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Miraculousness of the Qurān (Part 6)

Ibn al-Hussain

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Miraculousness of the Qurān – Doctrine of al-Ṣarfah – A Historical Overview (Part 6)

Original source: http://www.iqraonline.net/miraculousness-of-the-quran-doctrine-of-al-ṣarfah-a-historical-overview-part-6/

In our previous post, we went over a brief description of the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah. In this post, we want to see what critiques were established against this doctrine by Muslim scholars. I will summarize some of the major arguments against the doctrine and leave out some of the rebuttals which I felt were repetitive and were essentially saying the same thing as another argument. As you will come to realize, some of these rebuttals are impressive and proponents of al-Ṣarfah would need to respond to them accordingly, but some other rebuttals have blatant flaws in them or are based on presumptions that not all proponents of al-Ṣarfah even accepted. Though, I will not be discussing the strength or weakness of any of these rebuttals and will leave it up to the reader to further investigate and contemplate over this very crucial discussion.

Scholars have listed out a wide range of critiques on the doctrine, some list up to 12 rebuttals, others 7, and some only 1 or 2. The nature of these rebuttals also depends on who they are being addressed to. As mentioned in the previous post, there are multiple definitions and interpretations of the doctrine itself, so even though some rebuttals may be applicable to all interpretations, many others may only be targetting a specific definition or even a specific proponent of the doctrine. In this post I have sufficed with 8 critiques, combining some of the rebuttals I felt were essentially saying the same thing.

Rebuttals

1. If the miracle of the Qurān was something external to it, rather than internal, then God would not have challenged the Arabs to bring something like it. Instead, God would have informed them that He has forcibly prevented them from bringing anything like it.

2. al-Khaṭṭābī[1] (d. 388 AH / 998 CE) and some others argue that even though theoretically speaking the view of al-Ṣarfah sounds valid, its greatest problem is that it goes against the apparent meaning of some of the verses of the Qurān. One of the main verses cited is:

قُل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا

[17:88] Say, “If mankind and the jinn gathered in order to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like of it, even if they were to each other assistants.”

These scholars argue that this verse cannot be understood correctly if one were to believe in al-Ṣarfah – which is an external barrier. The challenge in this verse is related to an act that has been described as being exhaustive and a task that requires a lot of effort. Such is the extent of this effort that all of mankind and the jinn would need to gather together to even begin fulfilling it. Despite that, they will fail at it. This implies that the miracle of the Qurān is something internal to it because the notion of al-Ṣarfah – at least one understanding of it – implies that humans have been externally prevented from bringing anything like the Qurān and there is no real motivation or effort required to attempt to bring anything like it.

There are other verses in the Qurān that are also cited by different scholars to argue that the miracle of it is innate to it. For example:

وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لَا تَسْمَعُوا لِهَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ وَالْغَوْا فِيهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَغْلِبُونَ

[41:26] And those who disbelieve say, “Do not listen to this Qur’an and speak noisily during [the recitation of] it that perhaps you will overcome.”

This verse implies that the disbelievers knew the words of the Qurān itself had something miraculous about it, or else they would not have asked others to not listen to it or interrupt its recitation. This is as far as its impact on the disbelievers is concerned. However, in another verse we see that the verses of the Qurān also impacted the believers:

اللَّهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ تَقْشَعِرُّ مِنْهُ جُلُودُ الَّذِينَ يَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُمْ ثُمَّ تَلِينُ جُلُودُهُمْ وَقُلُوبُهُمْ إِلَىٰ ذِكْرِ اللَّهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُدَى اللَّهِ يَهْدِي بِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ اللَّهُ فَمَا لَهُ مِنْ هَادٍ

[39:23] Allah has sent down the best statement: a consistent Book wherein is reiteration. The skins shiver therefrom of those who fear their Lord; then their skins and their hearts relax at the remembrance of Allah. That is the guidance of Allah by which He guides whom He wills. And one whom Allah leaves astray – for him there is no guide.

3. ‘Abdul Qāhir al-Jurjānī[2] (d. 471 AH), Zarkashī (d. 794 AH) in his al-Burhān and Suyūtī[3] (d. 911 AH) all argue that if the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah was true, then as time passes by, people would learn the ability to bring something like the Qurān. As such, it would no longer remain a miracle. This is all the while there is a theological consensus by Muslims that the Qurān is an eternal miracle.

Note that one of the presumptions of this rebuttal is that the challenge to bring something like the Qurān has been understood to be limited to the time of the Prophet (p) himself.

