Miraculousness of the Quran – Doctrine of al-Sarfah – A Historical Overview (Part 6)

In our previous post, we went over a brief description of the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah. In this post, we want to see what critiques were established against this doctrine by Muslim scholars. I will summarize some of the major arguments against the doctrine and leave out some of the rebuttals which I felt were repetitive and were essentially saying the same thing as another argument. As you will come to realize, some of these rebuttals are impressive and proponents of al-Ṣarfah would need to respond to them accordingly, but some other rebuttals have blatant flaws in them or are based on presumptions that not all proponents of al-Ṣarfah even accepted. Though, I will not be discussing the strength or weakness of any of these rebuttals and will leave it up to the reader to further investigate and contemplate over this very crucial discussion.

Scholars have listed out a wide range of critiques on the doctrine, some list up to 12 rebuttals, others 7, and some only 1 or 2. The nature of these rebuttals also depends on who they are being addressed to. As mentioned in the previous post, there are multiple definitions and interpretations of the doctrine itself, so even though some rebuttals may be applicable to all interpretations, many others may only be targetting a specific definition or even a specific proponent of the doctrine. In this post I have sufficed with 8 critiques, combining some of the rebuttals I felt were essentially saying the same thing.


1. If the miracle of the Qurān was something external to it, rather than internal, then God would not have challenged the Arabs to bring something like it. Instead, God would have informed them that He has forcibly prevented them from bringing anything like it.

2. al-Khaṭṭābī[1] (d. 388 AH / 998 CE) and some others argue that even though theoretically speaking the view of al-Ṣarfah sounds valid, its greatest problem is that it goes against the apparent meaning of some of the verses of the Qurān. One of the main verses cited is:

قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا

[17:88] Say, “If mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were to each other assistants.”

These scholars argue that this verse cannot be understood correctly if one were to believe in al-Ṣarfah – which is an external barrier. The challenge in this verse is related to an act that has been described as being exhaustive and a task that requires a lot of effort. Such is the extent of this effort that all of mankind and the jinn would need to gather together to even begin fulfilling it. Despite that, they will fail at it. This implies that the miracle of the Qurān is something internal to it because the notion of al-Ṣarfah – at least one understanding of it – implies that humans have been externally prevented from bringing anything like the Qurān and there is no real motivation or effort required to attempt to bring anything like it.

There are other verses in the Qurān that are also cited by different scholars to argue that the miracle of it is innate to it. For example:

وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَا تَسْمَعُوا لِهَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ وَالْغَوْا فِيهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَغْلِبُونَ

[41:26] And those who disbelieve say, “Do not listen to this Qur’an and speak noisily during [the recitation of] it that perhaps you will overcome.”

This verse implies that the disbelievers knew the words of the Qurān itself had something miraculous about it, or else they would not have asked others to not listen to it or interrupt its recitation. This is as far as its impact on the disbelievers is concerned. However, in another verse we see that the verses of the Qurān also impacted the believers:

اللَّهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ تَقْشَعِرُّ مِنْهُ جُلُودُ الَّذِينَ يَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُمْ ثُمَّ تَلِينُ جُلُودُهُمْ وَقُلُوبُهُمْ إِلَىٰ ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُدَى اللَّهِ يَهْدِي بِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ اللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُ مِنْ هَادٍ

[39:23] Allah has sent down the best statement: a consistent Book wherein is reiteration. The skins shiver therefrom of those who fear their Lord; then their skins and their hearts relax at the remembrance of Allah. That is the guidance of Allah by which He guides whom He wills. And one whom Allah leaves astray – for him there is no guide.

3. ‘Abdul Qāhir al-Jurjānī[2] (d. 471 AH), Zarkashī (d. 794 AH) in his al-Burhān and Suyūtī[3] (d. 911 AH) all argue that if the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah was true, then as time passes by, people would learn the ability to bring something like the Qurān. As such, it would no longer remain a miracle. This is all the while there is a theological consensus by Muslims that the Qurān is an eternal miracle.

