Saturday, June 02, 2012

The Unique Genre of the Quran


By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis


“As a literary monument the Koran thus stands by itself, a production unique to the Arabic literature, having

neither forerunners nor successors in its own idiom. Muslims of all ages are united in proclaiming the

inimitability not only of its contents but also of its style….. and in forcing the High Arabic idiom into the

expression of new ranges of thought the Koran develops a bold and strikingly effective rhetorical prose1 in which

all the resources of syntactical modulation are exploited with great freedom and originality.”2

This statement coming from the well known Arab Grammarian Hammilton Gibb, is an apt description of the

Qur’ans use of literary and linguistic elements. This genre is not simply a subjective conclusion, it is a reality

based upon the use of features that are abundant in all languages. This may seem strange that the Qur’an has

developed its own genre by using current literary elements. However, it should be noted that the Qur’anic

discourse uses these common elements of language in a way that has never been used before.3

This unique genre is part of the Qur’an’s challenge to mankind to produce a chapter like it.4 Preserved and

recorded historical documents have shown that many attempted to meet this literary and linguistic challenge.5

Modern and Classical Scholarship have proven that these challenges failed to match the linguistic and literary

reality of the Qur’anic discourse. John Penrice, who authored the ‘Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran’,

acknowledges the Qur’ans literary excellence:

“That a competent knowledge of the Koran is indispensible as an introduction to the study of Arabic literature

will be admitted by all who have advanced beyond the rudiments of the language. From the purity of its style and

elegance of its diction it has come to be considered as the standard of Arabic…”6

The Qur’ans Genre

The Qur’an is an independent genre in its own right.7 Its unique genre is realised through two inseparable

elements; rhetorical and cohesive elements.8 From a linguistic point of view, rhetoric can be defined as the use of

language to please or persuade. The term in the Arabic-Islamic tradition would more appropriately be defined as

‘the conveying of meaning in the best of verbal forms’.9 Cohesiveness is the feature that binds sentences to each

other grammatically and lexically. It also refers to how words are linked together into sentences and how

sentences are in turn linked together to form larger units in texts.10

These elements combine with each other in such a way that interlock and become inseparable.11 This unique

combination captivates the reader and achieves an effective communicative goal.12 The rhetorical and cohesive

components of the Qur’anic text cannot be divorced from each other.13 Former Professor of Arabic at Hartford

Seminary and prolific author Kenneth Cragg points out that,

“…the Qur’an is understood to say what it says in an inseparable identity with how it says it.”14

When these elements are stripped off the Qur’anic text, the text ceases to be a Qur’an and does not sound like one.

This may provide a reason why those who attempted to challenge the Qur’an failed, Forster Fitzgerald Arbuthnot

who was a notable British Orientalist and translator states:

“…and that though several attempts have been made to produce a work equal to it as far as elegant writing is

concerned, none has as yet succeeded.”15

From a linguistic point of view the Qur’an employs various rhetorical features such as the use of rhythm, figures

of speech, similes, metaphors, and rhetorical questions. Also, the use of irony and the repetition of words are a

just a small part of the Qur’ans repertoire of rhetorical devices.16 Its cohesiveness includes various methods such

as parellelistic structures, phrasal ties, substitution, reference and lexical cohesion.17 These features provide the

bedrock and hang together to create the Qur’ans unique genre.18

Non-Qur’anic Arabic texts mostly employ cohesive elements19 but the Qur’an uses both cohesive and rhetorical

elements in every verse.20

Example 1

The following linguistic analysis is a good example to highlight the uniqueness of the Qur’anic style:

