This is a sacred cow that absolutely needs to be slaughtered.
I mean I get where the view comes from- the community's general respect for Arabic, the language of much of classical scholarship. Arabic is absolutely essential for whoever is looking to get an advanced education in the Islamic sciences. And it is indeed true that the literary miracles of the Qur'an as well can be appreciated at a much greater depth once you are equipped with knowledge of classical Arabic. All that is well and good. It's only when you exaggerate all of this to say something like no one can appreciate any miraculous literary feature of the Qur'an until and unless they learn Arabic that things get too out of hand. Not only is this view downright wrong- as I'll be discussing in what follows- it's also misleading and dangerous. Literary miracles is the key miracle of the Qur'an, as attested multiple times by the Qur'an itself and numerous times in the Sira. Are we then seriously to believe that this central miracle of Islam would only be accessible to those handful of people who are fluent in classical Arabic? How can positive apologetics even work? Are we expected to say something like "well, the Qur'an is miraculous, and the miracle is super awesome, but you can't know what the miracle is unless you spend 10 years studying classical Arabic." Literary miracles is an enterprise with amazing potential for apologetics. It's a huge disservice to Muslims and interested non-Muslims if we waive off all of this potential by saying it's inaccessible without knowledge of classical Arabic.
So, how can one access the miracles of the Qur'an without learning Arabic? Well, a typology might come in handy here. I like to think of the literary miracles of the Qur'an in the form of three arguments (in order of increasing strength):
1. The wouldn't argument
2. The couldn't argument
3. The inimitability argument.
In what follows, I will argue that it's only the third type of argument that requires knowledge of Arabic to appreciate. The first two categories contain many overlapping features which can readily be grasped without knowledge of Arabic. Of course, knowledge of Arabic can most definitely increase our appreciation of even these two arguments, but that point is obvious. My thesis in this post is: knowledge of Arabic isn't necessary to access at least some miraculous features of Qur'anic literature. My demonstration of that point will serve as a scaffold to talk about some convincing arguments for the Qur'anic literary miracles in general.
1. The wouldn't argument. This argument basically states- someone like the Prophet wouldn't have produced something like the Qur'an. I have written about this issue in the course of personal communication with someone, and here's the relevant excerpt:
Given that the Prophet sincerely believed that he was receiving the Qur’an verbatim from God, he could not have gone out of his way to put in conscious effort to produce it. Since on the naturalistic explanation, the Prophet equivocated between the word of God and his own instinctive voice, the Qur’an was only an expression of this voice, and nothing more. If the Prophet were literarily gifted, we would expect the Qur’an to be of a high literary standard, because the Prophet’s natural talent found expression through it. What we wouldn’t expect are artificial, almost mathematically arranged patterns that could not have been produced without conscious effort. He might subconsciously or unconsciously craft its content, and that content may be of high literary value given his natural talent, but the Prophet could not have gone out of his way to craft literary complexity or install literary devices into the Qur’an, and still believe he was receiving revelations from God. One cannot believe X to be from another source, yet consciously craft and build sophisticated features into it.
The theoretical form of the argument may be difficult to get your head around, so here are some examples. The literary features that I have in mind can be divided roughly into two groups. The first of these groups is what I call distant coherence- spatially distant parts of the Qur’an cohering together.
There are many features that fall under the concept of distant coherence as well- thematic and linguistic coherence between different topics discussed within a single large Surah, thematic and linguistic coherence between consecutive Surahs, thematic and linguistic coherence between a cluster of Surahs, and so on. Additionally, there may be different types of coherence. Michael Cuypers, for example, defends the concept of semiotic coherence in the Qur’an, while Raymond Farrin defends ring composition of the Surahs. Neal Robinson and Mustansir Mir propose the standard Greeko-Roman definition of literary coherence. Here, I will only talk about Neal Robinson’s version of coherence between consecutive Surahs, what he calls dovetailing. These sophisticated literary features certainly do not seem like they could characterize a spontaneous and mere verbal expression of a mental voice.
