The Linguistic Power and Inimitability of the Qur'an
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
All praise and thanks are due to Allah, and May Allah blessings and peace be upon His Messenger.
Allah Subhanahu wa Ta`ala laid down a challenge in the Qur'an to mankind in general and to the Arabs in particular:
"And if you are in doubt concerning that which we have sent down to our slave (Muhammad) then produce a chapter like it, and call your supporters and helpers besides Allah, if you are truthful!" [Al-Baqarah, 2:23]
The Arabs in the time of Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) had no civilization to speak of but there was one thing in which they excelled - that was their language. They were extremely found of poetry, and prided themselves in their poetic abilities. They praised each other, admonished - and even argued - in poetry. At that time, the Arabs were at the peak of their linguistic abilities.
Indeed, one of the finest poems ever written in Arabic was that of Labaid ibn Rabiyah, whose poem caused the Arabs to prostrate before him in admiration. When this same Labaid began to hear the verses of Qur'an, he embraced Islam, and gave up poetry. When he was once asked to recite some poetry he said: "What! After the Qur'an?" Indeed, many of the Arabs entered into Islam just from hearing the Qur'an, because for them it was a conclusive proof of its Divine origin. They knew that no man could produce such eloquence.
The Qur'an differentiated itself in its very structure. Poetry in Arabic falls into sixteen different "Bihar" (rhythmic forms) and other than that they have the speech of soothsayers, rhyming prose, and normal speech. The Qur'an's form did not fit into any of these categories. It was this that made the Qur'an inimitable, and left the pagan Arabs at a loss as to how they might combat it.
Alqamah bin Abdul Manaf confirmed this when he addressed their leaders, the Quraish: "Oh Quraish, a new calamity has befallen you. When Muhammad was a young man, he was the most liked among you, the most truthful in speech and the most trustworthy, until, when you saw grey hairs on his temple, he brought you his message. You said that he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we have seen such people and their spitting and their knots. You said that he was a diviner, but we have seen such people and their behavior, and we have heard their rhymes; you said a soothsayer, but he is not a soothsayer, for we have heard their rhymes; and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we have heard all kinds of poetry. You said he was possessed, but he is not, for we have seen the possessed, and he shows no signs of their gasping and whispering and delirium. Oh men of Quraish, look to your affairs, for by Allah a serious thing has befallen you."
The Quraish decided that the only convincing propaganda they could make against the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) was that the magic of his speech turned a man away from his father, wife, brother and family. So Abu Lahab would wait on the road ways into Makkah in the Hajj season, and warn the people from listening to the Prophet's speech.
The Seerah (The Prophetic biography) of Ibn Ishaq reports one incident when Abu Sufyan, Abu Jahal and Al-Akhnas snuck out of their houses at night to listen to the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) reciting the Qur'an - hiding in their places until dawn. On the way home, they met and reproached one another, saying: "Don't do it again, for if one of the weak minded fools sees you, you will arouse suspicion in their minds." This happened three nights in a row, until they took from each other a solemn oath not to do it again.
Utbah bin Rabi’ah, a chief of Quraish, during one of their meetings in which they discussed possible means to stop the Prophet's preaching, suggested to make some proposals to the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) and "give him whatever he wants, so he will leave us in peace."
Their leaders agreed, so Utbah went and sat by the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) and said: "Oh my nephew, you are one of us as you know, of the noblest of the tribe and hold a worthy position in ancestry. You have come to your people with an important matter, dividing their community thereby and ridiculing their customs, and you have insulted their gods and their religion, and declared that their forefathers were unbelievers, so listen to me and I will make some suggestions, and perhaps you will be able to accept one of them."
The Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) agreed, and Utbah went on to say: "If what you want is money, we will make you our chief so that no one can decide anything apart from you; if you want sovereignty, we will make you king, and if this ghost which comes to you, which you see, is such that you cannot get rid of him, we will find a physician for you, and exhaust our means in getting you cured, for often a familiar spirit gets possession of a man until he can be cured of it."
The Prophet(sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) listened patiently, and then said: "Now listen to me." The Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) then recited from the beginning of Surah Fussilat, Surah 41 until the verse of prostration, were the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) prostrated, and all the while Utbah listened attentively, leaning on his hands.
The Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) then said: "You have heard what you have heard, Abu Waleed; the rest remains with you."
