The Inimitability (I’jaz) of the Noble Quran

This essay explores the classical concept of the Qur’ān’s inimitability (iʿjāz) in detail, assessing the historical evolution of this Islamic doctrine and its theological import.

Iʿjāz, or the doctrine of the Qur’ān’s inimitability, has been a subject of intense interest for scholars from the classical period of Islamic civilisation[1] and those undertaking contemporary research. However, the focus and objective of the attendant analysis has generally been distinct. While the former were primarily interested in identifying the substantive nature of iʿjāz and putting forward arguments to establish its authority in the theological context of the prophetic miracle[2], the latter have been more concerned with a critical-historical approach, tracing the genesis and evolution of this concept within the Islamic apologetic discourse.[3] Notwithstanding these differences, there has been a common acceptance of two essential points lying at the beginning and end of its classical trajectory. Firstly, that the doctrinal roots underlying the concept of iʿjāz are to be found in the Qur’ānic taḥaddī verses and secondly, that iʿjāz eventually came to almost exclusively refer to the belief that the Qur’ān is matchless in its composition, wording and expression of meaning.[4]

It will be argued in this essay that recent scholarship on the classical concept of iʿjāz, although providing numerous insights into the cross-fertilisation of ideas between the various streams of Islamic theology, has not always sufficiently highlighted the extent to which the above two points are related.[5] Namely, that the shared ‘cultural memory’ of the meaning of the taḥaddī verses, the basic Qur’ānic dicta of inimitability, along with rational and textual arguments, led to a consensus for defining iʿjāz in terms of balāgha, among both the Muʿtazilī and Ashʿārī schools of theology. In the climate of polemical debate of the classical period, however, a scholar’s understanding of iʿjāz would not only be fitted into the matrix of their own doctrinal thought, but would also be utilised polemically to defend it.

The following diachronic analysis will undertake, in the brief space available, to examine the theological genesis and development of the doctrine of iʿjāz, while taking into account the social and historical context of the major Islamic thinkers involved, its effects on their thought, as well as their influence upon each other. This will begin with a critical discussion of the taḥaddī verses and their interpretation, followed by a brief analysis of the concept of the muʿāraḍa, or attempt to match the Qur’ān, and the state of apologetic thinking in this regard in the early period of the first two Islamic centuries. Thereafter, the focus will move to the contribution of the Muʿtazilī scholars of the third and fourth centuries, which laid a foundation for the classical formulation of the doctrine of iʿjāz. Here also, the classifications of Hamd b. Muhammad al-Khaṭṭābī (d. 388/998), notably a traditionist, will be examined as an important milestone in later doctrinal developments, while the contemporaneous Ashʿārī, al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013) and Muʿtazilī, ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), will be compared and contrasted for their own significant contributions. The classical concept of iʿjāz will be seen as emerging fully in the writings of the Ashʿārī ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. 470/1078), representing a stabilised worked-out form of its conception as the inimitable balāgha of the Qur’ān. It will, however, also be argued that even while al-Jurjānī’s systemisation was a rational culmination of earlier trends of thought, its most significant theological aspect owes as much to upholding Ashʿārī dogma against the Muʿtazilī, as to the insights it offered into the semantic aspects of literary theory.

The taḥaddī verses have traditionally been understood as a series of challenges to the disbelievers in the Prophet’s mission to produce a recitation similar to the Qur’ān[6]; something which the revelation made increasingly humiliating to the linguistically adept, jāḥilī Arabs, by gradually reducing the task down to a single ṣūra[7]. However, there is a strand of modern scholarship, most notably expounded by John Wansbrough, which argues that these verses are not, in fact, characteristic of 7th century Hijāzī polemic at all, but should instead be relocated to a more significantly Jewish milieu.[8] The implications of such a view for the doctrine of iʿjāz are seemingly profound, as it would impact on our understanding of the nature of the scriptural challenge itself, let alone its relationship to the idea of a specifically linguistic inimitability manifested in a 7th century Arabia known for its oral culture.[9] Wansbrough contends that the taḥaddī verses only make sense in a context of Jewish polemic as addresses to those already familiar with scriptural revelation. However on investigation, the evidence he adduces is insufficient to convincingly establish his argument in this regard.[10]

When attempting to understand the taḥaddī verses in the context of the predominately oral society of pre-Islamic Arabia, then, it is paramount to introduce two intimately related phenomena: the meaning, even resonance, of such a challenge as it impacted the tribal Arabs whom were the first recipients of the Qur’ānic message; and the manner in which this was negotiated, remembered and transmitted in the formative period of Islam. While both of these tasks require historical imagination, it is the latter which will be of more use to us in trying to understand the ‘cultural memory’ that Islamic civilisation formed of this initial encounter.[11] The relevance of this concept here is in focusing attention to the transmission of the raw material concerned with the remembrance of the taḥaddī verses: reports, interpretations and the shared assumptions that influenced the inclusion or omittance therein. These memes would later, after rational filtering, be manifested in such genres as tafsir and apologetic theology and thus flow into the initial formulations of the doctrine of iʿjāz.

In trying to reconstruct the cultural environment in which the Qur’ānic revelations were delivered, we are faced with the methodological problem that our very resources for such a task are themselves encoded with the presuppositions of ‘cultural memory’. This is the reason that Navid Kermani writes about the emergence of standard topoi, or ‘particular patterns or figures of remembrance’, giving examples such as, ‘the opponents who publicly denounce the Prophet, yet secretly yearn to listen to the Qur’ān.’[12] It should be noted that in this issue, Kermani has provisionally accepted the view that the taḥaddī verses ‘did not originally refer to the stylistic perfection of the Qur’ānic language’, in which he references Wansbrough among others.[13] This does not concern him, because he argues that ‘cultural memory’ requires no necessary connection to historical fact. While this is a significant point in general, in this particular case he seems too quick to divorce the tropes that he detects in later Muslim narrative literature, for instance nubuwwa, from their genesis in real historical events and socio-cultural forms.[14] In doing so, he closes himself off from the possibility of detecting, with careful scholarship, valuable insights into the nexus between the taḥaddī verses and Arabian oral, especially poetical culture, which can ultimately deepen our understanding of the formation of the ‘cultural memory’ that acted as a canvas for the theory of iʿjāz in the classical period. An important example of such a socio-cultural form is the muʿāraḍa, a pre-Islamic poetical activity which involved an attempt to surpass a poem and was to play a significant role in the later conceptualisation of doctrine.[15]

The history of so-called muʿāraḍa of the Qur’ān is a somewhat shadowy affair, which nonetheless prefigures the first significant attempts to theoretically conceptualise iʿjāz in the third/tenth century. In reviewing the evidence, the same names and roles appear, for instance: Musaylima as false prophet, Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 139/756) as Persian secretary and free-thinker, al-Maʿarrī (449/1057) as poet.[16] Sometimes there is the accusation of actively attempting to match the Qur’ān, in other circumstances the idea is presented that an individual believed a particular poem excelled a certain ṣūra.  However, in many such cases there are counter-claims of false accusations and attendant political or professional motives, thus reducing the reliability of the reports.[17]

It is a curious phenomenon that these claims of muʿāraḍa that surfaced from time to time, did not do noticeable damage to scholarly interpretation of the Qur’ānic challenge, which we shall see very much assumed the Qur’ān’s superlative position.[18] In fact, the very existence of such reports, without significant content to them, bolstered scholars’ confidence that the Qur’ān was continuing to confound its opponents in, above all, its literary superiority. This meme-like ‘iʿjāz al-Qur’ān’, as transmitted in the first two centuries of Islam, should be understood as a general idea of the Qur’ān’s linguistic potency and uniqueness, tied to the stories told about the first responses to the revelation, rather than the technical terminology it was to become. Following the ascension of the Abbasid dynasty to the Caliphate in 132/750, however, this somewhat loose conception began to be nurtured and refined in an environment of apologetic discussion, particularly through increasing interaction and debate with Christians.[19] The significance of this apologetic backdrop will become apparent in examining the doctrine of ṣarfa, the first recorded theological attempt to explain the taḥaddī verses that differed greatly with the kind of understanding that has been offered thus far.

The leading Muslim figures in the kalām debates of the formative Abbasid period were Muʿtazilī, so it is unsurprising that they dominated the early scholarship of iʿjāz and that one of their more prominent members, Ibrāhīm al-Naẓẓām (d. 220/835-230/845), is widely credited with devising the theory of ṣarfa.[20] The major question to be answered about this doctrine of is why a member of the Muʿtazilī school of thought would have proposed such an interpretation, which seems to involve divine compulsion, given their understanding of al-qadar, individual free will.[21] The best answer to this seems to be two-fold: firstly, that in the thinking of al-Naẓẓām, the traditional understanding of the taḥaddī verses would provide an even greater contradiction with the foundational Muʿtazilī understanding of God as al-ʿadl. The reasoning here was that it would not befit God’s Justice to set a challenge that cannot be completed, ergo the muʿāraḍa of the Qur’ān must be possible in principle and the muʿjiza was manifested in the divine intervention required to mitigate against it.[22] Secondly, there appears to be some evidence in the polemical writings of al-Jāḥiẓ[23] (d. 255/868-869) that ṣarfa may have originated as an argument by which his teacher, al-Naẓẓām, was able to reconcile certain inconsistencies in the Qur’ān, which were claimed by his opponents, the dahriyya, or Materialists.[24] This explanation, that ṣarfa may not have been originally intended to elucidate Qur’ānic iʿjāz, goes some way to account for the doctrine’s awkwardness when applied to the idea of inimitability, something that later scholars did not hesitate to point out.[25]

