By David Wood
While Muslim apologists today tend to focus on supposed scientific evidence for Islam, Muhammad offered a very different argument. The central argument of the Qur’an may be called the “Argument from Literary Excellence,” which claims that the Qur’an is so masterfully written, so brilliant and awe-inspiring in every detail, it could only have come from God. We find the basic reasoning in Surah (Chapter) 2:23-24. It reads:
And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful. But if you do (it) not and never shall you do (it), then be on your guard against the fire of which men and stones are the fuel; it is prepared for the unbelievers. (Qur’an 2:23-24)i
According to many Muslims, no one has ever been able to meet this challenge, and the Qur’an must therefore be from God. I.A. Ibrahim writes:
Ever since the Quran was revealed, fourteen centuries ago, no one has been able to produce a single chapter like the chapters of the Quran in their beauty, eloquence, splendor, wise legislation, true information, true prophecy, and other perfect attributes. Also, note that the smallest chapter in the Quran (Chapter 108) is only ten words, yet no one has ever been able to meet this challenge, then or today. Some of the disbelieving Arabs who were enemies of the Prophet Muhammad tried to meet this challenge to prove that Muhammad was not a true prophet, but they failed to do so. This failure was despite the fact that the Quran was revealed in their own language and dialect and that the Arabs at the time of Muhammad were a very eloquent people who used to compose beautiful and excellent poetry, still read and appreciated today.ii (pp. 32-33)
If we put the Qur’an’s central argument into the appropriate logical form, we get the following syllogism:
Premise One: If unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an, then it must be from God.
Premise Two: Unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an.
Conclusion: Therefore, the Qur’an must be from God.
The advantage of putting the argument into its logical form is that we can examine the premises separately to see whether they’re true. If either premise turns out to be false, the argument is unsound, and the conclusion hasn’t been established. Applying this method to the Muslim argument, we see how poor the case for Islam really is. Consider the first premise: “If unbelievers can’t produce something comparable to a chapter of the Qur’an, then it must be from God.” This is a very strange challenge. Apparently, the Muslim criterion for determining divine inspiration is the impressiveness of a text’s literary style. Notice that this would be equivalent to saying, “If you can’t produce poems like T.S. Eliot, or plays like Shakespeare, or books like Charles Dickens, then you have to admit that these works come from God.” Such a claim would be ludicrous, but this is exactly what Muslims maintain when it comes to the Qur’an.
The first premise of the Muslim argument, then, is false (unless we’re open to the idea that all of the world’s greatest authors and poets received their works from God). We could stop here, since an argument with a single false premise is sufficient to reject an argument. Nevertheless, because this argument is so crucial to Islam, let’s examine the second premise by asking whether the Qur’an is really unsurpassable.
Let’s consider four short chapters of the Qur’an:
Surely We have given you Kausar, therefore pray to your Lord and make a sacrifice. Surely your enemy is the one who shall be without posterity. (Surah 108)
Say: O unbelievers! I do not serve that which you serve, nor do you serve Him Whom I serve: nor am I going to serve that which you serve, nor are you going to serve Him Whom I serve: you shall have your religion and I shall have my religion. (Surah 109)
When there comes the help of Allah and the victory, and you see men entering the religion of Allah in companies, then celebrate the praise of your Lord, and ask His forgiveness; surely He is oft-returning (to mercy). (Surah 110)
Perdition overtake both hands of Abu Lahab, and he will perish. His wealth and what he earns will not avail him. He shall soon burn in fire that flames, and his wife, the bearer of fuel, upon her neck a halter of strongly twisted rope. (Surah 111)
According to the Qur’an, any one of these four Surahs is beyond anything that could be written by mere human beings. But let’s be honest. Is there anything miraculous here? Is there something so incredibly unique in these passages that unbelievers should confess that we are confronted with the very words of God? No, there isn’t. These are words that could have been written by just about anyone. In fact, the most unique thing about these passages is that they are extraordinarily unimpressive (considering what is being claimed about them).
Muslims may respond here by arguing that these passages are English translations of the Qur’an, and that the miraculous nature of the Qur’an can only be seen in the original Arabic. But there are several problems with this response. First, what is Surah 108 in English? It’s a short passage composed of several words, one after another, arranged to convey some sort of meaning. What is Surah 108 in Arabic? It’s a short passage composed of several words, one after another, arranged to convey some sort of meaning. And that’s the problem with this argument. In order to defend the second premise above, Muslims would have to show that human beings couldn’t possibly arrange words in the order we find in the Qur’an. But human beings can arrange words in any order, both in English and in Arabic. So the “it-only-works-in-Arabic” defense just doesn’t work. The argument fails in any language.
