Miraculousness of the Qurān – A Historical Overview (Part 3)

Semantic – Philological

Most Muslim scholars agree that the Qurān was not revealed in the Arabic language without any wisdom.[1]

[26:193-195] This is indeed [a Book] sent down by the Lord of all the worlds, brought down by the Trustworthy Spirit upon your heart (so that you may be one of the warners), in a clear Arabic language.

[16:103] We certainly know that they say, ‘It is only a human that instructs him.’ The language of him to whom they refer is non-Arabic, while this is a clear Arabic language.

These verses seem to show that the Qurān was revealed in Arabic for the mere fact that it is a clear language whose vocabulary is able to convey very precise meanings. From 2nd century hijrī Muslim scholars began exerting all their efforts in trying to understand the language of the Qurān, the words employed in it, the grammatical principles and foundations upon which the chapters were formed and so on. A semantic and philological approach to the Qurān thus looks at the style of the Qurān from the perspective of its vocabulary and the way these words are organized and used in their compound form, in order to attest to its miraculous nature.

An exhaustive list of scholars who took on this approach would be too long for this post, but we will go through the opinions of a few proponents anyways. One of the earliest works written expounding on this approach is Majāz al-Qurān by Abū ‘Ubaydah Ma’mar b. al-Muthanna (d. 210 AH / 825 CE). One of his motives for writing the book was because someone questioned him regarding the verse:

[37:65] Its spathes are as if they were devils’ heads

The questioner insisted that the figurative use in this verse was not something the Arabs were familiar with. In response, Abū ‘Ubaydah cites a line of poetry from Imru’ al-Qays to show that the Qurānic style was in fact in line with what was considered correct and known in the Arabic language. In his work he cites numerous examples of metaphors used in the Qurān and in the general Arabic language – poetry or otherwise – to show that there is little difference between their usage. The book served almost like a textbook for both Arabs and non-Arabs to facilitate their understanding of the Qurān.[2]

Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276 AH / 889 CE) was a 3rd century hijrī scholar who in his work Tawīl Mushkil al-Qurān goes on to explain the usage of various words and metaphors in the Qurān. As a philologist, what made the Qurān stand out for him was its composition. In his work, he dedicates a decent portion to discussing the difficult verses of the Qurān, something Abū ‘Ubaydah often referred to as metaphors. Ibn Qutaybah defines these metaphors and figurative verses to be the ways and methods of speech and the modes of handling it. He compares the language of the Qurān with a speech given by an Arab preacher, who delivers a talk in a variety of ways, depending on the place, occasion and audience. The metaphors in the Qurān, however, are superior to those of any human speaker, since the Quran not only has more methods of speech, but it also often uses them all simultaneously.[3] These methods range from metaphors, inversions, ellipsis, abbreviations, repetitions, pleonasms, metonyms, allusions, idioms and so on.[4] This would essentially render the Quranic text untranslatable according to Ibn Qutaybah, because the non-Arabs lack the variety of methods that the Arabic language has at its disposal.

He doesn’t just stop there, but even discusses cases where the Qurān addresses a single person with a plural pronoun, or multiple people with singular pronouns, uses a constrained and restricted word to mean something general or uses a general word to mean something constrained and restricted. He argues all of these usages exist in the Arabic language and the Arabs were known to speak in this manner.[5]

Abū Sulaymān Ḥamd b. Ibrahīm al-Khaṭṭābī al-Bustī[6] (d. 388 AH / 998 CE) in his Bayān I’jāz al-Qurān is another scholar who was of the view that the key to understanding the miracle of the Qurān was to recognize its coherence, as well as its linguistic & phonetic order system.[7] He argues that the Qurān is a miracle because it uses clear words in the most beautiful of manners, in order to convey the most precise meanings. If a word in a verse were to be replaced with another word that would generally be considered a synonym by laymen, the coherence of the whole verse would be ruined or at the very least its eloquence will be diminished.