4. Those who say that al-Ṣarfah is the notion of God preventing the Arabs from acquiring knowledge required to bring something like the Qurān, then a question remains as to why we do not find any historical reports of Arabs complaining about their lack of knowledge regarding these matters, or why did none of the eloquent ones at the time of the Prophet (p) even attempt to bring anything like it – albeit failed attempts?

5. ‘Abdul Qāhir al-Jurjānī claims that if the doctrine of al-Ṣarfah was correct, then why do we find the Arabs themselves astonished and confused by the eloquence and clarity of the Qurān.[4] This matter is unanimously agreed upon by the historians and numerous historical reports exist describing the shocking state of some of the disbelievers, such as Walīd b. Mughīrah and ‘Utbah b. Rabī’ah, when they heard some of the verses being recited. If the verses were not miraculous, even if they were highly eloquent, this should not have been a reason for them to be shocked and astonished to such a degree, since the Arabs were already well accustomed to highly eloquent speech before the revelation of the Qurān.

If the miracle of the Qurān was that their knowledge had been taken away from them, then their astonishment should have been concerning the fact that previously they the ability to produce speech similar to the Qurān, but after its revelation, they were unable to do so.

6. In the previous post, we mentioned that one of Sayyid al-Murtaḍa’s justification for al-Ṣarfah was that the verses of the Qurān are merely a combination of letters and words, something every human is inherently capable of doing. If someone is not able to bring something like the Qurān, it only means that people do not have enough knowledge do so, not that the order of the words itself is miraculous.

‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabāī summarizes this argument in his Tafsīr al-Mīzān[5] and then begins a lengthy response to it. I will quote just two excerpts from his response and the readers can refer to the complete rebuttal in the English translation of al-Mīzān available online. He writes:

It is a fallacious argument that as the language is a product of human ingenuity, it can never reach a level which would be beyond the grasp or ability of human beings; language, being a product, cannot be more powerful than its producer. The fallacy lies in the fact that what has been invented by man is simple words for particular meanings. But this congruity of the words with their meanings does not teach the man how to arrange those words, how to plan, draft and deliver a talk in the best possible way — in a way that the talk reflects the beauty of the meaning as it is in the mind, and the meaning in its turn becomes a mirror of the reality, remains in complete agreement with the fact. It requires a dexterity in the art of eloquence, an adroitness in elocution; also it depends on sharp intelligence and comprehensive knowledge so that the speaker may be fully cognizant of all aspects of the subject matter. It is this skill and knowledge that differs from man to man, and creates difference between talk and talk in their respective perfection and beauty.

To come back to the main objection: Accepted that language has been made by men. But it does not mean that there cannot be found a piece of literature that is beyond the reach of the very men who made the language. Otherwise, we would have to say that a sword-maker must be the bravest of all the swordsmen, the inventor of chess or lute must be the most accomplished chess-master or lutanist!

Āyatullah Jawādī Āmulī in volume 1 of his thematical exegesis[6] offers a similar critique to Sayyid al-Murtaḍa. To summarize his argument, he says that eloquence and clarity of speech is based on three pillars, namely, one’s relative knowledge with respect to what exists, the ability to produce words and use them to signify their specific meanings, and thirdly to be able to use those words collectively in an appropriate fashion to convey a meaning to someone. Humans have complete control over the second pillar, but their command over the first and third pillar is limited. This is because the realities are too many to enumerate and most humans possess only some knowledge regarding them, while others – like the infallibles – may possess all knowledge about them. As for what words should be used and how they should be used, then this goes back to human experience and one’s taste of the language. It does not exist for everyone because it is linked to the domain of the practical intellect and humans are highly different from one another in this regard. This is similar to the skill of writing poetry, which some are excellent in, while others have no ability to write anything poetic.

So even if humans coined words for different meanings, these are to be considered tools by which eloquent speech can be produced. It by no means necessitates that they themselves can also produce the highest level of eloquence or that eloquence cannot reach a level of miraculousness.

7.  The doctrine of al-Ṣarfah suggests that the Qurān challenged the people to bring something like it, but if they ever intended to do so, an external barrier would prevent them from it. However, this implies that if a person does not intend to go head-to-head with the Qurān and is not intending on taking on the Qurānic challenge, then there is nothing stopping them from bringing something like the Qurān. This is because the external barrier is for those who intend on challenging the Qurānic miracle.

Of course, this rebuttal will only work for those proponents of al-Ṣarfah who believe that the external barrier is limited to those who consciously intend on taking on the Qurānic challenge.

