by Hassan uz Zaman Shamol
Say: ‘if the whole of mankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Quran, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.’ [Quran, 17:88]
We hear this claim everywhere— the Quran is inimitable, no one can possibly surpass its literature. The chain of prophets has ended, but the living miracle of the last prophet remains with us to this day. What the instantaneous healing of the blind and the bringing of a gigantic camel out of a lifeless boulder was to the people of the past, the Quran is supposed to be to us now.
Take a moment and let that thought sink in. This belief is deeply ingrained in the psyche of all Muslims, to the extent it contributes significantly to our religious identity.
What Makes the Quran Inimitable?
But what is it about the Quran that makes it inimitable? Many (if not most) people are caught rather flat-footed. The usual answer comes in the form of an appeal to scientific miracles in the Quran, or a historical claim about how the Quraysh couldn’t produce it.
While those claims may indeed contribute to the miracle of the Quran, neither of them addresses the intent of the questioner. The Quran clearly claims that there is something about its literature, and not just about its history or its description of natural phenomena, that incapacitates men and jinn from competing with it. And we see this fact being ascertained time and time again in biographical accounts of the Prophet.
Even the most ardent enemies of the prophet were absolutely sold on its literary miracle. To their mind, no natural explanation seemed feasible enough, so they had to bite the bullet and attribute it to magic. So a very natural question for one to have is this: what is it about the Quran’s literature that is so majestic, even miraculous?
What Makes the Quran Miraculous?
Many notable scholars of the Islamic tradition have probed into this issue, and they often came up with different answers. Some scholars said it was the form of the Quran that was miraculous— it used a literary structure so unique that it couldn’t be classified as any of the conventional Arabic literary forms. For some others, the literary merit of the Quran lay in its precise choice of words.
For others yet, it is the way the themes and Surahs in the Quran are connected to each other that made it miraculous. Such a variety of views is not surprising, however; it only goes to emphasize the depth and majesty of the Quran. Different approaches taken towards understanding it would all yield plausible non-contradicting answers.
The Bad News . . .
For whatever reason, it’s mostly in our modern times that we find people (especially in the English-speaking world) out of touch with the Quran’s literature. While the Quran means a lot to us in terms of spiritual and legal message, the miracle of the Quran or appreciation of its literary features is conspicuously missing from our lives.
I personally find that very troubling. A community will have a limited motivation if the key source of their faith— the Quran’s miracle— is obscured from view.
. . . and the Good News
However, it’s fair to say that the situation isn’t so depressing in light of two recent developments. First, a group of scholars and preachers in our community have made valiant efforts to elucidate the literary miracles of the Quran in simple English. Of them, Nouman Ali Khan and Abdul Nasir Jangda deserve special mention.
Second, Quranic literature has become a topic of positive interest among western academics. As such, since the early 90’s, we’ve been fortunate to see the emergence of very sophisticated treatments and analyses of the Quran by leading literature experts. Notable examples include Mustansir Mir, Salwa El-Awa, Neal Robinson, Michael Cuypers, and Raymond Farrin.
One aspect of the Quranic literature that’s been explored in quite a bit of detail is the coherence or connectivity in the Quran: understanding how the different verses, passages and Surahs in the Quran connect to each other in terms of their themes and meaning.
This is not surprising, since one of the things about the Quran that many people find baffling is its apparent lack of shape. Topics in the book are introduced randomly without any context; the relation between passages is often hard to understand, as is the rationale behind the way the Surahs are arranged.
This is very different from what we expect literature to be. In any form of communication- be they books, articles, essays or even speeches- we expect a gradual development of thought, and each part of the literature being linked to its proximate parts.
Many people think that this coherence or connectivity isn’t really there in the Quran, and that’s what they find so baffling about it. So when the Quran started being studied by western experts, much attention was turned to discovering whether the book has any underlying coherence that the people have been missing.
While this is a work in progress, the intermediate results of this quest have been really interesting. As of now, there is a general consensus among experts in this field that the Quran is anything but shapeless. This directly contradicts the perception many people might have had about the Quran. In fact, research indicates that the Quran exhibits an extremely deep and complex level of coherence. It is safe to say that the experts, regardless of their religious persuasion, acknowledge the fact that the Quran is nothing short of a literary masterpiece. How they interpret this fact, however, is where the difference between belief and unbelief lie.
What is Coherence?
Before we continue, let’s consider what coherence is. When you write an essay, you need it to make sense. You can’t just randomly chuck all of your thoughts on the paper. Rather, you have to arrange your thoughts in a certain, sequential way so the reader can follow it. You are (I hope!) able to comprehend this article properly because it has coherence- the topics that come up are connected with each other. Themes in the article have been developing in a linear, sequential way- first we were talking about how Quran’s miracle is being neglected, then about how it’s being revived, and now about examples.
