How Do we Know the Qur’an Is From God?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
So far, we have argued that God is the necessarily existing creator, designer, and moral lawgiver of the universe. However, that only tells us so much about the God. The next natural question is: How do we know the Quran is from God?
Below is a simple and logical reason why the Quran is the word of God. Before we delve into the main argument two ways of acquiring knowledge will be explained.
Most of what we know is based on the say-so of others. This holds true for facts we would never deny. For many of us, these truths include the existence of Amazonian native tribes, photosynthesis, ultraviolet radiation, and bacteria. Consider this thought experiment. How would you prove to a stranger—that your mother did, in fact, give birth to you?
As bizarre as this question sounds, it will help clarify a very important yet underrated source of knowledge. You might say “my mother told me so”, “I have a birth certificate”, “my father told me, he was there”, or “I have checked my mother’s hospital records”.
These responses are valid; however, they are based on the statements of other people. Sceptical minds may not be satisfied. You may try to salvage an empirical basis for your conviction by using the ‘DNA card’ or by referring to video footage. The conviction that your mother is who she says she is isn’t based on a DNA home test kit.
The reality is that most of us have not taken a DNA test. It is also not based on video footage, as you still have to rely on the say-so of others to claim that the baby is actually you. So why are we so sure? The only reason you have is the say-so of others, in other words, testimony. Testimony is a vital but unnoticed source of most of our knowledge.
2. An inference to the best explanation
Another way of acquiring knowledge is a process known as ‘inference to the best explanation’. Many of our beliefs are based on a form of reasoning which begins with a collection of data, facts or assertions, and then seeks the best explanation for them.
Let’s welcome your mother back briefly again. She is heavily pregnant with you inside her womb and the due date was last week. Suddenly, her waters break and she starts having contractions, so your father and the relevant medical staff safely assume that she’s started labour.
Another example, some years on, your mother notices an open packet of biscuits and crumbs around your mouth and on your clothes. She infers that you opened the packet and helped yourself to some biscuits. In both examples, the conclusions are not necessarily true or indisputable, but they are the best explanations considering all of the facts available. This thinking process is known as inference to the best explanation.
Using the concepts above, a case will be put forward that the Quran is an inimitable expression of the Arabic language, and that God best explains its inimitability. What is meant by inimitability is that no one has been able to produce or emulate the Quran’s linguistic and literary features.
The Miracle of the Quran
The Quran was revealed in Arabia to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in the 7th century. This period was known as an era of literary and linguistic perfection. The 7th century Arabs were socialised into being a people who were the best at expressing themselves in their native tongue. However, when the Quran was recited to them they were dumbfounded, incapacitated, and stunned into silence. They could not produce anything like the Quranic discourse.
It got worse. The Quran challenged these linguists par excellence to imitate its unique literary and linguistic features, but they failed. Some experts accepted the Quran was from God, but most resorted to boycott, war, murder, torture and a campaign of misinformation.
In fact, throughout the centuries, experts have acquired the tools to challenge the Quran, and they too have testified that the Quran is inimitable, and appreciate why the best linguists have failed.
How can a non-Arab or non-expert of the Arabic language appreciate the inimitability of the Quran? Enter now the role of testimony. The above assertions are based on an established written and oral testimonial transmission of knowledge from past and present scholars of the Arabic language.
If this is true, and the people best placed to challenge the Quran failed to imitate the Divine discourse, then who was the author? This is where testimony stops and the use of inference begins.
In order to understand the inference to the best explanation, the possible rationalisations of the Quran’s inimitable nature must be analysed. These include that it was authored by an Arab, a non-Arab, Muhammad (peace be upon him) or God.
Considering all of the facts that will be discussed, it is implausible that the Quran’s inimitability can be explained by attributing it to an Arab, a non-Arab or Muhammad (peace be upon him). For that reason, God is the inference to the best explanation.
A summary of the argument is as follows:
- The Quran presents a literary and linguistic challenge to humanity.
- The 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Quran.
- The 7th century Arabs failed to do so.
- Scholars have testified to the Quran’s inimitability.
- Counter-scholarly testimonies are not plausible, as they have to reject the established background information.
- Therefore (from 1-5) the Quran is inimitable.