8. From a Shī’ī perspective, one argument against al-Ṣarfah is seeing what the infallible Imāms (a) after the Prophet (p) have said about the Qurān. Some traditions very clearly signify that the miracle of the Qurān was internal to it and not an external barrier. The Imāms never seem to have alluded to the book’s miraculous aspect being that which the proponents of al-Ṣarfah claim. Rather if there is any mention of the Qurānic miracle and its accompanying challenge, their words always seem to imply that it was something innate to it. One such tradition is in volume 1 of Uṣūl al-Kāfī, ḥadīth #20:

Al-Ḥusayn b. Muḥammad narrated from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Sayyārī from Abū Ya’qūb al-Baghdādī who said:

Ibn Sikkīt asked Abū al-Ḥasan (al-Kāẓim), ‘Why did Allah send Mūsa b. ‘Imrān (a) with a miracle that appeared through his staff, his hand and through tools of magic, and He sent ‘Īsa with the miracle that appeared through tools of medicine, and He sent Muḥammad (p) with means of speech and sermons?’

Abū al-Ḥasan (a) replied: ‘When Allah sent forth Mūsa (a), magic was popular amongst the people. So he brought something against them from Allah which they did not have the capacity to counter. He was given that by which he invalidated their magic and established the truth against them.

Allah sent ‘Īsa (a) at a time when serious illnesses existed amongst the people and they needed medical treatment. So he brought something for them from Allah which the people did not have. He was given the ability to bring the dead back to life, cure the sick and the lepers by the permission of Allah and thus, establish the truth against them.

Allah sent Muḥammad (p) at a time when oratory and speech were popular amongst the people – and I think he said poetry as well.[7] From the good advice and wisdom that he brought to them from Allah, he invalidated their words and established the truth against them.’

Ibn al-Sikkīt said, ‘I swear by Allah I have never seen anyone like you. What is the proof amongst people today to establish the truth?’ The Imam replied, ‘It is the intellect. Through it, one recognizes those who speak the truth regarding Allah, and thus affirms them, and through it, one recognizes those who lie regarding Allah, and thus negates them.” Ibn al-Sikkīt then said, “This by Allah is the answer.”

This tradition implies that the Qurānic miracle was similar to the miracles brought by the previous Prophets (p) as far as it was related to what was popular at the time. Given that eloquent oratory and poetry was a praised skill during the time of the Prophet (p), the Qurān – being the Prophet’s (p) miracle – was related to that and demonstrated its miracle through the very language the Arabs would pride themselves in.

From next post onwards, we will start going through significant and influential scholarly figures and expound on their views regarding the miraculousness of the Qurān. We will begin from 4th-century hijrī and proceed from there.

Footnotes

[1] Bayān I’jāz al-Qurān, published under the work Thalāth Rasāil fī I’jāz al-Qurān

[2] Dalāil al-I’jāz, pg. 156

[3] Al-Itqān fī ‘Ulūm al-Qurān, vol. 4, pg. 8

[4] Dalāil al-I’jāz, pg. 390-391

[5] For the English translation, see vol. 1, pgs. 127-133

[6] Tafsīr Mawḍū’ī, vol. 1, pg. 165 – available online here: http://www.portal.esra.ir

