Miraculousness of the Qurān – Doctrine of al-Ṣarfah – A Historical Overview (Part 5)

From the beginning of revelation up until the end of the 2nd century, the issue of i’jāz (miraculousness) of the Qurān was not a widely discussed topic amongst Muslim scholars. The Muslims before that were in general amazed by the Qurān and the concepts it discussed and expounded on, to such an extent that there never seemed to be a need to get into formal discussions regarding what made it a miracle. Two possible reasons exist for this lack of attention towards this aspect of the Qurān:

1) The Muslims had known that the Qurān is from God without a doubt, thus they did not develop the need to get into questions regarding the precise nature of its text, its sentence structure, its prose and so on.

2) The Muslims considered the Qurān a sacred book, and so they did not put forth any personal opinions regarding it. This is similar to why companions and the tābi’ūn (the followers and contemporaries of the companions) did not engage in extensive exegesis of the Qurān.

Formal discussions on the miraculousness of the Qurān began between the end of the 2nd and the beginning of the 3rd century hijrī. The earliest group engaging in discussions of i’jāz were the Mu’tazalīs, and thus the earliest formal opinion regarding its miracle also happened to be the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah – proposed by Abū Isḥāq Ibrahīm al-Naẓẓām (d. 231 AH / 845 CE). This was around the same time when dispute over the created nature of Qurān was also taking place between different scholars. Three groups sprung into existence during this period:

1) Those who believed that the Qurān was not miraculous at all. Some proponents of this view were Ibn Rāwandī the philosopher and the Mu’tazalī scholar ‘Īsa b. Ṣabīḥ al-Muzdār

2) Most Mu’tazalīs became proponents of the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah

3) Theologians who believed the miracle to be in the text and very nature of the Qurān – not outside of it

In this post, we will go over the second opinion, although due to the extensive nature of the discussion, we can only explain it briefly.

Al-Ṣarfah

Al-Ṣarfah linguistically means to prevent, discourage, or divert. It has been used in Sūrah al-A’rāf as follows:

سَأَصْرِفُ عَنْ آيَاتِيَ الَّذِينَ يَتَكَبَّرُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ

[7:146] I will turn away from My signs those who are arrogant upon the earth

However, in our technical discussion in the context of the miraculousness of the Qurān, it refers to the concept of God diverting the Arabs away from being able to produce anything like the Qurān. In other words, the Arabs could have brought something like the Qurān, but an external barrier prevented them from doing so.[1] Arabic was the language of the people of the time, they were well familiar with the way it was used and employed. The Qurān was revealed in Arabic making use of the same grammatical foundations popular amongst the Arabs, so then what was it that prevented them from bringing something like it? The doctrine formulated to respond to this question was al-Ṣarfah, but how exactly it worked had remained a matter of dispute.

Al-Amīr Yaḥya b. Ḥamzah al-‘Alawī al-Zaydī (d. 749 AH) in his work al-Ṭarāz says there are three possibilities[2] regarding what the proponents of al-Ṣarfah believed in:

1) God had removed all motivation from them to bring anything similar to the Qurān and to challenge it, despite the fact that reasons for why they should have been motivated to do so were present. These reasons range from the Qurān essentially making a mockery of them, exposing their inability to bring something like it, or even discussing their defeat and downfall in the face of Islam. They had every reason to feel motivated to bring something like the Qurān to combat it, but they did not seem to be interested in doing so.

2) They were motivated to bring something like the Qurān, but God had diverted their attention away from the knowledge by which they could have produced something like it. There are two further explanations al-Amīr Yaḥya expounds on as far as this opinion is concerned, but we will suffice with what we have summarized here.

3) They had the motivation and as well as the necessary knowledge to bring something like the Qurān, but God forcefully prevented them from being able to do so.

Āyatullah Hādī Ma’rifat says that it seems it was the second opinion many proponents of al-Ṣarfah believed in and that this is particularly true for the Shī’ī scholar Sayyid al-Murtaḍa – who was a staunch proponent of this doctrine.[3] Āyatullah Hādī Ma’rifat backs this up by citing a number of scholars, including Ibn Maytham al-Baḥrānī[4] (d. 679 AH) and Sa’d al-Dīn al-Taftāzānī[5] (d. 793 AH).

A number of heavy-weights held the opinion of al-Ṣarfah, such as al-Naẓẓām, Abū Isḥāq al-Nuṣaybī, ‘Abbād b. Sulaymān, Hisham al-Qurṭūbī, Ibn Ḥazm al-Andalusī (d. 456 AH) – a Ẓāhirī scholar, Abū ‘Uthmān al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255 AH) and others. However, for sake of conciseness, we will go over just three scholars.

