One would assume that, were a work of literature created by God, it would be perfect and that all those who heard it would be transfixed. It would, we might also assume, not be greeted by derision and dismissed as mere plagiarism by other poets of the time. Nonetheless, this is what apparently happened when Muhammad first started to reveal God's words to humanity. We know of one such reaction because the criticism is actually referred to in the Qur'an itself:
83:13 ... [W]hen Our revelations are recited to him, he says, "Ancient fables!" 14 No indeed! Their hearts are encrusted with what they have done. 15 No indeed! On that day they will be screened off from their Lord, 16 they will burn in Hell, 17 and they will be told, "This is what you call a lie." (Haleem)This passage is thought by scholars to refer to al-Nadr, who was promptly assassinated on the orders of Muhammad. The scene is depicted above. The same fate befell at least three other poets who were ill-advised enough to criticise God's chosen mouthpiece.
2. Are the literary devices used in the Qur'an an argument for its divine origin?
Muslims say that the Qur'an contains an impressively broad range of stylistic devices to communicate its message. Hamza Tzortzis of the Islamic Education and Research Association (iERA) has recently written and published (via iERA) a study entitled The Qur'ans (sic) Unique Literary Form.
Let us examine what Hamza has to say.
Antiphrasis (using a word to mean the opposite - ironically)
Antithesis (saying contrasting things)
Asyndeton (basically leaving out conjunctions eg veni, vidi, vici)
Assonance (repetition of vowel sounds for effect - I'm sure you knew that one...)
Cadence (using rhythm)
Chiasmus (criss-cross structure eg who is first shall be last, who is last shall be first)
Epizeuxis (repetition of word for effect)
Equivoque (pun or double meaning)
Homonymy (word with more than one meaning)
Hyperbole (exaggeration - again, sure you knew that one)
Isocolon (stressing connections by using words same length – veni, vedi veci (which is also an example of asyndeton – so now you know…))
Metonymy (the substitution of a word or phrase for another closely associated _ The Golden Arches are metonymic (for Mcdonald’s!))Once the more technical terms are explained in simple language - like all jargon designed to intimidate, impress and exclude - they become less impressive. In fact, I would say that if I were to write a "revelation" in poetic language the length of the Qur'an over the course of twenty-three years, I'd be hard pressed NOT to include all of the above. As a list it's simply not that impressive, Hamza. Especially when we compare it to a writer like Shakespeare (who didn't spend 23 years on one book but wrote a play while rehearsing another and performing yet another and managed to write 884,000 words of majestic poetry and prose. By comparison the Qur'an is one tenth the length (only approximately 78,000 words). I'm no Shakespeare scholar but I suspect we'd find his oeuvre included all of the above techniques and PLENTY more besides. Does that then make Shakespeare's work divine (in the true sense...)?
Parenthesis (word or phrase inserted as an aside)
Polypton (repetition of words from same root eg run, running, runner)
Rhetorical Questions (I don't need to explain this, do I?)
Stress (I said I don't need to explain this, DO I?)
Synedoche (same as metonymy really – using part of something to refer to the whole)
3. Is the literary form of the Qur'an unique?
Muslims make great play of the fact that the Qur'an is neither poetry nor prose. Once again, let's turn to Hamza Tzortzis' study to understand more clearly the Muslim argument. Every expression of the Arabic language falls into the literary forms of Prose and Poetry, he states. Even this bare statement is somewhat misleading, as he later concedes, since there is a form of literary expression called saj'. Here is what we are told about saj':
Von Denffer in his book ‘Ulum al-Qur’an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an’ provides the followingHamza further concedes that some of the Qur'an - the early Meccan surahs - are synonymous with saj'
“A literary form with some emphasis on rhythm and rhyme, but distinct from poetry. Saj’ is not really as
sophisticated as poetry, but has been employed by Arab poets, and is the best known of the pre-Islamic Arab
prosodies. It is distinct from poetry in its lack of metre, i.e. it has not consistent rhythmical pattern, and it shareswith poetry the element of rhyme, though in many cases some what irregularly employed.
The Qur’an has its own unique form. It cannot be described as any of the known literary forms. However due to similarities between saj’ and early Meccan chapters, some Western Scholars describe the Qur’an’s literary form as saj’. Angelika Neuwrith states,“Saj’ is given up completely in the later suras where the rhyme makes use of a simple –un/-in – scheme to mark the end of rather long and syntactically complex verse….saj’ style is thus exclusively characteristic of the early suras”Thus the Qur'an appears to be a "unique form of saj'", according to Muslims.