The idea of dovetailing is this: sometimes, if not often, you’ll find that one Surah picks up the topic or linguistic nuances of the Surah immediately upstream of it. Neal Robinson in his book Discovering the Qur’an: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text lists 30 examples of dovetailing of consecutive Surahs (Abdul-Raof, another contemporary Qur’anic scholar, lists hundreds of correlations between the beginnings and ends of consecutive surahs), with the disclaimer “The following list is probably not exhaustive”. Here are the first ten examples he cites (the quotations are from him):
1. Surah 1 ends with the petition for guidance (Ihdina) to the straight path, Surah 2 starts with an answer to this prayer: This is the book in which there is no doubt, a guidance (Hudan) for the God-fearing.
2. “Some thirty ayahs before the end of Surah 2, a crescendo is reached with the Throne verse which opens with the words ‘Allah, there is no god but He, the Living, the Everlasting’ (2:255). This statement is repeated verbatim in 3:2, but nowhere else in the Qur’an.”
3. Surah 3 ends with a reference to male and female (3:195), the opening ayah of Surah 4 starts with the mention of men and women (4:1)
4. Surah 5 ends with “To Allah belongs the kingdom of the heavens and the earth...” (5:120), Surah 6 opens with “Praise be to Allah who created the heavens and the earth” (6:1)
5. Reference to the Throne in the end of Surah 9 (9:129), and near the opening of Surah 10 (10:3)
6. Surah 10 ends with “until Allah judges (yahkumu) for He is the best of judges (hakimun), while Surah 11 opens with the “assertion that the ayahs of the Scripture have been made decisive (uhkimat) in the presence of One who is All-wise (Hakim)”
7. The phrase “We narrate to you” (naqussu ‘alayka) occurs four ayahs before the end of Surah 11 and in the third ayah of Surah 12.
8. “Towards the end of Surah 15, the Prophet is ordered to shun ‘the idolaters’ (al-Mushrikin- literally ‘the associators’, 15:94) and to glorify (Sabbih) Allah’s praise 15:98; the opening ayah of Surah 16 includes the assertion ‘Glorified be He (Subhanahu)! High be He exalted above what they associate (yushrikun) with Him.’”
9. “The final ayah of Surah 17 begins, ‘And say “Praise be to Allah who has not taken a son...”’ (17:111); Surah 18 opens with the words ‘Praise be to Allah who has sent down the Scripture...’ (18:1), and this is soon followed by a warning for those who say ‘Allah has taken a son’ (18:4).”
10. “The final ayah of Surah 22 includes the order to establish prayer and pay compulsory charity (22:78); the same two fundamental duties are mentioned in 23:2-4.”
A cursory reading of these examples informs us that the dovetailing of consecutive surahs is a complex phenomenon. It’s not a binary final ayah-opening ayah correlation, nor is it a strict formula followed each time. The inter-Surah correlations are sometimes thematic, sometimes linguistic, and in spite of this complexity- most of the examples are quite striking. Additionally, the number of inter-Surah correlation is too high to be a coincidence. I think we can both agree that dovetailing between consecutive Surahs is a real phenomenon that could not have been produced accidentally in the course of normal, or even literary, speech.
What adds intrigue to this scenario is the fact that these Surahs were not revealed sequentially, rather they were revealed in different places, at different times, given different contexts and circumstances. Some of these Surahs are Meccan, some are Medinan. So the only way how dovetailing could have been installed into these Surahs are:
1. If the author had a prior plan or forethought as to how each of these Surahs would end and how each would begin. So on this view, the author would already have an idea of how, say, Baqarah would end, and how ‘Ali-Imran would begin, and that these Surahs would have to be placed next to each other.
2. If the author edited the Surahs after they were revealed so as to show these features of dovetailing
3. A mixture of 1 and 2- the author would have a forethought as to how the Surah positions would play out and he would author them accordingly, while on other times he would edit the beginnings and endings of the Surahs so they demonstrate dovetailing.