Note that one of the presumptions of this rebuttal is that the challenge to bring something like the Qurān has been understood to be limited to the time of the Prophet (p) himself.

4. Those who say that al-Ṣarfah is the notion of God preventing the Arabs from acquiring knowledge required to bring something like the Qurān, then a question remains as to why we do not find any historical reports of Arabs complaining about their lack of knowledge regarding these matters, or why did none of the eloquent ones at the time of the Prophet (p) even attempt to bring anything like it – albeit failed attempts?

5. ‘Abdul Qāhir al-Jurjānī claims that if the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah was correct, then why do we find the Arabs themselves astonished and confused by the eloquence and clarity of the Qurān.[4] This matter is unanimously agreed upon by the historians and numerous historical reports exist describing the shocking state of some of the disbelievers, such as Walīd b. Mughīrah and ‘Utbah b. Rabī’ah, when they heard some of the verses being recited. If the verses were not miraculous, even if they were highly eloquent, this should not have been a reason for them to be shocked and astonished to such a degree, since the Arabs were already well accustomed to highly eloquent speech before the revelation of the Qurān.

If the miracle of the Qurān was that their knowledge had been taken away from them, then their astonishment should have been concerning the fact that previously they the ability to produce speech similar to the Qurān, but after its revelation, they were unable to do so.

6. In the previous post, we mentioned that one of Sayyid al-Murtaḍa’s justification for al-Ṣarfah was that the verses of the Qurān are merely a combination of letters and words, something every human is inherently capable of doing. If someone is not able to bring something like the Qurān, it only means that people do not have enough knowledge do so, not that the order of the words itself is miraculous.

‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī summarizes this argument in his Tafsīr al-Mīzān[5] and then begins a lengthy response to it. I will quote just two excerpts from his response and the readers can refer to the complete rebuttal in the English translation of al-Mīzān available online. He writes:

It is a fallacious argument that as the language is a product of human ingenuity, it can never reach a level which would be beyond the grasp or ability of human beings; language, being a product, cannot be more powerful than its producer. The fallacy lies in the fact that what has been invented by man is simple words for particular meanings. But this congruity of the words with their meanings does not teach the man how to arrange those words, how to plan, draft and deliver a talk in the best possible way — in a way that the talk reflects the beauty of the meaning as it is in the mind, and the meaning in its turn becomes a mirror of the reality, remains in complete agreement with the fact. It requires a dexterity in the art of eloquence, an adroitness in elocution; also it depends on sharp intelligence and comprehensive knowledge so that the speaker may be fully cognizant of all aspects of the subject matter. It is this skill and knowledge that differs from man to man, and creates difference between talk and talk in their respective perfection and beauty.

To come back to the main objection: Accepted that language has been made by men. But it does not mean that there cannot be found a piece of literature that is beyond the reach of the very men who made the language. Otherwise, we would have to say that a sword-maker must be the bravest of all the swordsmen, the inventor of chess or lute must be the most accomplished chess-master or lutanist!

Āyatullah Jawādī Āmulī in volume 1 of his thematical exegesis[6] offers a similar critique to Sayyid al-Murtaḍa. To summarize his argument, he says that eloquence and clarity of speech is based on three pillars, namely, one’s relative knowledge with respect to what exists, the ability to produce words and use them to signify their specific meanings, and thirdly to be able to use those words collectively in an appropriate fashion to convey a meaning to someone. Humans have complete control over the second pillar, but their command over the first and third pillar is limited. This is because the realities are too many to enumerate and most humans possess only some knowledge regarding them, while others – like the infallibles – may possess all knowledge about them. As for what words should be used and how they should be used, then this goes back to human experience and one’s taste of the language. It does not exist for everyone because it is linked to the domain of the practical intellect and humans are highly different from one another in this regard. This is similar to the skill of writing poetry, which some are excellent in, while others have no ability to write anything poetic.

So even if humans coined words for different meanings, these are to be considered tools by which eloquent speech can be produced. It by no means necessitates that they themselves can also produce the highest level of eloquence or that eloquence cannot reach a level of miraculousness.

7.  The doctrine of al-Ṣarfah suggests that the Qurān challenged the people to bring something like it, but if they ever intended to do so, an external barrier would prevent them from it. However, this implies that if a person does not intend to go head-to-head with the Qurān and is not intending on taking on the Qurānic challenge, then there is nothing stopping them from bringing something like the Qurān. This is because the external barrier is for those who intend on challenging the Qurānic miracle.

Of course, this rebuttal will only work for those proponents of al-Ṣarfah who believe that the external barrier is limited to those who consciously intend on taking on the Qurānic challenge.

8. From a Shī’ī perspective, one argument against al-Ṣarfah is seeing what the infallible Imāms (a) after the Prophet (p) have said about the Qurān. Some traditions very clearly signify that the miracle of the Qurān was internal to it and not an external barrier. The Imāms never seem to have alluded to the book’s miraculous aspect being that which the proponents of al-Ṣarfah claim. Rather if there is any mention of the Qurānic miracle and its accompanying challenge, their words always seem to imply that it was something innate to it. One such tradition is in volume 1 of Uṣūl al-Kāfī, ḥadīth #20:

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad narrated from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī from Abū Ya’qūb al-Baghdādī who said:

Ibn Sikkīt asked Abū al-Ḥasan (al-Kāẓim), ‘Why did Allah send Mūsa b. ‘Imrān (a) with a miracle that appeared through his staff, his hand and through tools of magic, and He sent ‘Īsa with the miracle that appeared through tools of medicine, and He sent Muḥammad (p) with means of speech and sermons?’

Abū al-Ḥasan (a) replied: ‘When Allah sent forth Mūsa (a), magic was popular amongst the people. So he brought something against them from Allah which they did not have the capacity to counter. He was given that by which he invalidated their magic and established the truth against them.

Allah sent ‘Īsa (a) at a time when serious illnesses existed amongst the people and they needed medical treatment. So he brought something for them from Allah which the people did not have. He was given the ability to bring the dead back to life, cure the sick and the lepers by the permission of Allah and thus, establish the truth against them.

Allah sent Muḥammad (p) at a time when oratory and speech were popular amongst the people – and I think he said poetry as well.[7] From the good advice and wisdom that he brought to them from Allah, he invalidated their words and established the truth against them.’

Ibn al-Sikkīt said, ‘I swear by Allah I have never seen anyone like you. What is the proof amongst people today to establish the truth?’ The Imam replied, ‘It is the intellect. Through it, one recognizes those who speak the truth regarding Allah, and thus affirms them, and through it, one recognizes those who lie regarding Allah, and thus negates them.” Ibn al-Sikkīt then said, “This by Allah is the answer.”

This tradition implies that the Qurānic miracle was similar to the miracles brought by the previous Prophets (p) as far as it was related to what was popular at the time. Given that eloquent oratory and poetry was a praised skill during the time of the Prophet (p), the Qurān – being the Prophet’s (p) miracle – was related to that and demonstrated its miracle through the very language the Arabs would pride themselves in.

From next post onwards, we will start going through significant and influential scholarly figures and expound on their views regarding the miraculousness of the Qurān. We will begin from 4th-century hijrī and proceed from there.


[1] Bayān I’jāz al-Qurān, published under the work Thalāth Rasāil fī I’jāz al-Qurān

[2] Dalāil al-I’jāz, pg. 156

[3] Al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān, vol. 4, pg. 8

[4] Dalāil al-I’jāz, pg. 390-391

[5] For the English translation, see vol. 1, pgs. 127-133

[6] Tafsīr Mawḍū’ī, vol. 1, pg. 165 – available online here: http://www.portal.esra.ir

[7] The narrator adds this phrase

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.