There are three major opinions based upon modern and classical scholarship on how the Qur’an achieves this unique literary form and this unique form of saj’1. Unique fusion of Metrical and Non Metrical Speech
2. Qur'anic saj' (by which is meant, apparently, more "mono-rhythm", more "inexact rhyme")
3. Greater range of stylistic devices (which we've already covered)
It is certainly the case that saj' was widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia.
According to Al-Jahiz, the advantages of rhymed prose are twofold; it is pleasing to the ear and easy to remember. He says the Arabs have uttered a far greater quantity of simple than of rhymed prose, and yet not a tenth of the former has been retained while not a tenth of the latter has been lost. (wikipedia)This perhaps goes some way to explaining another of the "miracles" that Muslims attribute to the Qur'an: the ease of memorising it. Arabic literature relied upon oral transmission for far longer than its European equivalent. Poetry and rhymed prose or saj' thus allowed performers to remember huge amounts of material with relative ease. That the Qur'an has the same quality is therefore not miraculous but totally understandable.
But let us return to what supposedly distinguishes the Qur'an from saj', something which is of course essential for Muslim defenders of the miraculous and unique nature of the Qur'an.
i. Qur'anic saj' sometimes has a rhythm and sometimes not (Hamza's impressive sounding "fusion of metrical and non-metrical speech")
ii. Qur'anic saj' has rhymes which are sometimes inaccurate or "not very good". (Hamza's "inexact rhymes")
iii. Qur'anic saj' many rhetorical devices (but, as we saw earlier, hardly a hugely impressive list given the length of the work, the time taken to produce it, and when one compares them to a more prolific and skilled writer like Shakespeare)
Hamza goes on to list further characteristics which he deems worthy of special mention since they make the Qur'an "unique" in his opinion:
"Semantically orientated assonance and rhyme" - so the rhyme and assonance correspond to the meaning. I would humbly suggest that if they didn't, the Qur'an would be what is termed "nonsense", such as the poems of Edward Lear.
"Interrelation between sound, structure and meaning" - see above
"Iltifaat: Grammatical shifts" - This is important so let's turn to Hamza's study again:
Professor Abdel Haleem in his article 'Grammatical Shift for Rhetorical Purposes: Iltifat and Related Features in the Qur'an' brought to attention, that another inimitable feature of the Qur'an, is the extensive use of grammatical shiftsThese grammatical shifts include changes in person, change in number, change in addressee, change in tense, change in case marker, using a noun in place of a pronoun and many other changes.Another example of a Virtue out of FaultThe Qur’an is the only form of Arabic prose to have used this rhetorical device in an extensive and complex manner. Abdel Haleem states,“…it employs this feature far more extensively and in more variations than does Arabic poetry. It is, therefore, natural to find…no one seems to quote references in prose other than from the Qur'an”
Unique Linguistic Genre - Hamza's next characteristic that makes the Qur'an unique is somewhat confusing, since he claims the Qur'an is unique because ...it is unique. Can't argue with that one!
1. The Qur'an was criticised by other poets of the time. Muhammad had these poets assassinated. This does not suggest to me that the Qur'an or its mouthpiece were divinely inspired.
2. The apparent unique breadth of rhetorical or literary devices is not overly-impressive given the length of the Qur'an and the amount of time its author had to consider its content and style.
3. The supposedly unique ease with which people can memorise the Qur'an is not so miraculous when one learns that most pre-Islamic Arabic literature was memorised with ease because of the nature of poetry or rhymed prose or saj'. They were designed to be easy to remember.
4. The apparent unique literary form of the Qur'an is an understandable result of a piece of literature produced over a period of 23 years. One must ask oneself: is it more impressive to produce a piece of literature in a mixture of styles (rhymed prose and poetry) than in one consistent style? Would Homer's Illyad or Milton's Paradise Lost be more impressive works of literature if their authors had chopped and changed between styles?
5. Many of the features of the Qur'an which "scholars" suggest add to its uniqueness and richness can be interpreted as weaknesses (grammatical shifts, repetition, inconsistent style, poor rhymes). That these features have been used to support the hypothesis that the Qur'an is a literary masterpiece tells us more about the obsequious nature of current Qur'anic scholarship than it tells us about the Qur'an.
6. If one believes that a work of literature contains the very words of God, one will expect and want to find perfection. What one expects and wants to find, one usually does.