Islamic Culture

Understanding the Qur’an’s Challenge

Throughout human history, Allah سبحانه وتعالى sent numerous prophets to different parts of the world and to all its different nations. Prophets were chosen from amongst the people and were no different in physical make-up to any other human being. All prophets in essence carried the message of tawheed whilst some messengers were given additional revelation to take to their people.

As prophets in their physical make-up they were no different to anybody else. There was no way for humans to ascertain the truth of the message other than placing trust in those who declared prophethood. However, in each generation throughout history many individuals produced and developed many opinions about the purpose of life, creation and divine guidance. As a result any revelation from Allah سبحانه وتعالى to a prophet required some way of certifying or proving its validity. Many prophets carried out miracles which featured the breaking of universal law, which can only be done by Allah سبحانه وتعالى. In this way, all the prophets sent by Allah سبحانه وتعالى challenged the people to produce anything remotely similar to the miracle they displayed; if the people could successfully rise to the challenge, then the authenticity of the one claiming prophethood falls into doubt. If, on the other hand, the people were unable to meet the challenge, this inability to defeat the challenge proved the claim of prophethood and this would naturally progress to require embracing the message brought by the prophet.

For the deen of Islam, the Qur’an was the miracle that proved Muhammed’s صلى الله عليه وسلم prophethood. Since the dawn of Islam, many have challenged the authenticity of the Qur’an whilst others have tried to portray it as a document plagiarised from previous civilisations. Understanding the nature of the Qur’an and its challenge is fundamental in adopting the Qur’an as revelation from Allah سبحانه وتعالى and presenting it to non-Muslims.


The miracle brought by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم was the Qur’an and its inimitability i.e. that it cannot be surpassed nor even matched, grammatically, linguistically, aesthetically nor in composition. Only the Qur’an out of all the texts in the world claims to be in its initial form. Allah سبحانه وتعالى thus challenged humanity to attempt to imitate it to even to a slight amount. Allah سبحانه وتعالى said,

وَإِن كُنتُمْ فِي رَيْبٍ مِّمَّا نَزَّلْنَا عَلَى عَبْدِنَا فَأْتُواْ بِسُورَةٍ مِّن مِّثْلِهِ وَادْعُواْ شُهَدَاءكُم مِّن دُونِ اللّهِ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
“And if you are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down (i.e. this Qur’an) unto Our slave, then bring a Surah (chapter) of the like thereof and call your witnesses (supporters and helpers) besides Allah, if you are truthful.”

فَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلُواْ وَلَن تَفْعَلُواْ فَاتَّقُواْ النَّارَ الَّتِي وَقُودُهَا النَّاسُ وَالْحِجَارَةُ أُعِدَّتْ لِلْكَافِرِينَ
“But if you do it not, and you can never do it, then fear the Fire (Hell) whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.”

[Al-Baqarah, 2:23-24]

At first-glance, this challenge appears not be sophisticated in the least, for if one were to select any style of writing in any language, it would not be difficult to produce more sentences that make sense. Students across the world are routinely asked to imitate Shakespearean passages in exams. In the Indian sub-continent students regularly undertake similar tasks with the poetry of Allama Iqbal. Once the conventions of a certain style or genre have been identified, it is clearly possible to achieve this feat.

Understanding the Qur’an’s nature

Any text claiming divine origin must be verifiable as truly being from the Creator. To accept the guidance it must be beyond the capacity of a limited human being to produce, so whatever claims to come from the Creator must be inimitable for us believe. The Qur’an defies convention in a way that illustrates it as being the single exception to the law of language: this is known as the i’ijaaz or the linguistic miracle of the Qur’an.

This style of writing has been definitively identified. Languages are made up of elements such as poetry, prose and rhymed prose. The Arabic language has sixteen styles of poetry (al-Bihar) as well as prose (sajj) and rhymed prose (mursal). This adds up to eighteen styles, each with recognisable conventions.

However Arabic has another style and it is this style that the challenge is based on. The style of the Qur’an is universally recognised as a completely separate one, a genre in its own right and the nineteenth style.

The Qur’an’s challenge

The challenge to the whole of mankind is to write a chapter (surah) like the hundred and fourteen already in the Qur’an i.e. in this nineteenth style. The shortest chapter in the Qur’an is only three sentences or ten words long. Hence, only if someone is able to produce 3 lines of Arabic that are not in conformity to any of the Arabic styles mentioned, is grammatically correct, makes sense i.e. it conveys meaning and is not a jumble of words and is not already in the Qur’an, only then can we consider the challenge has been met. The challenge is to compose verses and imitate the style and not simply to copy what has already been revealed.

Since the revelation of the Qur’an, many have attempted to undertake this challenge. However, all attempts without exception fell into the original eighteen Arabic styles, never the nineteenth. This challenge has gone universally unsurpassed since the revelation in the 7th Century CE.

The Arabic language itself is not revelation. The Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula coined the language, laid down its grammatical rules and were the masters of it for they invented it. The Qur’an came in their language and challenged them to arrange the words and phrases whilst possessing the manual to the language to imitate its style. To place the challenge even more in their favour, the Qur’an was revealed in the 7 different dialects present in the Arabian Peninsula at the time. The Arabs clearly failed in their endeavour.

To not have achieved this feat despite over fourteen hundred years of work, effort and struggle suggests that the nineteenth style was created with a finite set of words, phrases and sentences, all of which are already within the Qur’an. The Arabic language is still in use by hundreds of millions of people, Muslim and others. The building blocks of the Arabic letters are available and the rules of constructing language still exist.