“Men who remember Allah much and women who remember”21

Al-dhalikirin Allaha kathiran wa’l-dhakirati

The Qur’anic verse above, in a different word order such as the verse below,

“Men who remember Allah much and Women who remember Allah much”22

al-dhakirina Allaha kathiran wa’l-dhakirati Allaha kathiran

would not deliver the same effect, as the word ‘Allah’ has become linguistically redundant, in other words it has

become needlessly wordy or repetitive in expression. The original Qur’anic structure achieved its objective by

separating the two subjects in order to sandwich the word ‘Allah’ and using the ‘wa’ particle as a linguistic

bond.23 This Qur’anic verse has a rhetorical element as the word ‘Allah’ is ‘cuddled’ and ‘hugged’ by the pious

who remember Him a lot, which is indicated by the arrangement of the words in this verse. The central placement

of the word ‘Allah’ in this sentence highlights the importance and focus of remembering Allah, which is

substatiated by the word ‘kathiran’ - meaning ‘much/a lot’. The repetition of the word ‘Allah’ in the non-Qura’nic

structure loses this effect and disfigures the semantic harmony between the words produced by the Qur’anic

structure. Additionally, in contrast to the non-Qur’anic structure, this arrangement provides a pleasing, sweet

acoustic effect; which in linguistics is a rhetorical feature called euphony.24 In the above example the Qur’an

combines rhetorical and cohesive elements to produce the intended meaning.25

Example 2

There are many other striking examples, for example:

“Yet they make the Jinns as associates with Allah, though Allah did create the Jinns; and they falsely, having no

knowledge, attribute to Him sons and daughters. Praise and glory be to Him! (for He is) above what they attribute

to Him!”26

In this example the word ‘associates’ is used as a buffer word as it is placed between the two words ‘Allah’ and

‘Jinn’ to deliver a strong rhetorical linguistic protest against this claim.27 Normally the word ‘Jinn’ should have

appeared next to the word ‘Allah’,28 but the Qur’an has specifically chosen the word order to disassociate the

word ‘jinn’ with the word ‘Allah’, to exhibit this objection, namely that Allah can have no associate. The other

claim made by the non-believers is they attribute children to Allah. In addition to the semantically driven

arrangement of the words the other rhetorical aspect of this verse is that it achieves euphony. The cohesive

element in this structure is the ‘wa’ particle which acts as a cohesive tie. This links the two claims together.

Furthermore the above verse ties in with other major themes of the Chapter such as tawhid (absolute oneness of



Any change to the structure of a Qur’anic verse simply changes its meaning, style and literary effect. It is no

wonder that Kenneth Cragg mentioned that, in order for humanity to deal with the challenges it faces today,

“…multitudes of mankind…will need to be guided and persuaded Qur’anically.”30

Scholars, linguists and Arabists need a sound linguistic competence in Classical Arabic but also an advanced

knowledge in Arabic syntax and rhetoric in order to appreciate the complex linguistic and rhetorical patterns of

Qur’anic structures. Most importantly he or she must refer to the major exegeses in order to derive and provide

the accurate underlying meaning of a Qur’anic expression, preposition or particle31.

The unique genre of the Qur’an is part of its linguistic challenge to the whole of humanity. Further research and

study into the references below should provide the reader with adequate information to observe how the Qur’an

achieves this unique genre and how it can not be possible for any writer to produce its like. To end and conclude,

Professor of Religion Bruce Lawrence at Duke University, states:

“As tangible signs Qur’anic verses are expressive of an inexhaustible truth. They signify meaning layered with

meaning, light upon light, miracle after miracle.”32

1 The Qur’an’s literary form has been the subject of many studies from Muslim and non-Muslim academics. Due to its unique

literary form, some scholars have found it difficult to describe what form the Qur’an falls in to (e.g. Prose – Mursal, Rhymed

Prose – Saj or Poetry). Hence, some have simply tried to describe it as a form of rhymed prose, to illustrate this R. A.

Nicholson in his book ‘Literary History of the Arabs’ (1930. Cambridge University Press, p. 159) states,

“Thus, as regards its external features, the style of the Koran is modelled upon saj, or rhymed prose, of the pagan

soothsayers, but with such freedom that it may fairly be described as original.”

This is inaccurate as the Qur’an does not fall into any of the known forms of Arabic. For a detailed discussion please see The

Qur’an’s Unique Literary Form. Hamza Andreas Tzortzis. 2008 which can be accessed online at

2 H A R Gibb. 1963. Arabic Literature - An Introduction. Oxford at Clarendon Press, p. 36.

3 See A’isha ‘Abd Ar-Rahman Bint ash-Shati’. At-Tafsir al-Bayani li-Qur’an al-Karim, 3rd ed. Cairo, 1968; Hussein Abdul-Raof.