The first is installing dovetailing prior to revelation (or writing or saying), while the second is installing dovetailing posterior to it. Would pre- or post-installing dovetailing be feasible on the part of an author who sincerely believed the text was being revealed to him from another source? Well, it’s difficult to see how- as noted earlier, literary features couldn’t be extraneously crafted or installed within the text by someone who sincerely believed that the text was not of his authorship, except the features that are borne from the author’s own natural talent. We may be able to imagine such a person doctoring some of his text to revise some of the context as his newer instincts erode some older ones, but how could he fathomably edit his text only to install purely literary features in it, and still believe it was not he himself who was the author of it?
Secondly, it’s important to note that none of the Hadith speaks about the phenomena of consecutive Surah dovetailing. This clearly indicates that the Prophet didn’t know about them at all. These features were only unearthed later upon closer inspection and research of the text. This again emphasizes that the Prophet was not aware of these features- meaning he didn’t install them consciously. And we know that he didn’t install them subconsciously- it’s not possible for this phenomenon to come about accidentally, given the striking nature of some examples, their complexity and their abundance.
The nature of dovetailing alone, therefore, tell us that the Prophet- given his sincere belief in revelation- would not have been responsible for it. What reinforces the conclusion is the fact that the hadith literature contains no mention of it, and hence the Prophet didn’t know about them. As such, this phenomenon of dovetailing forms a strong “wouldn’t” argument from the Qur’anic literature.
Crucially, the wouldn't argument depends on the premise that the Prophet was sincere. I believe that's not difficult to prove based on the data from Sira literature, but that raises the question of whether the Sira is historically reliable. Muslims of course believe it is, but convincing those who don't accept the Muslim hadith science would be a different issue. I leave this as an exercise to those interested in researching Islamic origins.
Either way, it's clear that appreciation of this argument- particular the example of dovetailing- doesn't require knowledge of Arabic. Most examples are thematic and can be read off the translation. Even those that are based on word roots and such, they can be easily communicated and understood. It's not knowledge of Arabic that's the factor here, it's communicating the arguments in a compelling yet understandable way that counts. I could certainly appreciate the dovetailing patterns after reading Robinson's book, and I'm as ignorant of Arabic as they come.
2. The couldn't argument. This is the argument that connects with me the most. As the name suggests, the Qur'an has certain literary features that couldn't have been produced by someone in the position of the Prophet. Let's talk about the "certain literary features" first, then we'll talk about the "position of the Prophet". There are lots of literary features in the Qur'an which I think are of just this nature. For the sake of simplicity of analysis (and easy reference), let's pick two- the so-called ring composition of Sura Baqara, and the phenomenon of Iltifat or grammatical shifts for rhetorical purposes at the levels of persons and tense.
Let's begin with Ring Composition. Here's the definition and key features from Raymond Farrin's essay on the structure of Baqara:
At this point, it may be useful to recall the signal features of a ring structure. These have been set forth lately by Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (2007). The most salient feature, as Douglas indicates, is the correspondence between the beginning and the end. The correspondence usually involves the repetition of a conspicuous word or phrase, such as a proper name; also, there must be a clear thematic connection between the two sections. The correspondence serves to complete the circle and provide closure. In similar fashion, interior sections correspond to each other: the second section corresponds to the second-to-last, and so on concentrically. The middle section then frequently accords with both the beginning and the end. Within the sections themselves, moreover, there may be found little rings: a section itself may consist of a ring, or a section may consist of multiple rings strung together. And occasionally the overall ring, likewise an internal ring, includes a latch at the end. This is an additional part that makes a second closure, binding the whole together. Such a part typically occurs at the end of a long composition or of a long interior section. It ties the beginning firmly to the end, often by reference once more to the opening phrases and events, and functions thematically as epilogue. What needs mentioning too is the exegetical use of ring composition. For a ring structure not only holds the text together. The effect of ring composition, according to Douglas again, “is to give special emphasis to the pivotal central point.” By means of concentric patterning, ring composition calls attention to the center.We are drawn to look here for the essential message. As Douglas notes concisely, “The meaning is in the middle.’
