For more on this topic, see Proofs of Prophethood
Dimensions of inimitability
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—for this was a shield for their honor, a defense of their lineages, and an immortalization of their triumphs. The Arabs used to congratulate each other only on the birth of a child and when a poet rose among them.
- Unlike the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, Shakespeare was school-taught both Greek and Latin and had, alongside his mentors, access to libraries of books that he built on for his own writings.
- Shakespeare then earned a living as a professional playwright and continued refining his craft with each novel production, while the Prophet ﷺ was never reported to utter a single full couplet of poetry in his entire life, nor was it possible for him to retract any word of the Qur’an for quality control once it was spoken to his vast Muslim and non-Muslim audiences.
- Sonnets were known and used for centuries before Shakespeare, while the Qur’an had a unique compositional structure that departed from every rubric of writing or speech used by Arabia’s master poets.
- Unlike Shakespeare whose hallmark style and vocabulary permeates all his writings, the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ brought a Qur’an whose style even departs from the Hadith tradition—the everyday statements of Muhammad ﷺ. This was easily noticed by his contemporaries, but more than a dozen experiments have since been conducted to stylometrically analyze this objectively. These statistical findings forced researchers to accept that it would be impossible for any human being to employ such extensive policing of their language for a lifetime. For instance, they found that 62% of the words from Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhāri, a voluminous collection of Hadith, do not appear in the Qur’an, and 83% of Qur’anic terms do not exist in Hadith.
- Shakespeare’s sonnets were not uniformly eloquent, but instead had segments of distinct brilliance. In contrast, the Arabs who took great pride in their naqd (literary critique) tradition, a genre in which they brutally scrutinized each other’s poetry to identify “suboptimal word choices,” never identified a single passage in the Qur’an that could be bettered.
- Shakespeare and his peers never considered his work beyond the reach of human effort; it was but the champion—to some—in an arena of worthy competitors. In fact, Professor Hugh Craig of Newcastle University ranked Shakespeare as the seventh-greatest English-speaking playwright, behind Webster, Dekker, Peele, Marlowe, Jonson, and Greene. In contrast, the Qur’an shamed its deniers and challenged them at every turn to try to create anything that merely resembled it (52:33-34); and this challenge has never been met. As Allah says, “And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a sūrah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful. But if you do not—and you will never be able to—then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers” (2:23-24).
- Shakespeare enjoyed the creative liberties of fictional storytelling. As for the Qur’an, entertainment was not its goal. It addressed theology, philosophy, history, and law—stiff technical discussions that do not ordinarily have mass appeal. The Qur’an asserted complex existential truths and taught a nuanced morality with a remarkable blend of precision and graceful elegance. It deconstructed prevalent wrongs that had become normalized and revealed the hypocrisy within—all uncomfortable narratives that would not be expected to garner widespread embrace. The Qur’an also repeats its themes quite often (to inculcate and reinforce its value system), another hurdle of eloquence that skilled authors try to avoid to elude redundancy, but with such artistic variation each time that leaves its rhetorical richness unblemished.
- Unlike the entertainment suitable for a stage in London in the 17th century, the Qur’an as a religious text had to resonate with the young and the old, the pre-modern and post-modern mind, the eastern and western personality, and the spiritually versus intellectually inclined. When analyzing the effect of the Qur’an on the vast spectrum of hearts and minds, across the globe and across generations, it continues to gain momentum until today.
- Shakespeare had decades of deliberation to decide what to include and omit from his works. Contrast this with the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, who would convey verses from the Qur’an in response to people’s unscripted inquiries. For instance, there are 13 passages in the Qur’an that begin with “And they ask you [O Muhammad] about… Say…” (e.g., 2:189). Furthermore, he ﷺ would bring his followers fresh Qur’an in the most stressful conditions, at times while bleeding from attack or mourning his killed relatives, specifically pertaining to events that had just taken place. Should not such spontaneous “productions” of the Qur’an necessitate a disparity in eloquence between them and those written under serene candlelight, after the events have unfolded and the initial reactions have quieted?
- Shakespeare wrote his works in a linear fashion, building from the ground up, just as any author would, and was free to decide from the onset how each drama would begin and end. The Qur’an, however, was “puzzled” together over 23 years, in that the order of the Qur’an today does not reflect the chronology of its descent, but rather the later designated location for each passage within its respective chapter. This means that the Qur’an did not just exhibit fascinating consistency in its structure, despite being spoken not written, but was somehow designed with interspersed additions, of various themes and lengths, many of which addressed unpredictable external events impromptu, and yet all this never sabotaged its seamless tapestry.
I must confess that when the Qur’an was first being conveyed to people, the ancient Egyptian language had vanished from the collective memory of humanity for over two centuries, and remained that way until the nineteenth century. Therefore, it was impossible for us to know that the king of Egypt should be called anything other than the title mentioned in the Holy Bible. The subtle word choice of the Qur’an on this matter is thought-provoking.
While spell-check and similar features afforded by modern technology have mitigated many lapses in our writing, our emails and text messages still fall prey to spelling and grammatical errors. Now consider the premodern scribal tradition; rewind before technology, before the printing press, before erasers, before literacy of the masses. It should not surprise us to have hundreds of thousands of misaligned manuscripts for the religious texts of the past—irrespective of whether this was done innocently or maliciously, and irrespective of whether originals of that text were available for cross-verification. But with the Qur’an, there were no variant versions due to the original being preserved, its mass-memorization, its strong poetic rhythm which facilitates that, and its daily usage in a Muslim’s life, which together constitute a genius reinforcement mechanism unrivaled in history.
For Muslims, the Ḳurʾān is much more than scripture or sacred literature in the usual Western sense. Its primary significance for the vast majority through the centuries has been in its oral form, the form in which it first appeared, as the “recitation” (kurʾān) chanted by Muhammad to his followers over a period of about twenty years… The revelations were memorized by some of Muhammad’s followers during his lifetime, and the oral tradition that was thus established has had a continuous history ever since, in some ways independent of, and superior to, the written Ḳurʾān… Through the centuries the oral tradition of the entire Ḳurʾān has been maintained by the professional reciters, while all Muslims memorise parts of the Ḳurʾān for use in the daily prayers. Until recently, the significance of the recited Ḳurʾān has seldom been fully appreciated in the West.
The inimitability of the Qur’an has yet another dimension, one which people tend to overlook, and is unrecognized except by a sparse few individuals—namely what it generates in the hearts and impresses onto the souls. Aside from the Qur’an, you do not hear of any discourse, neither poetry nor prose, that upon reaching one’s ears provides such immediate pleasure and sweetness, and at other times such awe and intimidation, like [the Qur’an] does.
The miracles wrought by earlier Prophets had been transient, so to say, and for that very reason, rapidly forgotten, while that of the Verses may be called ‘The Permanent Miracle.’ Its activity was unceasing. Everywhere and at all hours, each believer, by reciting the Verses, helped to realise the miracle, and in this can be found the explanation of many sudden conversions, incomprehensible for the European who knows nothing of the Qur’an, or judges it by cold and inaccurate translations.
Is it not sufficient for them that We revealed to you the Book which is recited to them? Indeed in that is a mercy and reminder for a people who believe. (Quran 29:51)