Al-Naẓẓām

As mentioned earlier, al-Naẓẓām appears to be the earliest proponent of the view of al-Ṣarfah, though some have also made the claim that it was Wāṣil b. ‘Āṭā (d. 131 AH / 748 CE). In any case, as far as what al-Naẓẓam’s view regarding al-Ṣarfah was, we are not too sure because none of his works are extant today by which we can judge for ourselves, and so all we are left with are quotations from him or what later scholars understood from his words. Due to this, we find that some scholars have said he took on the first opinion regarding al-Ṣarfah, meaning God had simply removed any motivation from them to bring something similar to the Qurān[6], while others such as Ibn al-Zamlakānī (d. 651 AH) suggest[7] it was the second opinion, where God had removed their access to the knowledge by which they could have brought something similar to the Qurān. Abū al-Ḥasan al-Ash’arī (d. 320 AH) in his Maqālāt al-Islāmiyīn[8] explicitly states that it was, in fact, the third opinion al-Naẓẓām was a proponent of.

In other words, all three opinions have been attributed to him. Some later scholars argue it was, in fact, the first opinion al-Naẓẓām ascribed to, especially when we see his student al-Jāḥiẓ alluding to it as well. Furthermore, some scholars have explained the difference between al-Naẓẓām’s version of al-Ṣarfah with that of Sayyid al-Murtaḍa’s, which once again leads us to believe that al-Naẓẓām ascribed to the first opinion, because it is widely accepted that al-Murtaḍa ascribed to the second view.

Ibn Sinān al-Khafājī

Amīr Abū Muḥammad ‘Abdullah b. Muḥammad b. Sinān al-Khafājī (d. 466 AH / 1074 CE) was an Imām Shī’ī scholar of the 5th century hijrī, who was eventually poisoned on the orders of the Amīr Maḥmūd b. Naṣr. In his Sirr al-Fiṣāḥa[9] he comes out as a strong proponent of al-Ṣarfah and even attempts to refute Abū al-Ḥasan al-Rummānī (d. 384 AH / 994 CE) who believed the miracle of the Qurān to be in its assonance and eloquence.

In his attack on al-Rummānī, Ibn Sinān says that if one contemplates even a little over the Qurān and the eloquent speech of the Arabs, they will realize that there is not much difference between the two. In fact, someone who is familiar with the grammatical and literary foundations by which it could be claimed that a certain speech was eloquent, they will find phrases and speech amongst the Arabs that highly resembled the Qurānic verses. He says that the miraculous aspect of the Qurān is in the fact that God prevented the Arabs from being able to bring something like it simply by restricting their access to the specific knowledge that would be required to do so.

Sayyid al-Murtaḍa

Given that Sayyid al-Murtaḍa (d. 436 AH) is one of the greatest Shī’ī Imāmi scholars to ever live, and due to his vast expertise in the various Islamic sciences as well as his unique views in matters of theology, jurisprudence, Qurānic exegesis, grammar and so on, it only makes sense to understand his view on this doctrine.

There is no dispute that Sayyid al-Murtaḍa was a proponent of al-Ṣarfah. From amongst al-Murtaḍa’s students, it appears Shaykh al-Ṭūṣi was a proponent of al-Ṣarfah initially, as it is apparent from his commentary on Sayyid al-Murtaḍa’s work Jumal al-‘Ilm wa al-‘Amal, but later retracts his view in his work al-Iqtiṣād bi-Taḥqīq Mabānī al-I’tiqād. His other student Abū al-Ṣalāḥ al-Ḥalabī (d. 447 AH) though, remained on the view of al-Ṣarfah and considered it one of the best explanations for what makes the Qurān miraculous.[10]

Most scholars believe Sayyid al-Murtaḍa was a proponent of the second version of al-Ṣarfah – meaning God had divinely prevented access to the knowledge required to bring something like the Qurān. Al-Qutub al-Rāwandī[11] – who was also a proponent of al-Ṣarfah – explains that Sayyid al-Murtaḍa believed that the miraculousness of the Qurān is in the fact that God has prohibited the Arabs from producing anything like it, by preventing them from acquiring the required knowledge to produce something like it. One of the main arguments put forth by him and as well as some other proponents for al-Ṣarfah is as follows:

If the eloquence of the Qurān was miraculous, then it would be necessary for it to have a significant difference from what was considered to be the most eloquent speech by an Arab – to such an extent that if these statements were to be placed together, one would not be confused as to which one is the Qurān and which one is the speech of an Arab. This is all the while we find numerous places where the speech of the Arabs resembles the Qurān very much. In fact, we find that there is hardly any difference between some of the shorter chapters of the Qurān and that which is considered the best of Arab poetry and speech. If this was not the case, there would be no need for us to refer to the strong Arab poets and eloquent speakers in order to understand the usage of some of the literary and grammatical devices employed in the Qurān itself.

If someone were to respond and say that the view of al-Ṣarfah is against the consensus of the Muslims, and in fact accepting this view leads us to say that the Qurān is not the miracle, rather the act of prevention is the miracle, then it should be known – the proponents will say – that this is not a topic in which you can cite consensus as evidence. Furthermore, the claim that there is a consensus on this matter is itself invalid, because the matter is a disputed one.