[7] The narrator adds this phrase



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      For the India trip, in contrast, there was no camera at all. As I had left London, I had been given a compact camera, which refused to show any sign of working for the duration of the trip and which it had not been possible to repair either. So, I have no tangible images of the entire trip. Whether that has forced me to try harder to remember over the years or whether I have become better at embellishing the details, I don’t know. I do know that on one review I have left on Tripadvisor, I have commented that the prohibition on taking cameras into a particular museum means that visitors are more likely to pay attention to the exhibits in their own right rather than as fodder for an Instagram feed. 
      From Lucknow, we went to my mother’s ancestral home in Fatehpur. We drove through the potholed roads of Uttar Pradesh, slowed even further by overladen agricultural traffic. We arrived in the evening, and all I could sense was that we entered a courtyard and then another. This was quite different to any home I had visited previously. Morning brought a much better sense of the place. The hallmark of the building was its twin towers, installed a couple of hundred years previously, with permission from the rulers of Awadh, since they were considered a mark of royalty and my maternal ancestor’s position as a tutor to the princely household earned him the favour to use them. These rose above the building and the surrounding town. Beneath them was the building’s mosque entered through several large wooden doors, several steps then led to a large courtyard at the other end of which was a narrow staircase leading to some apartments on the first floor. The men of the family had offices cum bedrooms on the ground floor of the courtyard, and their families slept in apartments on the first floor. Any tangible evidence of conjugal relations, such as a couples’ double bed was considered impolite. There were also apartments on the ground floor. To the right of the towers was the entrance to the building and beyond that the disused stables, a further courtyard and then the exit to the main street of the town.
      In Fatehpur, there were no books, or indeed television, but there was exploring the building, listening to stories, fishing and staring at a night sky whose lights I had never previously seen in such profusion. Frustratingly, the shot guns could only be seen and not touched, in fact, I wasn’t allowed to use the air gun. Even the fishing wasn’t with actual rods, but the sensation of the lightness of a short stick with a bait at the end being replaced with the sensation of something tugging at the end of a line remains vivid.
      Exploring the old building would be an experience for someone who had lived in a terraced house all his life. Playing cricket in its central square meant that we had room for both wickets and the ability to run between them, while back in London the garden lawn barely stretched a couple of metres and in our London suburb kids just didn’t play on the street. And then there was the dungeon. Like quite a bit of what we were to experience the name or prior description didn’t quite live up to schoolboy expectations. The Urdu word they all used was ‘mahal’ as in Taj Mahal, but you could hardly describe it as a palace. The dungeon itself was no more threatening than a basement room.  
      The family mahal stood in contrast to the Taj that we had visited on a side-trip while staying in Delhi with an uncle. The sense of serenity reflected off the colour and curves remains in my mind. The sound track no longer remains, perhaps the size of the place drowned out the chattering throngs. The image is now distilled from the range of different perspectives: the head-on view as captured by those photographers who pictured Princess Diana in the foreground, to my standing under the columns staring up and being up close to the marble.
      While the Taj was glorious enough to represent the nation and thus rose above its religious and ethnic antecedents, this was not the case with the family mahal. The condition of this modest building perfectly reflected the state of the community it housed: elegant decrepitude with only a memory of former glories. While the building’s statelier past was visible from the remnants of the structure, so the stories passed by each generation reminded subsequent ones of the lifestyle they had been denied because of opportunities missed and talents wasted. 
      Such was the problem they were facing that even acts of renovation seemed like destruction, where older styles of building work and decoration were replaced with more functional and cheaper modern ones. My youthful displeasure at the erasure of history would later be tempered by a more mature realisation of the practicalities of habitat when I had the chimney breasts and fireplaces of my Victorian house removed to create more space. 
      Occasionally the person who had hosted us in Lucknow would visit. He was a local politician and would arrive in a stately Ambassador car or even more excitingly a ‘jeep’. Not an eponymous one of course, but I still remember the fact that it had gun racks. Both that vehicle and the Ambassador were made in India. This was India before trade liberalisation. Not as familiar a place as the Pakistan we had travelled through to get here. Pakistan had the welcome familiarity of brands that I had grown up with; the ketchup was Heinz and the coke a recognisably friendly white swoosh on a red background. Billboard and television advertising was reassuring. Here unfamiliar names came across as peculiar. Why would a cola be called ‘Thums Up?’. 
      Such has been the irony of globalisation that a few weeks ago eating at Dishoom restaurant in London’s East End I saw the Thums Up logo once more. A symbol of rejecting western capitalism had itself become a brand, with a consumerist meaning, evoking a carbonated essence of India. 
      Like all children of Asian immigrants on visits to their parents’ country of origin, I was also overwhelmed with the extensivity and density of familial connections. There were first cousins, second cousins, and quite a lot more complicated combinations, for which there are no words in English. Added to this, a matriarchal aunt could also be a cousin. My wife came up with a novel way of explaining one such relationship to me. “If that aunt were Mary Queen of Scots, your mum would be Elizabeth I”. Indeed, an artefact of such complex and inter-related ties was the obvious existence of rivalries, jealousies, and squabbles spanning generations. In England, my younger brother and I had been protected from this aspect of extended family life. The protection came at a price: we didn’t know how to deal with it at all. At the age of 10 this did not matter, but on future visits, it would become more significant and certainly by the time my brother and I reached marriageable age. For the time being, it was just nice that as I wandered from apartment to apartment in the mahal, everyone I met was a relative and I was too young to understand any political dimension of that relationship. It would also be in subsequent visits to the mahal, when I was older, that I’d appreciate the tensions with the communities who lived outside the mahal.
      On my daily walks, I’d see hand powered sewing machines and food being prepared more laboriously than anything I had seen at home. The dirt floor did not afford the comfort of sitting cross legged and sitting on my haunches was not something my leg muscles were prepared for. Unlike the urban homes, I had come across in the sub-continent, the toilet here was a platform raised above the multi-coloured offerings beneath. So large was the place that any smells remained distant from any other rooms.
      The cold had not left us in Fatehpur. At night, they would light braziers which were wonderful for bringing around family members, sitting together on the Indian style wooden beds, sharing each other’s warmth, stories and gossip. 
       