- The possible explanations for the Quran’s inimitability are authorship by an Arab, a non-Arab, Muhammad (peace be upon him) or God.
- It could not have been produced by an Arab, a non-Arab or Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Therefore, the best explanation is that it is from God.
1. The Quran presents a literary and linguistic challenge to humanity.
“Read in the name of your Lord”. These were the first words of the Quran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) over 1,400 years ago. Muhammad (peace be upon him) who was known to have been meditating in a cave outside Mecca, had received the revelation of a book that would have a tremendous impact on the world we live in today.
Not known to have composed any piece of poetry and not having any special rhetorical gifts, Muhammad (peace be upon him) had just received the beginning of a book that would deal with matters of belief, legislation, rituals, spirituality, and economics in an entirely new genre and literary form.
The unique literary and linguistic features of the Quran have been used by Muslims to articulate a number of arguments to substantiate their belief that the book is from the Divine.
Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, a prolific 15th-century writer and scholar, summarises the doctrine of the Quran’s inimitability:
“… when the Prophet brought [the challenge] to them, they were the most eloquent rhetoricians so he challenged them to produce the [entire] likes [of the Quran] and many years passed and they were unable to do so as God says, Let them then produce a recitation similar to it, if indeed they are truthful. Then, [the Prophet] challenged them to produce 10 chapters like it where God says, Say, bring then ten chapters like it and call upon whomever you can besides God, if you are truthful.
Then, he challenged them to produce a single [chapter] where God says, Or do they say he [i.e. the Prophet] has forged it? Say, bring a chapter like it and call upon whomever you can besides God, if you are truthful… When the [Arabs] were unable to produce a single chapter like [the Quran] despite there being the most eloquent rhetoricians amongst them,
[the Prophet] openly announced the failure and inability [to meet the challenge] and declared the inimitability of the Quran. Then God said, Say, if all of humankind and the jinn gathered together to produce the like of the Quran, they could not produce it—even if they helped one another….”
According to classical exegesis, the various verses in the Quran that issue a challenge to produce a chapter like it daringly calls for the linguistic experts of any era to imitate the Quran’s linguistic and literary features. The tools needed to meet this challenge are the finite grammatical rules, literary and linguistic devices, and the twenty-eight letters that comprise the Arabic language; these are independent and objective measures available to all. The fact that it has not been matched since it was first revealed does not surprise most scholars familiar with the Arabic language and of the Quran.
2. The 7th century Arabs were best placed to challenge the Quran.
The Quran posed a challenge to the greatest Arabic linguists, the 7th century Arabs. The fact that they reached the peak of eloquence is affirmed by western and eastern scholarship.
The scholar Taqi Usmani asserts that for the 7th-century Arab “eloquence and rhetoric were their lifeblood.” According to the 9th-century biographer of the poets, Al-Jumahi “verse was to the Arabs the register of all they knew, and the utmost compass of their wisdom; with it, they began their affairs, and with it, they ended them.” The 14th-century scholar Ibn Khaldun highlights the importance of poetry in Arab life: “It should be known that Arabs thought highly of poetry as a form of speech.
Therefore, they made it the archives of their history, the evidence for what they considered right and wrong, and the principal basis of reference for most of their sciences and wisdom.”
Linguistic ability and expertise were a highly influential feature of the 7th-century Arab social environment. The literary critic and historian Ibn Rasheeq illustrates this: “Whenever a poet emerged in an Arab tribe, other tribes would come to congratulate, feasts would be prepared, the women would join together on lutes as they do at weddings, and old and young men would all rejoice at the good news. The Arabs used to congratulate each other only on the birth of a child and when a poet rose among them.”
The 9th-century scholar Ibn Qutayba defined poetry as the Arabs saw it, “the mine of knowledge of the Arabs, the book of their wisdom… the truthful witness on the day of dispute, the final proof at the time of argument.”
Navid Kermani, a writer and expert in Islamic studies, explains the extent to which the Arabs had to study to master the Arabic language, which indicates that the 7th century Arab lived in a world that revered poetry: “Old Arabic poetry is a highly complex phenomenon.