When Utbah returned to his companions they noticed that his expression completely altered, and they asked him what had happened. He said that he had heard words that he had never heard before, which were neither poetry, nor witchcraft. "Take my advice and do as I do, leave this man entirely alone for, by God, the words which I have heard will be blazed abroad. If the other Arabs kill him, others will have rid you of him; if he gets the better of the Arabs, his sovereignty will be your sovereignty, his power your power, and you will be prosperous through him."
They said: 'He has bewitched you with his tongue". To which he answered: "You have my opinion, you must do what you think fit."
Such was the power of the Qur'an that Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who was on his way to kill the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) , discovered his sister and her husband reciting the Qur'an. Upon reading twenty verses of Surah Ta-Ha, instead went to the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) and embraced Islam. So how is it possible for an un-lettered and un-learned man, not versed in poetry, to be able to produce a work of the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) unrivalled eloquence and perfect rhetoric, so that even the assembled experts and masters of all the forms of poetry and the Arabic language were unable to produce the like of its smallest chapter?
If we examine analytically the claim of anyone to prophethood then there are three possibilities concerning such a claim. The first possibility is that the individual is a liar. The second possibility is that the individual sincerely believes he or she is receiving revelation, but is only suffering some form of delusion, and the third is that the individual really is receiving revelation, and is speaking the truth. It is interesting to mention some of the arguments raised by the Christian and secularist Orientalists against Prophet Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) because taken as a whole they offer a conclusive proof in his favour.
One school of thought has suggested, in essence, that Prophet Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) was a liar and a fabricator; that he learnt from various rabbis and Christian priests, and during his various retreats to the Mountain of Light, composed the Qur'an. Some have tried to soften these accusations by claiming that he was motivated by a sincere desire to reform his people, and so invented Islam to achieve this.
Others accuse him of more worldly interests and cite the large number of wives as a proof of this. This approach has been rejected altogether by the second school, who upon observing the evidence of Prophet Muhammad's (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) character which places him far above lying and deceit, and the reality of his life style which was a paragon of simplicity and even poverty. Having found no substantiating proof that he had rabbis or priests as teachers, and the complete acceptance of his claim by his close family and wives, to whom any duplicity would inevitably have been exposed, have claimed that he was totally sincere in his claim to prophethood, and that he truly believed that he was a Prophet receiving revelation.
They, also unable to accept the possibility that Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) truly was a Prophet, attempt various psycho-analytical explanations, such as the Qur'an being a voice of the subconscious, or the revelation being bought on by trances induced by epileptic fits. The basic claim being that Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) was deluded. We will not attempt to refute these accusations in detail here. The cursory examination of the opposing positions will suffice. What makes this a conclusive proof in Muhammad's favour is that he could not be a calculating liar and be deluded at the same time. A man who sincerely believes that he is a Prophet does not sit down thinking and planning what he will say the next day, because he believes that God is going to reveal it to him!
Yet the opponents of Islam need both to explain the phenomena of Prophet Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) . He needs to be a cunning and calculating deceiver in order to explain the information and linguistic inimitability of the Qur'an, yet he needs to be deluded in order to explain his obvious sincerity. If one takes these two bodies of information together, the only way to reconcile them is the third possibility, that he was indeed what he claimed to be - the Messenger of Allah.
Indeed, the Quraish found it very hard to produce a convincing argument against The Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) . They knew that the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) was unable to produce the likes of the Qur'an, either in its eloquence, or in the knowledge it contained. They were also familiar with his character and personality, and admitted that he had been the best, most trusted and well liked amongst them. Even Abu Lahab, the Prophet's (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) persistent enemy, said: "We don't call you a liar, Muhammad, we just don't believe in what you have brought."
In reality, Abu Lahab's motivation for refusing to accept Prophet Muhammad (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) was tribal rivalry. When the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) first received revelation to call his people openly to Islam, he went to the top of Mount Safa' and called all the tribes of Makkah, until they had all gathered or sent a representative. He said to them: "Oh my people, if I was to tell you there was a band of horsemen about to attack from behind this hill, would you believe me?" They all replied: "Yes! Why should we not believe you, we never heard anything but truth from you!" So the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) said: "I have come to warn you of a terrible chastisement from your Lord."
So, Prophet Muhammad's (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) people testified to his truthfulness, and that they had never heard lies from him. And as Hercules, the Byzantine Roman Emperor, said, when questioning Abu Sufyan about the Prophet (sallallāhu `alayhi wa sallam) : "If he does not lie about men, then he would not lie about Allah!"
[Excerpted from Islam Web published on 26 January2004]