       
       
       
    • By Haji 2003 in Contemporania
         0
      https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/19/australia/wombat-cube-poo-intl/index.html
      This is a topic I have considered before, and I think it has a lot of mileage.
      As a theist, a possible line of belief is that these creatures were put here to provide inspiration for innovation and to that extent, the diversity of evolution has a clear and divine purpose.
      There are also epistemological implications as well. The need for such inspiration suggests that humans may have limited capacity to identify these innovations independently or that even if this could happen, it may take too long. The clues in the natural world speed up the learning process. Not only that but if the lessons from nature provide lessons for e.g. manufacturing processes is that evidence that a Creator anticipated humans to be at this level of development at this point in time?
      Other implications are that all of this gives us the impetus to look at nature in a more systematic manner and indeed for us to have a materialistic incentive to preserve the natural environment for the benefits that it can provide.
       
    • By Haji 2003 in Contemporania
         3
      There is a populist theory that the pyramids must have had an alien inspiration. This is because of the range of innovations that they represent and knowledge across multiple disciplines and their orientation towards certain constellations.
      My problem with this theory is the bent pyramid at Dahshur. It's bent, because they got the maths wrong. Weird that aliens who managed to get to this planet but then got their measurements for a stone structure wrong. Seems pretty clear to me that the pyramids we see represent the refinement and development of Egyptian technology, rather than discrete alien intervention.
      In contrast, this planet is stuffed full of interesting resources in quantities just right for exploitation at the time that they'd be needed and human development would have reached a stage to take advantage. That's a far more likely candidate as evidence of extra-terrestrial involvement in the seeding of this planet with the correct quantities of resources at the time of its creation. Given the nature and extent of such material, it's likely to have been something more advanced than aliens doing the seeding.
      I was reminded of this by the current horseshoe crab shortage affecting north America. It seems as if they have been over-exploited because their blood contains a substance used to test medical products for the presence of bacteria.
    • By Qa'im in Imamology
         5
      The idea that the world is composed of four or five elements (fire, water, earth, wind, and aether) was almost universal in the ancient world. The science and mythology of many ancient civilizations, from Greece to Japan, operated on this understanding.

      While Islam is not really married to the idea of four elements (it is not supported in an explicit way in the Quran or hadiths), it is interesting to note that Islamic metaphysics and cosmology use this system.

      This is especially the case in the spiritual world. The jinn are made from a smokeless Fire, the humans are made from Earth (Teen), and the soul (ruH) comes from the word for Wind (reeH). The Throne of Allah was settled upon Water (11:7), until that water was separated into the heavens and earth. The angels are from light (Noor, a word related to Nar).

      Allah does not raise a prophet except that he speaks the language of his people. He may have used these literary devices to explain a realm that is ultimately beyond our understanding (ghayb). The Quran is a book that needs to be intelligible to people, especially when speaking on the unseen and unknown.

      While the universe is simply not made up of H2O, the image of Water as a fluid, clear, shapeless structure is befitting to understanding the world. In physics, the concept of fields (gravitational, spatial) operate largely on fluid mechanics. “Water” is a chaotic substance that was then categorized, compartmentalized and distinguished into the world we know today.

      Similarly, a simple sample of the water (saliva) in your body can create an entire profile of who you are: your DNA, and therefore, your family lineage, your appearance, your susceptibility to diseases, and even parts of your personality.

      There are some things that are beyond literal and metaphorical. The dichotomy of literal and metaphorical is sometimes not just inaccurate, but harmful to our readings of scripture.
    • By 3wliya_maryam in deep poetry
         6
      Why am I always agitated
      To the point where I'm just irritated
      At every small thing that comes my way
      I throw a tantrum not realising what I say
      Sometimes I reassure myself
      It's okay, your human, you can control yourself
      But everytime I try, its only temporary
      And I try to push away the guilt that I carry
      No matter how many times you fall
      Keep breaking through that strong immense wall
      Even if you still haven't been able to and you just wanna stop
      Be proud that you still didn't drop
      That you still haven't given up.
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