Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Qur'an as "literature" - the elephant in the room

One of the arguments Muslims use to try to convince non-believers of the sacred origins of the Qur'an is its miraculous literary merits. Not all share the believers' enthusiasm though. Edward Gibbon complained of it as an“endless incoherent rhapsody of fable and precept”. Thomas Carlyle said that it was “as toilsome reading as I ever undertook; a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite”. It does seem strange that a book can so divide opinion: how many educated readers complain, for example, of Tolstoy or Shakespeare being "crude", "incoherent" or "wearisome"? So who's right?
The Qur'an itself boasts tirelessly of its own inimitable qualities (the doctrine of i'jaz) and asks doubters to produce a sura like those contained therein: 2:23, 17:88, 10:38, 11:13, 52:34. Some of these verses are remarkably similar, giving rise to the suspicion that the author was re-cycling old material. (Hell, we've all done it, haven't we?)
Or do they say, "He forged it"? say: "Bring then a Sura like unto it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can besides Allah, if it be ye speak the truth!" 10:38
Or they may say, "He forged it," Say, "Bring ye then ten suras forged, like unto it, and call (to your aid) whomsoever ye can, other than Allah!- If ye speak the truth!11:13
Apart from anything else, the author's obsession with being accused of forgery does suggest that many of his listeners were ...underwhelmed, shall we say, with his work's literary qualities. Moreover, the fact that one sura is demanded in one verse but in another ten are required, smacks of indecision surely unworthy of a perfect creator...

 Anyway, back to our main point - the miraculous literary qualities of the Qur'an. Here's an example, taken from a discussion board, of the sort of argument one comes across all the time:
The Quran is the most-read book in the world. Revealed by Allah Almighty to Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), in the 7th century CE, and revered by Muslims as being Allah’s Final Scripture and Testament, its words have been lovingly recited, memorized and implemented by Muslims of every nationality ever since. The faithful are inspired, consoled and often moved to tears by its eloquence and poetic imagery, especially when recited aloud. And yet, the Quran is unique in being the only Scripture that is free of scientific inaccuracies, whose historical authenticity can be verified, and whose text has been so carefully preserved that just one authorized version (in Arabic) exists. 
3-The Quran is also the only holy book that can be memorized in its entirety by people of all ages and intellectual abilities – including non-Arabic speakers – which Muslims consider to be one of its miracles.
You will note that the writer makes some fairly hefty claims, which are debatable to say the least, but it is on its apparent sublime literary character that we must focus today. Our apologist says readers are "inspired, consoled and often moved to tears by [the Qur'an's] eloquence and poetic imagery". Given that only 3% of the world's population speak Arabic and of those 3% only a tiny fraction understand the Classical Arabic of the Qur'an, it strikes me as odd that so many can be moved in such a way. Such apparent power to move its audience has surely much more to do with being told since childhood that the words one is hearing are the actual words of one's creator and in addition being "encouraged" to learn those words off by heart, than any inherent beauty.
But let us ignore for one moment the difficulty of understanding a purely literary language with rules that few understand and look at some of the criticism levelled at the Qur'an as literature.
C.G. Pfander, the scholar on Islam, pointed out in 1835, "It is by no means the universal opinion of unprejudiced Arabic scholars that the literary style of the Qur'an is superior to that of other books in the Arabic language. Many doubt whether in eloquence and poetry it surpasses the Mu'allaqat by Imraul Quais, or the Maqamat of Hariri, though in Muslim lands few people are courageous enough to express such an opinion." (Pfander 1835:264) Pfander elaborates by comparing the Qur'an with the Bible. "When we read the Old Covenant in the original Hebrew, scholars hold that the eloquence of Isaiah and the Psalms, for instance, is far greater than that of any part of the Qur'an. Hardly anyone but a Muslim would deny this." (Pfander 1835:266)
Note the term "unprejudiced Arabic scholars" in the quote above. Herein lies an insurmountable problem when trying to establish the true literary merits of the holy book of Islam. For almost all those who hold positions of academic authority in the field of Qur'anic study are themselves Muslims, and therefore obliged to believe that the book they are studying and teaching is perfect in every respect. Even those who are not Muslims have learned that to openly criticise the Qur'an is to ask for trouble... Imagine for a moment a world where literary criticism consisted of nothing but enumerating the ways in which the book you were studying was perfect beyond reproach....

Nonetheless, there have been scholars who have dared to raise the possibility that the Qur'an is not so perfect. The German secular scholar Salomon Reinach was quite scathing in his appraisal :
"From the literary point of view, the Koran has little merit. Declamation, repetition, puerility, a lack of logic and coherence strike the unprepared reader at every turn. It is humiliating to the human intellect to think that this mediocre literature has been the subject of innumerable commentaries, and that millions of men are still wasting time in absorbing it." (Reinach 1932:176)
And herein lies a very real problem for Muslims. For if the Qura'n is, as they claim, the perfect word of God - unchanged to the last letter - then we must indeed expect perfection beyond any criticism. The creator of the universe should surely be capable of creating a literary masterpiece of such awe-inspiring beauty as to silence event the most ardent critic. And... I'm... afraid... it... just... doesn't... really... fit... the... bill.
There- I said it!
Sorry God, but wot you wrote is actually NOT THAT GOOD.
Here's why...
It is nauseatingly repetitive... with grammatical errors, missing words, and meaningless words. One out of every five verses is senseless. The speaker ducks in and out of first, second and third person and doesn't know if he is one or many. He doesn't even know his name. There are no intelligent transitions. And it's jumbled together haphazardly, lacking any pretence of sensible organization by subject, context, or chronology. (C Winn)
Now I know that's quite a list of objections to lay at the door of one book that has moved countless people to tears of wonder and joy and I'm well aware that one can't make such accusations without producing some sort of evidence. So tomorrow we'll do just that.


  1. Are you serious ? Salomon Reinach and C Winn could not even read or write arabic, and Pfander was a christian apologist who just like you tried to "debunk" the Quran why did he not trie to take the Qurans challenge? Would you please demostrate the Qurans "missing words", "grammatical errors" and meaningless words?!?format=pdf

    1. The Quran challenge has already been met and bettered.

      Here is an infallible book from God that is clearly superior in terms of factual accuracy, morality and guidance: