What Is The Challenge Of The Qur'an With Respect To Arabic Prose & Poetry?
M S M Saifullah, cAbd ar-Rahman Robert Squires & Muhammad Ghoniem
The Qur'an in many places challenges the people to produce a surah like it. It appears that the Christian missionaries who call the challenge irrelevent or an utterly subjective criterion are pretty much unaware of how the Arabic poetry and prose compares with the Qur'an. This article is devoted to deal with one aspect of the Qur'anic challenge of produce a surah like it. What is meant by surah like it with respect to the Arabic prose and poetry?
The verses of the Qur'an dealing with the challenge are given below (Hilali and Muhsin Khan's Translation):
Say: "If the mankind and the jinns were together to produce the like of this Qur'an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they helped one another." [Qur'an 17:88]
And if you (Arab pagans, Jews, and Christians) are in doubt concerning that which We have sent down (i.e. the Qur'an) to Our slave (Muhammad Peace be upon him ), then produce a surah (chapter) of the like thereof and call your witnesses (supporters and helpers) besides Allah, if you are truthful. [Qur'an 2:23]
And this Qur'an is not such as could ever be produced by other than Allah (Lord of the heavens and the earth), but it is a confirmation of (the revelation) which was before it [i.e. the Taurat (Torah), and the Injeel (Gospel), etc.], and a full explanation of the Book (i.e. laws and orders, etc, decreed for mankind) - wherein there is no doubt from the the Lord of the 'Alamin (mankind, jinns,and all that exists).
Or do they say: "He (Muhammad(P)) has forged it?" Say: "Bring then a surah (chapter) like unto it, and call upon whomsoever you can, besides Allah, if you are truthful!" [Qur'an 10:37-38]
Or they say, "He (Prophet Muhammad(P)) forged it (the Qur'an)." Say: "Bring you then ten forged surah (chapters) like unto it, and call whomsoever you can, other than Allah (to your help), if you speak the truth!" [Qur'an 11:13]
Or do they say: "He (Muhammad(P)) has forged it (this Qur'an)?" Nay! They believe not! Let them then produce a recital like unto it (the Qur'an) if they are truthful. [Qur'an 52:33-34]
cAbdur Rahim Green mentions that:
These are the sixteen al-Bihar (literally "The Seas", so called because of the way the poem moves, according to its rhythmic patterns): at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafif, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madid, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria'. So the challenge is to produce in Arabic, three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen Bihar, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook.
To begin with; the Arabic language and Arab speech are divided into two branches. One of them is rhymed poetry. It is a speech with metre and rhyme, which means every line of it ends upon a definite letter, which is called the 'rhyme'. This rhymed poetry is again divided into metres or what is called as al-Bihar, literally meaning 'The Seas'. This is so called because of the way the poetry moves according to the rhythmic patterns. There are sixteen al-Bihar viz; at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Wafir, al-Kamil, ar-Rajs, al-Khafif, al-Hazaj, al-Muttakarib, al-Munsarih, al-Muktatab, al-Muktadarak, al-Madid, al-Mujtath, al-Ramel, al-Khabab and as-Saria'. Each one rhymes differently. For metres of Arabic poetry please see please see Lyall's book Translations Of Ancient Arabian Poetry, Chiefly Pre-Islamic. He discusses al-Kamil, al-Wafir, al-Hajaz, at-Tawil, al-Bassit, al-Khafif and al-Madid briefly.
The other branch of Arabic speech is prose, that is non-metrical speech. The prose may be a rhymed prose. Rhymed prose consists of cola ending on the same rhyme throughout, or of sentences rhymed in pairs. This is called "rhymed prose" or sajc. Prose may also be straight prose (mursal). In straight prose, the speech goes on and is not divided in cola, but is continued straight through without any divisions, either of rhyme or of anything else. Prose is employed in sermons and prayers and in speeches intended to encourage or frighten the masses. One of the most famous speeches involving sajc is that of Hajjaj bin Yusuf in his first deputation in Iraq in post-Islamic and Quss bin Sa'idah in pre-Islamic times.
So, the challenge, as cAbdur Rahim Green mentions, is to produce in Arabic , three lines, that do not fall into one of these sixteen al-Bihar, that is not rhyming prose, nor like the speech of soothsayers, and not normal speech, that it should contain at least a comprehensible meaning and rhetoric, i.e. not gobbledygook. Indeed
The Qur'an is not verse, but it is rhythmic. The rhythm of some verses resemble the regularity of sajc, and both are rhymed, while some verses have a similarity to Rajaz in its vigour and rapidity. But it was recognized by Quraysh critics to belong to neither one nor the other category.
It is interesting to know that all the pre-Islam and post-Islamic poetry collected by Louis Cheikho falls in the above sixteen metres or al-Bihar. Indeed the pagans of Mecca repeated accuse Prophet Muhammad(P) for being a forger, a soothsayer etc. The Arabs who were at the pinnacle of their poetry and prose during the time of revelation of the Qur'an could not even produce the smallest surah of its like. The Qur'an's form did not fit into any of the above mentioned categories. It was this that made the Qur'an inimitable, and left the pagan Arabs at a loss as to how they might combat it as Alqama bin cAbd al-Manaf confirmed when he addressed their leaders, the Quraysh:
Oh Quraish, a new calamity has befallen you. Mohammed was a young man the most liked among you, most truthful in speech, and most trustworthy, until, when you saw gray hairs on his temple, and he brought you his message, you said that he was a sorcerer, but he is not, for we seen such people and their spitting and their knots; you said, a diviner, but we have seen such people and their behavior, and we have heard their rhymes; you said a soothsayer, but he is not a soothsayer, for we have heard their rhymes; and you said a poet, but he is not a poet, for we have heard all kinds of poetry; you said he was possessed, but he is not for we have seen the possessed, and he shows no signs of their gasping and whispering and delirium. Oh men of Quraish, look to your affairs, for by Allah a serious thing has befallen you.
It is a well known fact that the Qur'an was revealed in seven ahruf (or seven forms) to facilitate greater understanding of it among the Arabs who had different dialects. This was also to challenge them on their own grounds to produce a surah like that of the Qur'an. The challenge became more obvious when none of the seven major tribes could imitate it even in their own dialects as no one could claim that it was difficult to imitate due to it not being in their own dialect.