Even within these sections, there is progression of thought. Without this linkage between the different passages, the article would be haphazard and impossible to follow. This feature which gives a piece of literature intelligibility is called coherence.
Coherence is more difficult to achieve in oral, as opposed to written, communication. In a conversation, topics keep coming up one after the other- you may start by talking about your favorite food, get reminded of your dog somewhere down the line, and switch the conversation accordingly. While talking about your dog, some verbal cue may come up which leads you into a tangent about the weather these days. You may even parenthetically include some comments in between. To maintain coherence in an oral communication, you must have some sort of a plan as regards how the speech is laid out. That’s why it’s so important to prepare speeches beforehand. The longer your speech is, the more preparation you’d need.
The Quran (literally meaning recitation) was primarily oral communication, but it wasn’t continuous speech. It was revealed piecemeal over the course of 23 years in many different contexts. It wasn’t arranged chronologically, either. The Surahs and ayat in the book were arranged according to special Prophetic instructions- which explains why the Surah that was revealed first ended up occupying the 96th position.
Additionally, unlike in written literature, there was no scope of ‘editing’ the Quran after the Prophet recited new verses. Once he recited new verses, the audience heard them immediately and recorded them. He couldn’t change the way it was said or change the order of the ayat after specifying. In sum, the Quran’s revelation and compilation followed a very exotic route. Coherence in such a book would be the last thing you’d expect. And yet, not only does the Quran have coherence, but it (at least many parts of it) exhibits a unique, sophisticated structure called semitic coherence.
A Linear Form
To illustrate what that is, go back to the example of this article. The coherence of the article is linear- its introduction thematically follows into the next section, the next section develops a theme that is then picked up by the next section…and thus continues the whole thing. Coherence in an essay means each section being connected to the next section, and as such an essay resembles a line.
A Circular Form
In many ancient writings however, a different and more complex coherence scheme was adopted. A discourse designed according to this scheme looked more like a ring than a line. The first passage in such a ring discourse would connect linguistically and thematically not to the next passage; but to the last passage. The second passage would thus connect with the second to last one, the third to the third to last one, and so on.
The key message of the whole discussion was situated at the center. This peculiar style of writing is called semitic coherence. This scheme is obviously much more complex than a linear scheme, and required lots of effort to produce. Mostly, therefore, such a complex scheme of coherence was reserved for more important (e.g. religious) literature.
Many books in the Old Testament demonstrate semitic coherence, which is not surprising- seeing that was how religious literature was often written back then. The fact that the Bible was primarily a written document also made such an accomplishment feasible.
Interestingly, the Quran also demonstrates varying degrees of semitic coherence. This is extremely surprising because given the unique way the Quran was revealed and compiled, coherence is the last thing you’d expect from it. The fact that it demonstrates such a complex mode of coherence is simply baffling.
The story of Yusuf/Joseph (peace be upon him) as it appears in the Quran is one example of it. Surah Yusuf consists of a number of passages. When we look at the theme of each passage and arrange them in order, a symmetric structure arises. The following scheme was suggested by Michael Cuypers:
- Prologue (vv. 1-3)
B. Vision of Joseph (vv. 4-7)
C. Joseph’s disputes with his brothers: guile of brothers towards Joseph (vv. 8-18)
D. Joseph’s relative promotion (vv. 19-22)
E. Attempted seduction of Joseph by the woman (vv. 23-34)
F. Joseph in prison, interpreter of the visions of both prisoners,
Prophet of monotheism (vv. 35-42)
F’ Joseph in prison, interpreter of the visions of the king (vv. 43-49)
E’. Outcome of the woman’s seduction: Joseph rehabilitated (vv. 50-53)
D’. Joseph’s definitive promotion (vv. 54-57)
C’. Joseph’s disputes with his brothers: Joseph’s guile towards his brothers (vv. 58-98)
B’. Fulfilment of Joseph’s vision (vv. 99-101)
A’. Epilogue (vv. 102-111)
As can be seen, the passages form a chiasmus or a mirror. Prophet Yusuf’s brief but profound sermon in the prison cell, which consists of his declaration of the superiority of monotheism over other doctrines and his self-identification as a prophet of monotheism, falls at the center of this symmetry.
An even more fascinating example of ring structure or semitic coherence in the Quran is exemplified by Surah Baqarah. Not only is it the biggest Surah in the Quran, but the topics covered in here are very diverse. It is for these reasons that this Surah’s structure seems particularly challenging to understand. Nonetheless, a number of Muslim and non-Muslim experts have tried their hand in unearthing the underlying coherence of Surah Baqarah.