The 4th/10th century witnessed a trend towards an increasingly systematic approach to the terminology and categorisation of iʿjāz, while still retaining a great divergence in opinions as to its precise definition and constituents. However, if we take the liberty of including the contribution of the Muʿtazilī ʿAbd al-Jabbār (d. 415/1025), along with the other luminaries of this period, it can be confidently stated that it was here that the major arguments that shaped the later theological direction of this doctrine were fought and won. In order to appreciate the significance of the key thinkers of this time and the strands of thought with which they engaged, it is important to not only recall the sort of background ‘cultural memory’ of iʿjāz within the Qur’ānic challenge argued for thus far, but also to briefly examine the social and historical context of these classical discussions.

Continuing apologetic discourse, both inter and intra-religious in nature, was unsurprisingly a key motivating factor in developing the doctrine of iʿjāz in the 4th/10th century. It is for this reason that G. E. von Grunebaum (in reference to the period ca. 132/750 – 390/1000), aptly alludes to the relationship between the burgeoning kalām discussion on the authority of the prophetic miracle and the apologetic needs of its historical period. [26] It can be added that this should not be taken as a crude understanding that the idea of inimitability arose instantaneously in the changed conditions of the Abbasid milieu – it has deep Qur’ānic roots as we have argued – but rather that the social environment acted as a catalyst to its systematic elaboration. The three major factors driving this theological process can thus be outlined as follows: the need to formulate a response to Christian polemic[27], the threat of a Shiʿā-led erosion to the authority of revelation[28] and the backdrop of mutual theological disputation between the two major Muʿtazilī schools, the emergent Ashʿārīs and other traditionalist and literary scholars.

This ‘internal’ disputation of the issues surrounding iʿjāz, in the sense of the arguments between so-called mainstream ʿulamā’ (although they may well have branded each other as heretical), were arguably the most fertile in advancing the field of study. Possible reasons for this include competition for intellectual influence, political favour in the Caliphal court, as well as the natural concern of scholars to engage with the work of their peers before that of outsiders operating under a different paradigm.

An appreciation of the differences of the Muʿtazilī school’s two major groupings, based in Baṣra and Baghdād, is an important first point to understanding the intellectual nuances of the mutual critique and borrowing of ideas that characterised this period of thought – subtleties that Richard Martin argues there is a danger of neglecting through over-reliance on the work of Islamic heresiographers.[29] The Baghdād Muʿtazilī, inheriting directly from al-Naẓẓām, had a greater tendency to defend the doctrine of ṣarfa and nominally retained it for longer than their Baṣran counterparts. Thus al-Rummānī (d. 384/994), although a literary scholar, includes it almost vestigially as one aspect of iʿjāz, while concentrating on the Qur’ānic balāgha which he defines as ‘the conveying of meaning in the best of verbal forms’ and categorises it into ten elements.[30] In contrast to this, it seems that from the time of the Two Masters of Baṣra, al-Jubbā’ī (d. 303/915-6) and his son Abū Hāshim (d. 321/933), ṣarfa had been rejected and the miracle of eloquence increasingly favoured.[31] However, as it is largely through the latter’s student, ʿAbd al-Jabbār, that the substance of their teaching in this matter is known, it will be viewed as subsumed within his refined theory, an analysis of which will follow.

In contrast to the established Muʿtazilī schools, there was little of significance on the subject of iʿjāz produced by more traditionalist oriented writers and the nascent Ashʿārīs in the 4th/10th century, with the important exceptions of al-Khaṭṭābī and al-Bāqillānī respectively.

The former is distinguished by articulating a definition of inimitability that, strictly speaking, discards both the concepts of ṣarfa and i’khbārʿan al-kawā’in fī mustaqbal al-zamān (information about future events) in favour of balāgha. Unsurprisingly for a traditionist, his arguments for this are largely textual and laid out simply, yet effectively at the beginning of his Bayān iʿjāz al-Qur’ān. He quotes the taḥaddī verses directly to demonstrate that they point to basic criteria for understanding iʿjāz. In the case of ṣarfa, he uses Q17:88 to indicate that the incapacity of humans and jinn to produce the like of the Qur’ān is posited despite their striving, not because of a turning away from the attempt. Al-Khaṭṭābī continues this approach in his argument that knowledge of future events, although without doubt inimitable, is not truly part of what is meant by iʿjāz. He reaches this conclusion by reasoning that from Q2:23 it is clear that the challenge could be met by producing the like of any sūra, yet not all of them contain this sort of information.[32] Al-Khaṭṭābī does not rely on detailed arguments to establish the basic concept of iʿjāz through eloquence, however, as his understanding is that this is self-evident as well as being the opinion of the majority of ʿulamā’ in the matter. It should be noted that for the intellectual climate in which he wrote, this omission is of no consequence, as the gap is filled by a shared cultural memory, nurtured among other things on the sīra literature.[33]

Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī is perhaps the most well-known figure in the subject of iʿjāz al-Qur’ān and his book with this name has traditionally been regarded as seminal in the field.[34] For the purposes of this essay, we are interested in his contribution to the development of the concept of iʿjāz, in particular, as contrasted with that of his principle rival, ʿAbd al-Jabbār.

Both of the above scholars significantly emphasise the linguistic nature of iʿjāz, without allowing this an exclusive role vis-à-vis other aspects, such as knowledge of the future[35], while rejecting the doctrine of ṣarfa. Al-Bāqillānī’ views the composition of the Qur’ān as an essential aspect of its iʿjāz, particularly the fact that, upon revelation, it broke the custom of the Arab people by virtue of being sui generis, fitting within neither the genres of Arabic poetry nor prose. It is within the original explication of this idea that al-Bāqillānī’s major contribution to the subject can be found. He upholds the matchless eloquence of the Qur’ānic rhetoric as well, but is cautious in seeking to locate iʿjāz within it, on the basis that much of rhetoric can be learnt. He stops short, however, of giving the positive details of how the composition of the Qur’ān is inimitable and instead appeals to his readers to make taqlīd of the real literary experts in the matter, thus to all intents and purposes reducing the apologetic scope of the doctrine.[36]

ʿAbd al-Jabbār on the other hand, after situating the concept of iʿjāz within a systematic theory of the prophetic miracle[37], proceeds to go further than his teacher, Abū Hāshim, in explaining the nature of eloquence by adding ‘the arrangement of speech’ to the clarity of words and the beauty of their meaning. He further classifies a unique composition as relating to the choice of words, their position and rhetorical effect. However, meaning is relegated in this formulation to the extent that he claims it is not inherent to the overall faṣāḥa of a composition, as two writers could express exactly the same meaning with different degrees of eloquence.[38] Unlike al-Bāqillānī, he is generally unabashed in declaring that an explanation of the constituents of iʿjāz can be established upon his theory of Qur’ānic balāgha and in a way he offers an invitation that was later taken up by ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī.

The fully crystallised idea of iʿjāz that was to be passed down virtually unmodified through the remainder of the classical period of Islamic thought and beyond is that formulated by al-Jurjānī in his hugely influential works and introduced in Dalā’il al-iʿjāz. A literary expert himself, it is noteworthy how little space he gives in this work to a discussion of the theories and classification of iʿjāz that preceded him. He instead, drawing deeply on cultural memory in the same manner as al-Khaṭṭābī, works from the fundamental assumption that it is obvious that the reason the challenge of the taḥaddī verses was not met was because of the matchless and unique eloquence of the Qur’ān. This, for him, is the only iʿjāz worthy of the name. He further goes beyond previous writers by stating that as it is agreed upon by the Muslims that iʿjāz is not just a historical fact, but a continuing phenomenon, it must be possible, with the correct knowledge of Arabic rhetoric, to analyse the Qur’ān and attain proof of it.[39] He, therefore, effectively denies the validity of what has been described as an argument by ‘circumstantial evidence’ (that there was every reason for the Qur’ān to be imitated, yet it was not),[40] by arguing that as the very mechanism of iʿjāz can be demonstrated, it is a duty to do so; anything else amounts to choosing ignorance over knowledge.[41]

The substance of al-Jurjānī’s work, then, is an elaborate exposition of the rhetorical sciences required to understand Qur’ānic eloquence; sciences which, as we have seen, were significantly developed in the quest to better understand this very phenomenon. In this, he places a special emphasis on composition, which he theoretically bases on ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s triad of the choice of words, their arrangement and composite meaning.[42] The crucial adjustment that he, as an Ashʿārī, makes to his Muʿtazilī predecessor’s work is in his understanding of meaning, which underscores a major theological difference between the two schools. Al-Jurjānī believes unequivocally that it is not possible for the same meaning to be expressed in different words, because each composition is semantically distinct[43] and that meaning itself is a ‘concretely existing entity’ in the mind of the individual.[44] The theological corollary of this concept, arguably its real source, is a polemic against the Muʿtazilī dogma of a created Qur’ān, as it implies that the scripture as it exists in words, kalām lisānī, uniquely corresponds with its meaning (maʿna), which exists as an attribute of God or kalām nafsī.[45]