Secondly, the word miracle has a linguistic meaning and a colloquial meaning. Colloquially – which is what is relevant here and what people use to describe the Qurān – a miracle is something which implies that the person who has come forth with it is truthful in their claim, and the Qurān is a miracle in this sense even if we accept the view of al-Ṣarfah. If someone says the Qurān is not a miracle, what the laymen understand from that is that it is not evidence for the Prophethood of Muḥammad (p) and that people are able to produce something similar to it and then make the claim of Prophethood for themselves. No proponent of al-Ṣarfah says or implies such a thing through their doctrine.

Shaykh al-Ṭūṣi summarizes the refutations of Sayyid al-Murtaḍa and the proponents of al-Ṣarfah to some of the explanations given for what makes the Qurān a miracle. For example, those who believe the miracle of the Qurān is in its order and prose and that it is impossible for one to reproduce such order, prose and eloquence in their speech, then al-Murtaḍa’s rebuttal to them would be that the verses of the Qurān are merely a combination of letters and words, which every human is inherently capable of doing. If someone hasn’t been able to bring something like it so far, does not necessarily mean that the order itself is miraculous, but rather it implies that people do not have enough knowledge to do so. This is similar to a person listening to a poet, yet they are not able to produce what a poet produces, not because the poetry in it and of itself is impossible to produce, but because the listener has not acquired the preliminaries required to produce poetry like it.

For those who say that the miracle of the Qurān is in its reports regarding the unseen, then even though that is a miracle, but that is not what the Arabs were being challenged on. In fact, much of the Qurān is empty of any reports about the unseen.

As for those who say that the miracle of the Qurān is in the absence of any contradictions in it, then once again this is not inherently miraculous, but rather one of the merits of the Qurān. This is because many humans, especially those who have strong memories and are attentive, can produce speech that is not contradictory – and no one says such a case is a miracle.

While these are the arguments put forth by the proponents of this doctrine, it should be reiterated that none of them were suggesting that the Qurān is not highly eloquent and literary profound. Rather, their simple point was that it isn’t this aspect of the Qurān which makes it a miracle – it was something external to it.

One Additional Argument

One additional argument that proponents of al-Ṣarfah will bring are the Qurānic codices of Ibn Mas’ūd and Ubay b. Ka’b.  What is famously agreed upon by the majority of Muslim scholars is that ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ūd did not have Sūrah al-Falaq and al-Nās in his Qurānic codex and in fact, he did not consider them part of the Qurān at all. On the contrary, it is also accepted that Ubay b. Ka’b had two extra chapters in his codex, namely Sūrah al-Ḥafd and al-Khala’. We will not be expanding on the historical discussion concerning these two codices of two of the most prominent companions of the Prophet (p) and scholars of the Qurān – those interested can look into it further, as much discussion exists regarding them. However, we can briefly explain how the proponents of al-Ṣarfah cited these two codices to defend their claim.

If the miracle of the Qurān was in its very nature, in its text, in the way its verses are organized and in its eloquence, then how was it possible for someone like ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ūd to not be able to acknowledge this for Sūrah al-Falaq and al-Nās, to the extent that he did not even consider them to be part of the Qurān. If the eloquence and prose of the Qurān were enough to establish its miraculous nature then we would not have seen Ibn Mas’ūd omit these chapters from his codex. On the contrary, if the eloquence and prose of the Qurān was enough to establish its miraculous nature, then Ubay b. Ka’b should have been able to ascertain that regarding al-Ḥafd and al-Khala’ and should have known that these two are not chapters of the Qurān.

If anyone is interested in reading a little more on the discussion concerning the codex of ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud, please refer to the transcripts from lesson two and three of Shaykh Ḥaider Ḥobollah’s classes on Sūrah al-Falaq.

God willing, in the next post, we will summarize some of the critiques presented by scholars on the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah and why it has not remained a popular position.


[1] Al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān, by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Ṣuyūṭī, vol. 4, pg. 7

[2] Al-Ṭarāz, by Al-Amīr Yaḥya b. Ḥamzah al-‘Alawī, vol. 3, pg. 391-392

[3] Al-Tamhīd, by Āyatullah Hādī Ma’rifat, vol. 4, pg. 140

[4] Qawā’id al-Marām, pg. 132

[5] Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid, vol. 2, pg. 184

[6] This is what Sayyid Shari al-Jurjāni (d. 816 AH) says in his Sharh al-Mawāqif, vol. 3, pg. 112

[7] Al-Burhān al-Kāshif ‘an I’jāz al-Qurān, pg. 53

[8] Maqālāt al-Islāmiyīn, vol. 1, pg. 296

[9] Sirr al-Fiṣāḥah, pg. 89-90

[10] In his work Taqrīb al-Ma’ārif, pg. 105-108

[11] In his al-Kharāij wa al-Jarā’ih, vol. 3, pg. 981-984

About Ali Imran 246 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.