Friday, 11 April 2014

Equivocating the two types of arguments to Qur'an's literary miracle

People who use argument(s) based on Qur'anic literature should keep in mind that there are actually two arguments the Qur'an uses, not one. These are:

1. The Qur'anic literature cannot be imitated by anyone, even if they get help from wherever they wish, in whichever circumstance they want to be. Even as much as three verses from the Qur'an cannot be imitated, period. There are many verses of the Qur'an which talk about this "inimitability" challenge, perhaps the most popular passage is 2:23-24.

2. The Qur'anic literature could not have been produced by Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). In other words, the Qur'an is inimitable for anyone to be in the specific circumstances of the Prophet. There are numerous verses in the Qur'an which talk about this directly or indirectly. Examples being the verses where the Qur'an refutes the disbelievers who claimed that the Prophet was a poet, a madman, or someone else teaches him.

Now I do realize 1 is a stronger claim than 2, in fact 1 is inclusive of 2- but that doesn't mean they are the same argument. Why is this significant? Because people often tend to tie the premise of one argument with the conclusion of the other. Now that is a perfect recipe for a bad argument.

Consider for example the argument from precision of Qur'anic word choice- the Qur'anic word choice is so precise that along with imparting the obvious meaning, it also has layers of subliminal meanings, which are sometimes very powerful. And these are done in an extremely subtle way, using very little verbal economy. Now what does this prove- 1 or 2? I'd say it proves 2. The main purport of the precision of word choice argument is that the Qur'an is a verbal text, whoever was reciting it obviously didn't have any forethought or planning beforehand, so for him to make these connections between parts of the text that are so temporally apart requires supernatural intervention. Does that mean no one in any circumstance can mimic this particular rhetorical feature? Obviously not. Someone with enough time on their hands can easily install these types of subliminal messages. Does that consideration serve as a defeater for the precision in word choice argument? Again, it is hard to say how. The whole point of the precision in word choice argument is that since the Qur'an was an oral literature, and since it was revealed over a period of 23 years in so many different circumstances, it is impossible that someone would be precise enough to make such intertextual connections. Meaning- circumstances matter in this type of argument. In fact, the more circumstantial facts about the Prophet's life you load into this argument, the stronger it becomes- the fact that the Prophet was illiterate or at least had absolutely no knowledge of poetry, the fact that the Prophetic speech differed significantly from Qur'anic speech, the fact that the Prophet or his nearest companions didn't point these out meaning they were probably unaware of these literary gems as well, the fact that the prophet was sincere in his belief that he was receiving revelations verbatim from God and therefore it doesn't make sense that he would consciously put in so much effort in fabricating the Qur'an, the fact that the prophetic career was so busy that there was absolutely no time for him to achieve this- and so on and so forth. Point being- this argument is context/circumstance dependent, and hence it's number 2, not number 1.

The problem begins when one uses this premise to claim the Qur'an is universally inimitable. I believe this tendency is because of the overt focus among the people on argument 1 as opposed to 2. We need to understand that 1 is not the only argument the Qur'an uses, and although 1 is stronger than 2, 2 can establish the truth of Islam just as well. We've seen generations upon generations of Muslims base their faith on so-called scientific miracles in the Qur'an. If that worked for the Muslims, then 2 would most definitely work for them.

A case in point is Bassam Saeh's essay on the Qur'an's literary miracle, available here. The author tries to posit the literary miracle of the Qur'an. I believe what he misses is the simple fact that there are two, as opposed to one, arguments to literary miracles the Qur'an advances. This misunderstanding leads him to claim that the arguments of Qur'anic miracle advanced by the likes of Baqillani and Ar-Razi (arguments from literary precision and coherence) only proves that the Qur'anic literature is genius, but not miraculous. In reality, Ar-Razi and Baqillani's arguments do prove the Qur'an is miraculous, just in a context-dependent way. In other words, what they established was type 2 Qur'anic miracle, not type 1.

I personally think that the English-speaking world is more familiar with arguments of type 2, not type 1. Hence, I think it would be better for Muslim apologists to use the second argument. The first argument is strong all right, but do the English-speaking apologist community have enough knowledge about it to execute the argument authoritatively? I have to say no, but even if you think the answer is yes- I think it's beyond doubt that we are at least better equipped to present the argument of the second kind (here is an essay I wrote years back where I talked about some of the different types of arguments for Qur'anic literary miracle. Note that it was written quite a while back and the list is definitely not exhaustive, I have left out the argument from coherence which is, in my view, one of the strongest arguments for the Qur'an's literary miracle).

Also, note that the reason why it is difficult to defend the first type of argument for Qur'an's literary miracle is precisely because the claim it makes is so strong! Shouldn't the fledgling movement of Muslim apologists not get ahead of themselves, and try to establish more modest claims first? Especially since argument 2 on its own is a very good argument for the fact that the Qur'an is, indeed, a miracle!

Someone could ask- but isn't it so that the Qur'an itself makes use of the first type of argument? It does, I myself quoted a passage in the beginning of this article which gives that impression. But we would need to realize that as far as the English-speaking apologetics movement is concerned, we are in a process of unearthing good arguments for the Qur'an. All of the arguments that we use as apologists were not written in the sun- we had to get our hands dirty to develop them. Many of these arguments (the type 1 argument for literary miracle, for example) were very clear for the Prophet's companions or the early Muslims, but not so for us- because the years have buried the argument and it would take quite a bit of unearthing before we can recover it (some promising progress have been made, though- check the essay I cited above). Also, realize that all the arguments that the Qur'an uses are not readily available for us to use. The Qur'an claims that the Prophet could not have had access to the Judaeo-Christian material found in the Qur'an. But it is not easy to establish this, it would require quite a bit of study into the Arabic literary-historical milieu. The Qur'an's primary audiences didn't have to do this because they were the milieu! So while the Qur'an may use an argument, it would only be safe for us to use once we have properly unearthed and developed it.

So let's de-emphasize the "challenge" or "inimitability" rhetoric a bit, and focus on the more modest second argument, people- we cannot afford to be verbal sellouts. That's very damaging. Also- it's a good idea to always use multiple arguments at once, since the cumulative strength of the evidence is always stronger than just one lone argument.

1 comment:

  1. "A case in point is Bassam Saeh's essay on the Qur'an's literary miracle, available here. The author tries to posit the literary miracle of the Qur'an. I believe what he misses is the simple fact that there are two, as opposed to one, arguments to literary miracles the Qur'an advances. This misunderstanding leads him to claim that the arguments of Qur'anic miracle advanced by the likes of Baqillani and Ar-Razi (arguments from literary precision and coherence) only proves that the Qur'anic literature is genius, but not miraculous. In reality, Ar-Razi and Baqillani's arguments do prove the Qur'an is miraculous, just in a context-dependent way. In other words, what they established was type 2 Qur'anic miracle, not type 1."

    Great point!

    Some other points:
    --I think the argument for coherence *can* be shown to prove the Qur'an *absolute* inimitability in the fact that part of this coherence implies foreknowledge that a human being could not have.
    --I think both types of arguments are important because the Qur'an makes a very bold claim with argument 1, and therefore it deserves to be tested in any ways that are possible. The great the degree to which this is supported, the more argument 2 because exponentially stronger.
    --The problem of course is that 1 is much harder to demonstrate than 2. 2 seems comparatively very easy to demonstrate, hence its greater utility in apologetics and da'wah.
    --Your point about starting *off* with argument 2 before going on to the much harder argument 1 also makes a great deal of sense. We should develop argument 2 (more important and fundamental stage 1) with argument 1 also in view (stage 2).



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