Sura Baqara happens to demonstrate a composition of just this sort, except it's much more complex than a regular "ring". In extremely simple (and simplistic) terms, Sura Baqara has a ring-within-ring structure. The entire Sura contains passages that form a mirror, and most of the individual passages themselves contain internal ring structures. The exact formation and "knitting" of these rings is complex, as opposed to just a one-for-one verse/theme correspondence. This strikes me as one of the most remarkable features of Qur'anic coherence. The best material on the topic I know of is, unfortunately, unpublished as of yet. A friend of mine has examined the case for Baqara's ring composition made by Raymond Farrin and improved upon it. Farrin presented his analysis of Baqara in a paper (accessible here), which he improved upon in his book Structure and Qur'anic Interpretation, which my friend improved upon even further. Only the least impressive version of the analysis is freely accessible (check link to the paper above). It's important to note, however, that ring coherence isn't the only sort of coherence in Baqara. Mustansir Mir, following Islahi, has discovered linear coherence in Baqara as well (it's not that difficult to discover), and other scholars like Matthias Zahniser, Neal Robinson, and Nevin Rada have added to it. So Baqara is characterized by both linear as well as ring coherence. The two sorts of complex coherence structures are superimposed on each other.
Let's move on to feature #2- Iltifat. The fact that Qur'an shows remarkable precision in language is becoming common knowledge- thanks to the clips by Nouman Ali Khan et al- Iltifat is where I think this precision is taken to extremes. For a start, Iltifat has to do with so-called function words- pronouns (persons). In a sentence you'd gloss over them anyways. The Qur'an makes abrupt shifts in them as rhetorical strategies. Fortunately, there is quite a bit of material freely available on the topic online. You can start here and then move on to here.
Ring composition represents literary features concerning the macro-structure of the Qur'an, while Iltifat functions at a micro-level. These two features demonstrate that the Qur'an is sophisticated at the very large down to the very small, it is threaded with incredible complexity at each level of composition.
Now the question at the heart of the couldn't argument. Could someone in the position of the Prophet have produced a work of literature with such a degree of sophistication? In the least, such a work would need extensive pre-planning, editing, and redaction. However, none of these luxuries were available to the Qur'an's purported human author. The Qur'an is primarily an oral book, revealed piecemeal. Much of its content is loosely or tightly based around context- commentaries on war, social issues, polemics, and so on, leaving little room for pre-planning. The book was highly valued liturgically from the start, and as such there was not much of a room for radical edition or redaction (and no manuscript evidence for that either). All of these issues are agreed upon by uncontroversial, since they can be inferred from the structure of the Qur'an itself (as opposed to requiring historical validation). Given these facts, I find it incredibly improbable that a structure like the ring composition could have been produced by someone in the position of the Prophet (little room for pre-planning/editing). When you add Iltifat into the mix, the couldn't argument goes through beyond reasonable doubt.
So again, does appreciation of the couldn't argument require knowledge of Arabic? Constructing the argument and yielding data may require such knowledge- especially for Iltifat- but appreciation or verification of the argument does not. Much of ring composition is based on thematic analysis, which can be appreciated from the content of the text itself. Even those parts of the analysis based on Arabic knowledge can be communicated easily in non-Arabic languages. You'd think Iltifat would be a difficult concept to explain, but really, the translated examples speak for themselves.
In summary: neither the wouldn't nor the couldn't argument require knowledge of Arabic. They can be understood, appreciated, and communicated in well in other languages as well. This conclusively proves the thesis of the post- some convincing features of the Qur'anic literature can very well be made accessible to those without knowledge of Arabic. For the sake of completeness, however, I will go on and talk a little about the third argument.
3. The inimitability argument. I admitted earlier that the third argument- inimitability- cannot be appreciated without knowledge of Arabic, and as such I myself can't claim to understand it. Note that by "inimitability" I'm not necessarily referring to the version of inimitability talked about by other preachers or apologists, in the sense that the Qur'an doesn't follow the conventional Arabic meters of poetry. I find that argument altogether underwhelming. The version I have in mind is a stronger form of inimitability. The only defender of this argument that I know of is Bassam Saeh. Here are my brief comments on his approach to this argument, taken from an older essay I wrote:
According to this view, the Qur’an is inimitable in that it contains numerous linguistic innovations that cannot be imitated in any other Arabic literature. This view is similar to the first variant of the previous view i.e. the Qur’an has a definite style, but it is impossible to implement this style anywhere else outside the Qur’an. Similarly, if someone takes a specific linguistic innovation in the Qur’an and tries to implement this in non-Qur’anic literature, he will not be successful in making a coherent expression.
What is meant by innovation here? Dr. Saeh defines them broadly as “breaks with (contemporary)linguistic conventions”, but doesn’t give any further rigorous qualification. He holds that these innovations are ridiculously frequent:
"The Qur’an’s true distinctiveness lies not in its occasional breaking with the contemporary linguistic conventions but in the consistently high frequency with which the breaks occur. Indeed, every single surah in the entire Qur’an contains more breaks with linguistic convention
than the number of its words."
The author then goes on to list 23 examples from Surah Fatiha alone, as well as some other examples.Here is my effort to broadly categorize some of these examples (the list is nowhere near exhaustive):
1. Producing new morphological variances of common words, e.g. ‘Alameen. This plural form of ‘alam wasn’t known to the Arabs.
2. Ascribing new meanings to commonly used words, e.g. Deen, Sirat. Both of these words have been used to mean something entirely different in the Qur’an than their normal usage.
3. Using never before used inter-word or phrase relationships, e.g. Al-Hamd, Maliki Yawm. According to the author, the definite particle “Al” wasn’t used before “Hamd” in pre-Islaamic literature. Same goes for Maliki Yawm.
4. Grammatical shift from person to person (Iltifaat), e.g. shift from verse 1-3 to verse 4 onwards.Muslim rhetoricians have recognized this.
As it appears from Dr. Saeh’s essay, these linguistic innovations are significant in two ways.
First, if an author commits such linguistic innovations in any language, we expect the audience topromptly point out that the author is wrong in departing from conventional usage. However, this doesn’t happen with the Qur’an. Even though it did break conventions of Arabic, not only did the
Arabs not reject it as bad literature, but became mesmerized by it. The author explains:
"First, however, it should be stressed that the Qur’an did not bring with it a new language separate from Arabic, but took Arabic as its point of departure, and it is precisely here that it has uniqueness. The Qur’an went beyond the Arabic language’s traditional limits, therefore, its distinctiveness lay not in the creation of a new language out of nothing, for the process was far more complex than that. It entailed constructing a new language on the foundations of the old language with its established rules and principles, then rising to a level that had never been reached by the old language.
Any child today could easily sit down at a computer and, using the twenty nine letters of the Arabic alphabet, construct thousands, and perhaps millions, of new words. Yet, how would the Arabsunderstand them? How would they communicate their meaning in a context so that they could be used to form statements that would be meaningful to their hearers? One does not have to be a genius to produce a new language. However, to go beyond the accustomed boundaries and conventions of a particular language, while remaining consistent with its basic rules and structures, is an extraordinary achievement."
Second, many of the linguistic innovations employed in the Qur’an are literally inimitable, in that they cannot be used in non-Qur’anic expressions and still make sense. The author gives the example of the word Kana, which means was. In many places of the Qur’an, “inna” (is) is replaced with “Kana” (was)e.g. Innallaha Kana Ghafurur Raheem. "This new (kana) is still inimitable. No one now can construct a single sentence replacing (inna) with (kana) without changing the whole meaning."
The author further comments on this phenomena in reference to different particles in the Qur’an:
"I counted at least 30 particles which are used in different meaning, including: (examples). Most of thenew uses of these particles, if not all, are still restricted to the Qur’an, Arabs have never used them, and will never, simply because they are unusual and inimitable."
You can read Bassam Saeh's short essay here.