In conclusion, it is clear that while the full flowering of the classical doctrine of iʿjāz was witnessed in al-Jurjānī’s conception of it as compositional inimitability that could ultimately be analysed and proven by the linguistic specialist, he was heavily indebted in this to the most powerful and sustained current of Islamic interpretive and apologetic thought. Furthermore, while he imbued his theory with the theological nuances of the Ashʿārī school, its most significant aspects were equally palatable to the Muʿtazilīs, as evidenced in its adoption by al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144).[46] It is important also to reflect on the fact that al-Jurjānī’s highly technical dissection of the aspects of Arabic eloquence, while extremely accomplished in this regard, has received criticism for obscuring the very thing that he sought to elucidate – the miracle of Qur’ānic discourse – behind innumerable literary precepts.[47] Because of this, and the danger of circular reasoning in trying to prove the matchless excellence of the Qur’ān through stylistic and grammatical criteria drawn largely from its own pages, the question of iʿjāz was arguably never definitively closed by him, nor subsequent scholars.[48] In the spirit of the Qur’ānic challenge then, the task to more accurately map its contours is still available for those who wish to seek it.

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Abu Zayd, Nasr, The Dilemma of the Literary Approach to the Qur’an, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 23 Literature and Sacred, (Cairo, 2003)

Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: iʿjāz and Related Topics, Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’ān, ed. A. Rippin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988)

Goldziher, I, Muslim Studies ed. S. M. Stern (George Allen & Unwin, 1971)

Grunebaum, G, V, A Tenth-Century Document of Arab Literary Theory and Criticism, (Chicago, 1950)

Gunther, S, Muhammad, the Illiterate Prophet: an Islamic Creed in the Qur’ān and Qur’ānic Exegesis, Journal of Qur’ānic Studies, (2002, IV, 1)

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Al-Khaṭṭābī, H, Bayān iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, in Thalāth Rasā’il fī iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, ed. M. Khalafallāh Ahmed, M. Zaghlūl Sallām, (Dār al-Maʿārif, 1956)

Kermani, N, The Aesthetic Reception of the Qur’ān in Early Muslim History, in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’ān, ed. I. Boullata (Curzon, 2000)

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Larkin, M, The Theological Foundation of ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī’s Theory of Discourse, (UMI, 1989)

Martin, R. C. The Role of the Basrah Muʿtazilah in Formulating the Doctrine of the Apologetic Miracle, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, v. 39 n. 2 (The University of Chicago Press, 1980)

Rahman, Y, The Miraculous Nature of Muslim Scripture: a Study of ‘Abd al-Jabbār’s iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, Islamic Studies (1996:35)

Rippin, A, The Qur’an as Literature: Perils, Pitfalls and Prospects, (Bulletin, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, v. 10, n. 1, 1983)

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Al-Suyūṭī, Muʿtarak al-aqrān fi iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, (Dār al-Fikr al-ʿArabī, 1969)

Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an,  The Koran – Critical Concepts, v. 3, ed. C. Turner (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004)

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Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. (Brill, 2008)


[1] The ‘classical period’ is not precisely datable, but instead varies between different disciplines. For the purposes of this essay, the major original contributors to the classical doctrine of iʿjāz have been identified as having lived between the 3rd/9th and 5th/11th centuries.

[2] Abdul Aleem, ʿIjazu’l-Qurʾan (sic), Encyclopaedic Survey of Islamic Culture , vii (1933), Republished by Anmol Publications PVT Ltd, 1997, ed. M. Taher, p. 15 and more generally 9-42.

[3] Grunebaum, G.E. von. ” Iʿd̲j̲āz.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. ed. P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs  (Brill, 2008) Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 15 December 2008 http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-3484,

[4] Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: iʿjāz and Related Topics, Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur’ān, ed. A. Rippin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), p. 139-41, 146-7.

[5] However Sophia Vasalou does begin her study, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, in the light of such an understanding. See The Koran – Critical Concepts, v. 3, ed. C. Turner (RoutledgeCurzon, 2004) p.442-470.

[6] The verses are Q. 52:33-4, 11:13, 10:38, 17:88, 2:23-4. For a plausible interpretive chronology in the order just given, see Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 140.

[7] It is not relevant to the purpose of this essay to examine whether the meaning of ūra’ here should be understood as being identical with the chapters of the Qur’ān thus named.

[8] Wansbrough, J, Quranic Studies: sources and methods of scriptural interpretation, (Oxford University Press, 1977), p.79.

