, there is nonetheless another aspect to the question. While it is difficult to speak of the characteristics of “Islam” in general terms, there is an aesthetic dimension to Islamic belief and practice, and a good part of this focuses on the Qurʾan. That is, appreciating the beauty of the scripture, whether its recitation or its poetic qualities, or its subtly expressed meanings, is a common part of being Muslim. Similarly, one need not be a believer to find inspiration in the Qurʾan (the great contemporary Syrian poet Adonis being an obvious example).

If our perceptions of Islam are today colored by more austere visions of the religion, we would do well not to ignore the plentiful evidence for the importance of art, or at least of the aesthetic, in Islam. Navid Kermani has argued that if it seems at times that Islam has an antagonistic relation to poets, novelists, and figurative representation, this is not due to hostility to art but rather the fact that Islam claims these areas as its own. Of course, there are implications to Kermani’s interpretation that artists may not find so comforting, but we may also forget how closely intertwined Christianity and European painting, music, and literature have been for so much of their history, even if the theological claims we find in Islam are largely absent.

There are two great merits to the works collected and translated in Three Treatises on the Iʿjāz of the Qurʾān. First, they provide a glimpse into the textual world of medieval Muslim scholars and their relation to the Qurʾan and the importance of poetry and language in that world. Second, they illustrate the difficulties of reconciling aesthetic judgments with theological arguments, and it is to the credit of the scholars that they seem, without saying so, to be aware of those difficulties. It is somewhat unfortunate that the translations make for heavy reading. While there is no doubting the translator’s knowledge of both languages, the English hews so closely to the Arabic as to be at times unintelligible. Many more explanatory notes and perhaps even transliterations of some of the poetry would have resulted in a vastly more serviceable work. Those with a knowledge of Arabic will find it a welcome aid to reading an often difficult text; those without are likely to recall Carlyle’s “sense of duty” needed to get them through it.