Artistic Imagery

The root cause of this approach can be found in criticism against taking a strictly philological approach to explaining what the Qurānic miracle is. Furthermore, relatively recent discussions in literary criticism raised in the West also pushed some Muslim scholars to look at the Qurān through perspectives that were often not considered in the past. As discussions in linguistics and the general arts developed, a lot of the explanations given by those who were proponents of the philological approach were not convincing enough for all linguists. One of the criticisms laid against the previous approach was its high dependency on the apparent form of the Qurān, while not addressing its immense use of artistic imagery and its psychological effects on the listener.

Amongst classical scholars, very few scholars approached the Qurān through this perspective, and even those who did allude to it in some parts of their works were not necessarily trying to establish the miraculous nature of the Qurān to it. For example al-Rummānī (d. 384 AH / 994 CE) in his al-Nukat fi I’jāz al-Qurān, Abū Hilāl al-‘Askarī (d. 395 AH / 1005 CE) in his al-Ṣanā’atayn, and Ibn Abī al-Aṣba’ (d. 654 AH / 1256 CE) in his Badī’ al-Qurān and Taḥrīr al-Taḥbīr were some scholars who alluded to this aspect of the Qurān in certain areas of their works.

One of the prominent scholars who brought this approach to light was Sayyid Quṭb al-Dīn (d. 1966 CE), in two of his works, namely al-Taṣwīr al-Fann fi al-Qurān and Mashāhid al-Qiyāmah fi al-Qurān. In these works, Quṭb tried to bring out the aesthetics, imagination, and as well as the elegance of the Qurān’s storytelling, with its deep psychological dimensions.[8] Dr. Ṣubḥi al-Ṣāliḥ (d. 1986 CE) in his Mabāḥith fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān also expounds on this dimension and considers it an independent factor in determining the miraculousness of the book.

The famous professor ‘Āisha ‘Abd al-Raḥmān (d. 1998) – who wrote under the pen name Bint al-Shāṭi – in her al-I’jāz al-Bayānī lil-Qurān, Bakrī Shaykh Amīn in his al-Ta’bīr al-Fannī fi al-Qurān, Ḥanafī Muḥammad Sharaf in his I’jāz al-Qurān al-Bayānī bayn al-Naẓariyyah wa al-Taṭbīq, ‘Umar al-Salāmī in his al-I’jāz al-Fannī, Muḥammad ‘Abdullah Darrāz in his al-Naba al-‘Aẓīm and Fāḍil al-Sāmarāī in his al-Ta’bīr al-Qurānī all write regarding this dimension of the Qurān that expand on its imagery and symbolism.

All aforementioned proponents of this approach believe that the miracle of the Qurān is in its artistic imagery and that is what astonished the Arabs of the time and left them speechless. Some of these individuals and their works will be dealt with in more detail in future posts. In the next post, we will look into the rational-intellectual approach and an approach that considers the miracle of the Qurān to be in its elucidation.

[1] A small number of contemporary Muslim scholars, who also often happen to be reformists, will argue that the Qurān is in Arabic simply because it was revealed in Arabia. Otherwise, there is nothing special about the language itself – they claim – and as a matter of fact if the verses were to be revealed in, let’s say Greece in the Greek language, it may even have been more precise.

[2] Abu Ubaidah’s “Majaz Al-Qur’an” as the Beginning of a New Trend in the Practice of Tafsir, by Mamedova K.

[3] Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qu’ran, by Issa J Boullata, pg. 278

[4] Ibid

[5] Tawīl Mushkil al-Qurān, by Ibn Qutaybah, pg. 20-21

[6] The present-day name for al-Bust is Lashkargah – a city in Southern Afghanistan

[7] This is a reference to a principle known as al-naẓm – it will be explained further in future posts

[8] Sayyid Qutb: The Life and Legacy of a Radical Islamic Intellectual, by James Toth, pg. 45

About Ali Imran 238 Articles
An internet marketer by profession, I am the author of Iqra Online. I am currently pursuing a MA in Islamic Studies from The Islamic College of London, and as well as continuing my studies in a seminary in Qom, Iran.