[9] This argument about the taaddī verses is part of an altogether more elaborate theory involving a much later final recension of the Qur’ān than that of the ʿUthmānī codex combined with a radical criticism of the standard account of pre-Islamic Arabic. Quranic Studies, p. 43-52 and 85-91. Both of these issues, which remain contentious among scholars, are far too complex to be addressed in this essay, which will remain with the traditional view still enjoying broad support as a starting point for research. [See also Leehmuis, Frederik. “Codices of the Qurʾān” and Jenssen, Herbjørn. ” Arabic Language.” in Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān, ed. Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Georgetown University, Washington DC. (Brill, 2008)]

[10]Wansbrough’s first supporting argument is that in three of these verses, the challenge follows an allegation of ‘forgery’ (iftarā in Q. 10:38 and 11:13, taqawwala in Q. 52:33-4) [see Wansbrough, J, Quranic Studies, p.79.] However, the semantic connotation of the former word is actually of forging, or fabricating a lie, while the latter is effectively synonymous. [Lane, E. W., Arabic-English Lexicon, (Islamic Texts Society, 2003), v. 2 p. 2391 and 2995.] This does not, therefore, seem to be a valid basis for excluding the pagan Arabs, whom lacked experience with scripture, from having made such a claim of falsehood. Secondly Wansbrough argues that the taaddī verse of Q. 17:88 (qul la’in ijtamaʿat al-insu wa ‘l-jinn…) is connected with the ‘rabbinical’ test of prophethood usually associated with Q. 17:85 (wa yas’alūnaka ͑an al-rū…). However, he does not take account of the fact that this association is supplied by tafsir, not the context of the verse, and that it is hard to imagine a declaration invoking the jinn would be used in the Jewish polemic he wishes to establish. The point that Q. 28:49 reproduces the format of the challenge, but includes the Taura, is vitiated by Wansbrough’s failure to explain the import of Q. 28:46-8 which puts this verse indisputably in the context of an argument with ‘a people to whom no warner had come before…’, a people undoubtedly aware of basic information about such a scripture, but not by any means having familiarity with it.

[11] Navid Kermani explains Jan Assman’s use of this concept as a social construct that results from a need to make sense of realities, independent of its historical validity. [The Aesthetic Reception of the Qur’ān in Early Muslim History, in Literary Structures of Religious Meaning in the Qur’ān, ed. I. Boullata (Curzon, 2000), p. 256.]

[12] Kermani, N, The Aesthetic Reception of the Qur’ān in Early Muslim History, p. 257.

[13] Ibid, p. 257.

[14] Ibid, p. 270-1

[15] Originally the term muʿāraa was applied to a specific type of poetical contest in the jāhiliyya, in which a ‘poet composes his work in the same rhyme and metre, and in doing so, often tries to surpass the original.’ [Schippers, A. ” Muʿāraḍa.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2008. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 22 December 2008 http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-5276,] The fact that the most famous and influential of all ancient poets, Imru’ al-Qays, is reported to have taken part in such an activity, demonstrates its prominence in the cultural landscape of 7th century Arabia and provides a contextual sense to the taaddī verses’ challenge as something for which the Arabs did have a conceptual precedent. [This fact is reported by Schippers from Al-Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, (Bulāq 1868-9) vii, 128.] In reference to the fame and influence of Imru’ al-Qays in the time of the Prophet see [Schoeler, G, The Oral and Written in Early Islam (Routledge, 2006), p.98-99.] Also, plausibility is hereby added to Ibn Hisham’s oft-quoted account of the trouble that Al-Walīd b. Mughira had in categorising the revelation, especially in his mention of the poetical meters to which the Qur’ān did not conform – as determining the meter would be one of the first steps to a muʿāraa as defined above. [Ibn Hishām, al-Sīra al-Nabawīya, (Dār al-Fajr lil-Turāth, 2004) v. 1, p. 182.] This idea of the Qur’ān as sui generis will be later examined in regard to the work of al-Bāqillānī.

[16] Goldziher, I, Muslim Studies ed. S. M. Stern (George Allen & Unwin, 1971) v. 2 p. 363-5.

[17] Ibid; Vasalou sums up the subject very well after discussing some of these figures alongside the tensions in formative Islamic civilisation, such as the so-called ‘Shuʿūbī controversy, which could have led to muʿāraa as part of a challenge to Islamic Arabism. She concludes: ‘If the above sounds tentative and conjectural, with little in the way of enumeration of actual instances of muʿāraa, that is because such instances have the nature of rumours and are not, it must be admitted, all that many.’ [Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 445-6.]

[18] Rippin, A, The Qur’an as Literature: Perils, Pitfalls and Prospects, (Bulletin, British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, v. 10, n. 1, 1983) p. 40.

[19] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 446-8.