The vocabulary, grammatical idiosyncrasies and strict norms were passed down from generation to generation, and only the most gifted students fully mastered the language. A person had to study for years, sometimes even decades under a master poet before laying claim to the title of poet. Muhammad (peace be upon him) grew up in a world which almost religiously revered poetic expression.”
The 7th century Arab lived in a socio-cultural environment that had all the right conditions to facilitate the unparalleled expertise in the use of the Arabic language.
3. The 7th century Arabs failed to do so.
Their linguistic abilities notwithstanding, they collectively failed to produce an Arabic text that matched the Quran’s linguistic and literary features. Professor of Quranic Studies, Angelika Neuwrith, argued that the Quran has never been successfully challenged by anyone, past or present: “… no one has succeeded, this is right…
I really think that the Quran has even brought Western researchers embarrassment, who weren’t able to clarify how suddenly in an environment where there were not any appreciable written text, appeared the Quran with its richness of ideas and its magnificent wordings.”
Labid ibn Rabi’ah, one of the famous poets of the Seven Odes, embraced Islam due to the inimitability of the Quran. Once he embraced Islam he stopped composing poetry. People were surprised for “he was their most distinguished poet”. They asked him why he stopped composing poetry; he replied, “What! Even after the revelation of the Quran?”
E. H. Palmer, Professor of Arabic and of the Quran, argues that the assertions made by academics like the one above should not surprise us. He writes, “That the best of Arab writers has never succeeded in producing anything equal in merit to the Quran itself is not surprising.”
Scholar and Professor of Islamic Studies, M. A. Draz, affirms how the 7th century experts were absorbed in the discourse that left them incapacitated: “In the golden age of Arab eloquence, when language reached the apogee of purity and force, and titles of honour were bestowed with solemnity on poets and orators in annual festivals, the Quranic word swept away all enthusiasm for poetry or prose, and caused the Seven Golden Poems hung over the doors of the Ka’ba to be taken down. All ears lent themselves to this marvel of Arabic expression.”
A powerful argument that supports the assertion that the 7th century Arabs failed to imitate the Quran relates to the socio-political circumstances of the time. Central to the Quranic message was the condemnation of the immoral, unjust and evil practices of the 7th century Meccan tribes.
These included the objectification of women, unjust trade, polytheism, slavery, hoarding of wealth, infanticide and the shunning of orphans. The Meccan leadership was being challenged by the Quranic message, and this had the potential to undermine their leadership and economic success. In order for Islam to stop spreading, all that was needed was for the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) adversaries to meet the linguistic and literary challenge of the Quran.
However, the fact that Islam succeeded in its early, fragile days in Mecca testifies to the fact that its primary audience was not able to meet the Quranic challenge. No movement can succeed if a claim fundamental to its core is explicitly proven false. The fact that the Meccan leadership had to resort to extreme campaigns like warfare and torture to attempt to extinguish Islam demonstrates that the easy method of refuting Islam—meeting the Quranic challenge—failed.
4. Scholars have testified to the Quran’s inimitability.
Multitudes of scholars from western, eastern, religious and non-religious backgrounds have testified to the Quran’s inimitability.
Below is a non-exhaustive list of the scholarship that forms the testimony that the Quran cannot be emulated:
Professor of Oriental Studies Martin Zammit: “Notwithstanding the literary excellence of some of the long pre-Islamic poems… the Quran is definitely on a level of its own as the most eminent written manifestation of the Arabic language.”
Orientalist and litterateur A. J. Arberry: “In making the present attempt to improve on the performance of predecessors, and to produce something which might be accepted as echoing however faintly the sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Koran, I have been at pain to study the intricate and richly varied rhythms which—apart from the message itself—constitutes the Koran’s undeniable claim to rank amongst the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind.”
Professor Bruce Lawrence: “As tangible signs, Quranic verses are expressive of an inexhaustible truth, they signify meaning layered with meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.”
Professor and Arabist Hamilton Gibb: “Like all Arabs, they were connoisseurs of language and rhetoric. Well, then if the Koran were his own composition other men could rival it. Let them produce ten verses like it. If they could not (and it is obvious that they could not), then let them accept the Koran as an outstanding evidential miracle.”
The above confirmations of the inimitability of the Quran are a small sample from the innumerable testimonies available to us.