The research by Raymond Farrin, one of the contemporary scholars of Quranic coherence, is of particular note. Professor Farrin, in his essay ‘Surat al-Baqara: A Structural Analysis’ has analyzed all these other attempts at discovering the coherence of Baqarah, and convincingly argued that the Surah forms a complex, ring-shaped discourse. In his scheme, the Surah has nine major sections, and the key themes of the sections form the following ring:
- Faith vs. Unbelief (vv. 1-20)
B. God’s creation, His encompassing knowledge (here regarding Adam and Eve’s sins) (vv. 21-39)
C. Moses delivers law to Children of Israel (vv. 40-103)
D. Abraham was tested, Ka’ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; responses to People of the book (vv. 104-141)
E. Ka’ba is the new qibla; this is a test of faith; compete in doing good (vv. 142-152)
D’. Muslims will be tested, Ka’ba, Safa and Mina; responses to Polytheists (vv. 153-177)
C’. Prophet delivers law to Muslims (vv. 178-253)
B’. God’s creation; His encompassing knowledge (here regarding charity and financial dealing) (vv. 254-284)
A’. Faith vs. Unbelief (vv. 285-286)
This ring scheme may seem simpler than that of Surah Yusuf, but there is much more to it than meets the eye. For example, the mirror sections (A and A’, B and B’ etc) correspond to each other not only because of their thematic links, but also because of linguistic links. In other words, each section has some signature words, phrases and internal themes, and the mirror sections share these linguistic signatures. The sections, therefore, correspond both because of their thematic and linguistic connections. The following analysis by Farrin is not exhaustive, but it demonstrates this point:
- Section A talks about believers and unbelievers (vv. 1-5 and 6-20 respectively), so does section A’ (vv. 285 and 286)
- Section B talks about evidence of God in that He gives life and death and brings dead back to life (v. 28), also mentions God knows all (vv. 29-30, 32-33), so does section B’ (vv. 258-260 and vv. 255-256, 261, 268, 270-71, 273, 282-284 respectively)
- Section C mentions God gave Moses Al-Kitab (vv. 43, 87), also mentions Solomon, son of David (v. 102), section C has the phrase kutiba ‘alaykum multiple times, which is derived from the same root as Kitab (178, 180, 183, 216), also mentions David, father of Solomon (v. 251)
- Section D mentions Abraham was tried by His Lord (v. 124), Abraham and Ishmael raised God’s house (v. 127), concealing testimony (v. 140), arguments put forward by non-Muslims and Muslim responses (vv. 111, 113, 116, 118, 135). All of these are mirrored directly or indirectly in section D’ (v. 155, v. 158, vv. 159, 174 and vv. 169, 170 respectively).
The complexity of Surah Baqarah’s structure doesn’t stop here. Not only is it that the entire Surah is one big ring, but the individual sections in the Surah themselves often form ring-like structures. So instead of having a circular chain made of links, you have a circular chain made of links which are, in turn, circular chains made of links. Readers can go ahead and peruse Farrin’s fascinating essay for the examples. For brevity’s sake, I’ll only present one example. In Farrin’s analysis of section D’ (vv. 153-177), the following concentric structure emerges:
153-158 Exhortation to Believers, seek help with patience and prayer,
God will test you with adversity
159-160 Those Jews and Christians who conceal guidance are cursed
161-173 Those who disbelieve, who worship others besides God,
will not leave the Fire
174-176 Those Jews and Christians who conceal the scripture will experience torment
177 Good are those who keep up the prayer, who are patient in adversity
The entire Surah is shot through with such internal ring-structures; and these, in turn, make up the entire ring of the Surah. As a last approximation of the complexity of Baqarah, turn your attention to the center of it. The logic of the Surah thus far is that the Bani Israel (C) failed to live up to God’s expectations from men (B), and as such the occasion now is for a change of God’s favor. The section on Abraham (D) hints at the fact that an apostle is coming who would lead his people to God, and the center of the Surah (E) reveals this people is none other than the Muslims, led by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him).
The change of God’s favor from the Bani Israel to the Muslims is represented by the changing of the qibla from Jerusalem to Makkah- the very city Abraham was praying for. God then consummates this discussion by warning the Muslims of tests they would have to face- as faced by Adam, Bani Israel and Abraham- and says the Muslims are a middle nation. Incidentally, this last piece of information occurs at the dead center of the Surah (v. 143).
Now go back and think about how the Quran was revealed and compiled- is it even remotely possible that a person can produce such a degree of complexity, sophistication and coherence in an oral literature that was produced piecemeal and disjointedly over the course of 23 years and then put together non-chronologically?
Can someone really install this level of complexity and coherence in a long piece of literature like Surah Baqarah that was revealed for years on so many different occasions and contexts?
The more I study the Quran, the more strongly I realize that literature of the Quran is indeed miraculous and unsurpassable. It now falls on us Muslims to educate ourselves with it, and then disseminate the knowledge so Muslims can find new vigor in their faith.