[20] This is the argument that the lack of a muʿāraa in the time of the Prophet (and since) is not due to humanity being inherently unable to match the Qur’ān, but is rather because God miraculously turned it away.

[21] Gardet, L. ” Ḳaḍā; Wa ‘l-ḳadar.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2008. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 23 December 2008 http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_COM-0407.

[22] Abu Zayd, Nasr, The Dilemma of the Literary Approach to the Qur’an, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 23 Literature and Sacred, (Cairo, 2003) p. 11.

[23] Al-Jāḥiẓ is more significant as the Abbasid litterateur par excellence, than for his theological work. Like his teacher, al-Naẓẓām, he was originally Baṣran, but moved to Baghdād and gained access to the court. [See Pellat, Ch. “ḎJ̲āḥiẓ.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition.] However, as a literary expert, it is interesting to note that he was unusual among the Muʿtazilīs of his time for, besides arfa, also holding a doctrine of linguistic iʿjāz in which it is possible that he made an original contribution. The argument centres around one of his lost books, Kitābu Naẓm al-Qur’ān, and whether his appreciation of composition gave him an insight into this subject that was ahead of his time. Traditionally, al-Bāqillānī’s view that he did not add to the statements of the previous theologians in this matter has held sway. However, Ṭāhā al-Ḥājirī, has taken note of his likely bias against a member of the Muʿtazilī school and studied al-Jāḥiẓ’s comments on this subject in his extant works. His conclusion is that al-Jāḥiẓ was not afraid to make radical criticism of al-Naẓẓām, and others, for not locating the primary miracle of inimitability in the wondrous composition of the Qur’ān. Al-Ḥājirī puts forward the suggestion that the purpose of writing Kitābu Naẓm al-Qur’ān would have been to expound on the different literary aspects of iʿjāz that al-Jāḥiẓ appreciated, but did not write about in his less specialised works. This is a valuable suggestion and is supported by an early reference in al-Intiār by al-Khayyāṭ (300/912). Another contribution by Al-Ḥājirī is an attempt to resolve the apparent contradiction between holding the theories of arfa and naẓm. He does this by quoting al-Jāḥiẓ to the effect that arfa was used by God to prevent any sort of doubt and argument that would have come about by any claimed muʿāraa. The implication of this is that the actual inimitability of the scripture is preserved and it is held to be beyond the compositional powers of the Arabs. The merit of this suggestion is that it seems to tie in with al-Jāḥiẓ’s character of thought as we know it, emphasising the literary aspects of the scripture, but without significantly breaking with the major currents of Muʿtazilī thought in his day. [See al-Ḥājirī, Ṭ, Al-Jāi Hayātahu wa Āthāruhu, (Maktabat al-Dirāsāt, 1962), p. 321-3.]

[24] See Martin, R. C. The Role of the Basrah Muʿtazilah in Formulating the Doctrine of the Apologetic Miracle, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, v. 39 n. 2 (The University of Chicago Press, 1980) p. 181-2.

[25] There were a number of vigorously written refutations of arfa, particularly from the end of the 4th/10th century onwards, from within and outside the Muʿtazilī school, using both rational and textual arguments. This will be partly covered when referring to other thinkers of the classical period, particularly al-Khaṭṭābī.

[26] ‘Two factors combined to make the uniqueness of the Ḳurʾān crucial within the never fully systematized dogmatics of Islam: the necessity to prove the mission of the Prophet and the necessity to secure an incontrovertible authority for Muslim doctrine, law and mores. These interlocking needs could, in the atmosphere of the period, be met only by establishing the transcendental or miraculous character of the document of revelation and the singularity or miraculousness of the historical Muḥammad b. ʿAbd Allāh revealing it.’ [Grunebaum, G.E. von. ” Iʿd̲j̲āz.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2008. Brill Online. School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). 28 December 2008 http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-3484.]

[27] The most pointed aspect of Christian attacks on the nascent Islamic dogmatic system has been epitomised in the Risālat ʿAbd al-Masī ibn Isāq al-Kindī, circa 10th/4th century, which criticises the Muslims for failing, in their formulation of iʿjāz thus far, to clarify the Qur’ānic miracle and put it on the level of the acknowledged miracles of previous prophets. [Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 447-8.] Here we can see the impetus for the theoretical grounding of the conditions for a miracle, which were most significantly outlined by ‘Abd al-Jabbār.