The argument of inimitability can be explained further if we examine who could have written the Qur’an. There are four possibilities:

1. A non-Arab
2. An Arab
3. Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم
4. The Creator

The Qur’an is matchless in its Arabic and regarded as beyond any amongst other literature. Even today, it is regarded as the unparalleled pinnacle of written Arabic. For these reasons, it is impossible that the Qur’an could have been written by someone who was not an Arab as they would not have known Arabic. It would not be serious to claim that such work could be achieved without access to the language itself. Therefore the first option of a non-Arab authoring the Qur’an can be safely eliminated.

For the Qur’an to have been authored by an Arab, the test of inimitability would not pose a real challenge just as it would not in other languages. Whatever one writes, another can write in the same style. Yet the challenge has been attempted by leading authorities in Arabic throughout history and has left all exhausted. Whenever an Arab attempts a passage, the nineteenth style remains utterly elusive so we can safely state that the author of the Qur’an could not have been an Arab.

Muhammed صلى الله عليه وسلم, for all his greatness, was still an Arab like his brethren. It is also a matter of fact that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم was never accused of authoring the Qur’an by his contemporaries, even those who sought his death and ruin. The only rational answer left is the Creator.

Comprehending the Qur’an’s miracle

The Qur’an is neither poetry nor prose, but a unique speech unparalleled in the history of Arabic literature. Its contents discuss the full spectrum of human needs, problems, and attitudes while maintaining relevance to all times. However, enjoying and tasting the miraculous nature of the Qur’an based on its eloquence and style is only achievable by those who can grasp the Arabic language.

Establishing the Arabic language as a prerequisite for directly appreciating the miraculous eloquence of the Qur’an does not necessarily preclude the possibility that non-Arabs would be able to appreciate some aspects of the Qur’an’s eloquence through a deep study of its verses.

Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:

وَقِيلَ يَا أَرْضُ ابْلَعِي مَاءكِ وَيَا سَمَاء أَقْلِعِي وَغِيضَ الْمَاء وَقُضِيَ الأَمْرُ وَاسْتَوَتْ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ وَقِيلَ بُعْداً لِّلْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ

“And it was said: O Earth! Swallow thy water and, O sky! Be cleared of clouds! And the water was made to subside. And the commandment was fulfilled. And it [the ship] came to rest upon [the mount] Al-Judi and it was said: A far removal for wrongdoing people.” [Hud, 11:44]

This ayah is talking about the time of Nuh (Noah) عليه السلام. In Arabic it consists of only 17 words, yet in it, Allah has related to us the entire events of the flood and its aftermath. It tells us that the earth was filled with water and the clouds were overhead, then Allah ordered the Earth to drain the water from the land and the sky to be clear of clouds. Then, the Earth and the Sky complied with this order such that the land was no longer flooded, and the ship of Nuh came to rest on a mountain. Then, Allah informs us that Nuh’s people were saved from their oppressors as well as the fact that those people were destroyed. All of these ideas are expressed in just one verse, with very short sentences, using six conjunctions, without repetition or faltering in the exceptional eloquence and style of the Quran.

In fact, it is reported that when Ibn Muqaffah, a person commissioned by some Arabs to produce something like the Qur’an, heard this ayah being recited by a person, he gave up his effort and submitted to the superiority of the Quran’s eloquence (balagha).

In Surah Al-Adiyat, Allah سبحانه وتعالى says:

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيمِ
وَالْعَادِيَاتِ ضَبْحًا
فَالْمُورِيَاتِ قَدْحًا
فَالْمُغِيرَاتِ صُبْحًا
فَأَثَرْنَ بِهِ نَقْعًا
فَوَسَطْنَ بِهِ جَمْعًا

“By the steeds that run, with panting (breath), Striking sparks of fire (by their hooves), and scouring to the raid at dawn. And raise the dust in clouds the while, penetrating forthwith as one onto the midst (of the foe).” [Al-Adiyat, 100: 1-5]

Here, Allah details the energy of the horses as they snort in anticipation and the sparks arising from the clashing of their hoofs against stones on the ground in their fierce charge towards the enemy. The backdrop is the first light of dawn, and the tactic is to surprise the enemy. The dust is collecting behind them as a large troop rages across the desert sands, and the horses show full obedience to their masters as they ride into the ranks of the enemy, fearless and disciplined. The eloquence with which the Qur’an relates this is extraordinary.

The Qur’an, with the use of very few words, provides us with vivid descriptions of complex events such as that of the above battle. In this Surah, Allah describes the scene of a battle in such a manner that the reader would be able to visualize not just a snapshot of it, but rather the entire course of the battle. There are only ten words used to describe this entire scene in the Qur’an, but a comprehensive explanation of their meaning, in Arabic or any other language, would require pages.


Whilst the Western world lacks coherent guidance from the Creator and has fallen to the anarchy of greed and self interest, many have resorted to guidance from cults such as Scientology to fill the gap. The Qur’an represents a text where its authenticity can be rationally verified. It is a text that requires no leap of faith to understand it. Different copies from different generations have been preserved and can be compared.

The Qur’an can only be described as a unique expression of the Arabic language. This is due to its unique literary form, linguistic genre, matchless eloquence and its unparalled frequency of rhetorical features. The uniqueness of the Qur’ans language forms the backdrop to the doctrine of I’jaz al-Quran, the inimitability of the Qur’an, which lies at the heart of the Qur’an’s claim to being of divine origin.