Qur'anic Stylistics: A Linguistic Analysis. Lincolm Europa. 2004; S. M. Hajjaji-Jarrah. 2000. The Enchantment of Reading:

Sound, Meaning, and Expression in Surat Al-Adiyat. Curzon Press; The Qur'an: An Encyclopeadia. Edited by Oliver Leaman.

"Qur'anic Style". Routledge; and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, Three Lines that Changed the World: The Inimitability of the Surah

al-Kawtar (available from for a detailed analysis.

4 The Qur’an challenges humanity to produce a single chapter like it, please see Qur’an chapter 2 verse 23. As a result of the

inimitability of the Qur’anic discourse, there is a consensus amongst Modern and Classical Scholars such as al-Baqillani and

al-Rafi’i that the Qur’an is the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) eternal miracle. This view has also been supported by many non-

Muslim Qur’anic Scholars and Arabists. For more information see The Qur’an’s Unique Literary Form. Hamza Andreas

Tzortzis. 2008 which can be accessed online at

5 Please see The Encyclopedia Of Islam, 1971, Volume 3, E J Brill, Leiden, p. 1019; A F L Beeston, T M Johnstone, R B

Serjeant and G R Smith (Ed.), Arabic Literature To The End Of The Ummayyad Period, 1983, Cambridge University Press, p.

212 & 127-128; Gustave E Von Grunebaum, A Tenth-Century Document Of Arabic Literary Theory and Criticism, 1950, The

University of Chicago Press, Chicago, p. xiv; Abdul Aleem, I'jaz ul Qur'an, 1933, Islamic Culture, Volume VII, Hyderabad

Deccan, p. 221 & 232; Ignaz Goldziher, Ed. S M Stern, Muslim Studies (Muhammedanische Studien) II, 1971, George Allen &

Unwin Ltd., London, pp. 363.

6 John Penrice. 2004. Preface of “A Dictionary and Glossary of the Koran”. Dover Publications.

7 H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an. Al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, p. 60-110.

8 H Abdul-Raof. 2001. Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis. Curzon Press, p. 137

9 I Boullata. 1988. The Rhetorical Interpretation of the Qur’an: I’jaz and Related Topics in A Rippin (ed.), Approaches to the

History of the Interpretation of the Qur’an. Oxford: Claredon Press, p. 143.

10 For more details about the definition of cohesion see H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an. Al-Makhtoum Institute

Academic Press, p. 261-281 & 341-344; M Mir. 1983; and H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Conceptual and Textual Chaining in the

Qur’anic Discourse. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. V, Issue 11, p. 72-94.

11 Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 137.

12 H Abdul-Raof. 2000. The Linguistic Architecture of the Qur’an. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. II, Issue II, p. 37-51.

13 Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 137.

14 K Cragg. 1994. The Event of the Qur’an. 2nd Edition. Oxford: One world, p. 46

15 F. F. Arbuthnot. 1885. The Construction of the Bible and the Koran. London, p 5

16 See Please see H, Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur'an. Al-Maktoum Institute Academic Press, p. 265-398; H. Abdul-

Raof. 2000. Qur'an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis. Curzon Press, p 95-137; F Esack. 1993. Qur’anic

Hermeneutics: Problems and Prospects. The Muslim World, Vol. 83, No. 2. p. 126 -128.

17 H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an. Al-Makhtoum Institute Academic Press, p. 261-281

18 Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 107.

19 Ibid p. 108

20 Ibid p. 107-108

21 Qur’an Chapter 33 Verse 35

22 The Linguistic Architecture of the Qur’an. In Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol. II, Issue II, p. 37-51.

23 Ibid

24 Ibid

25 Ibid

26 Qur’an Chapter 6 Verse 100

27 H Abdul-Raof. 2003. Exploring the Qur’an, p. 70

28 Ibid

29 For a list of the major themes for this Qur’anic chapter please see

30 K Cragg. 1994. The Event of the Qur’an, p. 23

31 H. Abdul-Raof. Qur’an Translation: Discourse, Texture and Exegesis, p. 2.

32 Bruce Lawrence. 2006. The Qur’an: A Biography. Atlantic Books, p. 8

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