[28] The role of the Shiʿā has been regarded by scholars of the period as of fundamental importance, because their different theological premises offered a doctrinal alternative radically different to the Sunnī-oriented ʿulamā’, whether Muʿtazilī or not. While this did not preclude the possibility of Shiʿā interpretations of iʿjāz entirely, it is clear that the belief in a series of infallible Imāms was perceived as a danger to the pre-eminence of the Qur’ānic revelation and its apologetic function, putting it, therefore, in need of securing. [Martin, R. C. The Role of the Basrah Muʿtazilah in Formulating the Doctrine of the Apologetic Miracle, p. 188.] It should be noted in this context that the Fatimid caliphate, which conquered Egypt in 358/969 and ruled until 567/1171 is an indication of the real political and intellectual threat that this strand of thought held.

[29] Martin, R. C. The Role of the Basrah Muʿtazilah in Formulating the Doctrine of the Apologetic Miracle p. 175.

[30] Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 143.

[31] Martin, R. C. The Role of the Basrah Muʿtazilah in Formulating the Doctrine of the Apologetic Miracle p. 183.

[32] Al-Khaṭṭābī, H, Bayān iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, in Thalāth Rasā’il fī iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, ed. M. Khalafallāh Ahmed, M. Zaghlūl Sallām, (Dār al-Maʿārif, 1956) p. 22-24.

[33] Von Grunebaum argues that in presenting his theory of the Qur’ānic iʿjāz as located in its balāgha, al-Khaṭṭābī’s organisation and integration of illustrative material is inferior to that of al-Rummānī and he is hampered by a reactive approach in regard to specific criticisms that had been made of its style. [Grunebaum, G, V, A Tenth-Century Document of Arab Literary Theory and Criticism, (Chicago, 1950), p. xvii.] Certainly in al-Rummānī’s al-Nukat fī iʿjāz al-Qur’ān there is a clear effort to organise the different elements of balāgha under clear terminological headings, an approach later meticulously followed and extended by al-Jurjānī. However, von Grunebaum, in giving an opinion based on his expertise in stylistic analysis, does not elaborate on the theological contrast between the two, in which as has been indicated, it is al-Khaṭṭābī, in his concentration on balāgha to the exclusion of other aspects of iʿjāz, that represented the future classical direction of the doctrine. It is noteworthy, also, that ʿArafah (1985) draws a connection between Al-Khaṭṭābī’s triad of concepts: dictions (alfāẓ), ideas (maʿānī) and composition (naẓm) and ‘Abd al-Jabbār’s analogous categories. [See Rahman, Y, The Miraculous Nature of Muslim Scripture: a Study of ‘Abd al-Jabbār’s iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, Islamic Studies (1996:35) p. 423, n. 58]

[34] In modern scholarship there has been something of a backlash against his approach. For instance, Vasalou charges him with failing to provide a strong theological foundation for the doctrine of iʿjāz and instead performing an ultimately subjective literary analysis of the Qur’ān and asserting its special eloquence as a matter of faith. However, the analysis required to assess this verdict lies outside the scope of the present inquiry.  [Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 455-7].

[35] Al-Bāqillānī also argues, amongst other things, that an aspect of iʿjāz is to be found in the Qur’ān’s account of past events, despite the Prophet’s illiteracy, the so called nabī ummī thesis. (Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’ān: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 144-5) However, this idea was usually held to be a more general prophetic miracle and an apologetic counter to the argument that the Qur’ān was derivative of the Jewish and Christian traditions. [See Gunther, S, Muhammad, the Illiterate Prophet: an Islamic Creed in the Qur’ān and Qur’ānic Exegesis, Journal of Qur’ānic Studies, (2002, IV, 1), p. 11].

[36] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 452-7, Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’ān: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 144-5.

[37] In short, he states that a miracle must: come from God directly or indirectly; break the habit of the people to which it is brought, whom must be unable to perform it in respect to kind or quality; and must be peculiar to the one who claims prophethood. [Rahman, Y, The Miraculous Nature of Muslim Scripture: a Study of ‘Abd al-Jabbār’s iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, p. 413]

[38] Rahman, Y, The Miraculous Nature of Muslim Scripture: a Study of ‘Abd al-Jabbār’s iʿjāz al-Qur’ān, p. 416-7.

[39] Al-Jurjānī, Dalā’il al-iʿjāz, (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1995), p. 26-7.

[40] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 451-2.

[41] Al-Jurjānī, Dalā’il al-iʿjāz, (Dār al-Kitāb al-ʿArabī, 1995), p. 26-7.

[42] Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’ān: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 146.

[43] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 458.

[44] Larkin, M, The Theological Foundation of ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī’s Theory of Discourse, (UMI, 1989) p. 104.

[45] Ibid p. 204-5.

[46] Boullata, I. J., Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’ān: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 147.

[47] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 459.

[48] Vasalou, Sophia, The Miraculous Eloquence of the Qur’an, p. 459-60. Also in regard to this contention, Boullata gives a survey of more modern approaches to iʿjāz. [See Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’ān: iʿjāz and Related Topics, p. 148-57.]

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