5. Counter scholarly testimonies are not plausible, as they have to reject the established background information
The testimonial transmission concerning the inimitability of the Quran would be the most rational to adopt. This does not mean there is a complete consensus on the issue, or that all scholarship asserts that the Quran is unchallenged. There are some (albeit in the minority) scholarly opinions that contend against the Quran’s inimitability. If valid testimony does not require unanimity, why would someone accept one testimonial transmission over another?
The testimony concerning the Quran’s inimitability is more reasonable, due to the fact that it rests on strong background knowledge. This knowledge has been discussed in premises 1, 2 and 3.
6. Therefore (from 1-5) the Quran is inimitable.
It follows from points 1 to 5 that the Quran’s inimitability is justified.
7. The possible explanations for the Quran’s inimitability are authorship by an Arab, a non-Arab, Muhammad (peace be upon him) or God
To articulate the Divine origins of the Quran without referring to specifics about the Arabic language, the use of testimony and inference are required. What has been discussed so far is that there is a valid testimonial transmission that the Quran is inimitable and that the possible explanation for its inimitability can be explained by attributing its authorship to an Arab, a non-Arab, Muhammad (peace be upon him) or God.
8. It could not have been produced by an Arab, a non-Arab or Muhammad (peace be upon him).
To understand who could have possibly produced the Quran, a break down the three main theories is needed.
There are a few key reasons why the Quran could not have come from a 7th century Arab, which we have already demonstrated, but what about today’s Arabs?
Well, to assert that a contemporary Arabic-speaking person might emulate the Quran is unfounded. A few reasons substantiate this point. Firstly, the Arabs in the 7th century were better placed to challenge the Quran, and since they failed to do so, it would be unreasonable to assert that a linguistically impoverished modern Arab might surpass the abilities of their predecessors.
Secondly, modern Arabic has suffered from greater linguistic borrowing and degeneration than the classical Arabic tradition. So how can an Arab who is a product of a relatively linguistically degenerated culture equal to an Arab who was immersed in an environment of linguistic purity? Thirdly, even if a contemporary Arab learns classical Arabic, his linguistic abilities could not match someone who was immersed in a culture that mastered the language.
The Quran could not have come from a non-Arab, as the language of the Quran is Arabic, and the knowledge of the Arabic language is a prerequisite to successfully challenge the Quran. This has been addressed in the Quran itself:
“And indeed We know that they [polytheists and pagans] say: ‘It is only a human being who teaches him (Muhammad).’ The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this is a speech Arabeeyun mubeen [clear Arabic].”
What if a non-Arab learned the language? This would make that person an Arabic speaker, and I would refer to the first possible explanation above.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)?
It is pertinent to note that the Arab linguists at the time of revelation stopped accusing the Prophet peace be upon him of being the author of the Quran, after their initial false assertion that he became a poet. Professor Mohar Ali writes:
“It must be pointed out that the Quran is not considered a book of poetry by any knowledgeable person. Nor did the Prophet (peace be upon him) ever indulge in versifying. It was indeed an allegation of the unbelieving Quraysh at the initial stage of their opposition to the revelation that Muhammad (peace be upon him) had turned a poet;
but soon enough they found their allegation beside the mark and changed their lines of criticism in view of the undeniable fact of the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) being unlettered and completely unaccustomed to the art of poetry-making, saying that he had been tutored by others, that he had got the ‘old-worst stories’ written for him by others and read out to him in the morning and evening.”
Significantly, the Prophet (peace be upon him) was not considered a master of the language and did not engage in the craft of poetry or rhymed prose. Therefore, to claim that he somehow managed to conjure up a literary and linguistic masterpiece is beyond the pale of rational thought.
Kermani writes, “He had not studied the difficult craft of poetry when he started reciting verses publicly… Yet Muhammad’s recitations differed from poetry and from the rhyming prose of the soothsayers, the other conventional form of inspired, metrical speech at the time.”
9. Therefore, the best explanation is that the Quran is from God.
Since the Quran could not have been produced by an Arab, a non-Arab or the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), then it follows that the best explanation is that it came from God. That provides the best explanation for the Quran’s inimitability because the other explanations are untenable in light of the available knowledge.