Second, if the Muslim argument only works in Arabic, very few people are capable of examining the central argument for Islam. There are nearly 7,000 known languages in the world. The evidence for God’s existence can be examined in any of them. The central argument for Christianity (“Jesus rose from the dead, so believe what He says”) makes sense in any language. But when we get to the Qur’an, we find an argument that someone can only examine if he’s lucky enough to speak Arabic. Indeed, even native Arabic speakers can’t seriously investigate this claim, because very few are trained in Classical Arabic. And even those who are trained in Classical Arabic generally aren’t experts in Arabic literary styles. So it seems that Muhammad has given us an argument that is virtually useless.
Third, everyone grants that something is lost in translation. But at the same time, a great deal of the content and style remain. Many written works are still eloquent and powerful even after translation. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13, for example, are beautiful and meaningful, even after being translated from the Greek. In fact, I would say that 1 Corinthians 13 is vastly superior to the chapters we read from the Qur’an. So at this point, we have to ask ourselves: If Arabic literary excellence can’t be translated, why didn’t Allah reveal the Qur’an in a more suitable language?
Fourth, even people who aren’t fortunate enough to speak Arabic can investigate this claim indirectly, because we can go to history and see how Arabic speakers have responded to the Qur’an. And when we do this we find that many people from the time of Muhammad on have been utterly unimpressed by the Qur’an.
In the early Muslim sources, we read about a man named al-Nadr. When Muhammad was in Mecca, al-Nadr used to follow him around. Muhammad would recite a passage from the Qur’an, and al-Nadr would stand up and say, “I can tell a better story than that.” Then he would recite some verses of his own, and he would challenge the listeners by saying, “In what way is Muhammad’s story better than mine?”iii Here we find al-Nadr doing exactly what the Qur’an says unbelievers can’t do!
We also know that one of Muhammad’s earliest scribes left Islam because he became convincedthat the Qur’an was not inspired.Abdullah ibn Sarh used to write down verses as Muhammad recited them. According to Abdullah,
“I used to direct Muhammad wherever I willed. He would dictate to me ‘Most High, All-Wise,’and I would write down ‘All-Wise’ only. Then he would say, ‘Yes it isall the same.’On a certain occasion he said, ‘Write such and such’, but I wrote ‘Write’ only, and he said, ‘Write whatever you like.’”iv
Indeed, a portion of Surah 23:14 (“So blessed be Allah, the Best to create!”) was written, not by Allah or Muhammad, but by Abdullah. Yet Abdullah later left Islam, because he realized that if he could write parts of the Qur’an, and change portions of the Qur’an, the book couldn’t be what it claimed to be.
Modern scholarship also refutes Muhammad’s claim. In his book Twenty Three Years, Iranian scholar Ali Dashti admits the truth about the Qur’an:
The Qur’an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words, and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Qor’an’s eloquence.v
Gerd R. Puin is the world’s foremost authority on Qur’anic paleography. He says this about the Qur’an:
The Koran claims for itself that it is “mubeen,” or “clear.” But if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn't make sense. Many Muslims—and Orientalists—will tell you otherwise, of course, but the fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible. This is what has caused the traditional anxiety regarding translation. If the Koran is not comprehensible—if it can’t even be understood in Arabic—then it’s not translatable. People fear that. And since the Koran claims repeatedly to be clear but obviously is not—as even speakers of Arabic will tell you—there is a contradiction.vi
So we’ve seen two main problems with the Argument from Literary Excellence. One, the argument doesn’t make sense; we can’t conclude that something is the Word of God even if it is superbly written. Two, even if this criterion did make sense, the Qur’an just isn’t as wonderful as Muslims maintain. Thus, this argument fails on multiple levels.
iFor variations of this Qur’anic challenge, see 10:37-38; 11:13-14; 17:88; and 52:33-34. All Qur’an quotations are from the M.H. Shakir translation.
iiI. A. Ibrahim, A Brief Illustrated Guide to Understanding Islam (Houston: Darussalam, 1997), pp. 32-33.
iiiIbn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah (The Life of Muhammad), A. Guillaume, tr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 136.
ivFor references see “Sources of the Qur’an: Contributions by ‘Abdullah ibn Sa’d ibn Abi Sarh,” which may be accessed at http://www.answering-islam.org/Quran/Sources/sarh.html.
vAli Dashti, Twenty-Three Years [Costa Mesa: Mazda Publishers, 1994], pp. 48-49
viGerd Puin, quoted by Toby Lester in “What Is the Koran?” The Atlantic, January, 1999 (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/199901/koran”).